I’ve been working as a freelance writer, editor, and content creator for almost 10 years. When I tell people what I do, they often either assume that a) I have a fascinating, glamorous job that I can do in my PJ’s for just a few hours a day or b) that I’m a bored housewife spinning her wheels.
Neither one is true. While working as a freelance writer allows me the flexibility to travel and spend more time with my son, the truth is my job is still very much a J-O-B. And while my goal is to focus on subjects I’m passionate about, the two years I took off to spend with my son has meant that I can’t be as picky about work as I’d like. (I take EVERY one with much gratitude because I realize I’m lucky to write for a living at all.)
Last night, I stayed up late thinking about all the things I would do differently had I known better. I decided to write them all down in my journal, and I realized how many things I didn’t know when I became a freelancer even though I was already a full-time journalist.
I realize that many of you in my current audience are bloggers or content creators who have found me on WordPress and Instagram. I’m guessing that a career as a freelance writer is appealing to at least some of you, so I’m sharing my advice, experience, and my mistakes. I hope reading this helps you build a career that nourishes your soul and enables you to live your best life possible.
10 Truths About Being A Freelance Writer
1. You can’t quit your day job…yet.
You have quite a to-do list to accomplish before you can kiss your cubicle good-bye. Most importantly, you need to replace about three-quarters of your current income with freelance writing gigs. Not only does this ensure that you have a solid list of clients and will be able to pay your rent, but you also need to save the money you make while freelancing is still a side hustle. You’ll need it for times when work is slow.
2. Networking is everything.
My biggest weakness as a freelance writer is that I’m not good at making, nurturing, and maintaining professional contacts. I learned this the hard way when I re-entered the workforce after having James. After two years of being out of the loop, I realized that many of the people I knew had either moved away or didn’t remember me. That meant starting almost from scratch, which was both scary and disheartening. So make yourself memorable. See colleagues socially, check in regularly with people you meet from other publications or companies in your field even if you aren’t currently working. If you don’t want to talk about where you are professionally, just be a curious, active listener. People appreciate when you take a genuine interest in them. Use that to your advantage.
3. You need to be a marketing pro.
Even if you don’t want to work in marketing, you need to learn to sell yourself as a freelance writer. This means being confident enough to recognize and pounce on an opportunity whenever it may come.
I’m still kicking myself over an opening I missed years ago. My husband has an acquaintance whose wife is Editor-In-Chief at a national publication. We ran into them at brunch one morning, and I appropriately used the opportunity to get to know her better. But when she mentioned what she did, I didn’t react by explaining that we work in the same field. Instead, I asked her another question. A few seconds later, we were interrupted and within minutes she was out the door. To make matters worse, I didn’t follow up by hunting down her email address and reaching out on a timely basis. I haven’t seen her since.
4. YOU are a brand.
As a freelance writer, your business is bigger than the services you provide. Your interests, goals, and unique point of view coalesce with your skills to form a unique brand. Know what your “why” is and communicate that in all of your outreach. You won’t succeed as a freelance writer if your “why” is simply to bring home a paycheck, or write for a living. What is your purpose? For example, mine is to build awareness and education around healthier living. This informs everything I do, from what I share on Instagram and Pinterest, to how I wrote the “About” page on my website, to the clients I’m taking.
Take the time to think carefully about your purpose, then write it down and post it visibly in your workspace. Internalize it and embody it. Make sure it’s reflected in everything you communicate about your freelance business, from the writing you do, to what you post on social media. The more clearly and effectively you communicate what you’re all about, the easier it will be for the right clients to find you.
5. You need to get down with digital marketing.
I can hear all the copywriters and bloggers saying “duh” as they read this while the journalists, authors and essayists are going “huh?” But here’s the thing: regardless of whether you work in digital marketing, you need to at least know basic social media and SEO to market yourself effectively. Otherwise, you’ll spend a lot of time pitching potential clients when they could be coming to you.
Fortunately, social media makes this easy. Start by updating your LinkedIn profile, then pick your favorite social media outlet and create an account for your business. Post at least once a day. Not only will you attract clients, but you’ll demonstrate content creation and social media management skills that you can then add to your resume.
You can also use your social presence to send followers to your website and online portfolio, both of which should be updated and optimized for search engines. Not sure how to get started? Mediabistro has some great online courses in everything from social media to Google Analytics, and, while pricey, General Assembly‘s in-person courses have a great reputation.
6. You’ll be working full-time plus.
I feel like I’ve painted a fairly accurate picture of all the effort it takes just to find work. In addition, you’ll also be dong your own invoicing and bookkeeping, and managing benefits like health insurance and your retirement fund. All of that takes time away from the writing that gets you paid, so plan on lots of late nights.
The good news: you can do these extra tasks from the comfort of your couch with your laptop propped on your knees and a glass of wine in hand. I’ll take that over a stuffy office with fluorescent lighting any day.
7. Freelance job posting sites won’t sustain you.
If you’re still in school or working in an unrelated field, freelance job websites like Elance can be helpful as you start to build a portfolio. But if you’re trying to be a full-time freelance writer, you can’t cobble together enough $20 and $50 jobs to survive. Networking and self-promotion are the ways in which you’ll get most of your clients.
Meeting with a creative staffing agency can be helpful when you’re in building mode. While most concentrate on placing full-ime contractors, they do occasionally have openings for copywriters, bloggers, and content creators on a part-time or project-by-project basis. Personally, I think it’s worth meeting with at least one recruiter to find out what’s out there. Not only will you get a sense of the current freelance market, but you can also get feedback on your portfolio and resume.
8. You’ll have to fight for your rate.
Research going market rates for freelance writers in your field and location. Set your rate fairly. DO. NOT. BUDGE. This will not only pay your bills, it will also enable you to fairly estimate your price when clients want to pay per project as opposed to hourly.
When deciding on a project rate, consider the client herself. Will she provide project materials in a timely, organized fashion or will you need to spend time sifting through a messy pile of information? Does she work well on deadline, or will she likely ask for a million revisions, thus reducing your rate to minimum wage?
Don’t even mention a price before creating a detailed project proposal for your client. Specify exactly which duties you’ll be performing, when you’ll be providing each draft, and how many drafts are included. Make sure your client understands that additional drafts or dawdling beyond the project end date will incur additional fees. And if your price is too expensive, don’t lower it without significantly reducing your responsibilities. Because when you cheapen your rate, you cheapen your whole brand.
9. You still may have to work onsite.
A freelance writing career can help you create a more flexible schedule, but many clients want freelancers onsite at least part time. While you may want to ditch your commute altogether, occasional onsite work is a good thing. Face time with your boss means you’ll get to know her better, making her more apt to reach out to you the next time she needs a freelancer. It also means you’ll get to network with co-workers. Each person you meet is an opportunity, so do your best to deepen those relationships. If you’re having a conversation and the workday is ending, suggest continuing it over a quick cup of coffee. Follow up with a thoughtful email. Find out what each person needs and how you can help. Position yourself as a problem solver, and they’re more likely to remember you when a friend mentions they need website copy, or when they need a freelancer at their next job.
10. You may have to hunt people down to get paid.
I had a client early on who often didn’t pay me on time. They’d usually blame it on the assistant who was supposed to process my invoices, but when it happened repeatedly, I started getting suspicious. Wouldn’t you just fire an assistant like that? I thought. So I asked other freelance writers, and most told me this was a regular occurrence within the field. In fact, one even told me she had a three-month gig that never paid her a dime.
My takeaways: specify the time period in which you require payment (30 days is pretty standard), invoice on a timely basis, and follow up if they are more than two days late. And don’t take shady clients. If you have any doubt about their ability to pay you as agreed, they aren’t worth your time.