Advice for an Aspiring Freelance Writer

Recently some newbie writers have posted a series of “how to” questions on one of the writers forums I belong to. I have created kind of a composite question below that encompasses a lot of the questions a new freelance writer who is just getting up and running might have. I hope these thoughts are helpful to you as well!

Q. I am new to the big wide world of freelance writing and all I can tell so far is that it is very different from any day job I’ve ever had. I love to write – LOVE it. But that is all I know right now. I almost feel like a struggling songwriter or dancer – trying to “make it” in the big city. Only my city is my desk and the place I am trying to “make it” in is, well, everywhere. Any tips for how to go about it?

A. What a great question! I started freelancing as a writer by accident in 2009 (I got a book contract and it was all uphill from there) and since then I have been SO fortunate to find wonderful writing mentors at each step of the way to help me navigate challenges like the ones you highlight in your question. I hope these thoughts from my own journey can be helpful to you.

  1. Pick your battles. By this I mean, don’t spread yourself too thin. There are oodles and oodles of online writer sites that promise you quick, lucrative and steady writing work. Pick one or two to start with, see if it is easy to navigate the website, if there is a payment verification process clients have to follow (to ensure you will be paid for your work), if the jobs are a reasonable pay scale (some sites cater to international writers with much lower pay scale minimums than in the United States or Canada), and overall how you feel about the type of available assignments and how the hiring process works. If a site doesn’t start to make sense to you pretty quickly, move on. Your time is precious and your talent is valuable so don’t waste it! NOTE: For more about finding freelance writing jobs online click HERE
  2. Expect that your day and your time will be structured differently as a freelance worker. Here, you have the ability – within reason of course – to set your own schedule. You can work as much or as little as you want or need to. If you are a morning person or a night owl, as a freelancer you can choose your work hours to maximize your energy levels and focus. You may work shorter or longer hours from day to day or week to week as required by your writing projects. You won’t get paid vacation time so every day you take away from writing is potentially a day’s pay lost – BUT, you can take as many vacation days as you want to as long as you can afford it. So there are pros and cons, ups and downs, that are different in the freelance world than in the world of the regular day job. Try to make the most of these, because when you factor in that you are working at something you love and want to do, your passion will likely make up for most of the cons and enhance the pros!
  3. Section out your time to include everything you need to work on each week. For instance, spend a quarter of your time seeking work, a quarter on marketing (such as building your writer website – see #7 below), a quarter on writer forums, and a quarter writing. This is way too simplistic, and probably at least half of your weekly time (or you can designate days for each activity if that is easier for you) on actual paid writing as soon as you have enough work to support that, but the truth is that all of these activities feed into the type and quality and pay level of work you get, and you need to do all of them in order to become successful. Once you have a steady stream of repeat clients you can reduce your time spent on marketing, for instance, but you have to build it before they will come.
  4. Seek support from and give support to other writers. We are all in this together. Yes, at times we may be competing for the same jobs, but when you really take a look at all the different types of freelance writing going on, the sheer number of writing websites that are up and running, all the different magazines and book publishers and special projects floating around, you will start to see that there is enough work for everybody. Not only that – but each of those employers needs writers! They NEED us – and we should only give our time and talent to those employers which are worthy of it. If you need help choosing between different sites or work opportunities, seek support from writers you look up to and admire, and then don’t wait – turn right around and “pay it forward” by giving your support to your fellow writers as well. Be judicious – don’t spend all your time on writer forums or on mentoring other writers (or asking for help versus applying the help that has already been given) but try to visit your favorite one or two forums at least a few times a week to check in, see what other writers are chatting about, check job postings, and pick up (and share) ideas.
  5. Listen to your gut. As a fellow musician (no longer struggling, but also no longer trying to earn my living making music – nearly 100% of the time, those two are related) I LOVE your “struggling songwriter or dancer” analogy. As fellow creatives, writers and musicians, as well as artists, filmmakers, dancers, and many other disciplines besides, our work lives are closely interlinked when you drill down to the core elements of what makes one creative person successful financially and another give up and go find a “day gig”. So listen to your gut – that is the same place your creative inspiration comes from, by the way. If you have a client who is being difficult and you have examined your own communication and work style and have concluded there is nothing you can or are willing to do differently to foster a more satisfying mutual partnership, then when the assignment ends, walk away. If you sign up for an freelance writing website and the fees seem high or payment details seem sketchy, or the pay per job feels too low, trust your gut and walk away. If a writing opportunity comes across your desk but your initial reaction is “yuck!”, that is a different message than if your gut yelled “yay!” Listen to yourself. You are working for YOU, ultimately, so consult yourself and take some time to decide before just saying “yes” to everything you are offered.
  6. If in doubt, ask for help. There is lots of help available for you. The web has opened up the lines of communication all around the world and broken down the barriers and “secrets” that used to divide paid from unpaid writers, beginners from pros, successful from struggling. Find a few writer how-to blogs you like (for more on my favs click HERE) and troll their blog posts and articles for answers to your questions. Log in to your favorite writer forums and post a question asking for help with your dilemma. Chances are other writers are also wondering how to handle something similar and will welcome the chance to discuss – and the knowledge that they are not the only one who doesn’t know how to handle that particular something. A lot of breaking down the fear that keeps us from “going for it” as a creative person is all bundled up in that very question – “Am I the only one?” The answer is always NO. You are not the only one. Whatever you are struggling with, whatever question you have, whatever thing you are sure you cannot do, someone else has been there and is likely there right now. So talk about it – open up and share what you need help with, and trust that with some self-effort and willingness on your part to learn and grow, the very answer you are looking for will appear.
  7. Create your own writer website. Write the World is mine, and you are welcome to look around and get ideas, just like I did when I was creating WtW. It might seem like a useless (and non-paying) exercise right at first, but as you see how much work you have already done just to get to the point where you are ABLE to write up your writer’s bio, post samples, create a list of projects you can complete, and even start a blog to offer your advice to other writers in turn, you will feel more confident and encouraged to get back out there and keep looking for new clients to write for. I promise – this is EXACTLY how it felt for me when I was creating WtW.
  8. Be honest and consistent. At first, the wide world of freelance writing may seem very wide indeed. And very anonymous. It is not. Writers talk. Our “coffee break” may happen in an online writer forum or over the phone with 3,000 miles separating us, but it does happen, and often. Please do yourself a favor! If you make a mistake, own up to it with the client, your fellow writer, and yourself. Honesty forgives a multitude of sins. If you discover halfway into a project that you set your rate too low, you may have to live with it for that project, but you have learned for the next project. If the next client asks “why did you charge my friend this rate and me that rate” be honest and answer, “I discovered my rate was too low for the amount of work involved but here is what I will offer you for what you are paying and my work is first-rate.” Then be sure it is, and that the referring client will give you a glowing review for work completed. Be honest – you will be able to sleep at night (very important when you are on a fluctuating freelance income and money worries are always hovering in the background anyway) and you won’t have to remember the exact steps of the path you took to get where you are standing when you wake up the next day. Plus, you deserve honesty, and you are more likely to receive it from others if you are already giving it to yourself and others.

I hope these thoughts are helpful to you! Feel free to ask more questions if you have them.  I could write all day on this post but I have to go actually work now (writing for my personal writer blog is in the “happy, fun writing” category for me – since I don’t pay myself to write, I have to allot time for this type of writing versus the work I do for my paying clients :-)).

Me. Signing copies of my first book, “Beating Ana”, in 2009. Already I could tell the hard work of becoming a freelance writer was MORE than worth it – because there is no better feeling in the world than this! 🙂

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