10 Essential Freelance Writing Lessons

What I’m reading: Fraud by Anita Brookner
What’s on the iPod: What Happened by Corey Smith

This has been the single most productive week I’ve had all year and it’s only Wednesday morning. I’ve finished one article, nearly finished another, have one more interview for a third, started on a fourth, and have interviews lined up for a fifth. Plus somewhere in there I worked on article blurbs and marketed for more work.

I have to be busy — next week is an abbreviated week, and I have plenty of deadlines.

One of the lessons you learn as a freelancer is that while your time is indeed your own to schedule and command, you’re still tied to deadlines and obligations in a way that can disrupt vacations, weddings, family gatherings, and even sick days. Regular employees get paid time off where bosses are discouraged/forbidden from calling or expecting work while they’re away. Freelancers? You can take time off, but if that huge client contract comes in at the start of your two-week vacation and you’re not there to get the message, you could lose a lucrative relationship.

You learn to build a network, pay for the international roaming charges, or just accept that sometimes the big ones get away. And you learn to be okay with that.

Like deadlines and obligations, other freelance lessons become obvious after you’ve done this writing thing for a while. They include:

Charging like you mean it. Maybe you started out at $30 an hour because that was where you’d hoped to be earning in a 9-to-5 situation. However, this is not a standard job. No employer is subsidizing your retirement or your health insurance; your taxes, insurance, IRA, etc. are now all on you. Once you realize that, you begin to increase the price to a more reasonable $75-150 hourly rate.

Keeping it all business. I’ve been rejected, lied to, talked down to, insulted, cheated, you name it. Running a business may feel like dating, but there shouldn’t be any emotional attachment to the one who did you wrong. If you worry about the client who’s shouting about your “horrible grammar” you might overlook the fact that his fussing started right about the time you added the second late fee to the invoice. If you ignore the emotional BS and stick with the facts, you’ll soon see a snow job forming and be able to stop it in its tracks.

Working with proper paperwork. Contracts are essential. Will you use a contract for every single job you do? Unlikely, but when you first sign on with any client, contracts or emailed terms should be in place before you lift a finger. Getting burned once on payment is usually enough to drive home the importance of signed contracts.

Not chasing the paycheck. When you first start out, you’re looking for two things: clips and cash. Once you get the clips, your focus turns to cash. But shifting the focus to the quality of clients makes that cash dash unimportant. Quality begets a fair rate almost every time (almost).

Marketing as a daily activity. Even with all these projects in front of me, I’m still marketing to new and existing clients. Once the desk clears, that feeling of accomplishment is quickly replaced by the realization that no other earning possibility is on your desk. Keeping that flow going is essential to freelance survival.

Allowing a posse onto your project kills it. My contracts allow for anyone to be involved in the project if I know about them and they are named in the contract. Otherwise, you get two months into a nearly completed project only to hear that the client’s Uncle Marvin doesn’t like the topic and thinks you should start from scratch. A “no third parties” clause helps punctuate the importance of knowing all the players up front.

Trusting your instincts. You’ve entered into those projects where things just didn’t feel right, and darned if they didn’t turn out awful. After a few times of ignoring your intuition, you learn that sometimes your gut knows better than your brain what’s right for you. Once you learn to trust that feeling, you’ll not regret your decision.

Challenging yourself creates more opportunity. Whether it’s perfecting your skills, learning how to put together new-to-you products, or studying a new area of concentration, the more you learn, the more opportunities that will be opened to you. I learned about insurance and risk management. Now it’s my mainstay specialty. From there, I started dabbling in finance, and now more into the specialized workers compensation field. No matter what you do now, you can find ways to transition that into new areas, or you can perfect a weak area and own it.

Inserting healthy skepticism. Be it a too-good-to-be-true offer or realizing your coach or guru is just parroting old information and charging you up the wazoo for it, opening your eyes and examining what’s in front of you with a “Yea, right” attitude really can help you avoid some costly mistakes.

Believing in what you do. It’s so easy when you’re starting out to listen to the negative voices, both those of low-paying clients and those in your own head, and doubt yourself. Rejection is never personal, and if it is, shame on the idiot client who makes it so. It’s a reflection on that person, not you. Once you realize your work has value and your standards are respected by others, you’re able to defend (or better yet, ignore) the voices that are trying to bring you down. I was told a month ago my pricing was outrageous. Had I believed those words, I wouldn’t have gone on to be hired by six clients this month who think my pricing (which is exactly the same) is fair for the quality and attention they receive.

Writers, what lessons has freelance writing taught you?
What one thing can you tell beginning writers about the job that someone had/you wish someone had told you?

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  • Cathy Miller April 16, 2014 at 12:34 pm

    Freelancing has taught me you can do whatever you want to do. The hard part is tuning out all the noise about what that should be to find your own answer.

    What I wish I knew from the beginning was charging what you deserve and walking away are both okay.

  • Lori Widmer April 16, 2014 at 12:44 pm

    So right you are, Cathy. The noise can bog us down. I know I have had writers tell me there's only one way to do something– you MUST join this society, you MUST look for work in this way…it's tiring. One friend in particular has told me constantly that I have to outline my novels. I agree to some extent, but I'm one who gets lost in the details and the story then becomes tedious. I have to start and then put some structure around it once I've decided who my characters are and where they're going. God love her, she's about to finish her first novel, but it's taken her years.

    Charge what you deserve and walk away — amen.

  • Anne Wayman April 16, 2014 at 2:41 pm

    Lori, just in case you haven't thought of it, this would also make a great ebook.

  • Paula April 16, 2014 at 2:49 pm

    I wish someone had told me when I started that magazine rates almost never go up. I would have put my focus on finding corporate clients then instead of climbing to higher per-word rates only to get stuck at top of the ladder where you have to write more and more articles each year to increase your income. Or shift gears and expand to other types of writing – which is what I'm now trying to do.

    (Disclaimer: I've never solely relied on feature writing – I've done copywriting, editing and even résumé writing on the side. "Anything in English" has long been my motto.)

  • Lori Widmer April 17, 2014 at 2:02 pm

    It would, Anne. I give one away like this, but not with this much detail. Not a bad idea for a freebie!

    Paula, agreed. It's that idea that once we get into magazine work, life will be sweet. Right. I remember waaaay back when I started out, I'd read something that said you'll never make it in freelancing on just magazine work. I found that odd, but it's played out to be true in my own life. Magazine work is a great part of your income stream. Can you survive on it solely? If you're selling to the BIG names, probably. Otherwise, you're writing. A lot. And chances are those budgets are going to dry up after Labor Day.

  • P April 17, 2014 at 2:36 pm

    I'd say 80% of my income is from magazine features, most from top-level titles, and it's getting harder to stay ahead of the bills each year. Another factor: across the board, articles are shorter now than 10 or 20 years ago. Places that now assign 2,000 words are increasingly rare, and used to assign 3,000+ words articles.

    Most of the magazines I work with don't have budget issues at year-end. In fact, last October was when one of them assigned me more articles at once than at any point other than for the massive issue they put out each June. Fiscal years probably depends on whether it's consumer or trade title, and if it's a trade, the industry's busy season probably plays into the equation as well.

  • Lori Widmer April 17, 2014 at 2:42 pm

    Paula, that's what I'm seeing in the trades, too. The needs are the same, but the word counts are lower if they're paying by the word.

    Thank you for correcting me on magazine budgets. I generalized there, didn't I? Glad to hear my experience is not typical. Sounds to me like the magazines you're working with have different fiscal calendars than the ones I work with.

    You've just given me an idea for finding magazine work –time I branch out into consumer mags a bit more. 🙂