Writers Worth: Freelance Writing Career Do’s and Don’ts

When I asked my writer friends for guest posts, Ashley Festa was not only the first one to volunteer, but also the first one to offer two posts. That’s why I love her — she’s eager to give back to the profession and help beginning writers get a good start. What follows is a fantastic post that should be a freelance writer’s mantra. She’s learned a lot in her few years of freelancing, and it shows.

Ashley apologized for the length of this post, but there’s no need. Every point is worth committing to memory. Thank you, Ashley. Your insights are great, and much appreciated.

Dos and Don’ts of a Successful Freelance Writing Career

By Ashley Festa

Everyone has to begin somewhere. Without taking the first
step—whether it’s a success or a failure—you’ll never achieve any goal you set
for yourself.
My first step was fearful and cautious, but unstoppable. There
were also many missteps before I found a solid foothold. When I made a mistake,
I backtracked a bit to catch my balance. Then I stepped out again, sometimes in
a new direction, sometimes in the same direction but on a different route.
That path has led me here, to this blog, to Writers Worth
Month, to being able to say that I’m more successful today than I ever thought would
be possible working for myself.
That’s because I learned to value myself, value my business
and value my work as a service to help clients achieve their goals. If I didn’t
realize my worth, I would have quit after the first mistake I made. There have
been lots of mistakes since then, but I still move forward, learning lessons as
I go.
That’s what I want to share with you—things I’ve (mostly)
learned not to do, and what to do instead. Hopefully you can benefit from my
trials and errors.
So, let’s get started.

Making the Leap

be afraid to ask questions
When I first started, I asked So. Many.
Questions. I could string some sentences together well enough, but otherwise
knew nothing. At all. Running a business, setting rates, finding clients,
marketing—it was all new to me. I found a trustworthy group of writers right
here at Words on the Page, who were kind enough to take me under their wings.
(And I still ask lots of questions.)

Do research for yourself
Once, while working full-time in public
relations, I received a phone call from someone who had just seen the
business’s commercial on television. We were promoting an event and provided a
number to call “for more information.” Would you believe that someone called me
and said, “Can I have more information?” I had no idea what to say to her.
Moral of the story: While it’s perfectly OK to ask questions, make sure you
have something specific in mind that you want to know. A little background
research will let the other person know you’re willing to work and don’t just
expect everything to be handed to you.
Don’t automatically
choose the easy route
Sure, go after the low-hanging fruit if you don’t have
published clips or if you’re just learning the basics of writing. But make sure
it’s still fruit, not compost. Content-mill-type work that’s handed to you,
along with the $1 paycheck, is not fruit.
Do spend time and
effort to find
the best markets for you
Researching markets is harder than signing up for some
bidding site or content mill, but you’ll benefit in the long run. And you can
still pick the low-hanging fruit like nonprofits or charities in the beginning.
They might not pay well, but they’ll provide professional clips you can use to
break into bigger markets later.
Don’t spread
yourself too thin
When I first started, I had WAY too many marketing ideas
bouncing around in my head. I wanted to try this, then that, now this other
thing. I didn’t devote enough resources to any one marketing tactic to see
whether it would work.
Do make a plan
and stick with it
Focus on one thing. Do that thing enthusiastically for a
month to see whether it will work. If it doesn’t, move to your next idea. But
choose one, and work it until you’re certain it doesn’t work for you. When I
finally chose one tactic and stuck with it, I finally started seeing results.
Don’t twiddle your
thumbs waiting for replies
So you shared your business card at a networking event and
sent an email introduction to an editor. Great! Now do it again. And again. And
again. You could be waiting a long time to hear back from that potential
client. Don’t let your work schedule hang in the balance.
Do remember to
market regularly
To keep your schedule full and avoid the feast-or-famine
cycle, set aside time for marketing. Keep plugging away at your favorite
marketing tactic every day to keep the projects rolling in.

Knowing Your Worth

underestimate yourself

We’re always our own worst critics. If you feel insecure,
get an honest appraisal of your writing ability. Ask a client for feedback, or
get a coach to evaluate your work. You’ll discover you aren’t as bad as you
Do charge what
you’re worth
Writing well takes practice and work. Make sure you’re
compensated accordingly. Not sure what to charge? Try this handy dandy freelance
project rate calculator
to figure it out.
Don’t miss
deadlines or turn in shoddy work
Not much to elaborate here. Just don’t do it.
Even if it’s not a great paying client, you still accepted the assignment, so
it’s your responsibility to do your best.
Do respect
yourself and your clients
Submitting your best work not only reflects well on you and
your business, it shows your clients that they’re important to you. That keeps
them coming back.
Don’t take it
You won’t always see eye-to-eye with your clients. They
might even disagree enough to fire you. Remember: It’s not you—it’s business.
You aren’t a bad writer just because you weren’t a fit for that client.
Do learn from
your mistakes
When (not if) you screw up, forgive yourself first, and then
examine your error. Figure out what you did wrong, and resolve not to do it
again. It’s not you, it’s business, so learn how to improve your business.

Learning and Growing


No matter how much you know, you can
always learn more.

Do grow professionally
To flourish as a writer, you must keep cultivating your craft. Whether you
branch out into new areas or plant deeper roots in your own field of expertise,
you have countless avenues for growth. (For a popular and free option, try
Massive Open Online Courses aka MOOCs.)

Don’t believe everything you read

Bloggers and “gurus” have flooded the
internet with advice about how to be a successful freelance writer. Some of it
rocks—for every writer. Some of it works in particular situations. And some is
flat-out bad advice. Learn to sort out what works in your situation.
follow the leaders
You can rely on some bloggers
(including my Writers Worth Month host!) to provide excellent tips, lessons and
guidance in every post. Find them, and follow them. And don’t just read these
blogs—put the advice into action.

Don’t think sole proprietor has to
mean “solo”
Even if you enjoy working alone,
everyone needs to bounce ideas off others from time to time.

Do find a community
Whether you head to your local coffee
shop, join a forum or seek out a writers group, find a place that feels right
to you.

Running a Business

Don’t waste your entire day with
time sucks

First word: Facebook. It’s a black hole
that drags me in doing “Which Disney Character Are You?” quizzes and other
nonsense. Second word: Wikipedia. Once when I started doing “research” for a
story about space physicists, I resurfaced an hour later with a migraine somewhere
on the hypothetical dark matter/string theory/dark energy bunny trail.

Do know where your time goes
Use a time tracker. I log interviews,
email writing, brainstorming sessions, even invoice writing—every working
minute—to the appropriate project, even if it’s not billable time. This method
gives me a good sense of how I’m spending my working hours.
Don’t forget
you’re an independent contractor
You aren’t an employee, so don’t act like one. As a
contractor, you set your own hours, routines and working location. If you’re
required to be available during business hours or work on-site, you lose the
“independent” nature of being a contractor.
Do take advantage
of your flexible work schedule as much as you’d like
You need to meet your deadlines with quality work. That’s
your job. When and how you do it is up to you. If you like working within the
buzz of a coffee shop, snag a seat by an electrical outlet. If you need
inspiration from your cat, grab Fluffy and some kitty treats. If you work best
in the wee hours of the morning, burn that midnight oil. 
be shortsighted
Sometimes we get caught up in the
thrill of a new client. Don’t let a prospect make you forget about your future,
and don’t take on a crummy gig
for a quick buck.
plan for the future
Remember that question, “Where do you
see yourself in five years?” from your corporate days? That still applies now.
You need to know where you want to go so you can figure out a plan to get
there. You also must consider insurance, self-employment taxes, investments, retirement
and more. Think beyond your next invoice.

Moving Forward

Don’t be too hard
on yourself
Everyone makes mistakes. Some people (like me) even occasionally
make the same mistake many, many times before getting it right. But 99.99999
percent of the time, your mistake isn’t going to destroy your business. Acknowledge
the mistake, figure out how you can do better next time, and then next time, do
Do congratulate
yourself on a job well done
Writers, like many artists, often struggle with
perfectionism. We focus on failures, not feats. We brush off our byline and
move on to the next thing. Instead, soak up your achievements. Relish praise
from your clients. Name yourself Employee of the Month. Whatever it takes, remember
to celebrate your successes.
What have you learned
from your trials, errors and missteps throughout your freelance writing career?

 Ashley Festa is a higher education freelance writer based in San Antonio, Texas. Visit her online atwww.ashleyfesta.com.  

About the author




  • Anne Wayman May 22, 2015 at 12:05 pm

    Excellent advice Ashley and it's fun watching you follow your own advice.

  • Cathy Miller May 22, 2015 at 12:11 pm

    Excellent list, Ashley. Here's my bottom line ~ Do what's right for you. Only you know what's best for you.

  • Sharon Hurley Hall May 22, 2015 at 12:12 pm

    Amen, sister! Ashley, this should be required reading for new freelancers. I still believe in asking lots of questions: it saves time later.

  • Susan B. Bentley May 22, 2015 at 1:26 pm

    Yes to all of this, what a great post. I agree that one of the biggest things is to not beat yourself up, don't be too hard on yourself – see mistakes as learning opportunities. Cheers for this.

  • KeriLynn Engel May 22, 2015 at 2:13 pm

    Yes! I was nodding my head to everything on your list. Very uplifting & just what I needed to read at the end of a long week. THANKS Ashley & Lori 🙂

  • Lori Widmer May 22, 2015 at 2:14 pm

    Ashley, once again I thank you for a great post.

    Susan, isn't she good? 🙂

  • Ashley May 22, 2015 at 4:04 pm

    Thanks for the kind words, everyone. I'm glad this list is helpful, especially to newer freelancers. Stuff I learned the hard way, and some things I'm still working on.

    Cathy – YES to that. It's so simple, but still hard to accept sometimes!

    Thanks, Lori, for hosting me. I'm very glad to contribute to Writers Worth Month. 🙂

  • Paula May 22, 2015 at 4:18 pm

    What they said.

    Plus, "Fruit, not compost" should be a mantra for all new writers.

    Like you said, Ashley, sometimes it takes a couple low-hanging fruit assignments to garner respectable clips. Once you have two or three of solid clips, those markets can be retired to the compost heap while the clips help you grow your business.

    (Impressively heavy handed metaphor mixing on my part, huh?"

  • Ashley May 22, 2015 at 4:53 pm

    Paula — ha! I just love that you consider something I said could be a mantra for someone!

  • Melanie Kissell May 22, 2015 at 5:22 pm

    Fabbytastic read! Sharon Hurley Hall is RIGHT: This should be required reading. Nicely done!

    I'm a blogger and freelance copy editor, Ashley, not a freelance writer. BUT everything you've shared still applies. I can tell all your do's and don't's have evolved through personal experience — and maybe from temporarily attending the School of Hard Knocks. 😉

    Simply put …
    Stellar advice.

  • Ashley May 22, 2015 at 6:36 pm

    Thanks, Melanie! And yes about the School of Hard Knocks. Don't we all attend, at least a couple of times in our writing career? But I'll say, those are the lessons I'll NEVER forget. Hopefully this list will help some writers avoid at least a few of those hard lessons.

  • Alicia Rades May 26, 2015 at 12:29 pm

    Fantastic post. My favorite is probably, "Don’t forget you’re an independent contractor." Too many new writers don't understand that, and too many don't even know what it means. It took me three years to really understand how much control it meant I had.

  • Jahirul Islam September 27, 2015 at 6:50 pm

    Become a freelancer is not an easy job. First, you have to decide that which thing you going to learn. Then you have to learn that very well. Then you have to practice more and more. After practicing more more you will become a good freelancer as my opinion.

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