19 Mistakes That Hurt Your Freelance Writing Business (and how to fix them)

What I’m reading: Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

What I’m listening to: Dani California by The Red Hot Chili Peppers

List time! What are some of the worst mistakes you can make as a freelance writer? I could ask 100 writers and probably come up with at least that many different responses. There are plenty of ways we can screw up, but luckily, we can recover from most.

And what’s a list of mistakes you’re making without fixes? We aim to please. So read on for some of the more common offenses we freelance writers make and how we can recover.

1. Job boards.

I can’t believe we still have this conversation so many years later, but as long as there are new writers who don’t know where to locate work, there will be job boards waiting to exploit them. If you’re not actively seeking freelance clients, you will remain at a lower revenue level than you want. And you won’t control your business.

The fix: some homework: identify clients you’d like to work with, get to know a little about them, then craft and send a letter of introduction that gets their attention. Then follow-up, more than a few times if you have to.

2. Lack of motion.

I know a writer or two (and you probably do, as well) who are always eager to ask for advice. The only trouble is a year or two or five later, they’re still asking the same questions. What’s missing? Movement. Call it fear, laziness, confusion, whatever. But know this — no movement is failure. Any attempt at improving your business is a step in the right direction. You may fail (probably not), but you fail by not trying.

The fix: Try. Give yourself your best “What the hell” moment and just go for it. Stop waiting for perfect timing, perfect messaging, perfect clients. The best way to move beyond your current doldrums is to push yourself out of your comfort zone.

3. Not acting professionally.

You can have every writing element aligned perfectly — if you act like you’re dabbling, you’re not getting hired for a second project. Examples of unprofessional behavior: missing deadlines, sloppy copy, talking trash about competitors, whining, ignoring calls and emails, arguing with clients, getting heated when clients don’t like the draft…. if you don’t want it to happen to you, don’t subject others to it from you.

The fix: Shut up and listen. Treat deadlines like earth-moving events (they are to clients who have to meet their own deadlines, particularly with their clients). Never argue, even when you’re right. Show your best work always. Zip it when a client starts asking probing questions about other writers or clients. In other words, act like a responsible adult.

4. Offering too much — way too much.

This is more a problem for generalists, but even specialists can try to be all things to all people. For instance, are you going to write about African antiquities with the same acumen as you have for the photography supply industry? So why are you trying? When starting out it’s way too tempting to do everything at once just to make a buck and a name for  yourself.

The fix: Slow down. Find areas of interest or areas where you’ve started to grow a decent portfolio. Nurture that. If you expand into another area, don’t leap in. Build it intentionally. Nothing says you can’t specialize in both photography supply and African antiquities, but make sure to segment the business (possibly on separate websites) so as not to confuse or deter any new business.

5. Phoning in your business planning.

Yes, you can simply decide to start freelancing, and you’ll do a decent enough job of it for a while. But your lack of planning and goal-setting will eventually result in you spinning your wheels or worse, giving up.

The fix: Decide what you want out of your career and your business this month, next month, this year, and next year. What are your goals, both short term and long term? How can you get there? What do you need to earn each month (or week) to earn what you want to earn? How will you attract and keep clients? Spend a little time with your business and learn what it is you want from it and how you can nurture it.

6. Sticking with bad clients.

The client pays you on time, but nitpicks every detail. They pay quickly even though the pay sucks. They  pay $1 a word even though they want 12 revisions for 500 words. They’ve been with you forever, even though they pay $100 for 1,000 words. They’re so nice, even though you have to badger them for four months to get paid. Any of this sound familiar? If your client relationship comes with any kind of “even though” statement or any downside, it could be you’re sticking with them for the wrong reasons.

The fix: Break up with your bad clients, even the nice ones. I once had a client who paid me  whopping $100 for a web page revision. That netted me a conversation with his mother, who expected the same low rate. Instead, I opted to go with a new client who paid $1,200 for a four-page revision. When you lose a bad client, you open the door for better opportunities. It’s not money in your pocket if you’re wasting billable time chasing payments or locked in ridiculous amounts of revision. Aim higher.

7. Low-balling your own rate.

At the start, we all tend to undercharge. But many freelance writers soon realize that there’s a value good writing brings to a client’s business. Still, are you sure your rate is high enough?

The fix: Charge more, and do it based on your own math, not some chart. Charge like you’re a pro. I use the example of competing for a gig in Manhattan. I put my hourly rate out there — $125 — and prepared for pushback. No need. The client said rather quickly “Oh, that’s well within our expectations.” That day, my rates went up for new work to my current $150/hr. Never underestimate the value your skills have to a client in need.

8. Not marketing enough.

You’re overwhelmed with projects – five of them! You’re so busy you can’t possibly take on one more thing, so you stop marketing. And then you finish that last project. Crickets. Worse, no more money rolling in. Those flush times turn lean far too quickly, don’t they?

The fix: Market consistently. I like to advise people to market every day, particularly if you’re trying to build a freelance writing business. But if that seems like too much, start with scheduling two 30-minute marketing pushes every week. Or five 10-minute pushes per week. Whatever suits you. Just make sure to put it on your calendar and make it a regular part of your work tasks. How you market is up to you, but whatever you try, be consistent with it.

9. Working on too much faith.

He hired you! Fantastic! He told you over the phone what he wanted and you agreed on a price. So you’re good to go, right? Only now it’s two months after the project and your client has gone AWOL. He won’t answer your emails or return your calls. And there’s no check in the mail. So now what?

The fix: Unless you’ve worked with that client and built up a trust relationship, you need a contract. If your client balks at signing one (I had one who told me “In my eight years of doing this, not one writer has ever asked me for a contract — we trust each other.”), reconsider the job. Don’t let the potential check make you forego the safety net — what good is a check that they’re not contractually bound to send you? Get it in writing. I recommend that even in established relationships, it’s always a good idea to repeat parameters and payment in an email that the client should then confirm.

10. Having all your eggs in one basket.

You have two great clients who make up the majority of your monthly income. They give you steady work every month, and you’re sitting back enjoying the good life. Until one of them disappears. And maybe even the other one. Worse, one  may be going through bankruptcy, so that money you need to pay the bills this month? Not happening.

The fix: Diversify. Have at least three regular clients and just as many who give you occasional work. Know who calls you when, which clients can be your interim work should any of your regulars disappear, and where you might find other work to supplement while you’re trying to replace a regular client. Don’t assume clients are permanent — they’re not. Always plan for the worst-case scenario.

11. Losing touch with clients.

Can you name the two clients you worked with most last year? Great. Now name the other four or five. No? How about those potential clients who reached out for information, a conversation, or a price? Ooops… did you forget to follow up? Wonder if that’s why you never heard back.

The fix: Track your client interactions, especially those that didn’t turn into sales. Anne Wayman has a great post about how and why tracking client interactions is important. Each time you have a conversation or finish a project, find a way to stay in touch in the future.

12. Talking about you, you, you.

You revamped that website and brochure and now you’re ready to hit the networking events. Your elevator pitch goes something like “I’m a writer with over 10 years of experience, and I write about household maintenance, product reviews, and case studies. I have two degrees and certification in home repair, plus I belong to six writing associations.”  Ho hum. Why should anyone care? Would you want someone to recite their specialness to you?

The fix: Shift the focus on all your customer-facing communications, be they web, print, or verbal. Make it about them, not you. How are you going to benefit them? As the old sales adage goes, sell the sizzle, not the steak — show the benefits of working with you, not the features.

13. Confusing messaging.

Your website talks about your writing journey, about the history of your writing business… and doesn’t mention one thing that tells visitors what the hell you actually do. Or worse, you just load that sucker down with SEO keywords and pay little to no attention to the message or the craft. And you are presenting yourself as a writer?

The fix: Be thoughtful. Plan what you want to say. What point is most important to convey to your audience? What kind of clients are you trying to appeal to? What would you want to hear if you were looking for that kind of writing talent? Plan the message carefully — it’s the first impression you give. Make it a good one.

14. Forgetting to say no.

Your flight leaves tomorrow. You’re out of the office for two weeks, and it’s 4 pm. You have to wash clothes, pack, get the dog to the kennel, arrange for airport transportation… and your client’s email just came in. Urgent. “Can you get us a blog post ASAP? We need to get this out announcing our new product, which launches tomorrow.” This couldn’t come at a worse time. Why did they wait until now? Why always last minute? F&ck. Late night for you.

The fix: Say no. You know that word, right? It’s the one you use when you’re stretched beyond your limits and you can’t possibly do one more thing without sacrificing your sanity. For the client mentioned above, this: “Normally I’d love to, but I’m out of the office for two weeks. I do have the names of two writers who can help in my absence, if you like, or if it can wait, I’m happy to take it on first thing when I return.” It’s okay to turn down a project, particularly if you’re not in a position to do your best job.

15. Reacting badly to negative feedback.

You just killed it on that project! Best writing you’ve done in ages, and you’re super-psyched because you followed your client’s wishes to the letter. They’re going to love it! Only they hate it. Really hate it. They think you missed the mark entirely, and they’re wondering if you even bothered to listen. Talk about ungrateful jerks, right? Wrong. You screwed up somehow, and your reputation is on the line.

The fix: Listen. Thank your client. Work with them toward fixing what you can. Negative feedback is as important to hear as positive feedback — maybe most important. Sure, scream, fuss and stomp around behind the scenes all you want. But when you face that client, you’re going to suck it up, put on your grownup pants, and get to fixing it to their satisfaction — not yours. And at no point will you even hint that it was their lack of communication or that their reaction was childish. None of that matters. Just fix it.

16. Giving a knee-jerk response without thinking it through.

That client just asked you what you would do in a situation where…. fill in the blank. You stammer. You hesitate. Oh my gawd, did they sense your apprehension? Quick! Answer them! Talk it out and they’ll think you’re smart as hell. Doesn’t matter that you rambled that first 20 seconds — you found your footing. And the advice you gave wasn’t half bad. Except it was. It was all bad.

The fix: Allow yourself time to ponder. In fact, I’ve been known to respond to those types of questions with something a little more thoughtful: “Well, once I get to know your business needs a little better, I’ll be in a better position to advise you on a better approach. Meantime, let me think about it and get back to you. I have some ideas, but I want to see how they’d match your current messaging.”

17. Thinking you can go it alone.

You want to be the best beauty and fashion writer there is, so you work hard on building your reputation. That means avoiding the other writers working in the same industry. You don’t want to mix with your competition! They’d get close to you just to steal your ideas. Besides, you can’t bounce ideas of them — they’ll see you as weak. You have to prove to everyone how great you are. You’re a guru!

The fix: Get off your high horse. What is it they say about gurus? A guru is nothing more than an idiot with a bad idea to sell. You’re not competing with anyone. I know plenty of writers in my specialty. Not one of them has ever taken a job from me, nor have I taken one from them. There’s plenty of work out there for everyone. And the writer who’s afraid to look weak is the writer whose ideas will go stale fastest. Besides, we all need friends in this solitary business.

18. Suffering Shiny Object Syndrome.

You read a great blog post about marketing on Twitter, so you’re going to try it. And then you see that everyone is recommending blogs. So you switch to that until you see someone promoting the use of a newsletter, so you go for that until you see someone who said they were making good connections on LinkedIn, so you run over there only to see an article saying online content writing is the way to go…. you’re just like a Chihuahua on speed, aren’t you?

The fix: Stop chasing fads and get-rich-quick ideas. Put that time into building a foundation of good marketing and good business goals. Stop thinking you have to try it all or you might miss out. Ignore advice that doesn’t fit and stop being distracted by arbitrary rules others are spouting. You’re only missing giving yourself the runaround.

19. Ignoring your instincts.

There was something off about that conversation you just had with the new client. They led with budget, and you had to pull project details out of them. They weren’t clear on what they wanted, and they talked for nearly an hour, not once making their thoughts any clearer. But they agreed to your rate, so it’s all good, right?

The fix: Trust your gut. If it feels like a problem about to happen, you’re probably right. Every time I’ve ignored my gut, I’ve regretted it. You have a built-in compass — your common sense. If something feels off, it probably is. Don’t move forward until you get the information you need. And don’t move forward at all if you just can’t resolve the questions you have.

 

Writers, what other mistakes have you seen? How can writers fix them?

What one mistake did you make starting out and how did you fix it? What advice do you have for other writers who might be making that same mistake?

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Comments

  • Anne Wayman March 3, 2017 at 10:58 am

    Thanks for the shout-out Lori! Glad the article was helpful. Great list… and a great reminder even for those of us who have been at the freelance writing game awhile.

    Reply
    • lwidmer March 3, 2017 at 2:48 pm

      You’re welcome, Anne — good stuff!

      Reply
  • Diana Schneidman March 3, 2017 at 1:06 pm

    Yes, a contract is good but partial or full payment before you start work is even better. It’s easier for a client to overlook a contract than to reclaim money they’ve already paid.

    -d

    Reply
    • lwidmer March 3, 2017 at 2:47 pm

      Excellent advice, Diana! That practice has saved my butt a few time. 🙂

      Reply
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