6 Top Freelance Writing Traits

What I’m listening to: Roadrunner by The Modern Lovers

Another year, another conference under the belt.

This makes 10 or so appearances at this particular conference, so there are plenty of familiar faces and names. I ran into quite a few of them too, and I was fortunate to be able to finally meet a few clients in person. That’s always nice to put a face to the name.

This year, I left lots of time in my schedule to mingle and attend parties. I visited a number of vendors and listened to their pitches, gathered their marketing materials, and exchanged cards with those who were interested in hearing how we could work together (I don’t pitch to them — I offer up what I do and say “so if there’s ever a need, let me know”).

It’s now surprising how, after years of attending this conference among several others in the past, how easily I can spot a good sales pitch and a good salesperson (not to mention a good marketing piece, but that’s another post for another day).

These face-to-face networking events make it easy to see what traits we freelancers need to be cultivating in order to really boost our presence and our business success. Here are a few I saw just this week that can make a big impact:

Reliability. If you can’t hold to your promises, you won’t survive. Period. Clients won’t hire you again and editors will move on to someone else. As a former editor, I would pass on the flaky writers and stick with the ones I knew would deliver on time. Clients too have deadlines they have to adhere to. If they miss that deadline because of you, you’ve just made them lose money and time. Stick to your word. Always.

Professionalism. Mine was tested more than once this trade show with prospects and company reps who felt it important to express their political opinions or “congratulate” me on being the “only honest journalist out there,” the most patently false statement I faced this week. The response should be — and was — an honest, unemotional one. “You’ll be relieved to know — and I say this to help ease your mind a bit — that most journalists, with rare exception, are held to the same ethical standards that I learned in college, and they operate like I do — each fact must be backed up with two verifiable, legitimate sources to prove them.” While that person may not have wanted to hear that, it’s much better than saying “Oh yeah? F- you and the horse you rode in on!” Much better than that.

Humility. Having just spent days talking to marketing people trying to stand out in a very large exhibit hall, I can attest to the lack of humility many companies have. Plenty of writers suffer from the “look at me” syndrome, too. Yes, we freelance writers often have to toot our own horns when introducing ourselves to clients, but if we don’t couple that with what it means to the client, we look like arrogant blowhards. “I’ve been in the top three magazines and my articles are still attracting clients!” means nothing to a client. Besides, if you have to brag so much, you’re desperation is showing (and maybe a bit of insecurity). Instead, approach each client conversation with a “we” attitude. The focus should be on helping the client, not bragging about your clips. Be gracious in accepting a compliment (and clam up afterward — it’s not an invitation to brag about your resume).

Presentation. This one is so important. Keep your marketing materials and your approach consistent with the clients you’re trying to attract. Case in point: I was at a dinner when a woman across from me talked about being a graphic designer. I was looking to hire one, but something she said told me she wasn’t the designer for me. She talked about projects for preschools, children’s books, and posters. The details she offered up suggested a much, much different audience than I was trying to reach. And that’s fine. But if you’re presenting to a room full of CFOs and your business cards have clouds or flowers or cats on them, you’re clearly not in the same league. As they say in fashion, dress for the job you want, not the one you have.

Self-educating. We freelance writers learn on the fly. A lot. And if you’re willing to do that, and even to anticipate a gap in your education or training and act on it, you’ll go far. You know your weaknesses — the overuse of adverbs, the written “um” that sneaks into your work (mine is “that”), your inability to recognize one or two grammar gaffes… all of these are correctable. Also, you want to move into a new niche, and that, my friend, takes study and reading. If you can commit to that, your career will improve year over year.

Confidence. Here’s where I advise “fake it ’til you make it” for newer freelancers. When talking with new clients, it’s not a good idea to gush, apologize for bothering them, or be too excited or eager to work with them. This is your job, not a testament to how likable you are. If they hire you, it’s because they see your skills as meeting their needs. Turn your thinking away from being accepted as a writer and turn it toward negotiating a business agreement with a new client. That’s what it is. Taking the emotion out of the situation will help you gain confidence as a business owner.

Writers, what traits do you have that you think make for a stronger presence with clients? How have you cultivated those?
What traits are getting writers into trouble?

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