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How to Ruin Your Freelance Writing Career

Carol Tice

Afraid you'll ruin your writing career? Makealivingwriting.comIf you’re feeling stuck, thinking, “Maybe I’ll screw this up and ruin my writing career,” read this post from a couple of years ago. Then face your fears, learn from your mistakes, and keep going. -Carol

When I asked readers recently what’s holding you back from breaking in and earning big as a freelance writer, I got many different answers. But one I heard a lot:


Melissa: “I am terrified. Of succeeding, of failing, of just simply doing!”

Kifayat: “Fear of getting things wrong and also selling myself short.”

Cindy: “I fear looking like a fool.”

DeAnn: “I just don’t want to start out on the wrong foot and jeopardize my career before it really gets going.”

Jane: “The idea of succeeding (or even testing myself) too quickly just scares the living hell out of me. Without faithful cheerleaders freelancing success is just too scary (because the bigger success the bigger the failure that might follow).”

To sum up: Many of you are afraid of doing something so awful that it will ruin your freelance writing career.

So today, we will confront these fears. I’m going to tell you something shattering:

Everything you’re afraid of will happen

I know because I’ve been writing for a living for a long time. I’ve experienced each and every one of the things you are afraid of! Let’s review:

Looking like a fool: I can’t even pick my favorite example of embarrassing gaffes I’ve made. Maybe the time I misspelled “Requiem” in a 48-point, front-page obituary of a prominent citizen.

Getting it wrong: How about the time I said flat-out inaccurate things after a PR person misled me about whether a company would comment for my story? And that company was actually also a prominent advertiser in the publication and the CEO was a personal friend of the publisher?

Failing: I better not look over at my teetering pile of rejection queries — from Parade, Parents, Inc., and on and on. Or over at the article I wrote recently for a Fortune 500 client that was so far off the mark they never used it, and I had to start over from scratch.

Putting the wrong foot forward: Maybe I should mention the time I was interviewing a freakin’ movie star, and made a little jokey reference to schmooze him up…that turned out to be about a different actor’s movie! Or perhaps we might revisit the second article I ever wrote — which I spent weeks on, and it got killed, and I never wrote for that publication again.

Feeling scared: Hello, I am a college dropout! I walked around with a massive insecurity complex for years. I kept waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and tell me I wasn’t qualified to be a freelance writer, and that I had been officially placed on the Top-Secret List of Bad Writers whom no one would ever hire.

Succeeding too fast: About nine months after I switched from songwriting to reporting, I was writing cover features for a section of the Los Angeles Times! I was so petrified that it took me about two months to write each article. I felt in way, way over my head.

Why am I telling you all this?

The good news: You cannot fail

So, now you know. I am a major screwup. I’ve made a massive pile of mistakes. I’ve failed to get a lot of freelance gigs I really wanted.

But I still feed my family of five with my little brain and my little stories. Full time. Freelancing for five years now, making more money each and every year. I have the sense I’m a pretty successful freelance writer.

How is that possible?

Because if you persist — if you make up your mind that you are going to make your living from writing, no matter what — you will succeed. You will make mistakes, but they will not ruin your chances. You will still have a freelance writing career.

Every editor in America does not know every other editor. Same with marketing departments at companies. There is always a new market to try, always green fields to explore.

I could cite example after example of writers who have failed their way up to prominent editorial positions. Or look at Henry Blodget, who became known originally as a high-flying, dot-com-era stock trader — who turned out, famously, to be a complete liar who was banned from the securities industry. Now he is a successful, popular blogger for Business Insider.

The lesson

People have short memories. They forgive, and they forget. They wrap fish in yesterday’s paper, the world moves on, and you get a fresh chance. You build a mountain of articles, and if they’re mostly good, you’ll have a good reputation.

The fact is, every writer makes mistakes. If you write in any volume, you will screw up. It’s unavoidable. The odds will simply catch up with you.

After one factoid debacle in a story I wrote years back, I was just morose. My editor noticed me moping around the newsroom, and said this: “You know, you’ve published about 500 articles here. One of them had a serious error. I think that’s a pretty good track record.”

And he’s right. No one will expect perfection from you.

One way to ruin your writing career

There is really only one way to ruin your freelance writing career. I believe it will not be a problem for any of you who expressed such fear of failure.

Here’s what it is:

Write a factual, reported story in which you simply make things up.

There have been a few cases of reporters who did this over the years. One of the most notorious is Janet Cooke, who won a Pulitzer for a story she made up about a grade-school-age heroin addict. Another is Jayson Blair, the former New York Times reporter who, it was discovered, fabricated many of his stories.

These people’s writing careers are over. They ruined their careers with their lies. Blair appears to be a life coach now.

Keys to freelance writing success

So that’s it. Now you know what you have to do to keep the doors of success open for you. Just be honest, and don’t make stuff up. Keep writing, learning, and trying your best.

Know that every successful writer has felt your fears. We just kept going.

What mistakes have you made as a freelance writer? Let’s discuss on Facebook.

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