What Does A Successful Freelance Writer Do?

Carol Tice

Clueless freelance writerBecoming a freelance writer sounds like a dream lifestyle to many people.

They think about the upside — “Yeah, working in my PJs, keeping my own hours, and not having a boss. Awesome!”

But most of the people I know who’re focused on those three things end up washing out as freelancers. They never take it seriously, don’t learn about how to run a business, and don’t take the steps needed to get their business going.

Soon, they’re broke and heading back to the day job world.

It takes a lot of work to be a successful freelance writer. And many people don’t even know what work is required.

Those of us who’ve been at this for (cough) decades tend to forget how boggling it can be, when you’ve been an employee all your life, to launch your own solo freelance biz.

Take this aspiring freelance writer, who recently wrote me:

“Basically, I don’t know anything about freelance writing. So, I guess I´d like to learn the basics. What does a freelance writer actually do?

“I know, write. But what about and who for, you know? Thanks!”–Marcia

What does a freelance writer need to do? Here’s my list of the essentials:

Market your services

This is the part most writers really don’t want to hear — they’re hoping great-paying clients will simply fall from the sky. Trust me, they won’t.

Marketing — both actively and passively, through things like your writer website and LinkedIn profile — is key starting and growing a successful freelance business.

The approaches you should use for marketing depend a lot on you. If you’re shy, you probably won’t do in-person networking, for instance. If you hate social media, that probably won’t be your best marketing venue.

My golden rule of freelance marketing is that the best kind of marketing is the kind you’re willing to do. On a steady, ongoing basis. Try several kinds, see what’s in your comfort zone (secret: you might actually find this a fun challenge!), and do a bunch of marketing.

Then, track what worked to get you clients, and do more of that. Lather, rinse, repeat. This is the teeth-brushing of freelance writing — a vital task you simply need to do every week, to keep your business healthy.

Learn

There’s a lot to know in the freelance-writing world. Depending on your previous experience, you might need to find out:

  • How to avoid super-low payers and outright scams
  • How to build a portfolio
  • What to charge
  • How to write the better-paying assignments
  • Where to find good clients
  • How to market to them effectively, so they hire you
  • How to write your assignments so that clients love them and hire you back

Lovers of lifelong learning do well as freelancers. In the Internet age, this is a fast-changing space, and there’s always a new twist coming that you want to know. Have an open mind, eliminate all you’re “I can’t” statements, and dive in.

Everyone has a different learning style. Whether you buy a book or e-book, take an online class or one at your community college, grab transcripts of live events, or get mentored, commit yourself to learning. It can save you a ton of heartache and timewasting pursuing avenues that don’t pay writers well.

Execute

Many aspiring freelance writers do great on the learning side. They eagerly subscribe to 50 different writing blogs, read 20 books…and still aren’t earning a dime as a writer.

Don’t forget that the point of learning is so you can take action to start earning as a writer. I recommend this learning formula:

  • Prioritize what you need to learn
  • Learn one thing that’s a top priority
  • Take action on what you learned
  • *Then* come back to learn more

Don’t get stuck in learning mode. Take concrete action toward your writing goals, every day, week, and month that you can, so that you don’t run out of money.

Network

Freelancing is a near-impossible slog if done in a vacuum. If you’re serious about this, begin building networks of people who know you are freelancing.

This could start with friends, family, or other writers you know. You can join one of the many LinkedIn writer groups online.

Building a network of other freelance writers will bring you valuable info on what markets should pay, and also may send you referrals. Don’t forget to network as well with people in related fields, such as webmasters and designers, who might bring you in on their projects.

I’m a big fan of in-person networking or Skype calls for making a more personal, stronger connection. But whatever your method, do it.

I’ve called this point out separately from marketing, because networking is so much more than a marketing activity. Networking will help you find camaraderie, feel part of a community, make great new friends, and get more joy out of the freelance life.

Write

This is the one freelance writing activity most writers understand they’ll be doing. Did you notice how many points I placed before this one?

At first, you’ll do much more of the points above and less of this part. As time goes on, that ratio will improve and you’ll spend more time simply writing for clients.

To earn more, you may want to invest a little time and money to learn how to write high-paid writing projects. That can really shorten the time it takes to reach the point where you’re able to pay your bills from writing.

Do administrative scut work

Here’s the really low-glamour side of running your own freelance business. You’ll need to do super-fun stuff like prepare and send freelancer invoices and bid proposals, figure your self-employed taxes, call late payers, do filing, and renew your business license.

Remember, these hours are unbillable, which is why your hourly rate should be high — $35-$50 an hour to start out (in any developed nation), with a goal of rising to $75-$100 an hour as soon as you can.

Market some more

Any time you’re sitting around, wondering what you should do with yourself today, do some marketing. Every little bit helps.

Make a few more phone calls. Press ‘send’ on that query letter. Update your LinkedIn profile. Ask existing customers for recommendations or referrals (or both). Keep taking actions that could pay off in new business.

Plan

One big problem many freelancers face is that they get into this line of work without a plan, and start taking whatever gigs most readily come to hand. That is a recipe for starvation, and for ending up just as unhappy as you were in a day job — except without the paid vacation and reliable wages.

Figure out where you want your business to be in five years. And in one year. Then, break those goals down to goals for this month, this week, and today. Now, you know what to do with your time, to steer your freelance ship in the right direction.

This exercise will help you say “no” to projects that are wrong for you, and keep your marketing on track.

Leave downtime

Many freelancers fall into the trap of being online seven days a week, or working 18-hour days. This is not sustainable. Remember to take enough time off to stay fresh and creative.

What do you think freelance writers need to do? Leave a comment and add to my list.

 

43 Comments

  1. Amber

    Yes! All of this! Especially the “have a plan” part. My business changed dramatically when I started implementing a 90-day and year-long plan, which includes financial, marketing and project goals. That doesn’t mean I always do everything on the plan but it gives me something to focus on and work towards. SO important!

  2. Liz Hudson

    Hi Carol, I am an educator in the industry for 20+ years. There have been so many controversial changes just in the last few years, that I know there is a huge market of educators and parents who would like to hear more about what’s happening and also vent out. Where do they pay for the current pulse from a teacher right in the trenches? I have been in almost every grade and am widely versed on pedagogy and curriculum. Of course, the buzzwords now are EVALUATIONS and TESTING and they are infuriating everyone! Help?

    • Carol Tice

      Well, parenting magazines are one place parents look to for those issues, Liz. For educators, I would look to their trade magazines, at the teachers’ associations. You might also consider nonprofits that advocate in education as possible good markets for you to work with, to tell their stories.

  3. Katherine

    I started freelancing in 2002. If I were in it just for the money, I would have given it up long ago. For me, I love to write. I always wanted to be a writer. I majored in it in college. I started freelancing out of necessity when I was a military spouse. Though I now have a J.O.B in addition, I’m still freelancing. It takes hard work, patience, stubbornness, and skill in order to make it as long as I have. There was a time when I was driven by money (this was several years ago) and the burnout that occurred because of my attitude was severe. Lesson learned. Excellent post!

  4. Nur Costa

    As always, great post Carol.
    You’re getting better and better at writing topics that matter to your readers.
    Whenever I receive your newsletter with the title, it’s like: DAMN, just what I needed.

    Thanks for all your advice.
    I started to write in English myself (I’m Spanish). Would you give any specific advice to any English writer that is not native?
    That would be great.

    Regards,

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