3 Things I Did Wrong My First Year of Freelancing + a Few Things I Got Right

Carol Tice

By Erika Gimbel

I’ve been a freelance writer for a little over a year now.

Looking back, the biggest missteps my first year had to do with money: offers, contracts and bids.

Luckily, I’m learning from my mistakes.

Here’s a rundown on my biggest blunders:

Mistake 1: Wrote free sample, didn’t get paid

I wrote another blog post for Make a Living Writing about how I wrote a sample for free.

And while I vetted the client and eventually landed a long-term project, I did feel a little weird that the client posted the article on her website and I didn’t get paid for it.

Next time: Make sure to set the terms for samples, if used.

Mistake 2: Bid too high

For a potential client, I turned in a high bid for work I would have done for less.

The client was interesting, the job was long-term and I would have liked working on it, but the client dismissed my proposal outright because of my bid price.

If I had asked what their budget was before sending my estimate (or asked around my writer’s network), I would have at least had a chance to think about whether my bid was at the right price.

Next time: Ask for budget up front (and ask around).

Mistake 3: Didn’t think I needed a contract

I work with marketing agencies regularly. When one of my former colleagues who started his own firm asked me to write copy for a website, I quickly agreed and got to work without a contract.

I figured, I knew the guy, and he knows a lot of people I know.

What could go wrong?

But my first client didn’t like my copy at all and decided to write it on his own.

However, I still invoiced the agency my full fee. The agency should have paid it, but instead my colleague argued that since the client wasn’t going to pay him for the copy, he couldn’t pay me.

 I saw the final website and pointed out that there were shades of my copy there. The client hadn’t started from scratch, but had taken my copy and edited it.

Luckily, my colleague eventually gave me half my fee. I didn’t get completely stiffed, but I did have to bug him for four months before he agreed to pay me.

Next time: Get a contract, even if you think you’re working with a “friend.”

What I did right

On the plus side, here’s what I did right:

  • I didn’t take on any projects that didn’t pay enough.  I told prospects my rates, and if they persisted with low offers, I just said that I probably wasn’t the right writer for them.
  • I negotiated for a retainer client with help from the Freelance Writer’s Den. This has turned out to be steady income and an enjoyable relationship.
  • I refined my own “story” for prospective clients. I became a “B2B freelance writer” who works with a wide variety of industries. I can quickly explain what I do and the kinds of clients I work with, and that helps me attract clients who are a great fit for me.
  • I declined a full-time offer. While I’m glad I turned it down (this client was asking me to give up all my other clients without a regular income guarantee or benefits), it was a “full-time or nothing” offer so I won’t be getting any more work from this client.  I still think about this decision because the work was in a high-paying, interesting niche, but I wasn’t ready to give up my freelancing lifestyle so soon after I started.
  • I took a meeting with a potential client when I was incredibly busy. When a local marketing agency got in touch to add me to their freelancer’s pool, I almost didn’t take the meeting. I think my busyness made me look like a competent, in-demand writer, and just as I turned down the full-time offer above, I got hired to write a monthly corporate newsletter.

I made my share of mistakes my first year. While each mistake made me feel a little ill, I’ve learned from each one, and now I’m quicker to ask for help.

Even though I’m sure I’ll have slip-ups here and there, overall, I’m feeling incredibly positive about my future as a freelance writer.

Finally, I feel like I’m doing the job I was always supposed to be doing.

What mistakes have you made as a freelancer? Leave a comment and add your lesson learned.

Erika Gimbel is a Chicago freelance writer who writes for businesses on topics ranging from health to industrial engineering. Her client work includes thought leadership articles, corporate newsletters, presentations, website copy, e-learning courses and video scripts.

26 Comments

  1. Liz

    Erika, I’ve just been through your B2B portfolio and come away spellbound. What you have there is like my dream come true. You appear equally at home whether you’re writing about cloud computing, HVAC, or fashion. Do you really know all of that stuff or are you given the information by the folks whom you write for? I’ve done a bit of HVAC writing and had to go find info from Wiki and what Google deigned to throw up. I’d really appreciate it if you could give me this inside info about B2B writing.
    As for what you’ve said in this article, Yes, I’ve been duped of samples and title suggestions by some real low life. But that was when I was still a wide-eyed optimistic. These days I think like a Mafia boss and write with a smile on my face. Cheers!

    • Erika

      Thanks Liz! I write most of the B2B stuff by interviewing people. A lot of times I work with clients to come up with story angles, so I ask them a lot of general questions about what they’re working on. If it’s a complex subject, I try to get them to explain it in very simplistic terms, and then I repeat it back to make sure I’ve got it right. Once we get to a topic I think will resonate with their customers I zero in on that with more specific questions.

      I don’t think I could come up with HVAC topics on my own – the interviews help me figure out what’s trending, or what information would be helpful to current/potential clients.

      I did work with one client where they’d assign the articles and I’d actually do the research (for spine-health.com) but it was pretty easily available, and there were always doctors available to answer my questions. The spine-health.com person hired me because she said, “if you can write about engineering, I’m sure you can write about this.”

    • Carol Tice

      You bring up one of the big issues that seems to separate good pay from poor, Erika — getting off your duff, and going out and interviewing experts.

      I think the mills trained people to think that information comes from a Google search and Wikipedia, or more often, from knowledge from your own life.

      But all the money is in the kinds of work where you interview book authors, academics, company team members or other experts, and then present what you’ve gleaned.

    • Liz

      Thanks Erika, Carol. The coin just dropped for me. So, not knowing a topic intimately is no reason to not take up a job and get info from clients. I’d thought doing so would make me look inept or uninformed. The sad part is there were a couple of them that literally begged me to write but I insisted I wasn’t up to it. Looks like my learning curve is littered with absurdities. Thanks again for your input.

    • Carol Tice

      My line is always, “Give me 24 hours, and I’ll BE your expert in it…” With the Internet, it’s so easy to find experts to interview and learn about a topic. If it’s something I’m curious about or have any background in, I’m game.

  2. Carol J. Alexander

    My biggest mistake my first year was insulting an editor of a national magazine I really wanted to work with. However, I have recently returned to his good graces and sold him another story…five years later.

    Just recently, I applied to an ad for a blogging position. The owner of this start-up site emailed me asking for a sample. I told him if he’d take the time to check any of the links I supplied with my resume, he could read 100s of samples already published online. I haven’t heard back. Now I know I wouldn’t have wanted to work with him anyway.

    Thanks for sharing. You had some great points to think about.

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