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.


  1. Eliza

    It seems just like a perfect post for me as I was thinking to become a freelancer writer. Could you advise me if I should start by biding for offers found on http://www.freelancer.com? Or what kind of websites do you recommend?

    • Carol Tice

      Don’t know what Erika will say, but I don’t recommend…websites. Freelance writers spend a lot of time in this conversation, “Oh, should I look on Craigslist or Freelance Writing Gigs, or Elance…which is the best one?”

      They all pretty much mostly suck.

      Find your own clients instead of bidding against hundreds if you want to make a living at this. The amount of time writers spend applying to online jobs could be better spent doing their own marketing.

    • Erika

      Carol is more of an expert on this, but in my own experience, I haven’t have much luck with ads of any kind…no matter what the site. I’ve done better when people have found me through my website, via referrals, or I’ve approached them.

  2. Colleen Kelly Mellor

    Erika–I applaud you on your successes in a tough field. I’ve been writing my blog at http://www.biddybytes.com for two years and i only recently launched my children’s series, Grandpa and the Truck stories. But I’m in an unnaturally-good position: I don’t need to work a steady job and can muck around, finding my way (not always a good thing when the wolf’s not at the door.) I am soon going to put out another book, too, on the medical industry, in that I’ve had frequent interaction as patient and witness to patient (2 husbands deceased/my own medical experience as breast cancer survivor and MS patient.) But since I wouldn’t want to step into a minefield on medically-related topics, I need to know what I can write, safely, without fear of lawsuit. In other words, my history is true…but it is my truth. How can I protect myself? (I send this to you because you write medical articles and interact with that group.) Thank you…

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Colleen —

      As it happens, the 4-Week J-School Audit that’s on sale through tomorrow has a whole hour on ethics and talks about how not to get sued from what you write.

      Barring that…have an attorney read your manuscript!

      • Erika

        I keep meaning to sign up for that course! The medical stuff I write is mostly ghostwritten – meaning that a physician or another healthcare professional makes their edits and puts their name on it before it gets published. But that’s probably an issue I need to look into, just in case…

  3. Carrie Schmeck

    #3. Working for a friend without a contract. An old friend’s son hired me. Of course he wouldn’t stiff his mama’s friend, right? Of course, you know the rest of the story…

    • Erika

      …well at least I’m not the only one Carrie!

  4. J. Delancy

    I always find posts that explain what not to do highly interesting and valuable. I wish Erika every success on her freelance journey.

  5. Ali

    Erika, I also did two wrongs:
    1. Wrote Free Samples (and most of them were actually published)
    2. Accepted a full-time offer; thank God we contracted for one month and I felt the biggest relief of my life when it expired (the funny thing is that even I catogorically told the client I can’t continue, she still kept bugging me for a while until I ‘marked her spam’ 😉

    Carol, what format of a contract do you recommend?

    • Carol Tice

      Not sure I understand the question, Ali — contracts vary in what they cover depending on the type of client and type of assignment.

      We do have several sample contracts in Freelance Writers Den though. 😉

  6. Alina Oswald

    I enjoyed reading the post and the comments, and thought to add my own comment. While I also started doing free work (for clips, credits, etc) mainly for non-profits, I soon realized that non-profits don’t want to pay and, while your work is for free, they pile as much as possible on you… it’s free anyway, right? So, while I respect non-profits and have worked for/with them for years, I’d try to avoid them as much as possible. They usually do not have money (or desire) to pay you. As for the credits and clips… your work ends up among individuals and nonprofits that don’t have money/desire to pay you. Therefore, you won’t make it too far. That said, if you have a cause you want to support, or a passion of some sort (saving pets from shelters, for example or protecting the environment or historical monuments, etc) by all means, do your part. Just don’t let yourself sucked (and lost) into the low/no budget world. You’ll never get paid or not enough anyway. And, credits and clips aside, they alone don’t pay the bills. And keep in mind, no good deed goes unpunished…

    • Erika

      I once heard the phrase: if you need experience, do it for free but NEVER for cheap. Meaning, that if you do something for free, people are usually grateful and YOU can set the terms of the work. They’re getting it for free, right? Re: your nonprofit experience, I think it’s perfectly acceptable for you to turn down work before they pile it on. They’re not paying you, so you can say yes or no.

  7. Joan Lambert Bailey

    My mistakes also centered around getting paid and contracts. I was so eager to write and so pleased that someone actually wanted something I wrote, that I neglected to work out exact terms of payment before sending it along. The result? I got published in a magazine in my field, but I haven’t been paid. The editor said she was under the impression I worked for the book publisher. Putting aside how she could have thought that, I should have been more forthright about seeking payment. Lesson learned.

  8. Diane

    Thanks for sharing these, Erika. I’ve been jumping all over reading related blogs today. On the earlier blog, you were glad you wrote the free sample, but i see now that you have qualified that by saying that it probably should be free only if they don’t use it. Therefore, we should set up terms so that if they use our work, we get paid something for it – either full-rate or half or something. I would say “Go for full” because at that point in the negotiations, they have already agreed to some financial terms (following the progress taken in your negotiations), and couldn’t say that your work – if acceptable – is worth less. Therefore the onus is on them as to whether or not to use it, and if they use it, they are obligated to pay for it fairly. Thanks for the lesson!

  9. Thomas

    Great piece-couldn’t have been timed better either.

    I just got done declining work for a national magazine that has an editor who seems to think writers should submit work without a contract, and under the premise that “maybe it will be used-no promises.”

    This article only validated my beleif that I did the right thing by not pursuing this magazine further.

    We got to watch out for ourselves, and each other.

    Well done, Erika and Carol.

  10. Rob Schneider

    It’s always interesting to read how others get writing gigs. I recently poked my head into the Den (got a month’s subscription) and have learned a little more, but haven’t had time to make the most of it. A couple of observations, though:

    Carol really pushes the contact potential clients directly angle and I’m sure she’s absolutely right. However, there’s a broad spectrum of writers. Some have little or no experience, some don’t have a portfolio and some don’t have an in-demand niche. Others may not really write very well. That doesn’t mean they should all throw in the towel and give up, but I think some honest and strategic self-assessment is a good idea.

    Bidding sites do suck, but they can get you started. One recent guest poster said she got her start on Elance and that’s how I got my start, too. Out of about 35 gigs, 4 turned out to be winners and I’m still working for 2 or them outside the Elance system. I’ve upped my rates since then and am getting decent money now. It’s been nearly 2 years since I’ve gone there, but a couple of people have told me it’s gone downhill, with predominantly “will pay $5/500 words” offers. There were a lot of those when I was looking for work there, but there were many genuine offers as well.

    Just yesterday I got a great gig based on the work I’ve done on my blog, Sihanoukville Journal (http://www.sihanoukville-cambodiajournal.com). I’ve had the blog for about 2 years and have written well over a hundred posts on it, so the company saw that I was able to deliver. Had I contacted them out of the blue 2 years ago and said, “I’m a really good writer and live in Sihanoukville,” I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have gotten the gig.

    You mention that one of your mistakes was bidding too high. I asked about that in the forum before I sent a reply to the company’s initial “Yes, we would be interested in having you write regularly for us” response and Linda suggested seeing what they offered first. I’m glad I took her advice, because it was actually more than what I would have asked for (that’s my Achilles Heel and this site has been a big help in getting over it).

    What’s the moral? I think my biggest mistake in the beginning was underestimating what you can make as a freelance writer, but I think it would have been just as big a mistake to have overestimated my worth. There’s a long conversation about rates on LinkedIn. A couple of people have said they won’t settle for less than $250 for a 500 word blog post. One said $500/500 words was their minimum. They didn’t bother to explain how they got that much, but when I took a peek at their profile, the writer worked in a very specialized niche. I have a feeling a couple of the others were lying.

    Speaking of making a living writing, I’d better stop jabbering and get back to work.

    • Carol Tice

      I think you prove your own case about bidding sites when you say you did 35 clients and 4 of them turned out to be worthwhile paywise — that’s a whole lot of timewasting and not a lot of good clients. Where prospecting for clients I’ve had maybe 1 or 2 out of 35 turn out to be problems…sort of the inverse.

      Definitely, everyone starts from different places and has different portfolios, but remember that every pro working today once had a tiny portfolio — I’m thinking of Peter Bowerman in particular — and because they marketed directly to clients off the bat, they were soon making $75-$100 an hour, instead of spending years in the low-pay ghetto of bid sites and online ads. Proactive marketing makes a huge difference in what you end up getting paid, no matter where you’re at in your career.

      I don’t know what type of blog posts these LI writers were discussing…but there is online content that pays very well. I think low-paid writers love to dismiss quality rates as “lying” because it’s easier than changing your world view to include how much you should really be making. But I’ve written $2 a word articles online and $1 a word as well. You get that much by having a track record and writing about specialized topics, as you surmised.

      Finally…thrilled to see you use the “what’s your budget” question. You learned why I say to do that — often, the amount in the client’s head is bigger than you would ever have dreamed of asking for.

      • Rob Schneider

        I get your point, Carol and maybe I rationalize my decisions too much. I was in a pretty desperate position a few years ago and couldn’t afford to fish for well paying gigs or wait for a payment. Back in the 1990s, when I just wrote for fun, I got published in major newspapers and magazines just by submitting proposals. It’s much nicer to get paid $1200 for 1500 words than $30, that’s for sure.

        Some of the comments in the thread I was following were really annoying. The writer was a newbie asking if $25 for 800 words was too little. Everyone agreed that it was, but some of those who made the $250-$500 comments seemed to just be bragging and not offering anything helpful. I wasn’t the only one who was offended or dubious. Another person pointed out that one of the “big earners” had a “How to Make Big Money Writing” website.

        It’s a hot topic. I stopped following the thread after about 250 comments had been logged.

    • Erika

      Thanks for your reply Rob – and it’s interesting to me to see how others found gigs too.

      Re: asking “what’s your budget?” it helps IMMENSELY. In my mistake, I bid too high, but as you mentioned (and as Linda recommended) it can also net you much more money than you would have thought to ask for. So it’s a good question either way.

      I was bidding on a different job, and it turned out a former colleague of mine had worked with the client before. He gave me a good sense of their budget, and I submitted an estimate much higher than I would have – and they accepted it, no questions asked. Seems the more information you have about the client before you send in the estimate, the better.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

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