40 Lessons Learned in Ten Years as a Freelance Writer

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As I was writing 40 Lessons Learned Over Ten Years of Blogging yesterday, I was inspired to also note my lessons learned as a freelance writer. 2010 marks my tenth anniversary as freelancer and while I may not have taken a traditional approach to my career, I still believe there are some important lessons to share.

  1. Don’t jump into it blind: When I’m asked to give tips for new writers, my first tip is always to research before beginning. It’s not enough for a writer to wake up one day and say, “I know. I think I’ll write. Yeah…that’s it.” There’s a lot to know about freelance writing. The different types of jobs, the different types of formats, how to pitch or sell yourself, what the jobs pay, scams to avoid and so much more. My recommendation is always to take at least a month to read everything you can – blogs, magazine articles, and books – and  make the decision after that whether or not to to be a freelance writer.
  2. Every freelance writer is different: You might want to blog because that’s what your neighbor does for a living, but that doesn’t mean you’ll make a good blogger. Journalism looks like a fun career, but not every writer is cut out for this. I can’t write fiction, so I wouldn’t make a very good novelist. It takes a while to find your comfort zone and choose a niche…and when it happens you might pleasantly surprise yourself.
  3. There’s lots of competition out there: In 2010 there are more freelance writers than ever. There are several reasons for this, layoffs due to the recession and writers looking to make money via the Internet are probably the biggest. This means when I apply for a gig, I have to make sure I’m putting my best effort forth to make a good impression. I have to stand out as the best of hundreds of people applying for the same opportunity.
  4. …but that’s not necessarily a bad thing: I don’t consider competition or competitors a bad thing at all. First, the online freelance writing community is filled with writers I’m happy to call “friend.” We share ideas, we collaborate and discuss gigs and that’s never a bad thing. Also, knowing there are so many people applying for the same gigs motivates me to work harder and make sure every effort is my best.
  5. Experience doesn’t necessarily have to mean a background in writing: A writing degree is a piece of paper. I’m sure it’s useful, but it’s not the Holy Grail. Other experience is also important, for example, a former public relations professional can earn a lucrative living writing press releases and those with a background in human resources can succeed as career writers or helping with cover letters and resumes. If you can write well and have talent in certain areas, you have almost all the tools you need to become a successful freelance writer.
  6. Clips don’t always have to be published: Unless a client asks for published clips, samples don’t have to be published. Writers can create samples in their areas of expertise and use them to land the first few gigs. As they begin to gain more experience, they can switch to published clips.
  7. Set your rate before looking for work: Many freelance writers have no idea how much to charge potential clients. It’s important to take time to evaluate skills and research rates BEFORE starting a freelance writing career.  Not to do so gives you less control over your earnings.
  8. For a writer to earn a lucrative income, he has to be the one to set his rates: Yes, there are clients who set the rates, and there’s nothing wrong with writers working for those types of clients. However, writers who always let clients take control of how much to pay won’t earn to their full potential.
  9. The more you negotiate the lower your price will go: So you set your rate, great. Now what happens when your client won’t pay that amount and wants to negotiate? Your options are to go lower or go on your merry way. No one likes to lose a client, but by giving him the upper hand you’re constantly setting yourself up for lower pay than you deserve.
  10. There are a lot of writing blogs out there…all offering different advice: There are a lot of mixed messages out there. Write for content sites. Don’t write for content sites. Guest post on blogs. Don’t write for free. Here’s the thing…everyone has good points but that doesn’t mean any one freelance writing blog is wrong. Visit the blogs that best fit your mission. Learn from all the bloggers. Everyone has something to share. Take what you need from all of them and do what’s best for you…and only you.
  11. There’s no “right” way to be a freelance writer: When I first began writing for the web, there was a great divide – print vs. web. Print was supposedly more prestigious and only the  “good” writers wrote for magazines or newspapers. There are still some writers with that attitude,but the truth is, there are so many different types of writing, there’s really no one “right” way to do it anymore. Whether you write for print, web or a private client, you’re earning money as a freelance writer and that’s never a bad thing.
  12. Freelance writing requires an open mind: Rather than turn my nose up at an opportunity I might find beneath me, I consider its worth. For instance, a lower paying opportunity with a content site might be a good way to fill in the gaps between projects and assignments. Keeping an open mind helps eliminate the “famine” stage of freelancing.
  13. There’s nothing wrong with accepting a variety of opportunities: I call it the freelance writing cocktail. I blog for myself and a couple of clients, I write a newsletter for local organization, do occasional content site work and a variety of other projects. Some are lucrative, a couple aren’t high payers but they’re work I enjoy doing. Having a variety of opportunities to choose from keeps me busy, paid and makes the work more interesting.
  14. Lots of people try and get one over: There’s a dark side of freelance writing. Some unsavory clients try to scam writers or get something for nothing. Sometimes writers put forth less than their best effort.  People from both sides of the fence can be less than honest. Both clients and freelance writers are always encouraged to research who they work with and proceed with caution. If something sounds to good to be true….yes, you guessed it.
  15. Some clients can be difficult: Some clients micromanage or change their minds every five minutes. Some are demanding or want to call their writers all hours of the day or night. We can’t always drop our clients, not if the pay is good and we don’t have a back up plan. Every writer has to deal with a difficult client from time to time — goodness knows I”ve had more than my fair share. Consider it a lesson in patience and customer service.
  16. Sometimes it’s not the client who is the difficult one: One thing I’ve observed is that clients aren’t always the problem. Some freelance writers can be just as difficult if not more so. They don’t feel the client appreciates their artistry or doesn’t agree with the clients vision. It can make for a stressful situation.
  17. The customer is always right: The person signing the check is the one who has final say so. As a writer I may not agree with my client or approve of a direction he takes, but it’s his call. As a consultant I can suggest options and discuss the best scenarios for his vision, but it’s his money and his decision.
  18. Rejection is normal: Happens to the best of us. I’d be lying if I said rejection doesn’t hurt. It does. However, after I take a “woe is me” minute (and I mean minute) I get back up and try again.
  19. Writers are very passionate in their beliefs: Sometimes writers aren’t so respectful in their disagreement. I write that off to being passionate about what they do. Writers who feel their way is the best way will do or say anything possible to convince you of this with little regard for your feelings. Though there are some writers who don’t mind harsh words, I’m not a big fan of the tough love approach to teaching about writing.
  20. Freelance writers have to step out of their comfort zones in order to truly succeed: As a shy person the hardest thing for me was to reach out to potential clients. However, the day I sucked it up and began cold calling my life changed. I landed an extremely lucrative client and this gave me the courage and confidence to continue to reach out. If I didn’t reach out to a newspaper, I wouldn’t have landed my column. The best jobs aren’t going to land in our laps. Sometimes, we have to reach out and grab them.
  21. Freelance writing has changed a lot in ten years: The biggest difference to me is the explosion of opportunities. When I first began, Craigslist only featured advertisements in one city, now every town in America is filled with opportunities.Web, print, businesses and beyond. Technical writing, grant writing…and while these gigs have always been around, now they’re open to writers all over the country, if not the world. There are more opportunities available for writers of different levels.
  22. Each different type of writing has a different set of rules: Writing for a magazine isn’t the same as writing for a newspaper and neither are the same as writing for the web. You wouldn’t write a real estate blurb the same way you’d request funding for grants and you wouldn’t use the same tone writing a church newsletter as you would a blog. There are so many different types of writing. When branching out to different opportunities it’s best to be aware of – and experienced in – the differences.
  23. Freelance writing is a business: To be a successful freelance writer we have to run our business, well, like a business. That’s a little different than writing and taking some money in return. It means keeping careful track of where the money goes. It means realizing our expenses and carefully planning for them. It means figuring overhead, taxes and health care into our pay rates. It means approaching every thing with the business in mind.
  24. ...except when it’s a hobby: Some writers feel as if they hobbyists are mucking the waters by accepting jobs that are beneath their standards or pay rates. For example, bloggers who write for residuals or even nothing at all. I don’t feel, as some do, that the hobbyists are lowering the pay rates. To the contrary, I feel there’s enough room for everyone and I’m fortunate to be freelancing at a time where there are so many opportunities available to so many different types of writers.
  25. Flexibility is cool and all, but stability keeps me focused: So, yeah, we’re supposed to be able to work any time we want, any where we want. After all, we’re the mighty and flexible freelancers. That approach may work for some, but not for me. I need to have set working hours. I find when I don’t, I’m not focused or I procrastinate more. If I’m constantly dropping what I’m doing to see to other people, I won’t get anything done. When I have business hours I respect my time more and so do other people.
  26. I work better in day time clothes than jammies: I am one freelancer who can’t live the pajama lifestyle. I just don’t feel as if I’m in the working frame of mind when I work in pajamas. That isn’t to say I don’t dress in comfortable clothing, but in order to feel as if I’m working I have to look the part.
  27. Starbucks is for more than coffee: Freelancing can be very lonely. As much as I like my business hours and can appreciate the quiet of working home alone, the truth is, sometimes I crave the company of real people. I take advantage of the free WiFi hotspots in my area such as the library, the park, Panera Bread and Starbucks.
  28. The library is a freelance writer’s best friend: Maybe it’s because I’m the daughter of a librarian, but I love the library. I use it for research, to learn more about my favorite topics and gather ideas for articles and blog posts, to use the WiFi or to just read a good book. Libraries rock and they should be used as more than a cheap DVD rental place.
  29. Research involves more than Google: Research isn’t Googling and rewriting an article. Researching also involves reading books, magazines, looking up records and interviewing sources.
  30. Cold calling works: Once when I was having trouble finding work, I made a list of all the places in my area that might benefit from a freelance writer and began cold calling. I sort of made a script but I didn’t want to sound like a smarmy salesperson so I didn’t really follow it. Most of the people who I called said no, but many kept my details on file and a few called later. I did land a few clients from cold calling and they turned out to be some of my highest paying.
  31. Everyone is a potential client: There’s a reason I build relationships on the social networks or carry business cards wherever I go. It’s the same reason I don’t curse on Twitter or post inappropriate things on my blogs. Everyone has the potential to be a client. Everyone. Make fun of me all you want, but my positivity is money in the bank.
  32. Freelance writers need business cards: Offline networking is so very important for freelance writers (See #31: “Everyone is a potential client”). It’s better to have a business card to hand out than to jot down numbers on a piece of paper. It’s definitely better to have a business card than to give out nothing at all.
  33. Telephones are better than email for communicating with clients: I’ll often ask clients if I can call them rather than communicate via email. The telephone allows us to elaborate or brainstorm better than email. The phone also better builds up trust. Good communication is the most important part of a successful business, you can’t effectively communicate only online.
  34. You may be well -intentioned, but it’s not easy to work with kids at all: Sorry, but I’m just not as productive when there are kids underfoot. There’s always some little distraction. I don’t care what anyone says, it’s not the easiest thing in the world. Unless kids are napping or out it’s very difficult to run a full time business with them home.
  35. Writer’s block is an excuse for procrastination: I don’t believe in writer’s block. Every time I said I was blocked it was really just an excuse to not do a certain task. Identifying the reason I didn’t want to work or creating an outline or list with bullet points usually helps to break up the project and get me back on track again.
  36. Social media is not only important, it’s necessary: Besides that bit about everyone being a potential client, or that everyone has the potential to know someone who needs a freelance writer, there’s also the part about building relationships with other writers.  They’re the ones who are able to recommend projects, outsource projects or collaborate on projects with you – and vice versa.
  37. Passive income from writing projects can be more lucrative than freelancing for clients: Blogs, websites,  books, ebooks, courses, work books, webinars, newsletters…these can all be lucrative passive income streams. Creating your own source of income means writers don’t have to rely so much on client work.
  38. You can take a vacation without having to lose income: Not every freelance writer can afford to give up work to take time off for vacation, but we can still make it work. For example, when my family rented a vacation home one summer, I woke a few hours before everyone and worked while they were sleeping. I spent the rest of the day doing wonderful vacation stuff. Granted, we’d all like to take time off without having to work at all, but that’s not always possible. Technology allows us to take it with us – we just have to make sure we take time for ourselves as well.
  39. Good customer service means repeat business: It’s essential for freelance writers to rock the customer service. That means good communication, meeting deadlines, following up to ensure a client’s happiness and saying “thank you for the opportunity.”
  40. Freelance writers make the choices that work best for them…and no one else: I’m putting this in there twice because it bears repeating. There’s no right way to be a freelance writer. Each freelancers needs to find the best methods and jobs that work for him or her and not worry about what anyone else thinks.

What are your thoughts? Are there any lessons you’d like to share? Do you disagree with anything posted above? Discuss…


10 responses
  1. P.S. Jones Avatar

    I really, really enjoyed this post. For someone who hasn’t been freelancing full time but for a few years, it’s really interesting to see what you think looking back on years of experience. And bonus: I got about twenty blogging ideas for myself. Thanks!!

  2. Erica Avatar

    Thanks, great stuff for a beginning writer. I shared this with my tweeple. (Is that a stupid word?)

  3. Glendon Cameron Avatar

    I never thought of freelancing, this article made me look at it through a completely different prism. Well done!

  4. Carleen Avatar

    Thank you for sharing these lessons! I found them EXTREMELY helpful as I’m seriously considering transitioning careers and working as a freelance writer. A lot of the advice you give answer some of the questions and concerns I’ve had.

    Great article!

  5. Christopher Avatar

    Great list Deb. I can especially relate to working while children are around. I’m doing that right now as we speak, er type.

    I also agree with you on the procrastination deal. It’s something I’m struggling with right now actually.

    Oh and I love the fact that non freelancers are getting something out of this post as well. It’s nice to open someone’s eyes!
    .-= Christopher´s last blog ..Happy Valentine’s: Make a Difference =-.

  6. Melanie Avatar

    I literally Stumbled Upon your post and love what I see. Numbers 11 and 36 definitely hit home for me. I’ve been freelancing for 10 years now, too. And, I’m actually a bit relieved that online writing is starting to take over print. It’s the medium I actually started out writing for (back before the dot-com bust) and I’ve been hacking away learning all I can about HTML, blogging, CMS, etc. ever since. That has definitely given me an edge over those who’ve relied solely on print media.

    Social media has also brought me so much more success than I ever expected, so I’m glad I jumped into that pool, as deep and unmanageable as it may be.

    All that said, freelance writing has been very inconsistent in terms of pay over the past decade and I’ve hardly made a living of it. In fact, if it weren’t for my well-employed husband I’d have had to change career paths long ago. Luckily, the effort that I have put into being my own editor and writer for my own blog at http://www.italofile.com is starting to pay off. Slowly…but surely.

    I’ve also written a few other posts about freelance writing on my personal blog at http://www.missadventures.com if you’d like to take a look. Here’s the most recent: http://www.missadventures.com/2010/02/10/freelance-travel-writing-and-the-art-of-being-a-parent/

    So, thanks for this nice long list of freelancing tips and truths. Now, I’m gonna go find you on Twitter. 🙂

    .-= Melanie´s last blog ..More Hill Towns of Umbria =-.

  7. Susan Elliott Avatar

    Thanks for the tips! I really, really think this is a great list. I am one of those people who used to think that I was not a “real” writer, because I publish on Blogger, Associated Content and work for Demand Studios and do not publish in print magazines. I have finally learned that online publishing is okay! I held out for years and kept my poetry locked away in a closet waiting for the day I would published a chapbook, but now it is available for the entire world to see, on my blog; and I am okay with that.

    I also agree that it is almost impossible to write with children around. I have three who are preteens/teens and they are a big distraction. I love them dearly, but I work best when they have activities to accomplish or are playing outside. With that said, I have set up writing hours so I can still spend time with them.

    Thanks again for your ideas!


  8. Jennifer Avatar

    This is a great post! I just started freelance writing a couple of months ago and have already had the joy of doing something for nothing. Thankfully one of these projects was a set of ghostwritten articles, so I simply published them under my own name on the content site I write for to earn residual income.

    Again, great post, and great ideas. This is sure to help me as I shape my business 🙂

  9. Carolyn Cordon Avatar

    I love this post. I am a stay at home mother, recently diagnosed with a chronic and currently uncurable disease. I love to write and any time I can get money doing what I love is a great time.

    I have been a chronic procrastinator and I agree with what you wrote about writer’s block.

  10. Celeste Stewart Avatar

    Enjoyed your tips and agree wholeheartedly. I’ve been freelancing since 2006 and a telecommuter since 2000. The two most difficult challenges for me have been tips #33 and #34 (33 – Telephones are better than email and 34 – It’s not easy working with kids at all). They’re closely related as having kids at home makes telephone calls extremely difficult.

    With 10 years of using email and having it work great, I struggle with the occasional client who wants to talk. It’s hard because of the background noise as well as the time spent chitchatting. I had one guy take 40 minutes of beating around the bush to tell me that he had an issue with a single paragraph! The revision took all of two minutes to make. Had he sent me an email saying “Paragraph two needs a softer tone” (or whatever it was), we both would have been happier, but no, he wanted to analyze each word used and the thought process that went into building each sentence. Back to tip 15 (the micro-managing clients).

    I suppose I could have controlled the conversation better as well, but it was tough as the little ones were performing their antics in the background (LOL – told you, these tips are intricately related).

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