5 Things About Freelance Writing Jobs I Wish I Knew When I Was Starting Out

by Deborah Ng

When I first began freelancing in 2000 I thought I had an edge. I spent a dozen years in publishing, after all. That experience should work to my advantage, right?

Well…yes and no.

It gave me some good ideas about customer service, what editors look for and more. There were some areas however, in which I was a little green. There are a few things I had to figure out on my own. I’d like to share them with you today.

1. There Are Different Types of Freelance Writing Jobs

I was kind of surprised at all the different types of writing available to freelancers. Where should I set my sites? Print? Web? Business writing? Writing grants? Those new fangled e-books everyone is talking about? Obviously I found my calling, but it was a little confusing for me in the beginning and I had some fits and starts before reaching my comfort zone.

This is why I think it’s important for all new freelance writers to take some time out before they begin to research every aspect of the business. Not only will they learn some of the ins and outs of the business, but also the types of writing.

2. Everyone’s Good at Something

Today it’s all about branding and expertise. Most freelancers have to pick something they’re good at and use that to their advantage. Thanks to the Internet, there’s more competition now than there was when I worked with freelancers in the mid 80’s and 90’s. To stand out an impressive resume helps. Set yourself up as an expert in your favorite topic and soon the jobs will come to you.

3. Taking Gigs For the Sake of Taking Gigs Leads to Boredom and Burnout

I think one of my biggest mistakes as a freelance writer was taking every gig that came my way. Yes, I gained valuable experience and yes, I was doing some good earning. I was also suffering from burnout. To keep up I woke early and worked late in to the night. I wasn’t spending free time with my family because I had no free time. Plus,  I was writing about topics that didn’t interest me and I was bored and prone to procrastination. I understand that it’s difficult to be picky when starting out, but if you’re in a position to pick and choose, do consider whether or not you’ll be happy with a gig before signing on.

4. There’s a Lot More to Working as a Freelance Writer than Writing

I thought I could spend the whole day typing and doing nothing else. Writing is only a small part of a freelance writer’s job. We have to do a lot of research. We spend hours on the phone or with email. We comb the job boards looking for work and we have to keep our accounts in order. Successful writers multi-task.

5. You Get What You Give

It’s not enough to turn in 500 words and be done with it. If you want good pay and cushy gigs, you have to rock the customer service and fulfill all your promises. Give every job your all. When you go through the motions your job list and clientele reflect this. If you have a good work ethic and your clients are pleased you’ll get referrals, raises and more jobs.

What are some of the things you wish you knew about freelance writing when you were just starting out?





11 responses
  1. Robin Avatar

    I think #3 was the biggest lesson for me. I was the same – take everything because I never knew if there would be anything to do the next week. But there always was.

    Burn out didn’t happen immediately. At first I was so thrilled with the fact that people were actually hiring me that I was ecstatic to write 400 words on ball bearings at 2am.

    That didn’t last, of course, and I eventually needed to specialize (or find my niche as you say). I had a little less work at first, but it wasn’t long before I could sell myself as an expert and work was easier to get.

    I do think, though, that perhaps it’s a kind of paying your dues type thing and that most people will start out the way we did. As long as they don’t accept it as the way things always need to be, some valuable experience is gained.

    And, #5 should be practiced from day one. My ball bearings articles were the best ball bearings articles I was capable of writing.

  2. Cheril Vernon Avatar

    No. 4 is a biggie for me. The research takes a lot longer than the actual writing process and adds quite a bit to my time. But honestly, it’s fun doing the research. But sometimes it’s hard to explain that to family members who don’t realize the work that goes into writing.

  3. Edna Avatar

    I think #3 was my biggest learning piece. I also took everything that came my way and ended up having work but being angry about working for so little when I knew I was worth more. I think the breaking point came slowly but I procrastinated also and still stayed up all hours looking for gigs and trying to write about stuff I had little interest in and less knowledge of.
    I think it was writing about satellite dishes that did me in. I have found a couple niches I enjoy writing about and have a knowledge base to work from, so things are getting easier. I still have to market myself and manage the other aspects of freelance writing; that piece will always be necessary.

  4. Damaria Senne Avatar

    Number 4 is a biggie for me. I like looking for work, research and interview processes, but I had a big problem with the office management duties.But I soon realised that it was easier to get to do things I loved when my home office was organised and everything was in its place.

  5. Kitty Avatar

    Since I mostly do food writing, I knew that photography would be a big part of the job, but I did not realize how time consuming it would be. Having to edit photos to odd size specifications, always have my camera handy, and be that annoying person at dinner always snapping photos is making me think that the fees I am currently getting are not really adequate. Moving forward, I am going to figure that into what I charge.

  6. Andrea Avatar

    As someone who’s just starting out, I appreciate the post. I have learned about #3 very early, though. I’ve taken some low paying, boring assignments just for the sake of making a few bucks and now I have to really sit down examine how I am spending my time. Sure, the money may add up eventually, but spending hours writing an article for $5 on a topic that doesn’t interest me is probably not going to lead to career satisfaction.

  7. Tess Taylor Avatar

    Wow, I can so relate to # 3 & 5! Coming from the business aspect of things, as freelancers we have to do whatever we can to exceed our client’s expectations each and every time to get repeat requests and more work. Failure to do so results in unhappy clients who are less likely to use a freelancer the next time. It’s also the responsibility of all writers to expect and ask for a decent pay rate for the hard work we do and accept projects that are worthy of our talent, time and efforts.

  8. zack kushner Avatar

    Passing up gigs is great when you can afford to do so! For those just starting out, or who are struggling in this bleak economy, saying “no” to paid work is a luxury.

    That said, firing a pain-in-the-butt client last year was one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever done.

  9. Paul Chalmers Avatar
    Paul Chalmers

    So – does anyone have any advice about what sort of jobs to try and get if you really have not much experience at all? I mean, I write all the time and think I would be good once I get my foot on the ladder, but have never considered freelancing (and actually getting paid!) before.

  10. Jennifer Brown Banks Avatar

    Good advice. I think the most valuable lesson for me has been to always have a plan B in terms of income.

    Writers’ pay can be sporadic and unpredictable.

  11. Lisa Avatar

    I can’t say I was surprised about freelancing when I first started in 1992, because I already had a good idea of where I was headed (science education, science writing, fundraising writing).

    What HAS surprised me is how much freelancing has CHANGED with the advent of the Internet and the change in the economy. From a somewhat specialized field that was tough to enter successfully, it has become a “free for all” field. You can enter with lots or no experience; no need for contacts; no need – even – for significant writing ability!

    To be honest, though, I think the really solid gigs – gigs that pay in the multiple hundreds and thousands – are still much as they’ve always been. They’re business or large non-profit projects that are not about books or articles, but rather about sales, marketing, fundraising, business planning, education… At least, that’s where I continue, after all these years, to find projects that (individually) pay the big bucks.

    What’s FINALLY happening (thank you!!) is that businesses and non-profits are beginning to offer real telecommuting jobs to writers (as opposed to individual gigs). Thrilled to have landed a couple of nice ones.


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