The world as your office, the freedom to be your own boss and the ability to tell other people’s stories – these are just some of the advantages of choosing a career as a freelance writer. When I started on this career a decade ago, it was initially a way to supplement my income (I was hoping to save up enough to affordably get a new car). But I became hooked on the freelance writing game, and it quickly became my sole focus and a career I wanted to pursue.
For those considering making the transition to a part- or full-time freelance writing career, there are certainly things I’ve learned and lessons I continue to pick up along the way. Reflecting on 10 years, here’s what I would recommend knowing about freelance writing as a career.
Skills You Need
Writing is more of an ideas and execution game and less a “degree” game. While I do have a journalism degree, I have found that was often secondary to good ideas and the ability to meet deadlines. Many freelance writing jobs I apply for have the requirement of a degree that would emphasize writing in some way, but this isn’t just journalism. English, Creative Writing and Communications are just some of the degrees that could give a person a strong writing basis and a knowledge of research and citations.
Also, there are plenty of highly skilled and specific freelance jobs out there. Examples that come to mind are computer science, chemistry and engineering. If you have a degree in these fields, and you like writing about them, chances are you’ll have a very solid freelance career.
The moral of the story is to not let fear or intimidation keep me from applying to a company or pitching a publication. Knowing I am a solid writer with the power to execute ideas is the most important aspect for getting hired.
Freelancers are not only writers and editors, they are idea people, business managers and salespeople all wrapped into one. These skills will also serve a writer well – not to mention the ability to continually withstand rejection.
Finding Clients – Approach 1
There are two approaches to freelance writing: pitching clients and applying for existing jobs.
Pitching clients is like a sales “cold call.” You look at a particular magazine or website and create a listing of story ideas or pitches that would be well-suited to the publication. Then, you stalk (er, find) the editor’s e-mail address and contact him or her, sending in your pitch.
Don’t let this sound like a lot of work – this is a very common practice, and allows me as a freelancer to write about stories I like to write about. It also gives me the chance to be creative and feel the thrill when an editor agrees that your idea is worth letting the world read more about.
A great resource for pitching ideas and writing query letters is Linda Formichelli’s blog, TheRenegadeWriter.com. When I first started, I read sites like hers, and just started e-mailing. While I’ve certainly refined my pitch approaches over time, sometimes just pressing send makes me feel like I’m moving in the right direction.
Finding Clients – Approach2
As a freelance writer, I’ve found there are more clients out there than well-known magazines and websites. Private companies, non-profit organizations and educational institutions are or have been my clients at many points in time. I found many of these clients either through networking or visiting many sites that cater to freelance writers, such as MediaBistro, BloggingPro and LinkedIn. There are many websites and newsletters that are dedicated to connecting you with companies and publications that are looking for freelancers. You can also go to individual businesses’ websites to see if they are looking for writers or contact an editor directly. You truly never know.
While it’s never impossible to score a “Vanity Fair” assignment on your first pitch, remember that freelancing is, to an extent, like any job. You will work your way up and allow your experience to build on itself to make more money and better assignments. This doesn’t mean working for free or taking on assignments guaranteed to make you miserable by writing them. However, it does mean you should commit yourself to doing quality work and building your reputation.
Making a Living
As a freelancer, I am a salesperson. And the nature of the sales business is sometimes feast or famine. This is the struggle of the freelance writer. Some months can be spectacular while others I am left frantically searching for more work. And there’s another important detail as well: I have to actually receive the checks for the work that I’ve done. For some companies, that billing cycle is a week, for others, it’s 90 days. As a freelancer, I’ve become a slave to my mailbox, hoping that a check will come in.
The lesson I’ve learned from this is the importance of diversification and having a broad, but manageable client base. My goal is to have enough clients to complete all my work on a weekly basis and also enough so that if a client drops off for a while (or forever), I’ll still be able to pay my bills.
Commit to Your Business
The best advice I can give you for this is organization and prioritization. I keep a weekly record of my articles due, how many I’ve completed and how much money I’ll make when I am paid for the articles. I compare this to the week before and also look at the month as a whole. This helps me determine how much I can realistically write in a week or month.
While it can be tempting to apply for multiple jobs and say yes to every client that asks for a rush order and more articles, remember the importance of sticking to what you can complete. Writers are notoriously poor at missing deadlines, and if I can provide writing services that deliver quality, on-time work, I am more likely to build long-term clients. And it is much easy to keep a client and get more work from them than to start a new freelance relationship.
Finally, I found the greatest success as a freelancer when I started to think of myself less as a writer and more as a business. A business is responsible for excellent customer service, delivering goods on time and building a positive reputation. While freelance writer may be the job title, remembering I’m so much more has been vital to my career.
Written By: Rachel Nall