Ten tips for building a freelance writing career
Getting started as a freelance writer can be daunting. It’s harder now than it was when I got into the business when I was fourteen, more than half a century ago. But these ten simple tactics can help.
1. Approach former employers. Also other companies in the same industry and suppliers to and customers of that industry. Plus trade magazines and blogs targeted to that industry. A base of expertise (or even just familiarity) is a significant benefit to people who buy freelance writing. It means you don’t have to be educated about the industry before you can take on the project, you’re less likely to make mistakes and you’re more cost-efficient, since you’ll need a bit less time to do the job.
2. Master a wide range of media. Blogs, speeches, brochures, white papers, corporate videos, TV commercials, magazine articles, press releases, annual reports (careful about the financials sections – perhaps it’s best to stick with just the “vision” copy), interactive training, websites, direct mail, corporate meeting scripts, training videos, print ads, YouTube videos, corporate Twitter feeds and more. I’ve often found that after finishing a project the client says “I love the video. Can you turn it into a website for us?” Or turn an ad into a TV commercial or a speech into a blog.
3. Once you get into a company with an assignment, try to migrate to other sections or departments. I got an assignment to do a television commercial for one department of a fairly large corporation. I have since done dozens of TV commercials, websites, newspaper ads, magazine ads, videos, displays, outdoor ads, direct mail and communications strategy consulting for eight other divisions of the company.
4. Develop areas of expertise. Mine were environmental, health care, travel, financial, food/beverage, boating, media and telecommunications. Clients like to hire subject matter experts because it shortens the learning curve, speeds delivery time, allows the writer to deliver a more accurate product and makes the process more efficient since fewer hours are needed. You need several because a few areas will not be in demand at any given time.
5. Be patient. Most freelancers I know began by working at a newspaper or advertising agency to hone their skills, then went out on their own. During the first six months we all lost money as we had start-up costs but little or nothing coming in. By the end of the first year we were earning about as much as our former salaries. Somewhere between the second and fifth years we doubled our former salaries. If you’ve been freelancing a couple of months, you may be right on track. If you’ve been doing it a few years, there may be a problem.
6. Initially, spend 40-50 hours a week prospecting for clients, gradually reducing it as business comes in. But never less than 10 hours a week.
7. Be absolutely reliable. Delivering on schedule, keeping the project within budget, being absolutely correct in your facts, perfect spelling, grammar and punctuation and effectiveness – that is, a product that accomplishes the client’s objectives – are essential. If you do those things, you will succeed. If you don’t, you’ll fail. I once had a retainer client double the number of hours she contracted for each month. When I asked what the key factor in the decision the answer was: “You’re absolutely dependable. When I give you an assignment I know that it will be delivered on time and it will be right.” Not great writing, not innovative thinking, dependability.
8. Be very, very good at what you do. There are many marginally skilled writers attempting to freelance. The most effective way to compete is by mastering the skills and techniques of writing. You may be born with (or without) talent, but you acquire skill and technique. In my experience, only a tiny percentage of freelance writing jobs require talent. But they all require skill and technique.
9. Never accept an assignment which you cannot do well. If the job is direct mail and you don’t know the techniques of the medium, refer the client to someone who does. If you try to do something for which you aren’t qualified you’ll probably lose the client for all projects. But if you say, “I’m not qualified to do that, but I know someone who can do a great job for you.” The client will learn to call you first with most projects.
10. Never work for free or at a discount rate except on pro bono projects for bona fide charities. There are prospective clients who will try to get you to do a “sample” job for free or at a discount with the promise of more and better paid work to come. The paid (or full-price) work never materializes, and when you get tired of being taken advantage of they’ll just move on to someone else foolish enough to fall for their lies. If you don’t respect your work enough to charge a reasonable price for it, why should anyone else?
Freelance isn’t for the faint of heart. Especially not at the beginning. But it’s a rewarding and remunerative career if you have the skill, persistence and luck to break in.