I’m a freelance writer, and freelance writing can be a fantastic job. There are so many different types of outlets you can pursue (traditional publications, online news sites, blogging, you name it) and so many topic areas to tackle you can specialize in whatever interests you—or try your hand at a mix of different things to keep it fresh.
But freelancing is also a challenging job, and not for the faint of heart. It’s time to get real about what it takes to make it in the freelance industry.
Although my personal experience is specific to freelance writing, pretty much everything I’ve learned applies generally. What’s tough about freelancing isn’t so much about what you specifically do but about the ins and outs of freelancing itself.
Here are three key things you need to keep in mind if you’re thinking of embarking on a freelance career:
1. Demand Your Worth
Too many freelance writers fall into the content mill trap, especially when they’re just starting out and don’t have an extensive portfolio to show potential clients. But content mills are the worst possible way to make a living as a freelancer—if you can make a living from them at all.
Stay away from lowest-bidder free-for-alls like Demand Studios, Guru, oDesk, and Elance, where freelancers from across the globe compete to see who’s willing to work for the least amount of money. Whether a client wants you to write 100 search-engine-optimized articles on the exact same topic or create something that’s genuinely high-quality, your time will rarely be fairly compensated by a job you find on a content mill. You deserve clients who will pay you for your talents and expertise. If they want a good writer, they should be willing to pay for one.
If you are new to the game and not sure what to charge, you owe it to yourself to make sure you’re being paid for what your time is really worth. A great place to start, especially when you’re not sure what the “going rate” is, is the Editorial Freelance Assocation’s rate guide. It covers everything from journalistic writing to ghost writing and will give you a good handle on what other freelancers are charging for these tasks. It also includes a handy “estimated pace” column that gives you an idea how long a project should take you to complete.
2. Don’t Forget That You’re Running a Business
Many writers go into freelancing because they don’t enjoy working traditional jobs; they like the freedom and creativity freelancing gives them. And while freelancing is a lot more fulfilling than making copies or entering data, you can’t forget that you’re still running a business—or you won’t have a business to run for very long.
In addition to wearing the “writer” hat, freelancers also need to be good at bookkeeping, marketing, customer service, project management, and a myriad of other duties. You can’t balk at chasing down clients that aren’t paying—or getting rid of clients that are proving to be more trouble than they’re worth. You need to be sure to get everything in writing before embarking on a project, so get familiar with terms of “scope of work” and “breach of contract.” You also need to make sure the numbers are adding up and you’re covered tax-wise. (Check out this guide if you’re not sure what that means.)
While business administration isn’t a ton of fun—especially if you lean more to the creative side—you need to learn to do it if you intend to make a real go of a freelance career.
3. Be Organized
Depending on the clients and projects you take on, you might find yourself juggling two highly-involved eBooks, several websites, or a collection of small writing projects, all with competing deadlines. To keep your head above water—and have time to produce your best work—you need to learn to be your own best personal assistant.
Set a calendar for yourself that includes deadlines for everything currently on your plate, as well as midway points that give you an idea of what steps you should have done by when. For instance, if you’re writing an eBook, on what date should you have your final draft finished? By what date should the formatting be complete? Cutting your projects up into doable action steps will make it easier to visualize your progress, and easier to keep all the balls in the air when you’re managing multiple projects.
Setting a daily routine for yourself is also key. When you’re not following standard working hours (or the rhythms of an office) it can be all too easy to find yourself becoming one of those freelancer horror stories who hasn’t showered in days and forgets to eat altogether. It can also leave you feeling overwhelmed and overworked. Structure your day like you would if you were reporting to a boss: When will your lunch break be? From when to when will you answer emails, and what period will you set aside for invoicing and other administrative tasks? The freedom to work whenever, wherever you want can be too much of a good thing sometimes, so don’t let yourself become unmoored.
Are you currently a freelancer? What other “must-know” tips would you share with those about to start?