I want to share with you a few things I’ve learned about the freelancing business since I started doing this in April 2012. 15 months of experience hardly makes me a veteran in this game, but when you do something five days a week, eight or more hours a day, you get over the learning curve pretty quick.
1. No client lasts forever
It is inevitable that any client you work for will someday be your client no more. Even though you may love working for them, and they may think you’re the most amazing writer they have ever had the pleasure of enlisting, there will always come a time when the work dries up, or either side of the partnership has to move on for whatever reason.
I enjoy writing business for The Financial Post. I get to cover interesting stories, meet successful people, and even reap a few nice little perks every now and then from the contacts I make. But will I be writing entrepreneurship articles in the paper for the rest of my life? I sincerely hope not. For now it’s good gig, but there will come a day when I don’t want to write that stuff anymore and I’ll move on to other things. This is the advantage of being a freelancer: you aren’t bound to the same job indefinitely.
2. Always look for new clients
This follows on the heels of point number 1. In this business it’s essential for you to become as prolific as possible. The more bylines you get and the more publications you write for, the more exposure you will get. After garnering enough exposure, you’ll eventually have people seeking you out with assignments.
This is the holy grail of freelancing. If you can have a healthy list of clients who offer you work, rather than sending out pitches all the time, then you’re in a very good place. There are thousands of websites, newspapers, blogs, and magazines out there to write for and as a writer it’s your job to seek out the ones that suit you, and get in there. The longer your publications list becomes, the better off you’ll be.
3. You need connections to make it as a journalist
It is an unfortunate truth that freelance journalism has a terribly low ROI. To really make it as a freelance journalist, you need to have connections in the industry. Without links to the inside it’s very hard to get stories commissioned. A lot of the time, even if you have a really great story idea, you won’t get a response at all. I have found that the overwhelming majority of the pitches I send get no response. This makes me wonder if these editors even bother to read them, or if they just end up in the spam folder.
What this means is that as a freelance journalist you end up spending a lot of time working on story ideas and sending them out there to get no response. That is a lot of time spent that isn’t bearing any fruit. Journalism does, however, get you a lot of exposure if you write for national newspapers or magazines with high readerships, so it can be worth the effort.
4. Open up to new revenue streams
When you tell people that you’re a writer today, many people will ask you the question “What kind of a writer are you?” This is because there are so many different avenues of writing that one can travel down other than journalism. In this modern age of blogs and social media, there are new forms of writing available to the enterprising freelancer. Branded content is a rising niche that is turning out to be very lucrative as major companies like Coca Cola, for example, need content for their own corporate brands.
This may not be “pure journalism”, but really, if it pays the bills with a reliable revenue stream, who cares? I will gladly shill myself to the highest bidder if it means steady work at a respectable rate. Freelancing is a job, so it’s important not to be too precious about the material you’re writing. When it comes to my poetry and fiction, however, I will be protective about it. There is also a whole world of copy writing services that one can enter into, and this is also a much more profitable market than journalism.
5. Know your worth and stick to it
Always beware of clients who expect you to work for little or nothing at all. While it can be worthwhile to do an occasional freebie here and there, especially when you’re starting out and have no samples, watch out for these cheapies trying to get something for nothing. The world needs to understand that writing is a skilled profession and skilled work costs money. Sure, you can get some dude from the Philippines to write content for $2 an hour on oDesk, but they will not deliver professional quality work.
Know your worth and stick to it. The quality of your work should speak for itself. If a client is expecting dirt cheap rates, you are almost certainly better off spending your time finding a client who will pay you something better.
For example, once I found a client on Elance who wanted 30 articles about making soap for $200. That works out to $6.67 per article which would be far below minimum wage if you factor in how much time it would take to write them considering I know nothing about making soap. Needless to say, I did not take the assignment.
6. Find your voice
Any writer will tell you this is essential. You need to write, and read, every single day to stay sharp. If you want to differentiate yourself from the mindless hordes of interchangeable “writers” out there you need to find your voice. There is no easy way of doing this, and no golden rule I can impart unto thee to direct you other than reading and writing every single day.
Read books. Read newspapers. Read magazines. Read poetry. Read classics. Read blogs. Read biographies. Read everything you can get your hands on. And when you write, don’t have any one particular author in mind. If you go into something thinking, “I want to write like Mailer!” You will fail. The only person you can write like is yourself, and the only way to do that is to be yourself. To have a unique voice, you need to immerse yourself in words, ensconce yourself in the syllables and sentences, and you will soon emerge as a unique writing entity. Go forth and discover!
7. Find your niche
The most successful freelancers out there all have a specific niche they call home. This is especially true for journalists. Your niche is whatever happens to interest you the most, or something that you have a special knowledge base in. Maybe you worked as a financial consultant for 10 years at TD Canada Trust. That would allow you to be a great business writer covering financial and investment issues. Maybe you have a medical degree that would allow you to write about health care.
It’s possible to be a generalist, but the most successful writers are specialists. For me, I like to focus on business, science, technology, and environment. A niche can be narrow, or broad like mine, but either way you need to find the space where your puzzle pieces fit.
8. Think of yourself as an entrepreneur
Freelance writing is much more than just writing. It’s also about marketing, branding, and selling. This is all the more evident in today’s age of social media where everyone is on the internet sharing every detail of their lives from irrelevant minutiae to deep personal troubles. It’s not enough to just be writer anymore. You need to think of yourself as a businessperson. You need to get on social media and start tweeting, start posting, starting gaining followers to your brand if you want to define yourself and draw in more business.
Don’t dismiss the value of getting on the phone and calling people though. Cold calling still works. It’s easy to ignore an email, but when someone is in your ear chatting you up about what they can do for your business, it’s much harder to ignore them.
As a writer, think of yourself as an entrepreneur offering a valuable service. The game isn’t what it used to be, and the successful writers of today will make the most out of the technologies we have rather than clinging to antiquated ways.
9. Network with other freelancers
Stephen King said in his book On Writing, “Writing is a lonely job.” Take it from me, this is indeed true. All those quiet hours in front of a computer with no one to keep you company can get lonesome. You can also feel a little rudderless without any other writers to confer with in times of difficulty. Find a couple writers in your area and meet them for coffee every now and then to talk business. You’ll be amazed at how inspirational these meetings can be.
I have a friend on my street who I went to college with and we get together every so often for coffee to talk about pitches, clients, and life in general. I always come away from these meetings feeling refreshed. Talking with other freelancers will give you valuable insight into new markets, and tips on how to improve your game.
Another valuable thing to consider is joining professional writers groups like the PWAC. Having an affiliation like that looks good in the eyes of the client, and also provides you with supports and resources that can be a tremendous boon to your writing journey.