So, What Exactly Does a Successful Freelance Writer DO?

Clueless freelance writerBeing a freelance writer sounds like a dream lifestyle to many people.

They think about the upside — “Yeah, working in my PJs, keeping my own hours, and not having a boss. Awesome!”

But most of the people I know who’re focused on those three things end up washing out as freelancers. They never take it seriously, don’t learn about how to run a business, and don’t take the steps needed to get their business going.

Soon, they’re broke and heading back to the day job world.

It takes a lot of work to be a successful freelance writer. And many people don’t even know what work is required.

Those of us who’ve been at this for (cough) decades tend to forget how boggling it can be, when you’ve been an employee all your life, to launch your own solo freelance biz.

Take this aspiring freelance writer, who recently wrote me:

“Basically, I don’t know anything about freelance writing. So, I guess Iยดd like to learn the basics. What does a freelance writer actually do?

“I know, write. But what about and who for, you know? Thanks!”–Marcia

What does a freelance writer need to do? Here’s my list of the essentials:

Market your services

This is the part most writers really don’t want to hear — they’re hoping great-paying clients will simply fall from the sky. Trust me, they won’t.

Marketing — both actively and passively, through things like your writer website and LinkedIn profile — is key starting and growing a successful freelance business.

The approaches you should use for marketing depend a lot on you. If you’re shy, you probably won’t do in-person networking, for instance. If you hate social media, that probably won’t be your best marketing venue.

My golden rule of freelance marketing is that the best kind of marketing is the kind you’re willing to do. On a steady, ongoing basis. Try several kinds, see what’s in your comfort zone (secret: you might actually find this a fun challenge!), and do a bunch of marketing.

Then, track what worked to get you clients, and do more of that. Lather, rinse, repeat. This is the teeth-brushing of freelance writing — a vital task you simply need to do every week, to keep your business healthy.

Learn

There’s a lot to know in the freelance-writing world. Depending on your previous experience, you might need to find out:

  • How to avoid super-low payers and outright scams
  • How to build a portfolio
  • What to charge
  • How to write the better-paying assignments
  • Where to find good clients
  • How to market to them effectively, so they hire you
  • How to write your assignments so that clients love them and hire you back

Lovers of lifelong learning do well as freelancers. In the Internet age, this is a fast-changing space, and there’s always a new twist coming that you want to know. Have an open mind, eliminate all you’re “I can’t” statements, and dive in.

Everyone has a different learning style. Whether you buy a book or e-book, take an online class or one at your community college, grab transcripts of live events, or get mentored, commit yourself to learning. It can save you a ton of heartache and timewasting pursuing avenues that don’t pay writers well.

Execute

Many aspiring freelance writers do great on the learning side. They eagerly subscribe to 50 different writing blogs, read 20 books…and still aren’t earning a dime as a writer.

Don’t forget that the point of learning is so you can take action to start earning as a writer. I recommend this learning formula:

  • Prioritize what you need to learn
  • Learn one thing that’s a top priority
  • Take action on what you learned
  • *Then* come back to learn more

Don’t get stuck in learning mode. Take concrete action toward your writing goals, every day, week, and month that you can, so that you don’t run out of money.

Network

Freelancing is a near-impossible slog if done in a vacuum. If you’re serious about this, begin building networks of people who know you are freelancing.

This could start with friends, family, or other writers you know. You can join one of the many LinkedIn writer groups online.

Building a network of other freelance writers will bring you valuable info on what markets should pay, and also may send you referrals. Don’t forget to network as well with people in related fields, such as webmasters and designers, who might bring you in on their projects.

I’m a big fan of in-person networking or Skype calls for making a more personal, stronger connection. But whatever your method, do it.

I’ve called this point out separately from marketing, because networking is so much more than a marketing activity. Networking will help you find camaraderie, feel part of a community, make great new friends, and get more joy out of the freelance life.

Write

This is the one freelance writing activity most writers understand they’ll be doing. Did you notice how many points I placed before this one?

At first, you’ll do much more of the points above and less of this part. As time goes on, that ratio will improve and you’ll spend more time simply writing for clients.

To earn more, you may want to invest a little time and money to learn how to write high-paid writing projects. That can really shorten the time it takes to reach the point where you’re able to pay your bills from writing.

Do administrative scut work

Here’s the really low-glamour side of running your own freelance business. You’ll need to do super-fun stuff like prepare and send invoices and bid proposals, figure your taxes, call late payers, do filing, and renew your business license.

Remember, these hours are unbillable, which is why your hourly rate should be high — $35-$50 an hour to start out (in any developed nation), with a goal of rising to $75-$100 an hour as soon as you can.

Market some more

Any time you’re sitting around, wondering what you should do with yourself today, do some marketing. Every little bit helps.

Make a few more phone calls. Press ‘send’ on that query letter. Update your LinkedIn profile. Ask existing customers for recommendations or referrals (or both). Keep taking actions that could pay off in new business.

Plan

One big problem many freelancers face is that they get into this line of work without a plan, and start taking whatever gigs most readily come to hand. That is a recipe for starvation, and for ending up just as unhappy as you were in a day job — except without the paid vacation and reliable wages.

Figure out where you want your business to be in five years. And in one year. Then, break those goals down to goals for this month, this week, and today. Now, you know what to do with your time, to steer your freelance ship in the right direction.

This exercise will help you say “no” to projects that are wrong for you, and keep your marketing on track.

Leave downtime

Many freelancers fall into the trap of being online seven days a week, or working 18-hour days. This is not sustainable. Remember to take enough time off to stay fresh and creative.

What do you think freelance writers need to do? Leave a comment and add to my list.

 

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43 comments on “So, What Exactly Does a Successful Freelance Writer DO?
  1. Stephanie Arnold says:

    I am not a freelance writer, but it sounds interesting. This does sound like a lot of work! I am up for learning more- first thing though, what kind of things can you be writing? Can it be anywhere from someone’s story, to “how to lose a guy in 10 days” to political articles to brochures for any business?

  2. Amber says:

    Yes! All of this! Especially the “have a plan” part. My business changed dramatically when I started implementing a 90-day and year-long plan, which includes financial, marketing and project goals. That doesn’t mean I always do everything on the plan but it gives me something to focus on and work towards. SO important!

  3. Liz Hudson says:

    Hi Carol, I am an educator in the industry for 20+ years. There have been so many controversial changes just in the last few years, that I know there is a huge market of educators and parents who would like to hear more about what’s happening and also vent out. Where do they pay for the current pulse from a teacher right in the trenches? I have been in almost every grade and am widely versed on pedagogy and curriculum. Of course, the buzzwords now are EVALUATIONS and TESTING and they are infuriating everyone! Help?

    • Carol Tice says:

      Well, parenting magazines are one place parents look to for those issues, Liz. For educators, I would look to their trade magazines, at the teachers’ associations. You might also consider nonprofits that advocate in education as possible good markets for you to work with, to tell their stories.

  4. Katherine says:

    I started freelancing in 2002. If I were in it just for the money, I would have given it up long ago. For me, I love to write. I always wanted to be a writer. I majored in it in college. I started freelancing out of necessity when I was a military spouse. Though I now have a J.O.B in addition, I’m still freelancing. It takes hard work, patience, stubbornness, and skill in order to make it as long as I have. There was a time when I was driven by money (this was several years ago) and the burnout that occurred because of my attitude was severe. Lesson learned. Excellent post!

  5. Nur Costa says:

    As always, great post Carol.
    You’re getting better and better at writing topics that matter to your readers.
    Whenever I receive your newsletter with the title, it’s like: DAMN, just what I needed.

    Thanks for all your advice.
    I started to write in English myself (I’m Spanish). Would you give any specific advice to any English writer that is not native?
    That would be great.

    Regards,

  6. This is such a great post not only for those of us starting out, but also for our loved ones who ask, “So what do you do all day?” It’s hard to explain when you’re a beginner, especially when they have no idea how much work it is to get the ball rolling. Half the time I feel like I’ve spent the entire day just going through emails or trying to broaden my understanding of things (through reading or bootcamps), so it’s easy to get off track and forget to plan.

    Thanks for the guidance and reminders. ๐Ÿ™‚

  7. jocelyn says:

    Hello Carol!

    Now that I’m trying to be the professional medical writer I always wanted to be, I learned that to be able to be an expert in my field, I have to read, read and read. It doesn’t sound that much fun, but learning a new thing or two about writing every single day is the only way I know to improve my writing skills and earn more in my chosen field.

  8. So many aspiring writers fall apart at the ‘execute’ stage. That, I believe, is where the real difference is between those who make a go of it, and those who keep reading blogs and listening to podcasts and never actually get any clients.

    Great post – it is vital for people who want to do this job to understand that there’s a lot more to it than it may seem.

    • Carol Tice says:

      I know too many writers who I see taking class after class, and a year or two later, they finally admit that they’ve yet to send a single query or write a blog post. That’s not being a freelancer…that’s being a professional student.

      • Yes! And many of them will have designed and printed a business card, bought a domain name, and so on, but never sent out a pitch or done anything that will get them any work. And then wonder why they’ve not ‘made it’!

  9. Hi Carol, thanks for the great post and the timely reminders of what it takes to keep your freelance career growing.

  10. Joann says:

    Hi Carol!
    Thanks for the tips.
    I just started a freelance writing business and last night, while figuring out why I’m not attracting the right clients, I realize that I’m not marketing to the right people. And I agree too with taking a day off. Being online for 7 days is definitely not sustainable. I was once ended up getting sick most likely out of fatigue.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Most freelancers aren’t — they’re answering Craigslist ads and signing up for content mill or revshare mass content platforms, or bidding sites. Great clients don’t hang around these places much.

  11. Stacey says:

    I think freelance writers do need to keep in touch with their goals and be realistic about the amount of work they need to do. Also, about the amount of non-writing work such as looking for writing gigs, getting invoices together, taxes, other boring things.

    I know my friends get all wide-eyed when I say I sent a queary about a gig paying $200 without understanding that those billable hours are covering all the other hours you’re working doing the boring stuff.

    It’s difficult for someone in an empolyee mindset to break out of that but they *need to* if they want to make it as a freelancer.

  12. Michelle says:

    Love this list, especially the fact that it’s applicable to those of us (like me) who have been doing this for years, but still don’t have all the steps down.

    I think the list can be different for everyone, since we’re all working in our own little niches and have different things we need to do to get our businesses up and running.

    For me, I’ve found the most vital activity I need to do daily is PITCH, PITCH, PITCH. I’m really good at all the learning, scut work, research and writing – but if I don’t have any article pitches accepted by any outlets, then all that other stuff does me little good. Once I committed to doing that daily, my business increased dramatically.

  13. Great article! “Execute” is one of my key words for 2015… it’s so easy to fall down the rabbit hole of learning and planning, without anything to show for it. As they say on the business side, “work in progress” doesn’t actually provide value until it’s executed!

    I also agree with Timothy — building some other income streams, in addition to the freelance writing, helps take some of the pressure off. It’s a natural transition to shift from articles and posts to your own blog, ebooks, etc. I know my ebooks have given me enough of a stable income that I have breathing room to really choose clients that are a good fit, rather than “anyone who comes along.” Of course, that then ties in with your other point: you have to market your work… and then market it some more!

    Will definitely share this. ๐Ÿ™‚

  14. Great list of essentials, Carol!

    I started on oDesk and learned fast enough it’s a bad place to be in. Writers should avoid it by all means! (A painful experience can vouch for that) sad to say.

    Then I applied as a short post writer at a huge lifestyle and productivity site and got hired. After a few months of working there, I realized one important thing — so far it’s the most effective marketing tool I have ever tried! It’s gotten me several good clients willing to pay $340 per post. Which I never expected to happen at the pace I was in as a freelance writer during the time I got hired.

    The great thing about it is… …(ahhemmm) the clients reach out to me when they see my work there! ๐Ÿ™‚

    Now, that’s another nice surprise! (It’s a perfect thing to balance the hard work we do in the other ways of marketing you have mentioned here, Carol).

    Thanks for effectively enumerating these essentials.

    Really appreciate it. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Carol Tice says:

      Anthony, I so agree. Guest posting on the most well-regarded, highest-traffic place you can get into can be a real referral machine, for really great clients. And you don’t have to sell them — they’re already so impressed with you, because after all, you guested on that big site. You must be a genius!

  15. Another great article Carol.

    I especially like the point of marketing when your on your downtime. It’s always good to throw out some pitches and see who bites. I got a few clients from throwing out random pitches when I wasn’t even planning on marketing in the first place. The marketing techniques that has been working for me so far is finding websites that I would personally like to write for and send them a message.

    Most of the time, I leave a few comments, and try to write a custom proposal that can improve weak areas of their content. It’s been working fine for me so far – haven’t found any of those $100 an article clients, but I know I’ll find out at some point.

    Obviously, I can continue freelance writing for the rest of my life, and I don’t think I’ll want to either, so I want to work towards creating a money making website, and write articles that are specifically designed to make me cash. So I can write for myself and I can always know the articles I publish will send cash in my direction. Obviously it takes awhile to build a website where that’s possible but I’m willing to put in the work. It’s one of my dreams.

    Anyhow, seems like I’m ranting a bit, need to leave some room for other people to comment!

    • Carol Tice says:

      I think all freelance writers today should be thinking about diversifying their income and whether they could earn from a site or products they create. It may or may not become a meaningful income from that, but why not try it, since we can easily do it, for the first time ever in history?

      On the marketing, I’d say not just in your downtime, but all the time. Make it one of your regular tasks, every week. I know people who do every day, but doesn’t have to be that. But sometime, every week, especially when you’re ramping.

      Maybe you’re aiming too low, Timothy — if you can’t find $100 article clients, you’re looking in the wrong places. There are $2,000 article clients out there, too. Raise your sights.

  16. Joey Held says:

    Great post, Carol! Makes me want to go out and kick butt.

    And one thing I’d just like to add for the “Execute” part: don’t worry about perfection. I’ve heard all too often (and have been guilty of this myself), “I can’t send out this pitch out yet–I need to keep tweaking it.”

    If the core idea is good, an editor will take it, and they may even tweak the pitch a little bit to give you some direction or clarity. I recently was re-reading a pitch I sent out for a magazine, and noticed I had a typo in it. Guess what? Still got the assignment. All because I stopped worrying about all the extraneous details and just started going for it.

    • Carol Tice says:

      That is a *great* addition to this list, Joey. Just press ‘Send.’

      I know my writing co-teacher Linda Formichelli has ALSO gotten an assignment from a query with a typo in it! Ideas are what matter most.

  17. Rohi Shetty says:

    Sorry…
    Hack #3:
    3. List the work (checklist) and work the list (cross out each item when done).
    I need to keep this list right in front of my face or I lose focus.

    • Carol Tice says:

      For years, I just had a reporter’s notebook by my computer that had my to-do list. Now, it’s in my calendar online. But same thing. I’d be sunk without my list, especially when I come back on Sunday after taking Saturday off. My brain has been completely erased by my Sabbath. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  18. Rohi Shetty says:

    Wow Carol!
    This post is almost like a mini-course for freelance writers.
    In addition to your excellent advice, I found these three hacks to be super-useful:
    1. Track my time every 30 minutes
    2. End my work-day at 9 pm – and then review and set goals for the next day.
    Thanks again.

    • Carol Tice says:

      I tracked my time a lot when I started — it’s essential for getting a feel for how long it takes you to do things, so you can bid appropriately.

      I end my work day at 3:50, when my kids get home. I do sometimes work a bit more at night, but I’m really trying to cut back on that.

  19. Jawad Khan says:

    Great point Carol.

    Being in the freelancing business for the last 3 years now, I can safely say that it involves a LOT more hard work than most newbies expect (I say from experience)

    If I were to point out two of the most important things for freelance writers (apart from high quality writing of course) it would be.

    1) Building your brand image, portfolio and samples by guest blogging on authority blogs
    2) Sending out job applications DAILY!

    For the beginners at least, getting freelance clients is a numbers game. You need to apply daily to get a few relevant clients.

    Once you’re a more established name (like Carol!) clients start approaching you themselves ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • Carol Tice says:

      Jawad, guest blogging can be a good strategy, especially if you’re looking for paid blogging gigs. But there are many ways to market your writing.

      When you say “Send out job applications,” to me that sounds like you’re responding to online job ads, which a marketing approach I recommend. I’d say “do proactive marketing every week” — in person networking, social media marketing, sending queries, researching prospects’ websites and sending letters of introduction…that sort of thing.

      • I assume you meant to say “which IS NOT a marketing approach that I recommend,” the cop-out approach for every beginner who wants the path of least resistance. Which in just about every aspect of existence is also the path of least fulfilling results.

        I was stuck in that stage for a while … and then for even longer in the next-step-up-and-hardly-much-better stage of trying to copy the successes point for point, so your point about finding one’s own best approach particularly resonated–in fact, it qualifies as the “one thing I need to learn and implement now before doing any more learning.” (If I could get paid for learning alone I’m sure it would be my top career choice. …) I’m very visually oriented and on the shy side, so I’m focusing heavily on effective networking and referral hunting from people I already know–and on choosing networking events (online and off) for their relevance to my preferred health/human services niche, or for their communications and referral trading foci. And I think that social media is the best invention in decades for those of us who would rather be shot than make 20 cold calls a day by phone!–however well that worked for Peter Bowerman; I remember I interviewed him a couple of years ago and he said he’ll still take phone over email any day. To each their own path.

  20. Hi Carol

    Before becoming a copywriter, I was mainly a proofreader and copy-editor. Yet roughly half of all the work I was being sent was meaningless dross. So when I got the chance to write for one of my clients I grabbed it with both hands.

    But what I soon began to realise was that your success as a writer had far less to do with the quality of your writing and far more to do with the quality and quantity of your marketing.

    I also totally agree that learning new skills is essential. But much as I’ve learned loads from eBooks and blogs such as yours, I’ve learned just as much while actually doing the job.

    If a client, for example, asks you whether you’re any good at landing page optimisation then (as long as you know you’ll be up to it) then just say yes.

    You then just research like mad when you get the job. You’ll often find the self-proclaimed expert in landing page optimisation (or whatever else) knows less than you do by the time you’ve finished.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Ha! I’ve done this more than a few times, simply nodded my head and said, “Sure!” when I was asked to do things like write a recruiting package for nurses, or ghost-blog for a CEO (in 2005). And then figure it out. Now that we have the Internet, my joke is give me a day and I’ll *be* your expert.

      • I have a similar line. When clients say, “do you have experience working with ,” I always say, “A big part of being a good writer is being a good researcher, so once we get started I’ll dig in and learn as much as I can.”

        I’ve yet to have a client criticize work on the basis of not knowing the industry well enough. The same usually implies to doing a different format or type of writing.

    • Now this sounds like me. I know I can do the job, I just don’t know how to ‘yet’. Of course I don’t tell that to my clients, just inside my head ๐Ÿ™‚ . You can be an expert in almost anything if you have the guts and know how to research thoroughly and effectively.

      I totally agree with Kevin. No matter how much background knowledge we have, we learn just as much-if not more-while actually doing the job.

      And I love your saying Carol, “Give me a day and Iโ€™ll *be* your expert.”

      After all, life is all about learning, isn’t it?

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