28 Dos and Don’ts of a Successful Freelance Writing Career

Bulletin board computer screenEveryone has to begin somewhere. Without taking the first step—whether it’s a success or a failure—you’ll never achieve any goal you set for yourself.

My first step was fearful and cautious, but unstoppable. There were also many missteps before I found a solid foothold. When I made a mistake, I backtracked a bit to catch my balance. Then I stepped out again, sometimes in a new direction, sometimes in the same direction but on a different route.

That path has led me to being able to say that I’m more successful today than I ever thought would be possible working for myself.

That’s because I learned to value myself, value my business and value my work as a service to help clients achieve their goals. If I didn’t realize my worth, I would have quit after the first mistake I made. There have been lots of mistakes since then, but I still move forward, learning lessons as I go.

That’s what I want to share with you—things I’ve (mostly) learned not to do, and what to do instead. Hopefully you can benefit from my trials and errors.

So, let’s get started.

Making the Leap

Don’t be afraid to ask questions. When I first started, I asked So. Many. Questions. I could string some sentences together well enough, but otherwise knew nothing. At all. Running a business, setting rates, finding clients, marketing—it was all new to me. I found a trustworthy group of writers who were kind enough to take me under their wings. (And I still ask lots of questions.)

Do research for yourself. Once, while working full-time in public relations, I received a phone call from someone who had just seen the business’s commercial on television. We were promoting an event and provided a number to call “for more information.” Would you believe that someone called me and said, “Can I have more information?” I had no idea what to say to her.

Moral of the story: While it’s perfectly OK to ask questions, make sure you have something specific in mind that you want to know. A little background research will let the other person know you’re willing to work and don’t just expect everything to be handed to you.

Don’t automatically choose the easy route. Sure, go after the low-hanging fruit if you don’t have published clips or if you’re just learning the basics of writing. But make sure it’s still fruit, not compost. Content-mill-type work that’s handed to you, along with the $1 paycheck, is not fruit.

Do spend time and effort to find the best markets for you. Researching markets is harder than signing up for some bidding site or content mill, but you’ll benefit in the long run. And you can still pick the low-hanging fruit like nonprofits or charities in the beginning. They might not pay well, but they’ll provide professional clips you can use to break into bigger markets later.

Don’t spread yourself too thin. When I first started, I had WAY too many marketing ideas bouncing around in my head. I wanted to try this, then that, now this other thing. I didn’t devote enough resources to any one marketing tactic to see whether it would work.

Do make a plan and stick with it. Focus on one thing. Do that thing enthusiastically for a month to see whether it will work. If it doesn’t, move to your next idea. But choose one, and work it until you’re certain it doesn’t work for you. When I finally chose one tactic and stuck with it, I finally started seeing results.

Don’t twiddle your thumbs waiting for replies. So you shared your business card at a networking event and sent an email introduction to an editor. Great! Now do it again. And again. And again. You could be waiting a long time to hear back from that potential client. Don’t let your work schedule hang in the balance.

Do remember to market regularly.To keep your schedule full and avoid the feast-or-famine cycle, set aside time for marketing. Keep plugging away at your favorite marketing tactic every day to keep the projects rolling in.

Knowing Your Worth

Don’t underestimate yourself. We’re always our own worst critics. If you feel insecure, get an honest appraisal of your writing ability. Ask a client for feedback, or get a coach to evaluate your work. You’ll discover you aren’t as bad as you thought.

Do charge what you’re worth. Writing well takes practice and work. Make sure you’re compensated accordingly. Not sure what to charge? Try this handy-dandy freelance project rate calculator to figure it out.

Don’t miss deadlines or turn in shoddy work. Not much to elaborate here. Just don’t do it. Even if it’s not a great paying client, you still accepted the assignment, so it’s your responsibility to do your best.

Do respect yourself and your clients. Submitting your best work not only reflects well on you and your business, it shows your clients that they’re important to you. That keeps them coming back.

Don’t take it personally. You won’t always see eye-to-eye with your clients. They might even disagree enough to fire you. Remember: It’s not you—it’s business. You aren’t a bad writer just because you weren’t a fit for that client.

Do learn from your mistakes. When (not if) you screw up, forgive yourself first, and then examine your error. Figure out what you did wrong, and resolve not to do it again. It’s not you, it’s business, so learn how to improve your business.

Learning and Growing

Don’t stagnate. No matter how much you know, you can always learn more.

Do grow professionally. To flourish as a writer, you must keep cultivating your craft. Whether you branch out into new areas or plant deeper roots in your own field of expertise, you have countless avenues for growth. (For a popular and free option, try Massive Open Online Courses aka MOOCs.)

Don’t believe everything you read. Bloggers and “gurus” have flooded the internet with advice about how to be a successful freelance writer. Some of it rocks—for every writer. Some of it works in particular situations. And some is flat-out bad advice. Learn to sort out what works in your situation.

Do follow the leaders. You can rely on some bloggers to provide excellent tips, lessons and guidance in every post. Find them, and follow them. And don’t just read these blogs—put the advice into action.

Don’t think sole proprietor has to mean “solo.” Even if you enjoy working alone, everyone needs to bounce ideas off others from time to time.

Do find a community. Whether you head to your local coffee shop, join a forum or seek out a writers group, find a place that feels right to you.

Running a Business

Don’t waste your entire day with time sucks. First word: Facebook. It’s a black hole that drags me in doing “Which Disney Character Are You?” quizzes and other nonsense. Second word: Wikipedia. Once when I started doing “research” for a story about space physicists, I resurfaced an hour later with a migraine somewhere on the hypothetical dark matter/string theory/dark energy bunny trail.

Do know where your time goes. Use a time tracker. I log interviews, email writing, brainstorming sessions, even invoice writing—every working minute—to the appropriate project, even if it’s not billable time. This method gives me a good sense of how I’m spending my working hours.

Don’t forget you’re an independent contractor. You aren’t an employee, so don’t act like one. As a contractor, you set your own hours, routines and working location. If you’re required to be available during business hours or work on-site, you lose the “independent” nature of being a contractor.

Do take advantage of your flexible work schedule as much as you’d like. You need to meet your deadlines with quality work. That’s your job. When and how you do it is up to you. If you like working within the buzz of a coffee shop, snag a seat by an electrical outlet. If you need inspiration from your cat, grab Fluffy and some kitty treats. If you work best in the wee hours of the morning, burn that midnight oil.

Don’t be shortsighted. Sometimes we get caught up in the thrill of a new client. Don’t let a prospect make you forget about your future, and don’t take on a crummy gig for a quick buck.

Do plan for the future. Remember that question, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” from your corporate days? That still applies now. You need to know where you want to go so you can figure out a plan to get there. You also must consider insurance, self-employment taxes, investments, retirement and more. Think beyond your next invoice.

Moving Forward

Don’t be too hard on yourself. Everyone makes mistakes. Some people (like me) even occasionally make the same mistake many, many times before getting it right. But 99.99999 percent of the time, your mistake isn’t going to destroy your business. Acknowledge the mistake, figure out how you can do better next time, and then next time, do better.

Do congratulate yourself on a job well done. Writers, like many artists, often struggle with perfectionism. We focus on failures, not feats. We brush off our byline and move on to the next thing. Instead, soak up your achievements. Relish praise from your clients. Name yourself Employee of the Month. Whatever it takes, remember to celebrate your successes.

What have you learned from your trials, errors and missteps throughout your freelance writing career?

I originally wrote this post as a guest on Words on the Page blog. Reposted with permission.

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