Secrets of Successful Freelance Writers – Part 1 of 2

antique typist photoSo, you wanna be a freelance writer. You want to work from home, make money writing, build a business in your pajamas. You can write, but do you know – really know – what it takes to succeed as a freelance writer?

I’ve been freelancing for more than five years. It was something I’d always thought about, but was afraid to try until I found myself facing divorce and single motherhood. Adversity has a way of helping us find courage we didn’t know we had. Happily, in addition to my courage, I also discovered a few serendipitous connections that helped me get set up with a couple long-term contracts.

For the first eighteen months, I wasn’t writing. I was a freelance project manager who helped web development companies herd their proverbial cats. I handled budgets and schedules, corralled various resources, and managed client expectations. I wrote a lot of meeting notes and a lot of emails, but nothing more creative than that.

Then, a year-and-a-half into my freelance journey, I got my first chance at a writing project. One of my clients needed some web copy written. When he asked if I knew anyone we could hire for the project, I offered up my own services. I had no idea what I was doing. I had no samples to show. I did, however, have the trust of my client. They gave me the shot and I never looked back. About six months later, I had enough experience under my belt to confidently call myself a “freelance writer.” Six months after that, I joyfully turned down a project management gig saying, “I don’t do that any more.”

Over the course of my adventures in the land of freelancing, I have learned many things. I have been hired for a wide variety of writing jobs: professional blogger, ghost blogger, marketing writer. I have written all kinds of content: essays, website copy, emails, newsletters, corporate ebooks, case studies, award submissions, brand identities, messaging frameworks, and more. I wear a lot of hats, but no matter what role I’m in or which kind of content I’m working on, there are seven “secrets” that have consistently contributed to my success:

Learn where to find work.

When you’re first starting out, it’s tempting to take jobs that you find on sites like Craig’s List or oDesk. While I’m sure there are some viable gigs that you can find through these sources, my personal experience was depressing – the quality of the clients was low, the pay was low, my chances of landing the job against the many other applicants were low.

Instead of searching these sites as a stranger in a strange land, think about how you can use your personal and business networks to make connections with potential clients. Your chances of getting an introduction to the right person are much higher when you have a personal contact. Your chances of getting stiffed are much lower (assuming your friends aren’t jerks).

Don’t overlook the value of the relationships you already have.

ACTION ITEMS:

  • Make a list of all your contacts and make a commitment to reach out to a few of them each day. Share what you’re doing and ask them to let you know of any opportunities that come up.
  • One site that I did find helpful in the early years was Freelance Writing Jobs. Though I didn’t ever land a job through the site, perusing the daily job postings was a great way to begin getting a feel for what types of jobs were out there and even what people were paying for certain types of writing.

Learn to price projects properly.

One of the most common pitfalls awaiting new freelancers is inaccurate pricing. You land a new project, but you’re not sure what to charge. You end up throwing out a number that winds up being way off the mark. End result: you work your tail off, but your profits dwindle away to peanuts.

Knowing what to charge comes from experience. You need to know the market value of the work you’re doing as well as how long it will take you to do the work. When you’re just starting out, there are all kinds of unforeseen tasks that will eat away at your budgeted time like Uncle Ned at a Las Vegas all-you-can-eat buffet.

ACTION ITEMS:

  • Do some online research by searching phrases like “freelance writing rates” to see what kinds of pricing resources are out there.
  • Make a list of all the tasks that go into a writing project: client intake, administration, research, writing, review meetings, revisions, formatting, editing. Create a template in Excel that you can use to help you price out projects.

Learn to be a project manager.

A project manager is the person in charge of creating and managing project plans, budgets, schedules, and resources. It’s an unglamorous role, but an important one. When you can handle these details, you take a great deal of responsibility off your client’s shoulders – you make her job easier. (That is a good thing.)

In addition to accurately estimating your time (and the associated cost) on a project, learn to create a basic project schedule for your clients. Handle all the documentation tasks associated with a project: creating a scope of work (a topic which deserves a post of its own), capturing meeting notes, sending reminders about next steps and deadlines.

By helping to keep the team on track and on time, you will become a more valuable asset.

ACTION ITEMS:

  • Think through the basic steps of a project and create a simple project calendar or schedule that you can provide for each of your projects.
  • Get in the habit of providing clear, consistent communications (most usually in email) so you can help everyone stay on track.

These simple practices have played a big part in my success. They have kept my clients so happy that they don’t just come back for more, they refer their friends to me. I’ve seen these same principles at work in the successful writing businesses of my colleagues as well. Although creativity and writing excellence are important, you might be surprised at how qualities like responsiveness and reliability can influence your prospects.

Next time, we’ll cover four more secrets of successful freelance writers. Until then, what methods and tactics have you seen work well? How do you build your successful business?

Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of voice and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

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Image Credit: Jan Willemsen

49 thoughts on “Secrets of Successful Freelance Writers – Part 1 of 2

  1. Thank you Jamie. Excellent information. I have a day job as a technical writer but have often thought of going freelance. Recently I started looking into this seriously, and I am pleased to tell you that I already follow all your recommendations, but it is good to have the validation from someone already doing it. I would add LinkedIn as a valuable resource for networking. Not only can you connect with people, but with companies and groups as well. I also created an online portfolio (www.amandajwood.com) using Portfolio Box, but there are others out there, including of course using WordPress to showcase your work. It was a great way for me to examine the work I have done over the years and organize it into a format that might generate work in the future.

    • Hello, Amanda.
      Sounds like you’re off to a great start!
      I may do another series on the tools and tactics of successful freelance writers. You’re right that LinkedIn and a website are both important tools. Thanks for the additions!

  2. Thank you Jamie although I write for pleasure about My travel through The Black roads of France it is great to know I have Options to become a Free lance writer.

  3. I strongly believe in communication being a key – keeping everyone in the loop and apprised of status goes a long way to building long-term relationships with clients — They need to feel they can bring up ideas/issues/suggestions and be heard. Meeting deadlines is huge, and I work to beat deadlines and give a little extra than what they are expecting, too. Everyone likes a little extra somethin’. 🙂

    • Clear, consistent communication IS key, Lisa! As a “recovering” project manager, I have a LONG history of staying on top of all the details and making sure everyone else was right there with me. In my previous agency life, I was known as the “Email Queen.” (It was usually a compliment … usually.) 😉

      And – yes! – a little something extra is great … that’s coming up in part 2.

  4. Hi Jamie,
    Your ideas and pointers are great! I am also a freelance writer, editor, and online course developer/instructor. Notice the long list? I was frustrated by the low pay in many of the writing gigs and decided to divide my career into three sections: teaching/course design, writing, and contract work. I’ve been approaching my freelance life this way for the past year and it is working much better. I guess my point is that sometimes it’s helpful to think about using writing in different categories of work as a freelancer. Writing is a part of everything I do in my career, and I am able to stay afloat much better when I diversify.

    • I LOVE the idea of exploring all the different ways that writers can use their craft to earn a living. There are so many applications of writing skill that we never think of until we see someone else doing it. I admire the diversity of your career. I have a few thoughts of my own around how I can expand my “play space” to include some new kinds of projects. I’m excited about it … just need to find the time to get them up and running!

      Thanks for the inspiration.

  5. Hi Jamie,
    How is being a Project Manager different from being an Administrative Assistant, Clerical Assistant or Secretary? They all seem to have very similar responsibilities regarding attention to detail and communication skills.

    • Hi, Erin.
      A project manager (PM) typically plays a leadership role vs. a support role. She drives the project vs. just helping to manage it. In some circles (like the agency I used to work for) PMs are called “producers.”

      When you are running your own freelance business, it’s more appropriate to think of yourself in the PM role than a clerical or administrative role. Though you will still need to perform administrative tasks, it’s more important that you get into the mindset of someone who is truly managing and driving projects instead of just documenting them.

      Ultimately, you want to get yourself into a position where you can delegate the clerical/admin tasks to another resource (such as a virtual assistant or “VA”). I’ve come “this” close to making that jump myself, but keep falling just short. Soon, though … soon.

      I hope that helps explain the difference!

  6. Pingback: Secrets of Successful Freelance Writers – Part 1 of 2 | Aquí también, "nosotros los pueblos"

  7. Jamie, this is so helpful! I am in a situation now where I’m not able to quite freelance full time but I am certainly looking to go that way. However, I have no idea where to even start. Thank you for such useful advice 🙂

    • So glad you found it helpful. Freelancing is an adventure, to be sure, but I would do it again in a heartbeat. Good luck on your journey!

  8. Thank you for sharing this!
    It has been a goal of mine for quite sometime. I’ve had to leave the office due to some health issues and was suddenly in a position where I could no longer do what I’ve always done for work. It’s hard to start new and harder to find work doing it!

    • Starting out IS hard, Elizabeth. Networking was key for me. We often overlook the connections we already have, when they can offer us valuable footholds.
      I’m sorry to hear about your health issues and wish you luck with your new ventures.

    • So happy to help, Mimi.
      Too many writers hold back because they think that only “writing perfection” (as if there were such a thing) is the only valid service to offer. The truth is that most clients would be tickled pink to find a writer they can rely on. The project management piece is often undervalued, but so attractive to clients.

      Good luck with whatever path you choose & thanks for being here!

    • Ok, first of all, I love your “handle” (do they still call it that, or am I dating myself?). Wonderful.

      Second – YES! Referrals are an important sign that you’re doing things right. It always feels SO good when someone feels confident enough in my abilities that they pass my name along with their seal of approval.

      TKS for stopping by, “mouse.”
      🙂

  9. Great info, and very inspiring for someone like me. I freelance, but I don’t know enough to go out and find work (plus, I”m quite introverted). I wait for jobs to come to me, which of course, isn’t the most effective way to run a business! Your tips will come in handy as I gather the courage to become a full-blown freelancer. Thanks!

    • I’m so glad you found the post useful and inspiring.
      Have you googled “introvert freelancer” …?
      You might be surprised at the number of resources. I have several friends who consider themselves introverts and who are also successful freelancers.

      Don’t give up!
      🙂

  10. Un travail de longue haleine mais qui vont la peine d’être pris au sérieux. Je prends note de tous ces conseils. Je suis dans ces recherches maintenant pour me lancer dans des projets similaires. J’ai présentement quelques petits emplois qui soit dit en passant très minime au niveau du revenu. Mais, je m’encourage à me disant que je tente ma chance pour avoir une chance de me faire connaître auprès d’employeurs potentiels.
    Ce blog m’est d’une grande utilité. Intéressant dans l’ensemble et très constructif. merci

    • Je vous remercie d’être venu par et pour vos commentaires. Je suis désolé de ce qui est probablement une traduction faible (via Google).

      Je vous souhaite bonne chance dans vos nouvelles aventures. Il ya de nombreux défis à relever, mais dans mon expérience, ils en valent la peine.

  11. Yet another excellent post. So true about the project management. I imagine lots of writers think they can skip over that part. They put the majority of their focus on landing gigs and making money, but in the long run it’s better to build business slowly and correctly. Writing is a creative endeavor but it’s also serious business. If you want to build a good rep, you have to be able to successfully manage it or you’ll be overwhelmed in no time. It’s more complicated than just saying “I’m going to be a freelancer.” It takes tremendous stamina and well-organized planning.
    Staying the course, shifting, flexing, etc. In it for the long haul.

    • Well said, Laura.
      Writers who mistakenly assume that all they need are great writing skills will, unfortunately, have to learn a hard lesson. The ability to write well is important, but it’s definitely not the whole battle. Reputation is built on much more than your portfolio. It’s built on what it’s like to work with you. 90% of my business is repeat or referral. If I wasn’t managing things well, that business would never come my way.

      Stay the course. Yep. 😉
      Thanks for coming by. Always feels friendlier when you’re here.

      • All these great posts have us regulars stopping by! Thanks Jamie!
        Definitely always something to be learned at LTWWTL! Nothin’ shabby about this blog!

    • So glad you found it useful. There are so many things a writer can do in this world. I’m trying to share some of the less writerly skills that will apply no matter what type of projects you end up pursuing. Good luck!

  12. What about someone who has no experience at all in this field? Not even out of college yet. What kind of jobs can I hope to land? How do I go about finding them? I’m so lost…

    • There are lots of resources for writers. I would recommend searching through this blog’s archives and reading posts. The Live To Write home page archives covers topics relating to writing – for business, professional development, the writing process, etc. They will not ony give their professional opinions, but talk honestly and openly about their personal experiences as writers (and they all do something a little different too).
      Many of the posts contain links to helpful articles, websites, etc. for enhancing your knowledge and skills.

      I’m a regular follower here lpaigewrites and this blog is great because the people who respond to these posts are also inciteful and supportive.

      Highly recommend subscribing to this blog as a first step for finding your writerly way!

      Sometimes being lost is not such a bad thing after all…because you’ve stumbled into the write….um…right blog! 🙂

      • You’re a doll, Laura. xo So happy you feel that way about our little corner of the Web. That’s what it’s all about!

    • Hello & welcome! 🙂
      I sometimes wish I was in your shoes – back in college and thinking seriously about pursuing a writing career. I always wanted to write (started my first journal when I was seven years-old), but as I got older I lost my courage and wound up following the path of least resistance (which did not, as you can imagine, include carving out a life as a writer).

      My main advice to you is to explore as much as you can. Read blogs. Read books. Read trade magazines (Poets & Writers is my favorite). Learn about all the new roles writers have in this day and age. Learn about self publishing and how different writers and brands are using content to build businesses.

      Though I have been a writer my entire life, I was not a professional writer until seven years ago. I now make my living with words. I do not have a college degree. I do not have any special training or certifications. I learned by watching others and by reading everything I could get my hands on (blogs, ebooks, print books, etc.). One series that I recommend to writers just starting out is Peter Bowerman’s Well-Fed Writer series. You may want to check those out to start. I’d also encourage you to tune in hereon Saturdays when we share what we’re writing and reading elsewhere on the web. I usually include a list of my favorite blog posts from around the blogosphere.

      Hope that helps. Good luck on your adventure. Hope to see you here again soon! 🙂

  13. Pingback: Secrets of Successful Freelance Writers – Part 2 of 2 | Live to Write - Write to Live

  14. Great information in these articles, I started freelancing in the 90’s for a year or so, lots has changed since then, I relaunched as a freelance writer this year and I have found the most important key was effective planning. (Management)
    In January I was using my Writing Journal Notebook, Excel sheets and a new folder on my desktop.
    Before the end of the month I used a ‘Family Organiser’ calendar with 5 separate columns to plan work and deadlines.
    By February I had an action plan constantly updated and rreviewed on word. doc. That really helped me stop missing out on submissions.

  15. Excellent source of information and tips. I’ve been thinking of doing some freelance work, but the idea is a little intimidating, honestly. Thanks for this, though.

    • I know all about the intimidation factor, Jason.
      When I first started, I had no clips, no cred, and very little confidence. Looking back, I’m sometimes shocked that I ever managed to get a foothold, but all it really took was putting myself out there and being willing to ask questions and sometimes screw up. In the end, it all worked out.

      Good luck on your journey. Don’t forget to have some fun along the way!

  16. Hi Jamie,

    A bit of a late response – only just saw your blog. Think you’ve hit the nail on the head – very insightful., Been freelancing about six years – not quite a banker’s salary but manage to irk out a reasonable living.

    One thing to add – get an equilibrium between the months when you get a king’s salary and the leaner months. Things often average themselves out, but put enough in the account when you have ample projects to see you though when things thin out – albeit hopefully temporarily. That’s the nature of freelancing.

  17. Pingback: How to be a freelance writer – 5 tools for smart planning and time management: Part 1 | Live to Write - Write to Live

  18. Pingback: The Key to Surviving as a Freelance Writer | Live to Write - Write to Live

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