Advice to help you kick off your career as a freelance writer like a pro
After working in book publishing for a couple of years and then in marketing for a few years, I sort of stumbled into being a freelance writer and editor. At some point, it simply became apparent that it made the most sense for what I wanted out of life. When I first took the plunge down this path, I found myself learning something nearly every day about how to be more successful in my new career.
To save you the trouble, I’ve rounded up some of the best pieces of advice I’ve learned from my experience, research, and friends in the industry.
Here are the seven things I wish I would’ve known when I first entered the world of freelance writing:
1. Don’t be afraid to negotiate your contracts.
When I landed my first successful pitch, I was too excited at the opportunity to get that byline to think much about whether the contract was “fair” or whether I might want some of the clauses edited or even taken out. Sure, I read every single word before signing, but it honestly never even crossed my mind that I could negotiate the terms to my benefit.
As a freelancer, you are not only running your own business, you essentially become all departments of that business (especially when starting out). This means that you are your own legal team—and if you don’t advocate for yourself, no one else will.
Some contract points in particular that you should take a closer look at include payment terms, insurance, and copyright.
For example, you might want to add a clause stipulating you can charge a late fee if an invoice isn’t paid on time. Or maybe the contract requires you have general liability insurance, but it’s an unreasonable (and/or financially burdensome) request for the type of work you’re doing. With copyright, the contract might ask for all rights of your work but you’d prefer limited or first rights to protect your future writing.
If you’re not comfortable reviewing your own contracts, consider joining The Authors Guild, which offers contract review and assistance for members.
2. Always consider your hourly rate.
With writing, you may have some projects that charge per word, per hour, per page, or per project. It can easily become overwhelmingly trying to figure out what rate to quote a prospective client and what way to charge is most advantageous to you.
The dilemma will come up again and again: You don’t want to sell yourself short, but you also don’t want to lose the gig by asking for “too much.” This struggle is especially true if you’re new and hungry to get some work under your belt.
The key is to always keep the hourly rate you want to make in mind.
For example, you may get an assignment that pays $0.10/word, but because of your expertise in the topic, it doesn’t take you long at all to write and you end up making $50/hour. On the flip side, you may get an assignment that pays $0.25/word but requires so much interviewing, researching, and/or editing that it comes out to $20/hour in the end.
Estimating how a per word, project, or page rate translates into an hourly rate will help you decide which projects make financial sense for you.
Side note: If you want a general idea of average rates, the Editorial Freelancers Association offers a helpful rough guideline.
3. Track your time to better understand your rate.
And speaking of the value of your time…
No matter how many questions you ask about things like the amount of research involved and rounds of edits required, you’ll never really know exactly how long something will take you until you get in there and start doing the work.
As you start picking up assignments or doing personal writing to build up your portfolio, make it a habit to track how much time you’re spending on each piece. That way, when a similar assignment comes up, you’ll have a much better idea of how long something takes so you can give a more accurate quote in line with how much you want to make per hour.
Even if you’re no longer a newbie to freelance writing, tracking your time can be helpful for when you branch into a new niche or a new form of writing (like moving into journalism from copywriting or vice versa).
I like using Toggl to track my time.
4. Create an invoice system to manage your finances.
As you’re busy developing your writing career, the last thing you may want to think about is finances and taxes. Alas, it’s just another one of those hats you’re forced to wear when running a freelance business.
Save yourself the trouble and start early with an organized invoice system. This could mean keeping detailed Excel sheets and Google Drive folders of invoice PDFs, or it could mean investing in a system like FreshBooks.
When you have all your invoices in order, you’ll be able to easily see things like how much money you have coming in each month (crucial when budgeting for your living costs) and which client is late on a payment and needs a follow-up.
Then, when it comes time to do your taxes, you’ll have everything ready to go with how much you made and from who, all neatly organized.
For those working in the U.S., even if you’re not making enough from a single client to be issued a 1099, you’ll still need to report your earned income to the IRS. With an invoice system in place, you won’t have to become a bundle of stress, digging furiously through emails and files trying to figure out where your income came from over the year.
5. Save PDFs of your writing clips immediately.
It’s important to have clips of your work to reel in future clients and to include in your pitch emails. Links to your pieces published online are great, but what if that website suddenly shudders and you no longer have proof of that byline you worked so hard to get?
It may seem like things on the internet live forever, but don’t rely on that when it comes to your writing.
As soon as your work is published online, save it as PDF.
An easy way to save a PDF of something on the web is to go to “File” in your browser menu, click “Print,” and then click “Save as PDF” where it has the different printer names listed.
I’ve heard of other writers who thought about doing this too late and were either left spending hours trying to save everything they’ve written before it was lost in a website takeover, or forced to accept the fact that their work was gone when a website shut down.
6. Sign up for freelance newsletters.
Freelancing is all about the hustle. One of your biggest problems as a new freelance writer may be trying to figure out where to get clients. Enter freelance newsletters to the rescue!
Thanks to the generous effort of their creators, freelance newsletters share calls for pitches, job openings, and professional advice to help you grow your career. Some are free and some you have to pay for, but even the ones that cost money can be worth it when you think about the potential earnings from the gigs you score through them.
7. Use social media to your advantage.
Even if you’re not a social media whiz, platforms like Facebook and Twitter can be invaluable resources as you look for professional opportunities and guidance.
For starters, look into Facebook groups related to the type of writing you do (content writing, travel writing, etc.) as well as your location (“[city name] freelance writers” or “writers in [city name]”). You could also look into groups aimed at digital nomads or freelancers in general.
I don’t know how I would’ve successfully transitioned into full-time freelance writing without the advice and gigs I’ve discovered in my many Facebook groups.
With Twitter, you don’t need to have 1,000+ followers or be tweeting all hours of the day to get something out of the platform.
Start following all the editors of your favorite publications and the dream publications you hope to be published in one day. Editors often post calls for pitches with specific notes on what types of pieces they’re looking for at that moment.
If you’re unsure of where to find relevant profiles, you can do a quick Google search for “editor + [publication name] + twitter.”
I hope these tips I’ve learned over my years of freelancing help you as you pursue your own freelance writing career.
Happy writing and happy hustling.