broadsideblog

The basics of freelancing

In behavior, blogging, books, business, education, journalism, Media, work on April 9, 2013 at 12:29 am
English: Traditional freelance writer work system.

English: Traditional freelance writer work system. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I get asked this question a lot: How do you make a living full-time freelance?

While this post may answer some of your questions, email me at caitlinvancouver@yahoo.com, hire me at my hourly consultation rate, and you can ask whatever detailed questions you like! Or show me copy, or queries, or whatever you need…

 There are five keystones to a successful freelance career:

1) Get really good at what you do

You might be a writer, artist, musician, hair-stylist. No matter how much you hate your current job, desperate to flee cube-world and commuting, until your skills are sufficient to attract and retain repeat clients in a highly competitive marketplace, you’re not ready for prime time. Do whatever’s necessary to get really good at your skill. If you’re a writer, read smart and helpful how-to books by veteran writers, like this one or this one; attend writers’ conferences, like this one on April 26 and 27th in New York City; take classes, like the online ones offered here.

After your skills are developed and you have multiple clips (samples) to prove it, you’re ready for the next step.

2) Find a network of editors or clients who want your copy

This is a lot of work and requires strategic thinking. If you have a specialty — science, kids, medicine, sports, business, food — it’s easier to target specific markets. Be prepared to be ignored, a lot. Your job, like any salesman, is to pre-qualify your leads; i.e. do they pay enough? Is their contract workable? Are they a PITA to work with? Do your re-con before you pitch to avoid disappointment at best, heartbreak and financial nightmares at worst.

 3) Produce great stuff so they want more

Seems pretty obvious. If your work is stellar, (100 percent accurate, properly-sourced, attributed, clean, well-written, intelligently-structured), your odds of repeat business increase. Always under-promise and over-deliver. Never even consider missing a deadline. As you gain confidence and skill, take on some assignments whose scope or prestige or pay rate scare you a little. Don’t risk disappointing your client, but you have to grow!

English: Bird's eye panorama of Manhattan & Ne...

English: Bird’s eye panorama of Manhattan & New York City in 1873. There’s plenty of clients down there! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

4) Get to know other writers (or fellow freelancers in your field)

If you’ve done steps 1-3, your name and reputation will begin to precede you, locally, regionally or even nationally. Join as many industry groups as possible, like this one, and this one, for writers, and sign up for as many volunteer positions as possible. Then show up with goods ideas and follow through; too many “volunteers” like to add a nice line to their resume — and don’t do jack.

This way people will get to know you personally, not just as some random photo on a website. I’ve learned far more about who’s really worth knowing through my many years serving on boards of writers’ groups than any conference or quick coffee with someone.

If you’re fortunate, some of your competitors will eventually decide to share some of their own contacts; we all occasionally get overwhelmed with too much work and not enough time, or fall ill, have family emergencies or take vacations and need to refer clients to someone we know will do a kick-ass job on our behalf.

The smartest freelancers who reach out to me for help, advice or a contact include several offers of their own contacts in that initial email. Of course I write them back right away. Who wouldn’t? Just because you need a lot of help doesn’t obligate anyone to give it to you!

The fourth step, referrals to good clients, only comes after people know you are consistently ethical, smart, reliable and generous. That means plenty of number three. People talk; make sure what they have to say about you is what you’re hoping for.

5) Repeat

The job of marketing never, ever stops. Your clients’ needs change all the time as gatekeepers and decision-makers get hired, fired, promoted or demoted. Their budgets may bloom, or wither or disappear altogether. Be sure to make nice to some smart, ambitious young ‘uns, even if they’re your kids’ age. They’re probably the ones signing the checks, if not now, in a few years.

Don’t believe me?

Here’s best-selling business guru/author Seth Godin, from his daily blog:

Brand, Permission and Expertise…

In just three words, there’s the huge chasm between the trusted, experienced freelancer, the one you’re happy to hear from when she has a new idea, and the newbie or the short-term maximizer. Those guys have to start from scratch, each and every time.

Think about the individual, the entrepreneur or the small organization that has built up trust with a given market, that has permission to talk to that market and that has the expertise to execute on what it promises… Once you have those three, you call the shots. If, on the other hand, you’re merely a hard-working employee, doing what you’re told, you’re never going to get what your effort ought to produce.

  1. These tips could apply to all writers in general–even very famous ones working with publishers.

  2. Reblogged this on TBW.

  3. Excellent post! The point of producing great stuff so that they want more seems like common sense, but it’s incredible how many people don’t follow that rule. It should always be quality over quantity.

    Thanks very much for linking back to my blog post on submitting proposals, also.

    Kind Regards

    Rebecca

    • No problem.

      Maybe it’s generational? They figure once they’ve got the gig, it’s done. Hardly. In journalism, at least, editors can kill a piece and cost you a lot of income and publishers are able to refuse an entire book manuscript as “unpublishable.”

  4. I would love to be a freelance writer, or just a paid writer. This is all I want actually, other than the good health to see me through to the day when it becomes a reality. Thanks for the great information, clear instructions and encouraging words (here and on RB).

    • It can be really enjoyable to make money writing. But it really depends how little (or much) income you really need to live on (and save for retirement) as to whether it’s sustainable. It’s no fun at all when you are constantly worried about whether or not you can pay your bills — and many freelancers are not making $$$$$$, but $30-50,000 a year at most.

  5. Great tips. I like the reminder of, “Always under-promise and over-deliver.” It’s great exceeding expectations.

  6. Reblogged this on My Golden Book and commented:
    Nice article

  7. These days, “get a massive social media following and the as many likes as possible” seems to do the trick too *wry grin* The number of photographers out there being sponsored by large companies solely for their social media popularity, despite the quality of their output, is actually kind of depressing. Knowing/getting good at your craft is almost optional these days as long as you can talk cute tech.

    (Ok I’m being ornery here)

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