Freelance 101

By Caitlin Kelly

The reason I’m in Tucson for the moment is that my husband helps teach a two-week workshop called The New York Times Student Journalism Institute, offered twice a year to Hispanic and African-American students and recent graduates. Participants win two weeks mentoring one-on-one, while reporting stories here, with Times staff. (The other program is offered in New Orleans.)

All expenses paid, plus a stipend.

Oh, and your work may end up in the Times. Pretty amazing opportunity!

English: The New York Times building in New Yo...
English: The New York Times building in New York, NY across from the Port Authority. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I spoke to the students about how to freelance, several of  whom had already begun to do it, and one lesson I shared is that you join a small community of people (even internationally) if you stay in the industry — one of the editors here was my city editor in 2006 at the New York Daily News — who I hadn’t seen since then.

I went hiking here with a woman I’d never met before, who moved to New York from the Seattle newspaper, and she is close friends with someone there I met on a fellowship in Maryland about 15 years ago.

Like that!

This is the hand-out I gave them:

ABC: Always be Closing. Successful full-time freelancers spend a great deal of their time – sometimes the majority of it marketing their work and skills to potential clients, whether corporate, small business, non-profit, academic or journalism. You must be setting up or closing sales almost every day to insure a continuous and unbroken revenue stream. It’s a fact of life – no sooner do you have a great relationship established with a well-paid client than they move to a different position or company and you have start all over again. Or their budget is cut.

 Remember the 80/20 rule – 80 percent of your business will probably come from 20 percent of your clients. Consider every first-time assignment a combination of audition and job interview. Knock their socks off! Meet your word count, deliver clean, accurate copy early and you’ll make a great impression. Unless (which happens) your client is a total PITA, you’ll want repeat business from them. So much easier than finding a new one, and another!

 What are your monthly living costs? Now add 20 to 30 percent above that, at least, for short and long-term savings, your 15% payment to Social Security and your own retirement funds.

As a freelancer, you must know to the penny what you have, what you owe, who owes you what and when, the APRs on your credit cards and loans (and how to negotiate lower ones), and your FICO score. Payments often arrive later than you expect or need – how will you cover that shortfall?

Who will you be working for? There are many places to find freelance assignments: local, regional, national and international newspapers, magazines and websites and trade publications, in addition to corporate, small business, non-profit and academic clients. What rights are they demanding to your work? Can you re-sell it? How soon?

How will you find clients? Create a great website with clips, resume, your phone numbers, email address, Twitter handle. Use social media. Attend writers’ conferences like Neiman and ASJA to meet and start networking with other writers; referrals will become your best source of qualified leads. Update your LinkedIn profile regularly.

Do you have a specialty? It might be sports, science, environment, politics, culture, immigration, women’s issues, business, medicine, technology. It helps when pitching, but don’t feel you have to pigeonhole yourself either.

It’s all on you! The fun (and terror) of working freelance means you’re all on your own. No one sets your hours or schedule. It’s all up to you to find and manage every client, invoice, track payments, pay taxes, claim deductions, do your own training and development, and maybe find and hire and manage an assistant. Keep very close tally of all your income and expenses.

 Ideas are everywhere – which markets are the best for each? The best stories have multiple angles making them saleable to a variety of editors: trade, consumer, websites. The same story could be a profile, business piece, trend story, regional item – or all of these.

 Learn the lingo: FOB, LOI, WMFH, POP, etc.

The FOB, for example, is the front of the book – those small, short items that often make it easier to break into a big national magazine. An LOI is a letter of introduction, in which you reach out to a new editor and ask for work. WMFH is a work made for hire – they own all rights to it forever, and POP is pay on publication, not a great idea!

Four useful websites – general tips on the business of freelancing (and her book) – Linda Formichelli also offers regular motivational tips by email — $99/year gains you access to online forums to talk with other writers and information about new markets (and her book) – Kelly James-Enger offers smart, helpful, practical tips like TEA: Thank, Explain, Ask when trying to bump up your fees. I tried it – it worked! – The American Society of Journalists and Authors. Their annual conference, held at the end of April in Manhattan, offers a reduced student admission. Great place to meet editors, agents and fellow writers.

Anything you’d like to know about what it’s like to freelance full-time for a living?

14 thoughts on “Freelance 101

  1. Thank you for the tips! I’m a medical writer and have been swallowed by my youngest daughter’s illness and to be honest, it feels like I don’t know where to start anymore. I’ve been spending the last two years trying to convince doctors of her condition which has finally most recently been diagnosed. Perhaps now, I can get on with my life (or our lives as I’m a single mother). Although I know we shouldn’t put all of our eggs in the same basket it seems like I couldn’t do otherwise during that difficult period of time – at times it felt like I was going out of my mind.

    You have amazing pieces of advice and it may be just what I needed to get going again – and by the way, I’m going to read that book of yours – just need a few minutes here to pull out my credit card!

    Happy to be reading and following you!

    1. So sorry to hear about your daughter! That must have been exhausting…when doctors don’t listen or help, it’s crazy-making.

      The websites I listed are super-helpful, so they will offer a lot of of excellent ongoing advice and tips, one of which I recently used to negotiate a raise from one of my editors.

      Thanks for buying the book! 🙂

    1. Maybe? I was awake, briefly, at 4am my time but the time that posts go live are not when I write them but post them…also we are in two totally different time zones, and likely days.

      Who knows?!

  2. Great advice, as always. I’ve freelanced since 1979 (as an illustrator) and now a bit of writing. Illustration, like publishing and photography and so many other creative professional fields got upended w/technology boom and the economy nosedive, and I’m still smarting but getting used to it. I have a lot of ideas of what I want to do creatively but need to sit down with a plan. Follow it thru. Several of them.

  3. Great advice, as always. For me, always providing perfect copy by the deadline is the key, and maintaining relationships by being both professional and friendly.

    One thing, however, that interests me that in the US it seems there is still a viable market for freelancers. In Australia, the market has always been small, but it seems to be getting smaller, and the payment is also getting to smaller, to the point that it’s unlikely to be a viable career. In fact, there’s a dominant discussion going on at the moment that writers are now expecting to give their work away for free and get their income from another source. Whilst I love the freelancing side of my writing practice – being primarily a fiction writer I try to build my audience by writing for the mainstream press – the vast majority of income comes from other sources.

    1. I know that it is much more challenging now than it was, for me and many others, abut five or six years ago…pre-recession, pre-Internet takeover of eyeballs and ad dollars once the province of magazines and newspapers. I could work myself into a hospital bed (again) in order to achieve the income I made easily in 2000…which is depressing. So I have (unhappily) resigned myself to trimmed sails and a lower income until or unless I am able to add other revenue streams — corporate or agency work, more paid speaking gigs, maybe another book advance or a fellowship.

      I know people can make $100K a year from freelance still, but there are not many who command top prices and have a steady stream of well-paying clients.

  4. Pingback: The Voice of Experience | a beautiful LIFE

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