20 Tips for Freelance Writers

By Mark Nichol

Whether you’re moonlighting as a writer or it’s your sole source of income, you must take it seriously in all aspects, from workplace organization to work habits to professional development to marketing to client relations. Here’s some advice about succeeding as a professional writer:

1. Establish a professional work environment. Even if you don’t have a dedicated home office, set up your workspace to maximize your comfort and productivity, with equipment, supplies, and reference works well organized and handy. Impress on family and friends the importance of respecting your space and your time. (Working at home is a much more familiar concept than it used to be, but some people still don’t consider freelancing a real job).

2. Research reasonable compensation for your particular market niche or for the media in which you want to be published, and ask for it. If you’re just starting out, negotiate at the low end of the range. When you’ve reached a certain level of success, expect high-end compensation. Don’t waste your time on projects that pay little or nothing unless the topic or the client has some special meaning for you. Accepting meager pay depresses the freelance industry. But be realistic about your monetary worth in a highly competitive business.

3. Educate yourself about marketing, negotiation, and general communication skills to help build confidence when it comes time to submitting queries, discussing compensation, and corresponding during and between projects.

4. Develop the discipline to do the hardest or least pleasant tasks first and save the best for last. You may have a hard time getting started each day, but you’ll be glad you got the difficult work out of the way, and the day will only get better.

5. If you devote a certain amount of time to working each day but you temporarily have too little work to fill it, spend the rest of the time researching your next clients or projects and writing and submitting queries.

6. Treat all your correspondence as if it were an assignment: Write impeccably, with no content or factual errors. Double-check personal names, job titles, and company names before you type them.

7. Keep meticulous records when tracking submissions and responses, scheduling assignment timelines, and updating contact information.

8. Advertise using strategies old and new, from flyers and newspaper ads to online marketing and your own professional Web site. But don’t wait for work to come to you. In addition to researching national or international companies, organizations, and publications you’d like to write for, investigate local opportunities such as community-based nonprofit organizations.

9. Build relationships with other freelance writers. Establish client-exchange agreements: If you’re too busy to accept a project, you’ll recommend someone else; in return, they’ll do the same for you. Don’t treat colleagues as an enemy you have to keep client contacts or trade secrets from.

10. Join professional organizations and attend workshop and conferences when you can. Research the writing business, and keep up on emerging opportunities and trends.

11. Don’t miss deadlines. Don’t miss deadlines. Don’t miss deadlines. Did I mention that you shouldn’t miss deadlines?

12. If you’re going to miss a deadline, let your client know as soon as possible. Don’t offer a reason, don’t make excuses, don’t ask for forgiveness. Simply request the shortest possible extension you can manage, promise that the project will be in your client’s email in-box or on their desk first thing in the morning on the new deadline date, and deliver on that promise. When you submit the project, ask for a chance to redeem yourself — a new project you will complete for a reduced or waived fee — and get it in early.

13. Expect — and accept — revisions, formatting alterations, scheduling changes, and anything else you can imagine (and some things you can’t). If you can’t be flexible about such things, you’re in the wrong line of work.

14. Be firm and insistent about being paid on time. Clients may assume that your freelance work is a sideline, not the way you make a living, and may not appreciate the importance of paying you punctually. Correct this misapprehension in no uncertain terms. If the issue strains your working relationship, that’s a sign that a relationship with this client is not a good investment of your time and energy.

15. Ask satisfied clients to serve as references or write brief referral notes. Keep reference contact information and referrals in a single Microsoft Word document so you can copy and paste them into a new document or into the body of an email to a client as needed.

16. Once you’ve developed a successful track record, consider presenting yourself as an authority on freelance writing. (If you’re successful, you must be doing it right.) Look for opportunities to speak about your work before community groups, teach classes and workshops, and write about the business of writing. These activities will look good on your resume and may result in acquisition of new clients.

17. Prioritize your clients: When you find projects that are engaging and rewarding, knock yourself out keeping that client happy. If another client asks for numerous rewrites, is always slow in responding, or won’t give you a “raise” after several projects or when you decide to raise your rates for cost-of-living increases, jettison that client to make room for a better relationship. Keeping that client in hopes that things will get better is a counterproductive strain on your business.

18. Communicate with your clients: If you’re unsure about assignment procedures, restate them in reply in your own words and ask for confirmation that you understand directions. Help clients understand their own work: Some companies and organizations assign project management to people with insufficient aptitude or time for managing projects successfully. Tactfully suggest more efficient procedures or more effective design, presentation, or organization, regardless of the person’s apparent level of expertise.

19. Ask what else you can do to help with the project. Does the client need a source list for fact-checking? Would they like a sidebar, or links to pertinent Web sites? Are they unsure about whether to present the product as a brochure or a newsletter, or how many parts to divide it into? Clients have problems. Offer to solve them — or, at the very least, help this project go smoothly as much as possible so that they can attend to problem projects.

20. Do everything in your power to build an association in clients’ minds between you and successful, high-quality projects. Think of, and market, yourself as a problem solver. Build a relationship so that when clients need help, they think of you.

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5 Responses to “20 Tips for Freelance Writers”

  • Krissy Brady, Writer

    These are great tips, thanks so much! I will definitely be printing these out for my future reference as I start building my freelance portfolio. 🙂

  • Rebecca

    Good points! Don’t work without a contract. Get everything in writing and know what is expected of you and vice versa.

  • Mark Nichol

    Rebecca:

    Good point — to a point. Generally, corporations will insist on a contract. If you work with individuals, you may want to document the conditions of your agreement. But sometimes you just go with it. I don’t have a contract for writing these posts, but I trust the publisher to maintain a professionally managed relationship with me because it’s in his best interests. (On top of that, of course, he’s a stalwart gentleman of unimpeachable moral character.)

  • Jarvis

    Good tip on creating a nest for your work. It’s an unusual, make it your own kind of business, but I agree you need to make a nest to keep your image right.

  • Dina Jacob

    Thank you, Mark!
    These are great tips! Freelancing is hard and the initial months can be real tough. Tour article addresses that. In other words, it helped!

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