Freelancing: Tips from an insider
Due to some unfortunate circumstances, some of my very close friends and colleagues are now (at least, for the time being) experiencing the freelance life (#FREELANCELIFE).
Naturally, I'm thrilled about this. Not about the circumstances, but about the freelance life in general. So I thought I'd throw together some quick and dirty tips for my favorite people, as well as anyone else who wants to be awesome.
First things first -- why should you listen to me. Well, I've been a freelancer for a little over four years now, and I. Love. It.
Au contraire to what my mother, and the rest of the world, probably believes, I am a freelancer completely by choice -- several companies have tried to hire me (some, multiple times), but NOPE. FREELANCE FOREVER.
Also, because it's my full-time job, I like to think I make a decent living. I won't get into hard numbers here, but let's just say I make (a lot) more than anyone has ever offered me for a "real" job.
So, what are the secrets of (my) success?
1. Freelance writing is a business. Treat it as such.
I know a lot of freelance writers. Some are doing very well. Others are doing...not so well. Those who are doing well treat this business as exactly what it is: A business.
Let me explain. You -- writer -- are a creative individual. An artist. A wordsmith. A talent. A...writer.
You're not an entrepreneur or a business person -- you're, well, you hate to say it, but you're better than that. Right?
Um, nope. Wrong. The only thing you get by being "better than that" is poor. Don't get me wrong -- you should write because you love it. But you should write your own things "because you love it" -- you should write for money because it makes you money. If your editor wants a hard-hitting news piece with just the facts and interviews -- you need to write a hard-hitting news piece with just the facts and interviews. If your editor wants an easy-to-read how-to, you should give them an easy-to-read how-to. And if your editor wants a sexy editorial, then you can give them a sexy editorial. But if your editor does not want a six-page Proust-esque ode to laptops...by all means, please do not give them a six-page Proust-esque ode to laptops.
In other words, write what people want you to write when you're writing for other people. This will get you jobs. Being a fantastic writer -- but not writing what your editors want you to write -- will not get you jobs.
2. Learn how you work
Everybody works differently. Don't ever let anyone tell you how you work best. This most obviously applies to time of day -- if you don't work very well in the early morning, by all means, do not work in the early morning.
But it also applies to other factors that influence your work. For example, if you work best while watching Netflix, work while watching Netflix. If you work best in complete silence -- do you best to find a place where you can have complete silence. If you work best at a desk, work at a desk. If you work best on a plane...well, that might get expensive, but do what you can.
But don't kid yourself. If you think you're an excellent multitasker, you might be, but you also might not be. Remember, this is not a 9-to-5 office job. You don't have to pretend to be working when you don't want to work -- so don't do those things that you do to slack off in the office while you're working from home, unless those things that you do to slack off are actually conducive to your work. The way I see it, if you're going to slack off, go all out -- stop working, take a break, go shopping, have lunch with a friend, walk your dog, take a nap, etc. Don't half-ass work and slacking off because...nobody's paying you to do that.
Unless you've worked from home full-time before, it's a good idea to take the time to find out how you work best -- play around with times, schedules, places, and varying degrees of distraction before you lock yourself in.
3. Play up your strengths -- whatever those may be
Are you the next Shakespeare? Fantastic -- stop freelancing and go write yourself some sonnets. Are you a good writer who can meet deadlines? Okay, now we're talking.
Unfortunately, in this business -- and it's a business, not a craft, or an art, or whatever you think it is -- great writing is overrated. So instead of focusing on how amazing your writing is (it's hard, I know), you need to focus on your other strengths -- whatever those may be -- and play them up like a crazy person.
For example, I'm extremely fast. Although I like to ask for a couple of weeks to write longer pieces, I can absolutely turn around a 1500-word piece in a day, if I have to. And I make sure that my editors know that -- I don't want to, but I can. So when someone needs a super quick turnaround, who are they going to call? Me.
So figure out what your personal strengths are -- are you fast? Do you write clean (if boring) copy? Are you great at getting choice quotes from interview subjects? Have you memorized all of the detailed specs of all of the products in one category? Can you stand on your head and write at the same time? All of these strengths can be manipulated into a neat little sellable package that you can present to your editors (if you can stand on your head and write, you may want to consider YouTube).
4. Keep your friends close, and be friends with your editors
Relationships are the single most important part of this business. And I'm not just talking about making contacts (though I'll talk about that a little later), I'm talking about actual relationships -- with your editors.
Having a good relationship with an editor means work -- constant, steady work -- and that's pretty much the ultimate goal of a freelance writer. But wait, Sarah, I hear you say -- I'm pretty nice to my editors, and they like me...this advice seems kind of like a no-brainer.
Well, it's not. Because I don't just mean that you should be nice to your editors, I mean that you should be friends with your editors. And friends don't screw other friends over -- even if they might make a little more money doing so. Let me explain -- sometimes I cover certain topics for certain editors. Sometimes, other publications offer me more money to write about those same topics. Do I jump ship? Do I take an offer from a $2/word publication to cover a few products, and screw over my editor (who is trying his/her best to keep me in the budget, and who is giving me constant, steady work on that topic)?
Nope, I stick with my editor buddy. A good working relationship with an editor makes your life better and much more enjoyable -- don't give that up for an extra $200. (But do ask the other publication if you can cover other topics...)
5. Contacts are everywhere
Woo, networking events. Who doesn't like networking events? Haha, well, I actually love networking events, though I know most people think they're a chore.
But here's a secret: I've never gotten a good paying gig from a networking event. I suspect it's because people are on guard at networking events -- ready to fend off crazy soliciting freelance writers at every turn.
But I've gotten paying gigs from just about everywhere else. In my freelance career, I've written for: My college roommate, my professor's cousin, a guy I met at dinner once, people who have contacted me on Facebook and Twitter, a girl I met on a subway platform in Barcelona, a guy I met at the dog park...and so forth.
So my advice here is...meet people. In person. Over coffee. It's very easy for an editor to dismiss you over email. It's very (surprisingly) difficult for an editor to dismiss you once they have had a five-minute conversation with you.
6. Know how much you're really getting paid
Hi, there, new freelance writer! Welcome to the world of taxes. Specifically...self-employment taxes.
They're a b*tch.
And your home office deduction? It's not very much.
After expenses and taxes, you're only making somewhere around 40 - 60 percent of what you get paid, depending on your income bracket. $100 sounds like a lot, until it's only $40, and you still have to pay for healthcare and vacation time. Price yourself accordingly.
7. Always ask for more
The first time I asked for more money was pretty scary. In my head, the scenario was going to go something like this:
Editor: I can pay you $500 for this.
Me: I'd really like $700, because it requires a lot of research, and I would have to drive at least 50 miles out of my way to do an extra interview, and there are travel costs involved, and also I need to eat, and please don't hate me!
Editor: $700! Hah! I hate you and I will never hire you again, fool! I will also call all the editors I know and blacklist you from the industry!
In reality, it went something like this:
Editor: I can pay you $500 for this.
Me: I'd really like $700.
Sometimes, it goes like this:
Editor: I can pay you $500.
Me: I'd really like $700.
Editor: I can do $650?
Other times, it goes like this:
Editor: I can pay you $500.
Me: I'd really like $700.
Editor: Unfortunately, the rate for this is set at $500.
Me: How about $600?
The moral of the story is that nobody will not hire you if you ask for more. But they will also not give you more if you don't ask for more. So do it. Ask for more. You can give a reason, but you don't have to. Sometimes you just need MO MONEY.
(Sometimes, the rate is set and the editor can't move it -- it's okay to accept a set rate, but you should still always ask for more.)
8. Don't work for free
Just don't do it. You're not only hurting yourself, you're hurting ALL THE OTHER FREELANCERS IN THE WORLD. How's that for a guilt trip?
No, but seriously. There are only a few reasons to work for free: 1) It's for your company. Sweat equity is totally a thing. 2) It's for your parents. They raised you, fed you, etc. The least you can do is write up a stupid family newsletter for them. 3) You're an intern. You kinda signed up for that one, kiddo. 4) It's for a charity. Do you have no heart?!
Barring those (and maybe a few other) reasons, you should not be working for free -- especially not for for-profit publications. If someone is making money off of your words, you should be making money off of your words. And don't be fooled into working for exposure -- pubs that can't afford to pay you can't offer you very good exposure, and pubs that can offer you great exposure can afford to pay you.
Also: $0.05/word = free. $10/post = free. See #6.
9. Home office party!
I have a home office. Not because it's a tax deduction (it's not really a life-saving tax deduction), but because it's actually...really helpful.
That doesn't mean that I can't work from anywhere -- I can. And sometimes I work better from other places (like on planes...I work great on planes). But my home office is where I've got all that pesky office stuff that...you kind of need, if you're running your own business.
For example: Envelopes, stamps, paper, pens, desk space, filing cabinets, books, tax records, calculators, Scotch tape, staples...yeah. You actually need these things at various points during the year, and you need somewhere to keep them. So a home office, or home office-like space is the perfect place -- and it's a tax deduction!
There are, obviously, other benefits to having a home office -- if it's a separate room, you can close your door; you can get a big, comfy chair (or a treadmill, you trendsetter, you!); you can get all Zen-like with the decorating and create your perfect haven of creativity...you can play video games (FOR WORK, GUYS...FOR WORK) in relative solitude while everyone else is asleep, etc.
10. DO YOUR THANG.
You're a freelancer! You don't have a boss (well you do, but it's you)! You don't have a schedule! You don't have obligations or responsibilities! Embrace it.
Seriously, embrace it. I see lots of articles that suggest that the best way to be a freelance writer is to "treat it like a real job." Well, yes, obviously you should treat it like a real job in the sense that you should work -- but don't feel like you have to do "real job" things like waking up before 9 a.m. and putting on clothes and working the same hours every day.
Sure, some people need to get dressed to get into the work mindset. Some people want to work from 9 to 5 every day. Some people want to take set lunch breaks and sit at their desk even when they don't really feel like working. These people should immediately stop freelancing and go get employed somewhere, because employers pay employment taxes and give you benefits.
Other people, such as myself, do not want to do any of these things. I usually wake up around 2 p.m. Some days I wake up at 6 p.m. Today I woke up at 8 a.m. I never get dressed. I spend all of my work time wrapped in a fluffy blanket. I work best at night, so I work at night. I take breaks to go to the gym and walk my dogs. If I don't feel like working one day, I take a day off. If I'm really into a project, I can work for 10 hours straight.
Here's an article that says you shouldn't let all that freedom go to your head . Nope. Do it. Let it go to your head. FREEEEEEEEEEEEEDOMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM!!!!!!