I recently took part in a webinar hosted by Profnet’s Evelyn Tipacti, in which myself and ASJA president Randy Dotinga shared some tips for “Breaking into Freelance Writing.” Go check it out (Bonus: you’ll get to hear my Brooklyn accent in all its glory!). In the meantime, I wanted to share a few more follow up thoughts here.
While everyone defines success differently, I define my own as being able to choose the work I want to do, and make a living doing it. It doesn’t happen overnight, but I believe you can fast track your road to success if you develop these key skills:
Know how to write hella good. If you ain’t able to write, then you ain’t gonna get no assignments. Beyond grammar and style know-how, you need to know the rules of journalism so you don’t get into trouble with plagiarism, you know the difference between quoting and paraphrasing, primary and secondary sources, what’s on- or off-the-record — all that good stuff. Lastly, you should learn the lingo of the industry, whether it’s “moving a stat to the nut graf” or using a “stronger call-to-action,” you want to know what your client is asking for.
Do the job without whining. There is no writer in the world who can file every assignment as a “walk away” – meaning that all of your words will remain exactly in tact and no revisions will be necessary. If that were the case, editors would be out of jobs. It’s sometimes hard to see final copy that is different from your own, but never forget that you’re a hired contractor and the customer/client gets the final word. Full disclosure: I was an editor for 15 years, and I can tell you that the writers with the biggest egos and the biggest mouths tended to also be the ones who missed deadlines, didn’t follow the assignment agreement, or made awful grammar errors. The real pros know how to take things in stride. Do what you have to do to complete the job, or as my kickboxing instructor would say, suck it up!
But don’t be a sucker. There are exceptions to the above whining rule. If an edit results in something that is factually incorrect, or if the story is so drastically different that you’re not comfortable putting your name on it, you need to have a conversation. If you’re on your third round of edits and the editors clearly can’t decide what they want from the story, you need to break that cycle. If you’re contracted for 1,000 words, and your editor decides he wants 4 sidebars that bring the total up to 2,000 words, ask for additional compensation. And even if you do have a bad experience, if you’re able to take the high road and finish the assignment, take solace in knowing that you never have to work with that person again (reason #642 why freelance life is awesome!).
Never apologize for the work you do. It irks me when professional freelance writers talk down to other writers because of the jobs they decide to take. It goes something like: “How can you work for such a low rate? You’re devaluing what we do.” Or, “I would never write for free. That’s so pathetic.” Or, “You can’t write brand content and call yourself a journalist.” If you’re not paying someone’s bills, you can’t presume to understand their motivations for choosing a particular job. A blog post that only pays $75 might take me 20 minutes to write, which according to my calculator, is the equivalent of $225 per hour. You know what I say to those with a holier-than-thou attitude? You keep holding out for those $2 per word assignments while I pick up all the “low-paying” jobs you’re too good for. As for working for free or crossing into the dark side of content marketing? Well, that’s fodder for more posts (which I promise to work on soon).
Use your internal pause button. If anyone ever saw the emails, tweets, or Facebook posts that I’ve typed out and didn’t send, I would have a very different reputation. Sometimes it feels good to vent by pounding furiously on the keyboard after something ticks me off (an inept PR person, a nasty source, edits that make no logical sense, a lost invoice claim, etc.). But then I give myself a mental pause, and by the time I cool off, I almost always delete what I was about to post. You might think bitching publicly is taking a stand, but many times, it will just make you seem like a prima donna. And all those great writer boards and forums you sign on to share your complaints? Just imagine that a few of your editors are on there lurking, because I can tell you for a fact, that some of them are. If you’re going to out a publication or an editor in some way, make sure it’s for something significant and that it’s a bridge you’re willing to burn.
Be kind. Maybe it’s the mom in me, but being kind is always better than being a cutthroat. There is this myth that freelancers are out to get each other and steal work from their competition. Personally, I don’t associate with this sort, or maybe it’s just not true. What I have found is that the vast majority of freelancers understand that like virtual co-workers. We network, share resources, and sometimes refer each other for jobs. Truth be told, I won’t put my own reputation on the line for just anyone, but I do try to share others’ work on social media, or give people a heads up if I hear of a job that sounds like a good fit for their expertise. Do the same, and you’ll see – the good karma will come back to you when you need it most.
Do you think you’ve got what it takes to be a successful freelancer writer? These are the attributes that have been working for me so far. Which skills have been the driving force of your business?