Building Your Freelance Writing Career

Today the topic is freelance writing—how to start if you’ve never done it before and how to do it better if you feel like you’ve hit a wall. We’ll cover freelance writing in three sections: the basics of freelance writing, the freelance writing tools I use every single day, and no-bullshit answers to your questions.

Freelance Writing Basics

freelance writerBecause freelancing is one of those things I’ve been doing for a while, I’ve blogged about it a lot. I don’t want to be redundant and rehash what I’ve already covered though. So before I really get into the nitty-gritty of today’s post, I want to link you to some other articles that might be helpful for beginners (and maybe even the pros).

Interested in a Freelance Writing Career?: An interview with Missy from Literal Mom where I answer questions related to time management, breaking into freelancing, establishing fees, and building a portfolio.

Four Clients Every Freelancer Needs: A guest post for Outright.com, a site that helps business owners with accounting and bookkeeping, outlining the importance of blogs, websites, and social media accounts for freelancers.

5 Reasons Not to Be Afraid of a Freelance Career: On Grow with Stacy I explain how you can be shy, poor, ignorant, have a full-time job, and still be a freelance writer.

How to Get Deadbeat Clients to Pay Up:  As a contributor to the Small Business Bonfire Blog, I often write from the perspective of a freelancer. This post tackles ways you can more effectively deal with clients who don’t pay on time.

Top 10 Signs of the Worst Freelance Job Ever: In this guest post, I help you avoid scam freelance writing jobs by identifying some of the most common red flags.

5 Tools I Use Daily As a Freelance Writer

Freshbooks: I invoice clients and track my expenses with this cloud bookkeeping system. If you’re just starting out, you can maintain records for up to three clients for free.

Evernote: I use this for collecting notes and grabbing little bits of the internet that might be helpful for upcoming projects. There is a paid version of Evernote too, but I find the free version has everything I need.

Small Business Bonfire: It’s no secret I’m a contributing writer for the Small Business Bonfire blog and that SBB is also a sponsor of Writer’ Week. But did you know I am also an active member? Some of the past guest authors on Suess’s Pieces are Bonfire members, and I’ve guest posted for other members as well.

AP Stylebook: I have an online subscription that I bought for freelance writing jobs, but I also use it a lot at my day job. I’m such a nerd that I also frequently read the “Ask the Editor” archives for fun.

Google Alerts: Several of my clients have been with me since the beginning. Without Google Alerts to keep me informed about their industry-specific topics, I’d probably pull my hair out trying to brainstorm new topics.

Freelance Writing Q&A

Q: You said no bullshit answers. I want to know how much you charge.

I sense a little frustration in your question, and I think I understand why. Everyone one wants to know how much they can expect to get for their work. The thing is, freelance writers don’t frequently publish rates or share them with the general public. Here are a few reasons why:

  • Part of it is about protecting the freelance writer’s clients. Financial information is considered confidential by individuals and businesses alike, and a lot of freelancers err on the side of caution, even if a client has never said outright, “Please keep our rate agreement confidential.”
  • Part of it is about the freelancer’s ability to maintain flexibility when quoting new projects. Maybe the freelancer wants to charge different prices to non-profits or small businesses and adjusts quotes based on the client’s budget. Maybe the freelancer is having a difficult time finding clients and wants to lower rates for a few months. Maybe the freelancer wants to keep existing clients at an old rate while taking on new clients at a higher rate. All of these things are a lot easier to manage if you don’t publish or otherwise blab about what you charge.
  • Part of it is about competition. Some freelancers don’t publish rates or share them with colleagues because divulging that info means someone out there knows precisely how much they can undercut on a bid.
  • Part of it is that it’s just nunya damn bidnezz. (That’s the no bullshit part of this answer.) I know what it’s like to start out and feel like you don’t have a clue. But I do wonder why it’s acceptable to ask a freelancer what she makes but at the same time it’s uncouth to ask the bank teller or the guy in IT what he makes. Anyway, the reality is that you might not be able to command the same rates as a person with different skills, a bigger portfolio, and more experience. So if you’re new to freelance writing, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to ask someone who’s been writing for 30 years what he charges. Just something to ponder.

Setting rates is many times a trial-and-error sort of process. All freelance writers have to set their fees on their own, and there is no magic number that the pros are trying to hide from the newbies. With all of that disclaimer junk out of the way, I will tell you that once upon a time I wrote 500-word articles for $10 each. It was worth it to me then. It so totally isn’t now.

Q: I’ve been freelancing for 8 months now… I can get jobs consistently, but I don’t really feel like I’m advancing at all. Any advice?
I don’t know where you’re currently getting jobs and how you market yourself, but I can offer some general advice.

  • Stop looking on junk sites for work. Many of my clients look for me, I don’t go looking for them. In fact, my top three clients all found me by doing the same thing: searching Google for “freelance writers in Indianapolis.” If you don’t have a website, get one. If you have a free website that’s 5 years old, hire a professional to make it better. If no one is visiting your super-duper new site, get your SEO on.
  • Make it easy for people to check up on you. Create a rockin’ portfolio and build a LinkedIn profile to serve as your resume. Get testimonials from clients. (Two of my clients decided to hire me before I ever knew they were looking.)
  • Try branching out. If all the jobs you ever apply for are blogging jobs, you probably won’t be able to satiate your drive to be creative. Step out of your comfort zone and try something new. Some people aren’t cut out to be trapped or limited by a niche or specialty.
  • Are you worth more than you’re getting paid? Raise your rates.

Q: What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever written for money.

Most of the stuff I write isn’t weird at all—blog posts and web content for small businesses and large businesses make up the majority of my content. However, there was this one time that a guy asked me to give him a quote for writing messages on his behalf to women on a dating site. He told me that he’d pick the profiles he liked, and then I could write introduction letters for him. I declined. I guess money can’t buy you love or even love letters.

Q: Are you ever going to write a novel?

Yes.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about freelance writing contracts?

You need to be familiar with writing contracts. Even if you don’t have your own (and you really should have one ready to use), somewhere along the way a corporate client is going to ask you to sign their contract. It will likely cover things like publication rights, compensation, confidentiality, approval and cancellation terms. Always read before you sign.

If you need help drafting your own contract, there are a few free templates online. I’ve used a variation of this contract and so have some of my clients. You can make tweaks here and there to make it fit your unique situation.

As Laura Spencer wrote on Freelance Folder, sometimes drawing up a contract for a small project is a waste of time. However, if you plan to work with a client on a big project or on a long-term basis, I highly recommend you get an agreement in writing. On little projects, you may decide that a simple email outlining the scope and pay is enough. In the end, the decision is yours, and it all comes down to how much you’re willing to risk.

Have a question for me but didn’t submit it? That’s okay! Just ask in the comments.

About Emily Suess

Emily Suess is a technical marketing writer by day and a freelance copywriter by night. And, no, she's not related to Dr. Seuss.
  • Robin @ Farewell, Stranger

    Emily, this week has been so great. I read a bit early in the week and have done a bunch of catching up now. Lots of great info in this post. 

    Question: I’m doing some freelance work now and looking at a lot of the opportunities out there. I have a day job but would really like to spend my time writing about stuff that interests me, but I’ll fully acknowledge that will limit me. So do I accept that it will limit me and just do that, or be willing to branch out so I can be a “writer”?

    And also (pardon me if you’ve addressed this – I haven’t “known” you that long) – you mention your day job. Do you do freelance work on top of full time other work? 

    (In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m trying to figure out – again – what I want to be when I grow up. I know “writer” is in there somewhere…)

    • http://blog.emilysuess.com Emily Suess

      Hi Robin, sorry it’s taken me a while to respond to your question, but I was out of town for the weekend. I’m just now catching up with all that happened while I was away.

      First off, I’m a full-time publication standards editor for a company in the automotive industry. I spend 40 hours every week at my day job, and then I spend several evenings and a few hours of each weekend working for freelance clients.

      Here’s why I love this arrangement: 

      1.) I have a stable income and killer benefits. I don’t have to search for my own health insurance or worry about coverage.
      2.) Any profit I make freelancing can be socked away in savings or retirement accounts.
      3.) Although my job as an editor is in my field, it’s not terribly creative. Freelancing helps me fill that need to be creative.
      4.) I can take on whatever freelance clients I want, without feeling obligated to do work for difficult clients just because I’m worried about paying the bills. Consequently, I love all my freelance clients and those jobs I do for them don’t really feel like work.

      Of course, I can’t say what’s right for you. I don’t have children to take care of in the evenings, so setting aside extra time to freelance is a cinch for me. You may have other issues to consider. At any rate, I hope this is helpful, and feel free to ask me follow-up questions.

  • Royleebar

    Hi Emily,
    Didn’t know where to put it so I found this article about Free-Lance Writing. I too, love simon and Garfunckle!
    My 2 best “show-off” songs at http://www.KaraokeForSquares.Com are Sound Of Silence and Bridge over Troubled Water. Neat, Huh? I am sure Free Lance Writers are always looking for something unigue, new, different with a neat “Hook” of a human interest twist. I need them to fine “ME”. I have the “story”, I just need a Free-Lance writer to hear it. Can you get the word out there for me. It could win your contest if it is writen right. KARAOKE IS SOOO MUCH FUN, Emily!

  • http://blog.emilysuess.com Emily Suess

    Hi Roy,

    I already emailed you and told you that I wouldn’t be helping with the story. Please refrain from spamming my blog.
    Thanks,
    Emily

  • http://www.writingbyterri.com Terri

    Hi Emily,

    What a great post. I love your explanation about rates. As much as I want to help others, I can’t help but wonder why some people think its ok to ask how much I make an hour, etc. I certainly don’t ask what salary others bring home. 

    On another note, I would love to know if you have any advice about closing the deal. For the past few weeks now, I’ve been getting nibbles from potential clients that seem very interested and then things suddenly come to a stand still. Some I never hear back from. Others, I’ll hear back from weeks later. Is there anything you can suggest to help me seal the deal with potential clients? 

    • http://blog.emilysuess.com Emily Suess

      Hi Terri,

      It’s hard to say what’s going on. It could be any number of things, really. First, it’s just the nature of the game. For as long as you write, you will always have potential clients that never become actual clients. That’s just the way it is. It’s like personal relationships sometimes. Maybe there isn’t a connection. Maybe the timing isn’t right.

      Now I’ll throw out some other possibilities:

      1. It could be that clients are finding other writers (possibly less expensive writers?) at some point during their search and simply not being courteous enough to tell you they went with someone else. 

      2. If the clients have never hired a writer before, they may be surprised by the going rates for copy these days. Being too embarrassed to say they can’t afford you, they simply disappear.

      3. Perhaps they have the budget for your work, but they’ve been burned before. (I have a client now who had a really bad experience with a previous writer and was a little gun shy about signing a contract with a new writer.)

      If it’s number 1? You might want to consider lowering your rates, but I think it’s rare for a writer to overvalue her work. So do this as a last resort and only if you truly think its necessary. Otherwise, let them go. You don’t want to work for peanuts anyway.

      If it’s number 2? They might be back when they’ve saved up. 

      If it’s number 3? Limit the clients’ risk from your first contact with them. For example, I offer a guarantee on my work. I let prospective clients know up front that if they don’t get the work by the deadline we agreed upon, I won’t bill them. (By the way, I’ve never missed a deadline either. I’m also holding myself accountable because I want that money!) :)

      The only way to know what’s truly going on with each prospect is to ask. Send a friendly follow-up email  when it seems like they’ve disappeared saying “just wanted to touch base with you about X project and see if you’ve made a decision yet.” Never, ever pressure the client to explain though. If they don’t reply after that follow-up, just let it go.

      Remember that times are tough too, and some projects that businesses want to start get sidelined due to budget constraints.

      I hope you find my ramblings somewhat helpful.

      • http://www.writingbyterri.com Terri

        I apologize for taking so long to officially thank you for this lengthy and thought out response. I feel as though, the problem is #2: they’ve never hired a writer so they do not know the going rates. I’ve been trying to locate clients that have worked with writers before but it seems so much harder than I thought. No worries though, I’m a fighting machine!

        Now, If I only I can close the deal with editors. I can’t tell you how many times an editor has said I love your writing style, you have great clips but this won’t work right now – Or the amount of times an articles or associate editors says they love my idea and have it nixed by the time the executive editor or editor-in-chief gets to it. 

        But such is the life of a freelance writer. We’ve got to roll with the punches!

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