A would-be freelance writer called me the other day asking my advice about how he could become successful in his desired new career. Like a lot of freelance writers, he already had a career and he wanted to shift full-time into the writing life. I don’t get a lot of calls like this; maybe one every five years.
You have to be bold to make that kind of phone call. After all, you’re infringing on somebody else who might rightly perceive you as a competitor. I don’t necessarily recommend that other folks who might be considering freelance writing call me up or contact other writers they know.
But I can give you some free advice from years of being in the trenches.
By far the best thing a freelance writer can do to both set himself apart from the pack and to guarantee a steady flow of new and returning business is to treat freelance writing as a business. That means keeping regular business hours, having a dedicated business phone line (and dedicated fax, too), and approaching your business contacts in a professional way.
Many freelancers become attracted to a career in writing because they think it will give them “flexibility.” Most people who desire flexibility in their work are really saying they don’t want to work regular hours. There are lots of freelance writers who don’t work regular hours. Some only work mornings, others only a couple hours in the afternoon and then again late at night. Some of them make a religion of taking off every Wednesday or Thursday or only working halfdays on even-numbered Fridays. Some freelancers work Sundays but not during the week. And most freelancers I know simply keep erratic hours; they couldn’t tell you on Tuesday when they plan on working Wednesday, if at all.
That’s not an exaggeration. That’s good news for serious writers because one of the best and quickest ways to put yourself into the top 10% of the pack is to keep regular office hours. The hours should match the hours your clients work, which is going to normally be Monday through Friday, 8 to 5 p.m.
If, like me, you have clients on both coasts, you end up coming in earlier than that and staying later. Hey, freelancing is not for wimps.
Next, you need to develop very professional, serious work habits. I maintain an outside office and while I’m at the office, I’m at work. I admit that not every freelance writer can afford his own office and some may claim they don’t want such an extravagance, but this should be the goal. It says that you treat your writing career as a business. An outside office minimizes distractions, will keep you on schedule better (it’s very easy to get off track working at home), and looks more professional.
Think about it from your client’s point of view. If you were a business seeking a writer to promote a million-dollar new product, would you want to hire a writer whose toddler answers the phone and whose every conversation involves a baby screaming in the background?
That being said, there are many times not to launch a freelance writing venture. You need a lot of time, stability, and energy to kick off any new business. This usually does not coincide with the arrival of a new baby. Yet I know more than one freelancer who tried to initiate a freelance career simply because they became a new parent.
As a freelance writer, you have to stop thinking like a creative writer and start thinking as a business person. Your best writing gigs are not going to be articles for the local paper or a movie review for an entertainment website, even though these might seem like the most fun assignments.
Most professional freelance writers do most of their writing for businesses. That means you need to identify and target businesses and approach them…again and again. It’s very rare to cold call a business and land a writing assignment, but cold calling can help you build a list of contacts that you can cultivate into some assignments over time.
If you want to jump-start your freelance enterprise and earn some real money, you absolutely must have people who can link you to assignments. If you have worked at a corporation, make sure you know people the who might hire you (or recommend you). For me, the conventional networking approach of attending parties and social functions as a pretext to swap business cards has never worked; the only people I ever met at these networking wingdings were my competitors. But I do well because I know a lot of people and stay in touch (holiday cards, quarterly e-mails, and occasional phone calls). Sooner or later, a few of them will call back needing editorial services.
Don’t target the wrong contacts. Your best friends or neighbors or cousins who live in Pittsburgh might all be great people, but if they don’t typically buy copywriting, these are not your contacts. Look for people in industry who might need articles written, books ghostwritten, speeches prepared, or brochures and ads developed.
Many of these contacts will want to see samples of your work. The ideal sample is something very close to what the client wants to buy from you. For instance, if a hospital is interested in hiring you to write a brochure for incoming breast cancer patients, they don’t want to see your article about selling Barbie® dolls on E-bay.
So what do you do if you’re angling for a client and don’t have matching clips to dazzle them? Cook some up! Using the same example, you might write an article on breast cancer from the patient’s angle and submit it to some free article or Ezine sites (like this one). That’s publication! You now have a relevant clip. Other places to publish your articles include websites you know (or own), newsletters or local newspapers. It is unlikely that you will receive any financial remuneration for your efforts, but that does not matter. The clip is worth a lot to you if it helps you land a new client.
As a general rule, fish for assignments in areas you know and where you already have good clips. But sometimes an unusual offer comes in and it pays to know how to scramble and come up with some clips. One more hint: clips must be great. Don’t slap something together. A bad clip is worse than no clip.
Contrary to what some freelancers think, there is no shortage of writing work. In fact, many businesses that buy writing complain about the lack of stellar freelance talent. In my own experience (I once bought freelance writing), freelancers never got it all right. Some were good writers but terrible business people (unprofessional, erratic). Some were good at the business end, but could not write well or slopped through their assignments too quickly. A few became overly friendly, calling me on weekends or during the work day to chat, that is, mainly to gripe about how busy they were.
By maintaining a business with business hours and business manners and avoiding falling into the trap of thinking of writing as being your ticket to the world of the “flexible” (i.e. erratic) lifestyle, a writer with good skills can succeed as a full-time freelancer.