Are you shaking in your ankle boots about starting a freelance writing business?
You’re right to be afraid.
As good as it can be (and I’ve found it to be very good), freelance writing can go badly quickly and for a lot of different reasons. But in my personal experience and my research about freelance writers, I’ve come to find that what most people are afraid of — getting paid — is not what usually sinks the ship. Successful freelancing is made up of tiny wins and tiny mistakes that collectively make your business blow or grow.
Before you make these mistakes yourself, let me save you a few minutes (and a few tears and a few thousand dollars). Here are the top 10 mistakes that will stop your freelance career before it starts:
1. Trying to work every day
Blow: Much like freelance income comes in seasons throughout the year, writing comes in seasons throughout the week, not throughout the day. If you try to finish your deadlines the day they’re due, you’re going to end up sitting at your desk frustrated and blocked.
Grow: Try to finish deadlines 2-3 days in advance. Leave enough room in your week that you can have a bum day or two where the writing doesn’t flow and still come out on top.
(Pro tip: this is also how sick days and vacations work as a freelancer).
2. Not delivering on a deadline
Blow: If you’re flippant about due dates, you won’t be successful as a freelancer. Even if you’re working with the most chill customer in the world, eventually your lack of punctuality and reliability will translate into a lack of income.
Grow: When it comes to deadlines, give them and meet them always. If you ever won’t meet a deadline, communicate it days in advance. If you ever don’t meet a deadline, apologize profusely and make sure it doesn’t happen again.
Be a stickler for deadlines. Even if you’re working with the most chill customer in the world, eventually your lack of punctuality and reliability will translate into a lack of income.
3. Getting on the phone with anyone who asks
Blow: I wince when I see someone offer a free 15-minute consultation with whoever wants one. Don’t you respect your time? Don’t you have things to do? If you give away your time like that, you won’t have enough time or mental energy for paying work.
Grow: Before you get on the phone with a.n.y.b.o.d.y. ask them what they want and what kind of budget they have. You don’t have to be rude or awkward, just hit them back with something like, “I’d love to chat! To make sure there’s a good fit here, I’d love to hear more about the project and what kind of budget you’ve set aside for it. If it makes sense to meet, we can schedule a call for early next week!”
Not only does this protect your time, but it also positions you as a professional in high demand.
4. Hiding from the phone
Blow: My favorite way to make money is to get an assignment by email, nail it, and send my invoice. What’s not to love, right? But the reality is that phone-only freelancing often turns into a fight for the lowest price.
Grow: I may or may not be Internet-famous for my fear of the client phone call, but there’s no denying the fact the phone is just not optional sometimes. Getting on the horn is a powerful way to build relationships with your client, and it allows you to be a consultant and a strategist instead of just a writer bot. Be very careful and particular with who you spend time with on the phone, but do get on it from time to time.
5. Working for free
Blow: Everyone seems to think it’s normal to work for free to “prove you can do it.” That’s obscenely incorrect. If someone wants you to write for free and they plan to use your sample, it’s a scam, and you should run away screaming. The only conditions under which it is acceptable to work for free are as follows:
- You don’t need any money ever
- You don’t think you’re good at writing
- You hate yourself
- It’s a nonprofit you love and you don’t need any money
Grow: If you have absolutely no experience, write for yourself for free. Make up an assignment (perhaps for a big, beautiful brand you love) and complete it and post it to your portfolio. Don’t let someone else decide the terms for the work you do unless they’re paying for it.
If you have absolutely no experience, write for yourself for free. Don’t let someone else decide the terms for the work you do unless they’re paying for it.
6. Charging hourly
Blow: When I sent my first invoice, I was absolutely overjoyed to transcribe an interview and write a blog post for $35 an hour, making a total of about $114.
That’s amazing — especially for my first freelance job — but if I kept that up, I would have had to work 2.86 hours for every $100 I earned. If I had to do that now, I’d be working hundreds of hours every month instead of tens of hours every month.
Grow: There’s just no way to stay in the game or make a full-time income working part time if you charge hourly. Project rates are the way to go, 100%.
7. Using a Gmail address forever
Blow: Gmail. Or Hotmail, or iCloud, or anything that’s not customized. Nothing says rookie like sending an invoice from “SammyFinkle87@gmail.com.”
Grow: If you want people to take your writing seriously, eventually you will need to pony up for a real email address and URL like YourName dot com. Whether or not your clients want to see it (and they do) it will go a long way towards giving you some self-respect.
(Pro tip: Ditto for an invoice processing software. I’ve used FreshBooks since day 1, but you should find and use whatever software you jive with.)
8. Going it alone
Blow: If you’re like me, avoiding people is right behind making more money and working from home on the list of things that attract you to the freelance life. But going it alone has a way of making the lows of freelancing even lower.
Grow: Forget the office life sentence that you’re stuck with whoever’s in the cubicle next to you. When you work online, you make your own rules. Find people who’s blogs you love and send them an email. Follow someone really funny on Twitter and get to know them.
Whether you hire them or just follow their blog, go out of your way to find peers to bounce ideas off of and mentors to look up to. You won’t progress without them.
9. Working with a baby nearby
(Now that I’m a mom, I get to have an opinion on this!)
Blow: Trying to concentrate on paying work with a baby nearby almost drove me insane. At any given nap time, I could have had 3 hours to work…. or 20 minutes. That kind of irrational schedule-shifting made it really hard to concentrate or write good pitch emails (or remember what I did or had to do from day to day).
Grow: Coincidentally, when I started having a nanny come by 4 hours a day 3 hours a week, my income skyrocketed and my sense of inner calm (almost) returned. There’s no substitute for focus. My son’s nanny is the best $600 we spend a month.
(Pro tip: Plenty of moms work from home without a nanny. That may not be you, though, so don’t set yourself up to bomb at freelancing just because you can’t fit it in during naps.)
10. Writing for everyone
Blow: If you can help “anyone” write “anything,” then you’re riding the unnerving carousel horse of Freelance Death. Well-paying writing is a speciality and an acquired skill, not something you’ve “been doing since you were three” or “that your mom totally knew you’d be good at one day.”
Grow: Niche. Niche, niche. Not right away, but within a year or two of writing, you need to niche or you can kiss high-paying work goodbye. And stop saying what an early start you got as a writer unless you’re explaining why you write to your grandmother.
Now for the comments
What are you most afraid of when it comes to starting a freelance writing business? Let me know in the comments and I’ll see if I can’t allay your fears.