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Tools of the trade: do you have what it takes to be a freelance?


Photo by fuzzbabble (CC on Flickr)

Being a full-time freelance writer isn’t so different to being a self-employed plumber. Both need control of their tools, be it words and phrases or a wrench and socket set.

But that’s not enough. Not nearly enough. If you want to a be a freelance writer, you’ll need a lot more than just writing skills. Making a living from writing (or blogging, or graphic design, or whatever) means you’re running a business.

Making it as a freelance means getting regular work that pays well enough that you can live on it, year after year.

If you neglect the business side of things, then you’re heading for trouble. But by looking after your business, it’s perfectly possible to make a good living as a freelance writer. I’ve done so now for over 12 years, without ever needing to take a part-time job or earn any money outside of writing. (And without making any money from online writing or blogging).

But to make it as a freelance there are some important things you’re going to need along the way. If you don’t have them all right now, don’t panic. But until you have some of this stuff in place, it isn’t time to leave the day job. After the jump, the 20 things you need most to be a freelance:

1. Cashflow

Standing proudly at number one in the list, the most important aspect of any business. If you have rent or a mortgage to pay, you need money coming in. Food bills? Vet bills? Unforeseen emergencies? You need money in the bank.

If you do a writing assignment today, you may not get paid for it for months. I reckon three months is the average. But I run my business on a six month cashflow basis. The money I earn this month will be what I live off in six months time.

It has to be that way. Some big projects can take several months to complete before they can be invoiced. It usually takes around three months from that point for payment to come through, even from my most regular clients that I’ve worked with for years and trust implicitly. It’s just the way accounting cycles work.

People who have jobs tend to live hand to mouth. They live off their pay cheque and try to make the money last until the next one arrives. You can’t do that if you are living entirely off your freelance writing income.

In an ideal world, you would have that three to six months cashflow in your bank account before you went freelance. That’s never going to happen. But it’s something to work towards. The only option for most people will be to keep the day job and start the writing career alongside it, until the money starts coming in and you establish some regular clients.

2. Low overheads
This is clearly connected to cashflow, above. Don’t go splurging on equipment and certainly don’t buy or rent business premises or an office. Work from your bedroom or write on the bus, in a local library, wherever you can. The lower your overheads, the less you need to earn each month to break even.

3. Clients

Yes, real clients, not just online writing gigs from e-lance. You know the problem with online writing jobs? They pay nothing. Traditional offline writing pays far, far more. People still recognise that you’re providing a specialist professional service. This is a subject I’ll be returning to in more depth soon, so keep an eye out over the coming weeks.

4. Contacts
Again, you need to know real people who can put work your way from time to time or simply recommend you to others. I’m not talking about social media ‘friends’ here. I mean real people you’ve met in the flesh. If you don’t have many useful contacts, it’s not the end of the world. But the more you can develop, the easier it will be to stay in business as a freelance writer.

5. Confidence
Everyone thinks they can write – even me :). So when you pitch yourself as a freelance writer, you’re always likely to come up against some opposition. I’ve noticed it in business meetings from even the most unlikely of sources – salesmen. Yes, even professional salesmen think they can write (even though they think PowerPoint can be used as a word processing programme). These people, who haven’t read a book since they left school, still think they could write it better than you.

There are going to be scores of other knock-backs. For example, every time you make a typo, some twit will make out it’s the end of the world (because spotting typos is as close as they get to ever being a writer).

Writers need think skins. They need inner confidence. They need to be slightly belligerent and stubborn too. Hold your head up high and insist that yes, you are a freelance writer. That doesn’t mean you’re an unemployed wannabee. And yes, you can make a better job of the copy than the cleaning lady.

5. Patience
You need a certain patience when dealing with other people. Especially clients. Because you know the thing about clients? They’re a real pain the backside most of the time. But they pay the bills, and that’s business.

6. Self discipline
When you’re self-employed, you’re in charge of your own time. And there’s always something more interesting to do than write copy for someone else. Even if you’re writing things you love, it’s easy to get distracted. You’ll need self-discpline to keep up with the workload.

And when you have no work coming in, you need to get busy with the marketing and networking, or just get the accounts out of the way.

7. Persistence
Becoming a freelance writer is not an easy career option. It takes a long time to get started and you will probably need to keep promoting yourself, coming up with great ideas and finding new ways to make money from writing throughout your career. Persistence is an essential attribute.

8. Flexibility
You may set out intent on one form of writing, only to find that it doesn’t pay all that well. Or it’s very hard to get assignments. Or there’s too much competition. Be flexible. Don’t restrict yourself to only one type of writing.

As a freelance you’ll also need flexibility about when, how and where you work. You’ll need to be equipped to work from home (or you own office – but see point 2 on the list). But you may also sometimes need to work from the offices of a client, or within the creative department of an advertising or design agency.

Sometimes you’ll need to work evenings or weekends to get a rush job out of the door on time. Get a reputation as someone who is willing to do whatever is needed to help the other people involved in the process. It will pay off in the end.

9. Versatility

You’ll need to be comfortable tackling many different types of writing. Copywriting and journalism can seem like opposite ends of a spectrum, for example. Copywriting is all about marketing and advertising someone’s products and services. Journalism is about getting to the facts and being objective. As a writer, they are both very valuable skills to learn. They are also often complementary. A lot of companies need writers not just for their high level advertising and direct response copy. They may also need white papers, newsletters, staff communications, and product data sheets. Or they might need websites, magazine articles for customer publications, standard response letters or a branding guidelines booklet. I could go on.

A lot of these fall somewhere half way between copywriting and journalism. If you can show skills and experience in each, then you are better placed to get the job.

10. Experience
Potential clients will always ask you about your relevant experience. If you’re starting out, this will always be a problem.

To my mind, you can’t beat getting a job as a writer before you become a freelance. I can point to times when I have worked as a copywriter in an advertising agency and as a journalist on both newspapers and in a news agency.

If you have no experience at all, then you are in that classic Catch-22 bind. You can’t get experience until someone starts giving you jobs.

Well, that used to be true, but not any more.

If you have no writing experience on your CV, get a blog. Or contribute to other blogs, If you have your own, treat it as a professional exercise. Don’t post anything you wouldn’t want a potential client to see. Treat it as a portfolio. A showcase.

Send articles to magazines. Write articles for your local newspaper and offer these for free if necessary. At least it will start to give something in your portfolio.

If you know anyone who is in business, no matter how small, offer to write their website, for free if necessary. This could be someone in a similar situation to yourself, perhaps an artist, photographer or graphic designer. Anyone starting their own business. They can’t afford to employ an experienced copywriter, so they might be glad to have you help them. They might be able to do you a favour instead of payment – perhaps with a professional photo or by designing your website for you. If they own a bike repair business, get them to service your bicycle in return for writing their web pages.

You could do the same thing with adverts. Your friend in business may not have the budget for a series of full-page ads in a glossy magazine. But a few flyers or leaflets put around town could help. Offer to write these. It’s all good experience and helps you build a portfolio.

11. Knowledge
You need to know as much about the craft of writing as possible. This is quite a large topic. Get reading, get practising.

12. Business skills
At times you will have to sell yourself. Marketing calls for self-promotion. This often doesn’t come easily to writers. You’ll also need to need to run your freelance writing concern as a business. If you remain self-employed and work alone, this is unlikely to be too difficult.

But you will also need to consider things such as networking, keeping a database of clients, and keeping track of finances. Don’t forget that every time you pick up the phone, it could be a client. This can be tricky if your work phone is also your home phone. You’ll need a professional telephone manner at all times. You’re the company receptionist as well as the workforce, creative department and chief executive.

13. Accounts, an accountant and / or bookkeeper
You need to keep business records of what you earn and your expenses so that you can work out your profit and loss. Otherwise, the tax man will clobber you. Never pick a fight with the taxman as they will always win. So make sure you keep records, keep receipts, declare everything and don’t be tempted to cheat on anything. My recommendation is to declare all your income and put everything through a qualified accountant so it’s all above board.

You’re also going to need an invoicing template, a way of keeping track of jobs and details such as when invoices are issued and when they get paid. There are lots of accounting software packages around although I’ve never used any. I keep it all in an Excel spreadsheet.

You may also need a business bank account, although I just use my personal back account and have for 15 years. It’s cheaper. And for online writing you’ll probably need a PayPal account.

14. Equipment
You’ll need use of a computer complete with internet access, email and a word processor. As you’re reading a blog, let’s assume you have these already. Other than that, keep equipment to a minimum when starting out (see points one and two of this list). Aside from the obvious things (pen and paper etc), you could also ideally use a way of recording interviews, both in person and on the phone. Better still learn shorthand – but that takes a lot of time and effort. You may also need reference books, although these days the Internet does quite nicely as a source of reference material.

15. Smart clothes
People who work in graphic design and advertising agencies, or in magazines and the media, can sometimes be a bit shallow. They tend to judge on appearances. It’s that kind of business. So sometimes you’ll need to look the part.

You’ll also need to look professional whenever you have to get out from behind the desk and deal with people. Working as a journalist, you could easily end up interviewing a prime minister (or president), a top level police chief or a famous celebrity.

As a copywriter you might interview chief executives or meet managing directors. You’ll need to look professional. It’s tricky, of course, because you also need to look ‘ creative.’ If you can afford designer suits that’s probably the way to go. If not, (or like me you just prefer to be scruffy) then at least keep an outfit in the wardrobe available for when an important assignment comes in when you have to look your best.

16. Typing skills
Learn to touch type. If you ignore everything else I ever write on this site, at least take this piece of advice to heart. Even if you give up on writing, it will still be one of the most valuable skills you can learn.

17. A brand
Your brand is you. Or you could set up a company, and brand that. Either way, you need to be memorable. There’s an extra challenge, however, if you’re working as a copywriter, because your brand and your marketing have to demonstrate your ability.

If your own branding doesn’t have style and impact, how can you claim to be able to produce great ideas for someone else’s business? And don’t forget your audience. You may be selling your services to design and advertising agencies. Rightly or wrongly, they’ll probably judge you by your visual identity rather than your writing ability. (They may not be able to really judge your writing ability anyway. Many designers are barely literate… That’s just a joke by the way. Some of my best friends are designers).

So you need a brand, something that stands out and says something about you. Ideally, come up with a creative idea that ties together words and visuals. Often designers are looking for a copywriter who understands how to work with visuals. (At a certain level, all they really want is a headline and intro paragraph that justifies the use of a particular picture).

18. Marketing collateral

You need a business card, a letter head, and a website. This website should not be just a blog. Create a company website which explains what services you offer and why you are the best person to provide them. Sell yourself.

Do some research on what other writers say on their websites and see how they approach things. A lot of writers, including copywriters, aren’t all that good at promoting their own services. Tackle it as though it is an assignment. You should aim to demonstrate and prove your ability as a writer through your own website. You then need to promote the site so people can find it.

19. Alternative sources of income
You know, for when the writing assignments dry up. If there was no money coming from writing for a few months, what could you do to tide yourself over a lean patch?

20. Alternative creative outlets
If you expect professional freelance writing to satisfy your creative urges, you’ll probably struggle. A lot of freelance writing is very dull. You often have to write about subjects in which you’re not interested (telecoms, banking, insurance…) and for media you would not normally read out of choice (direct mail, trade magazine advertorials, company newsletters, press releases).

Luckily, writer’s can easily find alternative creative outlets. Get the novel finished and it might one day pay the bills. Or start a blog where you can write what you want, when you want, as a way of letting off steam.

And the writing?

You’ll notice that I haven’t included much about writing skills here. Well, the rest of this site is about that subject. And there are plenty of other sources of great information about how to write. I intend to do a post pointing you towards some of my favourites in the near future, so keep an eye out for that.

But I wanted to make the point that being a freelance writer means you’re running a business. You’re selling a service. Things like cashflow and accounts are important. To live off your writing, you need to be profitable, and that means you need to gain and keep clients, keep track of money, pay your taxes on time, send out invoices, know what money is owed to you and who hasn’t paid up.

The list might seem daunting to someone just starting out or thinking about a career as a freelance writer. I wouldn’t want to put anyone off. I love the way I’m able to be my own boss, be in control of my own time and earn money working from home.

Remember, you don’t need to have sorted all this out before you start. These are things to tackle as you along. To get started as a freelance writer, all you need is one paid writing assignment. Then you’re on the way.

To make a living long term as a freelance writer, however, you will at some point need most if not all of the above.

(Phew, that’s the longest blog post I’ve ever written. I think I need to lie down now. See you in a few days).

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • James Chartrand - Web Content Writer Tips January 11, 2008, 1:30 pm

    It’s “freelancer”, not “freelance.” One’s an action verb, and one is a noun. 😉

  • Simon January 11, 2008, 2:51 pm

    Ummm, Oxford English Dictionary tenth edition: “Freelance n. 1 a freelance worker.”
    And besides, it fits my conversational style.

  • James Chartrand - Web Content Writer Tips January 11, 2008, 2:53 pm

    Interesting. Just compared with a few dictionaries and you’re right. It can be used either way, as a noun or verb. Didn’t know that, and I’ll go to sleep less stupid tonight 😉

  • Simon January 11, 2008, 4:31 pm

    James, I had to look it up myself to double check. I think it’s because it comes from the medieval mercenary: ‘ a free lance’. (Here, of course, ‘free’ means available for hire, to the highest bidder. Language is so tricky at times).

  • James Chartrand - Web Content Writer Tips January 11, 2008, 4:38 pm

    Heh, I feel better that you had to check, too 😉

  • Simon January 13, 2008, 12:14 pm

    Well, I try not to carry too many dictionary definitions in my head at any one time :).

  • Ross February 14, 2008, 12:12 pm

    Thanks, Simon . . . as an aspiring freelance copywriter that was very informative.

  • Simon February 14, 2008, 12:17 pm

    Thanks Ross, glad it was of use.

  • seo packages January 19, 2010, 8:26 am

    Can you recommend a website where you can bid for and pick up freelance assignments?


    • Simon February 16, 2010, 6:26 pm

      Lyndon – sorry about not replying to this earlier myself. I can’t really make any recommendations, because I don’t use those kinds of sites. However, I would recommend reading the copywriting forum over at Warrior Forum as a place to get more insight into this issue.