Talent Isn't Everything: 5 Secrets to Freelance Success

I’ve been a professional writer since I sold my first piece to Seventeen at age 21, on my first try.

(Take that, Sylvia Plath: she racked up about fifty rejection letters from the same magazine before breaking in.)

Since then, I’ve veered between being an on-site staff writer and a full-time freelancer, doing one or the other for about three or four years before getting bored/wanting more money/getting sick of winter commuting/spotting an ad for the full-time “dream job” I just HAD to have (for a while).

Right now, I’ve been freelancing full-time since 2008. Along with the politics and culture pieces I do for PJ Media and other online magazines, I write web copy for clients ranging from funeral homes to roofing contractors; edit and ghostwrite books, newsletters, and op-eds; and manage a few social media accounts as well.

Over the years, countless people have told me they want to be freelance writers, too. So here are some tips and home truths about the freelance writing (or freelance anything) life.


#5 – Talent isn’t everything

Maybe you’ve won some writing awards. Maybe you’ve read a magazine article or an employee newsletter and thought: “Heck, I could do better than that.”

Maybe you’re right.

That’s not enough.

It’s likely that the magazine editor assigned that article to a merely competent writer —  who also filed the story early, met the requested word count, and made all the changes the editor demanded without complaint.

People like to work with… people they like to work with.

Now, coming from me, that’s pretty rich.

One of the reasons I’m a freelance writer is that, frankly, I don’t “play well with others.” I am too introverted, tactless, demanding, opinionated, and “masculine” to fit in with today’s feminized workplace — a pink and purple extravaganza of giggling, weekly birthday parties, crying-in-the-bathroom, “diversity training,” “team building,” and boring baby pictures/anecdotes — everything, it seems, except actual work.

And today, “fitting in” with the company “culture” (of bridal showers and non-stop conversations about food and “stupid husbands”) is prioritized over competence and intelligence.

Yet somehow, even a curmudgeon like me can manage to remain polite, helpful, and engaged for the length of that email or phone call with a client.

So just imagine how impressed they’ll be with a genuinely nice person like you!

You may be the finest prose stylist in the English language, and a veritable font of creative ideas. You may be an expert in your field, or a clever, well-read generalist.

However, if — just as an example — you bitch (aloud) when a client decides they want to change back to the version they just changed yesterday (and the day before that), your clients and editors will tire of your diva-dom (yes, to them, you’re the diva…) and replace you with a mediocre yet reliable writer instead.

Temperament matters as much as talent, if not more so.

# 4 – The one thing no one else will tell you

Now I’m about to tell you something that you won’t read in any other “how to be a freelancer” article, ever.

It’s mean and nasty — and it’s true. It may be the best piece of all-around work-related advice you’ll ever get:

Don’t be “the one with all the problems.”

Clients will pretend to be understanding when your grandmother is dying or your kids are sick and/or running around screaming in the background or the power went out across your city for 12 hours.

But they really don’t care.

They have deadlines and budgets and bosses and customers and clients (and problems) of their own.

When my father died, my old boss in book publishing asked me sheepishly, mid-hug, how long I’d be out of town for the funeral. After all, we did have a sixty page Christmas catalog to get out….

When my mother died, I went back to her apartment after making the funeral arrangements, got out my notes, dialed the phone, and interviewed a big-time author for a major daily paper, as I’d been assigned to do the week before.

Never miss a deadline. I know I have once or twice but I must’ve repressed the memory.

Your “brilliant” article or web copy or brochure text is completely and utterly useless until it arrives in your editor’s or designer’s or client’s inbox.

Until then, it may as well not exist. Freelancing is binary: all or nothing.

Even on his deathbed, Christopher Hitchens met deadlines.

Yes, he probably had an assistant (or two), not to mention a wife and a coterie of understanding friends and editors.

He also had cancer.

So you’ll need a better excuse than that.

(P.S.: Own two newish computers that worked fine the last time you used them.

(I don’t mean “have access to one at your mom’s house or at the library,” either. Your mom’s house and/or the library could burn down tomorrow or be inaccessible by road during a blizzard.

(“My computer just crashed” is also not your client’s fault, and you will be seen as — say it with me now — “the one with all the problems.”)

# 3 – Know your rates

It’s always better to quote a high rate and risk losing a potential client than low ball the quote, get the job — then find yourself trapped in project-creep hell with a persnickety client, and ending up making the equivalent of less than minimum wage when the project is (finally) over.

The cheaper the client, the more demanding they are.

My $75/hour clients tend to approve the very first version of everything I send them, thank me profusely, pay me immediately, and hire me again.

Clients I’ve taken on for far less (because I’ve felt desperate — or sorry for them) ALWAYS want more changes, more words, more pages, more of my time on the phone, more everything.

Eventually, I (politely) fire clients like that.  Inevitably, they are replaced almost immediately by more professional ones with larger budgets (and brains).

Now let’s get pragmatic:

The best “how much should I charge” web-based resources for writers, editors, consultants — pretty much anybody who works with words, which these days is… pretty much anybody — are here, here, here, hereand here.

The best all-around resource for starting out cold as a freelance corporate/commercial writer (as opposed to a magazine freelancer, which is a mug’s game that’s practically extinct anyhow) is Peter Bowerman’s Well-Fed Writer series.

(I know: the artwork on his website is corny. However, this is one time not to trust your instincts on that front, because Bowerman’s advice is solid and his newsletter is amazing.)

Even if you aren’t a writer, Bowerman’s stuff provides valuable insights into how businesses are really run, and how hiring and budgeting decisions are made. The success stories sent in by newbie and veteran freelancers are packed with “takeaways” about marketing yourself, too.

# 2 – Don’t obsess about trivia

Have you ever worked at a company so caught up in rewriting its mission statement or redesigning its logo that its core business suffered?

Don’t be that person.

You already know that wasting all day texting and tweeting your friends is a time suck. And when you’re a freelancer, time is money. If you don’t work, you don’t eat.

When I was starting out, would-be freelancers got caught up learning the official proofreading symbols or concocting the perfect query letter.

Today, they spend too much time trying to get their official website/portfolio “perfect” or stressing out about business cards.

All these distractions give you the dangerous illusion that you’re working.

And you’re not.

You’re only working when you are either applying for new projects on Craigslist and other job boards, or actually working on a paid assignment.

Work normal business hours.

You may well be a night owl who loves the idea of writing at 2am, but if you do that, you’d better be ready and able to answer the phone and your emails between 8am and 6pm, too.

Nobody wants to work with a quirky flake (see above).

The other advantage to keeping normal hours is that you then have “permission” to do all that other important-but-distracting-and-unpaid stuff — like exercising or folding laundry — early in the morning or in the evenings.

(P.S.: Your ROI on writing book reviews is likely a negative number. Do them for fun once in a while, but consider them trivia, too. If you’re writing for a living, you have to invest your time, talent, and energy in the most efficient, profitable way. Book reviews are the literary equivalent of skateboarding and gaming: a lucky few can make a living of sorts, but otherwise, it’s a hobby.)


# 1 – Going from good to great (or at least, better)

It’s almost impossible to proofread your own work, but you also want to submit the best copy or article (or report to your boss) that you can.

Here’s how I get around that:

If I have an assignment due Tuesday morning, I take one last look at it Monday night, then sleep on it.

On Tuesday morning, I open the Word doc and immediately change the size and type of the font.

If I wrote the article in Verdana, I change it to a serif font like Times, then bump it up two sizes.

I may even switch the text to blue, green, or red.

This tricks my brain into reading the piece as if for the first time. Inevitably, I notice a typo, factual error, overused word, or awkward sentence.

I may also incorporate any overnight brainstorms.

Plus I may realize, to my embarrassment, that I forgot to include the joke or factoid that sold the editor on my idea in the first place, or that I didn’t use the client’s SEO keywords often enough.

After I make these corrections, I change the fonts back to normal and send it to my client or editor.

Doing this has improved the quality of my writing exponentially. It certainly gives everything I write a more professional polish.

I could tell you more — lots more — but then, while I wouldn’t have to kill you, I would have to charge you.

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