Today at Thai brunch, someone was asking me how I became a freelance writer. The better question, for me, is not how one becomes a freelance writer, but how one continues to be one. Most established authors have guides on their websites for aspiring writers, and I have certainly picked through them for my share of advice. I think everyone interested in a career in writing should do the same. I think, in the end, that being a freelance writer requires certain traits of the aspiring author, and it certainly isn’t a job for everyone. And be aware that freelance writing is different than being a novelist or book author. If that’s what you want to do, some of the suggestions below may help you, but not entirely. Be aware that there are a lot of factors in becoming and staying a successful author…and not all of them are in your control.
1. Have connections.
I wouldn’t be doing what I am doing without connections. Knowing people who write already has helped me find jobs, and set up a network of support for me. We throw jobs at each other when we can’t take them, aren’t interested, or cannot finish alone. I think it’s also important that we are not competitive with each other—we freely exchange information and tips to help each other succeed and get a leg up in the world. If you don’t know people who are writing, seek them out.
2. Have perseverance.
It takes a lot of work to be a freelance writer. You need to be highly dedicated and self motivated, because no one is going to goad you into working. Set clear goals for yourself to achieve, and make sure that you reach them. Be prepared to get rejected a lot, but to keep applying for jobs anyway. You need to actively seek out work to advance. Scour advertisements. Query magazines. Be persistent, and be self directed.
3. Set up a workspace.
I, alas, am working in my bedroom right now, which is less than ideal for a lot of reasons. It is very important to have a space which is clearly established for work, and to keep it organized and together. Set up a designated region in your home as an office, and try to set office hours for yourself. Yes, you do have a flexible schedule as a freelance writer. But not…too flexible.
4. Set and keep a budget.
Determine how much money you need to survive every month, and try to earn more than that. Put aside money for rainy days. Think about how you spend money, because especially in the beginning, life will be hard. I am successfully managing my student loan debt right now, because I am budgeting…but I am also not really getting that far ahead. If other people rely on your income to survive, like children, this is a choice you should consider very, very carefully. You may want to transition gently, rather than quitting a conventional job one day and writing the next.
5. Do things for free.
I maintain a website, for example, which exposes people to my work. I’ve also written op-eds, appeared in alumni reviews, and generally put myself out there. Get pieces of writing with your name on them into print, whether or not you get paid for them. Try to set a goal, like getting two things into print every month, and make sure to set aside time from your paying work to do this. It’s called exposure, and it’s how you will get better jobs.
6. Be prepared to write about some boring things.
In the beginning, you probably will not be able to write about things that actually interest you. Make sure that you have the patience to slog through rote work to pay your bills. Try to view these things as opportunities to develop an extensive and flexible portfolio, rather than chores.
7. Keep a portfolio.
Make sure to keep copies of your work, especially when it is published, in a safe and central, well organized location. Keep a special folder for pieces you think are particularly strong, and writing which showcases marketable traits.
8. Write every day.
Every. Day. Make sure to write for yourself, too, not just employers. Develop a novel. Blather on a website. It doesn’t even matter what you write, so much as that you do write. It will improve your writing. Heck, look back at the entries on this website from a year ago and see how much my writing has improved. Repeated practice will only make you a stronger and more productive writer.
It’s not an easy job, by any stretch of the imagination, but I love it. I thrive on the uncertainty of not knowing what I am going to do on any given day, or who I am going to be working for. I am also constantly learning new things, expanding and growing as a writer, and having a great deal of fun in the process.