I frequently get asked to provide advice to people considering freelance careers, often, it seems, in the belief that there is some sort of magical formula that can be followed to catapult into a successful writing career. Alas, the fact of the matter is that while I have been freelancing for seven years now, I still don’t have what I would call a wildly stable or successful career, and it’s highly likely that will never realistically happen. The same is true of many freelancers, especially in an economy where intellectual labour is valued less and less, which translates into lower fees for your work or dreaded offers of ‘exposure’ in offer for your free work.
But I do have a few suggestions for making your life easier as a freelancer, though whether or not to take those suggestions is up for you. Following them won’t magically allow you to start generating epic profits, but it probably won’t hurt you, either.
1. Watch how you present yourself
One of the things about being a freelancer is that you are effectively always on duty, and that means that the way you present yourself matters. Be careful about what you say and how you say it on social media and the web in general. Does that mean I don’t think you should express strong opinions, or that I think you need to be totally straightlaced all the time? No—in fact, expressing strong opinions and giving people a sense of your character and who you really are can appeal to editors.
It does mean, however, that there are some things best kept off public view, such as complaining about the submissions process, trashing other writers and/or editors, and generally rude and poor behaviour. Think about it: if you’re acting up on social media constantly, it suggests you may be difficult to work with. Even if you’re a great writer, editors may be hesitant to work with you if they think you’re going to be a problem.
2. Meet your deadlines
This should seem like obvious advice, but many people seem to have trouble with it. Meet. Your. Deadlines. If an editor asks you when you can have a piece finished, provide an accurate estimate, not your wishful thinking. If there’s a problem interfering with your deadline, communicate about it, don’t just leave your editor hanging, wondering what’s going on with your piece. A simple quick line to explain what’s going on, why, and when you estimate you’ll have the piece done is all that’s needed.
3. Communicate in general
You want good relationships with editors, because once you cultivate those relationships, they’ll want to hire you again and they’ll refer you to others, too. So stay in touch with editors. During the process of working on and editing pieces, keep communication lines open. Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback or clarification if you’re confused on editorial notes, because editors are actually your friends. They want to make your pieces shine and be as wonderful as possible, and your relationship will be much smoother if you work with them rather than against them.
If you feel really strongly that an editor is pushing you in a direction you’re not comfortable with, don’t be afraid to say so. Sometimes there’s just a fundamental mismatch between what two people want, or the vision an editor has and the vision you have. If that’s the case, don’t be shy about communicating that you feel there’s a miscommunication at work and that this project might not be a good fit for your editor at that time.
4. Be nice
It sounds like cheesy advice, but, truly. First of all, you never know who might lead to a possible job lead, who might be a good person to know, and who might be a great friend and ally to chat with, commiserate with, and have at your back when you need a buddy. These cynical reasons aside, it’s a hard industry, and kind words matter a lot. So does thinking about others; if a project isn’t a good fit for you, instead of just turning it down, recommend someone who know. If you see a call for submissions, signalboost it. Freelancing involves a complicated network, and while you can be an opportunistic careerist, it’s not a good way to win friends and influence people.
At the same time, don’t abuse your networking connections. If you’re planning on meeting people solely to use them, rethink that, because people are fully aware of the fact that they’re being used if you only contact them when you want something. These relationships go both ways, and they involve upkeep; you can’t just drop in when you know that someone has something (like a connection or a lead on a story) that you want and then just disappear again.
5. Write. A lot.
I’ve been writing since childhood. My writing has been getting better since childhood. Pieces I wrote a year ago aren’t as good as what I write now. Pieces I wrote two years ago are even more shaky. Five years ago? Wow. I’m amazed actual legitimate publications ran those, even though those editors assure me they were great. Writing is something learned through experience, and experience comes through writing. In ten years, I’m sure my work will be much better thanks to the corresponding depth of experience and development I’ll have under my belt.
Write for yourself, write for editors, write for whoever. Keep a blog and commit to updating it on a regular basis, just to practice writing. While I really encourage people to write every day, even if it’s just a little bit, I also know that’s not always feasible, so try to set aside time to write within the schedule that you have. Be aware, though, that if you want to go full time as a freelancer, depending on it for support, you are going to have days when you don’t want to write, when writing is like pulling teeth, when you will still have to write.
So sometimes, it’s good to push yourself, so you’re used to doing that. I maintain a list of topics and ideas so that when I need a prompt on one of those days, I have something to go on. I don’t necessarily show the finished product to someone, but at least I can tell myself I did something with my day other than what I really wanted to do, which was curl up under the covers and watch The West Wing.