Freelance Writing series part 2: What to know before you start

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Freelancing isn’t an easy gig. There’s no job security, no sick pay, no holiday leave, and you’re in charge of literally everything to do with your business. All those departments you see in an office are now you: legal, accounts, marketing, admin… So, it’s good to know a bit more about what your new freelance business is going to entail before you set out.

At the end of this post you need to ask yourself the question: do I really want to do this? And if so, do I really want to do this full time?

Starting your business

Let’s start with what it takes to run a business. As I said above, you’re now in charge of everything, which means you need to be organised, you need to be knowledgeable, and you need to be on top of everything! You need to research things like tax, contracts, superannuation, even insurance. You’ll need to budget not just for your bills but for the times when you don’t have as much work as you need. You’re going to need to learn a lot and you’re not going to be good at everything. Invest in yourself. Invest in courses and conferences to help you learn what you need to know and to help you be more successful. Listen to podcasts, read books, and research in order to learn, not just how to do the type of writing you want to do, but how to run a business as well.

You need to ask yourself early on: why do you want to be a freelancer? What will being a freelancer allow you to do? And once you have the answers to those questions you need to then ask: how does that affect the type of writing you want to do? What do I already know? What do I need to learn?

I’ll be doing a post later in the series about how to get started on all of this, including what you need to look at when it comes to tax, superannuation, accounting, and marketing, but in the meantime it’s important to start asking yourself these fundamental questions.

Being effective when you work on your own

There’s no boss to hold you accountable anymore. Just your clients. And there’s no office to go to in the morning. To start with at least, you’ll probably be working out of an office at home or from the kitchen table on a laptop.

Just like when you work in an office, you need to have a routine. The best thing about working for yourself is that you can be flexible, but you need to know when you’re most productive and try to work in that time. Get up, shower, get dressed. Don’t sit in your pyjamas if you can help it. Obviously, there’ll be days here and there, but ideally you want to be dressed for work. That doesn’t mean you need to be in a suit, but it does mean you need to be in your day-to-day clothes. It’s about creating a routine that helps your mind prepare for work.

Set yourself targets. Remember: goals need to be achievable, so look at something like, ‘I want to make X amount of dollars in X amount of time.’ Then ask yourself what you need to do to achieve that. How many pitches do you need to send out in that time? Who do you want to write for? Break it down into daily goals and stick to them.

And remember, just like any other job, you’re not always going to enjoy this one. Just because you get to call the shots doesn’t mean that everything you write about is going to interest you and not every aspect of running a business is going to come naturally to you. Regardless, you do have to care about the end product if you want to succeed.

Finances

Be prepared for some hard truths. It’s going to take you a long time to become financially stable in this gig. You may pitch a piece, and have it accepted and write it up and then finally see it in print, but the lag on payment from that initial pitch to when you see the money come through can be months.

You’re going to need a buffer. Whether that’s in the form of cold hard cash or whether it’s a partner who is able to support the bills for a while. This is especially important since you’re going to find that there’s a lot of expenses while you’re setting yourself up. Business names, tax agents, legal contracts, equipment, a website… these all cost money.

The important thing to remember with finances is to keep on top of them. Know exactly how much you need to earn to pay the bills – not just your personal bills but the ones you need to keep your business running too. Know exactly how much you’re spending and exactly how much you’re earning and exactly how much you need to keep aside. Keep your business finances separate to your personal finances.

And finally, always market yourself, even when you’re drowning in work. No matter how busy you are, keeping giving out your card, keep advertising your services, and keep looking for new clients, because if you stop, so will the flow of work.

When it comes to writing

We’ll go into many of the things I’m about to say in more detail in future posts in this series, but here’s a few basics to know about the writing business before you get into it.

Pitching

You’ve already seen me mention pitching, but it’s the key to freelancing. Pitching is when you pitch an idea for an article or a story to a publisher. It’s normally a short email outlining the basics of what you want to write, why you think it fits their publication, and why you should be the one to write the story. There’ll be a separate post on the intricacies of pitching, but for now what you need to know is that you’ll need to pitch excessively if you’re hoping to get work writing features and op-eds.

Know your angle

Every story needs an angle and normally you need it to link into something timely and newsworthy. Why would people want to read your story on the properties of makeup now? Why should readers be aware of car-parts from a particular manufacturer now? This also takes knowing what the lead times are for your publisher. For example, some magazines have a lead time of 3-6 months. There’s no point pitching a Ski Trip to Japan in January when the ski season will be over by the time the story goes to print.

Writing on spec

Writing on spec is when you are asked to write an article without guaranteed payment. It’s often used when you’ve never written for a publication before and especially when you’re starting out and don’t have a portfolio. It means the editor is interested in your story but isn’t sure yet that they’ll be happy with the end product, so they’ll ask you to write it and they’ll only pay you if they decide to publish it. This is totally normal, and you should expect it when working with any new publication. Having said that, it shouldn’t continue. Once you’ve built a rapport with your editor it’s reasonable to expect payment when you file and its worth negotiating kill fees for the occasions when they decide not to publish your article.

Creative briefs

This one is particularly useful when you’re doing copywriting work or content writing. You need to know exactly what your client expects from you, what the overall outcome of the project is (are you selling a product or service, or trying to gain followers, or trying to get people to an event?) and how they want you to achieve it. Do they want to sound funny and cheeky or do they want to sound professional?

Creative briefs ensure that everyone is on the same page when it comes to what your job is and what you’re trying to achieve. Be specific about small details and get as much information from the client as you can. 

Dealing with people

Being a freelancer means dealing with lots of different types of people. You’ll have clients who don’t really know what they want, clients who micromanage, clients who are vague and unhelpful, clients who are a joy to work with, clients who take forever to respond to email, and inevitably you’ll have a client or two who aren’t happy with your work. Being a freelancer takes people skills, so it’s worth brushing up on them.

You’re also going to be dealing with family and friends who assume that now that you work from home you’re either ‘not really working’ or that you are ‘always available’. You’re going to need to put your foot down. When Mum calls and says, ‘let’s meet for a coffee’ and you’ve got a deadline looming you need to be able to tell her that you’re busy working. When people assume that they can call you any time because you can work any time you need to be able to ignore your phone if it’s during your most productive period. Treat your freelance work like your office job and recognise that just because your work is different to a ‘normal’ job, doesn’t mean it can be treated like it isn’t a ‘real’ job.

In closing, freelancing can be a lonely business. There’s no more water-cooler chats and no more passing pleasantries to the security guard on the way in. Don’t become closed-off from the world. There are so many freelance support groups online and in person. Go to the monthly sundowners and meet your fellow freelancers, join a network of people that get the difficulties and can help and give advice.  I know this post has made freelancing sound scary and hard (which it can be) but it can also be rewarding and fun. If you go into it prepared for the above, then you can really give it your best shot.

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