In my decade in the professional writing business, I have been a humble writer, a less humble one, an editor, a commissioner, a manager, and an outreach consultant. I’ve worked pretty much every angle in print and digital media across the world from Japan to America, Africa, India, and Australia.
During that time, I’ve seen quite a few good writers, a lot of bad ones, and many, many who could have been better with the right attitude. There are many mistakes that freelance writers can make and I have made many of them, but here’s my top 10. It’s a bit different from other writing sites, but don’t be discouraged. Pay attention and you could put yourself on a path to being a better writer and a better freelancer.
“I will be off work from tomorrow for 3 months, see you then.” That might seem a bit extreme but it has happened. As a freelancer working for a long-term client you cannot just disappear or give 1 day’s notice. Businesses build themselves around having X number of writers for X number of jobs and if you disappear you throw them into chaos and you make yourself look highly unprofessional.
Freelance writing is a business and your reputation is built by how you work, the quality of your work, and how professional you are. This means being polite, courteous, collegiate, delivering work on time and to the standard required, and yes, giving fair notice if you have a vacation planned.
The Out of Control Ego
You’re a freelance writer, you’re not Marcel Proust or Murakami Haruki. One of the most annoying things when you get to a managerial or even editor level in the writing/publishing business is writers who think they are far, far better than they really are. There’s nothing more infuriating than receiving a limp, half-arsed piece of drivel with bland platitudes, no research, no punch, no life, and then for the writer to get angry – “that took me 5 hours to do” or to say “I don’t do revisions.”
No matter what writing job we take on, if we take it on, we do it professionally and to the best of our abilities. We revise and we try to improve ourselves. As Stephen King says in On Writing a good writer can make themselves a better writer with practice and street smarts. Learn to research well, think originally (ditch the first few ideas that come to mind), and learn to get the right voice for the job.
Ignoring the Writer’s Guidelines
We Content Managers or Editors spend quite a long time working on our writer’s guidelines; especially when these are for our clients as well as for ourselves. They’re there for a good reason so there really is no excuse as a freelance writer for you to totally ignore them.
Sure, there are different types of writing jobs. Technical ones have to meet these guidelines and industry standards while blog posts are a little more flexible. Just remember this though, if you choose to ignore them then your piece better be a thousand times better or you’re going to get some rewrites and eventually given the boot.
One of the biggest sins for an editor or content manager is to receive a potentially great idea turned into a boring, mundane article. It happens all the time. Do your research, think outside the box, and get to know your subjects. This really comes with time and experience, but even then, researching is quick and easy to do. Make sure you create a strong title with an engaging first line. Writers who can do this, who can fake being an expert (be an expert researcher not an expert), go on to do well. However, those who cannot, soon get moved away or get frustrated by an avalanche of rejections.
Poor Technical Skills
Again time to mention Stephen King. He’ll never claim to be a great writer of prose and yet he is one of the best selling and most accessible writers of all time. He’s got great ideas even if his endings suck (The Mist – novella vs. movie). However, he goes to great length to improve his craft and insists others do too. This means finding new and different ways to say things while getting the basics down to a tee. While we are called Editors we really ought to only be making minor adjustments to better fit our clients or ourselves. We should not be fixing basic, school-level mistakes, poor grammar, and poor spelling.
Taking the Wrong Personal Approach to the Job
At the top we mentioned being unprofessional with your clients. However, you need to be professional with yourself too. Most freelance writers work from home and that’s a place filled with distractions such as the TV, social media on your phone, and my personal fail – the sweet stuffs in the kitchen. Furthermore, you can’t work in bed all the time though sometimes on a cold day when you feel ill it’s nice. And you can’t sit around all day eating junk.
You need to create the right working environment including dedicated workspaces. You need to have a fitness routine, eat well to optimise your brain, give your hands a rest, and make sure you’re feeling good. Try to avoid isolation by organising social events – especially if you live alone like me. And most of all, be organised.
Not Hassling Your Clients
Some weeks I see long queues of work not being claimed by our pool of writers and some weeks I see writers begging for more work. Actually, I like to see writers asking for more work – that’s enthusiasm I can work with. Whether you want more work or you want them to pay up, hassle your clients. Most people, including those in the industry, don’t know how advertising and sales work, but one key element is persistence. Do it in the right way, be professional, but keep chasing clients for work and payment when due.
Thinking it’s an Ordinary Job
I know I said before you have to be professional like a regular job, but by the same token there’s no coasting as a freelance writer. The gig is definitely a case of feast or famine, so you cannot spend expecting a regular paycheck. You need to squirrel money away for taxes and for a rainy day because rainy days happen a lot; especially when you think you have enough regular clients to keep you going. I suggest you remember the old marketing and advertising adage – once you’ve gained a client, you’ve already lost them.
Saying Yes to Too Much
One summer I agreed to help out at a Hungarian friend’s bike shop because he was short staffed. However, not soon after giving my word a bunch of old clients came around with a ton of work for me to do and I took it all on. To keep it short, I worked all summer with barely a day off in 6 months. Taking on a lot of work can pan out for the better, but you can also find yourself doing way too much and with each job suffering as a result. Get the balance wrong and you can produce sub-par content and lose all your clients.
A good general knows when to withdraw from the battlefield. This is true. Know when to not fight and when to walk away. However, don’t give up when the first feather knocks you over. My first writing job paid $3.50 an hour and in my second an Editor rejected my articles then copied them, submitted them as their own and got the extra money for it. Still, don’t give up. Learn the lessons you can from an experience, build your reputation, look for better clients and better money. You won’t make it instantly, but you can reap the benefits of being a freelance writer with a bit of hard work and common sense.