The Two Key Tips for Being a Successful Freelance Writer

06/17/2014

I’ve been a freelancer for nearly 20 years, and I consider myself successful. I make a good living from my activity, and my clients — magazines, websites, and companies — keep coming back to me and offering me work. Over the years, I have realized that there are two essential tips that a freelancer needs to know. If you get these right, you, too, have a good chance of having a successful freelance career.

Working as a freelancer is not for everyone. While the flexibility of working at home is something I would never trade – I’ve done my share of suit-and-tie corporate work – it does require a certain amount of discipline. I’ve seen freelancers fail because they simply couldn’t develop a routine that allowed them to get work done. Sure, when it’s a nice day, you might want to go outside, take a walk, laze around in the sun, because, after all, no one’s looking over your shoulder. And there are days when you can do this; if you done your work, or if you can do it later, it’s great to take some time for yourself. When you consider how much time you save by not commuting, you can use part of your day to enjoy yourself. But the work comes first.

Freelancing also requires a certain amount of financial discipline. You need to keep your books; you either pay an accountant to do it for you, or you learn to do it yourself. Personally, I have a combination of both: I do all the day-to-day accounting, and I have an accountant who takes care of checking my books and filing forms.

And then there’s the marketing. I won’t discuss that here, but that’s obviously the biggest hurdle that any freelancer faces. If you can’t find a market to get work, then you will not succeed.

I said there were two tips that could make you a successful freelance writer. I learned these very early in my career, and being aware of them has, I think, helped me get a steady stream of work. One still needs to be a good writer, of course, and have good ideas, but even good writers can get tripped up by not respecting these points.

Tip 1: never miss a deadline. And I mean never. Ever. I missed a deadline once, because of a health problem that was serious enough to prevent me from working. But that was the only time I missed a deadline; really. In my line of work — writing — missing a deadline can be problematic for people downstream. If an editor is planning on a story for a magazine, and a writer is late, it makes the editor’s life very difficult. They have to find someone else to write your story, or find a different story, because they’ve earmarked a certain number of pages for your article. Even for websites, which try and schedule new content at a certain frequency, not having the expected articles will pose problems.

For many years, I worked as a translator. Deadlines were often very tight, and things such as product launches, or the printing of annual reports, depended on having translated texts on time. If you miss a deadline, the whole process gets delayed, and people will simply not come back to you and offer you more work.

Sometimes you may accidentally miss a deadline, and it’s not your fault. There are times when you send an article to an editor and they never receive it. For this reason, if you send your work to a client or editor, and don’t hear back from them within 24 hours, email them again to make sure that they’ve received it. The onus is on the freelancer to meet the deadline; don’t depend on editors to remind you.

Tip 2: don’t argue with your editor. I’ve heard stories from editors about writers who argue about certain words, certain phrases, even punctuation that editors have changed. For me, the editor is my client and my boss, and I trust him or her to do what’s necessary to edit my work for their publication. When an editor sends an article back to me after editing it, I read through it carefully, making sure that he or she did not introduce any errors. But I don’t spend my time changing words, revising sentences, or reorganizing anything. The editor knows what they want; once I send them the work, it belongs to them.

While these two tips are about being a freelance writer, you can apply them to a lot of freelance jobs. The one about not missing a deadline is the first commandment of freelancing. As for the second one, as the saying goes, “the customer is always right.” I’ve had my share of pain-in-the-ass clients, and I’ve dropped some clients who were too annoying, or who made my work look bad by introducing errors after I’d signed off. If you’re a freelance writer, you’ll find plenty of clients who want to change your work. As long as it’s not wrong, let them.

Being a freelancer can be very rewarding. The “free” in freelancer is, if you’re the right kind of person, the best way to work. These two tips could help make sure that you keep getting work.