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What makes a successful freelance writer? It comes down to ONE factor

By June 27, 2021 10 Comments

Here’s the thing. There is one simple factor behind what makes a successful freelance writer. I’m yet to meet a freelancer of any description (writer, graphic designer, web developer – you name it) whose business is thriving, but who doesn’t have this thing. It’s not a tool or a qualification. It’s a quality. A characteristic. Something that you can hone and tune. Do you know what it is?

But before I get to the key ingredient in what makes a successful freelance writer, I want to say this.

I want to acknowledge that success will mean different things to different people.

For me, success is about pushing myself. It’s about contributing to a broader conversation about whatever I’m writing about. Success is about financially providing for my family. It’s when work and life are harmonious and even though I’m earning $100K+ as a freelance writer, I’m not working seven days a week, ten hours a day. It’s when I feel happy, productive, fulfilled and content.

Looking back at previous years’ income reports  and dissecting what made those such successful years, one thing comes up time and time again.

It was my ability to develop strong relationships with editors and clients

I really believe that if there is a silver bullet to making a living as a freelance writer, this is it.

This is the key to what makes a successful freelance writer.

Relationships.

I wish I had known this sooner.

For five years I pitched magazines, newspapers and websites that I loved and read.

But I barely spared a thought about who I was sending those query emails to (apart from whether the editor responded promptly and made reasonable requests for edits).

I didn’t consider what makes a professional relationship work – I just crossed my fingers and pitched.

It was only in 2017, when I went full time as a freelance writer, that I realised how important it is to nurture relationships with editors and clients.

Years ago I read this article and it really struck a chord.

In the article, successful freelancers share what they wish they had known when they started out.

Freelance journalist and copywriter, Susan Johnston Taylor says:

“I wish I’d known to focus on building relationships with editors rather than chasing one story at a time.

Early in my career, I’d brainstorm an idea for a market, pitch that market, and then move onto another website or magazine because I didn’t have more ideas for the original market.

That’s a lot of work to convince that editor, learn their style and invoicing process, then start fresh. Rather than getting a lot of one-off assignments for different markets, it’s much more time efficient to focus on markets that have a steady need for the kind stories you want to write. That’s my approach now.”

She hits the nail on the head, right?

The best use of your time is not pitching every magazine or newspaper that takes your fancy.

It’s about systematically establishing relationships that will keep your boat steady when the storms appear. And rough weather inevitably comes.

I’ve been freelancing for ten years now and it’s a rare editor that is still in the same job three years later.

But you know what?

Those editors move on and often they take their preferred freelance writers ‘with’ them. By which I mean, they offer you assignments from their new position. This happened to me last month when an editor of an inflight mag (RIP) I had written for reached out with a commission for a new publication.

And while I know it can take time to find a publication that ticks at least most of these boxes below:

  • editor is responsive
  • you enjoy the work
  • the publication pays well
  • pays in a timely manner
  • the opportunities are fairly regularly (e.g. it’s not an annual publication)
  • collaborative editing process
  • you like the editor
  • the work challenges you or progresses your career

I really believe that freelance writers need to stop being one hit wonders with particular publications.

But fundamentally, the key to becoming a successful freelance writer is how good you are at building relationships with editors and clients.

Part of this is developing trust.

Editors need to trust that you will deliver what you say you will, when you say you will.

The more you deliver clean copy, on time, the more you will be one of their go-to freelancers.

Make a list of current and past editors or clients, which ones do you have a good relationship with?

Which ones could you foster and build on and which ones do you need to set free?

I had a good relationship with an editor who would regularly come to me with commissions, but once she moved jobs into another editorial position I decided I wouldn’t write for her again.

Why?

She regularly changed her mind from the original brief and her interactions with me left a bit to be desired (if I never get a Word doc back with FEEDBACK ALL IN RED CAPS it’ll be too soon).

Each time I saw her name in my inbox my heart would sink, and so even though the money was good and the publication had a high profile, I let it go.

Developing relationships takes time

Of course, building a solid connection with an editor can take a while.

It depends on the editor and how responsive, busy or interested they are, but it may take months or years to get a proper ‘in’.

But, if you’re lucky, it may take less time than that.

I’ve been in situations where I had only written for an editor once before she came to me with another assignment. This editor  now regularly asks me to contribute to a certain section of her magazine.

Editors often have an editorial calendar or topics they want to cover and they need reliable freelancers to commission. Be that freelancer.

Why relationships are so important for your freelance business

If you’ve got one-off gigs, then your income and your livelihood is much more fragile than if you have recurring income.

I know lots of people say that recurring income is almost a ‘must have’ for full time freelance journalists, but most of my freelance life, I never had retainers or recurring monthly income.

Instead, I worked on developing multiple, strong relationships with editors that brought me in commissions each month without having to pitch.

If you’re a freelance writer, who only has one-off gigs and no solid relationships with editors, I think you’re fighting an uphill battle.

What can you can do right now

Change the way you look at pitching.

Change the way you look at reaching out to corporate clients.

Now when I pitch, I look at it as the start of a conversation.

If the editor doesn’t take me up on the conversation, I leave it pretty quickly.

If they are responsive (even if it’s a ‘no’), I get involved – we go back and forth.

Sometimes they become part of my group of editors who regularly commission me and sometimes, for whatever reason, it’s not a good fit.

What if you looked at your pitches as part of an ongoing conversation, rather than having just one shot at a target?

Focus on the relationship first and the rest will follow.

Trust me.

If you ensure your mindset is focused on building relationships and partnerships with editors and clients, your whole freelance writing business will change for the better.

What kinds of things do you do to develop and strengthen relationships with the people you work with? Do you consciously focus on building relationships with editors and clients? 

10 Comments

  • Claire says:

    Great link to the article about what freelancers wish they’d known at the beginning, I always find that sort of thing useful. And a great tip to develop relationships with editors as well. It’s made me realise that it’s okay to focus on fewer publications but to concentrate on offering exactly what they want, rather than a more scatter-gun approach. I re-read your Megan Blandford interview as well. I found it very encouraging that she splits her time between content marketing and feature articles. There’s so much advice to really niche down, but I just can’t seem to do that at the moment, so it’s good to know that not everyone does. I’ve spent a lot of time trying to convince myself to specialise in writing for lawyers, but the bottom line is, my heart isn’t in it.

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      Me too Claire! I love when advice and experience is distilled into such beautifully digestible chunks!
      Not only do I think it’s totally ok to focus on fewer publications, but probably better to develop better relationships with few than superficial with many. I think Megan is such a great example of someone who really balances her writing and pursues topics and areas that she loves – whether it’s for corporates or magazines.
      Listen to your gut and heart Claire – if you don’t want to write for lawyers don’t do it. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should!

  • Ian Walker says:

    Loving your website and great advice here, thanks a lot!

  • Sharanya says:

    I never did give relationship-building much thought back when I was freelancing part-time. With editors changing jobs it really did become difficult to keep in touch. I blame it on my laziness. Really.

    As of today, I would say, I’m getting better with practice and not callous as I was a couple of years ago. I believe it helps to keep that silent phase from creeping in.

    PS: Lindy, your articles are always so motivating. I keep coming back to them when I want encouragement. <3

    Thank you for all the advice you give !

    • Lindy Alexander says:

      Thanks so much for your comment Sharanya; I’m so glad you keep coming back! I think relationship-building is an easy thing to overlook, especially when you’re part time. But I’ve found that it is one of the easiest ways to find repeat work with editors and clients.

  • Ara Jansen says:

    Great story Lindy! Yup, you’re totally right. Your contact book (or whatever your version of it is) and solid connections are the key to running a successful freelance business. It’s how you get people calling you with work. The other important point you made is that filing clean copy and being reliable is also a huge plus for someone giving you a job. Having worked both sides, I know the people I go to are the ones who deliver on time and deliver great work and which is clean. Fab tips!

    • lindyalexander says:

      Thanks Ara! You’re one of the people I think of when I think about freelancers who are SO successful at making and maintaining relationships.

  • JoAnna says:

    All of this is so true! I am fortunate that I have a handful of steady (and ideal!) clients that assign me work each month. However, I know that building this base of clients wasn’t about luck; it was about me being dependable and always submitting high-quality work on time. My clients knew that they could depend on me to do good work consistently and respond promptly to their emails and work requests.

    Besides that, I remain professional and personable in my emails. My goal in my client relationships is to be professional, personable, and prompt. Doing those things consistently has also helped me build a good rapport with my clients.

    • lindyalexander says:

      Love this JoAnna! I’m always astounded when I hear tales of writers who don’t meet their deadlines or who are difficult to deal with. I have no doubt that your steady stream of ideal clients is a true reflection of how great you are to work with.

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