I’ve been a freelance writer for nearly 10 years now. It seems such a crazy thing to say, given that in my 20s I couldn’t ever imagine a time when I wouldn’t be a social worker.
I’ve always loved writing.
Ever since I can remember I’ve put words down in order to process my thoughts and express feelings I couldn’t manage to say.
When I lived in Uganda in my mid-20s, people would reply to my emails saying, “You should write a book”.
In my mid-30s when I was doing my PhD my supervisor would always complement my writing style (my research skills …. not so much).
When I started freelancing, I never had a vision to become a full time freelance writer.
I was simply seeing if I could write something that someone wanted to publish.
And slowly, I realised that I wanted to be a freelance writer.
It’s been a lovely, organic journey.
But it does mean there are things I wish I had done differently.
If I had my time over, here’s what I wish I had known when I was starting out as a freelance writer
Being a writer is not only about writing
What do you do?
I’m a writer.
Writer. It’s such a simple word.
But actually, what I didn’t realise when I first started freelancing is that hiding behind the word ‘writer’ is a lot of other words.
As a newbie freelancer, I pitched, got commissioned (if I was lucky), wrote the story and invoiced.
But as my business has grown, I kind of wish I had known that I’m not going to spend most of my days writing.
Rather, the writing bit is only part of what I do.
I’ve had to learn loads of new skills on the job.
And I think I would have preferred if I was a little more prepared.
I probably would have set myself up with a simple, free invoicing software from the beginning (like this one).
I definitely would have kept better records of all my contacts and pitches.
And I would have set up a great system for recording receipts (like this one).
Hindsight is a fine thing, eh?
But having simple, effective systems in place from the get-go means you’re setting yourself up for success.
Setting limits is essential
For years I was so thrilled that editors and clients were going to pay me for my words, that I said yes to every opportunity.
I am, by nature, a person who finds it hard to say no.
But I wish I had known at the beginning that setting limits and strong boundaries is crucial to maintaining your freedom (and sanity) as a freelance writer.
While I really don’t believe that writers need a routine, I do think I would have benefited from setting some limits.
Too often in the early days I was working until 9.30pm.
I worked every weekend, I interviewed experts in my car in my lunch break (while I was still working as a social worker).
Or I took on corporate projects that were beyond my capabilities.
It was only last year that I finally cordoned off weekends.
And now 95% of the time Saturdays and Sundays are family time.
And it’s only been recently that I’ve decided I really need to do something about my procrastination.
It was after reading this stunning article about what technology is doing to us that I have committed to pursuing distraction-free work time.
The author of the article above quotes research that found that when people work on computers, their attention breaks every 40 seconds.
Less than 20 years ago it was every three minutes.
I found that such a scary statistic.
I know that I am like a meerkat every time my phone buzzes or I get a notification on my computer.
My concentration is broken and I need to do something about it.
And COVID-19 hasn’t helped either.
But I wish I had set limits earlier.
Because it’s too easy for the flexibility of freelancing to turn into a burden.
One where it’s hard to know where life starts and work ends.
Be patient, grasshopper
I think one of the reasons I love freelancing so much is because of the many spikes of joy you can get like …
Sending off a pitch you’re excited about
Getting your first byline in a publication you love
Writing content that aligns perfectly with your values
Getting a commission
Receiving an email from an editor offering you work
But I’ve found that while my efficiency has meant that I can usually turn out work quickly, I haven’t always taken the time I needed to consider pitches, replies or even where my business is going.
I tend to be quite impatient about what I want to achieve and when I want to achieve it by.
But I wish I had known that freelancing is about playing the long game.
One of my first (big) commissions was with a Sunday paper.
I was absolutely thrilled with the editor commissioned me and even happier when I got glowing feedback from her.
Each week I checked excitedly for my article to appear.
Do you know how long it was between submission and publication?
I had almost given up on ever seeing that piece, despite the same editor commissioning me since I submitted it.
So my advice is this: Be patient, my friends.
Editors take time to reply to pitches (if they reply at all).
It takes time to build relationships with clients.
But it’s about the compound effect – where little small steps add up over time to make a big impact on your life.
I would tell myself to slow down.
Don’t be in such a rush.
Don’t expect everything to happen immediately.
Because even once you reach your goals, you’re going to want something else.
And that takes time. And patience.
Feedback is not criticism
Okay, I should clarify.
Sometimes, feedback from editors and clients is criticism.
I’ve definitely been on the blunt end of some ALL CAPS feedback from an editor that didn’t feel like anything other than condemnation.
But in the beginning, I took feedback and requests for edits from editors and clients as a sign that I had failed to do my job properly.
I didn’t realise that feedback is all part of the process, and in fact, I should have viewed it as a conversation.
A conversation to learn more about my writing and where I could improve.
Now I’m not saying this is easy.
No one likes to send off a complete article only to get it back with track changes all over it.
But in the beginning, I often felt that once I submitted an article it was done.
And sometimes, it was.
But sometimes I received requests for more information or changes, and because I saw those as criticisms, my confidence was knocked.
Now I realise that it’s all part of the gig.
I now expect and even welcome feedback.
And now I see it as a way of working with the editor or client to produce an article that really works for the readers.
Saying no creates space for what you really want to do
It’s taken me a long old time to learn to say no.
I’m still working on getting that simple word out more regularly, but in the last few years I’ve said no to all kinds of things.
No to low-paid work
I’ve knocked back press trip offers
I’ve said no to interviews and speaking opportunities
Refused to commissions from editors
No to networking events
And even though this may all sound very negative, by saying no, I’ve created space for what I want to do.
Saying no to low-paying work means there’s space to accept or pursue high-paying gigs.
Saying no to press trip offers has meant more time with my family or not going on a trip simply because I’m flattered to be asked.
I’ve said no to speaking opportunities if I don’t think the audience will get value from my message. Or if I think the investment would be too great from my perspective.
It’s taken me years to get to this point.
But I can see what a dramatic impact it’s had on my business.
I only wish I had started sooner.
Give people the benefit of the doubt
It can be isolating being a freelancer and I think sometimes that time we spend by ourselves can mean we create stories not only on the page, but in our heads.
It’s easy to think things like:
My editor has requested changes or edits, they’ll never want to work with me again.
A client doesn’t have any work for me this month, they’ve found another better writer.
An editor says ‘I’ll keep your idea on file”, they won’t.
I’m as guilty as anyone, jumping to conclusions about people’s motivations.
But in most cases, I’ve found that there’s a reasonable explanation for their behaviour.
And the truth is, we don’t have any control over how people respond to us, our articles, our LOIs or our pitches.
I wish I had known before I began freelancing that there’s usually a side to the story that I haven’t considered or thought about before.
And that goes for the stories I’m writing too.
What about you? Is there anything you wish you had known when you were starting out as a freelancer?