What You Should Know Before You Become a Freelance Writer

Whether you are a dreamer, a beginner, or a veteran of the craft, if you aren’t already freelancing, you might like to be. And, if you would, chances are you also want to know what it’s like to be an independent writer—part time or full time. Perhaps you’ve heard about the obstacle course of tough choices, tough editors, tough assignments … the agony of clients who pick your work to pieces, pay late, don’t pay at all, or drop you flat without explanation … and the ecstasy of doing what you love, loving what you do, and being your own boss.

Don’t be dismayed by the downside or overly impressed with the promises of “ecstasy.” Instead, do some research and soul searching; ask yourself the following questions; and, if you don’t know the answers, ask people who actually make their living as freelance writers.

  • What does it really take to make it as a freelance writer, and do you have it?

  • Should you try to be all things to all readers and clients, or is it better to specialize?

  • Is it possible to balance all the roles of a professional writer and a full-time life?

What does it take to make it? 

There are a host of characteristics that successful freelancers share. In fact, many of them would be an advantage for any writer. Among the most important, in my opinion, are talent, tenacity, self-discipline, business and marketing savvy, and trust in the creative process. There are many more, of course. Having all of them would virtually guarantee success, but few people are so blessed or perfect. The rest of us can do two things: identify our existing strengths and build on them; and work on the others one at a time. Should you be all things to all people or a specialist?
Using a photographic analogy to make a point about writing is a good way to present one of the toughest decisions you will face as a freelancer: whether to focus tightly on a particular area (genre, style, subject, medium) or become a generalist who does a little bit of everything.

  • A generalist: Most writers start out by dabbling in a wide range of disciplines and gradually hone their skills in one or two of them. Occasionally, someone may begin as a specialist and, over the years, add more disciplines to the mix and become more of a generalist.
  • A specialist: If you want to specialize, you have a vast array of avenues to choose among. You can become an expert in a particular subject matter, industry, area of communications, style, or genre. Or you can mix and match. The question is where do your interests lie? That’s your first clue.

My advice: If you have an area of specialization, pursue it. It will get your foot in the door. On the other hand, if you are interested in a variety subjects or genres, try them out. Eventually, you may choose to specialize. Just remember, nothing you ever try is a waste of time. It all contributes to making you a writer.

How can you keep all the plates in the air?

Whether you freelance on the side, now and then, or full time, you must think of it as an entrepreneurial venture. You are running a business, no matter how small that business may be. Imagine drawing an organization chart and discovering that your name is in every box. You are wearing all the hats, from CEO on to gofer. Unless you have help, you are the whole work force. Let us assume that, in addition to your business, you have a home, a family, a social life, a full-time or part-time job, and a few extracurricular activities.

That’s what it feels like to have a dozen plates in the air. If you aren’t attentive, they may all come crashing down. The trick is to balance all of the roles of a business owner with all of the roles you play when you aren’t running the business. How do you do that without falling on your face, dropping everything, and ending up with a pile of rubble? The good news is many writers do it successfully. They set priorities. They don’t run themselves ragged. When possible, they get help. They do what they can do and let the less important things go.

Whether you plan to stick a toe in the water of freelance writing or dive in all the way, you would be wise to develop following four habits:

  1. Develop the necessary strengths and characteristics every writer needs.
  2. Learn as much as possible about your subject matter.
  3. Continue to polish your writing style.
  4. Practice the many skills required of an entrepreneur.

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