I’ve been a freelance writer for over two decades now, and I’ll just come out and admit it: I’ve made nearly every mistake possible. I might have a Ph.D. in English from Florida State, but I’ve got another well-earned Ph.D. from the University of Hard Knocks, too. And I’d like to share some of that hard-won wisdom with you – along with some tips from a pair of writing pals – so you can find success without hitting every pothole in the road of freelance writing like I did.
Pitfall 1: Know your rate
A Fortune 500 CEO got my number from Lord-knows-who and called me up. I was 25 and dead-broke and counting my lucky stars that this happened. “Yes,” I told him as dollar signs flashed in my head. “I’ll help you write those white papers and a proposal for your memoir. You betcha!”
“How much do you charge?” he asked.
I had absolutely no idea what others charged. I worried that if I didn’t answer on the spot, he’d know I was a total beginner who had no idea what I was doing. Or in the time it took me to find out and get back to him, he’d have moved on to a real pro.
So I guessed. And I hit the mark way, way low, so I ended up doing three months of work for this guy at a teen babysitter’s rate when he would’ve paid 10 times that much (he admitted as much over beers a year later).
Google “freelance editing rates.” Google “freelance editors.” You’ll quickly see the range. Plant yourself firmly in the middle and adjust accordingly.
Pitfall 2: Get paid upfront
There are three main times to get paid. Upfront. Along the way. Or at the end. Too many newbies accept the “paid upon delivery” model as the norm. It’s not.
These days, I charge ¼ on acceptance of the job, ¼ at the halfway point (with deliverables from me), and ½ upon final delivery. This way, when the inevitable 10 to 20 percent of clients flake out at some point in the process, I’ve got something to show for my work. If you’ve got all of your financial eggs in that “paid upon delivery” plan? Oof.
It took me a lot of guts and getting burned for a cumulative total of $5,000+ before realizing that some variation of the pay-as-we-go strategy is the only way to go.
Pitfall 3: Avoid deadline pile-up
“There’s no better feeling for a freelancer than assignments arriving in a big bunch,” says Las Vegas freelancer Jarret Keene. “And there’s nothing worse than the dread associated with deadlines clustered around the same date. Obviously, get your momentum rolling early, use your phone calendar and notifications to maintain your headway, and schedule interviews and walk-throughs well in advance.
“Less obviously, submit everything according to its due date: Don’t try knocking out shorter pieces first just because they’re easier. The event you’re pre-covering with a sidebar might suddenly cancel or be postponed, and without a negotiated kill fee – a sum paid to the author if an article is cancelled – you’re not getting paid for it. The sooner you begin and the steadier you progress, the less stress you’ll suffer from editorial whims and allergy attacks, both of which can play havoc with your plans.
“Reward yourself after every submitted assignment. Take breaks, sure. But do NOT procrastinate by listening to the ultra-rare B-sides of a recording artist you’re slated to phone-interview when you should be prepping questions. If you have an assignment, you have writing to do. Sit down and punch the keyboard with a joyful (and soon-to-be-paid) heart.”
Pitfall 4: The power of a picture
Keene points out that if you’ve ever done time as a music journalist, you’ve likely endured what he calls the pleasure-pain principle. “That is,” he explains, “the pleasure that comes with rendering a brilliant interview with a kickass rock band. And when your profile finally is printed or posted online, you suffer the agony of seeing your beautiful words ruined by a publicity image that is three years out of date, featuring musicians no longer in the band. Before blaming the magazine’s Google-challenged art director, consider how you could’ve kept things smooth and professional by requesting from the publicist – the moment they confirmed the interview for you – a current publicity image of the band.”
The simple act of providing story images to your editor will put you in an elite category of freelancer, Keene notes. “Most aren’t willing to put in a little extra effort to make their editor’s life hassle-free. Your care and attention will be appreciated, and you may even notice how your invoices now get processed a bit faster.”
Pitfall 5: Don’t forget the WOW
Novelist and Texan freelancer K.L. Romo explains, “When I first started freelance writing, I didn’t include the WOW factor in my pitches. A homeless man camps out under an overpass. Instead of focusing on his current living conditions, dig deeper. What was his story before? He has a Ph.D. in psychology. How did he go from counseling teens to living in a makeshift tent on the sidewalk? How could his story prevent others from becoming homeless?”
She adds that to get an editor’s attention, you’ve got to craft a pitch that makes them say, “OMG – how did that happen?” or “Wow, never heard that before.” You’ve got to pique their curiosity and make them want to read on. The goal is to find a unique perspective that isn’t the same ole, same ole.
Pitfall 6: Plan for disaster
Don’t hope for disaster. Don’t obsess with worry. But don’t assume your writing conditions will be optimal. That’s pipe-dream stuff.
Whenever a client asks me “How long will this take?” I use my secret handy-dandy freelance formula:
[Actual amount of time I think task will take] x 1.5 = [what I say to client]
The moment you guarantee a one-month delivery, your house will become infested with armadillos, lightning will zap your hard drive dead, and you’ll develop scurvy. Murphy’s Law simply has a way of striking at the worst possible time-crunches.
Trust me. Give yourself a cushion for when life gets in the way.
Pitfall 7: Clarity matters
I’m no lawyer, nor do I play one on TV. But I’ve realized that there’s no harm and plenty of good to be had by being amazingly clear with a client in terms of a project’s particulars. For some time, I tried using contracts with lots of lawyerese that I cobbled together from somewhere.
These days? I simply email each client a Memo of Understanding written in plain English that a 7-year-old kid can understand. It lays out all the important stuff – due dates, payments, project name, who owns what, etc.
Will it ever hold up in court? I don’t know. In my two decades of doing this, I’ve never had to involve courts, nor has any client involved lawyers against me. Why not? I think most situations where lawyers and writers get into a scuffle stem from confusion about the basics. My Memos of Understanding have everyone on the same page before anyone’s written or paid anything.
Look – I’m terrific as all heck. But how I think things are happening isn’t always how someone else perceives or expects it. Trust the clarity of a well-written, specific Memo of Understanding vs. the memories of multiple parties.
Remember – there are three sides to every story. Your side. Their side. And the truth!
Being a freelance writer is an awesome way to make a bit of mad money, supplement another career, or even become your main source of income. Just keep an eye on the pitfalls mentioned above, and you’ll save yourself a triple helping of grief along the way.
—Ryan G. Van Cleave is the author of 20 books, and he runs the creative writing program at the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota, Florida. Web: ryangvancleave.com.