My journey as a freelance writer wasn’t always smooth-sailing. I reached the nadir circa June 2011, when I lost two projects — one recurring; and one ad-hoc — in one day. Yes, it was double whammy! Later that evening I went to a Body Combat class and released my festering anger with many air punches and kicks.
And for the next six months, I would have no projects and was merely surviving on my savings, which weren’t a lot to begin with. To make matters worse, I had planned a year-end trip to Auckland with my two besties! I was counting pennies while I was on that trip, and I was on the verge of giving up.
Thankfully, the tides changed in December 2011 when I was asked to do a two-week stint at a design agency; and the next year began with a big bang as I clinched a partnership with a public relations agency. Till this day, I still work with both agencies closely.
In retrospect, I now know what went wrong. I was a somewhat decent writer, but not an exceptional professional. My drafts would come back in a sea of red ink, and I mixed up many
The setback was a hard one, but it changed the way I operated. Here are the lessons on freelance success that I picked up.
You’ve to be good at your job
Suffice it to say that aptitude is a requisite if you want to soar. There is no way around it. If you’re a writer, then you must be au fait with the ironclad grammar rules. Accountants must excel at Excel; photographers need to know all the ins and outs of apertures, ISO certifications and whatnot. Designers need to know how to make their masterpieces pop.
You must be able to do your work in your sleep. Unless of course you’re a neurosurgeon, in which case I’d prefer that you stay awake. Doing what you do is second nature — there will be stumbling blocks along the way, but nothing should be insurmountable.
Know your own worth
Many freelancers start out unsure of their potential. They test the waters and they end up low-balling themselves. I was the same way too. My rate, four years into the job, was $25/hour. Only when I spoke to another freelance writer did I realise I’d been undercharging all along. Needless to say my fees skyrocketed after that conversation. Talk to others in your field(s) and get a feel of the market rates.
If you know you’re good at what you do, then inflate your ego a little. People may shake you down: they have you believe they’re doing you a favour and giving you a once-in-a-lifetime chance to build your portfolio or résumé. But if they are knocking on your doors, then that means they need you. And you should always be compensated for your efforts.
And do not work for free. Not even if said client is a relative. Not even if the task would only take 10 minutes of your time. (There are exceptions, which I’ve mentioned below.)
Have a charming personality
The very first piece of career advice I received came from a then Business Development Manager working at CLS Communication. It was my very first editorial meeting with a client. I got into his two-door, too-small (I’m burly) car, and I expressed my consternation. I said it was my first-ever project, and I wondered if I could make something of it. He replied, “A lot of writers can be a prima donna. Just be a professional and you’ll do fine.”
The advice was golden. It wasn’t too difficult for me; I’ve always been an easy-going and funny person. When I first became a freelance writer, the portfolio I sent out comprised blog entries like “What’s So Happy About a Birthday?” I had never managed a newsletter until someone tasked me with one. And I never knew why companies were willing to take a chance with me.
Until I had to work with other writers who were prima donnas. And creatives who were overly defensive even when they messed up. And people who had such insipid personalities — “Ok.” — you wonder if they were sedated.
Personality is just as important as talent. There is no lack of talents out there; and there will always be people who are much more experienced and astute than you are. Why should an agency or a client work with you? Because you’re dependable. Because talking to you doesn’t make them wish they were having root canal. Consider this: would you want to work with a tyrant? Probably not.
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Maya Angelou
And because you’re self-motivated, you’ll put forth your best efforts to deliver great work. And because you’re self-reliant, you know where to get the resources you need to make a breakthrough.
Get on retainer!
No, I’m not suggesting expensive dental surgery. The only reason freelancers fail is unstable income. The bills pile up, and the stress mounts when the bank balance whittles. You can have 10 projects in the pipeline and still struggle to pay the bills. Why? Because a project, leastways not the big ones, will never wrap up so quickly. There will always be delays, radio silence, etc. And then comes the pain of chasing for your payments, which is a story for another day.
Hence, it is imperative that you have steady streams of funds to anchor your salary. Write to companies that you’ve always wanted to work for! You’ll be surprised at how many full-fledged agencies do not have the wherewithal to staff a full-time creative, and hence turn to freelancers. An agency may require you to work on-site two days a week — the part-time salary should help. When seeking new projects, actively pitch for monthly newsletters, quarterly magazines and the like. Therein lies the assurance of long-term income.
Never put all your eggs in one basket. You never know when your partnering agency will go belly-up. Or when a change of management on your client’s end takes place. Always be on the lookout for job openings, continuously write to agencies and strike up new partnerships. The loss of one account would be a blow, but ultimately it should not derail your entire freelance career.
Strive to be indispensable
Freelancers are like mercenaries: we go where the money is. We call the shots, we fire clients if we wish to. We collect our pay cheques and then we’re out the front door. Adieus! That is why it doesn’t matter if our work is sub-par, right?
In the business world, it’s harder to get new customers than to please repeat ones. Think about all the legwork when an agency or client drops you: to replace that income, you’ve to do cold calling, go for pitches that might not always be successful, get used to a new learning curve, etc. (The steps are necessary when you want to land new accounts, but at least your salary burgeons in this scenario.) And words travel. It’s not that big a world, so your notoriety will quickly spread.
After you’ve struck up a partnership, be it with an agency or client, you have to become the go-to person. Give every assignment your 100%. Do what others won’t, or can’t, or don’t even think about doing. As a freelance writer, I have the time to proofread my works at least twice before submission. I can sleep on an article and spend time pondering about more-captivating angles, whereas a full-time writer may not have the same luxury.
What about you? What can you do to prove your worth? What can you bring to the table? While I may not be indispensable — no one really is — I do believe I’ve made it an uphill climb for my partnering agencies to find my replacement.
And not forgetting one thing: when you are a bona fide professional who meets deadlines and does good work and you have a charming personality to boot, other people will readily refer you to their network of contacts. Referrals are everything in the world of freelancing.
“Try never be the smartest person in the room. And if you are, I suggest you invite smarter people… or find a different room. ” Michael Dell
Find a mentor, or someone who can challenge you
By the year 2012 my freelance career was revving up. Clients loved my work, but there was always a nagging feeling. Is the work really good? How can I improve the draft that I submitted? See, clients are not discerning writers, and while it’s always nice to hear a compliment, I wasn’t sure I was worthy of the title “writer”.
It wasn’t until I worked with the two editors at Karen & Karen that I became more confident and assured as a writer. As a freelancer, it’s important for you to connect with experts in your fields and then learn from them. You don’t even need to get sentimental and make it official — just observe how they do things, handle clients and manage projects.
Another benefit of having de-facto mentors? They can
push you off a cliff take you out of your comfort zone. Earn their trust, and you will get to undertake their projects — projects that are out of your league. Accounts that you can’t yet land on your own merits, but one day will. Since working with my two editors, my portfolio has gotten a lot more impressive, and I have the moxie to take on more-challenging projects.
That’s how you develop your skills and grow. Having the guidance of luminaries will help pave the way to success and sustainability.
Ask for things
Going through a dry spell and hoping someone would toss you a project, even if it’s a carcass? Been working for a client for sometime now and you reckon it’s time for a raise? Hit a creative block and need advice? You won’t actually get what you want unless you ask for it!
Since becoming a freelancer I’ve grown three slabs of skin. I have no qualms approaching others for help. Likewise, if you want something, make it happen. But in order for you to receive help, you must have rendered help at some point. So whenever you can, help your clients or partners out of a jam. Is there an urgent piece of work — one that doesn’t take up too much of your time? Do it for free (note: I only do free stuff for long-term! These little things will go a long way in cultivating your relationships.
Of course, these are just broad strokes and big-picture talk. Stay tuned for the next article on Actionable Tips to Achieve Success!