On Friday, I spoke about succeeding as a freelance writer or editor as part of the Asian American Journalists Association annual convention in Los Angeles. The panelists alongside me discussed writing for Hollywood, landing a book deal and transitioning to non-profit management; an interesting combination of career paths for the audience of journalists to consider.
My advice for succeeding as a freelance writer or editor was aimed at journalists who already have training, experience and connections in the field, but I believe it can be useful to anyone interested in a career as a freelance writer or editor. To me, success means paying your mortgage, taxes and other bills from your freelance income -- otherwise what you have is a fun hobby, not a career.
Land a steady anchor client
My first tip is to line up an anchor client who pays you a set weekly or monthly income that will cover your bare minimum expenses. I'm not saying this is easy, but it's essential to succeeding as a freelance writer or editor. Otherwise, you lurch from gig to gig not knowing whether you'll be able to make your mortgage payment.
When you decide to launch a career as a freelance writer or editor, make an anchor client one of your first goals. A spouse with a steady job, a severance package or a savings cushion can fill this role for the first six months to year. Long-term, the source of this steady income can appear in a number of forms:
- Writing a newsletter or column.
- Part-time editing or production work.
- Part-time non-journalism work (receptionist, security guard, bartender).
- A regular paid blogging gig.
- A contributing editor position that guarantees a certain monthly income.
- A book contract with a generous advance.
- A grant.
Understand your rate -- and stick to it
The next key factor in succeeding as a freelance writer or editor is understanding and setting the rate you will charge for your services. First, calculate your required monthly, daily and hourly income. Make sure to account for time you'll need for marketing, record keeping, vacation and sick days. (See the handout I prepared with estimates - but know that your situation may vary.) You'll likely end up with a range. For instance, your monthly goal may be $10,000 but your minimum is $5,000.
Refuse any assignments that fall under your minimum rate. Your time is better spent pitching and marketing. The only exception is when an assignment is high prestige, fulfills a career goal or could lead to better paying work. (But be skeptical of promises that you'll get a raise down the road -- your first rate is usually the final rate.)
I always calculate on the hourly revenue I'll generate on a possible gig, not the per-word or other rate. That tells me whether the assignment is worth my time, whether it will help me meet my financial goals or put me behind the curve. I also recommend being very disciplined in sticking to the time you allot to a particular task. Resist spending more time on an assignment than would earn your hourly rate.
If you find that you cannot land enough assignments to make your hourly rate, this may not be the career for you. Or perhaps you need to find a staff journalism job to build up the experience and contacts needed to earn the income you desire.
Follow the money
Finally, it's vital to track your revenue and refine your marketing strategies if you want to succeed as a freelance writer or editor. Each week and month you should track your pending assignments and completed work, as well as your cash flow. This could be a simple Excel spreadsheet.
Bounce your marketing strategies and rates off other freelancers, and be generous in your networking. Look to give as much help as you get, if not more. After all, no single person can complete all the work that's out there. Just as you refer excess business to networking contacts, they can refer work to you. Get out of the office to meet with clients and other freelancers, so you're not isolated in your home office.
Think outside the box when you're looking for clients. You never know when writing or editing work might help a local business, one of your high school friends or even the guy sitting next to you on the plane. Don't count on your stable of clients remaining the same. Always be seeking new clients and planning for the possibility of losing an anchor client. Don't be afraid to fire clients who pay poorly, are high maintenance or unreliable. Turning down poor-paying gigs is your quickest path to financial success. Become ruthlessly efficient. Your time is your most valuable resource.
Most importantly, take several hours each week for long-range career planning and development. Don't let the press of daily deadlines distract you from the big picture and your broader career goals. After all, you're truly an entrepreneur -- nobody but you is steering the ship.
Photo by MShades via Flickr