Reader M. J. asks:

I am convinced that I can stay home and work for myself as a freelancer. What tips do you have as a writer to help make this a reality?

Dear M. J.:

Conviction is the very first thing you definitely need to make a freelance career happen, especially in writing. I’m going to be totally frank here and not sugar-coat this: it is HARD to make a living off freelancing, particularly if you (like most Americans) have any debt whatsoever. Writers have it particularly bad, and I blame this on our high literacy rates in America. Everyone can read, and therefore, everyone thinks they can write, too. Obviously, we all know that 98% of the written content on the internet is particularly vile (not to mention the written content in newspapers, books, and even movies), but in our digital age, quantity will beat quality any day of the week. Especially if it’s cheap quantity.

Doubt you'll ever need these.

Freelance writing: not what it used to be. Image: Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

The best advice I can give you is to find a gig with a past employer who wants to keep your services on-hand. If you can find a retainer, that is pure platinum. The reason a previous employer is a good idea is because they know your skill level and because you can trust that they’ll pay you. Striking it out in the wide world of self-employment can be a very difficult and unstructured move, and you may actually end up doing a lot of work that is either unpaid or underpaid.

That said, there are a lot of great ways to market yourself and get work. Here are a few things I’d definitely recommend:

– Get yourself a website.

Make it easy to remember. Your best options are your name, or a “catch-phrase” of sorts that people could come across easily. Buy the domain (they’re not too $$$ — godaddy.com is a good way to go) and find yourself a hosting biz. I recommend Word Press because it’s easy to use. Better yet, make a trade with someone who is actually a web designer. They’re always in need of content, and you write good content, so you can probably get them to make you a website in exchange for a bit of work on your end. Have examples of your work in PDF format available so people can see what you’re capable of. Make sure your website’s content is good, engaging, all that jazz.

– Print up some business cards.

You can get a good set for free at VistaPrint (you pay for shipping and/or to NOT have their name on your card somewhere). They don’t have to be fancy; in fact, while neat business cards are awesome, utilitarianism wins over form in this category. If they can’t find a way to contact you or remember why you gave them your card, the shiny hologram isn’t going to do anything for you. Put your name, specialties (“SEO”, “writing for web”, “music writer and jazz accordionist”), phone number, email address, and brand new website. I’d leave the address off, especially if you’re nomadic like a lot of us are. You can leave business cards all over the place, hand them to people who are talking about their new website, or give them to the hot number you meet at the bar. Everyone loves a business card.

– Decide on your pricing.

This is probably the hardest part for me. You’ve got to decide what your writing is worth, based on market research, your education level, and what you actually need to survive.  If you’ve worked a job as a copywriter in the past, consider charging hourly for what you used to make there. If not, figure out market rates by doing your research. It depends on what part of the world the content is going to, how big your client is, how much time and research it would take for you to complete it… It’s an ever-changing world. You’ll get an idea of what people are paying when you start to look for work, but you should at least have a general idea of an hourly rate for writing content (web vs. article vs. whatever else), editing content, consulting, etc.

Like I said before, it’s hard to find clients who are willing to pay for good quality when they can get quantity on the cheap. Remember that there are at least 100 computer-connected people in India or the Philippines who speak and write English and will do your $20/hr work for $0.10/hr. You’re going to have to be able to set yourself apart if you want to make the kind of money you probably need to make to afford living in the U.S. You could consider moving to India. I’m just saying.

– Scour the interwebs for work.

If you don’t have a generous former employer who wants to continue paying you in a freelance capacity, or friends who are starting their own websites, or any other contacts who can pay you for your work, you’re going to have to look for it.

Craigslist is actually a great place to find freelance work, especially if you dig around in the major metropolises (NYC, LA, DC, SanFran, Boston, etc). Of course, you have to be careful — there are a lot of scammers out there, and people who won’t pay you. This is why I say you should know your clients before you agree to work for them. If they don’t have a working agreement or contract of some sort available, don’t trust ’em.

I have also used oDesk.com, elancer.com, and other sites that basically take random screen shots while you’re logged in/working so that you can prove to your client how long you’ve worked, and so your client can rest assured you’re charging them for actual time. I have some trouble with this because I’m a multitasker, especially when I’m writing. I get a whole bunch of things done at once, and it’s hard for me to concentrate on a single task at a time and get it done well. So while these sites are good for some folks (and will help you assure payment), they don’t work for everyone. Also, these sites take a cut off your final billing, so you have to charge more per hour than you normally would. Finally, the problem with these sites is that you have to bid for the work rather than talking with your client directly, and some of the sites charge you “credits” (aka money) to bid on the highest jobs.

Sites like ecopywriters.com are good to start with — they pay by the word, which is an interesting way to go about things. Of course, this work can be mindless and not worth it if you don’t type fast or can’t come up with content quickly.

Sites like HubPages.com and Examiner.com can work for you if you’re capable of really marketing yourself and snagging a topic that people will be interested in reading. You really have to keep that up every day in order to earn any cash at it at all, but if it’s a topic you like, it can basically be like blogging.

– Try the old-fashioned route.

You can always send proposals to your favorite magazines and see if anyone will publish your article. Print media isn’t dead (yet), although the group of people who get published in it are a pretty incestuous circle and it can be very difficult to break into, especially without some kind of academic backing or a name for yourself. But if you are really good at writing articles, with a great spin on them, and can write awesome cover letters, go for it. It’ll cost you postage and time. Well, and printing fees, probably. And dignity, if they turn you down. Just remember: the only time you fail is the last time you try.

– Market yourself.

This is another really hard part. You’ve got to use the resources available to you, and there are a ton of them. Set up a fan page on Facebook and ask your friends to join. Nag them if you must. Use LinkedIn to get your name out there and get as many contacts as you possibly can. Be a whore. You’ve got to be, or you’ll never make enough money to live. People have got to be able to say, “Oh, yes, I know a writer” if it ever comes up. You never know. Put your resume up at eMurse.com and hang your business card up at all the free bulletin boards in town. Be shameless. Just do it.

– Learn new skills.

You are probably not going to be able to make it just as a copywriter. People don’t want to have to hire a copywriter, editor, graphic designer, and web designer. They want a one-stop shop. So make yourself useful. While you may never be an amazing coder, you can probably figure out how to use Photoshop or how to do HTML mark-up. The more stuff you know, the more valuable you are. Add as much to your resume as you can.

These tips will probably work well for graphic designers and programmers, too, although I think they have a much easier time finding work. (Again, everyone thinks they can write; but I’m pretty sure most people will readily admit they can’t code well.) If you make it big, remember to let ’em know where you got your info from. Wink. Wink.


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