The 9 lessons I learnt from my first year of full time freelancing
2017 has been a huge year for me. I started in January not knowing how I would go trying to earn a full time living from freelance writing for magazines, newspapers and corporate organisations. I’m so glad to say that it’s been a success. I’ve never felt more motivated, more productive or more engaged in the work I’m doing. The year hasn’t been without challenges, though.
The 9 lessons I learnt from my first year of full time freelance writing
As I was considering going full time, I listened to so many podcasts, read blogs, bought books and spoke to lots of people about how to be a successful freelance writer. I had good relationships with several editors, but I knew this wasn't enough to keep me going each month, and I also wanted to branch out and do more travel and food writing.
While I did do a review of 2016 in December last year, I didn't write down many formal goals for 2017. But I did set myself one particular goal that I think has been a key to my (financial) success this year.
1. It’s much easier to reach your goals if you have a target
Each month in 2017 I set myself an income target (using this spreadsheet) and I can’t tell you how much easier that made it for me.
It became really clear, really quickly, that I couldn’t keep writing $200 articles if I wanted to make between $6-10K a month. I didn't meet my income goal each month, but it was so helpful for me to see where I was at throughout the year and how I was tracking.
Other than my income goal, I had another goal to find a mentor, which I did through the MEAA Women in Media program.
I also had a vague goal that I wanted to find a business coach (I say vague because I wanted one, but I didn't set any concrete plans for how I would find one. So it's nearly the end of the year and I haven't found a coach). I think I probably didn’t get specific enough about why I wanted a coach and for what. It’s something that I’m thinking about for 2018.
I also wanted to start doing some more travel writing, in particular, writing for in-flight magazines. I’ve now written for two in-flight mags, and with one I’m becoming a semi-regular contributor. In-flights can be tough to break into, but I do love a challenge!
2. You won’t always feel like working
Some days this year I could not get motivated. I’d stare at my computer screen, make a cup of tea, make a snack, put some washing on, write a sentence and then get up and be sure there was something that I needed to take care of. The words wouldn’t come, the ideas were lost and I was sure that this whole freelancing thing was a bad idea. Sometimes I’d make myself sit there and try to get through it and other days I’d close my computer screen and acknowledge that I’d lost my groove for that day.
It's pretty demoralising as a freelance writer when you feel like you've lost your writing mojo. But when so much of your work relies on pulling words from your brain and arranging them into engaging sentences, it's natural that you're going to feel fatigued.
This year I learnt that I'm not going to love what I do all the time. The subject matter may not thrill me, the revisions may be tedious and when it's a beautiful day outside, I know where I'd rather be. So I've learnt not to be too hard on myself.
If the words are not flowing and I'm not on deadline, I take a break.
3. It’s so much easier if editors and clients come to you with work
When editors or clients approach you with commissions or projects they want you to work on, it saves you so much time. You don't have to think of ideas, pitch the idea, wait for a reply. You just get a little 'ping' and bingo, you've got a commission if you want it.
Of course, it's not that easy.
But what I've found is that if you let editors know that you are available and willing to take on stories they need written, if you are reliable, hardworking and produce consistently good quality work (and accept reasonable requests for revisions), editors will come to you with work.
Four of the editors I currently work with consistently come to me with commissions. It's a blessing and one that I know could disappear quite quickly if they move on or if a budget gets slashed. But while I have their confidence and offers, I'm going to accept them gratefully.
4. You don’t have to love everything you write about, but you do have to care about the end product
A friend of mine who is a consultant often talks about her ‘bread and butter’ work – this is work that she can do with her eyes closed, that doesn’t necessarily challenge her, but that she is good at and that comes fairly easily to her.
I didn't want 'bread and butter' writing work - I'm someone who wants everything I write to be a passion project and I like to be endlessly enthusiastic about the topics I write about, but the truth is, it's not always like that. This year I've learnt that it's important to have work that you can do fairly easily and with a low level of stress.
You just have to be careful not to become complacent. For me, this means that I don't finish articles and file them on the same day. I try not to file articles in the afternoon. I like to re-read things first thing in the morning before I submit them. I never want an editor or client to feel that I haven't produced the best content that I can.
5. Relationships are the key to being successful (and happy)
If there’s one thing that I’ve learnt this year that I think you need to know it’s this – relationships are the most important thing in freelancing.
Yes, you need writing talent, to file on time, be responsive and polite, but if you don’t build relationships with editors and clients, you won’t go far.
So much of my work this year has come from the connections I've made. A writing friend who I’ve only met online referred me to an editor who sent me four commissions straight off the bat. Another editor who I hadn’t worked with in ages got in touch with me to offer me work because I'd kept in touch over the years. And an editor I met on a famil asked me to write six articles for her.
But it's not just about how relationships can ultimately help you get more work.
I know it may be a bit 'woo-woo', but I do believe that these editors, clients and writerly people are my colleagues and peers. I want to have a good working relationship with them, because the writing world is pretty small and word travels.
I also have a special group of three other freelancers who I catch up with via Skype every couple of months. These are conversations when I can breathe out and hear that I'm not alone in trying to do all kinds of things with not enough time, of how we are all juggling family, life, work and our own visions of the future. These conversations, and those in Facebook groups I'm part of, help me feel less alone and reassured that I don't have to have this all sorted out.
6. You have to keep marketing yourself – even when you are drowning in work
It can feel like the last thing in the world you want to do, but it’s so important to keep stoking your fire.
I think of my freelance writing business as a fire. You need to build it in a particular way, all the kindling and fire stacked up, matches (that’s your and passion) to light it and then once it’s burning you don’t just sit back and watch, you monitor, move things, add logs, some will burn out quickly, some will fail to ignite, some will burn for a long time, but you always need to have wood ready to go on – you need to be watching and nimble - what keeps you doing this is your drive.
How are you tending to your freelance fire?
Most days I do one or two things that stoke the freelancing fire. I know some writers suggest five or more marketing efforts a day, but for me, a couple is enough. I might see an opportunity on LinkedIn and ask to connect with the person who posted it, or I might retweet an editor or comment on their tweet, I might send a letter of introduction to a potential new client or touch base with an old one.
These small efforts add up over time.
7. You need to know what's driving you
This year, my focus has been on keeping my mortgage paid, and my family fed and happy. When I first started, the thrill of getting to interview people and put their story together in a way that they (and readers) were happy with, was what motivated me.
I've realised over this year, that when things get tough (and they inevitably will), you need to know what's driving you.
What is behind your desire to be a freelance writer?
Is it seeing your name in print? Is it bringing in a side income? Is it that writing is your passion? Is it hitting an income goal?
Once you work out what you want to achieve, it’s much easier to keep that fire going in order to achieve your goals.
8. You’ll get knocked down (but you'll get up again)
Sometimes (and usually on a Friday afternoon just as you're about to finish up for the weekend), you'll get an email or phone call that throws you off balance. You might have a pitch or query letter rejected, a request for revisions to an article you filed months ago, a case study pulling out of an interview - any number of things can happen.
I hit a low patch in the middle of the year where I had said yes to a project that I wasn’t capable of finishing. The subject matter was far beyond my wheelhouse and it took me way too long to speak to the client about it.
She was gracious, but that sinking feeling didn’t leave me for weeks afterwards. Mostly because I had a niggling feeling when I signed up that I wasn’t the right person for the job, but I didn’t say anything because I was flattered that the client had sought me out for this lucrative project.
Needless to say, I've learnt my lesson about saying no to projects that are beyond me. When things like that happen, it's easy to spiral and question everything, but this bumping and bruising is all part of the path we have chosen. It doesn't make it easier when things like that happen, but it does make it easier to know that everyone goes through times like this.
9. If you say yes, good things happen
I tend to like being prepared. I'm a list-maker. I'm not a huge fan of surprises.
This year I said yes to lots of events, opportunities and jobs and overall, I've been rewarded.
I was invited on a famil or press trip a few months ago and I was hesitant. Three nights away with a bunch of journalists I'd never met. But it was fantastic. I met such great people, a couple of whom I'm still in touch with and would gladly hang out with because they are great humans.
I would not swap this year for the world. I have worked harder than I ever have in my life. I've written more words, spoken to more people, gone to more networking (urgh!) events, sent more pitches than I ever have (and had more rejections), but I've loved (almost) every minute of it.
I also deliberated for months before starting this blog. But I'm so glad I said yes.
So thank you dear people for reading - I can't quite believe that I started this blog a year ago and that I've written a post every week for (nearly) a year.
I thought this may be a year-long project, but I think it's going to be much more than that.
What have been your big learnings for 2017? Any lessons you learnt that you want to apply in 2018?