The one factor that predicts if you're going to be successful as a freelancer
Here’s the thing. There is one simple factor behind almost every successful freelancer. I’m yet to meet a freelance writer (or any freelance professional) whose business is thriving, who doesn’t have this thing. It’s not a tool or a qualification. It’s a quality. A characteristic. Something that you can hone and tune. Do you know what it is?
But first, I want to acknowledge that success will mean different things to different people. For me, it's about financial security for my family and feeling that I'm contributing to a broader conversation about whatever I'm writing about. Success for me is also when work and life are pretty harmonious and that even though I'm earning six figures, I'm not working seven days a week, ten hours a day. It's when I feel happy, productive, fulfilled and content.
Looking back at 2017 and dissecting what it was that made it such a successful year, one thing came up time and time again. It was my ability to:
Develop strong relationships with editors and clients
I really believe that if there is a silver bullet to making a living as a freelance writer, this is it.
I wish I had known this sooner.
For five years I pitched magazines, newspapers and websites that I loved and read with barely a thought about who I was sending those query emails to (apart from whether the editor responded promptly and made reasonable requests for edits).
I didn't consider what makes a professional relationship work - I just crossed my fingers and pitched.
It was only in 2017, when I went full time, that I realised how important it is to nurture relationships with editors and clients.
Last week I read this article and it really struck a chord.
In the article freelancers share what they wish they had known when they started out.
Freelance journalist and copywriter, Susan Johnston Taylor says, “I wish I'd known to focus on building relationships with editors rather than chasing one story at a time.
Early in my career, I'd brainstorm an idea for a market, pitch that market, and then move onto another website or magazine because I didn't have more ideas for the original market. That's a lot of work to convince that editor, learn their style and invoicing process, then start fresh. Rather than getting a lot of one-off assignments for different markets, it's much more time efficient to focus on markets that have a steady need for the kind stories you want to write. That's my approach now.”
She hits the nail on the head, right?
The best use of your time is not pitching every magazine or newspaper that takes your fancy. It’s about systematically establishing relationships that will keep your boat steady when the storms appear. And rough weather inevitably comes – I've been freelancing for six years and not one of the editors I started working with even three years ago is still in the same job.
And while I know it can take time to find a publication that ticks at least most of these boxes below:
- editor is responsive
- you enjoy the work
- the publication pays well
- pays in a timely manner
- the opportunities are fairly regularly (e.g. it's not an annual publication)
- collaborative editing process
- you like the editor
- the work challenges you or progresses your career
I really believe that freelance writers need to stop being one hit wonders with particular publications (and look, I'm the first to admit I've got more than a few one hit publication wonders - hello, The Guardian and Travel + Leisure).
But fundamentally, your key to success is how good you are at building relationships with editors and clients.
Part of this is developing trust. Editors need to trust that you will deliver what you say you will, when you say you will. The more you deliver clean copy, on time, the more you will be one of their go-to freelancers.
Make a list of current and past editors or clients, which ones do you have a good relationship with? Which ones could you foster and build on and which ones do you need to set free?
I had a good relationship with an editor who would regularly come to me with commissions, but once she moved jobs into another editorial position I decided I wouldn't write for her again. Why? She regularly changed her mind from the original brief and her interactions with me and other freelance writers weren't left a bit to be desired. Each time I saw her name in my inbox my heart would sink, and so even though the money was good and the publication had a high profile, I let it go.
Developing relationships takes time
Of course, building a solid connection with an editor can take a while.
It depends on the editor and how responsive, busy or interested they are, but it may take months or years to get a proper 'in'. But, if you’re lucky, it may take less time than that. I had only written for an editor once before she came to me with another assignment. She now regularly asks me to contribute to a certain section of her magazine. Editors often have an editorial calendar or topics they want to cover and they need reliable freelancers to commission. Be that freelancer.
Once you change your mindset into a relationship-building one, I think your whole business will change.
Why relationships are so important for your freelance business
If you’ve got one-off gigs, then your income and your livelihood is much more fragile than if you have recurring income.
I know lots of people say that recurring income is almost a 'must have' for full time freelance journalists, but I'm not on any retainers or have any income that recurs each month.
Instead, I have multiple, strong relationships with editors that brings me in commissions each month without having to pitch.
If you have one-off gigs and no solid relationships with editors, I think you're fighting an uphill battle.
What can you do today?
Change the way you look at pitching.
Now when I pitch, I look at it as the start of a conversation. If the editor doesn’t take me up on the conversation, I leave it pretty quickly. If they are responsive, I get involved – we go back and forth.
Sometimes they become part of my group of editors who regularly commission me and sometimes, for whatever reason, it's not a good fit.
What if you looked at your pitches as part of an ongoing conversation, rather than having just one shot at a target?
You could follow Megan Blandford's lead and ask to meet up with editors in person. As Megan says, "I’ve realised that success in this job isn’t just about writing well; it’s also about relationships.
When I sit down with an editor, we chat about all sorts of things that would never come up in emails. We find common ground, they tell me what kinds of ideas they’re after, and they realise that I write on topics that they’ve been searching for someone to write. I’ve picked up a lot of work through those chats." (My emphasis in bold)
Focus on the relationship first and the rest will follow.
If you would like to get more strategies on developing strong relationships with editors or anything else to do with freelance writing, my mentoring and coaching sessions are now open.
What kinds of things do you do to develop and strengthen relationships with the people you work with? Do you consciously focus on building relationships with editors and clients?