How to Be a Freelance Writer: Skip These 10 Embarrassing Mistakes

how to be a freelance writer
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The first time I went freelance, I was 22. I jumped in with both feet, quitting my job and starting a location-independent life.

I couldn’t be more grateful. Without freelancing, I never would have been able to travel the world. I learned more in those two years than I ever did at school.

But, if I’m being honest, I didn’t love it. The pay wasn’t great, I had little work experience, and running any business is hard. I had no idea how to deal with contracts, invoices, taxes and health insurance.

My world became less about the actual work and more about staying afloat. I did everything wrong.

Seven years later, I’m back at it. But this time I’m prepared.

The good news is, whether you’re 22 or 82, you can learn from my initial naivete:

1. I didn’t hire an accountant

At 22, I thought only hugely successful freelancers could afford an accountant. With systems like TurboTax, why waste the money?

Here’s why: BECAUSE DIY ACCOUNTING IS THE ACTUAL WORST.

During this second go-round I’m not wasting billable hours figuring out my taxes. This year I’m paying an expert to do it right the first time.

The bad news is I report taxes to two countries, which means hiring two accountants. The good news is my German accountant wants to start blogging, so I’m helping him write content in exchange.

2. I didn’t stash tax money in a separate account

This one hurts to admit.

I didn’t track any income or put money away to pay my taxes later. I didn’t even know freelancers had to pay their own taxes. Seriously. When tax time rolled around, I had no idea what I was doing.

(Remember, I was 22 and our education system doesn’t require  students to learn anything  about finance, insurance or navigating our tax system.)

Today, I track everything with Freshbooks. I automatically take 20 percent  out of every paycheck, no matter how tiny, and immediately put it into an online savings account.

3. I didn’t understand how to calculate my rates

We’ve all heard the advice, “Charge what you’re worth!” But if you’re new to freelancing, or don’t have much experience, it’s hard to understand what this means.

I was lucky to get any clients, nevermind one who could pay $100 per hour. So I charged $25. Sometimes less. I landed and kept clients, so I assumed I was doing something right. In reality, I  could barely make ends meet. I eventually succumbed to a full-time job.

This time, I calculated my rate based on my old salary: $110,000 divided by 40 hours per week equals just over $50 an hour. So that’s what I charge. Clients happily pay.

After a few months, though, I realized I can’t work 40 billable hours. With admin tasks, emails and pitching, I might hit 20 hours of client work. Which means I should charge at least $100 per hour to make my desired salary.

This feels doable in 2016, but I can’t pretend I have this whole negotiating thing figured out quite yet.

4. I didn’t organize ongoing projects

At 22 I used a “system” of notebook scribblings and email overwhelm to manage projects. How I met deadlines is beyond me.

Today, I organize one-off articles into a spreadsheet kindly provided by The Write Life. Ongoing client work goes through Asana. Goals and daily tasks to into my beloved Passion Planner.

Together, these tools help me better manage my time and ensure no projects fall through the cracks.

5. I didn’t prioritize personal projects

During my first years, I completed almost zero personal projects. I updated my blog only when I had a gap in client work. I prioritized the day-to-day management of my business over growing it.

While I love and adore my current clients, I want to double my income while also challenging myself to write types of pieces I’ve never approached before. Since I have a full schedule, this seems unlikely.

However, when I schedule in an hour only for myself each morning, I not only prioritize growth work, but I also start my day creatively refreshed.

6. I ignored freelance networks

Sites connecting clients and freelancers get a bad rap, which is why I stayed far away during my first go-round. I signed on new clients primarily via referral.  

This time, half my clients come through CloudPeeps. And thanks to Danny Margulies, I’ve also started using Upwork. Just two days into his course, I landed my first client at a rate of $95 per hour.

Lesson: Freelance networks don’t mean you’re desperate or bound to get low-balled. They keep my client roster full and interesting, while also giving me a chance to expand my skills.

7. I didn’t target my perfect client

Completing an ideal customer avatar was the most powerful thing I’ve done for my business. I spent days thinking hard about the type of people I want to work for.

Turns out they weren’t the people I was working for.

While tech companies are easy to come by, I prefer working with women-owned business and creatives. I rebranded, overhauling my services and honing in on work I wanted. It meant saying no to many potential clients, hoping my efforts would pay off.

They did.

Just one month after launching my new site, I landed three long-term freelance writing jobs with creative women, all at my desired rate.

8. I didn’t spend money on my business

I didn’t have any money to spend, so I did everything myself, wasting precious time and never truly feeling “pro.”

This year I invested a few hundred bucks in education — a writing workshop here, an online course there — and a few thousand in a new website design.

To afford this, I freelanced on top of my full-time job for three months. Once I saw the difference it made, I became more comfortable shelling out for services and software that make me happier and my work more efficient.

And now that I have my taxes finally figured out, I can finally expense things.

Next stop? A virtual assistant.

9. I didn’t require payment upfront

Most freelancers make this mistake only once.

Luckily, the client who stopped responding only owed me $60, but I never did it again.

Now I collect money via sites like CloudPeeps, Upwork and Clarity. This ensures I get paid, even if the client flakes at some point during the project.

For clients who hire me through my website, I require 100 percent up front, no exceptions.

This gives me financial security and results in clients taking their investment more seriously.

10. I didn’t pay attention to my internal schedule

If I have to read another article about the ideal morning schedule, I’m never waking up again.

Apparently it’s great to exercise first thing, immediately take a shower, take breaks every 23 minutes, stop working as soon as it hits 5:00 p.m., and on and on and on.

I call BS.

I’ve spent the last six months obsessively monitoring when I’m most in flow. My findings? Everyone is different.

I’m more creative and productive first thing in the morning, so I work straight through until lunchtime. No shower. Still in my PJs. I know. THE HORROR.

But because of this, I get to relax later, leisurely finishing other projects in the afternoon and evening.

By learning my own schedule instead of copying some guru, I’m not only more productive, but I also feel good doing it.

This applies to much of freelancing. So don’t feel bad if you worry you don’t have it all figured out. It took me two rounds to feel comfortable as a freelancer, and I’m still learning every day.

Have you learned any freelance lessons the hard way? What can you share with us?  

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Marian Schembari is a writer, storyteller and brainstorm partner based in Germany, who left her heart in San Francisco, New Zealand, London and New York. Part of her heart belongs to the internet, too. Marian believes in the internet’s power to invite a real, deep look into our... .

Marian Schembari | @MarianSchembari

Comments

  1. Ponmile Japheth says:

    Well done Marian, its nice sharing your experience with us. You’ve just brought my attention to something important; upfront payment.
    Best regards

  2. I’ve been freelancing since 1995 and this article is right on the mark. While I didn’t make all of those mistakes, I made enough in the early days to cost me time and money.
    Excellent post!

  3. alison Figueroa says:

    I must admit, I fell into the trap of not getting paid fully or not at all. That was a lesson well learned. I am now dealing with people not wanting to pay what I charge.(which I still think is a reasonable price) How do I get past that?

  4. Wow, all outstanding points.

  5. What an insightful and enjoyable-to-read post! Thank you for sharing. I feel these points can apply across a broad range of independent business endeavors, and I even see some I will implement in my endeavors as an aspiring hybrid-author. Thank you! Loved it.

  6. Well, now, that was the most insightful post I read this weekend.

    You’re so right about the taxes. It’s something everyone needs to understand if they are working for themselves, and that includes writers, author, bloggers, poets, and everything in between.

    I also recommend a separate checking account (there are all sorts of free online ones to choose from) for all of your writing earnings and expenses.

  7. Good morning Marian, thanks for the informative post. I’m just starting out trying to get really serious about my freelance editing, writing, and SEO. In the past, all of my jobs were paid under the table. My question is: Do I need to fill out some sort of freelancer license? Or is all of that covered in a 1099, if the company chooses to report it? Thanks so much for your input. I look forward to hearing back.

  8. As someone JUST starting out, this is the perfect article! Thank you so much.

  9. Excellent post-Marian. Good guidelines. My flow is similar to yours, plus I have a three-year-old to tend to.

  10. SO helpful. Thanks for sharing all these valuable tips!

  11. This was some awesome advice for a newbie like myself!! Thanks!!

  12. Thanks for all the good advice, you truly can call yourself a “barefoot” writer! I’m most productive in the morning too. Maybe I will get better results following your advice!

  13. Thank you! I tried to start a business in my 20’s without an accountant. This time I wasn’t messing around and invested in an accountant’s services.

    I’m still in the early stages of my business so I do appreciate the opportunity to learn and grow from your experiences.

  14. Many thanks! Very useful info, and guidance. I have retired, done some self-publishing of novels and now wish to go into ghostwriting books, articles and reviews. Any observations on freelance ghostwriting, from you and your guests, please?
    Have a pleasant day…

    Paul

  15. Thanks for this insightful post Marian. I’m just starting out as a freelancer and have been worrying about possible mistakes that I wouldn’t realise I was making – and then this showed up in my inbox! Perfect timing. Although I had many of these issues flagged, there are some banana skins here which I might have tripped up on, so thank you very much 🙂

  16. Guilty of many of these!! Thanks for an eye-opener.

  17. I really like your blog, keep bloging like this.

  18. I just read this post a second time; it’s really great and so insightful. I’ve been freelancing for a long time, in addition to working an office job. Recently, the office job has ended and I’ve been looking to build my freelance business into my main source of income. The prospect seemed scary, initially. This article, however, was so helpful. Upwork sounds like a great possibility and I am thinking Danny’s course would be perfect to help get me started. Thank you for recommending this resource, as well. Things are looking up. Thanks again.

  19. Great article! I’m new to freelancing and these tips are going to come in handy. Thank you!

  20. I definitely agree on the point of choosing work that excites you. I am re-structuring my website now and plan to focus on attracting clients in my ideal market niche. Life is too short to spend it doing writing work you don’t enjoy. Thanks for the reminder!

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  1. […] fact, there are a number of mistakes that can undermine a freelance writers’ career, many of which are made one you begin to achieve success and build your network of potential […]

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