Tuesday, October 22, 2013

15 Ways to Survive as a Freelancer


1)  Get up early and write first. Don't let the day get in the way of what you have to do, and by getting up early,  if someone asks you to do something later in the day, you can, because you've already done your other work -- you don't have to say you'll get to it tomorow. And if you have a day job, do your freelance work first - if your day job starts at 8 AM, start writing at 5 AM. The romantic notion of a writing lifestyle is meaningless unless you do the work.


2) At the start, and for a long, long time after, say “yes” to almost everything. You never know where that might lead, and if you're any good, you can learn from just about any assignment. Example: I was once asked to write one little work-for-hire book.  I sorta didn’t want to, but I said yes. Over the next decade that turned into another 38 titles. 


3)  Ass in chair.  Let me say this again: ASS IN CHAIR. You don’t get anything done going for coffee every hour. Most of the time, this isn’t easy or fun. The job is ass in chair, alone for hours. It’s cool to say you’re a writer when asked at the bar, but the rest of the time, it’s ass in chair. You’re not a tortured artist, you’re a day laborer, like the people waiting for assignments from Manpower.


4)  You never "make it." Every time you kick down one door, there is another one, and life is spitting out new writers every day. Some will work harder than you will, some are better than you are, and some will have better connections. You can only control your own effort, so make sure that’s not the problem. It’s hard to make it, and I know writers that have “made it” then got lazy and watched it fritter away. It’s hard to get back in, so don’t relax.  


5)  Hit deadlines. Don't ever give anyone a chance to dump you based on this, because that reputation lingers. I’ve hit tight deadlines while writing the morning of a funeral, taking care of an infant full-time, and writing with a broken finger before getting it stitched – real blood on the keyboard that day. Make a personal deadline in advance of the real one, so you don’t turn things in rushed and unfinished. Recent lesson: I was asked to write an essay, one of about a dozen writers asked to do so - 500 words – and given two weeks. I wrote a draft that day, then finished it and turned it in the next day, before anyone else did.  That allowed me to stake out my approach before another writer wrote something similar, or got the editor’s ear. My essay ended up leading the piece, and setting the theme.


6)  Learn to re-package, to write the same basic topic, in different ways for different markets. Easier than you think, but don’t self-plagiarize, or ever even get close to that. When I re-package, I also re-research, and then, at the end, compare with what I’ve written earlier and make sure that language and quotes are not duplicated


7)  Always be ready to write, and always be on the lookout for a story. I was on vacation once, running on the beach, and something strange happened. I knew it was a story before I’d finished the run.


8)  Don't be obnoxious, glib, or too familiar with an editor, particularly at the start. Be committed, and have an idea, but don't give them a reason to call someone else, or to conclude you’re more trouble than you're worth. And don’t blow them off, or otherwise waste their time. I’ve seen this from the other side, assigning stories and even issuing contracts only to have writers disappear, or quit on the story. I won’t ask them for work again.


9)  Fulfill the assignment, then do a bit more, then ask if there's anything more you can do.


10)  Social media may make you more popular but it won’t make you a better writer -- you only have so many words -- don’t waste them and don’t let social media suck time and energy better spent writing. Think about this: All of Shakespeare would fit on about 70,000 tweets.


11) Check facts, spelling, and grammar. Don't make avoidable dumbass mistarkes – er mistakes.


12)  If asked what you charge, ask for more money than you think you're worth. Sometimes they say yes – I once sold a poem I’d have given away for free for $350, just because someone asked me how much I wanted for it. But also be prepared to accept less than what you think you’re worth if there’s a chance it could lead to something more. Waiting for the big payday is playing the lottery and about as likely. Careers are built from the accumulation and momentum of many assignments.


13)  Try to work in a day a week without words, and find something you like to do that doesn’t involve looking at a screen at all.  


14)  Pay your quarterly taxes, and if you don’t know what these are, learn. Set aside 1/3 of all you make to account for this, and learn all about “Business Use of Home” and “Expense Deductions” on your taxes. Expect your income to vary wildly month to month, year to year. That’s a given. If you can’t live that way, don’t try this.


15)  Lastly, no excuses. Not the economy, not your relationship, not your day job, not your upbringing, not your education, not anything. The “free” in freelance refers to your time - you control that, something most people can’t say, and that’s extremely valuable.


People who don’t write have excuses. And the only real difference between people who write for a living and those wanted to write for a living but don’t, is that at some point those people lifted their ass out of the chair, walked away and quit.


  1. This is fantastic and 100% true, Glenn. I found this via Chris Jones on Twitter. Thanks for writing it.

  2. Great piece, I have gleaned something from it as a freelance journalist. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Great list to live and write by...

  4. Thanks so much. Just the encouragement I needed today.

  5. Great advice. Writers write. It's not an easy life, but if you want to freelance, this is the way to do it. There are no shortcuts.

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