To succeed as a freelancer, you’ll need to let go of some common myths that masquerade as good advice.
Joining a writing group was one of the best decisions I ever made as a new writer. I knew that to succeed as a freelancer, I would need writers with experience to help me iron out the flaws in both my prose and my business plan.
Fast forward twenty years, and now I’m the one on writing groups passing out hard-earned wisdom and advice. The more I talk to new writers, however, the more I realize how much the myths of our industry continue to persist.
Some of them are so ingrained in us, in fact, that it can seem almost counter-intuitive to challenge them.
But that’s exactly what I’m going to do today.
Here are some lessons you may have learned in your early years that you’ll need to let go of in order to truly succeed as a freelancer.
1. You’ll figure it out on the job
You will learn on the job, there’s no question about that. Every time you write a pitch, interview an expert, or travel for an assignment, you will pick up valuable skills and techniques. But equally, you will also pick up bad habits.
As a freelancer, except for the occasional kind editor, there’s no one to teach you the tricks of the trade, the inner workings of a publication, or how to find your way out of a problem. It’s a rare editor who will look through your first drafts and help you refine your strengths and minimize your weaknesses.
Pre-Internet, and long before I ever became a freelancer, editors did take freelancers on and mentor them as they navigated their way through the industry. Not only does nobody have time for that today, but increasingly, your editors are 23-year-olds who are just out of college and still navigating their way through the industry as well.
What you do then is you learn from your peers.
You take online and offline classes. (Here are some of ours.) You pay for coaching. And you seek the opportunities to learn instead of relying on them to come to you.
Here at The Wordling, I place a huge premium on learning. To succeed as a freelancer, I recommend you find a community and ask for help from people who have done it. Who are doing it.
I’ve worked with thousands of writers, and I can’t tell you how important it is that you have that support.
2. You should charge an hourly rate
You should know your hourly rate. Never charge by the hour, though. That’s because an hourly rate often works against you as you gain more experience and expertise.
When possible, calculate your hourly rate and then quote a project fee in total. It shouldn’t—and often doesn’t—matter to the client how long it took you to do the work; only the value that you provided.
Make sure to calculate your rates so you can figure out what to charge in order to make a survivable income.
3. A freelancing income is unstable and unreliable
Speaking of money, does the idea of freelancing make you think of survival, of living paycheck to paycheck, of a variable income that you can’t rely on?
While this may be true for some, it’s largely only limited to three kinds of freelancers:
- New writers
- Writers who haven’t yet figured out the market
- Writers who work exclusively with newspapers and magazine clients
Successful in-demand writers who diversify rarely have to worry about fluctuating incomes because at some point they’ve learned that the #1 secret to being successful in freelancing is regular clients and regular income.
(Want to know some of the other secrets? Read my book on six-figure freelancing.)
4. You need to network face-to-face
This is old, outdated advice that still gets paraded around despite having no merit. Look, if you like meeting people, if conferences are your jam, if it brings warmth to your extroverted heart to go mingle with people in the industry, by all means, do that.
But you don’t have to.
It’s not a requirement for success.
I’ve been freelancing successfully for years. At first, I did it mostly from New Delhi, India. I now live in the UK. Most of my clients are in the US.
I still get work. I make a fantastic income. And I never have to leave my house if I don’t want to.
I do network with people, don’t get me wrong. I just do it over Zoom and social media, like the rest of the introverted world.
I want to clarify that I’m not denying that networking and face-to-face interactions are important. Of course they are. Meeting people can help you get to know them on a deeper level, build better connections, and of course, create relationships that last years.
It’s not, however, crucial to your success as a freelancer.
5. Freelancing requires no investment
Sure, as far as businesses go, becoming a freelance writer is a great way to bootstrap. However, if you want to be truly successful, there will come a point at which you’ll want to reinvest some of your earnings back into the business.
You need high-speed internet, for example. A website that rocks. Courses that teach you new skills and strategies. And yes, you need to invest in networking by joining paid communities and organizations.
Many new writers assume that they’ll have no major expenses. But to succeed as a freelancer, you need to think like a businessperson. How can you spend money to make more money or save more time? Hiring a virtual assistant will allow you to focus more on your writing and less on administrative tasks. Having a well-designed website will allow you to attract better-paying clients. Investing in courses, communities, and coaching will help you grow a lot faster.
It pays off. But you have to invest first.
The bottom line
Freelancing is, in my not-entirely unbiased opinion, the absolute best way to make a living. I couldn’t imagine ever doing or being anything else. The key to success as a freelancer, however, lies in knowing what works.
There are still many outdated notions perpetuated in our industry that can hold you back, if you let them. Let them go, and watch your freelancing career grow at a pace you could never have imagined.
Natasha Khullar Relph
Founder and Editor, The Wordling
Natasha Khullar Relph is an award-winning journalist and author with bylines in The New York Times, TIME CNN, BBC, ABC News, Ms. Marie Claire, Vogue, and more.
She is the founder of The Wordling, a weekly business newsletter for journalists, authors, and content creators.
Natasha has mentored over 1,000 writers, helping them break into dream publications and build six-figure careers. She is the author of Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page and several other books.
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