5 Freelancing Lessons I Learned the Hard Way: Avoid These Career-Killers

Freelance writer gets in troubleBy Erika Dreifus

Several years back, I was freelancing full-time. Or trying to.

With hindsight, I’ve realized I made several mistakes.

Some of them doubtless contributed to my return to full-time staff employment.

If I ever again attempt full-time freelancing, I’ll keep these lessons in mind:

1. Get it in writing

I know this. You know this. We all know this. And yet, sometimes the mere promise of a byline and a paycheck can make us so happy that we don’t insist on a contract, or at least, an email spelling out the specifics. Including that all-important kill fee.

Without those written assurances, we run the risk of doing the job without ever laying eyes on the byline OR the paycheck. Plus, there’s the lost opportunity cost: It may be too late to scramble and place the idea elsewhere.



2. Read the fine print—even with a repeat client

After writing print articles for one client many times, I got lazy. I stopped reading what seemed to be a “boilerplate” contract.

Thus, I failed to notice when the contract evolved from promising a certain extra percentage of my fee for material also chosen to appear online, to promising a smaller percentage, to stating that online rights were part of the deal.

Naturally, that’s when I started noticing more of my work appearing online, making it much harder to resell elsewhere. Definitely my bad.

3. Make negotiable demands

Several years ago, I pitched an idea to a major magazine. I’m not sure what possessed me, in the negotiations that ensued, to state brazenly the fee I wanted.

When asked what I was hoping for, I should instead have followed the smart advice I’ve since heard from a number of expert freelancers: “Answer with a question: ‘What’s the most you can manage?’”

That way, I might have sustained the negotiations, rather than giving the editor a reason to end them.

4. Run from the crazies


Ninety-nine percent of the people you’ll deal with in your writing career will behave in a perfectly rational and respectful manner (as you do, of course!).

But every so often, you may encounter someone—an agent, an editor, a fellow writer—who may be rude, threatening or simply incomprehensible in their correspondence or conversation.

LET THEM GO. You don’t need to have the last word (it may not be possible with some of these folks anyway). Move on.

5. Put your freelancing eggs in multiple baskets

I can’t help suspecting that my foray into full-time freelancing would have yielded better results, not to mention cash flow, if I’d diversified my income streams.

For instance, instead of focusing so intently on freelancing for magazines and newspapers, I should have acquired copywriting skills and experience.

I should have attempted to engage corporate clients. I should have investigated ghostwriting.

What freelance lessons have you learned? Leave a comment and share yours.

Erika Dreifus currently freelances on the margins of a full-time staff job. She blogs about writing and publishing (especially for poets, fictionists and writers of creative nonfiction) at Practicing Writing. Follow her on Twitter @ErikaDreifus.

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