Are you a desperate freelance writer, often running out of work and having dry periods where you’re frantic for income?
It seems like the vast majority of freelance writers I know are in this boat.
It’s terrifying, waking up in the morning and knowing no money is coming in. Often, that terror paralyzes you, so you don’t even do the marketing that’s urgently needed to drum up more clients.
By contrast, some freelancers never run out of assignments, and have billings every month. When I started back in as a freelancer in 2005, I vowed to be in this second category. After all, I had a family of five to feed!
I did it, too — I fairly quickly built a stable of clients where I always had work. I never had a ‘down’ month with no earnings. Seriously! Not in all of the 7 years, through 2011, where freelance writing was my entire income.
What makes the difference between feast-or-famine and steady income? For many freelancers, it’s finding one particular type of client: The fill-in client.
These clients may not pay as great as some of your other clients, but they’ve got as much — or as little — work as you need to supplement your other gigs, month after month. They fill in the holes, smooth out your income, and keep you from biting your nails or emptying your savings because you’ve hit a rough patch.
To help you land this valuable type of client, let’s first define what a good fill-in client looks like. Then, I’ll talk about how you land a fill-in client — and keep them happy.
Anatomy of a fill-in client
Good fill-in clients have a few specific characteristics you’ll want to look for as you develop your marketing lists for prospecting. You won’t be able to know all these things up-front, but one thing to look for is size — most fill-in clients aren’t solopreneurs or tiny companies. Key traits of good fill-in clients include:
- They’re good planners. Fill-in clients know what content or articles they’ll be needing months from now, so if you have downtime one month you might be able to work ahead on future items for additional pay.
- They have loads of work. These are busy publications or companies with lots in the hopper. That’s how they can drop a big lump of work on you in a slow month — they have lots of projects to choose from and a big priority list they’re trying to get through.
- They work with many writers. In general, fill-in clients are able to dial you up or down because they have more than one freelancer in their stable. If you want to do less this month, they have a few other writers they can fob some of your stuff off on.
- They’re part of a bigger organization. Often, good fill-in clients are one division or publication in a bigger company or publishing house, or they’re part of a network/franchise/co-op of similar businesses. If you’re hungry one month and looking for more work, they may refer you to a sister publication or other company division that has an immediate need.
- They’re flexible. Editors or marketing managers at good fill-in clients tend to have easygoing personalities. It doesn’t freak them out if you want half as much work this month as you did last month, or twice as much. They can go with the flow.
- They hate finding new writers. Good fill-in clients stick with you, even if you get busy and can’t do much for them for a month or three. They’re busy, love what you’re delivering for them, and don’t want to have to go hunt for and train a new writer.
- What they need is specialized. Usually, great fill-in clients won’t be a website about a topic nearly every writer could write on — say, pets or parenting. So when they get a good writer, they’re going to want to hang onto them because they’d be a pain to replace.
- For you, the work is easy. This is ideal and doesn’t always happen, but the best situation is if you love the topic, know the subject, or find the editor a dream to work with. After the initial learning ramp, you’re good to go. That makes it easy to pick up where you left off, and pop back onto this client’s projects when things get slow.
There’s no particular industry that’s got a monopoly on fill-in clients — they could be anything from a small trade publication that’s part of a big publishing house to a mid-sized widget manufacturer or well-funded software startup.
Growing an existing client into a fill-in
There are two ways to get fill-in clients: You can find a new client that fits the bill, or you can develop existing clients into fill-in work providers.
Often, writers have clients with good fill-in potential, but they don’t realize it because they haven’t asked enough questions and uncovered all the opportunities.
If you suspect there’s more work lurking at an existing client and you could grow the relationship to offer fill-in flexibility, have a conversation with your editor or manager. Talking points:
- What are your upcoming needs? Big clients love that you’re thinking ahead and trying to fit them in. Knowing future needs also gives you a chance to say…
- Did you know I have X expertise? Often, an editor is ignorant of all your areas of knowledge. Teasing out upcoming projects gives you a chance to make your pitch that they’re a fit for you. Talk up your life experience, past work experience…anything that positions you as the writer for the gig.
- Are there other divisions/publications? Companies don’t necessarily spell out the whole range of what they do for you, the lowly freelance writer. So ask! For instance, I wrote for Entrepreneur magazine for years before discovering they had a book division (!), and a separate quarterly newsstand-only pub, Entrepreneur Startups. I wrote several pieces for Startups after discovering they existed, helping to make my assignments under the Entrepreneur umbrella more regular.
- Do you need other types of content? Another thing that can turn a sometime client into a great fill-in client is the discovery that they do many types of content — and you’re only writing one of them. For instance, you might just be doing blog posts, but on inquiry could discover they also do regular case studies, white papers, advertorials, placed posts on big websites, or special reports for subscribers. Make your pitch to write some of those, too, and soon you’ll have a steadier stream of opportunities you can take or not.
Finding a fill-in client from scratch
If you need to find a brand-new fill-in client, remember: Bigger is better. Read business sections of newspapers to find interesting larger companies, or ask your research librarian to help you find good lists of companies with revenue figures listed, of the size and type you want.
There are exceptions, but my tip is to think $10 million – $100 million in revenue at least. My best fill-in client was a $1 billion, global consultancy. I ended up writing $2,000 per month and up of Web pages, case studies, white papers and more for them for over 2 years.
The bigger they are, the longer their marketing wish-list is, which means they have ‘back burner’ writing projects they might be able to give you when you’re having a slow month and they’ve got the marketing budget to work ahead. Bigger also makes it more likely they have a stable of multiple freelance writers they can work with. That gives you the flexibility to dial your commitment up or down from month to month.
When you’re talking to prospects, try to get a sense of whether they have fill-in client potential. If so, you might want to be a bit more flexible on price than you’d be ordinarily. Fill-in clients are worth it.
The care and feeding of your fill-in client
Once you’ve got a fill-in client, you’ll want to hang onto them with all your might. A few tips there:
- Keep them informed. If you know you have a busy month coming up, don’t keep it a secret. Be a good planner yourself and give them early notice on your upcoming availability.
- Crush your assignments. Successful fill-in writers deliver the goods. Try to go that extra mile — one more interview, one last proofread — and make sure you deliver consistent excellence. Even if the hourly rate works out a little lower, with a client this big and reliable, it’s what you want to do.
- Be their lifesaver. Sometimes, your fill-in client will be up a creek and need something done right quick, but it’ll be a pretty busy time for you. Now and again, you’ll want to make the time and do it. You’ll be their hero, and stay on their list of writers they don’t want to lose…and that they think of first.
- Educate them on your strengths. If there are industries or trends you know well, people you have access to, ideas you’ve got for blog post topics — share them! Show them you’re invested in their success and proactively bring ideas for topics or projects to the table. That adds to your value, and helps soften the blow when you have a month you’re not available.
Finally, don’t be scared about turning down work from your fill-in client when you’re busy. If you’ve followed those care-and-feeding tips, you’ll have no trouble maintaining the relationship. When you have downtime again, you’ll be able to pop back in and pick up more fill-in work.
Do you have a fill-in client? Tell us about how you found or developed yours in the comments.