7 Faulty Assumptions That Derail New Freelance Writers

Steer Clear: Faulty Beliefs of New Freelance Writers. Makealivingwriting.comNOTE: Want to know how to think like a successful freelance writer? It’s starts with getting a few things straight, beginning with this advice I shared a while ago. Enjoy! โ€”Carol.

The Internet has brought us many gifts, as freelance writers.

But it also brings with it a lot of misinformation and confused notions as to how to go about building a successful freelance writing career.

If you make assumptions off the bat about how freelance writing works, you can waste a lot of time and energy.

(Here’s a hint: Don’t assume anything. Ask successful freelance writers and find out what’s really working.)

Frustrated? Confused? Spinning your wheels about how to be one of those successful freelance writers?

Let’s iron this out right now.

Take a look at my top seven wrong-headed notions that leave new freelance writers floundering in their quest to get paid:

1. I’m not in business

Writers think of themselves as creative people. But if you want to earn a regular living at writing, you’ll need to be more than just creative — you need to run a business. One that turns a profit and brings in enough cash to pay your bills.

In my experience, only a tiny percentage of freelance writers truly grasp this reality. Most don’t want anything to do with business — isn’t that why we quit our day jobs?

  • Business minded or in la-la land?ย It’s so much more pleasant to live in a world of magical thinking, where great clients who value your talents will somehow materialize without any effort on your part!

When you think you’re not in business, then you don’t think you need to invest in your business, either — with a better website, mentoring, or training to sharpen their skills or learn new ones. Then, writers wonder why they can’t seem to get any good gigs.

This also plays out in how writers think about their services. Many writers comment to me:

“I’m a good writer, but I just don’t have any ideas. I need to find a situation where I can just be given topics.”

  • Bulletin: There is no well-paid writing gig like that. One of the big reasons writers get hired is for their ideas — whether it’s article ideas, or topic ideas for a business blog, or ideas on the best angle for a case study or white paper.

Treat your writing like a business

Instead of sitting passively, hoping a pre-packaged assignment that doesn’t require thinking will fall in your lap, treat your writing like a business. Service providers — which is what we are — need to bring ideas to the table.

Then, it’ll pay you like a business. Treat it like a creative lark, and you’ll soon be stocking shelves on the grocery night shift to make ends meet.

2. I’ll learn until I feel ready

Do you think you’ll feel ready to jump into freelance writing after you read one more book, take one more course, or get a master’s degree in journalism? Bad news — you’re probably still not going to feel ready. I know, because I’ve mentored writers with more than one advanced degree, who still feel they need one more class.

Learning is a bottomless pit

There’s always more to know. Accept that and realize you’ll need to be taking action while you learn.

You’ll never feel confident and “ready” to do this by studying freelance writing in an ivory tower, or at home by your lonesome.

  • Do this instead: There’s only one thing that builds confidence in writing for clients. You guessed it: writing for clients! You need to get out and start doing it, as fast as possible. The more you take action, the more you’ll realize you already know enough to get started. The longer you study and do nothing, the more disempowered and afraid you’ll feel.

Your list of degrees or certificates earned does not impress prospects. Only your published writing samples (ideally, accompanied by a testimonial) will get you hired. Do a few assignments pro bono at first if you have to, but get out there and start writing for clients!

3. I can get work from other writers

A lot of writers seem to think the person they should hit up for writing work is another writer. I get an email like this, from a total stranger, nearly every week:

“I’m a big fan of your writing and you seem very successful. I am looking for a regular subcontracting situation, and was hoping you could send me a steady stream of your work. I’m very fast and reliable!”

Let’s set the record straight on this:

  • The vast majority of writers do not have any overflow work. And those few who have more work than they can handle refer out projects to writers in their network, whose work they know well. Not total strangers.
  • Well-paid writers tend to get hired because of their body of work — we can’t just sub out that work to a new writer off the street and expect our clients won’t notice we’re no longer writing their assignments!
  • Writers are not your client. Your client is usually a publications editor or a marketing manager at a business. Don’t waste time daydreaming that you’ll be able to ride on another writer’s coattails. Instead, review points 1 and 2 above for a sense of how to get your career moving.

4. I can find clients…from Google

If you do a search for “Freelance writing,” and don’t know any better, it’d be easy to assume the top results must be the best places to freelance. This is why so many writers sign up on UpWork. Months later, they wonder why they’re living in their car.

As long as you answer mass job ads on popular sites, or bid against thousands of other writers, your success odds will be long and your paycheck is apt to be tiny.

Marketing makes a difference

You’ll need to actively market your business to prospects you identify yourself — where you’re not one of hundreds of writers going after the gig — to find professional pay rates. Most good-paying freelance writing jobs are never advertised. They’re not waiting around for you on a website thousands of other writers also read.

  • There are lots of ways to market your writing — through social media, in-person networking, writing killer query letters. Take your pick. But understand that you are in the driver’s seat of your career, and you will need to make things happen (or they won’t).
  • You’ll need to do more than responding to online job ads. Because that’s super-easy, right? And if it was easy to be a freelance writer, then everyone would be doing it, and no one would have a job anymore. Since freelance writer = awesome.

5. I’ll earn writing what I love

I hear regularly from poets, memoirists, playwrights, novelists, and screenwriters who’d like tips on how they can pay the bills with their craft. While they might hit a moonshot success and be rich one day, these are not types of writing that reliably pay this month’s mortgage, especially when you start out.

  • The same thing goes for topics. I’ve met new freelance writers who’re hoping to earn a living writing entirely about missing persons, a specific disease or mental illness, or by just writing executive bios. If this is you, you’ll probably need to broaden your focus to make it a living.

What can you get regular paid writing gigs doing?

Mainly, writing for businesses (both informational and sales-focused materials), and writing reported nonfiction articles for publications. That’s the bulk of it.

I don’t want to discourage anyone from pursuing their long-term writing dreams — but realize that if you want a reliable living as a writer, you’ll need to add some other writing types or topics to your skills.

6. I won’t ask — I’d look dumb

If I created a catalog of all the different problems new writers run into because they don’t ask basic questions of their clients, it would be the size of the phone book. A few of the most popular errors:

  • Pre-writing and sending in article drafts instead of writing a query to ask for the gig first.
  • Not getting paid because you didn’t ask about a contract.
  • Getting an article killed because you didn’t inquire about the required specs.
  • Not asking your writer friends if a gig sounds like a scam.
  • Writing with only a vague notion of what a copywriting client wants — and getting fired.

In fact, pro freelance writers ask tons of questions up-front. That’s how we turn in first drafts that our editors love.

7. I’ll start when I find the right way

New writers approach me hoping there is a proven, single formula for freelance writing success. I know writers would like me to say: “Do these three things, and then you’ll be earning thousands a month as a writer.”

Doesn’t work that way.

I can tell you what worked for me, but it won’t necessarily work for you. Because you’re not me. I might find clients at in-person networking events, and maybe you wouldn’t be caught dead at one.

This is a career where who you are, where you’ve worked, what you’ve lived, and who you know are all key components of what you offer. Prospective freelance writing clients respond to each of us differently.

  • So, for the record: There is more than one way to do this. Instead of starting when you find the one, true way, realize it really works in reverse — you’re only going to find the right way for you by starting.

I recently interviewed a six-figure freelancer who makes most of her money cranking out dozens of low-paying, short keyword-focused posts for online publication. I wouldn’t do that on a bet, and I’d probably last a week if I tried it, but it works for her. See what I mean?

Does this last point mean you should disregard some of the advice I just gave you, in points 1-6 of this post? Possibly, if it doesn’t ring true for you.

The best way to find out what works in freelance writing is:

Trial and error. Begin conducting experiments and asking questions, and you won’t be a noob without a clue for long.

What assumptions did you have when you started writing? Let’s discuss on Facebook and LinkedIn.

Writers, sick of writing for pennies? Let us help you... Escape the Content Mills: A 4-Week Freelance Writers Den bootcamp with live coaching, feedback and support. LEARN MORE

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37 comments on “7 Faulty Assumptions That Derail New Freelance Writers
  1. My first assumption was that freelance blogging stopped to sponsored posts and that only ‘real journalists’ with a degree or a journalist association ID could write ‘real articles’. It sounds so laughable now. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I still tend to fear to be a bother when I ask many questions before I start drafting, but I’m trying to get rid of this concern because clients seem to love it when I ask questions and I really want to understand what they need, without guessing.

    ~ Luana

    • Carol Tice says:

      Luana, by your definition I’m not a real journalist, even though I’ve written for Entrepreneur and Forbes! It’s incredible the rules we make up in our heads to disqualify ourselves from getting to do things.

      And I ask loooooaaads of questions. ๐Ÿ˜‰ It’s not a bother — it’s being professional.

  2. Oussama says:

    These are so much excellent advices!
    I was reading it and identifying myself in many cases. I think you are definitely right about the fact that in order to succeed we just need to start writing, succeeding and failing, making experiments, until we find our way.
    I am going to remember that and work on it. I always wanted to be writing for big magazines and websites, and I think it’s time to start.
    Thank you again, and keep the great work Carol ๐Ÿ˜‰ !
    Oussama recently posted…How The Economic Globalization Has Been Done Wrong?My Profile

  3. Kayla says:

    Excellent post! I made some of these mistakes myself when I started out freelancing last year. Now I’ve learned a lot and am on my way to earning a lot more too.
    Kayla recently posted…4 Strategies I Used to Invoice $10,000+ Two Months In A RowMy Profile

  4. Hammo says:

    I assumed I wasn’t good enough to write, and although I have intentions of writing a book I’m sharpening my teeth on blogging first.

    The book is still coming, but you could say I’m still in the research phase. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    However, writing is becoming a 1000 word a day habit for me, I just need to improve the quality.

    Thanks for sharing this timely post.
    Hammo recently posted…Increase your organic traffic with this easy to use toolMy Profile

  5. Rob says:

    I didn’t have a clue when I started out. I googled “freelance writing” and ended up making $5/500 words on my first 10 assignments from freelancer. I moved “up” to Elance and made $10/500 words there for nearly a year.

    Someone recently asked me how they could get started. I recommended your site, but also gave examples of what worked for me. Basically, it boiled down to not being afraid to pitch an idea. Before I had to make steady money freelancing, I did that occasionally and got articles accepted by publications I never dreamed would accept work from an unknown, inexperienced freelance writer. Now that I’m making decent money, I do that again occasionally.
    Rob recently posted…Remembering City Lights BookstoreMy Profile

  6. Cari says:

    What a great list. I’ve been guilty of #1 and #2. I’m in a pickle right now because of #1. I wrote a children’s book, self published it, stuck the link up on the sidebar and forgot about it – very business like, NOT! Last week, an email rocks up – a nonprofit wants reprint rights…for 25,000 copies. Now what? I’m just a little ole freelancer, what do I know about reprint rights?
    Carol, where are you? Help?
    Why, oh, why did I let my Den membership lapse? Oh, I know! I was too busy to spend much time there. I think there’s a proverb for that…
    Loved the article Carol, thank you. I think the universe is telling me something…gotta get more businesslike. But I still know nothing about reprint rights ๐Ÿ˜‰
    Cari recently posted…Mugged: Save Your Hide Touring South AfricaMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Have to say I haven’t done a ton in reprints…it WOULD be a great time to tap a 1400 member community, hm?

      It’s a nonprofit, so I’d run on the assumption they’re not going to pay a lot. But since it wasn’t selling…see what you can get. Ask what they’d offer.

      Then update your book cover with an ‘as featured by X nonprofit’ bug and get a blurb from them to put on the cover. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  7. Thanks Vivinne! I’m surprised you remember! My comment won’t go through with a link in it, but if you wanted to check out the post that interview was based on, it’s called “Turn Your Biggest Disadvantage into Your Biggest Strength in 5 Easy Ways” and is up on The International Freelancer.

    Thanks!
    Mridu Khullar Relph recently posted…The Butterfly Effect: Creating an Aura To Attract Writing ProjectsMy Profile

  8. Mercy Writes says:

    Nice stuff Carol
    Mercy Writes recently posted…Signs You Need to Hire a Freelance WriterMy Profile

  9. Great post Carol,
    These are really some of the things that usually limit people from getting to their goals both in freelance writing and in every works of life.

    Especially the issue of having the notion that you’re not yet ready and that you still need more lessons before you start, anyone who is still having this notion will never start while he is waiting to be ready.

    There is no right time other than right this moment.
    Theodore Nwangene recently posted…GuestCrew Traffic Stats and Update โ€“ September 2015My Profile

  10. Heather says:

    Hi Carol,
    Like many of the others commenting #2 is definitely the one that really resonates with me. If I just do this course, or complete this assignment… I write a blog for freelancers and #1 is common too – people want to work for themselves for all the right reasons but forget that they are running a business and that they need to do all the marketing/promotions/IT etc. I love the comment above about ‘See 1, do 1, teach 1’ – I think I’ll adopt that motto next time I’m getting hung up on needing to learn more.
    Heather recently posted…7 Essential Skills Every Freelancer NeedsMy Profile

  11. #2 is me! I’ve been in the writing business for a few years now but I still can’t shake off the concern that I don’t know enough.

    Sure, it does keep me constantly learning but there’s always that uncomfortable feeling that I’m not good enough. Hope it’ll go away as I get more experienced.

  12. Dan Ewah says:

    Hi Carol,

    You’ve listed some amazing faulty assumptions in your post.

    Come to think of it, we are all business people and we ought to strive to satisfy our customers/clients, after all, it’s said that he who pays the piper dictates the tune.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Cheers

    Dan
    Dan Ewah recently posted…The Most Important Elements of a Successful BlogMy Profile

  13. Vivinne says:

    First, Carol I love your outspokenness, I can actually feel a bit of frustration in your writing esp. with issues like #3 happening to you. As a relatively new freelance writer myself I agree with your points. But I like the caveat of #7, summed up by “So, for the record: There is more than one way to do this.”
    So for me I’ve actually started at lowest end content mills (awful just as you say,) because I didn’t know any better at the time. But I’ve landed on Elance (which you don’t recommend and I’m not sure I do either.) It’s still a marketplace and I was terrified of being undercut by foreign & low cost providers. But I found a way (via a training program & smarts/drive) to use it as a stepping stone upwards. I honed how to do proposals and a few other things, and started getting hired at close to the rates you recommend.
    In the meantime while that gave me some bread and butter-I began creating my writers website. Because I’m skilled at SEO, I’m using that skill to rank my website, and I’ve gotten my first two calls. One was to be part of a guest post and the other was to propose on a potentially huge contract.
    I know you are right in terms of highest paying gigs- your training was excellent on “how to flee content mills,” and that shift in mindset really helped me plan out my own path!
    The next step is to use what you teach about querying and various more sophisticated methods to get well paying jobs.
    So onward!
    Vivinne recently posted…What You Need to Know About Getting Customers to Your WebsiteMy Profile

  14. Paul Bains says:

    Great Advice Carol. You have pretty much nailed it in one post

  15. I love this! And #3 is sadly much too true. I get emails all the time from new writers asking for work. Even if I had an overflow– which I sometimes do– I wouldn’t pass it on to them, as you mentioned.

    Great post, Carol. A must-read for newbies!
    Mridu Khullar Relph recently posted…How to Build Your Readership as a WriterMy Profile

    • Vivinne says:

      Mridu loved your podcast on “A Little Bird Told Me,” I think is name, you discussed turning negatives into positives and really opened my mind! And helped me around some blocks that were holding me back. You discussed how you turned around being an writer based in India (at the time) dealing with some negative stereotypes that could have impeded your career growth as a writer.

  16. #7 really hits home: I wasted the first several years of my career trying to imitate the success stories step by step, and got paid in less than $1,000/month and recurring piles of discouragement.
    Katherine Swarts recently posted…Seven Things Iโ€™ve Been Slow to LearnMy Profile

  17. Max Distro says:

    There is a lot of solid advice in this article you posted about freelance writing. I hire writers from various sources. Once I find a couple of writers I like, I send them all of my assignments. Stick with a few of the good sources and do an excellent job for them and provide real value. You maybe get repeat clients or customers who put more money in your wallet.
    Max Distro recently posted…Personal injury lawyer Las VegasMy Profile

  18. Evan Jensen says:

    Was just talking to a dentist friend of mine about the #2 trap of “I’ll learn until I feel ready.” He said in dental school, the general approach to learning a new procedure was “See one. Do one. Teach one.” He said he was terrified to do his first root canal, even after studying the procedure inside and out, but did it anyway and all went well for him and the patient.

    If you’re trying to get your freelance career going, or grow your current business, it makes sense to “See One” like a well-written query, LOI, case study, website, etc. But if you’re going to make money at it, move on to “Do One” ASAP and keep learning as you go.
    Evan Jensen recently posted…Say Goodnight to Your Freelance Writing FearsMy Profile

  19. Bryan says:

    Great article. I’m definitely guilty of 2 and 7. I also can’t seem to get past the chicken/egg problem were I think I can’t build a website, pitch an ideal client, or do anything else until I have more clips.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Bryan — your website IS a clip. Write the heck out of it, and get pitching!

      We all pitch with what we have and add clips as we go. Remember, you’ll never feel ready. Just do it anyway.

  20. Coming up with salable ideas for publications has been such a sticking point, I feel like a broken record haha.

    I’ve realized my main issue is I’m not reading enough outside of business, writing and social media publications. So now I’m trying to mix things up – read more of the publications I specifically want to pitch and do some fiction writing fot myself for a fresh change and creativity boost. Been reading a lot about that.
    Williesha Morris recently posted…The Simplest and Best Zirtual (Or Any Other Staffing Site) AlternativeMy Profile

  21. Hi Carol

    #2 (Iโ€™ll learn until I feel ready) has defo been my Achilles heel. But it hasn’t just been my weakness as a freelance. It was just the same when I was an employee.

    For several years working for one organisation I never once applied for promotion or for higher-paid jobs for other companies. I just didn’t think I knew enough to warrant such a position or salary.

    Then, before I knew it, I found myself being managed by people who knew far less about the job than me. Ironically, it was those less-experienced line managers of mine who had hang-ups about it NOT me.

    Anyway, fast-forward to becoming a freelance and I continued to make the same mistakes.

    Eventually, however, I got sick of just learning and got to a point where I just wanted to get on with it.
    Kevin Carlton recently posted…502 phrases that magically transform forgettable blog posts into irresistible contentMy Profile

  22. Dwight L Stickler says:

    Good Article. I especially like the notion that this is “work”. And that Freelancing is a business. From an artistic and creative point of view, those are hard words to read. But from a practical perspective, it is music to my ears. Thanks for helping us understand what it is we are undertaking and for dispelling the myths that surround our business.

  23. Mayowa says:

    Thanks Carol, your fourth point looks so ME. I hope to shake that off.

  24. So much excellent wisdom here – especially the part about overflow work. I likewise get requests all the time from people I don’t know who would like my overflow work. Sorry, but I only outsource to other professional writers I know really well. When I connect a client with another writer, it’s MY reputation on the line.
    Elizabeth Hanes recently posted…Can a โ€˜Diva Listโ€™ Make You a Happier, Wealthier Freelancer?My Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      I know — I think the writers making this ‘ask’ are writing a lot of low-quality SEO posts, and think I might have some to parcel out to them. But I don’t write any projects remotely like that. My clients would know IMMEDIATELY if I was subbing out my work! And who subs their writing out to a total stranger? NO ONE.

      I just think it stems from the hope writers have that they won’t really have to do marketing, and they could just get in another writer’s downline. But freelancing doesn’t work like that.

    • Vivinne says:

      So true Elizabeth, I honestly thought of asking (other writers) before I knew better. Glad I didn’t.
      Vivinne recently posted…What You Need to Know About Getting Customers to Your WebsiteMy Profile

    • Dan Ewah says:

      Hi Elizabeth,

      You are right, I believe the most important task we have as Bloggers and Marketers is to build quality relationships with fellow bloggers.

      Doors literally open and opportunities show up from strange quarters when this happens.

      It’s easier to recommend and give jobs to a blogger you already know than put your reputation on the line by recommending someone you don’t really know.

      I just thought to chime in and respond to your comment.

      Cheers

      Dan
      Dan Ewah recently posted…Host1Plus Review: Cheap Web Hosting, Free Press Release Distribution & WordPress InstallMy Profile