Eight years is a long time to not know what you’re doing as a freelance writer.
But that’s exactly how long it took me to figure out how to get serious and treat my freelance career as a business.
I hope my story helps you figure it out a lot faster than that.
I’m a freelancer?
I did my first freelance writing in Seattle’s reality TV industry, when I was 23. During my interview with the production company, I was told the gig was temporary and would only last a few months.
It sounded great, so I accepted it — and the $13-an-hour salary that came with it.
But after talking with my coworkers, I found out I wasn’t a typical employee. In fact, I wasn’t an employee at all. I was a freelancer. And when they said the gig ended in March, they weren’t lying.
Over the next several years, I bounced around in gigs that lasted anywhere from three months to a year — with lapses of up to five months in between.
To survive, I took odd jobs doing everything from coaching soccer to selling cell phones. This hand-to-mouth cycle sucked, but seeing my name in the credits on TV made it seem worth it.
Not making a living doing what I love
Of course, reality (no pun intended!) eventually hit.
I was now 29, and had a six-week gig scripting TV. Talking with a fellow co-worker about money, I suddenly realized I made a higher hourly rate delivering pizzas than I did writing nationally broadcast TV.
That realization didn’t sit well with me, and I soon left.
I spent the next ten months in my hometown of Chicago, where my writing hit new lows. The only writing income I made was $25 from Fiverr.
Next, I decided to pack my bags and follow my girlfriend to Bangkok, Thailand. I took a job as an English teacher so I could survive while I figured things out.
The turning point
Last December, I read the book Eat That Frog by Brian Tracy. In the opening chapter, the author says the key to being successful at anything is to learn what other successful people are doing — and do the same.
This seemed obvious at first. But I realized that although I’d spent significant time developing my craft as a writer, I never cared to learn what successful freelancers were doing.
So I started learning. I joined the Freelance Writers Den. On my hour-long commute to my full-time job, I read blogs and e-books by Ed Gandia, Danny Iny, and others. And I set aside 5 hours a week in the evenings to learn.
One big realization is that I had to stop fearing failure. I’ve started looking at all my business experiments as practice. If I fail, then it’s not a big deal. It’s just practice, and I’ll get better as I go along if I keep going.
Another thing I realized? My biggest challenge was marketing. It was scary, and I hated it. But if I was ever going to actually make a living writing, I needed to suck it up.
I started by asking family and friends for referrals. No dice.
I sent letters of introduction to hotels that had poorly translated English websites. But none of them could afford a writer, so that was a dead end.
After about six months, I began going to local networking events hosted by Meetup and the Chambers of Commerce in the embassies here in Bangkok. Once I took the advice of the freelancers I was following and started looking to make friends, not just find work, I started to really enjoy in-person networking.
That’s when I started making progress. I eventually found all three of my current clients through networking.
My first client came this past August. I used the lessons I learned — and the templates provided — in the Freelance Business Bootcamp offered within the Freelance Writers Den. It was the first time I ever created a freelance writing contract, negotiated the payment myself, and truly felt in control of my freelance destiny.
Eight years in, and I was finally acting like a real freelancer.
When I got three clients, I quit my full-time job. I have a great variety of work teaching writing to one client, writing video scripts for another, and writing content and web copy for a travel/backpacking site.
And even though some of the rates aren’t what I’d ask for now, I feel awesome that I negotiated them myself. My best rate — and my easiest client to work with — came when I entered the negotiation with a solid idea of what other people charged for that type of work and the knowledge that I could walk away if I didn’t get that rate. I’m actually prepping to re-negotiate one of my lower-paying clients, and I am ready to quit if they can’t meet my new rate.
Having a good problem
I’m drowning in work now, and I’ve turned down a few other clients already! I’m not sending out LOIs, but I am still attending networking events.
This whole “being swamped with clients” thing is kind of new to me. And it’s kind of scary.
So what am I doing? Same as before…learning how others handle juggling multiple clients, and doing the same myself.
When did you realize you were running a freelance business? Tell us in the comments below.
John Weiler is a Bangkok-based writer and editor specializing in video writing, with professional writing experience for networks incuding A&E and National Geographic.