Many would-be freelance writers ask me what the first step should be in their journey. Many struggling mid-career writers also wonder what they may be doing wrong. If you’ve wondered how to be a freelance writer who earns well at it, my answer is: It all begins with what’s between your ears.
The mindset of an independent, self-employed, home-based business owner — yes, that’s what you are! — is worlds apart from the mentality you need to survive a corporate job.
Freelance writing is a head game, no doubt. If you can’t psych yourself up to market your services, or if one rejection crushes you, you’re unlikely to have enough good-paying clients to sustain a nice freelance lifestyle.
What are the important attitudes to adopt, as a freelance writer? Here’s my 10-point mindset manifesto (check out the infographic version at the end of the post that you can download and save):
1. Ignore naysayers
Anytime you try to seek a better life, you’ll see someone around you who’ll try to tear you back down. It’s sort of mind-blowing, but your attempts to live your dream threaten a lot of other people’s self-esteem.
I learned this early on when I quit a job to enjoy myself for a few months, and threw a celebration party…and no one came.
Beware of ‘you think you’re better than us’ syndrome
A great read on this topic is reporter Pete Hamill’s memoir, A Drinking Life. He relates that once he sobered up and started pursuing journalism and getting bylines, rather than seeing praise or encouragement from his neighbors, many in his hardscrabble Boston-Irish neighborhood resented him for it.
“Oh, you think you’re better than us now, do you?” was the general consensus.
There’s a lot of this going around. You may find out who your real friends are.
Watch out for ‘that’s not a real job’ criticism
There’s also the challenge of explaining to Greatest Generation parents or grandparents that having many freelance clients rather than one big corporate employer who can fire you in a hot second is actually a more secure lifestyle these days.
They will never get their heads around that, because in their working life, a job meant security, so smile big, tell them it’s going great, refuse to answer any specific questions, and change the topic to the weather. When you start winning at freelancing, take them out and buy them a nice dinner. The light will begin to dawn (worked for me, anyway).
Action: Avoid people who don’t support your goals. Remember, naysayers don’t know your heart. They can’t see into your soul, to see all you have to say.
And remember, writing well is the best revenge on those who would tear down your dreams.
2. Set goals
The thing about freelance writing is that it’s what I call a bottomless-pit job. There’s always more you could be doing, learning, writing.
You’ve got to get a handle on it and set some attainable goals, to get you rolling.
Choose process goals you can measure and control
If you’re wondering, good goals for freelance writers are goals to do things that are within your power to accomplish. Not “I will have three clients by the end of the month.”
Remember that goals are aspirational. They push you in a direction. Getting all the way there is not absolutely necessary. Progress is what’s important.
Reward yourself for going hard at your goals, rather than beating yourself up if you said you’d send 20 pitch letters this month but only sent 18.
Action: Once you have goals, find an accountability buddy you can call weekly, to help break down bigger goals into doable chunks and keep you on track.
3. Take action
Are you wondering where to start in your freelance-writing career? The answer is: Somewhere.
Seriously. Take an action, any action. It doesn’t matter if it’s not the absolute best, most efficient one.
Because action is contagious. Action leads to more action. Actions also mean you get real-world feedback, and you can quickly learn what’s a waste of time and what really moves you forward.
Don’t get stuck in the world of reading stacks of books, taking classes for years on end, and never actually venturing out in the world to try to get hired. The more you study without taking action, the less likely this is going to be your line of work.
Action: At the risk of stating the obvious… take action. Stop worrying if you’ve chosen the ideal starting point, and just go ask someone if you could write a little something for them. Any action is better than none.
4. Write (almost) every day
If you are studying-studying-studying the idea of freelance writing, but you are not writing anything…stop kidding yourself.
Writers write. Writers who write for a living write all the time, or they starve.
We write because the challenge of crafting compelling sentences is our idea of fun. We write in a journal, on our blog, for the church newsletter — anytime someone asks us.
If you don’t have a daily writing habit, you’re not building the muscles you’ll need to meet deadlines. Regular readers may know I’m a big believer that we all need to take one day off a week.
So while I know many gurus say ‘Write every day!’ I say, write six days a week. Take one day to rest and refresh.
Action: Build a regular writing habit (six days a week, let’s say), Doesn’t have to be all day or anything. But create some writing projects for yourself and make writing a habit.
5. Conquer rejection
Here’s one of the biggest fears new writers have, that keep you from moving forward: You’ll pitch a story, and it will be rejected. You’ll see that as — you have been rejected.
But problem: If you have to go lay in bed and cry for three weeks if an editor gives you a ‘no’ — or more likely, just never gets back to you — this isn’t going to be for you. This is a mental hump you need to get over.
Use the science-experiment approach to beat rejection
Try to reframe this… because rejection is a normal part of freelancing. Say it again: It’s. Normal. Challenge yourself to get rejected a lot, to build up your resilience for it.
Remember that every ‘no’ is good practice and helps you learn about the marketplace. Every ‘no’ gets you closer to yes.
Try thinking of it as a science experiment and adopt a dispassionate-scientist attitude: “I’m going to send this pitch, what will happen, mwahahaha! I will collect the data…”
Or make up your own mental script for dealing with rejection. But one way or the other, conquer your fears around this — this is Job One for becoming a successful freelance writer.
Action: Instead of fearing rejection, expect it. No working writer alive has had zero rejections in their career. Accept rejection as a normal part of the freelance life. Understand that most of the time, that ‘no’ is not about you.
6. Take yourself seriously
Are you serious about becoming a freelance writer? I ask because often, when people talk to me, I can’t tell. Things that make me think you’re just playing at this include asking questions phrased like this:
“Excuse me, um, but can you tell me how one would find clients?”
One? You mean YOU, don’t you? Are you in this, or not? Or are you asking for a friend? That’s what that sounds like.
Come on now.
Another “tell” is embarrassed smiles or apologetic soft laughter, when you describe what you’re doing, or who you’re pitching.
Say it loud and proud, please!
- “I’m a freelance writer.”
- “I’m launching a career as a freelance writer.”
Why are you acting like it’s some sort of minor crime, like you’re doing something wrong? Take a look in the mirror and think about what’s going on with your self-talk here.
Because if you don’t believe in you, you’re in trouble.
Action: Own that this is your chosen career. Don’t shuffle and look at your feet and cough, when people ask you what you do. Be proud of pursuing your own creative life! Take yourself seriously — and then, others will, too.
7. Keep learning
Freelance writing is a complex undertaking, and there’s a lot to know — about good niches, positioning your business, how to pitch, price, negotiate, manage client relationships and more. You can start with what you know now, but commit to continuous learning to keep moving forward.
Don’t get me wrong here — I don’t want you to get stuck in learn-learn-learn mode, where you never take action. (See #3).
Adopt a learn-execute-learn approach
For instance, I recently bought a sale-priced bundle of resources for coaches, with dozens of individual e-books, tools, templates, and courses. I started with a masterclass on how to level-up your coaching, because I’m always looking to improve my coaching program.
But… I’m stopped around module 5, because the trainer gave a tip on how to attract more of your ideal coaching clients… and I honestly don’t have that process well-organized. She gave a few tips that I would do well to implement, so I’ve stopped learning to take time to build that out. Once that’s in place, I’ll watch the next training.
Don’t overload your brain — it’s easy to do with freelance writing, because there’s so much to learn!
Stop and DO as you learn. That will anchor the learning in your brain and make it take hold. Then, learn some more.
Action: Identify a top learning priority, and find a good resource for it. Invest in your freelance career — it will pay off for you. Markets keep evolving, so learn-act-learn to keep growing your skills.
8. Advocate for yourself
I have a question (especially for Freelance Writers Den community members who’ve belonged for years, but never asked a single forum question):
Are you afraid to ask questions about freelance writing? If so, I have to ask:
“Whatcha scared of?”
New writers often worry that they’ll look dumb if they ask questions. What’s really dumb is staying silent and guessing at what to do.
In reality, pro writers ask tons of questions of their clients and of their network, all the time. My stock final question in a first client interview is, “What’s a good email to contact you at, once I realize what important question I’ve forgotten to ask you?”
Set the expectation that you will be asking questions. Then, ask until you have what you need to move forward.
Action: Don’t be afraid to ask questions. You may look dumb once, so what? Questions are good. Questions save you time and help you build the career you want.
9. Reject peanut pay
The Internet teems with offers to write articles and blog posts for $5 or $10. Understand that these gigs are for hobbyists looking to fund an occasional latte. Not for you, if you’re a serious freelance writer wanting to feed your family and pay your rent with your craft (see #6).
How to find better-paying freelance jobs
If you’re seeing a lot of bitty offers, you’re probably looking for jobs in all the wrong places. Get out of the world of bidding against hundreds of other writers for one small job — that’s not a good place for you. Instead, start proactively targeting and pitching clients who seem right for you.
You may think you can’t make a difference in the marketplace by refusing to work for next to nothing, but every little bit helps.
Every writer who says, “My floor for that is $100, sorry” instead of accepting $5 or $10, hiring writers for nothing gets a little harder. And more companies consider that maybe, it’d be worth paying pro rates to stop getting garbage posts, and actually get results with their content.
Special tip: Don’t just say ‘no’ to low pay, commit to not wasting your precious time venting in social media or to friends about crap offers you see online.
Sitting around saying, “Can you believe that? OMG!” Well, yes, yes I can believe it. It exists. We all know it.
Your job is to set phasers to ignore, and look for clients who understand your value.
Action: Just say no to tiny money. You deserve better!
Do a pro bono sample here or there, if you need a new type of clip. Otherwise, know your value, identify better-quality clients who understand your value, and bid high.
10. Don’t compare
Many freelance-writing careers are derailed because writers spend a lot of time comparing their progress to that of others.
Recent comments I’ve heard include:
“My college friend is a bestselling author now – I don’t want to be on LinkedIn and be public, because I think they’d laugh if they saw the small-time magazine bylines I have.”
“I was going to pursue health writing, but the market seems to be so saturated with others who have far more experience than I do, so I pulled the plug on it.”
Having interacted with about 14,000 writers in the past decade, I can say I’ve never seen a saturated market. And your former colleagues and college buddies are not fixated on looking you up on LinkedIn.
Tune out all the information about how great everyone else is doing, and just challenge yourself to keep improving. Compete with yourself. That’s all I ever did.
Action: Kill the negative self-talk about your progress so far, and the toxic comparisons of your progress as a writer with that of others. Remember, your journey is unique. Just walk your road and try to get better as you go.
How to be a freelance writer
There you have it — the ideal mindset for freelance-writing success. If you have the right mindset, the initiatives you try to build your business are likely to succeed. Once you know to stop the comparisons, to ask questions, take actions, keep learning… the rest will take care of itself.