When you start out as a freelance writer, there’s a lot to learn. I know when I got back into freelance writing in 2005, I subscribed to dozens of email newsletters and spent hours every day, reading, watching videos, and attending live events.
But learning how to be a successful freelance writer is a bottomless pit. There’s always more you *could* know that *might* help your freelance writing career.
And often, new writers fall into this pit, and forget to get any clients. They get a creeping learning addiction that eats up all their time and prevents them from moving forward.
It’s devilish because it’s easy to rationalize that you’re doing something productive with all this studying. But if you never take action, it’s just another form of procrastination.
I see these writers leaving loads of comments on the Freelance Writers Den forums, or on LinkedIn’s writer forums, or commenting on every single blog post on popular blogs.
They ask arcane questions like these:
Should I create a mirror site to protect my writer website in case it’s hacked?
What’s the best SEO keyword tool?
Should I do marketing on autopilot with email autoresponders?
What are the best apps for coordinating writing projects with clients?
A year later, these writers sometimes quietly confide to me that they’re flat broke and had to take a day job. They were so busy learning everything about how to be a succcessful, 21st Century freelance writer, they fell victim to analysis-paralysis — and forgot that the top priority is getting clients and generating freelance writing income!
How can you focus, learn what’s essential, and move forward to earn as a freelance writer? Here are my tips:
1. Find clients first
Job One is marketing. Yes, I know, your writer website isn’t up yet. Or you don’t have any clips. Or they’re all 7 years old.
Doesn’t matter. You have to be marketing, this week and every week, if you’re going to make a living at this.
Stop studying every marketing technique under the sun and feeling that you can’t pick up the phone until you’ve mastered all the fine points. Instead, pick something that seems doable for you that you have at least a basic grasp of, and start doing it.
See what happens. Then, refine. As you learn more, your marketing will get better. But in the meanwhile…do some, anyway.
Block out some time each week for marketing, right now. As much time as you can possibly spare. Pitch with whatever you’ve got — your life experience, your knowledge from past jobs.
Next, prioritize doing any current client work you have.
Whatever time is left is the time you have for learning. Don’t let the learning time swamp your more important tasks and stick to your allotted learning time per week.
2. Prioritize your learning
There are many things you could learn about freelance writing that might help you. But what are the most important things? The list is different for each writer, but there are some basics you probably want.
If you haven’t written a lot, you probably need to learn about writing in the style you plan to earn in. You need some online tools that present you well to clients searching online, such as a strong writer website and LinkedIn profile. You should learn how to qualify prospects and avoid scams. You might need to know how to do networking or write query letters, depending on the type of writing you want to do.
Take your list of what you think you need to learn, and prioritize it by asking yourself: How much would learning this improve my ability to earn more freelance writing income? What’s the potential increase in income I could see?
This process will help you put aside questions like which app might be super-best for some aspect of freelancing. For instance, use the apps or online tools you already know for now, because using one over the other is unlikely to get you more income — it’s just a convenience issue. Pick any popular SEO tool, and it’ll probably serve your needs just fine, rather than worrying about testing out ten more tools in case one is slightly better. Also, consider outsourcing technical things you might need, since they’re not core to being a freelance writer.
Instead of wandering from topic to topic, order your list with the highest-value learning first that’s most likely to pay off in more income.
3. One thing at a time
Now, take your learning wish list one item at a time. Delete or avoid everything else. Your brain can only absorb so much! Don’t fall into the time-wasting trap of reading and reading…and retaining none of it.
I’ve used this rule a lot in recent years, and it’s eliminated my information overload. I just learn one topic at a time, then implement what I’ve learned, then move on. For a long time, I only learned about how to build a successful blog. I recently went through a phase where my focus was self-publishing best practices, as I was putting out more e-books.
Right now, I’m learning how to make email marketing campaigns and live events more effective. I scan my newsletters and if they aren’t touching on my top-priority topic, I move on. No going down side trails to learn about the fine points of case-study writing or exploring new social-media platforms like Ello right now, thanks!
4. Cull your subscriptions
To help bring your learning urge under control, review how many subscriptions you’ve got to email newsletters. Also, note how many relevant physical publications you’re getting.
Now, unsubscribe to any that you haven’t opened or read in the last few months. Get rid of them.
When those emails crowd your inbox or that stack of publications mocks you from the nightstand, it’s too easy to get pulled away from essential tasks.
5. Accept that mistakes will be made
Many writers keep learning and learning rather than taking action, because they’re afraid they’ll make a mistake if they don’t “know enough.” At some point, they tell themselves, they’ll know how freelancing works, and then they’ll confidently move forward and do everything right. And on they go, reading and reading.
But there’s always more to know. Also, you can stop worrying that you might make a mistake, because no matter how many newsletters you read, it’s guaranteed that sometime, you will screw up.
The good news is, you’ll survive, and live to write another day.
So stop hiding behind that stack of books about freelance writing and get out there. That on-the-ground experience trying to get gigs is the only way you’ll find clients and learn where you fit into that big ol’ freelance marketplace.
How do you balance learning with earning as a freelance writer? Leave a comment and add your tips.