Use This Simple Tool to Move Forward in Your Writing Career

Writers should consider the quality of advice they get online.Freelance writing is a tough career. I think that’s true at every stage — whether you’re a brand-new writer, returning to freelancing after a hiatus, or you’re a displaced journalist learning to freelance.

Google and social media keep changing. Print and online markets keep evolving. There’s so much to know!

And yet, the important thing is to move forward quickly to build your business, so you don’t run out of cash and have to give up and get a day job.

I hear often from writers who’re boggled by all the advice and tips out there. Some of it is contradictory!

For instance, should you have a rate sheet on your writer website? I say no, but some other top coaches say yes.

You have to quickly cut through the confusion and come up with a plan of action. Fortunately, there is a simple way to do that.

Sift through the tips

When you’re faced with conflicting advice, you need to pull out an important tool.

If don’t use it, you’re just going to sit around feeling overwhelmed and never take action to move your career forward.

I learned to use this tool as a songwriter, going to critique workshops every week. We’d get a lot of advice from other amateur songwriters and our teacher.

This advice always ranged all over the place. “Change the chorus!” “Add more verses!” “The verse melody needs work.” And so on.

Then, at the end of the session, it was time to figure out how to move forward with our song. We’d do that with a tool our teacher always reminded us to bring to each session.

It’s a tool you’ve got on you right now. But it’s easy to forget it’s there and let this tool get rusty.

Instead, I’m going to advise you to use this tool all the time. That’ll help keep it sharp, and keep you from making a lot of sad, time-wasting freelance mistakes.

Decide what to keep

What one tool do you need with you whenever you’re getting career advice?

It’s a trash can.

Not a physical one, but a mental trash can.

It’s for discarding advice that doesn’t feel right for you. It doesn’t seem like the right answer.

Your gut tells you this advice isn’t for you. It just doesn’t resonate.

If that happens, you should ignore that tip and move on.

My teacher would say, “Use what feels right and discard the rest.”

I think a lot of writers forget to take out their trash can when they’re learning about writing. But it really pays to keep it handy.

Consider the source

Besides simply tuning in to your gut feelings about whether a tip is useful, another important screen to use is to simply consider who’s giving the advice.

Honestly, there were a couple of regulars in my songwriting critique class who seemed like total morons to me. I always ignored what they said.

The world of freelance writing is no different. In fact, there is sort of an epidemic these days of writers with scant experience putting themselves forward as experts shortly after beginning their careers.

We see bloggers get their first guest post or two — and later that month, they’ve got an e-book out about how to be a successful guest poster.

Before you get in too deep with a writing mentor, ask yourself a few questions:

  • How long has this writer been doing the type of writing work they give advice on?
  • Are they still doing it?
  • If not, how long ago did they stop?
  • How successful were or are they in their own careers?

It’s an unpleasant fact, but there is a lot of just plain bad, outdated advice out there about freelance writing that’s spouted by people who don’t know what they’re talking about.

Some have barely started their own writing career. Others haven’t been a freelance writer for eons and have no clue how it works today. For instance:

  • One writer recently told me he was informed at a national writing conference that all white paper work is unpaid. Good thing I hadn’t heard that one, or I might have forgotten to charge $6,500 for the last white paper I did.
  • A writer starts a blog about earning from blogging, proudly posts their financial reports showing they netted $85 last month or got a big 167 views on their most popular post — and they’d like you to buy their $49 course on how to succeed as a freelance blogger.
  • One writing “coach” with an expensive program informs her students they must have at least 25 articles published in regional magazines before they can even consider pitching nationally, I’m told. Why does this “expert” discourage writers from trying the nationals? Maybe because she never got a national-magazine clip herself, and wants students to stay within her own experience level. Meanwhile, quite a few writers I know got their very first assignment from a national magazine.

Anytime you hear advice designed to discourage you from pursuing this career, you should be on double-high alert. What’s their motivation for being so negative? Maybe they’re afraid of the competition.

Look within

In general, don’t be so swayed by others’ opinions and listen to your still, small voice inside. Are you meant to be a writer? Then keep going.

Does this piece of advice ring true for you? Does it come from someone you trust?

Then take it in and act on it.

Otherwise, into the trash can it goes.

Maybe this is a crazy post for me to write, because it could encourage you to stop reading my blog.

That’s OK, if it happens. It’s more important to me that you start trusting your gut and going for it.

When have you discarded freelance writing advice? Leave a comment and tell us what you tossed out.

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36 comments on “Use This Simple Tool to Move Forward in Your Writing Career
  1. Karen J says:

    Seems like mechanics, plumbers, and the like don’t have the same self-esteem issues writers do, where they start giving their core service away in hopes that one day it will pay.

    That’s a thought-provoking point, Carol! I wonder why it’s so true?
    ~~~
    Ahah!
    Partially answering my own question: Because there’s a qualitative difference between plumbers and writers (or mechanics and fine artists, etc.): “They” generally have a defined training and licensing program, Pass/Fail testing systems, and if the faucet still doesn’t work, the customer can tell immediately. “We” provide services that are more highly subjective in nature, tend to be emotionally invested in the learning, the doing and the results, and success depends much more on “compatibility” and “communication” throughout.

    Do grocers and bakers get similar “Stop giving it away!” messages? No. But they also offer *tiny* samples – a quarter of a brownie, a sip of organic milk or less than a spoonful of their new mac’n’cheese recipe. It’s a middle ground – there’s always at least one third option.

    Love this: “Use what feels right and discard the rest.”
    And I add: “Not now” doesn’t have to mean “Never”.
    Karen J recently posted…Collected Wisdom… the Jess Manuscak editionMy Profile

  2. Alicia Rades says:

    I really like this post because there is a lot of conflicting advice out there. In fact, I thought the same thing when listening to your boot camp on writer websites. What? No rate sheet? But the last person I talked to said you should have one!

    I think you have to look at the advice and figure out what works for you. I love that you mentioned that the source is super important. Thanks for sharing!
    Alicia Rades recently posted…How the Heck Do You Publish a Book? Publishing Tips for NewbiesMy Profile

  3. Marcy McKay says:

    Great post, Carol. To me, it’s about our “gut-ometer”, that still voice you mentioned. If it doesn’t hit me in the gut right…TRASH. Thanks for the reminder….

  4. Good advice and comments all the way around.

    My biggest peeve was reading this over and over again:
    “Write about (name the current hot topic or bestseller) and write about the same thing in order to make money NOW. You already have a hungry audience, so your subject will get noticed and bought.”

    I kept asking, “Bestselling” compared to what? Most of the “bestselling” on the NY Times list are on subjects I’ve no interest in. I love my daughter’s rescued pets; I’m not going to write about them. I’m not going to write a cookbook (even though they’re a perennial favorite) just because I’ve a number of good, go-to recipes. Lose weight in 17 days? Write an unauthorized bio about a celebrity? Political arenas ranging from eco to financial to personalities? Point out that 8% unemployed means 92% employed and get into a verbal war about the economy?

    Nope. Not me.

    THEN I realized that “bestselling” meant in any subject I’M interested. It isn’t necessarily NYT material. For example, I love creating tangible, crafty things. I do them after I’m finally off the computer at night. Yes, there are eleventy-one books and articles already out there, but surely someone might be interested in how I ran a jewelry design studio for awhile. On how I created some of my best wire pieces? How to accommodate arthritis or carpal tunnel? Bestseller? Maybe, maybe not. But, it’s in a genre that definitely has hungry readers.

    This is a case of keeping what works (as well as thinking outside the normally accepted meanings) and throwing out the rest.
    D Kendra Francesco recently posted…Helping You Solve Your Problem is My BusinessMy Profile

  5. Margie MD says:

    Listening to your gut is spot on advice and I’ve been doing a lot of that lately. Because I’ve got family obligations and I work part-time hours, I’ve really had to learn to drown out all the noise of what everyone else is saying I should do and listen to what I feel is right for me to pursue. Although there’s some really great advice out there and it’s not always b.s., it might not be right for me or it just might not be right for me *right now.*

    Things like starting up a blog and building a community and platform are all fine and I totally see the benefits of it all and how that could help, but it just doesn’t suit my lifestyle at the moment, nor do I really feel like doing it. If your heart’s not in something, there’s no point in doing it half-assed just because everyone else says you should, but if you go with what you feel in your gut is right for you and your heart’s truly in it, I’m sure your chances of success will be a lot better!

    • Carol Tice says:

      You know, when I was building my blog I finally learned to do that — only look for tips that related to my exact, top problem of that moment. When I started ignoring everything else, I really got some traction.

    • Julie says:

      I know I need to take advice more often if I want to experience more success than I have already. However, I’m glad this was posted to let us know it’s okay if we don’t always agree with what people tell us.

      I noticed one thing I need lately that I’m all for doing is having my real photo of myself out there to help me get noticed. It’s scary, though. I always felt self-conscious about putting “me” out there instead of my business.

  6. Daryl says:

    Great point Carol.

    Actually, one of the reasons I publish income reports on my site is to keep myself honest – although I am further along than most newbies I’m still learning and I certainly wouldn’t want to make the claim of being an expert at the freelance writing business.

    Unfortunately there are a lot of business models that are predicated on making money by selling other business models – which means that you can often have an entire chain of people who know little to nothing about the business that they’re claiming to be an expert in!
    Daryl recently posted…What Nobody Tells You About Writing a Successful Guest Post PitchMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Right on — I feel like the Internet has greatly accelerated the cycle from “do it once” to “claim you’re an expert and start selling products about how to do it.”

      I continue to strive to keep myself in the sweet spot of having been a pro writer a long time — first freelanced 1990-95, and most recently from 2005-now — and continuing to freelance at least a little, so I have a clue what’s going on out there. (And also because I’m a byline junkie! It’s a hard habit to break.)

      I guess that’s what I like in my own mentors — they’ve done it a long while, and are still doing it. So that’s where I want to be.

      There’s a lot at the two ends of the spectrum out there — did it decades ago but haven’t done it in ages, and just started doing it this month — that you have to watch out for online these days.

      And then there’s just seeing if that person’s POV rings true for you. That’s important.

  7. Cory Peppler says:

    Timely, Carol! Just a couple days ago, I reached a Waterloo and did something similar to what you suggest here.

    As a new freelancer just trying to figure it all out, I took the same approach to writing for hire that I do with any home remodeling project. I read and read and read, and talk to the guys at Home Depot. Then, I draw up some plans, then re-draw them. My wife will find me standing in the would-be remodeled room just staring and thinking. And then, finally…nope, I have to read another how-to book before I really get started.

    After a couple of months, I realized I was doing the same with freelancing. I opened a blank doc and entitled it “What I’ve learned so far…”. I created a bulleted list, without checking all my notes, of the big ideas that have resonated with me from all I’ve read and watched and listened to. With a list of about a dozen principles in front of me, I was then left with one thought: “OK, I have enough to get started. So, get started.”

    The last principle that I had listed? “You can’t know it all. You will learn as you go. Just go.”

    On a completely related note, I’m taking Linda’s ‘Write for Magazines’ course. For some reason, I was hesitant to start contacting potential sources. I think it represented a commitment, a line crossed into “I am a writer now” land. I was especially jumpy about contacting a book author whose work I found on Amazon. I let the email sit in my outbox for a couple days before taking a breath and hitting send.

    Final note: While I was composing this comment, I got an email back from said author. We’ll be chatting tomorrow.

    And there off!

    Thanks, Carol, for the ongoing encouragement for all of us!
    -Cory

    • Carol Tice says:

      Thanks for sharing this great story, Cory. I do want to do another post about the problem of learning endlessly and never taking action — seems like a common affliction!

      And yes, fear increases the longer you don’t act, and decreases the minute you begin to take action to help your career. Things that seemed scary like contacting authors turn out to be no big deal…but you never find out unless you try. 😉

  8. Linda says:

    Love this post! Having been a successful freelance writer who was hired by a private industry to work for them for 13 years, coming back to the freelance lifestyle was exciting. But you’re right, it’s also overwhelming–the Internet and constant changes in social media. Changing print media and the constant comments that print media is dying, while I hear otherwise. Then there were the constant comments from everyone about listening to “this person” or “that person” or “so and so is an expert” and getting on LinkedIn to hear all kinds of things. Augh!

    Started listening to you and I’ve since hit the delete key, even before reading this. I’ve cleared out my InBox. Instead of listening to everyone, I read through what’s needed and toss the rest. My life has returned to some form of normalcy and I’m not feeling like the weight of the world is on my shoulders. And, my creativity has returned.

    This post is so spot-on. It’s like learning to ride a horse. Every person will tell you how to train your horse, what gear to use, what type of shoes to put on him (or her), and what apparel is the best. You’ve got Western, English, Australian, Endurance; and each has it’s own preference. So eventually you realize you listen to everyone and do what works for you and your horse. I remember some guy screaming at me, his beet-red face nose-to-nose to mine, because he was telling to buy a certain horse and I knew in my gut it wasn’t the right horse for me. He was infuriated that I said “No”, but I remember stepping back and saying, “Excuse me, what part of No don’t you understand.” We were in a room filled with other riders who knew us both, and I recall seeing some friends of mine smirk when I stepped away from that guy, calmly and quietly said no and walked away.

    Sometimes, you have to do the same with writing. Use what works, review it all, and choose what will propel your career forward. Otherwise, you get overwhelmed and it doesn’t work. Then you’re miserable.

    Writing is a tough profession, but when you have a sense of what works for you, and you follow it, things tend to fall into place. And that builds confidence, which makes your writing better long-term.
    Linda recently posted…What Do You Say When an Interviewer Asks — Why Should I Hire You?My Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Ha – LOVE that horse analogy. So true! You can read about horseback riding forever, but you’ll never really know anything until you get out and ride.

  9. Erica says:

    I love this article. For me, a big tip-off to ignore a piece of advice is if the person who’s giving it is obviously making a sales pitch, not trying to actually help.
    Erica recently posted…A letter to my writer’s museMy Profile

  10. Johanna says:

    Note: ignore the website, it won’t be up until February 15th!

    Hi all,

    I am a new freelance writer, and I find this post awesome and interesting. Of course, if you can’t tell, there’s a big but here. I am a consultant with the twist that I’m just starting out, so my perspective is different in that I’m learning and can pass those lessons on while they’re fresh (hence they aren’t from a while ago). Also, I make it clear that I am new to freelance writing, and that what works for me will not always work for somebody else.

    I really hope this next part doesn’t come across as gloating, because it’s meant to be facts that prove that, though I’m not an expert, I am successful. I’ve been in almost business (I launch my business officially when my website is open) for a little less than three weeks. I already have three potential clients lined up, two from networking, and one from social media. Yes, they are only potential, but I have them after only a week of looking.

    Maybe that’s normal in general, but I’ve found so many new writer’s have no idea where to start. I have many solid ideas where to start, and want to help them. I hope when I say that I truly want to help them (but need to pay the bills) that you believe me. If you don’t I suppose that’s why my skin needs to get thicker…

    Anyways, thank you for the time you spent reading this!

    -Johanna

  11. Debbie Kane says:

    With so much conflicting advice on the web about writing, freelancing, blogging, etc., your internal BS meter is the only thing you can really trust. That, and your advice, Carol, which is spot-on. Thanks as always.
    Debbie Kane recently posted…TestMy Profile

  12. Aahna says:

    Yeah totally agreed,

    There are number of people who will discourage you when you think to start your career, but I personally feel that if you’re confident about your career future then you should not listen those people. Instead make a distance from them and focus on your career, give your best effort and full dedication and you’ll see positive outcomes. 🙂
    Aahna recently posted…Inviya Spandex yarn manufacturer indiaMy Profile

  13. Rob says:

    Recommendations based on experience are great, but preaching sucks and nobody has all the answers. As for ebooks, I wasn’t going to write one, but am thinking about it because a number of beginning expat freelance writers have been asking me to. I just want to be sure my reader’s understand that I’m writing from my experience and don’t have the final word. Advice is great, but we should always be encouraged to explore and find solutions that work for us.
    Rob recently posted…I Poo Poo on Your Guru – ‘Book’ ReviewMy Profile

  14. What a great article! This is exactly what I’ve been trying to figure out. There are so many opinions out there about what works and what doesn’t. Everyone has a different experience, though. It’s hard to sift through ideas that might be great, just not great for me. I actually blogged about this a couple of days ago, since I’m new to the freelance scene. Check it out: http://www.angelagardnerwrites.blogspot.com/
    I’m so thankful for sites like this that make it easy to ask questions and learn more about freelancing. Keep up the good work! 🙂

  15. Dan says:

    Yeah this is a good point – everyone has conflicting advice. On the rate sheet one, my personal conclusion at this point is that it’s a good thing if you are a busy, established writer with lots of business coming your way – you can afford to turn down clients.

    If you’re newer and still building the client base, for me it works best to come up with an hourly rate (currently $75), and then charge a project fee and quote that for based on how long you think the project’ll take.

    I may create and use a rate sheet when I’m not at a point where I’m building business.
    Dan recently posted…Want Your Copy to Sell? Do This!My Profile

  16. Mai says:

    I’ve always believed in your advice, Carol, although I learned it when I started writing fiction. When I was younger, I joined two separate writers workshops but submitted the same story. My story was praised in the first one, but it drew flak in the second one. Both panelists were reputable and experienced writers, so I was confused for a time as to what to do next. In the end I realized it was up to me which pointers I would take into consideration during the revision process. Out with the discouraging comments and in with the ones that helped me improved my writing overall. You always have to contextualize every advice that you get, make it applicable for you, for not all writers have the same situation.

    • Carol Tice says:

      RIGHT ON, Mai! I run across so many writers who tell me they’re spinning in circles because they can’t figure out what the one ‘right’ answer is…never realizing that answer lives inside them.

  17. Allen Taylor says:

    I learned the same lesson in fiction writing workshops. Sometimes, good advice for one writer equates to bad advice for another. You have to learn to trust your intuition where your business is concerned.
    Allen Taylor recently posted…How To Be An Expert In 5 Easy StepsMy Profile

  18. Natalie Dyke says:

    Thank you for this!
    This is why I love your blog and really appreciate your advice so much.
    Always so refreshing. So real!
    Not to mention that this advice could and should be applied to life in general!
    You rock!
    Thank you!

  19. Lois Harris says:

    The other thing that I find as a newbie is that you can get fantastic advice that may work for a lot of people, but isn’t right for you.

    I recently listened to a webinar by a highly respected person in the business, with thousands of clients, good bona fides, and tons of followers. It was very well thought-out and seemed like excellent advice – a real path forward. But after thinking it over carefully – including in the middle of the night – I decided it wasn’t for me. Right now, my gut is telling me to go my own way. Don’t get me wrong, I totally will depend on others (including you and your colleagues, Carol – I’m in the Den) to help me along the way. I just don’t, at this point, think I need someone else’s blueprint. Maybe I will some day. Maybe I won’t.

    Cheers and all the best. Thanks for the post.

    • Kudos to you for noting that, Lois; I was going to say the same thing if no one else did, as it’s a major issue in my own career right now. I’ve tried the “copy what works for others” route, and it never helped much; now, I’m on the “find out for myself what works for ME” route. And trying to minimize my exposure to new advice, lest it distract me before I build up enough confidence not to be easily swayed.
      Katherine Swarts recently posted…Time for a ChangeMy Profile

      • Carol Tice says:

        Right on, Katherine. People are always asking me, “How long did it take you to do X as a freelancer?” or “When did you know this was what you wanted to go for as a career?”

        And I think, “How would it help you to know?” Because you’re not me. Your life is entirely different, and so is your journey, and what will end up paying well for you…and everything.

  20. Beth says:

    Terrific advice, Carol. The importance of reminding freelancers to measure “advice” against their own goals and gut reactions can’t be overstated. If you haven’t (as a freelancer) taken the time to evaluate just where you want to take your career, you’ll waste a lot of time jumping in the direction of offers/advice that sounds great, but may set you back in your quests.

    I love the garbage can icon! A few years ago, I allowed my (wonderfully supportive, I still love them!) fiction writing friends to convince me that there was far more glamour in writing fiction than there was in freelancing (on the side, as I’m a middle school teacher by day). I struggled writing fiction for several years, only wanting to get published to prove myself to them, but in my heart, missing the fun of querying editors, fact-checking and interviewing sources way more than I enjoyed making up stories.

    One day, I literally sat down with a trash can in my writing room, went though all my notebooks and trashed everything fiction that I’d written–I’d had it. It was symbolic and significant in bringing me back to freelancing, where I knew my passion was. That was on a Saturday, and by the following Friday, I had three new editorial assignments, despite being away from freelancing for years…proof that anyone can reach their writing goals, if they’re smart enough and clear enough to know what they’re going after.

    Great post. Should be required reading for every freelancer…but that might just be the English teacher in me speaking 🙂

  21. Carol, I burst out laughing when I read your examples of duff (suspect/dodgy) freelance writing advice.

    That’s because I read a comment this morning by a self-proclaimed writing expert on a LinkedIn Group, who said you have to PAY people to get guest posting gigs. I was tempted to direct that person this way (or Sophie Lizard’s list of paid blogging gigs). But I figured it wasn’t worth wasting time on this jerk.

    In the past, I’ve gone against my instincts and instead followed the advice of so-called experts who’ve insisted they know what’s best for me. Almost without fail, it’s screwed things up for me.

    We’re conditioned at school, and in the workplace, to think there are superiors know better than us and that we should always follow their advice. It takes courage to snap out of this. But, in time, it becomes second nature. And, as you say, you gradually learn how to sift out the wheat from the chaff.
    Kevin Carlton recently posted…3 dangerously destructive writing habits every copywriter should avoidMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Ha! I get that pitch all the time here: “I will guest post for you, I would even pay you $50.” I have to explain it works in reverse here.

      Having been a victim of pay-to-play back in my songwriting days, I would never do that to writers here.

      Also, you can’t buy your way in. If I don’t think your post will be super-useful to my readers, I’m not going to publish it at any price.

  22. Lisa Baker says:

    Love, love, love this. For some reason I think it’s really hard for a lot of writers to trust their gut. We’re plagued by the belief that we’re not good enough, so we think we need to listen to every bit of advice wherever we can get it. But trusting your intuition is a powerful, transforming thing — in all of life, really, but especially in your career.

  23. Gowtham Kare says:

    Trash Can idea is really awesome but I think we should shift+Del such tips into trash, else they would occupy space somewhere to disturb in future. But we should be patient and listen to every single advice, considering or moving to trash is our choice.

    No one ignores this post or move to trash because they’ll get better responses to those ‘3 questions.’
    Gowtham Kare recently posted…Blogging isn’t a race so carefully watch and find every successful step.My Profile