What’s Your Best Piece of Advice for Freelance Writers?

In all these months of reading freelance writers’ comments on this blog, I’ve noticed something:

You know a lot about freelance writing, too.

Many of you are experienced journalists or copywriters.

You’ve tried different ways to market your writing. You’ve written for different types of clients.

You’ve had busy times and slow ones. Crummy clients and great ones.

You discovered some great resources and learned from some wonderful mentors.

Some of you write about technology, or parenting, or travel. You write for glossy print magazines, for content mills, for small businesses.

You’re just starting out as a freelancer, or as a writer. Or you’ve been at it for years.

You live in the Phillipines, or Malta, or New Jersey (or so Mailchimp tells me). You wear the hijab, or you wear a bikini.

The global reach of this blog and its usefulness for people from so many walks of life has frankly blown my mind.

Whatever road has brought you to this freelance-writing life, I welcome your participation. It’s an honor and privilege and really, a delight, to have your presence in my virtual home.

I know you have something valuable to teach all of us, from your own unique experience.

So — today I’d like to hear from you. It’s your day to be the expert.

Tell me your best piece of advice for freelance writers.

Leave it in the comments below. I’ll take the 20 best pieces of wisdom and make a post out of them later this month.

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67 comments on “What’s Your Best Piece of Advice for Freelance Writers?
  1. We keep your page. Watch it offline again soon. Very interesting article.

  2. My two cents:

    1) Start out writing what you know.
    2) Learn how to market, and market every day.
    3) Charge professional rates.
    4) Create simple, one-sheet proposals stating what you will do, how much it will cost and spell out payment terms.
    5) Make sure your payment terms require at least 50 percent upfront.

  3. Tom Bentley says:

    Persistence, in writing and in sending the writing out, makes a big difference. I sold two pieces last year that were years’ old; I still had faith in the quality of the articles, and just found the editors who were looking for them. I also sold two short stories that were 7 and 10 years old, respectively. Again, just sending them out, over time, even when other editors said “no.”

    You have to just move on from the rejections (which are more like, “not right for us now,”) and keep trying. On that same note, writing a small amount every day has a tremendous advantage over thinking about writing something—and just continuing to think about it. It’s remarkable how much you can get done if you just write for a half-hour a day.

  4. John Burnell says:

    Be professional. So many freelance assignments involve you talking to your client’s customers. You need to present as a professional, not someone doing freelance writing as a hobby. Be on time for all calls and appointments, no barking dogs or noisy kids in the background, use clear, professional e-mail addresses. Some clients think people freelance because they can’t cut it in the business world. We need to convey otherwise.

  5. Stephen says:

    Wow … what great information here. Thanks to all.

    My advice would be if you have a niche … leverage it!

    So many of the great freelancers—Bob Bly, Peter Bowerman and Michael Stelzner have shared this gem of wisdom with me over the years. Last autumn it finally sunk in. I know healthcare writing (and marketing), plus I love it!

    So I started slowly parting with most of my non-healthcare clients—but kept a few of my favorites including a winery (fun!), a spa (relaxing), and an engineering company (very challenging in a good way). Thus, my business focus shifted from about 60% healthcare to 90%+ healthcare.

    I can tell you without reservation that the experts are right. Unless you prefer to be a generalist (Peter Bowerman does), your earning potential can increase dramatically. Mine has quickly.

    Draw from your existing expertise & best of luck!

  6. Edward Seah says:

    Don’t limit yourself to only writing gigs. If you are proficient in more than just English, try taking up translation. Translation helps you think about word choices and expressing ideas in a way that can speak to reader of different cultures.

    Proofreading and editing gigs can also help enhance your own writing proficiency. Editing other people’s work opens your eyes to the blind spots you might have in grammar and styles, as well as help you think about how to improve the overall writing to give it an extra shine.

    Not only will these two skills help enhance your writing ability, they are great alternative sources of income in between writing gigs as well.

  7. Sara says:

    Enjoy your down time (or slower times).

    Ideally, you’ll market yourself so perfectly that you have a steady stream of work and be turning work down. For many of that isn’t the case (or maybe isn’t the case yet). Things will be overwhelmingly busy, and then one day you realize you don’t have any work or just a little work. Enjoy that time. Keep working at getting work (active marketing, networking, updating your web site, but give yourself a break and trust that your efforts will bring in more work. When it does, you be glad you enjoyed a little break.

  8. Sondi says:

    I’ve learned to focus on writing about topics that I’m passionate about, or at the very least, interested in. There’s nothing worse than trying to bang out a story you care nothing about, even though the publication might pay decently. I’ve found that I don’t like my writing in those situations and aren’t particularly proud of the stories. But I’m always happy to include articles about topics I love in my portfolio.

  9. lisa says:

    You are your own boss. Looking out for your own welfare ( which includes scheduling breaks and ensuring that your fees are fair to the work that you’re doing) because no one else is going to care about this as much as you.

  10. Diana says:

    Respect your reader. Always. Whether it’s treating the person you interview for a story with professionalism or choosing the right words to express an idea or fact–remember that without the reader your writing is just words on a page.

  11. No one but YOU knows how crummy you might be feeling at this moment.sure, YOU think that the whole world can smell it, but that’s only in your own mind. Sit and DO what you want to accomplish, and ignore that inner unhealthy voice. You can make it happen, right now… there. done.

    Go do it!

    And here’s something to help y’all with writers block… nutty, but magical:

    http://issamar.com/strategy/business-tip-writers-block/

  12. Rohi says:

    Hi Carol,
    I find it very helpful to follow this sequence:
    1. Brainstorm first using mind mapping and free writing
    2. Create the outline based on #1, usually on paper. I write the title, keywords and sub-headings in the outline, though I may change them later.
    3. Do the actual writing using the outline.
    4. Revise after a few hours or the next day and save the earlier drafts in files with date and #draft in the file name. For example, Flow state 1st draft, 9 June.doc
    5. Submit and start the next project.

    I’m so glad I found your site. It’s been most helpful.
    Thank you.
    Rohi recently posted…Goenka Vipassana Meditation Course – Five Enemies of MeditationMy Profile

  13. Melody says:

    My favorite tip is one that I fashioned into a sign that’s hanging over my project board by my desk.

    It Is NOT Personal!

    Being a people person and a people pleaser (I think most of us moms are), it is very hard sometimes when an article, idea, proposal or query is turned down. We just need to remember that those are not personal attacks on us.
    Melody recently posted…Blueberries- Blackberries and GrapesMy Profile

  14. Pooja says:

    Keep persistent. And don’t jump into it unless you have the main ingredient in place: Passion for writing, passion for starting on your own. Without passion, I wouldn’t have been able to make any of it possible.

    Another ingredient is optimism. Childlike optimism I’d say.

    I speak in depth about these and other must-haves in my free ebook at my blog. You’re welcome to have a read!


    Pooja
    Pooja recently posted…Failure- There’s None There’s Only FeedbackMy Profile

  15. Judy says:

    Care for yourself, because if you don’t, no one else will. This means making your health a top priority. Doing so involves many things–a healthy diet, enough pure water, supplements, sleep/rest, exercise/movement, relaxation, laughter, fun, etc.

    If you don’t have great health, nothing else will matter and you won’t have much of a business anyway. It’s impossible to be a successful writer without your health. Good health brings you so many benefits that directly impact your work, such as enough energy to tackle all your many freelancer responsibilities. It also makes your brain work well, and needless to say, as writers we need our brains to be crystal clear, creative, etc.

    Another way to care for and nurture yourself is to believe in yourself. Frequently remind yourself of what a great writer you are, how creative you are, how much you’re putting into your business, how bright your future is, etc. This will keep you moving forward, especially when those inevitable rejections, criticisms, etc. come along. Believing in yourself is critical to freelance writing success.

    • Agree. Agree. Agree!
      It is so easy to get caught up in trying to write and forget about doing something else. I often get find myself sat on the sofa for the whole day (and evening!) without necessarily doing that much writing. Getting out and doing some exercise helps break the day up and you often come back with a fresh perspective.

  16. Before you begin a project, get it in writing. Have a written scope of work, a professional services agreement, a memorandum of understanding… something that outlines the specifics of the project. This helps a freelancer in two important ways. First, it helps to establish you in the client’s mind as a professional who takes his/herself seriously. Second, it protects you from the ravages of scope creep and clients who change their minds about what they want but think the price should stay the same.

  17. XXX.

    Best advice I have ever been given that helps in some many ways is using XXX – that is writing XXX in your copy when you need to look up for information on the internet and continuing writing. For example “The first ever use of the term ‘marketing agency’ was in XXX”.

    Going to look up information can easily allow you to get distracted and loose your thought process and put you ‘out of the zone’. By writing XXX in the copy it allows you to finish writing the article before you go scouring the internet and getting distracted. The XXX also makes it easy to find the points your copy where further research is needed.

    • Carol Tice says:

      I almost deleted this as spam because at first I thought it was saying something pornographic! Glad I read through it…nice tip.

    • Judy says:

      I do this, too. For a similar reason, I often boldface, italicize, or use Word’s highlighting feature (the feature that makes text look blue, green, yellow, etc.) to “bookmark” things that I need to look up, revise, or otherwise work on later.

      This type of strategy can also help to avoid “writer’s block” (I put that in quotes because I try to convince myself that it doesn’t really exist), because I just write down whatever I know at the moment and tell myself that I can fill in the gaps later.

    • Pooja says:

      Indeed, great tip, Yoshimi!
      Pooja recently posted…Failure- There’s None There’s Only FeedbackMy Profile

    • Stephen says:

      O.k. this is scary. I’ve been using ‘XXX’ as a placeholder to find information, check a word, get a definition or other for several years. I have one small addition. I also highlight ‘XXX’ in yellow so it really pops out and I can find it quickly.

    • Gordon says:

      Love this tip. Am going to steal it and use it in all the writing I do!! I must probably spend 60-70% of my time drifting about on internet after getting distracted when researching info.

    • I do that, too; but I highlight it so that it stands out.
      Carol J. Alexander recently posted…Are Your Kids OutsideMy Profile

  18. Cate Morgan says:

    Here’s mine: Never Never NEVER give up.

    People will secretly want you to. They will sound concerned for your welfare. Smile politely and carry on.

    This is the only way to get the voices out of your head. Trust me on this.
    Cate Morgan recently posted…My tweetsMy Profile

  19. Since writing is primarily a solitary endeavor, I recommend working a time to be social each day. I use daily fitness classes as a way to start my day off with the energy of friends and exercise, which allows me to research and write for the rest of the day without feeling cut off from the world.

  20. Kar says:

    This sounds simple, but when you’re starting, it isn’t. As I’m just starting, I struggle with this a lot. So this is as much a reminder for me, as for everyone else.

    Be brave.

    Also? You are the only thing you can control. Really. So, focus on doing what you can do, what you need to do, to move yourself forward. You, are the boss of you.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Right on, Kar.

      I’ve heard so much of, “Well, rates are crappy now because the economy is bad, there’s no good-paying work anymore, bla bla bla.” There’s always enough work out there for whoever is aggressively marketing their writing — you’ll find enough clients at good rates. It got harder, but reports that all articles will be $5 in the future are dead wrong.

  21. Karen says:

    Never stop learning. There is always more to learn, especially with technology working its magic on the writing and publishing industries. I started off subscribing to dozens of newsletters, taking courses and reading books about the craft of writing. I still do. I set aside time every month to find a new site to subscribe to (I unsubscribe from an old one that’s not meeting my needs to make room in my inbox!). I also read at least one writing related book each month and take a writing course (online or off) once a year. My best writing comes when I’m stimulated by learning something new.
    Karen recently posted…Ten Things J K Rowling Taught Me About WritingMy Profile

  22. PatriciaW says:

    Everyone starts somewhere. Content mills, online gigs, local, regional or national media. Each has its ups and downs. Don’t allow anyone to make you feel badly about who you write for or have written for. One person’s junk opportunity is another person’s chance to break in. But don’t settle. Because you start with low-paying gigs doesn’t mean that’s all you can or have to do. Have a plan to grow your career into better paying gigs.

    Attack your fear. Speak to it out loud, if necessary. Pick a market, identify a topic, research, query and repeat.

    No means “not right for us right now”. It’s not personal. (I think I got this last part from you, Carol, in a recent webinar.)
    PatriciaW recently posted…YA Literature- Realistic or Too DarkMy Profile

  23. Brandi says:

    It’s so easy when you’re starting out to get lost in the sea of what you should do and what you shouldn’t do. On top of learning to find your own voice, listen to it. The more you can figure out your own niche, your own style and way of doing things, the easier it will be for you to find success. That means don’t apply for every single job and pitch every publication out there. You’ll waste your time and energy on opportunities that don’t fit. Also, when you’re feeling burnt out, stop and do something else. As a freelance writer, you will always have more things to do than can be accomplished on your daily to-do list. Set up a plan to shut off from your computer at a certain time every night. Schedule in mini-breaks throughout the day and mini-vacations like daily walks, time for reading your favorite book or have lunch with a friend. Make sure to play just as hard as you work. Because you will work hard!
    Brandi recently posted…5 Social Media and Common Author Mistakes You Might Be MakingMy Profile

  24. Anne Wayman says:

    Carol, great question… my best advice to writers is trust yourself. I believe each one knows, deep down, what’s right for them… and how to stretch. So trust yourself and go for it.
    Anne Wayman recently posted…Three Questions For YouMy Profile

  25. Erin Hill says:

    Best advice I could give? If you want to become a full time freelancer…then just do it. Some may disagree, but there is no greater motivation for success than having no other choice. If you can get savings to live on, then do it… there’s no need to be crazy. But if you set a date to leave the old job behind and jump in as a freelancer, then stick to it. Jump in. Start writing. No side jobs and no excuses.

    With no other income to fall back on (assuming you do not have a wealthy spouse who pays for absolutely everything) you are that much more likely to send queries, email potential clients, and sit down and write every single day.

    At some point while you are frantically searching for new clients and celebrating every tiny little win…you will look up at your calendar and realize three months have passed since you began your freelancing adventure and think “Oh shnap…I’m really doing it!”

  26. 1.Set three major writing goals
    2. Work on something everyday that helps you reach one of those goals. If you have too many goals you get bogged down and don’t accomplishe anything.
    3. Write everyday even if it is for 15 minutes but make it writing that moves you towards your three writing goals.
    4. Make a writing plan for the week on Sunday and then you have a daily task list to follow for success everyday.

    If I follow this, I get more done and see more productivity. If I move away from my goals I get distracted with Facebook, twitter, emails, housework, and life. At the end of the week I look at what I got done and what is still left and replan for the next week.

    • Carol Tice says:

      I keep trying not to work on Sunday! But I try to jot down the to-do list for tomorrow before I leave the office every day.

      A habit I picked up as a staff writer with multiple articles due each week that serves me well as a freelancer, too.

  27. Mark Berry says:

    Don’t wonder if you could have done the last brief better.

    Don’t worry where the next brief’s coming from.

    Just write the brief that’s on your desk today – to the best of your ability.
    Mark Berry recently posted…Illustration MIX 2011My Profile

  28. As a freelance writer of service articles, I sometimes find myself wondering what to write about next. So I posted a note on my office wall that reads, “What did I do today? Write it!” Since then, I’ve written articles about everything from how to buy a new washing machine, to growing berries, to keeping your kids in touch with the grandparents. Now, when I find my thoughts wondering about what’s next, I just look at that note on the wall.
    Carol J. Alexander recently posted…1995 Subaru Impreza Wagon-My CarMy Profile

  29. Carol Tice says:

    Wow! I knew my readers had great wisdom…but 18 comments in the first half-hour after I posted this? I am blown away. Can’t wait to see what happens today.

    No idea how I’m going to choose a short list of the best of this for my post! Going to be tough, I can see.

    Wish I had a “like” button on my comments now…loving so many of these tips above.

  30. Hope Clark says:

    Let’s see…

    1. Work like the next big success that will catapult your name is right behind your next submission.

    2. Concentrate on queries instead of acceptances.

    3. Do this job for love then be pleasantly surprised when you get a check.

    4. Newbies should give themselves a full year of blogging, submitting and learning the biz because expecting to make a buck. Nobody writes well at the start, plus platforms take a serious investment of time.

    5. Trades are the best way to start building clips.

    Yep, I could go on forever with one-liners (with the occasional two-liner like #4 – LOL).

    Hope Clark
    FundsforWriters.com

  31. vonnie says:

    I get most of my advice from you, Carol, so I’ll tell you what I’ve learned.

    I don’t apply for jobs on Craigslist anymore. I had applied for several but nobody gets back to me when I mention my fees. If I’m going to get paid what I deserve, I need to act like I deserve it.

    No more content mills that pay pennies and claim the exposure will get you better paying gigs. The only exposure will be that you’ll be known for accepting low-pay.

    The more you write the better you become. I’ve learned this just in the last couple of weeks. My downfall is my wordiness, as you might notice, lol! But the more I practice the better I’ll become.

    BTW, I listened to the free-for-all yesterday (I wasn’t able to attend, after all), and I have to say that you are the most encouraging and informative person I know in this business. Keep up the great work and thank you!
    vonnie recently posted…My latest article – published on EmpowherMy Profile

  32. Alissa says:

    Build your own support network. As a freelancer, you don’t have an office full of people to keep you accountable, so create your own accountability. A fellow writer and I email each other on a weekly basis to update each other on our goals, progress we’ve made that week and what we plan to do the following week. It’s kept us both on track, motivated through dry spells and it simply helps to have someone to help celebrate successes.

  33. Someone told me at a conference last year: “EN – everything’s negotiable.” You can negotiate the rate if you don’t think it will work out to a decent amount on an hourly basis (and by the way, even if you’re charging by the word, you need to think about how long it will take to research and write those 500 or 1,000 words – it makes a huge difference!). You can negotiate the deadline if you have too much on your plate already or think it could be challenging to find the type of sources you need (I’d phrase it like this: “I want to give this piece the time it deserve, so is there any flexibility in your timeline?”). You can negotiate rights if they ask you to sign a work for hire agreement. And if you’re not happy with what you’re offered after negotiating, you can walk away.

  34. diane says:

    My advice? #1. Stick with it; take those jobs that don’t seem very interesting or don’t pay very much because it will pay off in the long run. #2 Read, read and read. Read blogs from other freelancers; read everything about freelance writing you can get your hands (and eyes) on. And, #3, when people ask what you do, proudly announce that you are a writer. This one took me quite a while to master because everyone and their Uncle Sam think writing is easy but we know it is not so take pride in knowing that you are able to accomplish something almost everyone wants to do but most simply can’t.

    • I have been freelance writing for about 12 years. The first few years I was so elated to be self-employed and free to do what I loved all day, writing, that I took pretty much any job that was offered to me. It got to the point that I dreaded some of these assignments more than I used to dread going into my boring office job. I believe in writing authentically, from the heart and without keywords and SEO percentages.

      It was impossible to keep those values, and my belief that I was given this talent to benefit others was suffering. Finally, after finishing a particularly grueling and disgusting project on colon cleansing, I took a personal vow. No more would I bid on jobs or accept them if they did not uplift and benefit others. I would write only from my niche areas, which are really the things I am passionate about, or start selling Avon.

      I began getting projects on spirituality, values, learning processes, qualities young people need to develop to be in healthy relationships, alternative health and treating conditions and illnesses holistically, yoga, meditation and so on. I love writing again.

      Don’t turn your gift into an ordinary albatross that weighs heavily on your joy of writing, and restricts the essential ingredient for creativity: freedom in which to create.

      • Kat says:

        Hi Maryellen,

        I am you…12 years ago! I’m venturing away from a full-time editing role to be a freelancer. I’ve taken on a few clients – some who pay well and one who pays terribly and has me writing about very dull subjects. It is indeed very gruelling. However, I am about to leave that client and seek more fulfilling work.

        My desired niche is the same as yours – health, happiness, personal development and well being. While it is a smaller industry here in Australia, I hope there will be enough work for me to really establish myself in the field. I truly believe my purpose is to use the written word to help others live their ultimate lives. Wish me luck! 🙂
        Kat recently posted…Today I…say yesMy Profile

  35. Barb Johnson says:

    Keep your sense of humor. Sometimes it is difficult when the criticism comes, but you can learn from every situation.

    I’ve used many of my mistakes and turned them into short blog posts. Learning to laugh at yourself is a big help.

  36. Debra Stang says:

    Carol, I think my best piece of writing advice came from you: Don’t waste time on assignments that pay practically nothing and that strangle the soul. I was sure I couldn’t survive without my income from content mills, but the truth is that when I stopped writing for the mills, I had more time to seek out better paying assignments. My income hasn’t suffered at all, and my confidence in myself as a writer has improved 100%.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Love to hear about your success with that, Debra!

      I think once we have a writing gig, so many of us have a real hard time saying “no” to it. But once you let that low-payer go, so many better opportunities appear before you.

    • Kat says:

      Debra, I was in the same position. My lowest-paying client (a content writing co) was my most difficult one and caused me a great deal of stress. While the high-paying corporate clients loved my work and the creativity I injected into it. Your love of the work flows forth from your writing – I vow to only take on clients who truly value my work.
      Kat recently posted…Today I…say yesMy Profile

  37. Mardi Link says:

    Best advice? Listen to the client. REALLY listen. These days, everyone talks over everyone else. Even on CNN, the other morning news shows, and even, it seems, in the novels I’m reading. People have become interrupters to a startling degree. Real listening is rare. Let the client talk until they’re finished without interrupting. See if you can do it.
    Mardi Link recently posted…Happy Endings BadassMy Profile

  38. Terri says:

    For most writers, marketing is worst part of the job. Make sure to designate a specific day of the week that is dedicated to marketing. I personally write it into my planner like clockwork because I know if I don’t write it down I will procrostatinate and avoid it like the plague.

    Building relationships with editors can’t be stressed enough. Don’t just reach out to them when you have a pitch. Try shooting an email when ever you hear of an interesting story that might intrigue them or a news tip that would help them at work.

  39. You cannot become a copywriter, you are one, or you’re not. That’s life. Techniques won’t help you become one, however – here comes the good news – they will help you become a better one when you already are a copywriter. So, here’s my top technique – it made me a better copywriter: make sure you master the official (European) B-1 level of languages. That’s a simple, but sophisticated copywriting technique focussing on grammar, structure, vocabulary. The 5 main rules: 1. write short sentences only 2. avoid passive verbs 3. forget metaphores 4. write one message per sentence and 5. use high-frequent words only. Wow, first time I wrote that in EN, as I am a native Dutch copywriter. Master B-1 and get the ultimate compliment from your client: ‘Those are my words – thanks for putting them in the right order!’.

  40. Tammi Kibler says:

    Learn to write proposals and expect to write them on a regular basis. Whether they are cold proposals to business owners, query letters to publishers, or responses to help wanted ads, well-crafted proposals will land you the more lucrative opportunities.

    • Carol Tice says:

      I really agree with this one. I think these days this is a big dividing line between the high-earning freelancers and the low — they’ve learned how to write a query.

  41. Kymlee says:

    Discipline is important if you want to maintain balance. Keep a regular schedule because the always on entrepreneur usually burns out. And if you usually spend your days in your house (even in a home office) make time to go outside or find some sort of coworking space where you can interact with other people. You can’t network if you never leave your writing cave.
    Kymlee recently posted…Parents Can Get Together to Teach Kids Respect For Each OtherMy Profile

  42. Lori says:

    Work past the critic. We all battle what I picture as a cartoonish angel vs. devil looking over my shoulder, and they compete. On good days, it’s like the angelic muse sings, on bad days, that critic makes me want to give it all up. The only solution is to battle through it. Sit at the keyboard and let myself write badly if that’s what it takes to silence the negativity. It’s not easy, but it works. Oftentimes, that “bad” writing is actually pretty good. It’s all in the attitude!

  43. Wendy says:

    Develop your craft and a thick skin. It takes hard work and persistence to be successful. There’s no whining in freelance writing (or at least there shouldn’t be).
    Wendy recently posted…Writing can be good for the soulMy Profile

  44. Rachel says:

    I just wrote about this today. Writers need to remember their audience/client and make them the priority. It’s easy to get focused on what’s in it for me… but clients want to be sure that I’m focused on them. I need to make sure to communicate that to them.
    Rachel recently posted…As a freelancer- who is your priorityMy Profile

  45. Andea Dale says:

    My advice: Believe in crappy writing days, by writing whether you feel like it, or not. If you only write when you “feel” like it, you’ll never learn how to write, when you don’t. Recognizing that and “leaning” into it, is one of characteristic of a succcessful freelance writer.

    • Megan says:

      Excellent advice. And I would add that you build in extra time to let your writing “marinate.” Give yourself at least a day in between writing and editing. That way, if you have a crappy writing day, you can just write through it knowing you can tweak it later.
      Megan recently posted…Ocean SunsetMy Profile