2015 Advice from top freelance journalists for the digital age
New year, new you. And you want to kick off 2015 by launching a new freelance career. We asked top freelancers for their best advice for those aspiring to engage in the trade. Here’s what they had to say:
1. Get Your Financial House In Order First
- Save up enough money to live on for at least six months, suggests Elizabeth Hilts, author of “Inner Bitch,” “Every Freaking Day with Rachell Ray: An Unauthorized Parody,” and an adjunct professor at Fairfield University. “I didn’t do that, and I regretted it,” Hilts said.
- Have six-months worth of emergency savings, and either three months in “startup savings” to cover you while you wait for checks to start coming in, or enough regular gigs lined up that you can meet bare minimum expenses, adds Laura Shin who writes for Forbes.com, including a piece on how to make the leap from full-time employment to freelancing.” Also, Shin said, “have a budget you know you can stick to and a plan to cover those expenses through any of the aforementioned methods.” Shin added that aspiring full-time freelancers should also have health and disability insurance. And, she said, you should have a retirement savings plan.
- Instead of, or preferably in addition to savings, writer Caitlin Kelly suggests getting a line of credit from your bank “at the lowest APR possible because checks ARE always going to arrive late and you never want to miss any payments to your own creditors.” She also suggests keeping a low overhead. Independent business journalist Michelle V. Rafter echoes Kelly. “Don’t put yourself into debt buying electronics, office equipment or anything else you think you need to get started,” Rafter said. “If you have a laptop, phone and internet access everything else can wait.”
- Nancy Dunham, a music critic for The Washington Times who also writes for USA Today, suggests launching your freelance business while holding down a part-time job, especially if you get benefits. “That’s a nice bonus,” Dunham says. Houston, Texas-based medical writer Elizabeth Hanes urges writers to “phase in” freelancing by starting while still employed full-time. “Then gradually reduce your W2 hours as you take on more work,” Hanes advises.
- If possible, allow someone else to pay your bills while you launch your freelance business, says Allison Williams, an author, editor and playwright based in the San Francisco Bay area. “If your personal psyche can do it, live off your parents or live off your partner while you get started,” she says.
2. Cultivate colleagues and contacts before you launch
- “If you live in NYC, apply for a press pass through the New York City Police Department,” says Julie Schwietert Collazo, a NYC-based freelance journalist who is published by Al Jazeera America, Foreign Policy, National Geographic Traveler, among others.
- Caitlin Kelly, who produced her own series of webinars to assist writers, suggests joining online freelance writers groups, like Binders Full of Full-time Freelance Writers, a secret group that provides great tips that help women writers get a leg-up in content-driven industries. The groups allow freelancers to gain some context “for business practices like pitching and pricing,” Kelly says.
- Kelly also suggests taking online classes to get up to speed.
- Writer Vanessa McGrady says it’s best to secure anchor clients or get on a retainer.
- “Network, network, network,” says JoBeth McDaniel, author of the bestselling biography, “A Special Kind of Hero,” and journalist who has written for AARP Magazine, LIFE and Newsweek and Reader’s Digest, among others. “I forced myself to get out into the community and meet people and do things with friends,” McDaniel said. “Writing is solitary, and I desperately needed a strong social life to compensate. Still do!”
3. It helps to have experience as an editor
- Writer Caitlin Kelly says it is important to ensure you have a very good skill set: Reporting, self-editing and fact-checking because your competitors do!
- Previous editing experience provides insight into how the editorial process works so you know what editors expect of you when you’re on the other side, writer Laura Shin says.
- If you don’t have editing experience, independent business journalist Michelle V. Rafter encourages freelancers to “actively seek out assignments where you can work with editors who’ll make your writing stronger, it’s like getting paid to take writing classes.”
- Writer and photographer Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee suggests finding an editor-in-chief who will read over your copy before you submit it to the actual editor who will publish your work.
- The website should showcase samples of your work so you have an online presence 24/7 doing some of your sales work for you, says Caitlin Kelly.
- Writer Cecilia Hae-Jin Lee urges freelancers to register a DBA (Doing Business As) and buying a business license in the city where they work (those in Los Angeles are required to have a license).
- Independent business journalist Michelle V. Rafter, who blogs at WordCount: Freelancing in the Digital Age, urges freelancers to think carefully about topics they want to cover. “There’s an overabundance of writers interested in some topics (travel, culture, etc.) and the pay is low as a result,” Rafter says. “There are far fewer writers who cover economics, global finance, environmental health, etc., and the pay is better for those who do. It’s supply and demand.”
- Or rather, says New York-based writer and editor Jasmine Bager Cruz, “decide that you want to write every. single. day.”
- Independent business journalist Michelle V. Rafter says to treat freelancing like the job it is. “Keep a regular daily schedule, whatever that means for you,” she says. “If you’ve been on staff before, previous employers should be among the first publications you approach for freelance work. They know you and your work. If not them approach their direct competitors, because they probably know you too.”
- Be open and innovative. “I’m willing to do different kinds of work,” responds Dorri Olds. “I am a social media consultant, a web designer, a writer and a photographer. Always remain open.”
- Use Scrivener software to help manage writing projects, including freelance work, screenplays and book projects.
- Designate an “office space” where you’ll work each day. This could be part of your kitchen, living room or a local coffee house, but preferably not your bedroom. (Note: If you choose a coffee house, it’s just common courtesy that you buy something to eat or drink in exchange for taking up table space and using the owner’s wifi.)
6. Define Success
- Freelance writer and editor Alyssa Haak says freelancers should consider, early on, what success looks like outside of a traditional promotions structure. “Set a goal of publications or money or some indicator of growth,” she says.
- Caitlin Kelly says to decide what constitutes success. “Most people, sadly, make it purely monetary. But you can make money cranking out silly shit that you won’t be proud of or that won’t open any bigger doors,” Kelly continues. “Decide on your goals (skills acquisition, specfiic sales to specific editors, a book, a fellowship) and name them annually. Then go after them. My best week of 2014 was an all-expense-paid – well-paid – trip to remote areas of Nicaragua writing for a charity focused on water. It hit every possible button (for me) that work should and, these days, so rarely does. It’s all up to you!”
- Vanessa McGrady advises in this Forbes.com piece that before striking out on your own to pay off big bills, line up new prospects and be able to answer this one simple question: “Ask yourself, ‘Why is it important to do this? What will it do for you? What will it do for your family? What will it do for the world?” A person who ventures out on her own will face hard times. Business will go up and down. There will be failures. What helps you ride through them is how you answer the question. Then, as entrepreneur Jay Papasan writes in his best-selling “The One Thing” with real estate mogul Gary Keller: “Write it down. Tattoo it on your back. Don’t forget it.”
- Nancy LaFever, owner of WriterChick LLC believes it is important to be prepared for negativity and rejection. “….often at the level of undermining, from those whom you assume would be your biggest cheerleaders,” says LaFever. “I did not see this coming and it’s very painful and difficult to process. That’s one of the reasons the aforementioned support from other writers is an absolute lifeline at times. But be sure to look at the haters’ and naysayers’ motives before you doubt yourself.” Author and freelance writer Linda H. Davis echoes the sentiment. Have “an extremely tough hide,” says Davis, who wrote “Badge of Courage: The Life of Stephen Crane.”