Five Things I Wish I Had Known as a New Freelance Writer

I’ve been a full-time freelance for twenty-five years now. I’ve made a few mistakes along the way, but I’ve learned a lot as well. So what advice would I give to anyone starting out on this path today? Here are five things I really wish I’d known all those years ago…

1. You Don’t Have to Know Everything

When I was beginning my writing career, I worried a lot about what I didn’t know.

Every time I came across a word I hadn’t seen before, rather than view it as an opportunity to learn something new, I took it as a further sign that my vocabulary wasn’t wide enough to succeed as a writer. (In fact, I now realise that while having a good vocabulary is definitely an asset, you could go through an entire writing career without ever knowing the meaning of palimpsest, clepsydra, ursine, and many more…)

It wasn’t just vocabulary either. I worried that I didn’t know whether I should use “toward” or “towards”, “forever” or “for ever”, “continuous” or “continual”, and many more. And I could waste a whole morning agonizing over whether I should use a dash or a colon in my opening paragraph.

What I realise now is that most of these things matter little. Quite often, either choice will be acceptable. My advice to a new writer today would be to get a good dictionary and style guide, and refer to these whenever you’re in doubt. But if you’re still not sure, just make your best guess and move on. The chances are that whatever you choose, your editor will change it anyway!

My American friends have a very good expression for this: Don’t sweat the small stuff.

2. It Pays to Specialize

There are lots of other would-be freelance writers out there, so you need to do whatever you can to make yourself stand out. For me, anyway, that has meant specializing.

Specializing has all sorts of advantages for a freelance writer. If you are regarded as an “expert” in your field, editors and publishers will turn to you when they need a writer on the subject in question. In addition, because of your perceived expertise, you may be able to charge a higher rate than an “ordinary” freelance.

Don’t just stop at one specialism, though. Try to develop a number. My specialist subjects include self-employment, advertising and PR, careers, the Internet, gambling for profit, popular psychology, English grammar, writing for profit, and several more. At least then, if there is a fall in demand for one of your specialisms (as has happened for me in recent years with careers writing), you have other strings to your bow.

My advice to a new writer would be to start with an area you know a lot about, or have a particular interest in, and make it your business to become an “expert” in that field. Write a few articles about it, perhaps for low-paying markets when you’re getting started. Once you have published some work on your specialism, people will start to regard you as an expert in it, and more work is likely to follow. By researching more articles and talking to “real” experts, you will build up your store of knowledge, until you really are something of an expert in your chosen field. It’s worked for me, anyway 😉

3. Don’t Take Criticism Too Seriously

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying you shouldn’t listen to constructive feedback on your work. However, you should evaluate it carefully and be prepared to reject it if you don’t agree with it.

Remember that judgements about quality (or otherwise) are often subjective. There’s a story I tell in my CD course Write Any Book in Under 28 Days about a time when I regularly wrote careers information articles for a large UK publishing house. These were basically four-page articles about different jobs.

I submitted my articles to one particular editor at the publishing house. Invariably they came back to me covered in red ink, with insertions, deletions and transpositions all over the place. I tried to learn from her comments and improve, but still every time the articles came back changed almost beyond recognition. She still put the edited articles through, but I honestly felt like a schoolboy whose report card read, “Could do better”.

Then I got a new editor – a man this time, as it happens. I submitted my latest article to him, and waited for it to come back to me covered in red ink as usual. And waited. And waited. So eventually I phoned him up and asked what had happened to my article. “Oh that,” he said, sounding surprised I had even mentioned it. “It was fine, so I put it through for publication.”

The truth is that in writing, as in life, everyone has different views of what is good and what is bad. So listen to criticism by all means, but try to evaluate it objectively, and always feel free to reject it if you think it’s wrong. And never, ever, take criticism personally.

4. You’ve GOT to Put Yourself About!

However good a writer you are, no publisher or editor is going to beat a path to your door. Especially when you are starting out, you must be prepared to send off torrents of query letters, emails, book proposals, and so on. Look for publishers seeking writers – the Writers Wanted board at www.mywriterscircle.com is one good place to start – and if a vacancy looks interesting, fire off an application.

Put yourself about in the flesh too. Join your local writers’ circle, go on writers’ courses and conferences, volunteer to give talks, and run classes in adult education. In the online world, set up a writing homepage and/or a blog, and join at least one writers forum. And sign up at social networking sites such as Twitter, LinkedIn, and FaceBook. All of this will help raise your profile as a writer, and make it more likely that potential clients will get in touch with you.

And also under this heading I’d add, build up your network of useful contacts. These can come from all sorts of places: fellow writers you meet, proofreaders and editors you work with, folk you meet on courses, people you interview for articles, people you connect with via online services such as Twitter, and so on. Nowadays, at least half of all the new writing opportunities that come my way do so as a result of networking.

5. Enthusiasm isn’t Everything – Maybe Just 90%…

OK, I’m being a bit tongue-in-cheek here, but one thing experience (mine and other people’s) has taught me is that enthusiasm will carry you a long way as a writer. I’m sure it’s true in other fields as well, but clients generally are more inclined to hire writers who are enthusiastic about their work rather than those who seem simply to be going through the motions.

Obviously, you DO need in addition the writing skills and other qualities to deliver a good job. Without enthusiasm, however, you will probably never get the chance to demonstrate that you have these skills and qualities.

Look at it this way. If an editor gets two applications, one from someone who is relatively inexperienced but brimming with enthusiasm, the other from someone with an impressive CV who sounds as though they could barely be bothered to get of bed this morning, nine times out of ten it’s the writer with the enthusiasm who will get the gig, even if they may not have as much experience. It’s human nature that we all respond better to people who have a positive attitude themselves.

So before sending off an application for any writing job, ask yourself honestly: Do I really sound as if I want this job? Do I appear excited by the prospect of working with this company? Can the client see that I am bursting with ideas and raring to do a good job for him? Or, conversely, does my application sound half-hearted? Does it sound as though I don’t really expect to get the job, and don’t much care one way or the other? If the latter is the case, hit “Delete” and start again. You MUST, MUST, MUST convey enthusiasm in all your applications and proposals!

If you have any other useful hints or tips for new writers, feel free to add them below as comments.

Happy writing!

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