As a freelance writer on the entertainment beat, I get a lot of really cool assignments. It's exciting to cover new movies coming out and ask the stars all about their roles, but I must say it's the screenwriters and novelists I'm usually most eager to talk with. When I had the chance to chat with Dennis Lehane, the bestselling author of the book Shutter Island upon which the new movie is based, I asked him if he'd ever done any freelancing.
Lehane said yes, he had, but "I realized that that is just not something that I do well. I can't write for hire. I have to be in love with my subject matter. I have to be completely engaged in my subject matter. [The newspaper I wrote film reviews for] wanted me to do different types of articles and that began to pull me away from my love, which was to write fiction. So I stopped doing it."
But for many writers, variety is their passion. While the adage "the best money you can make writing is ransom notes" is probably sadly true, there are several ways for law-abiding scribes to at least eke out a living.
Successful author and freelance writer Michelle Goodman has some really excellent tips in her how-to called My So-Called Freelance Life (which also addresses other professions, such as artists, designers, admins, and advisors). I was impressed by Goodman's ability to find the balance between being business savvy and having fun at doing what you love.
She's got some amazing advice for the freelance writer:
What is one thing that made you decide to become a freelancer?
I like to joke that when I was 24, I thought 9 a.m. was the middle of the night. I hated dragging my sorry self to my boring assistant job each day and wasting my journalism degree on filing and data entry. Then an editor at the daily newspaper I interned for after college asked me to write some articles. The pay was decent (this was pre-newspaper-implosion) and the autonomy was even better. I was smitten and knew I wanted to work for myself from that moment on.
What's the most common mistake made by freelance writers who are just starting out?
Working for crap pay and not trying to negotiate something better. Not setting clear boundaries with clients and letting them get away with squeezing more work out of you without paying you extra (aka scope creep). And signing any crummy contract you're offered without trying to negotiate away non-compete clauses, rights-grabbing language, and horrifically long payment cycles
How can established freelancers justify asking for higher rates in this troubled economic time?
We still have cost-of-living increases like everyone else. If you've been writing for one client or media outlet for more than a year without a raise, you're perfectly justified to ask for extra cash -- especially if they pay less than all your other clients. I would even go so far as to say, "Dear Client. I love working with you, but all my other clients are paying me 30 percent more than you and have been for some time. Can you meet that rate too?" (Subtext: "If not, don't expect me to stick around for much longer.") It doesn't always work, but it's worth a shot.
What do you think of beginning writers writing for free? (Doesn't it spoil the cider for the rest of us?)
I'm not at all a fan, and yes, I think it just contributes to the degradation of freelance rates all around. I guarantee that three years down the line, those same newbies giving it away for free will be bitching about the new crop of rookies doing the exact same thing.
That said, if your portfolio is barren and you need to gather some samples fast, I'm all for donating some copy to a worthy non-profit or small business in need-for a couple days, tops. But for the love of god, don't help feed the content mills and don't fall prey to cheapskate, no-name startups who try to entice freelancers with their "We'll pay you in promotion!" come-ons. Let's teach clients and editors that they get what they pay for, not that good text comes cheap.
Is a blog a good idea? Should a freelancer's articles be excerpted in the blog, or are links to articles sufficient?
A blog can be especially helpful for a writer trying to build a platform -- and land that golden commissioned blog, column, book deal, or contributor slot. It's also a great way to generate buzz for a new book that's hot off the presses (it definitely helped me).
But if you're slammed with steady assignments, a personal blog can be tough to keep up with. I am, however, a fan of the "I recently wrote about [raising chickens, shopping for health insurance, or whatever the topic]" blog post that expands on an article you just published elsewhere, perhaps by offering a stat or quote that didn't make it into the story. One, it lets people know what you're working on. Two, it's easy, instamatic blog content. Three, if your blog gets lots of traffic, your editors will appreciate the link back. So yes, I recommend including a little excerpt, summary, or commentary with your article links.
Are you on Twitter? If so, how do you use Twitter to your advantage?
I am: @anti9to5guide. I use Twitter to spread the word about my book events, articles, and blog posts; find sources to interview; keep up with the latest news about my field and beat; trade advice with other freelance writers; and stalk -- I mean, meet -- editors I'd like to write for. It's been an incredibly helpful too for research, relationship building, and shameless self-promotion.
Is joining groups and associations helpful for writers, or are personal websites and blogs enough?
A. I think it's a must. Online comments can't take the place of face-to-face chats with editors and other freelancers. And considering that many writing, media, and publishing associations offer classes and happy hours for a song, you'd be crazy not to check out some of them. Sometimes you don't even have to be a member to take a class or attend a party. (But if you do, membership often isn't more than $100-$250 a year.) As an added bonus, many professional associations offer jobs listings, contests, conferences, contract assistance, and listservs (great forums for finding advice and job leads) -- in other words, all the networking and education a writer could want.
What are some good resource sites for freelance writers?
What is the one thing every aspiring freelancer should know before getting started?
Your life will be so much easier if you line up several clients and line your savings account before you take the plunge. Either that, or get a part-time job so you don't have to worry about money your first year while getting your freelance legs. It's the best way to ward off those 3 a.m. panic attacks about how you're going to pay the rent.
Are you working on another book or project?
Like most writers, I always have a few pans in the fire, from book ideas to articles and essays to classes and events tied to My So-Called Freelance Life. If I have any big news to share later this year, I'll post it on my site, The Anti 9-to-5 Guide. In the meantime, I have an essay in the new anthology P.S. What I Didn't Say: Unsent Letters to Our Female Friends. And people can find me every week at Nine to Thrive (my work/life balance blog) and ABC News (my career column).