A Freelance Story

By Beth Williams

Life was a series of temp jobs. One boring temp job – copying hundreds of pointless documents, entering data, running errands, you name it – to the next. I was college educated, having graduated magna cum laude, but the thought of being chained to the same job, day after day and year after year, suffocated me. I could have found a job that paid well and gave me stability, but then I couldn’t travel when I wanted to or do what I wanted.

I would become like my coworkers, good people but stuck in a career rut. Some hated – but most tolerated – their jobs but didn’t have the ability or the desire to make a change. They had mortgages, families, and huge debt. I had none of that at the time.

I wanted to travel, so that’s what I spent my money on. I was miserable in those temp jobs, but I was miserable for a purpose. So I could travel to London for New Year’s Eve, to Toronto for a few weeks, and to Dublin for a concert.

But, eventually even the travel wasn’t a satisfying enough reward for those never-ending hours enclosed in an office, selling shoes in a bargain shoe store, and punching numbers in a bank. I was hitting my mid-20s and needed to figure out what I was meant to do, so I could move out of my parents’ home and on with my own independent life.

That’s when I turned back to my real love: Writing. I had talent. I had passion. I just didn’t want a traditional job. I’d tried working for a newspaper, but those hours in the office, writing what I was told to write, not writing what I wanted, had no appeal to me. Freelance writing – whether for a publication or for clients – seemed the ideal choice.

And, it has been. In the ensuing decade plus, my life has been the proverbial roller coaster – two masters degrees, a toxic relationship, a beautiful baby who’s turned into an energetic toddler overnight, and a penchant for moving every few years – but one thing has remained consistent: Freelance writing.

Breaking In

You suck.

Okay, so no one has ever actually said that about my writing. But, when I get rejected, that’s sure what it feels like. A big, fat you suck. People say that rejection gets easier with time, but it doesn’t, at least for me. Writing is very personal, even if you’re not writing about something personal, so the sting might lessen much quicker with more experience but it never completely goes away.

My first rejection came when I was a senior in college. We had to write queries for an advanced journalism class. I spent hours on my query, perfecting it, and was sure Pittsburgh Magazine would want to buy the story.

The envelope came. I saw the thank you but and immediately ripped it in two and hid it in a drawer. I didn’t take rejection well back then. It has taken me years to even consider sending another query, much to my professional detriment.

Rejection is all a part of the freelancing game, whether you write for publications or for clients, and it’s a lesson better learned sooner rather than later. Whatever you need to do to deal with rejection, do it. Rant. Vent. Cry. Run a mile. Just get it out and move on, so you don’t get so wrapped up in the “no” of one person you lose out on future opportunities because you don’t want to hear no again. Sometimes it takes a few days to get over the blow, but don’t let it knock you down for good like I did.

I attended plenty of freelance writing conferences in the late 1990s, and I worked as a freelancer in the sports department of the local paper, pulling scores from the wire and editing them for publication, for several years following college graduation. But, I didn’t take the leap into freelancing for clients until one spring day in 2000 when I was living in Toronto, Canada.

Once again I’d found myself in the horrible cycle of temp work, having chosen “love” over my acceptance into the University of Manchester in England. To combat the regret that began to eat away inside me, I started thinking about freelance writing again.

While surfing the internet, I discovered the whole concept of the online marketplace. Elance and Guru are arguably two of the most popular today. I started looking around, threw up a profile on Elance, and bid on a few jobs. Because I was just starting out, I was like a fish out of water.

My profile was bare. I was educated, but the four years since graduation only netted one lousy temp job after another. My bids were decent enough to get work, but they weren’t polished or professional like they are today. And, I was severely lacking in confidence because I’d never worked as a freelancer before, and it showed. I charged far below what my work was worth. I earned nothing for one of my first projects on Elance after the Elance fee was taken out. Fortunately, I had a kind-hearted client who threw in a few dollars on top, so it wasn’t a total wash.

A decade later, I’ve built and continue to build a successful career with clients from around the world, many with whom I do repeat business.

Getting the gig

Finding work as a freelance writer requires a lot of time and legwork. My freelance career has been based on writing for clients, although I’m finally working on queries and sending them to publications. Working for clients, however, is the base of my business at the moment, and I generally write whatever a client needs – from blog content and articles to press releases and ebooks. While I write on all subjects, I specialize in business, pets, travel, and online education.

Atlantic Publishing hired me to write my first book, “How to Open & Operate a Financially Successful Web-Based Business,” and I co-authored “The Complete Guide to Working for Yourself.” I’ve also been published in Carteret Business Magazine and Social Affairs Magazine, both gigs I originally won through Elance.

Elance provides a platform to market my services to prospective clients, and it’s proven to be quite fruitful when I use it. The key to success in an online marketplace like Elance is to be diligent. Carefully craft a complete profile. Develop a strong portfolio; write targeted bids, and don’t write for peanuts. Value your work. You are a professional, whether you have a month or a decade of experience.

As a mom to a toddler, I’ve found that smaller projects work much better for me today – an urgent press release or a batch of articles – so those are the types of projects I primarily focus on right now with larger projects like ebooks interspersed in between.

If you try a bidding marketplace, be sure to carefully choose the projects on which you bid. Read the buyer’s history and feedback, if available. If you notice a lot of unawarded or incomplete projects or writers complaining about working with the client, be wary of bidding.

Don’t count on Elance or any bidding website as your sole source of income. Market yourself in as many ways as you can.

My business website has also been a key to helping me land new, long-term clients, even more so than the online marketplaces. I put a “Contact” box on the site as well as my email address in hyperlink form and phone number on every page. Most prospective clients contact me via email, so I want to make it easy for them.  I also advertise my website URL on my business cards, my social media accounts, and in my email signature. You never know who might see it and decide to contact me.

In addition to a business website that is updated regularly, social media can play a huge role in winning business. Take advantage of LinkedIn (you never know who you’ll connect with), Twitter, and Facebook business pages. Tell everyone you meet you’re a writer. Ask them if they know anyone who needs a writer. Word-of-mouth can be a really effective way to build business. I keep in touch with former clients, and that often leads to additional work.

Several years ago, I tried writing for content mills. (Content mills are sites that pay either a flat fee or revenue share on short articles, and the pay is typically low compared to professional standards.) Content mills are a hot topic of debate among writers. Some deem them the downfall of modern journalism while others think a content mill is fast, easy money, good to fill in gaps when work is slow. Still others use them to build their portfolios (and the opponents of content mills are firmly against that). Do a search in Google if you want to learn more; it’s a pretty interesting and very heated debate.

I wrote for Demand Studios for a period, and I enjoyed it. I chose topics with which I was familiar, so I didn’t need to spend a lot of time researching. That made the $15 per 400 word article worth it, because it took no more than a half an hour, and helped fill in the gaps between bigger projects. Even though I haven’t used it in a while, my account is still open and I still periodically look for suitable articles. The great thing about content mills is you can use a pen name if you don’t want people to know you write for one.

I’ve learned two very important lessons as a freelance writer. Lesson one: Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. I’ve watched other writers put all of their energies into writing for a content mill, for example, then the pay rate changes, or they get fired for some reason. Because they focused solely on that site as a source of income, they’re in a lot of trouble very quickly. Finding work from multiple sources, including multiple clients, is essential to building and maintaining a steady income.

Lesson two: Always market your services. It’s a lesson that I still sometimes ignore and my income suffers because of it. No matter how busy you are, make sure you take time each day to market yourself. Otherwise, you’ll suffer from feast or famine. It’s great during the feast but stressful, and frustrating, during the famine. Consistent marketing is the only way to avoid that.

Making money

Whether you’re a part-time or a full-time freelance writer, you’ll have to work hard and market consistently to make good money. I’ve made anywhere from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars a month freelancing. But, I’ve consistently made a decent living for a decade now, even when my life was in flux.

My income fluctuates at the moment, hovering between $800 and $1000 part-time, because I am still learning how to balance having a toddler with freelance writing, but my income goes where most people’s goes: Bills, day-to-day living expenses, and on fun things for my daughter. The goal is to get back to my most successful days of several thousand dollars a month and having the ability to hire other writers to help me build my business. And, I can get back on the road so my daughter can see the country and the world.

It’s your career: Take it where you want

Living in a cramped hotel room – with four bunnies, four birds and no cable – isn’t exactly the way I envisioned spending five months of my life. But, it’s exactly what I did in St. Louis, Missouri, a few years ago because my then-significant other had a travel job there. So, I joined him.

And, I could join him because as a writer I could work from anywhere. I’ve worked in a lot of places – holed up in a motel for weeks in Montana while wildfires raged outside, in a metal house in the middle of Kansas, in a converted schoolhouse in Connecticut, in a moving car as we drove cross country, and on a hallway bench, waiting for my next graduate seminar to start.

Most people work in a home office, and I do, too. Well, I have a home office – a desk, two computers, a printer, a copier, a scanner, a smartphone, everything I need to run a freelance writing business. But, I prefer to write wherever is most comfortable, on the couch with my feet up or in a comfy chair. I work wherever I’m most productive on a given day. Today, I might get more done sitting behind my desk. Tomorrow, I might feel like sitting on the back patio to enjoy the sun as I write.

A lot of experts, including myself when I write about starting a business, recommend finding a quiet place to work when you work from home, and that might be best for you. It depends on your personality. I can work in the middle of rush hour traffic and not notice when I’m writing because I work well that way. Find what works best for you. You might prefer the silence or you might find you’re more productive with music in the background.

Writing also allows you to work where you want, wherever is convenient for you at the time, which is especially important if you have kids and need that flexibility or if you just don’t like being tied down to one place. After my daughter was born, I learned that writing, while it still came easy to me, wasn’t an easy process anymore. She needed me, and I was her sole caregiver from the day she was born.

Fifteen months later, and juggling my writing career and the full-time care of my daughter is still a work in progress. Before I was a mom, I would set aside time each day to work on specific projects and to accomplish specific goals. I took on large projects without a second thought. I would accept clients who wanted to pay an hourly rate, but today I don’t because I don’t know what my hour is going to look like. I might write for 15 minutes then have to stop to change a diaper or to do the hokey pokey with Elmo.

Today, I still have set goals for what I want and need to accomplish each day. I pride myself on meeting all deadlines and keeping in touch with clients. When I get the work done, however, largely depends on my daughter. She might nap for two hours in the afternoon, giving me the perfect opportunity to get a lot accomplished. Or, she might be cranky, which means I have a lot of starting and stopping and breaks in between writing.

But, that works for me. I’ve always done well writing in spurts and even worked that way before becoming a mom. You can make your freelance writing career work for you, even when you have a rambunctious toddler crawling all over you.

And the great thing about being able to work when you want is as long as you have the work done and done well by the deadline, clients don’t care where or when you worked. They care about the end result. That’s what I focus on: Providing a high quality product that satisfies my client the first time around. How I accomplished my goal doesn’t matter, as long as I accomplished it.

Freelancing has a great deal of benefits. You get to work where you want, when you want, and generally for whom you want. As a freelancer, you don’t generally get to enjoy those snow days. When everyone else is off work because the snow is three feet high and the roads are closed, you’re still working (unless you lose power). You work from home, so you don’t get to cancel if the weather is nasty and you have a deadline looming.

But, that’s okay. When everyone else is at work, you can hang out with your kids or at the mall, if you want. As long as you meet your deadlines and have enough work to make the money you need, you work when you want and where you want. It’s a pretty even trade and a sweet deal.

A roller coaster ride

Freelancing, in and of itself, is a challenge at best. But, you’re going to face your own unique challenges that you’ll have to find a way to overcome to succeed. One of the reasons I don’t work at a desk all of the time is because I have chronic pain from fibromyalgia and TMJ, something I’ve been dealing with for almost 14 years.

In the beginning, pain stood as a hurdle to my freelance writing career. I wasn’t able to have a huge workload, and a lot of times I didn’t even want to work. So, I didn’t work. I stayed in bed, on the verge of giving up. The pain took over my life and defined me.

Today, the pain is something I live with. It’s like an annoying relative who shows up uninvited all of the time. I’ve found ways to deal with it by working where I feel most comfortable, knowing when to take a break, and focusing on the positive. Writing and dealing with clients also helps me forget when I’m having a bad pain day. Those bad days have become a lot less in recent years.

The pain was a huge obstacle to overcome, but it’s an old cliché, it really has made me stronger as a person and more focused as a writer. Being able to overcome the challenge of chronic pain has been due, in large part, to having a really good support system.

No matter how good of a writer you are or how much confidence you have, you still need people to build you up. I’m lucky to have had that from friends, family, clients, and strangers. One of the greatest writing compliments I have received was from someone I didn’t know at all. Very early in my freelancing career I wrote book reviews for a book review site. The pay was lousy – it was basically an affiliate-type deal, but I didn’t know about any of that back then – but it was fun. I loved reading, and it was a way to start building a name for myself online.

I wrote a review on “The Secret Life of Bees.” Shortly after it was published, I received an email (I still have it in my inbox, dated February 6, 2003) from someone who read the review and wanted to tell me she’d connected with what I wrote and to share how she felt about the book. She talked about how deeply the book affected her.

It was a short email – only a few paragraphs long – but it was important enough for me to keep for the last eight years. She took the time to write to me because something I wrote touched her, and she shared how she felt in return. That means more to me as a writer, at least sentimentally, than any amount of money ever could.

I’ve gotten other emails out of the blue, from strangers across the globe, complimenting something I’ve written and they read somewhere. It’s one of the perks of freelance writing that you don’t expect but when you receive it’s a wonderful compliment.

Clients often provide wonderful feedback and sometimes the best compliments come from a client. I recently took on a project and, for some reason, took a hit with my self-confidence. My writing was on par, but I just didn’t feel confident even though it was a subject about which I’d written many times. I sent a portion of my work to the client, and his response set me straight. He used words like “stellar,” “awesome,” and “the best writing” he’s gotten from a writer.

And, sometimes the best compliments are the simplest. One client, who I’ve worked with for more than five years, told me my writing was “simply the best.”

In addition to clients and to strangers, it’s important to have the support of the people around you. I’ve been lucky to have that. One of my most vocal supporters has been my mom.  I wrote a heart-wrenching article on a rabbit rescue in New England during my masters program a few years ago. I knew when I wrote it that it had the power to change people’s opinions about house rabbits and their widespread mistreatment.

My professor, who has written for The Washington Post, encouraged me to find a publisher. I balked. But, it was my mom who kept asking me, every day, if I sent my query letter out.

She kept pushing me. “You’re a talented writer. Everyone is rejected, so don’t worry about that. You can do well writing for publications. You’re good.” She said that more than I cared to hear it.
Today, I’m in the middle of revising the article and have finally sent the query to several publications. Sometimes you don’t believe in yourself until someone else does for you.
Where do we go from here?

Becoming a freelance writer was the right thing for me. I love it. I’m happy. Instead of going to a dead end job I hate every day, I get to do something different every day. I am constantly learning, growing as a writer, and meeting new people. My days are different every day. I might spend a warm spring afternoon at the park, playing and walking, and focus on work at night. I might work on Saturday but take Wednesday off, so we can go to the zoo. It’s the freedom of freelancing that is so intoxicating. Not many careers give you such flexibility.

Writing fits into my life because it has to. I tried a life without writing and that life stunk. It just so happens that writing is the perfect career to compliment being a full-time mom, so I lucked out in that respect.

Sure, there are blips along the way, but I’ve done well to this point and I anticipate building a highly successful business I can then pass on to my daughter someday, if she’s interested.

Freelance writing can be lucrative and extremely rewarding, but it’s a lot of hard work. I know people who have this vision of freelancers living the easy, lazy life because they work from home. Having worked in a traditional job and having freelanced for years, I can emphatically state that, in my opinion, freelancers face a lot more challenges. We don’t have job security. We have to constantly market ourselves. We have to pay our own taxes. We might work a lot more than the typical 40-hour work week, especially when we are trying to establish ourselves.

But, in exchange for that, we get to shape our own careers. By working smarter and finding the quality clients and high paying gigs, we can enjoy more free time. We can work when we want and how we want, enjoying snow days whenever we want them.


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