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7 Tips Every Freelancer Should Heed, And Newbies Need to Know
Friday, September 25, 2015 (All day)

This year, I’m celebrating ten years of freelance writing and I can’t think of a better way to mark the occasion than by sharing a collection of tips for people starting out.

Tip #1: Freelance writing – as a career – isn’t for everyone.


Lots of people dabble in freelancing. Some are adventurous enough to try to make it their primary income. Only a fraction of those who try it will actually sustain a freelance career.

The ones who make it aren’t hobbyists, and they aren’t lucky. They’re professionals who embrace BOTH the business and the craft.


If you’re only interested in writing, that’s OK, but let me save you some time. You’ll need a job, a business partner or a trust fund to pay your bills. In addition to writing, freelancers are entrepreneurs, marketers, project managers and their own accounts receivable and tech support departments. (Folks in the Toronto area can pick up some business basics for writers during Culture Days at The Business of Freelancing, Sunday, September 27 at 3 p.m.)

Tip # 2: Become an ambassador of your profession.


This tip might seem like it isn’t for everyone, but I think it can be.

I’m by no means a high-profile freelance writer, nor do I think my career trajectory has been without its flaws – becoming an ambassador doesn’t mean you’ll be a superstar, or iconic, or perfect. It’s just a choice you make about how you show up.


As a direct result of consciously deciding early on to conduct myself as an ambassador for my profession, I’ve steadily enjoyed opportunities to do great, lucrative work. I’ve been able to embark on adventures and move my business from Gabriola Island to Victoria, to Regina and recently to Toronto because long-term clients have stuck with me. And everywhere I’ve lived, I’ve built professionally and personally nourishing networks of colleagues and new clients. (Colleagues I see as fellow ambassadors contributed the other five tips in this post.)


Here’s my story. See if you can relate.


I started out freelance writing when I took on a small newsletter contract for a friend of a friend, which I wrote on weekends. That gig earned me a referral to another client, and soon my evenings filled up. Meanwhile, my day job filled with frustrations, and I knew I had to make a change. Sound familiar?

But that’s not when I became a freelancer.


Nine months later, I sold my place in Vancouver and moved to Gabriola, one of the Pacific Gulf Islands. Gabe, as the locals call it, is the kind of community where you run into your friends every time you go to the store, and if you call 911 they ask if you need them to send the police car, “because we only have the one car, you know.” It’s quaint and haltingly beautiful, and people have to get creative to earn a living.


That’s where I started freelancing full time. Not that I had full-time work at first, but I was determined and I put in a full workday no matter what. If I didn’t have enough paid work, I did volunteer work, took business classes, worked on my website, or met with potential clients or other entrepreneurs and freelancers. Sure, I only made about 60% of the salary of the job I left (which was about 30% of what I thought I could make), but it was enough to keep me going. I often think now that I had the perfect mix of desperation and inspiration when I started out.


But that’s not when I became a freelancer.


It wasn’t until I joined the Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC) that something changed. From Gabe, I used to take a ferry and drive two hours to attend Victoria Chapter meetings. I put in a five-hour round-trip commute for a two-hour meeting because I craved colleagues and feedback, and I needed to know how other people found work and what rates they charged. The writers I met were happy to share their experience, and they encouraged me (with financial assistance) to go to the National Conference in Toronto, where I got to learn about issues and opportunities I hadn’t encountered or even considered, but which immediately resonated.


Over my years in PWAC, I’ve probably taken close to 100 professional development seminars. I’ve also led seminars and conferences for writers in Victoria and Toronto; spoken on panels at national conferences; served on the Victoria Chapter board, the Toronto Chapter board and the National Board; advocated for amendments to copyright legislation and educated Members of Parliament about why the writing community opposed recent changes; and met hundreds of colleagues, many of whom I now count as friends.


I don’t say this to brag, but rather to illustrate that by taking up opportunities to first learn and then be a leader in my professional association – by working to become an ambassador for my profession – I quickly gained knowledge, confidence and a support network.


It was also through PWAC that I realized that I – sitting alone at my desk – worked at the periphery of a noble profession and that what I do as a professional reflects on other freelance writers.


If I accept crappy contracts, I make it harder for my colleagues to demand better. And as I grow in my career and command better rates, I can help other writers do the same, which ultimately makes it easier for me to make a good living doing the work I want to do.


That realization catapulted me from being someone who writes from home to being a proud member of my profession.


Being an ambassador of your profession isn’t just about finding formal leadership roles – it’s about how you conduct yourself.


Freelance writing is a hard way to make a living, but the people whose success I admire and work to emulate are the ones I see as exemplary ambassadors. They humble me and inspire me to do better.


Because of them, I stand up for myself as if I were standing up for all of us in every negotiation. I carry myself in ways that I believe would reflect well on others – if I’m the only freelance writer a client ever meets, I want that client to leave our encounter thinking freelance writers are driven, thoughtful, creative professionals who are worth every penny! 


It might seem ironic that in such an independent -- some say lonely -- profession, I feel like I became a professional freelance writer when I looked past the work on my desk to see all the people who walk this same path. But I wouldn’t be the freelancer I now am without them.


If you are just starting out, look up! Find people who inspire you and find a way to be of service to them, publicly or silently. It’s the surest way I know to succeed in this business.


More tips from PWAC pros:


Tip # 3: Put on pants.


Just because you work at home, and you can wear pyjamas all day, doesn’t mean you should. Getting dressed in the morning helps: it prevents procrastination; helps maintain self-esteem and value; and helps you take your work, and yourself, more seriously. Plus, you’ll be ready if someone wants a quick chat on Skype or Facetime. -- Carolyn Camilleri


Tip # 4: Write first. Edit later.


Sometimes writers spend too much time focusing on what the final piece will be, when all we really need to do is start writing down those first ideas. Once you get something down, you have something to transform into a polished piece. That has saved me hours (and sometimes days) of procrastination. -- Nicole Gottselig


Tip # 5: Connect with other freelance writers.


Whether you become a PWAC member, join an online discussion group or invite other freelancers out for coffee, there is a lot you can learn from people who are more experienced. That's also how you build your network. As many freelancers will tell you, a great deal of work comes through these kinds of connections. -- Jaclyn Law


Tip #6: Give clients a price range.


When chatting with a potential client, the question may come out of the blue: “How much do you charge?” I used to respond with a set number like $60 an hour. If the client didn’t think they could afford it, the conversation would stop right there. Or, if I realized later that they could afford more, I would kick myself. So now, I respond with a range, like $45 to $75 an hour, emphasizing that it depends on the job. When I provide a price range rather than a set fee, it opens the door to talk about the requirements of the job, and I can get a better idea of how much time, research, writing, approvals and rewriting will be involved. And I can sometimes even talk them into spending a little bit more than they had planned. Not always, but sometimes! -- Krystyna Lagowski


Tip #7: Protect yourself.


To minimize slow periods, make a habit of pitching or looking for clients, even when you’re busy. And when you get work, read your contracts carefully. Don’t sign away your copyright or moral rights. -- Sue Bowness


Kim Lear is a freelance writer, web content specialist and project manager, campaign strategist based in Toronto serving clients ranging from Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, to Covenant House BC, to the architecture and engineering sector.

If you are a PWAC member and would like to volunteer with the Toronto Chapter, please email Karen Luttrell for information.


- Kim Lear


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