In the early stages of starting a freelance business, things can get overwhelming.
To-do lists pile up. Sending pitches seems like the most intimidating thing ever. And getting that first client is exhilarating … most of the times.
But to really appreciate the freelance life, we have to stop and acknowledge all the progress we’ve made and the lessons we’ve learned along the way.
In this post, Vanessa shares the six most important lessons that she learned in her first year as a freelance writer.
Take it away, Vanessa!
My writing career started more than eight years ago when I created eSpecially Ben, a blog about raising our son who has special needs. Over time, I connected with many wonderful people by sharing my stories about our family’s experiences.
Two summers ago, a friend convinced me to pitch a story idea to a local media outlet geared toward millennial readers. The site’s editor accepted my idea and I began to write for them on a regular basis.
My background is in higher education administration, so I was flying by the seat of my pants. I was making a bit of extra spending money and having the time of my life.
A year later, in May 2016, another writer suggested I sign up for 30 Days or Less to Freelance Writing Success through his affiliate link. I started the lessons almost immediately, working through each one and following Gina Horkey’s suggestions. Sometimes it took me weeks to finish one lesson.
I also joined the Facebook group associated with the class, which introduced me to a community of writers who shared their best advice and writing woes in a supportive environment.
Now, 15 months later, I have a dozen clients; I have a weekly small business series on the millennial site. And I’m on target to more than double my earnings from 2016.
I didn’t fully realize the skills I’d developed and the changes I had made in my writing career until I was talking with my hairdresser.
I described to him how I track pitches, stories, and billing; how I work with editors and clients and how I partner with public relations firms and other writers.
He assumed I had a college degree in journalism. I assured him that I didn’t. An online class was the root of my success.
I left there, with a great haircut, and an appreciation for the work I had accomplished in such a short period of time. The writing class was the catalyst for me to develop a business plan and expand my writing career. I’ve gained confidence in my work and increased my ability to take on new business.
Here are six lessons I’ve learned through the class, the Facebook community of writers and Gina’s weekly emails:
1. Create a dedicated work space.
I was working at the kitchen counter at first, but when that space became too small and uncomfortable, I moved to the dining room table where we eat dinner every night.
This meant I had to put away everything or risk spilled milk and ketchup blobs on my notes or computer.
If I wanted to be serious about my work, I needed a place of my own.
With money I made from writing, I hired an interior decorator to design a space for me. We didn’t have room for an office, so we took a wall in the playroom and created my work place.
I have a secretary desk that closes, plenty of storage and a chalk board that serves as a visual reminder for my weekly deadlines.
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2. Take the time to get organized.
A long time ago, someone told me that spending an hour organizing will save you hours of heartache later – now I live my life by this advice.
For my writing business, I’ve developed a large spreadsheet using Google sheets to track a story from pitch idea to final payment.
On average, I may have 25-30 pitches in one month, including 11-14 accepted stories. I recently added a color coding system on the spreadsheet to show when a story idea has been approved, finished and paid. The visual helps me quickly see if I need to write a story, follow-up with an editor or resend an invoice.
I also use a template from the writing course to track my monthly income. (I had been keeping this information in my head.) At the end of 2016, Gina challenged the writers in her community to set a financial goal for 2017.
With my income tracker, I know how much I need to make a month to reach my BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) and I keep a small chart that shows how my larger goal is impacted by my monthly income. This is highly motivating.
This income tracker also helps me see where I’m bringing in the most income.
I’ll use this information to guide my choices next year as I set financial and business goals.
3. Make templates for everything.
My writing business was built over time, so I didn’t always see the need for templates until one day I did. I’ve become a template advocate myself because I believe they make writers faster and more thorough.
If you spend time developing a dynamite template for a pitch, email introduction or thank you, you’re more likely to be consistent, accurate and professional.
My favorite is the “canned responses” in Google’s Lab. It allows me to have special templates for emails I send out frequently. For example, after a story posts, I send an email to the folks involved in the story. I tell them how to share the story in social media and connect with me.
When I find myself writing the same thing more than three times, I know I need a template. The initial investment in time is worth the effort.
I have a template for invoices, proposals, general pitches, introductions and simple email requests such as asking for high resolution photos or subject matter expert interviews.
4. Take the time to develop your brand.
Articles about branding are everywhere. Even if we understand what it means to develop a brand, it’s the follow-through on the plan that’s tough.
My business name, more than VMI represents the initials of my name and my interest in covering people, places and issues outside of myself.
I hired a graphic designer to create a professional and fun logo.
Next, I set up a business page on Facebook so that I could separate my personal presence on Facebook from my business, more than VMI. Then I added Twitter and Instagram to the mix. Each platform reflects what I do and what I write about. I may post a personal photo occasionally, but even then, it has to fit my brand.
5. Develop relationships with your editors.
Developing a genuine relationship with each client is key to getting continued work.
Every editor or client has their own style, pet peeves, values and timelines. We learn all of this through emails, and if we’re lucky, a quick telephone call.
This winter I started working with an editor who didn’t respond to my emails in a timely manner.
At first, I took it personally and I even got angry. Luckily, I kept my thoughts to myself. When I finally received a response, she approved several pitches and invited me on a sweet media trip to a Colorado resort.
Now, I know patience is my best course of action with this editor.
Some clients need gentle nudges and appreciate a quick email reminder. One editor writes me at 10 PM with enthusiastic ideas and story leads. Another will banter back and forth with me about kids and summer break.
I’ve learned that I can’t apply the same work style to each editor and expect the same reaction.
6. Freelance writing will expand your perspective.
During the past year, I’ve stretched myself in ways I never thought I would. I’m interviewing people about aquaponics, chakras and eating a locavore diet – topics I knew little to nothing about. My job is to expand others’ perspective, but first I have to be willing to do it myself.
I’ve had to go beyond the comfort of Facebook and learn Instagram and Twitter. I use face-to-face networking events to meet new people, potential clients and get story ideas.
I’ve learned to listen to editors when they share advice or give me a writing suggestion. I keep a running list of what I learn from them, and that comes in handy so often.
The first year of freelancing full time seems to have gone by so quickly, but the lessons I learned make it invaluable as the foundational year for my freelance writing career.
What about you? What has surprised you the most about your writing career, when you look over the past year? What advice would you give a person thinking about taking their writing to the next level?
Psst! Here’s Gina’s story of how she started as a freelance writer and virtual assistant.