How to survive and prosper as a freelancer

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Freelancing is not for sissies. It never has been. Challenges have long risen up to confront independent writers and editors. Only their names have changed to identify the perpetrators.

Yesterday’s challenges have morphed into today’s content mills, shrinking marketplace, and constricting corporations – presenting seemingly insurmountable odds.

Is there really a future for today’s freelancer …

  • who needs to earn more than $10 an article in order to survive?
  • who has seen magazine markets disappear or bring their freelance work back in-house?
  • who has watched corporate clients go under or get taken over by firms with their own favorite outsourcers?

Adding affront to misery, some of those very same editors and creative directors, who lost their jobs in “it’s the economy” moves, are now freelancing and ratcheting up the competition!

So, a discouraged member asked me the other night, how does one survive all this?

Is there a future for freelancers who want to earn a decent living?

I asked a number of our Writers-Editors Network members, who are not only surviving, but prospering in the current economic climate, for their thoughts and advice. They have all been in this crazy business for some time, so have the perspective of experience in overcoming various and sundry freelance challenges. They also represent a number of geographies and writing backgrounds.

Let’s meet them and get their takes on the current State of Freelancing, then ask them how one survives today, and for their thoughts on the future of freelance writing.

Kelly James-Enger, Downers Grove, Illinois, a full-time freelance writer for 16 years, book author, blogger, and speaker. Her blog for writers; her recent book, Writer for Hire: 101 Secrets to Freelance Success. Kelly says:

“I agree, the freelance landscape is changing drastically. I just interviewed several dozen successful six-figure freelancers for a book and found that nearly all of them have changed their business model from, say, five years ago. Yet nearly all are still thriving!”

Debra Wood, Orlando, Florida, is a registered nurse primarily writing for fellow health professionals. Deb says:

“Yes, magazine writing is changing. Everything from reading the newspaper to shopping for a TV is changing. Writers have to change along with the times.”

Roberta Sandler has been a South Florida freelance writer for several decades. Most of her current work is travel writing. Her latest book is A Brief Guide to Florida’s Monuments and Memorials. Roberta cautions:

“First, let us all acknowledge that we are surely masochists. Why else do we punish ourselves with rejection and dejection? But, we carry on, and in this depressing climate, market-wise, we use whatever tactics we can in order to sell our work.”

David Geer, a Cleveland/Akron, Ohio area writer and editor who specializes in technology content. Read his LinkedIn profile. David addresses two issues::

“Content mills are like stray animals. If you don’t feed them, they will go away. They may be here to stay, but they don’t have to feed off you. If you don’t want them around, don’t associate and don’t encourage those who do. There will always be better markets out there paying top dollar.

“As for the changing face of magazine writing, there will always be change. You need to change with it. If you’re having trouble finding opportunities to write lengthier content, look harder, look elsewhere, and definitely look online. It’s still out there.”

Jacquelyn Lynn, a long-established Orlando-area business writer and ghostwriter. Her latest book is Words to Work By  Her website.  Jackie adds:

“I got my start as a freelancer writing for magazines and for many years earned as much as 80 percent of my income from articles. I can’t recall the last time I sold an article to a magazine – it’s been at least six or seven years. And I still have more work than I can handle at reasonable fees (not $2-5 per article).

“The reality is that most of the article markets many of us cut our proverbial freelance teeth on are gone. There’s no point in whining or complaining about it – just accept it and figure out the best way to deal with it.

“It’s been my experience that corporate work is not as competitive as magazine freelancing. It’s definitely different, but I’ve found that corporate clients tend to pay better and be more loyal. Yes, there have been some exceptions, but there have also been good and bad magazine markets.”

Mark Battersby writes about tax and financial topics from his office in a Philadelphia suburb. Mark’s take:

“The changing face of magazine writing seems to be fewer paying markets and fewer trade magazines, with those surviving suffering from tightened budgets.

“I don’t do much corporate work, but for over 30 years I’ve been competing with accountants and lawyers who readily give their work away just to see their name in print. Having done the same thing many years ago (without success), I’ve managed to convince enough editors of the value I bring to the table as a somewhat knowledgeable professional.”

Hal Morris is a long-time freelancer living in Las Vegas. His Grumpy Editor blog   often touches on matters that affect freelancers. Hal says:

“Magazine writing, indeed, is changing. Lower rates, longer waiting time before receiving payment, revolving doors with editors, editors fuzzy on what they want, articles killed after lengthy time on shelf – all are very frustrating to freelance writers. But there still are some “normal” editors out there.

“Corporate work may be competitive, especially with many laid off newspaper and magazine staffers eyeing the same field, but some small businesses in a writer’s region may be good prospects. For example: A community bank may need assistance in the writing portion of an annual report (these come out in March and April). A banker may say, “But we have an advertising agency.” Counter that with, “That’s fine for advertising, but the focus here is on the solid editorial word to shareholders.” Other small to medium size businesses may need professional writing help with everything from external brochures to internal guidelines for employees. Research companies before making pitches. The effort may uncover a surprising mesh with one’s talents.”

Ashley Cisneros is an Orlando-based freelance writer, editor and speaker. Her website. Ashley adds:

“When I first started freelancing, I checked every message board and content mill available looking for work. I was quickly discouraged to see the very low fees offered for writing. I especially hated the “race to the bottom” bidding environment on some of those websites.”

Lisa Wroble, Naples, Florida, has been writing professionally for more than 20 years and teaching writing classes and workshops for nearly as long. Her writing experience ranges from trade magazines to fiction to nonfiction books for children. Her blog. Lisa’s take:

“While it may seem that these content mills are taking over the industry, I truly don’t believe they are. When I look at the magazines and the sites I subscribe to or read regularly, I don’t see content pulled from such sites. Instead, I see articles that are slanted to me, the reader, and which are appropriate for the publication’s audience, purpose, and mission.

“Yes, corporate work is very competitive. The best training I ever had for corporate work was working in several different businesses. While I took these jobs to support my “writing habit,” I also hoped to gain a little experience to draw upon in writing freelance articles. Instead, I realized that I had an insider’s view about how these businesses organized themselves and competed within their own industries, which I then translated to my goals as a freelance writer.”

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What steps can a freelancer take to survive today?

»» Kelly James-Enger: If you’ve been focusing on writing for print magazines, add online writing to the mix. Most successful freelancers are now writing more online articles than print. The pay may be a little lower, but the stories often require less editing – and the websites need more content than their print counterparts.

Look for regular markets instead of focusing solely on the big magazines. I write for several smaller magazines that pay a lot less than national ones – yet, I can still make about $100/hour because editors come to me with assignments and there are few rewrites. A lot of writers focus only on the “biggies,” and forget about all of the other publications that need content.

Position yourself as a specialist who can write in different areas. I specialize in health, fitness, nutrition, and writing/freelancing, but I can do a lot with that. In the last year alone, I’ve:

  • Written for print magazines;
  • Written for custom magazines;
  • Blogged for pay;
  • Written for online publications;
  • Ghostwritten a book;
  • Ghostwritten a book proposal;
  • Ghostwritten articles/other projects;
  • Edited a book;
  • Edited other work;
  • Spoken for pay;
  • Done Webinars for pay; and
  • Consulted for pay, among other things.

Yes, I started out writing for print magazines. But I couldn’t do that today and make a living – I’ve had to diversify and smart freelancers are doing the same thing.

»» Debra Wood: Know how to write for the Web, take courses, read up on it, whatever it takes. Look at the opportunities that are just starting. Professionally write tweets for people, for example.

Find a niche and become very, very knowledgeable about it and execute well. Then editors will refer you to other editors and keep giving you assignments.

»» Roberta Sandler: If necessary, I will accept reduced payment. (Being paid something is better than being paid nothing.) I detest writing on spec, but when it is the only way an editor will agree to read my article, will do so.

I try to pitch what isn’t the same old-same old, that which is fresh and untypical, but that I think will pique the reader’s interest. I try to keep my articles shorter rather than longer.

I am constantly, relentlessly looking for new markets, including genres in which I don’t frequently write. Not just big-circulation markets, but also niche markets and smaller markets (after studying their contents). I’ll Google health magazines or gardening magazines or seniors newspapers to find markets. (This is how I recently found a seniors magazine; pitched article to editor – a revision of a published article I had written five years earlier; received assignment; just received payment … not much pay … but this opens the door for me to write more articles for the mag.)

I send “I am introducing myself” letters to markets for which I have not written, just to let the editor(s) know that I have an expertise, reliability and experience they may need in the future.

I have been able to supplement my travel writing by presenting guest lectures (about travel) to clubs and organizations. The lectures are really “oral articles.” I suppose a home & garden writer or a health writer would be able to do the same thing.

»» Hal Morris: One survives the current atmosphere by continuing to pitch prospects and highlighting credentials – along with showing examples of past writing efforts. Also worth contacting are local and regional publications. Some may welcome some outside editorial assistance. Don’t overlook the local newspaper, especially with upcoming vacations. Work as a temporary fill-in may inspire a smiling editor to assign more writing output as a regular contributor. Many newspapers these days are short on staff as they continue to cut editorial departments.

Another way to stay busy when facing a drought in writing assignments, is to consider – if with proper credentials – teaching a writing course at a local college, day or evening.

Another tip: Smaller public relations firms, faced with sudden extra work and limited staff, may seek outside writing assistance … with news releases, for example.

»» David Geer: Educate yourself and learn to specialize in first one, then two and even three top-selling subject-matter areas. Intersect your existing interests, experience and expertise when selecting those areas. Update your education and training in things people want to read about. Get hands-on training. Many editors cannot find good writers who are also SMEs (Subject Matter Experts). Become what they want, and make sure to charge well for it.

Look outside traditional magazine markets. New magazines are popping up online all the time. There are good paying blogs and websites out there that want good writing and multimedia content. It may not be traditional journalism or reporting per se, but remember: you are a writer and not just a journalist. Write a wide variety of content for varying publishers and clients. Think far beyond magazines. Find out what’s out there, who’s publishing it, who’s writing it, and model yourself after the best paid writers in that arena.

Yes, corporate work is very competitive; but it is also very lucrative. There are not as many writers out there as you think who are SMEs and great writers, too. And companies spend billions each year on content. Keep pushing, learning and growing. You can get there. It may feel like starting over, but getting to a new destination in life always requires movement on your part. Work to get that first clip or reference in corporate writing, then another. Build on that. Over time, you will become the person with six months’, and then a year’s worth and so on of track record in corporate writing. Soon momentum will start to take over. Fuel it, maintain it, keep it alive, and ride it to success.

The basics of success are risk and perseverance. Whatever opportunities are next, investigate until you can make an informed decision, and then make one. Take a risk, persevere and learn whether you succeed or fail, and repeat the process until you get from where you are to where you need to be.

Leverage the hell out of social media. I could go on about how being active in social media, even when you make mistakes with it, can help your career in a way you can measure, if only empirically. Study and use the big three social networks LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook to your advantage.

»» Jackie Lynn: Define your niche. Pick out a particular market segment that you can serve well and target it. Build your reputation in that market.

Build a respectable online presence. Your website doesn’t have to be fancy, but it should be attractive and professional. Write your own blog, send out a newsletter, be visible on social media.

Network on and offline. Networking is more important than ever, and it’s not something that always comes easy to writers who are happier working in isolation. Still, you have to get out there and do it.

Stand your ground on fees. Knowledgeable people are willing to pay for quality and you don’t want to work for those who aren’t. Every time I’ve reduced my fee (either because I really wanted to do the project or I was in a slow period and needed work), I’ve regretted it.

Consider creating your own products. Electronic and POD publishing are making it easier than ever for a good writer to create their own products at a nominal cost. Write some e-books, put them up on Kindle and see what happens. Consider focusing on topics your target market cares about – that will help you build credibility while generating some ongoing revenue.

»» Mark Battersby: One survives as I have by continuing to plug away, adapting as the editors demand, continually marketing my writing with proposals and, when time permits, unsolicited, over-the-transom submissions.

Having always operated as a business – that is, regular, fixed hours slaving away – it is more that I have created a job for myself than being a freelancer. Admittedly, I am easily coaxed out to babysit the grandkids or, in the past, to coach my kids’ sporting events. But, I always made up the time either in the evening or on the weekends. Thus, I’ve been able to tell my editors that I am a “professional” with a straight face and have long enjoyed a far greater income than the published “norms” for freelance writers.

Recently, my efforts have been largely directed at magazines that are going on the Web and meeting their increased demand for content.

»» Ashley Cisneros: I think the key to success in freelancing is definitely networking and also being creative when looking for new clients. When I think of some of my biggest clients and how I acquired them, I met most through networking. Almost none of them were magazines I pitched.

My biggest client to date, a custom publisher, found me on Mediabistro in 2009. My next biggest client is a financial services company, and I met one of their PR directors at a social media conference in Miami. I currently do writing for a local PR company and I met that client at a business expo. I write for two magazines regularly, one of which I used to work for full-time, and the other I gained through a referral.

I think it’s also very important to diversify the type of writing that we do. For some clients I ghostwrite blogs. For others I write speeches. I also write a lot of resumes and Linkedin profile copy, press releases, white papers, e-books, and website copy.

Treat yourself as a client. Do you have a website, blog, social media accounts, brochures, business cards? Are you using LinkedIn to connect with people who can hire you, like custom publishing directors, PR managers, and marketing directors? Do you attend Chamber of Commerce events? Do you reach out to business owners about their writing needs? We have to think beyond magazines to survive.

»» Lisa Wroble: The key to success in magazine work is exploring the mission and audience of each publication and then shaping your style and focus/slant to match.

When I look over the thousands of article credits I’ve acquired, a good majority were ideas I came up while I was reading sample issues of a publication. The vision for the article came to me as I was noting the style of the articles in the specific publication and the slant for the article came to me as I was considering the type of reader the publication targeted. I always wrote down such ideas and placed them on the top of the list of projects/query letters I would work on for the week.

Survival as a writer comes in viewing this as a business, setting goals, taking action to achieve those goals, and creating a strategy for reaching long-term goals. I’ve had a lot of different jobs, taken in the early days to pay the bills while I had fun writing. Later, I’ve taken jobs when I got burned out on the work, or needed a change of direction, or while I broke into a new segment of the freelancing arena. I had added income to supplement the freelancing. Now, I supplement my income as a writing instructor, which keeps my fingers on the pulse of the rapidly changing publishing industry. I also enjoy sharing my knowledge and experience with other writers (and getting paid to do it is a bonus). Each of these jobs has also provided first-hand knowledge about yet another field or industry, plus people to interview for articles and experiences to share. (Not to mention characters and background info when writing fiction.)

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How does the future look for freelance writers/editors?

♦ Debra Wood: I think the future is bright for freelancers. The world craves more information not less. Someone needs to present it in an easy to understand, well-written form.

♦ Roberta Sandler: My guess is that more publications’ staffs will be pink-slipped, and freelancers are cheaper for the publications than staff writers, so freelancers will continue to be needed. But unless you’re talking about the top magazines, be prepared for lower payment than in the past. I hate the cliche “it is what it is,” but it seems to apply here. Writers have to follow Annie’s philosophy: the sun will come out tomorrow.

♦ David Geer: I think the future of freelancing is extremely bright for those who hold on. And you can still make top dollar. Analyze what the successful writers who are just arriving at the top of their careers are doing. Add that to what you alone possess that is unique to your knowledge, experience and signature writing style, and you will have something to leverage – an edge that they don’t have.

♦ Jackie Lynn: I think there are more opportunities than ever for good freelance writers. It’s not quite as simple and straightforward as magazine freelancing used to be, but it can be a lot more lucrative and gives us the opportunity to be a lot more creative.

 Mark Battersby: I think as markets decline and more and more people unable to find work decide to freelance, competition can only increase as markets decrease. Thus, my future plans include doing what I’m doing now, perhaps more of it, all the while looking into publishing e-books on tax and financial topics – and find the time to develop and promote those topics, of course.

♦ Hal Morris: The future of freelance writing is cloudy … maybe partly cloudy. But with economic conditions slowly improving, sunnier days may be ahead as more magazines expand editorial pages as advertising grows. New magazines, with slim staffs, also are entering the scene. These elements will lead to a rise in material sought from freelance writers.

♦ Ashley Cisneros: I think the future for freelancing is still very bright. Companies are still cautious when it comes to hiring employees, so hiring a freelancer is attractive to them. Business owners know that they need to be on social media and have a company blog, but they don’t always have the resources to produce the content in-house. That’s where we come in. I love magazine writing, but it’s the custom publishing and corporate writing that pays the bills. Networking and marketing yourself and your writing is the key.

♦ Lisa Wroble: Yes, magazines and newspapers are struggling, but like the book publishers, they’re finding ways to adjust to the changing times. They will survive and their editors will continue to need content that is carefully crafted and that meets the specific needs of the magazine, newspaper, app, or website.

Though the publishing industry is in flux, it’s not the first time this has happened (nor in my opinion will it be the last). What’s unsettling now is the state of the economy, which impacts the advertising that keeps publications afloat (whether they are print, internet-based, or part of the latest tablet/mobile technology). I think it’s an exciting time with new possibilities for communicating information and ideas. As long as people are reading we will need writers to create the words. Freelancers will continue to be necessary to supplement the staff hired by a publication. The key is in becoming a freelancer who will make the job of the hired staff easier and keep the business running efficiently. That happens when the freelancer knows his or her job and has done enough research/homework to slant a piece to a specific audience.

So where are you in the freelance maze?

  • Are you stumbling through the maze, still trying to wind your way to a profitable field or genre?
  • Or are you staying busy with  a variety of assignments – and actually liking the  diversity?
  • Or have you found your way through the maze and discovered your success niche?

Please do tell us about it below . . .

About Dana K Cassell

Hi, and welcome to our Network. I'm Dana Cassell and am the one writing most of the posts on this blog. I've been in this writing/editing business for way longer than I care to admit. My goal here is to provide you with useful insights from our professional members and from my own experience - to help you achieve your own success, grow your editorial business, and publish successful and worthy books,

Comments

  1. Thaks for the tips. Can`t say more words. Your point of view is great and hard to deny.

  2. There are lots of astute pearls-of-wisdom and bits-n-pieces that can be used to good advantage in the preceeding comments. Sweat and tears intelligently applied in all aspects of networking, writing and marketing are still necessary. These attributes coupled with an appreciation of digital age focus and requrements applied with novelty and imagination seem to be the order of the day for successful freelancing in the information age.

    • So true, Dennis. We still have to knock on a lot of doors — fortunately, today those doors don’t have to be in person (although they may be); today email and online social networks are acceptable door openers. Providing the information and services editors and clients need to reach their target audiences still applies — although the vehicles (e.g., white papers, tweets) we can use have expanded.

  3. Thanks, everyone. Great comments. I belong to Freelance Success, too, so I’ll check them out. And I plan on beefing up my website. Everyone gave me some great ideas. Thank you!

  4. I agree with Ashley and David: Don’t cold call. Instead, make friends and build relationships.

    Be selective when you’re networking. I’ve never found a Chamber of Commerce mixer with a zillion salespeople passing out as many business cards as they can to be effective. Go for the smaller groups where the people are actually decision-makers.

    Most important is to sharpen your online image and message — remember, people don’t care what you’ve done, they want to know what you can do for them. When you meet someone at a networking event, chances are they will check out your website and LinkedIn profile before they call you. Let those tools speak for you.

  5. Hi, Wendy,

    One thing that helped me with offline networking is to go to events with a buddy. Here’s the truth … most people are afraid of striking up a conversation with someone they don’t know. It’s OK to be nervous.

    I have teamed up with friends and we have attended events together. We introduce people to each other and approach groups of people together. After introducing myself to someone, I ask what they do or if they have a business.

    People love to talk about themselves. It’s in our nature, I think. Usually, the person will next ask you about yourself. This is your time to shine. You are the expert. Business owners need good writers to help them communicate about the benefits of their products and services. I don’t care what business you have … if no one knows about it, you can’t make money. Offer to take a look at their website, brochures, bios, proposals, etc.

    What you will find is that too many entrepreneurs lack the basic marketing communication materials they need to empower their sales teams. You can help them! For a fee, of course!

    Use LinkedIn to reach out to local marketing directors at companies, as well as PR agencies. Tell them about your services … ask them if they need help with overflow. Remember, you have a service that they need. Instead of slaving away over magazine query letters, focus on building relationships with decision-makers. I think you can make more money faster that way.

    Call me at work if I can help …321-236-0083.

    Sending happy writing vibes from Orlando,
    Ashley

  6. Hi Wendy,

    I don’t do any cold calling. All my pitches are by email or online. Writer’s Market is all but worthless. I cannot recommend anything higher than a membership at FreelanceSuccess.com. I do not own the organization, work for them or get a kick back. It is a great community with a great online forum, newsletters and many other opportunities to learn and grow.

  7. Hi All:

    This is a really great article. I’m thankful that Dana could take my question and turn it into a in-depth blog post.

    How do you deal with the fear of prospecting? I’m your typical, timid writer. It’s safe to sit at my computer and write queries to editors. But, it’s cold-calling that puts a knot in my stomach. Any advice on how to overcome the fear of cold-calling (especially since the idea going to Chamber of Commerce mixers almost sends me into complete heart failure!)?

    And how do you find these lucrative online markets? I’ve a subscription to Writers Market, but they list very few (and low paying) online magazines. I’m interested in online writing (that’s how I found Writers-Editors through Kelly’s article in Jan/Feb.’s Writers Digest). Thanks for any and all advice.

  8. Keep pecking away at it, Carla. It took me 9 years after reading my first issue of Writer’s Digest to sell my first magazine article — and that was back in the day when the “market” was supposed to be easier! Read all you can from those who have done it, study what the readers of the markets you’re targeting want more of, then show the editors how you can provide new takes on those topics. Keep us posted on your successes, and let us know what you need more help on.

  9. I am a very new freelancer, who is just breaking into the business. I have taken writing classes with Christina Katz and have just sold a few pieces for RPP’s so far. I look at the freelance market and wonder what hope there is for new writers but gradually, I will work toward getting there. The current market seems really depressing but I like the advice this post gave toward content mills. I admit I was tempted by them because that seemed an easy route to getting published but it really is a form of exploitation and writers need to stand up for themselves. Otherwise, it really will be a race to the bottom.

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