5 Rules for a Successful First Year of Freelance Writing

How to succeed in freelancing when you have no idea what you’re doing.

freelance writing

When I started freelancing at the beginning of 2016, I honestly didn’t think it would go anywhere. I decided to try it because my job search was going nowhere, and getting an advanced degree out of state is expensive. I managed to turn what could be considered an act of desperation into a full-time career in less than a year. I’ve learned a lot – and if 2017 is your year to attempt a career in independent writing for the first time, you’re going to need all the advice you can get.

It’s rough. It’s overwhelming, at times. But it is worth it.

Here are my top five rules for succeeding as a first-year freelance writer.

1. Take on more work than you think you can handle

Before I started freelancing, I imagined it would be a lot like how I first thought grad school would be. I figured I could walk on through, do some writing, make some connections, create my own schedule and do work that didn’t stress me out that much. The same way I started my MS program and figured out it was structured, strict and isolating, I started freelancing and realized it was going to be a different kind of challenge than I was used to. So I took on as much work as I could in my first month actively using Upwork, and it was the best decision I could have made for my career.

This might seem illogical – aren’t you supposed to start out slow and ease in? It depends on your situation, but I’m a firm believer in the Diving In Headfirst method. You don’t know how much you can and can’t handle yet. If you’re going to survive in this role, you’re going to have to learn to stretch beyond your perceived limits. Sometimes the consequences will work out in your favor. Sometimes you’ll end up crying at your desk because it feels like too much. You won’t know either way until you test the waters – by jumping in, and swimming over to the shallow end if you’ve gone in too deep.

2. Stick to your niche when possible

When you are first starting out in this business (because, yes, it really is a business – writing is not always fun; making a living is hard), you’re going to be tempted to jump at any and every job offer potential clients throw at you. In some cases, this is a good thing. In others, it isn’t. You should always start freelancing with at least some idea of what you want to write about. Otherwise, it can be overwhelming – and harder to find the right work for you.

At first, you might have to take on some jobs that aren’t directly in your niche of expertise. But once you break into your rightful ‘line of work,’ try to stay there. The only question I’ll ever get about writing men’s fashion articles is, “Why did you do this?” I did it because I really didn’t think I had the option not to. Someone offered to pay me money to write, for the second time in one week, and I said yes. I will probably never write about fashion again, and that’s fine. I had an experience. I’ve moved on.

3. Work with as many long-term clients as you can

It’s a misconception that freelance work is all strictly project-based, especially when it comes to writing. That was what I expected going in. Writing is a little different than some other types of freelancing. If a website hires you as a content creator, for example, they’re probably looking for someone who is going to stick with them. All brands have a very specific editorial process, and it takes awhile even for more experienced writers/editors to adapt to a predetermined workflow.

Working long-term with clients isn’t essential, but it’s a pretty good idea. If you’re using Upwork, you get perks for this – the more money you make with one account, the less they take out as your service fee (e.g., 10 percent instead of 20). But in the grand scheme of things, it’s the benefits of the relationship itself that matter the most. Any advice you read about building up a ‘creative’ career will tell you how important networking is. My philosophy is, you never know. You never know where one connection with a seemingly random blogger, content manager, business owner or editor can lead. You never know what business growth on their end could mean for you. Stick with them. If it starts out smoothly, it’s likely only going to get better from there.

4. Never let someone underpay you

So, about all those men’s fashion articles I wrote … the biggest mistake I ever made as a new freelance writer, I made with the second client I had ever worked with. I was eager to get more experience, and really wasn’t thinking when I agreed to do a preset amount of work for very little money. It was a disaster, and not just because I was underpaid – but I should have demanded more money for the rewrites I was forced to do. And I was too ‘polite’ to make that kind of request.

You have the right to demand higher rates – under the right circumstances (the kind of work, how long you’ve been doing the work, how many hours you have logged, and so on). At six months in, I raised my rates. Very few people thereafter had a problem with that. Those who did, either never responded to my proposals or decided they couldn’t afford me. No hard feelings. You’re doing a job, a job you’re hopefully going to get pretty good at in the first 12 months.

There are three types of clients: those who will pay you a rate that matches your skill level, those who want to pay you a decent rate but can’t (and they are always kindly honest about it) and those who think they can convince you to do work for them for less than they need to pay you (and sometimes they will succeed). I love the ‘middles’ because, if I really want to do work for them, I’m always willing to work for a bit less. You never know what can happen in the long-term if you agree to work with someone early on, who might not be able to pay you well now, but will later. Strong, professional relationships are everything.

5. Learn to adapt to different work/leadership styles – fast

I’ve had clients who give me my assignments once a week, even once a month, and pretty much let me go off and do my thing (bless you). I’ve had clients who messaged me 20 times at 5 a.m. for some reason. And I’ve had clients who graciously fell in the in-between of those two extremes. It’s possible to work with any client who is a clear, efficient communicator – unless you can’t, in which case, it is okay to let them know the work you are doing for them is not for you.

Everyone is different. You’d think, working from the comfort and safety of your own home or office, people couldn’t try looking over your shoulder every minute of every day. Sorry – it still happens. Sometimes clients also disappear as if they never existed, which can be equally frustrating. Prepare to be frustrated. Adapting is possible, and often necessary. If you’re doing work you actually enjoy, it becomes more tolerable. If you can’t adapt – because sometimes, expectations are beyond what you, a person with a life and emotions and dignity, are capable of – get out. It’s okay to say “I can’t.”

I could go on and on – I narrowed it down to the five things I don’t see other people talking about much when giving this kind of advice. If you have more tips to share – or questions about things I have not covered in this post – feel free to leave a comment below. Your voice is important to me. (:

Meg is the creator of Novelty Revisions, dedicated to helping writers put their ideas into words. She is a freelance writer and a nine-time NaNoWriMo winner with work published in Teen Ink, Success Story, Lifehack and USA TODAY College. Follow Meg on Twitter for tweets about writing, food and nerdy things.