My top 10 tips for surviving the freelance life

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In a couple of weeks, I will have lived the full-time freelance writing life for three years.

Three years.

I don’t know where the time goes, seriously.

I thought, therefore, I should probably share the things that I learned over the course of these years.

  1. Feast or Famine. Seriously, be prepared for times when you might be standing in line at the food bank. And other times where it feels like you have more work than you can handle. When you have the feast time, put money away. Then the famine times might only be a time where you have to be tighter with the budget as opposed to having to take hand outs ask for help.
  2. It’s not always your favorite. This is something I tell my kids about our household’s dinner offerings. The same applies to your freelance life. In the beginning especially, you’re going to have to take work that’s not your favorite. My first love is obviously selling my own fiction work. Next favorite is editing other people’s fiction work. But I also write blog posts for other people, edit white papers, author and set up technical manuals, and write or edit journal articles for third parties, social media management for small businesses, and put together silly “top ten” lists for content farms. It all pays the bills and eventually shakes out to provide a steady stream of work.
  3. More Hours, but More Love. I tend to work as many hours a week as I was at my corporate communication spin doctor job. 50-60 hours a week. But I get to juggle. I get to take a lunch by walking the dog or catching up with a friend at the coffee shop (normally segued from a client meeting). However, I don’t always notice I’m working that many hours because I am doing what I want. For most self-employed people, you will find that they work long hours but feel it less – physically and emotionally – because it’s what they want to do in life. For most, that’s why we became freelancers.
  4. Self-employed vs. Freelance. Because people in the writing community identify with freelance, I use that word with that population. But anyone else? I’m self-employed. Freelance suggests that what I do is “free.” However, that’s not the etymology of the word. The term was first used in 1820 by Sir Walter Scott in Ivanhoe to describe a “medieval mercenary warrior” or “free-lance” (indicating that the lance is not sworn to any lord’s services, not that the lance is available free of charge). Over the years it changed to a figurative noun, and was recognized in 1903 in the Oxford English Dictionary. Over the years it morphed into an adjective and verb, as well as the noun, “freelancer.”
  5. Make a way out. Sometimes you and a client don’t jive. Or maybe your client decides the work they really want you to do looks different. I always provide a clause in my contract that allows either one of us a way out. For my smaller clients it’s just 7 days; larger clients/projects it’s 14 days – just like the notice you’d give a brick-n-mortar employer. I also discuss with the client why they decide to cancel a contract and look at possibly redoing it to their satisfaction. In three years, I’ve only had one cancellation that didn’t change into a new and different contract. I’ve also gotten very good at asking lots and lots of questions of my clients to ensure we don’t get into that situation.
  6. It isn’t personal. It’s hard often when you’re dealing with a client one on one – especially other writers to not develop a bond. But you have to compartmentalize and keep the business part business. You’re a professional and you need to behave that way.
  7. Time is money. Sure you can file this tip under, “Duh.”  Humor me some detailing. Be sure that in your formulas for being paid that you are covering your admin time. I have moved to a flat fee for my clients to cover things like contract set up, consultation meetings, phone calls, invoicing, etc. That flat fee allows me to not feel like the client is using my time and not paying for it. Your mileage may vary and you may build that into an hourly rate. I tend to work on a project base, so the flat fee covers that extra time. Also, if you go hourly on something, include the cost of covering your “benefits.” This includes things like transportation costs, medical, retirement. Most folks balk at my hourly rate, which is $50 an hour. When I left the corporate world that was my FTE rate for my employer – including all those employee benefit packages pro-rated into an hourly rate. The professional world doesn’t blink at $50 an hour for an attorney (if you could find an attorney for that rate, even!), engineer, doctor, etc. For some reason those of us in the fine arts – writers, editors, graphic artists, letterers, etc. are viewed as having too much fun at our jobs and therefore we shouldn’t get paid. But, I digress. It’s the smart client who hires you, knowing that your word smith skills are worth the bread, whether it’s project-based, per word, or hourly.
  8. Go out of your comfort zone. I’ve done projects recently providing products and services to clients I never thought I could or would do. My philosophy is that if it deals with words, I’ll do it. It’s landed me new and more lucrative jobs (read:  less time, more money). Clients that I’m doing a steady stream of work for have also turned to me for projects they didn’t initially know they needed me for; but, I proved an asset in another and they asked me for word-smithy goodness on other things. More business is always good. That in turn, gives me time to work on my own fiction work and get it out into the ether for publication. Win-win.
  9. Hire other professionals. Sometimes there are projects for which I do that I need to sub-contract part of the job. Guess what? That leads to other jobs. The graphic artist I hired then comes to me when her client who wants a book cover needs an editor. Your network should include other expertise, not just other freelance writers.
  10. Leave your home office. I love my home office space. But, I find doing my work in one of the many cafes around my valley gets my name out there. Not only is my business card on their “leave a card” bulletin board, but they see me in there working. The cafe owners and customers see me and curiosity gets the better of them. I’ve landed a few clients that way. It’s also good for your working soul to get a new view a time or two a week.

I’ve probably learned more, but we’re creatures of habit, too. Top 10 lists are a great place to start. See you here this time next year and we’ll see what else I’ve learned. Maybe, if I’m lucky, it’ll be about landing an agent and having a book coming out….



Darian Carson

Great advice!

I always referred to myself as self-employed. Artistic service industries like writers/editors, artists & illustrators, were called “freelancers” in my experience. People did tend to think those services should be “$free$” not “free of any allegiance free”. Several of my colleagues would join creative agencies to band together.

I started my own web-design/development business about 7 years ago and I realized I am not good at the money-parts. I don’t keep good track of my time, I don’t invoice in a timely manner, and I don’t hound people until they pay me what they owe me. It led to me no longer doing freelance work. (I also found out that it wasn’t as much fun as I thought it would be because I like to work–I don’t like to deal with clients ;). After 2 clients did not pay final invoices I decided to pack it in. I am very fortunate** that my husband is a super-smart, very hard-working software engineer and there are only the two of us, so we can afford for me to take time off here and there. **very, very fortunate!**

It takes time to collect the money from clients, so don’t spend it before you have it! That is a hard lesson to learn especially when you have clients that ignore your “Pay in 30 days or I send you to the collection agency” threat. (Mine was just there as a threat–I never actually did it! <–that's on me!).

A final thought on your hourly rate–I used to think if I could do it, then anyone could do it, so I shouldn't charge a whole lot. I still wrestle with low self-esteem. I *slowly* came to realize that I had taken classes for my career and that it was a skill and an art (to a degree) and that it was worth the minimum hourly fee that my professors had told me to ask for. When people balk, tell them to do it themselves and get back to you for editing…they tend to go away and either never come back or come back chagrined and ready to let you do your thing. 🙂

If they could do it themselves they would have done it already!

Great advice Casz!
Here's to many more years of professional writing!

(BTW, if any of your readers find themselves in need of a food bank I know of a great one in the Bellevue/Redmond, WA area. It is called Renewal Food Bank. No questions asked, no SS# needed! 🙂


Yes, the dealing with clients part is not something I’m always pleased to do either; however, I’ve found that the addage of you catch more flies with honey than vinegar is true. I have worked in the communications and public affairs world for too long to let something stupid get between me and a good client (oh, and my paycheck, of course). I do a lot of “money up front” contracts, or half at contract signature and half at the end of the job. They don’t get my work if I don’t get a check. That’s been working well. I also have found that most folks realize that my motto of, “I take care of the words so you can take care of what you love,” is absolutely true. Like you, I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’m good at what I do, and I charge a competitive rate.

Thanks for the tip on the food bank! I’m sure a famine period might be around the corner for me (like when school first lets out seems to be a very slow period). But in case there’s other readers…heed Ms. Darian’s advice. She’s good people. 😀

Noma Edwards

Great list. When I was consulting I often forgot to include some of the admin. time in my billing. Big mistake. Your list should be hard-copied and posted on everyone’s bulletin board.
Thanks, Casz.
Noma Edwards

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