Ten Years of Freelancing Tips

This month marks the 10th anniversary of when I went full-time freelance. Since then I’ve written for more than 120 magazines (I lost count after that!) ranging from The Federal Credit Union and Multi-Channel Merchant to USA Weekend and Redbook. I’ve co-authored eight books, including The Renegade Writer: A Totally Unconventional Guide to Freelance Writing Success and The Renegade Writer’s Query Letters That Rock. I’ve been through slumps — and times that were so busy that I had to hire a virtual assistant. I’ve probably made every mistake in the book, and I’ve also discovered which rules to follow and which to break.

For my 10th anniversary, here are the top 10 things I’ve learned about freelance writing:

1. Queries: There is no “right” way to write a query. When I started teaching my eight-week e-course on breaking into magazines, I would occasionally tell a student not to do X, or that Y would never fly. And sometimes, those students went ahead and did X or Y anyway — and landed an assignment. In fact, I had one student who did everything the opposite from how I would have done it, and she got plenty of work. So now I recognize that every editor is different, so you can’t generalize on the perfect query letter. One editor will prefer a traditional query with quotes and bullet points, and another will prefer a one-sentence description. It’s really freeing to know that there is no such thing as a perfect query, so all you can do is go with your gut and do your best work.

2. Organization: Create your own systems. I’m not dissing prepackaged organizing systems, but they don’t often work for me. That’s why I use a homegrown hybrid of homemade forms, binders, a physical inbox, my iCal, e-mail folders, and whiteboards. It’s part Getting Things Done and part Linda Formichelli. For you, the best way to organize your queries, income, and work might be 100 percent computerized, it might be 100 percent paper, or it might be a mix. It doesn’t matter, as long as you use it.

3. Negotiating: If you don’t ask, you don’t get. For me, the non-confrontational wuss, negotiating is super-scary — but I also recognize that I’m the only one who’s looking out for me. After all, my editors certainly don’t care if I write for the same payrate for ten years! So I’ve made it a habit to occasionally ask for a bump in pay from editors who like my work. The editors often manage to wrangle some more money for me, from an extra $50 per article to a 50 percent increase. Two newsstand magazines even gave me raises that put me (so they say) above their typical highest rate that they pay other writers. Well, maybe that’s because those other writers didn’t ask!

4. Work-Life Balance: Occasionally I have low-energy days, and this is really hard for me because I like to be very productive. I’ve learned that if I can, I need to just go with the low energy: turn off the computer, get out of the house/office, and forget about work for a day or two, even if it’s mid-week. For example, I had an article due on Monday that I wasn’t able to finish last week, because I was so burned out that the idea of finishing the article literally had me in tears. So I turned off my computer, made an appointment for a massage and a pedicure, went to FunSpot, played Guitar Hero at a friend’s place, and saw the new Harry Potter movie. On Monday, I was able to whip out the rest of that article in under an hour. (Oh, and I should mention that the pedicure was indeed productive: When the woman in the next pedicurist’s chair over heard me tell the pedicurist that I’m a writer, she said that she’s an exec at AARP and has been looking for someone to write their newsletter. I should hear from her in mid-August.)

5. Marketing: I like to call it “planting seeds” — doing a few little things every day that will bring me closer to my goals. These aren’t big projects, like writing a huge query or writing a marketing plan. They’re small bits that I fit in between other tasks or when I feel like procrastinating, such as sending an editor a letter of introduction, tweaking an old query to send out somewhere new, or following up on a query. I do these things and then forget about them, and often I’m pleasantly surprised when, months after I planted a seed, it blooms and I end up with an assignment.

6. Attitude: I’ve found that the less I need work, the more I get it. This doesn’t mean that I’m lolling around on a pile of money, shooing away assignments, but it does mean that I get more work when I’m already comfortably busy than when I can hear the last dollars being drained from my checking account. It’s like dating: You always seem to attract more interest from potential mates when you’re already attached than when you’re actively looking for a partner. You don’t have to actually be busy for this effect to work for you in freelancing — you can pretend; for example, when you write to an editor looking for work, don’t tell her that the repo man is at  your door and you’ve been eating Kraft mac-and-cheese for a month — instead, tell her you just finished up a bunch of deadlines and have some time opening up if she needs anything.

7. Interviewing: I’ve probably done thousands of interviews, and I still find them slightly scary. I’m better at writing than at talking on the phone, and I’m so non-confrontational that I sometimes have trouble directing an interview when I’m talking to an overbearing source. My life coach suggested that I do two things before an interview:

  1. Take a few minutes to close my eyes, meditate, and center myself.
  2. Give thanks that I have an interview, because it’s part of what allows me to work at home and generally live a life I love.

8. Rejection: If you’re a freelance writer, you will be rejected. the biggest reason for freelance failure is not an inability to write, report, or market — it’s an inability to get past failure. A rejection doesn’t necessarily mean you suck — it means your idea was off-base, or the timing wasn’t right, or the editor didn’t get his morning Starbucks, or the magazine is undergoing a redesign, or Mercury is in retrograde. I never let fear of failure hold me back from reaching for what I want, because doing nothing guarantees I will fail.

9. Writer relationships: Sharing is important. I’ve always been the sharing type: For example, when I was playing the slot machines in Atlantic City and hit a jackpot, a woman nearby came over and claimed that she was playing that entire bank of machines. So I gave her half of my winnings (maybe 10 bucks).

Okay, that proves that I’m a sucker, not that I’m a giver.

Anyway, the more you put out there (good stuff that is!), the more will come back to you. I can’t even count how many people I’ve helped who later recommended me to their editors for assignments (and vice versa). In fact, it just happened yesterday. I’m happy to share market info, advice, and editors’ contact details (all within reason, of course). There’s more than enough work to go around — and it’s more fun to have friends than competitors.

10. Writing: Actual writing is really a small part of my job as a freelancer, which is why I’m devoting just one item to it. My pet peeve as a writer has always been flabby writing: weak verbs, passive constructions, too many adjectives, vague wording. My favorite tip, which has served me well for these ten years, has been to be specific whenever I can, even using popular brand names if they fit. For example, instead of saying, “If your shoes are too tight, you can get blisters,” I might write something like, “If you’re teetering around in too-tiny Manolos, blisters may pop up on your feet.” Even though it has the exact same meaning as the first sentence, it’s more interesting, snappy, and fun to read.

So those are the ten most important things I learned about freelancing in the last ten years. What have you learned from experience? Post your advice in the comments! [lf]

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13 comments… add one
  • Well first off, big congrats for working for 10 years! I know you’ve got many more decades ahead of you. πŸ™‚

    Secondly, your tips are great – I’ve always looked at you as a sort of mentor for me and my career and you never cease to impress me with the information you share. On a personal level, I related to tips number three and four quite a lot. Those days that come along and, well, no matter what you do, you just can’t get anything done – those drive me nuts! It is heart-warming to know that I am not the only one who has that come along. I’m definitely going to be taking tip number five to heart; I never feel that I am doing enough to market myself (eep).

  • Elaine Grant

    Congratulations, Linda! Ten years and oodles of help for the writing community — you should be proud.

    I like your tips a lot. I’ve been a writer and an editor, going back and forth from one side of the desk to the other and back again, for the last 20 years. (Yikes…sounds so old. I started VERY young….) I’d like to add one:

    In two decades of doing this work in a variety of genres, from environmental to women’s to business magazines, I’ve come to discover just what it is that keeps me going — through late payments, dull assignments, burnout, etc. It’s how absolutely fascinating most of my sources are, and how generous most people are with information when you sincerely ask them about themselves and their work. My tip: If you’re struggling with interviews or finding your work lacking or dull, take a good look at your interviewing skills and burnish them. Make sure that you look for conflict; alternatives to the choices that sources have made (what else might they have done that they didn’t); the meaning of their choices and their feelings about them, etc. Not every source opens up — we all have crummy interviews. But most do, and it’s what I love about this job.


    Elaine Grant

  • Could you have been at Funspot the same day I was?! I’ve actually been twice in the past week with my kids — and to the Weirs Beach water slide. Tomorrow is the Whale’s Tale water park. This weekend is Boston (and its museums) before we fly home to CO. It’s been a whirlwind NH vacation with two reunions (college friends and family) packed in, too. But we’re having a ball!

    A HUGE HUGE congrats to you on your 10-year freelancing anniversary. I appreciate all you give to other writers. Thank you for taking the time to post regularly on this blog. Everything you post is so helpful and inspiring. I also love your candor when it comes to your being non-confrontational. (I’m a fellow wuss.)

    So, thank you and best wishes for the next 10 years!


  • Thank you for all your kind words! I’m so glad the tips are helpful. And I’ll bet one of you is the one who submitted the post to Stumbleupon, because we got a lot of hits from there. Thanks!

    Kara, we were at Funspot on Sunday at about 5 – 7 pm. You couldn’t miss my husband, a 6′ 5″ blond guy! Enjoy the rest of your trip!

    Elaine, that’s great advice. I’ll bet I can use it even when I’m interviewing for a trade magazine about why company Y installed X software. I always do appreciate that people take the time to do interviews, but I think part of the problem is that I chafe at anything resembling a schedule (meaning I have to be in a certain place at a certain time for work!). Thanks for that wonderful tip.

  • Lauren

    First of all… let me say, congratulations!

    Second… I love the tips. I think that #9 has been totally forgotten by the majority of writers out there. When I finally made my move to freelance writing I read everything I could get my hands on. None of these books had the Renegade outlook on sharing. It was always “guard your sources/editors/contacts with your life.” No wonder I had such a hard time breaking in at first!

    Thanks for breaking the rules! Keep it up!

  • Congratulations on your 10-year milestone, Linda! I’ve been self-employed (as a full-time computer consultant since 2000, and as a part-time computer consultant and part-time freelancer since 2004), so I know what a huge accomplishment that is. I’m looking to make the leap to full-time freelancer when my current programming contract ends, and I have to say that your books and blog have been invaluable in that quest. (In fact, I just sold my first national magazine piece — a “Take Note” FOB short to “The Writer” — with much help from “Query Letters That Rock”.)

    If I may, I’d like to add a #11 to your list of tips:

    11. Professionalism: One of the surest, easiest ways to set yourself apart from the herd is to conduct yourself as a professional. When you promise an article by Friday at 5:00, do whatever it takes to make that deadline. Return phone calls promptly. If an editor wants a rewrite, work with her (within reason) to provide the product she needs. Write thank you notes when new editors assign you articles. Answer your phone and e-mail. Let people know when you won’t be reachable. This all may seem like basic stuff, but you’d be surprised how many “freelance writers” don’t do it.


  • piper

    Linda, you rock, and that’s all!
    Thanks so much for sharing this wisdom gained from your own experience –
    I’ve linked to it on the Writers Weekly forum. You hit so many points that come up over and over again, and not only with beginning freelancers.
    Here’s to the next ten years!

  • Thanks for the compliments, everyone!

    Tammy, congrats on selling your first newsstand magazine piece! Also, that’s a great #11. You wouldn’t believe the things I heard from editors when I interviewed them for my e-book Editors Unleashed: Editors Grown About Their Writer Peeves. Editors are thrilled if a writer manages to not disappear off the face of the earth right before deadline, not whine at them at conferences, and not give them personalized Chapstick! (I’m not kidding about that last one.)

  • Good job on getting to 10 years of writing. That’s an awesome thing to be proud of right there. Keep doing a great job.

  • Great article. I have found that marketing is one of the most powerful things you can do. You are running a business and you want to get your name out there. Join groups and share your experiences. Help others where you can. Create a name for yourself! Thanks so much for sharing your experiences. πŸ™‚

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