lessons learnt as a freelance writer

5 years as a freelance writer: 5 unexpected lessons learnt

It’s coming up to 6 years since I started freelancing as a career. It actually started as a hobby or a side hustle while on maternity leave from my marketing job.

One of my former colleagues had been a freelance writer. She had joined our marketing team on a contract and it was she who first planted the seed in my mind.

However, it took me almost a year to put it into action and only because I was on maternity leave and looking for something to keep busy with.

I had no idea what freelance writing actually meant except I wanted to see my stories published in magazines.

Life as a mummy blogger
I started blogging about parenting. Initially it was read by friends and family. Soon, I had followers, met other bloggers in Sydney, and got blogger envy when I saw other prettier blogs.

I taught myself WordPress, bought countless themes and cursed while trying to make it look pretty.

I blogged until my son was about one year old and used the blog to show editors I could write when I first started pitching story ideas to them.

Life as a features writer
I pitched ideas to editors before attempting any freelancing courses. Two of my ideas were accepted by the editor of Fitness First magazine (I had written rough outlines in bullet points and sent it to her through my Yahoo email – CRINGE!).

Surprisingly, she liked these story ideas and wanted me to write for the magazine.

Catch: She couldn’t pay me for the stories as they had no freelance budgets. I agreed to write for free, thrilled at the thought of seeing my byline in an actual magazine, and that hundreds of people would read MY stories!

I wrote the stories, got published and was hooked.

I finally looked up magazine writing courses offered by the Australian Writers’ Centre and enrolled into an evening course. I felt a sense of pride and accomplishment when I discovered I was the only ‘published’ writer in the room on the first day.

At the end of the 6 week course, I pitched a story idea as a ‘proper freelance writer’ using a professional email address to Essential Kids (SMH), got accepted and was paid $300!

This feature article was followed by others in Women’s Health and Fitness and Men’s Fitness magazines. I mixed feature writing with an editorial role for Leaders in Heels magazine and then wrote website copy, brochures and blogs for friends later on.

I kept writing, pitching and looking for writing opportunities online, joined Facebook groups and met new people in networking events.

What did I learn during these 5 years?

1. Don’t think too much or plan for the future

It takes time, effort, persistence to be published in magazines or to get copywriting clients. Take it one day at a time. Have one or two goals in mind but take every day as it comes until you get established, or clients start giving you repeat work.

This can take a few months based on how consistent you’re and how many hours you put into your freelancing business or like me, if you’re juggling a child or aren’t the main breadwinner – at least one year.

2. Don’t give up in the first 3 months

I found the first 3 months the hardest to stay focused, especially given the silence and rejections I faced from editors. But I kept going, wrote down two to three tasks to my to-do list daily e.g. analyse magazine X.

The point at which you want to give up? Keep going for one more day. You never know what awaits you in your inbox the next morning.

3. Life can get in the way of deadlines

As a new mum, life did sometimes get in the way of work but I chose my deadlines with care. I’ve always built in a buffer of 3-4 days with deadlines whenever accepting commissions or new copywriting clients.

I’ve planned submissions so I’m not writing more than one article or copy for one client in a day.

6 years later, building in a buffer into my work has become second nature. I’ve learnt that good writing takes time and I allow myself this time.

I’ve only ever felt stressed when unexpected work has come on top of my regular deadlines and the money has been too good to turn down.

4. Learn and keep learning

I went into this whole freelance gig blind through the first and even second year and made mistakes as a new freelancer.

My biggest mistake was not learning about what it really meant to be a freelancer, or the basics, where to find work, how to diversify, use social media and the Internet to promote myself. I didn’t even have a proper business plan until my third year.

I wish I had aligned myself to the right people from the start. I found The Clever Copywriting School invaluable for copywriters and also the private Facebook group for graduates run by the Australian Writers’ Centre.

5. I said yes to unpaid opportunities

As freelance writers, the cardinal rule is NEVER TO WRITE FOR FREE either for editors or for clients.

I broke this rule a few times during my first three years as a freelance writer.

I chose to look beyond money and instead focus on what other benefits I could get – contacts and experience. I do realise this is not for everyone as many freelancers earn money to support their families. I had the luxury of trying new things and building up my business slowly.

The benefits I experienced were, I learnt so much about writing and the business world, made crucial contacts and got a chance to leave the house and be surrounded by people who were out there doing things which always recharged my batteries.

I’ve not earned huge amounts of money when I compare myself to other freelancers but I look at it this way:

• I got the chance to look after my son full time and not send him to daycare at all
• I wrote some stories I’m very proud of
• I’ve made a name for myself among my peers and clients as a reliable, professional copywriter and features writer
• I’ve finally found my passion – writing

A new horizon…
I’m on the cusp of change in my life and my business as I wait for my second baby to arrive any day now.

I know my income will take a massive hit this year. I won’t be able to hit my double income goal in 2017 but I have peace of mind that I won’t lose this ‘job’.

I’ve no employer to pander to – I’ll start freelancing again when it’s the right time for me and my family.

I’m also planning to restart work on a new magazine I launched last year while I’m on ‘maternity leave’ and seeing what comes from it.

What I’ve really learnt about freelancing in these last 5 years? It’s that it’s constantly shifting and changing.