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.

lessons learnt as a freelance writer

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.

using humour in copy

Funny guy: Is your business scared of using humour in copy?

I belong to an awesome group of copywriters on Facebook. A common thread I often see is how business clients are afraid of using humour in their business website copy and social media.

Personally, I remember only two clients over the last 5 years who’ve actually requested I write funny and quirky copy for their new websites. Dream client!

using humour in copy

I’m actually a big fan of writing content which shows wit and personality because differentiation is crucial when it comes to winning and keeping customers. If you’ve read Steve Jobs’ book, you’d know that man thrived on being different all his life – would we ever have Apple if Steve had decided not to stand out or do something drastic?

Add playfulness to your business copy:

• You’re one faceless provider out of a possible thousand in your industry. Witty content makes you memorable.

• Humour makes you more likeable –  do you recall clearly who the funny and popular guy was in your school? I like people who poke fun at themselves heaps better than people who insist on telling me how great they are (cue jargon).

• Jokes and comedy shows are popular because they make people laugh – think Ricky Gervais and The Office or his recent Optus ad.

Humour is important in life – laughter is the best medicine!

• Humour makes you approachable and human – two qualities clients like when it comes to choosing who to buy from.

• It makes your copywriter’s life much easier. Corporate jargon makes us grumpy and whinge.

Now I’m not saying you have to turn into an industry joker and get your clients laughing all the time BUT injecting some fun into your business content definitely makes you more likeable, memorable and a top choice for when someone wants to buy something.

Simply, people like doing business with people they like. People remember who made them laugh.

According to Hubspot, online followers love those brands which make them smile and entertain them.

In our copywriting world, I think no one does humour better than this copywriter and author of Confessions of a Misfit Entrepreneur. As a result, Kate has a large following both online and offline. She’s witty and so likeable that you can’t help but buy from her.

Twitter research shows that if a person sees something that makes them laugh, they’re likely to remember you when it comes time for purchase. This is a whopping 72% of people – now who wouldn’t want this type of statistic when it comes to sales?

How NOT to use humour in content

One thing to be careful of when using humour to write copy including social media posts is…you don’t want to try too hard.

Using humour wrongly in your business can be a double-edged sword and turn off your audience. Find out what people want to hear/read/see and what actually makes them laugh, not what you or your social media manager thinks is funny.

No one likes that guy who laughs at his own jokes – whether online or in real life. You want to be the cool gal or dude who gets called over by others in a party immediately when they see you so they can listen to you. Don’t be that person who’s forever looking to catch someone’s eye to share their latest (according to them hilarious) anecdote.

Yes I like Oreos…

Oreo cookies are famous for coming up with posts that people like and relate to. They are currently sitting at 846,000 followers on Twitter. This post made history when it was tweeted during the Super Bowl in 2013. I still remember it almost 4 years later.

What do you think of using humour in business copy? Has it worked for you in the past? I’d love to know in the comments. Or tweet me @rashidatayabali.