Five Tips for a Successful Freelance
Writing Career

Freelance writer in bed

When you tell people you’re a freelancer writer, they immediately make a few assumptions:

  1. You spend the whole day in your pajamas, and
  2. “Freelance writing” is really code for “unemployed.”

I say, fine: Let them think this. Who needs the competition? The truth is, if you’re smart about it, you can make a lot more money working for yourself than working for someone else, and you don’t have to punch a time clock.

Yeah! Now, here are five tips for actually getting some work done.

Tip 1: Create a division between work and home. It’s helpful to have a designated work space — ideally, an office or studio space outside of your home. If this isn’t possible, a home office with a door you can close is your next best option. Don’t have a room to set aside for an office? Go to your local Pier 1, buy a Chinese screen and section off a corner of a room. Voilà: instant office.

Tip 2: Take off your pajamas. No, I’m not saying you should work naked, but dress like you’re going to the office. Because, guess what? You are. Even if your “office” is your kitchen table, putting on regular work clothes gets you into the right mind-set. It also makes it less embarrassing when the UPS man shows up in the middle of the afternoon.

Tip 3: Get to work on time. You’ve cut out the commute, which means you’ve bought yourself a little time. So go ahead and have that extra cup of coffee; but it’s nice for your family, friends, clients and personal sanity if you keep at least relatively normal business hours.

Tip 4: Don’t watch TV in the middle of the day. Or go to the movies or do your laundry. You’re working, so work. However, occasional naps are perfectly acceptable and a great way to remind yourself that while you might not have technical support or a supply closet, your life is still pretty awesome.

Tip 5: But do go out to lunch. The writing life, especially the freelance writing life, can be isolating. And isolation leads to one thing: insanity. So set times for human contact helps, like lunch dates with clients or your fellow independently employed cohorts. For extra points — and probably extra business, too — join a business networking group.

There are a lot of other things you can do to be successful, like actually being a good writer, meeting deadlines and not annoying your clients. But I’ll leave those for you to figure out. In the meantime, put down that remote and get to work.

Anna Goldsmith is a partner at The Hired Pens, a Boston-based copywriting firm. You can reach her by email or 617-359-8133.

Print Friendly

Smarter is Better Solutions for Smarter Content Marketing

Here’s what we’ve got for you:

  • 15 high-impact ebooks on content marketing, SEO, email marketing, landing pages, keyword research, and more.
  • A 20-part Internet marketing course that lays out a comprehensive path for your own online strategy.
  • An organized reference guide to the “best of the best” of Copyblogger.com, and how it all profitably fits together.
Free Registration

Take The Conversation Further ...

We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Meet us over on Twitter or LinkedIn to join the conversation right now!

Comments

  1. Yeah, well. These are all kind of obvious and unoriginal. I was hoping to see some practical advice on starting up a freelance career. Like links, portfolio building, etc. Thanks anyway.

  2. Really good post… all of us that are self-employed need to read and do this.

  3. Don’t forget Elijah, it’s a blog. We’ll have more topics coming on freelancing. :-)

  4. The title should have been “Five Tips to be a More Productive Freelance Writer”…because you can do all five of those things and have very limited success.

    As you said in your conclusion, “there are a lot of other things you can do to be successful”…and in my mind – those other things are what really separates the best from the rest.

    If I was going to throw out five tips for being successful, it would probably be:

    1) Networking: Half of success is determined by what you know, the other is by who you know.
    2) Quality: Never complete a job half-assed, no matter how little it pays…you never know where you’ll get your next referral from.
    3) Productivity: Your five points would work here.
    4) Website: Have a top-notch website where people can find out more about you, see what services you offer, and look over a portfolio.
    5) Passive Income: Find a way to develop passive streams of income. As a freelance writer, you tend to follow the time=money formula or project=money. To be successful, you want to be able to make money while you’re sitting on the couch in your pajamas enjoying a mocha at 1:00 in the afternoon.

    Long post…you betcha. I felt that I wasn’t quite given what I was expecting based on the title.

  5. Oh…and by the way. I’m not meaning to be negative. It was a great post – I was even inspired to stop watching Superbowl highlights ;)

    And I checked out your website…”The Hired Pens” – very creative and very very cool.

  6. Some great tips; perhaps obvious but often ignored. No. 1 is key, I can often get more done at starbucks than I can in my “home office” …kids etc. If you can’t focus then the rest won’t be of much help.

  7. I enjoyed this post. As a former freelancer who is now back in the workplace but still works from home once a week, I especially appreciated the affirmation that taking a nap is a good thing!

  8. Not a bad post overall, but nothing mind blowing. I am still looking for someone to go over what it was like to take that first free fall plunge away from the 9 to 5 to the freelance world.

    What kind of safety net they set up, if any? How to deal with criticism of family, friends, strangers? How to best prepare yourself? Where to find clients? etc

    One great site I found is Freelance Switch which has some great resources, but hasn’t answered all of my questions

  9. Hey Elijah,

    This might be the first time I’ve ever used a math analogy to explain myself, but think of this blog entry like basic math: Until you master the foundation, you can’t build anything worthwhile. … Okay, maybe that was more of an architecture analogy.

    The point is that there’s so much that goes into a successful freelance career, but until you can turn off the TV and put your pants on, all the advice in the world doesn’t matter, you know?

    I think Chad offered some really great advanced tips. Particularly the passive income one. For my first few years in business I had a part time job and it really helped to have a steady, if however small, stream of income.

    And honestly a lot of it comes down to personality: The sad truth is that it’s not enough to be good at what you do: You have to be good at–and I think, actually enjoy–business as well.

    Anyway, I could go on about this …. maybe there needs to be a part 2.

    Cheers,
    Anna

  10. I must agree, working form home is the ultimate reward if you can find the work. I also agree that you mus tget out for lunch among other thigns in order to keep your sanity. Great tips, thanks for sharing.

  11. The only point I’d disagree with you is the not watching TV. At 1145, I go downstairs, make my lunch, and curl up on the couch to watch Perry Mason. It’s a delightful diversion that gets me away from the computer and telephone, and in an hour, the whole world seems better.
    And I completely agree that you need to treat your job like work. Have a place to go, be there regularly, and ignore distractions when you’re at “work.” That way, you can enjoy your real life when you’re not working.

  12. Thanks Chad, you’re right on with the productivity angle.

    A few more simple ones, especially if family is harrassing you: don’t answer the home phone when you’re working. Don’t go to work, while you’re “home”.

    Stand up to answer the phone; you’ll sound more professional.

    Remember: The fridge is off limits if you’re not on lunch. Get a second coffee pot for your desk if you’re that desperate for a caffeine hit.

    Pay yourself first.

    Manage your business as if it were a large corporation. Take yourself seriously and others will too. You’re in the writing “business”.

    That said, take time to play. And wonder. And wander.

    Connect with people who can’t spell, can’t write and are almost illiterate. They see the world from a different angle. Total inspiration!

    m;)

  13. Is that you in the picture, Anna?

    (I just so had to ask… :) )

    I don’t get the impatience of some people here. Yes. it might be the bare foundation and I might have read it all over my favorites n-times but is well though, useful and got me to smile a few times while reading the article.

  14. @Google Sucks

    First of all, your name gives away your “positive” outlook on life. :)

    “How to deal with criticism from family, friends, and strangers”? Are you kidding? Dude, I about fell off my chair; thanks for the delightful entertaining this afternoon.

    You’re obviously not even CLOSE to having the mindset of being your own boss, let alone the courage. There is no “Guide to Dealing With Friends and Family”, “Guide to Being an Entrepreneur”, or “Guide to Freelancing”. Grow some balls, take the plunge, live and learn.

    Let me give you a nice little push in the right direction, if you need it laid out for ya:

    1. Network (talk to people) to get clients (those who pay your bills)
    2. Under promise, over deliver (provide quality work)
    3. Rinse and repeat steps 1 and 2

    Sorry to everyone for reading this but I cannot stand people who criticize the work of others and whine and complain about the world.

    “It’s just not fair!!!”

    :)

  15. @Google Sucks

    I did this recently so have some insight.

    “what was it like to take that first free fall plunge?”
    It was and is scary :)

    “What kind of safety net they set up, if any?”
    I had about 11 months living expenses set aside. I sold my condo last year, no wife, kids or debt. Just a girlfriend (doesn’t live with me) and some cats. So not a ton of obligations. That is by design. Health insurance isn’t too expensive. Good idea to buy it.

    “How to deal with criticism of family, friends, strangers?”
    I’m in charge of my life—not other people. If I solicit somebody’s input, I listen respectfully. Ultimately I do what I feel is right. People do try to criticize bold moves like this. Try to see this particular type of criticism for it is: people verbalizing their own fears and jealousies.

    “How best to prepare yourself?”
    I don’t know if you can ever be prepared:) I purposely jumped ship (my 9 – 5) without any definite plan. It sounds insane but there was logic behind my decision. It’s a long story. The biggest thing: learn to trust your intuition.

    “Where to find clients?”
    If you can get a hold of one client you can usually get a hold of others. If you get one client, find out as much as you can about her. Her problems, her needs, where she turns to for help. Develop what you offer to suit address her problems and then get your offer in front of her. It is obvious and other people here will probably laugh it off. Most people are looking for some kind of secret. There’s really no secret. This is the basic building block to marketing. Works online and offline.

    I’ll also address one other point: learn how to take action consistently. Something else that sounds obvious. I’m a lazy fellow by nature. But I have a system that works for me. I have long range goals. I break accomplishments out by week. Then further set 6 tasks per day. I assign a priority to each task and take them in order. I start with the highest priority and stay with it until I’m done. Sounds simplistic but it keeps me moving forward. There are no tricks or secrets to getting things done. Don’t add overhead with elaborate systems. Just find an easy way to keep yourself on track.

    For somebody that has never worked from home or freelanced, this article is a great introduction to some of the things you’ll face. For me, structure is imperative. I get up early, go to the gym, eat breakfast and get ready to work at 9. It is easy to slack so it’s crucial to develop habits that support discipline.

    Best,

    Rob

  16. I will confess to staying in my pajamas about two days a week. Sometimes it just happens.

    *shrug*

    What is it with those friends and family members who think freelancing is not a real job? If I hear, “Well you’re home all day…” one more time, I just might scream. Isn’t there a way to educate people that freelancing is hard work, which consumes far more time than most conventional jobs? I keep telling my people, but I don’t think they’re listening.

  17. How about the most main tip? If you’re going to be successful as a writer, then act like a successful writer. Own it, live it, breathe it, and be it.

    Otherwise, nothing else you do matters.

  18. My fave out of the above advice is the: “But do go out to lunch…”

    Orchestrating human contact can help overcome those “I’m a lonely entrepreneur blues”.

    It also helps you to find fresh material to write.

    And…if you want a bigger bang for your buck, spend a little of your human contact time actually volunteering at a local organization that you admire.

    The volunteering strategy can pay off handsomely by giving you human contact, allowing you to use your magic helping out the community, and giving you a great network of contacts.

    Thanks for sharing the insight!

  19. Also should have enough sleep! :)

    –blog for dream–

  20. @google ….
    “Nothing mind blowing?” “…has some great resources, but hasn’t answered all of my questions”

    I think this illustrates people’s desire to get an easy fix to everything, right now.

    That’s not how life works. While I already know each of the 5 points Anna has brought up, that’s a good thing. Repetition builds habit. Seasoned freelancers won’t read these tips saying “sheesh, that’s simplistic,” but “yep, that’s what I did to get where I am.”

    Fundamentals are everything. Every single post Brian has written has underscored the importance of fundamentals, and how they get you to the finish line. Nothing has to be mind-blowing … just compelling.

    No one ever has “answers to all their questions …” they take action, learn, and begin again.

    Rock it –

    Dave

    PS – Some days pajamas are a nice perk. Other days I have to spruce up to get my work groove on :-)

  21. I am a freelance writer. I am grateful for pajamas otherwise typing at the computer in the buff is not a pretty site. I enjoyed your article. The main reason I am a freelance writer is that I really don’t care what other people think.

  22. True

  23. Good tips. All of them can actually be applied to anyone running a home based business.

  24. I never knew how much Realtors and writers have in common :)

    Your post was great Anne, and I think Chad’s suggestions would make for a great second post.

    I usually DO work out of my office but sometimes I work from home because there are less distractions.

    One thing I do make sure that I focus on when I work from home is that I make a to-do list and block out portions of the day accordingly.

  25. Anna,
    Great tips. I teach people how to write and market ebooks and I will pass this on. Many people I know will call me up and just want to hang out – I have to teach them that I am actually at work, even if I am at home.

  26. Great tips which are relevant to anyone who works from home.

  27. Mr./Ms. Googlesucks,

    You just get out there and try it. If you fail, you get up again and try again.

    There’s no right or wrong way to start your freelancing career. You just either try or you don’t.

    -It’s risky.
    -It’s scary.
    -It’s worth it.

    Good luck!

  28. The ideas may seem original to some but in my industry, real estate, many more would be successful if they just followed the first 3 tips. This three may be lost on those that are already successful but many would be well served just by doing this steps.

  29. When I first began freelancing from home full-time, I went a little nuts on the whole discipline thing. I got up on time every day, hurried through a shower, and got right to work promptly at 8.

    Having done it for a few years now, I’ve lightened up a little. I still stick to my schedule, but I know my own rhythms. After lunch is a dead zone for me mentally, so I lie down for a short nap and don’t feel the least bit guilty about it. Being your own boss can mean working for the meanest SOB in town, or your favorite supervisor ever.

    I found a great compromise for the pajamas-all-day set: when the FedEx guy knocks, I’ll answer in my work clothes. What he doesn’t notice is that I’m still wearing my fuzzy slippers.

  30. It was a nice post that a freelancer or would be freelance could put to practical use if they don’t already do so.

    As each year passes, more and more employees are beginning to realize just how mundane, limited, and insecure their current jobs are.

    In an avid effort to match this emerging revelation, individuals are searching for business opportunities that could be relied upon should one get fired. Not to mention, with the current economic downturn, being your own boss is becoming more appealing and attractive to the employed masses.

    Journalist and TV host, John Daly, used his skill and experience to develop ‘The Real Money Show’, an invaluable online resource that reveals how to search for an online business capable of supplementing an income or even providing much desired financial security. You can email me for more info at info@johndaly.tv.

  31. Great post Anna, I’m a fresh (fish) newbie to the self-employed world, and it’s good to read tips on how to do it right.

    I also have to say I liked some of the comments, particularly Chad, Rob and the “tell it like it is” advice from Freedom. Thanks, everybody.

  32. Wait a second, I can nap but I have to get out of my pajamas first?

    Isn’t that pretty much assuming I got out of bed to do my writing in the first place?

  33. Thanks to all of those who helped answer my questions about freelancing. I love hearing other peoples experiences.

    Maybe I was a little harsh in my words and criticism of this article, but as you could probably tell I am not a copywriter, I am an SEO.

    As such, I have been reading this blog to improve my writing :)

  34. I often get those kind of comments about me but i dont mind :)

  35. @ Blogging for the Money – I think the accepted politically-correct term for nap is, “I need to crash on the sofa for a few minutes.” Nap sounds so…aged…

  36. Yeah i agree, i think people stereotype people like copywriters, and even to an extent, people who work online generally, as marketers, seo specialists, whatever it may be.

    With the online world getting larger by the second, and more and more people now getting online, i think its only time before people realize that people like us DO have proper jobs, and are not the lazy louts they like to believe.

  37. The best tip I could give is not to type your articles while laying on the bed, like that girl on the stock image does. How many of you writers, bloggers out there type your posts in bed?

  38. I type in bed and the girl on the stock image is my girlfriend. She is typing an email to send to me. I am grateful for wireless capabilities on my computer; it allows me to work on the computer anywhere there is a signal. I wonder what civilization did before the computer and wireless? Probably stand outside and yell and write letters. Boring…

  39. Working from home is still working. The upside is it doesn’t feel like work so I actually work longer hours. Go figure.

  40. Hi Anna

    Thanks for another great post. I’ve been a professional freelance copywriter for over 10 years, and success in this business all comes down to three things as far as I’m concerned:

    1. Self discipline and staying positive – you have to set yourself standards and goals – and stick to them. You are doing a job at the end of the day, so no one wants to hear your excuses or deal with your ego.
    2. Working hard to produce your best work at all times – and meeting all your deadlines. Sounds obvious? My clients just want to know that I’ll deliver great work on time every time. It’s that simple. To a certain extent, even with a large portfolio of work, you’re still only as good as your last piece of writing.
    3. Respecting your clients – this is perhaps most important. When a writer thinks they know it all and stop really listening to what their clients need – their writing will be badly researched, badly written and not chime correctly with the target market.

    Anyway, just a few thoughts. Thanks for all the great advice.

    Kind regards

    Laurence James
    MD, The Copy Box
    http://www.thecopybox.com

  41. Only the self-employeed seem to understand other self-employeds. The jokes about working in PJs and the general attitude we get remind me a bit of what a non-working mother must feel when people at a cocktail party learn she doesn’t have a job. Let’s hope we all learn to be less judgmental of others. Meanwhile, work in your PJs or in the buff if you want to — because you can!

  42. Well, there are some good points that would definitely go up in the USA. But the assumptions you made at the beginning are here not applicable at all…

    Copywriting, freelance or not is more and more seen as a “top sport” especially related to SEO.

    BTW, who is that freelancer on the photo ;-)

  43. I genuinely enjoyed reading the comments in this thread. It is rich with experienced insight. There is though an underlining pulse that comes subtly through this thread that freelancing is a lot harder than perceived and the world should take some time to educate themselves on this new budding industry.

    Perhaps, freelancer themselves should make market education a part of their business strategy to eliminate the preconceived misconceptions that exist about working at home.

    In fact, there are those who believe to be more of a myth than reality.

    However, a planned, well researched, practical approached, accompanied by discipline and consistency, are good characteristics to employ if success is truly your sole objective.

  44. I thought I would add a comment to this thread, specifically addressing the different recommendation for the best place to do your writing as a freelancer.

    Actually, every writer is more likely than not stimulated through different environments. What works for one as stimulating may not have the same effect on another writer.

  45. hi, thanks from the tips.
    i’ve just starting my blogs..

  46. I think this advice is for anyone who is working from home, not just freelance writers.

  47. I have definitely noted a pattern in this thread of responses.

    It appears that the root word ‘free’ is of paramount importance in the world of freelancers.

    What I gather is that every individual freelancer needs to customize their business to suit their individuality.

    If you function better with pajamas and do not necessarily have to meet your clients face to face, what could it hurt? If this is the comfort zone that gets your production level going, embrace the ‘jammies’ and work away.

    If, as an individual freelancer, you crave and need organization and structure in order to be productive, by all means, ensure that you implement effective time management and organization skills in your freelance business.

    The point is, as a freelance, it is up to you whether or not it works. You get out what you put in.

    If you have a niche that needs you, please ensure that you leave a distinct signature that is just you to leave behind.

    This way, each client remembers whom to call when this need arises again.

  48. I am surprised how much I disagree with the majority of the suggestions. I believe the reason is that I am a night person. I could not imagine wearing work clothes at home, that is just ridiculous to me. Writing for me has no time constraints, and I can’t picture getting lunch if I am on a roll. Writing (and reading)is my passion and I work hard at it. However, there is nothing routine about it. Art is not a 9-5 job, why treat it that way? As long as you meet deadlines, who cares if you do it in your pj’s at 3am. Thanks, Veronica

  49. But I like working in my jammies :-)

  50. Yep, a lot of this is obvious. However, it is still totally valid. It is tooooo tempting to have a peak at emails and end up working before you have even got the coffee and your socks on each morning. Thanks for the reminder!

  51. I agree with many of the comments that these tips seem kind of obvious. But there are so many times when we don’t do those things that are obvious–they almost seem too easy. These tips are easy to implement, but they make a world of difference. Thanks for the reminders.

  52. it’s also really important to have contact with other people if you’re working as a writer at home. Even if it’s just by email.

    In a normal office environment you can just shout over to someone “what’s another word for….” or “does this sound alright?” When you’re on your own, you can’t!

    John
    http://www.thewritingagency.com

  53. I think the key thing to writing success is to be productive and write. Even the relatively small revenue that comes in from sites like Associated Content can be useful and help you accomplish financial goals. If you can bang out 400 words, you can post it, collect a little dough in a week or so, and then connect a little revenue with each click. It all adds up.

  54. Thanks for the post. Although your recommendations are necessarily ground-breaking, they are the things that most of us in business readily forget chasing down the almighty buck. In fact, your tips make up a good foundation for ANYONE (not just freelance writers) in a home-based business setting, even for those who work remotely for a company.

    What made this post even more useful were all the comments. Several posters were kind enough to add their own tips and also share recommendations for others who asked specific questions. GREAT information.

    I haven’t made the plunge (yet), but I owned and operated my own business for eight years — got out in 2003. My spouse works from home, so I wonder how it would work for two spouses to both work from essentially the same “home” office. Our home is just under 1000 sq. feet (a small condo), and I worry that we might drive each other crazy.

  55. I meant to ask if anyone has any experience with the scenario I mentioned in my last paragraph, two home-based workers under the same roof? I appreciate any feedback.

  56. I agree with the dressing professionally thing. It puts you in the mood to get to work and makes it a lot easier to get the ball rolling. Also ive found that it is useful to have a good website to go to for information, etc. i personally like WritingCrossing.com. i think its useful to scan it everyday, even if im still in my pjs.

  57. Yes, a lot of this is obvious. Thanks for the reminder!

  58. Awesome tips for anyone working at home. :)

  59. Great list as always.. been getting some more freelance writing jobs lately. This is a nice checklist to keep with me.

  60. Recently started thinking on working from home. Would love to do it, although it could be hard to resist the things you can do at home. At work there is not much else you can do than work ;-) The tips are great!

  61. Thank you so much for the great tips. I agree with Mad Mike Media: working form home is the ultimate reward if you can find the work.

  62. Great information resource, myself I am working from home quite a while. In the beginning it was tough, but once self employed you will see the quality of work improves due to less distraction.

  63. great post Anna. I liked the point as working like professionals even at home. It can really help us… Thanks Anna. Your post is helpful.

  64. This is obviously an old post, but I came across it while doing my regular read here at Copyblogger. As a freelancer, I just wanted to share my two cents’ worth.

    The comment by Chad, above, is spot-on – what he has listed is exactly what a freelancer needs to do in order to succeed.

    Networking is a great factor in succeeding as a freelancer. When you are starting out, be creative: reach out for high profile clients, web masters and blog owners, and do some writing work for them. This will work wonders for your portfolio. If you do a top-notch job, that high-profile client will also send some clients to you….and before you know it; clients are looking for you to do their jobs.

    Another point Chad mentioned is creating some passive income. This is very important, because it means you can have some down-time (sick or on holiday), and your business does not grind to a halt…you can still be making money. One of the best ways to make money online is to teach others what you know. So, if you are a freelance writer, teach others how to start a freelance writing business. If you are a freelance web designer, teach others how to start a business designing websites. You can set up an e-course or a coaching program, or write an e-book, whatever suits you.

    James makes a great point, above. Many people start their freelance businesses half-hearted, with doubts. You need to be fully committed to grow your business. This means putting in the required hard work at the start.

    Captivating discussion on this post. Thanks Anna for writing it.

  65. Stay in toch with people, this is key for working from home. It is very easy to stop calling and meeting, but this is essential, also for your own personal happyness.

  66. Agree with the article. I work with a friend, so as two home-based workers under the same roof. It works as long as you have enough room and you can call normally.

  67. I would like to thnkx for the efforts you’ve put in writing this blog. I’m hoping the same high-grade blog post from you in the future as well. Actually your creative writing skills has inspired me to get my own blog going now. Really blogging is spreading its wings and growing quickly. Your write up is a good example.