3 Important Lessons I Wish I’d Known as a New Freelance Writer

15 years into this freelance writing thing. I think it’s working out.

I have drunk from the dregs of freelance writing work: down in the content pits, mining those shoddy $10 articles, scouring for opportunities to do more of the same. I have lived in the self-damning world of uncertain writers: filled with doubt, sure of my own failure, carried by waves of inspiration and then destroyed on the cold, slippery rocks of their absence.
We can be so cruel to ourselves.
Every thing I’ve done as a writer has taught me something important. Sometimes it’s taught me what I want to avoid. That’s important, too.
However, there’s no need for you to spend so much time on uncertainty and false starts. These three lessons have had a profound effect on my career. Maybe they can help you, too.

Lesson 1: Most people want you to do well.

Pitching, querying, and applying is often terrifying, when you’re a new freelancer. The whole process feels mysterious, as if there are rules you don’t know, a secret code you don’t have. As if everyone is waiting for you to mess up.
There may be a few people like that—every crowd has its lowest common denominator—but most people are hoping you’ll do well.
Most people want to be pleased, not disappointed. Most people want to give you a Yes. They may not be able to (new is new, and there are things to learn and skills to polish along the way), but most people are happy to help you when they can. They’re looking for a reason to do so.
This doesn’t mean that editors will respond to an ill-formed query. It does mean, if you create a well-formed query, their preference will be to accept it with delight, not scour it for errors. Put in the effort needed. Learn and meet the standards. Beyond that, don’t overthink it. Trust that most people like helping other people. Trust that when your efforts meet a certain standard, the default response will be one of welcome, not of criticism and nitpicking.

Lesson 2: Most people want things to be easy.

Yes, most people want you to do well and are happy to help you when they can, by accepting your pitch, responding to your query, giving you the gig.
However, they have multiple motivations.
Motivation 1 may be “help other writers,” or similar.
Motivations 2-11 are, most likely, a list of variations of one rule, which is to “make things as easy as possible for myself.”
It’s not that we’re selfish. It’s that we’re wired to value our own survival over all. The survival instinct plays out in weird ways, but two common themes emerge. To ensure our own survival, we are always trying 1) to conserve energy and 2) to avoid unnecessary risk.
When you pitch, query, submit, apply, email, call, market, publish (or whatever it is you’re doing), you must keep those two themes in mind.
To get better responses, reduce complexity and reduce risk.

Reducing complexity

Reducing complexity means making it as easy as possible for others to understand and respond to you.
Reducing complexity is a writing (and life) superpower. It’s not easy. You have to think long enough to gain clarity. You have to speak courageously, saying what you actually want even if you’re not sure it’s okay to want it. It can feel risky, but that’s the point: by taking the risk on yourself, you remove (some of) the risk from others. Reducing complexity means you do more of the work, and ask them to do less. Less work (and less risk) means it’s easier for them to say Yes to you.
Here are a few examples:
  • Instead of the three-paragraph bio, send a two-sentence bio that captures the most important information about you as a writer.
  • Instead of a long, chatty intro on that email, use a simple greeting and state exactly what you want and why.
  • Speaking of email, make it easier for people to process (and respond to) your emails by using a clear, specific subject line.
  • Instead of offering your potential client five pricing options, offer one. Explain why it’s the best.
  • Instead of closing interactions with a vague follow-up indicator (“Let’s come back to this soon,” or “Think about it and let me know,”), state and/or ask for definite action on a specific timeline.
    • State: “I’ll do that research and let you know what I find out by Tuesday.”
    • Ask: “Please review the outline and let me know if there are changes needed by Monday so I can stay on schedule.”

Reducing risk

Risk doesn’t have to be real to have a real effect.
The perception of risk is what influences people.
A perception of high risk will cause most people to take a giant step backwards, away from the perceived risk. No one wants to fail; risk, in this context, is about the possibility of failure.
Reducing the perception of risk means reducing the chance of failure. Not for you, but for the people you’re working with, or want to work with.
How can you reduce risk for editors, hiring managers, new clients, blog owners, etc.?
Here are a few examples:
  • Keep track of why and how you’re qualified, and offer those qualifications. (A link to a website with a CV-like list of your education, experience, clips, projects, and other relevant qualifications can go a long way.)
  • Focus on the qualifications that matter most for each situation. (This is combination of reducing complexity—don’t make them wade through all your qualifications, only the ones that matter—and reducing risk.)
  • Don’t send attachments with your email unless specifically directed to do so. Attachments are risky. Instead, send a link to a trusted platform (Google Docs or Dropbox, for example), or copy and paste the text into the body of the email.
  • Offer clips to prove that you can write. If all you have is what you’ve published on your blog, link to that. Writing is writing is writing.
  • Offer to write on spec. I don’t do this anymore, and I don’t recommend it as a long-term practice. I do recommend it as a great way to get yourself published on a bigger platform when you don’t have any other way to prove that you’re a credible writer.
    • Once you have the clips/experience to prove your credibility in other ways, quit writing on spec.
  • Offer a sample, a risk-free guarantee, a complimentary consult, or some other “no risk” way for potential clients to try out what you’re offering.

Lesson 3: Focus will get you somewhere.

Focus isn’t about defining your passion, finding the perfect niche, or highlighting your unique value proposition as a freelance writer. Focus is about keeping your energy pointed in one direction long enough to benefit from your efforts.
I wish I’d figured this out sooner. Before the 4 or 5 blogs I’ve started, put many hours into, then abandoned. Before the half-written books, unfinished projects, and hours of chasing possibilities that weren’t a good fit.
Focusing means choosing a direction, and sticking to it.
The direction could be a particular topic or area of expertise. It could be a particular format or type of writing. It could be a quality you have as a writer (such as exactness, reliability, fast turnaround, excellent research, impeccable grammar, personal storytelling).
It doesn’t matter what the focus is. It matters only that you choose one and stick with it.
We think it matters—the choice of what we focus on. It doesn’t. The direction doesn’t matter; forward movement matters. What you focus on now isn’t what you’ll focus on forever.
Don’t fear getting trapped in your focus.
Focus will get you somewhere, and once you get there, you can choose your next direction. Success in one area will open new doors. You can’t predict where those new doors will lead.
This is a lesson I’m still learning. The only move that matters is your next move. Pick a direction and stick with it, and you’ll get further, faster. You’ll establish your proficiency and credibility, which enables you to negotiate for more of what you want as you continue, expand, or move into a new direction.

Photo by Joseph Gruenthal on Unsplash