Content Watch


5 Oldschool Freelance Writer Rules
You Should Break

Seasoned and successful freelancers have a lot of great advice to offer to those who are starting out, but be warned — some of their tips are old school, irrelevant to your particular business goals, and even outdated. Read on to see what these successful freelancing veterans have learned about the changing nature of the writing business…

Old school rule: Once your piece is finalized, you’re done.

While that may technically be true, spending a little more time corresponding about a published article can bring some good karma your way. Kelly James-Enger, author of “Six-Figure Freelancing: The Writer’s Guide to Making More Money, Second Edition,” explains: “Sending thank-you notes to editors and people you interview (whether expert or ‘real people’) has made me memorable — in a good way — and helped me develop a deep Rolodex of go-to sources,” she says.

While it may seem tedious to backtrack once an assignment is in the can, James-Enger says it’s helped her business. “Years ago, a potential ghostwriting client talked to a fellow NYC dietitian about several writers she was considering hiring for a book project. Turned out that I’d interviewed the dietitian before, and she said something along the lines of, ‘Kelly’s great—she’s always on time, she lets me know when I’m quoted, and she even sends thank-you notes!’” Needless to say, she got that gig.

Old-school rule: If you write for custom publications or brands, it’s not real journalism, and you won’t be taken seriously.

The lines are definitely more blurred these days as content marketing and brand publishing continue to take off. So is it OK to do write for both traditional publications and nontraditional outlets? Aside from any obvious conflicts of interest, if you want to be successful as a freelance writer, you can — and must! — wear a lot of hats, says Wendy Helfenbaum, a Montreal-based freelance writer and TV producer.

“I’m very mindful, however, about what kinds of corporate and content marketing gigs I accept, and I target industries or non-profits that don’t conflict with the beats I generally cover as a journalist,” she explains. For example, she never covers transportation or pharmaceuticals for news outlets, so she’s comfortable accepting ongoing work from corporate clients in those industries.

Finding work beyond the traditional media outlets can really broaden your opportunities, especially as magazines and newspapers trim budgets and staff. “If you separate your business properly, and fully disclose if ever a potential conflict of interest pops up, you absolutely can do both,” assures Helfenbaum.

Old-School Rule: It’s the editor’s job to come up with headlines, photos, etc.

Perhaps that was once the case, but if you landed a great assignment in 2013, there’s a good chance it’s because you pitched it as a whole “package” beyond just the copy. Not only do you have to have a great topic, but to catch an editor’s eye, you should think about how it can be formatted and designed; what type of artwork/multimedia you might be able to supply; any sidebars that could be included; suggestions for an SEO-friendly headline or print coverline; etc.

“I’ve personally always believed the more a freelance writer can do, the better,” says Dawn Allcot, who’s been a professional writer and editor since 1997. Recognizing a good photo for a print publication, supplying captions, and in the digital realm, having WordPress know-how, are must-have skills for freelancers, she says.
 “I offer those services without even thinking twice.”

Old-school rule: You get paid to write, not to promote the publication.

More and more, it’s appreciated – even expected – for writers to share their work on their personal social media networks. It’s not even unheard of for an editor to ask about the number of followers you have on Twitter, or if you have a Google+ account.

You might not like it, but being open-minded about social media sharing of articles is a good move, says Denise Schipani, parenting writer and author of “Mean Moms Rule.” “Here’s my take: I’m on social media all the time anyway, and I often promote the things I write along with my own ephemera; it’s like my personal and professional lives have a bit of overlap. So if a client asks me to share some stuff on social media, I usually don’t mind and see it as a way to promote me as much as them.”

On the other hand, as with any “extra” work you do for a piece, be sure that it’s within reason, or ask for more money. “I wouldn’t undertake a whole concentrated social media plan without extra compensation,” says Schipani.

Old-school rule: Don’t take less that $1 per word.

When I started freelancing in 2009, that was my benchmark. Today, most of my clients pay less, but I make way more than I did back then. How is that possible, you ask? I think in terms of how much income an assignment will generate per hour, rather than per word when deciding if it’s worth my time.

For example, a blog post might run 500 words, paying $50. That’s only 10 cents a word – a paltry and insulting fee, right? However, if that post takes you a half hour to complete because it’s about a topic in which you have expertise, you just turned down the equivalent of $100 an hour. What’s more, is that these types of gigs can turn into steady work, and often have a quick turnaround; as in, the money hits your Paypal account in 24 hours. Score!

On the opposite end of the spectrum, a $2 per word print magazine client may keep you waiting to be paid for months, and that 600-word piece could take 25 hours to complete because of endless revision requests. While such a clip might be more impressive for your portfolio, when it comes down to cold, hard cash, the blog post is actually more lucrative.

Take it from the successful writers above: Being a rule-breaker can help you survive and thrive as a freelancer, and keep your business going strong for years to come.


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