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10 More Mistakes That (Might) Ruin Your Freelancing Career

By Nicole Dieker January 14th, 2016

Last year I published “10 Mistakes That’ll Ruin Your Freelancing Career,” which ended up being one of The Freelancer’s most popular posts of 2015. Not surprisingly, it seems like people would like to avoid career-ending mistakes.

Well, it’s a new year, which means it’s time for 10 more mistakes (and a toned-down headline). This year, I want to take a look at some big-picture freelancing mistakes—the ones even established freelancers earning a steady income can make without even realizing.

These mistakes probably won’t ruin your freelancing career, but they can hold you back. We’re all probably guilty of one or a few of these (I know I am), but there’s no better time than now for fixing them.

1. You don’t know what you’re worth

If a client asked how much you charge for an 800-word piece with light reporting, would you have a number ready to go? What about a client who asks for a 1,200-word advertorial: Would you pitch a number that’s higher or lower than the 800-word piece?

Knowing your worth and the “going rate” is for different types of freelance writing will give you a huge leg up in negotiations. It’ll also help you weed out those clients who can’t afford to pay the industry standard.

The world is a big place. If one client can’t pay you what you’re worth, try and find another.

2. You don’t negotiate

If you can’t find another client that pays you what you’re worth, then you should be negotiating with the ones you have.

Everybody can negotiate. If you don’t think you can negotiate, read our many pieces on the practice, and then use those techniques in your next negotiation.

It’s also important to renegotiate. I have renegotiation conversations with several of my clients at the end of every year. Most of these conversations result in my clients agreeing to raise my rate, and none of them have resulted in me losing a client.

Yes, sometimes a client will say no. There isn’t always room in the budget to raise a freelance rate. But if you don’t negotiate, you’ll never know if you could have earned a little more money just by asking.

3. You sign contracts without reading them

Who holds the copyright to the last piece you wrote? Chances are, it’s not you. Many freelancing contracts grant the publication or client all rights to your work, and many freelancers happily sign those rights away. That may be fine for smaller pieces, but it shouldn’t for the big feature piece you’ve been working on for months.

It’s important to know exactly what’s in your contract before you sign it. Pay attention to items like rights, how many unpaid revisions a client can request, and kill fees. That last one is particularly worth paying attention to, as articles get killed all the time. It’s critical to make sure that all your work won’t go to waste when the magazine you’re writing for kills your piece days before going to print.

Take the time to read your contract carefully, and if you don’t like what’s in it, ask for changes before you sign. You don’t always have to do this, but if it’s a piece you care about or have sunk a lot of you time into, you could regret not pushing for a better contract.

4. You take on extra work without asking for extra pay

At some point in your career, one of your clients is going to ask you to do a little extra work without offering any extra pay. Sometimes they’ll want you to rewrite a piece; sometimes they may ask you to edit another freelancer’s writing; they may even want you to make original artwork to accompany your latest article. (Yes, I’ve been asked to do all of these things.)

Sometimes, doing a little extra for a client is a good way to build your reputation and your relationship. Other times, you need to push back and ask for extra pay. This is largely a judgement call, but at the very least, use the opportunity as an excuse to re-negotiate your ongoing freelance rate.

5. You don’t build relationships with other people in your beat

The other people who work in your beat are your co-workers. It doesn’t matter if you don’t work at the same publication. Knowing the other people who do personal finance or pop culture or tech news or whatever you write about is a big part of managing your own freelance career.

So take the time to build relationships with the other people in your beat. Tweet or email them to let them know you like their work. Link back to them and reference their articles in your own pieces. Start conversations online, and meet in person if you get the chance.

Someday, someone else in your beat is going to need a podcast guest or a writer to take on an extra article or a person to fill in after a staff departure. You want to be the name they think of.

6. You don’t promote your work

What happens after a piece of yours goes live? Do you share it on Twitter and Facebook? Do you reply to people who leave comments? Learning how to promote your own work and engage with readers is one of the most important skills a freelance writer can develop, even if it feels like you’re selling out.

It’s important not go overboard—you don’t want to seem like a self-promoting robot on your social media accounts, and you don’t want to spend too much time promoting instead of working—but self-promotion can often mean the difference between an article doing well or falling flat on its face.

And if you’re worried about the idea of coming across as narcissistic, don’t be. If someone is following you on social media, it’s probably because they’re interested in you and your work.

7. You say yes to gigs that don’t help you grow

We’ve all taken a job or two just for the money. But if you’re consistently taking on gigs that don’t help you grow, your career is never going to evolve. Look for the jobs and clients that allow you to write bigger and more ambitious pieces, or the clients that offer you the potential for greater responsibility.

At some point you’re going to have to stop saying yes to those easy gigs that earn you a few extra dollars. That way, you can find the time to work on the writing (or photography, or design, or whatever you do) that will define your career. Yes, you might have to wait a bit longer for a paycheck. But when you complete a career-building gig, you’ll be paid not only in cash, but also in connections and reputation.

And if you don’t take my word for it, maybe you’ll listen to what Glenn Greenwald had to say in our recent interview with him:

Be a little bit willing to sacrifice some short-term work for longer-term benefit. I know this is really hard to do if you’re trying to pay rent, but instead of taking every single job you can and just turning out copy in order to get $250 checks here and there, try and work in a more substantial way so that what you’re producing is more geared towards quality rather than quantity.

8. You don’t fact check or, even worse, you plagiarize

This is one that I can say, without any semblance of hyperbole, is a career killer. Don’t expect your editor to fact check every detail of your work, even if it’s for the most prestigious publication in the world. And even if they do, you want to make sure you have the facts straight. Otherwise, the publication’s fact checker might tell your editor they spent all day on your piece; you want fact checkers on your side.

Most of the time, however, the publication you’re writing for won’t have the luxury of a fact checker. If your piece is published and it turns out its based on a false premise or contains a lot of errors, you’re going to be in the crosshairs of commenters first, and then your editor after she’s chewed out by her superior.

Plagiarism goes without explanation. If you’re caught, it’s likely that editor or client will never work with you again—and they may even tell their colleagues not to work with you either.

9. You don’t think about your reputation

Speaking of reputation, there’s a lot more to it than turning in good, clean copy on time.

Are you the freelancer who’s always ready and willing to chase a breaking news story, or are you the freelancer who turns off email after 7 p.m. to keep work and life separate? Are you the freelancer who negotiates every new opportunity, or are you the freelancer who takes what you are given?

Maybe you’re the freelancer who knows how to write viral articles, or maybe you’re freelancer who can ask that perfect interview question. Or perhaps you’re known as the freelancer who can turn around perfect copy in 20 minutes.

You can’t be every kind of freelancer at once, so it’s important to decide what type of freelancer you want to be. Some may want to be known for their work-life balance, while others want to be known for always being available—it’s up to you, and your past behavior will decide how your clients think of you.

Reputation is something that usually happens naturally, but it’s critical to take it seriously as you navigate your career. Build a reputation based on your strengths, and your clients will start giving you work that allows those strengths to shine.

10. You don’t know what your next big goal is

Where do you want to be one year from now? Do you want to be writing for a specific publication? Do you want to move from an occasional writer to a regular contributor? Do you want editorial responsibilities? Do you want to take on more e-commerce and advertorial work? Do you want to earn a specific dollar figure?

Don’t let your career happen to you. Set a big goal and start working on achieving it. Even if you don’t become the new editor at your favorite publication, knowing where you want to go will help you get closer to those better assignments and higher-paying gigs. It’ll also help you build your reputation and make connections with other people in your beat.

Setting goals is one of the best ways to help your career grow. So take the time to think about your next big freelancing goal, and then stick to it. And if you’re lost finding a goal, avoiding these 10 mistakes is a good place to start.

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