Why It’s Time to Break These 5 Freelance Writing Commandments

By Poornima Apte September 13th, 2023

Freelancers routinely request—and receive—a lot of advice about what’s best for their business. It seems like every other LinkedIn guru has something pithy to say about the tried-and-tested paths to freelance writing success. But that doesn’t mean it’s good advice or relevant to your specific circumstances.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m occasionally a cynic. But after working close to 20 years as a freelance writer, I’ve come across many writing commandments that don’t quite hold up. Here are five that particularly annoy me. As with practically everything else, your mileage (and opinions) may vary.

1. Always Tinker Away at a Passion Project

The concept of a starving artist is terribly outdated. You don’t have to work boring gigs and attend to passion projects after hours. Quite often, you can indulge your creativity and get paid well for it. Of course, if you’re writing about the finer points of drywall all day long, you might feel like you need an outlet or a completely divergent line of work that’s more fulfilling. But it’s okay to be in the writing business without a passion project. Not all writers need to have one to be admitted to the club.

2. Always Prospect for Retainers

I’m not giving up a full-time job with one employer to then be beholden to only four anchor clients who offer retainers. If one of them sinks, that’s a good quarter of my income lost. While I do have one favorite exception, I am not fond of retainers because I’m wary of putting all my eggs in just a few baskets. I also worry I might get complacent. Saying no to retainers keeps me hungry and actively building my network. I am also free to chase after clients I want to work with or topics I want to learn more about.

3. Always Qualify Freelance Writing Rates Before a Discovery Call

I get it: You don’t want to indulge every scammer on LinkedIn who offers you the incredible opportunity to write 1,000-word blog posts for $10 each. But shooing editors or content managers away at the door makes them feel terrible for no fault of their own. Freelancing is a business; how you make people feel matters. A potential client might not be a good fit today but can be tomorrow. So, say yes to calls with most clients who come knocking. If the terms don’t work, connect with the prospect on LinkedIn anyway. Down the line, you’ll likely be glad you did.

4. Never Accept Low Pay

There’s a reason Walmart offers $250 big-screen TVs on Black Friday. They figure they’re bound to make up the revenues with customers who are lured in by the “loss leader” TV. Similarly, occasionally giving ground on a firm rate might strengthen your business in the long run. For example, choosing to write for a lower-paying professional society might be your loss leader but improve your credibility so you can land better-paying assignments elsewhere. Accepting lower-paying assignments when I was building the foundation for my career added more contacts and gave me a firm footing.

5. Never Burn a Bridge

This advice usually holds true—until it doesn’t. Switching to a business mindset has helped me evaluate my client relationships, and I have a low tolerance for misfits. Over my long career in freelance writing, I have burned a bridge exactly once to terminate a toxic client relationship. And I have zero regrets. Yes, you should safeguard business relationships, but not at the risk of burnout or jeopardizing your mental health. Burning bridges should never become a regular habit, but when your well-being is at stake, do what a good writer friend of mine once did: She burned the bridge and even threw a grenade behind her for good measure.

So the next time someone, including me, easily doles out advice, take it with a grain (or ten) of salt. When it comes to piloting your freelance writing business, there’s much to be said for trusting your own business acumen and sheer gut instinct.

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