4 Things Every Freelance Writer Should Know Before Launching Their Career

Photo Credit: Kool Cats Photography, Flickr Creative Commons
Photo Credit: Kool Cats Photography, Flickr Creative Commons

I’ve recently completed my fourth year as a freelance writer, teacher, and consultant.

That’s 1,460 days of surviving artistic doubt and the feast-or-famine nature of contract work. So, what’s the key to freelance writing success? The answer might surprise you.

In mid-April of 2011, I left my full-time Duke University development job in favor of a writing and teaching life. I began to pitch, propose, and draft Saffron Cross (published in October 2013), instruct college students, and assist nonprofits in grant writing and fundraising.

I’m fortunate to have had (mostly) steady freelance work during the past four years, though I still know what means to have your partner “sponsor”  your creative work.  I’ve often felt the guilt of being an educated woman, but an unequal bread winner.

But I also know the thrill of midday hours spent writing book chapters outside, lunch breaks at the art museum, and coffee refuels with my best friend (a stay-at-home mom). I’ve appreciated the spontaneity freelancing affords, but remember the isolation of long winter days trudging through revisions and lesson plans, with no human contact.

I got my writing start in 2008, when I worked as a staff specialist for the Office of the Chaplain at Duke and first published in our Divinity magazine. It took patient mentors to usher me through the process, carefully pointing me in the right direction of what to pitch and to whom.

Those fellow writers and editors taught me the habit of putting things in the pipeline, following up on leads, staying organized, and meeting deadlines. Then, my husband, a former monk and my self-proclaimed “life coach,” helped me harness the discipline of doing a little bit each day. It’s what most accomplished writers call the “butt-in-chair” syndrome (that is, no work will ever be accomplished unless you sit down to do it).

By 2013, with a book published, I relished the creative time a flexible schedule had brought me. I traveled mid-week for book events. I rushed through airports with business men and women, jet-setting to conferences and speaking gigs, feeling like I’d really made something of myself.

But I had dark days, too.

Between my 2011 freelance start and today, there have been days when I searched the “Writing Tools” folder of my email, desperate for a nugget of encouragement.  There were days when I cried and whined, taking the gift of time I had been given for granted, bemoaning the fact that my life-long dream was to be a writer instead of something more practical, like an x-ray technician.

I’ve survived the rejection-depression most writers face, but only because I’ve been loved and shown patience. With help from my loved ones, I’ve risen above the failures, mistakes, missed opportunities, disappointment, and hurt the publishing industry gushes out by the barrel. I’ve learned to use all of this to keep me going. 

“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.”

–Richard Bach, author of Jonathan Livingston Seagull

It’s in those times of steady door-slamming that I realized I needed to get over myself, step out of my bubble, and rethink what’s next. When I detached from what I believed to be personal rejection, and forced myself to continue working anyway,  the windows flew open.

Readers flood my inbox or social media stream to say they enjoyed sharing my most recent piece. A blogger reaches out for a guest post. A poignant conversation begins in the comments section of an article. It’s in those moments when we learn that our creative work is not about ego–but, community.

Every freelancer’s goal should be to create something that they hope will enrich someone else’s life. We all stand in a long line of having been inspired by others, and freelance writing offers us the opportunity to pass that inspiration along with our own words.

But all this takes time and grit. In a “physician heal thyself” moment, I realized that this was advice I’d been giving my college students all along: learn from your critics, harness your grit, and lean into the practice years, which allow you to perfect your craft.

Being a professional writer is tough, but I wouldn’t take anything for the four years of freedom and space I have had to discover my voice, growth edges, and what really matters most.

Interested in a freelance writing career? Here are the keys to making it work:

  1. Save, save, save your pennies. Make certain you’ve got a cushion in order for you and your family to endure the lean times (health insurance and student loans are due each month, no matter what!). Scrimp and save, and do it some more. Adapt to a minimalist lifestyle.
  2. Find a fulfilling, but not too overwhelming “bread job.” I teach college and write grants for nonprofits. These two jobs provide a steady stream of income (even if meager) so that I can work on creative writing projects. The truth: one does not earn a living by writing books unless your royalty check reads “payable to”: James Patterson, Danielle Steel, Stephen King, Janet Evanovich, Stephanie Meyer, Dean Koontz, or [insert your favorite mega-selling author here]. You may arrive one day, but until then, develop  practical skills that help others while helping you eat.
  3. Embrace rejection. If you’re not being rejected, you’re not putting yourself out there enough. Learn from the naysayers, critics, and those who just plain don’t like your style. Make any adjustments you’re comfortable with, and get back to work.
  4. Never give up. You’ve heard Jimmy V say it. You’ve heard Eric Thomas yell it. You’ve heard Oprah smooth-talk it from her Super Soul Sunday perch. Never. Give. Up. Ever.

Share your story!

Are you a freelancer? Share your tips in the comments section. Eager to try freelancing? What’s holding you back?






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