5 Foolish Mistakes Freelance Writers Make

Everyone makes mistakes. But when it comes to freelance writing, a lot of people make the same mistakes! New writers regularly set themselves up for failure. Even experienced writers get too comfortable in a routine and forget some of the essentials. The thing is, most freelance writing mistakes are easy to avoid. Today let's look at some of the most common, and most foolish, mistakes freelance writers make and what you can do to avoid falling into these traps.

1. You rely too much on a single client. / You don't diversify.

Freelancing is generally much more secure than a full-time job in one specific way -- you have the opportunity to insulate yourself against job loss. Someone working with 5 primary clients has a more secure career than someone working for only one client. Why? Because if that first freelance writer loses a gig, they're not losing they're entire income.

It doesn't matter how good you are at what you do. Your one client might have their budget slashed. They might fold altogether. When you work with multiple clients, you have other income coming in while you find a new gig to replace a lost client, and you'll also have more recent references and portfolio pieces at your disposal (to help you get that new work).

2. You don't have a plan.

While I'm a big advocate of having a business plan and marketing plan for your freelance writing business, you don't have to go that far. Just don't go into freelancing completely clueless about what to expect. A lot of new writers do this, and the reality check can be harsh. They'll hit their first slow period without having set money aside. They'll anticipate earning twice what they actually make. They'll forget about all of the itty bitty expenses that really add up over the course of the year. You get the idea. If you'd like to have a basic plan laid out, but you're not interested in writing a comprehensive business and marketing plan, try these abbreviated templates to at least help you cover the basics (as much as I'd love to see every freelancer have a complete business plan, I'm a realist and know many won't): one page business plan template |  one page marketing plan template

3. You buy into the doomsday mindset.

If you're projecting your lack of success on third parties or things like the economy, you're making a huge mistake. No one stops you from being successful in freelance writing but you.

Take responsibility, and look at the overall picture. The reality is that recessions are great times for freelancers when it comes to growing your career. You're always a more cost-effective option in general, but in a lousy economy more companies (read: clients) actually take notice of that fact.

Are you blaming low-rate writers for under-bidding you? That's just as bad, and just as wrong. If you're being under-bid constantly and you're not landing gigs, you're targeting the wrong market.

The right market is not only one looking for a writer in your specialty area but one full of clients who can afford you. They're out there. If you're not landing them, you're just not looking hard enough (or not in the right places). Stop blaming others, and change your strategy instead.

4. You stop marketing your services when you have lots of work.

There is never a guarantee that work will last forever. This is one of those things I've seen content mill writers do specifically -- they assume nothing will change, and that they'll continue to have that income coming in. It's not necessarily true.

I've watched mills can writers who have been with them for 5+ years. I've been there when they completely overhaul payment models, while writers' promotional work was focused on something very different. I've seen mills and networks disappear. Just because a site seems great now, that doesn't mean it will last forever.

If it were to disappear tomorrow, would you have other clients coming in right away? Not if you haven't been marketing yourself. The same applies to freelance writers working with private clients. Not only should you keep things balanced by working with more than one client, but you have to keep marketing yourself.

That doesn't mean you have to place cold calls or apply for jobs that you really don't have time to take on (in fact, if you regularly have a booked schedule, applying for jobs is not a good idea, because you'll spread yourself too thin). You can market yourself more subtly though to maintain visibility. Blog. Update the copy on your professional site. Issue a free report or white paper. Stay active in social media outlets. Attend networking events.

Just make yourself visible to your prospective clients, and offers will keep coming in even when you're booked (and when you can take them on, you'll have new clients waiting).

5. You don't set your rates correctly early on.

Whether you want to hear it or not, there are right and wrong ways to set your freelance writing rates. Pulling a random number out of your ass, for example, is the "wrong" way to set freelance writing rates. While there's no single "right" method, there is a "right" way to set rates -- crunch the numbers.

Those numbers will vary among freelancers, but if you're not looking at hard numbers, you have no idea if your rates are realistic (until you learn the hard way).

Here's what I suggest: calculate the bare minimum hourly rate you need to charge. That means figuring out how many billable hours you'll have each week (not overall working hours). It means accounting for all of your personal and business expenses. It means figuring out how much time off you'll want during the year for holidays, personal days, vacation time, and sick days. It means factoring in the cost of benefits you want (retirement savings, health insurance premiums, etc.). It means including the minimum amount you want to have available for savings and investments.

When you know all of those numbers you can calculate your minimum hourly freelance writing rates. Once you have that figured out, you can look at the value you offer to clients. Does it make your work worth more than the minimum you need to charge? Then increase your rates from there.

Don't want to charge hourly? That's okay too! The hourly rate is ideal for calculations because it's time-based (as is your time worked). You can easily adapt that to a per-project rate, per-word rate, or any kind of rate that you want. Figure out the average amount of time you spend on a particular type of project (or certain word count) and you can convert that hourly rate in no time.

These are far from the only mistakes people make when it comes to freelance writing jobs. Can you think of any others? Did you make, and learn from, a freelance writing mistake in your own career? If you could give new freelance writers one word of advice -- one mistake to avoid -- what would it be?

Profile image for Jennifer Mattern

Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, consultant, and indie author. She runs numerous websites & blogs including All Freelance Writing, Freelance Writing Pros, NakedPR, and Kiss My Biz.

Jenn has 25 years' experience as a professional writer and editor and over 20 years' experience in marketing and PR (working heavily in digital PR, online marketing, social media, SEO, new media, and thought leadership publication). She also has 19 years' professional blogging and web publishing experience (including web development) and around 18 years of experience as an indie author / publisher.

Jenn also writes fiction under multiple pen names and is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association.

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6 thoughts on “5 Foolish Mistakes Freelance Writers Make”

  1. Here’s a variation of one – writers pin themselves in with so much work that they can’t market very well to others or never learn how to market. They luck into a gig, are thankful to have it and then never take the time to build up a brand or presence in the communities and markets they hope to work with.

    If you have 15 hours a week to write, for example, you can’t spend all 15 working or you’ll eventually hit a wall. It takes time to build up a sustainable workload and client list. In business, continuous growth is called negative entropy and it means the same thing. Either you’re moving forward and growing or you’re facing a fade out and failure.

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  2. The issue of being bogged down with too much work to market yourself is a very common one in low-paying markets. That’s why it’s so important to set your rates correctly from the start. If you don’t, moving up means targeting a completely different market in many cases, but you’ll be forced to spend so much time working for peanuts just to make ends meet that you won’t have any time left to pursue those better markets. People put themselves in a lose-lose kind of situation (lose the potential to better your career or lose the income you need right now). It really doesn’t have to be that way.

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  3. This advice is absolutely spot on. Particularly, the feast-or-famine nature of freelance marketing. It’s like the farmer with a leaky roof: when it’s raining it’s too wet to fix it and when it’s dry, it’s just as good as any other house. I find the discipline of the ‘daily pitch’ to be a useful antidote. If you do something everyday to market your business, busy or not, then you maintain a constant pressure.

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  4. I saw a content mill writer recently make the most ridiculous claim that because he could count on steady work from the content mill he basically didn’t have to waste time marketing. So it doesn’t surprise me when other writers find themselves struggling, when that’s the kind of bad business advice they’re exposed to. It’s sad. Anyone who’s truly successful as a writer knows that you can’t rely on one client, and there WILL be slow times (just because his haven’t come yet doesn’t mean they won’t — it just means he won’t be prepared when they do). The roof analogy is a good one. It’s easy to be complacent about it and keep putting it off. But you can’t. I think one of the issues is that people hear “marketing” and assume they have to do something pushy. Just keeping an active blog can bring in work requests. Social networking does the same. More freelancers just need to get comfortable with the language of it and learn how to set marketing goals with the things they’re doing anyway. Marketing yourself every day doesn’t have to be much different than what you’re doing now anyway.

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  5. This is great advice for writers. I’d like to add that most freelance writers do not know how to market themselves or are afraid to do so. They’re too shy or intimidated to ask their clients for referrals. If you’re clients are happy with your work, ask for a referral. It doesn’t hurt to try.

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  6. Very valid points, and unfortunately I’m failing at a couple of them. But one major step I’ve just taken was to change from advertising one of my businesses at the local chamber, which was never going to get any work from the members, to a different business, which has the possibility of getting business, and that includes my writing business as well. It will make it so much easier to set up the proper 30 second elevator speech for this crowd.

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