Freelance Lessons Learned the Hard Way

I am so very not perfect. I would never claim to be the best writer around, the best mother around or the best teacher around. I do like to think I work hard at all of my various life choices, and I have some nice successes to show for that work. But even if you’re an amazingly awesome writer coming into this career or you’re looking at a dramatic change, as many writers suddenly are, there are going to be some knocks. I’m admittedly an imperfect writer, so feel free to take my advice with a large grain of salt – and maybe a lime - but as one who’s had her share of knocks (and more) the tone of Jenn’s articles of late has reminded me of my own humble beginnings and a bit of wisdom that has come my way.

There are all sorts of writing – and all sorts of good writing.

Once upon a time I felt like the world was ending if I got caught in a grammatical mistake. I worked hard to separate myself from writers at a level I considered less capable, although as a teacher I tried not to look down on abilities (since I see a range of talent every day in emerging minds), but rather on how niches of the marketplace are set up and the lack of business aplomb some would-be master writers lacked.

Over the years, it’s become more and more obvious that there are tiers of writing. I don’t have to be at the very tippity top and I don’t need to criticize those closer to the bottom. I’ve found a comfortable place for now.

Cheap writers are cheap for their own reasons and they have nothing to do with me or the market as a whole. Likewise the very expensive copywriters or print writers for major publications – not my thing, so I don’t think much about it anymore. Those writers have a set of clients of their own, and often my clients use their services, too – I can’t be everything to everybody after all. I refuse to have my feelings hurt because a client wants killer sales letters or super cheap keyword stuff that I choose not to write.

Is there competition out there? Of course. Just be sure you’re focusing on the right competition and leave the rest alone to write well in a different kind or level of the industry.

The writing market is not stable, nor will it be.

Once upon a time I earned a business degree and one of my favorite lessons I still watch in action was about the business cycle. Every industry has ongoing cycles and there must be constant change and growth to keep the industry and individual companies or providers employed. In the growth part of the industry, money seems to be readily available.

Then, once the market is saturated, there’s a sort of shake out and the stronger players emerge to stick around, but only by changing and adapting to the needs of the market. The weaker companies/writers/employees shake off and go and find new jobs or opportunities.

As a writer, I started online more than six years ago, and I still consider myself a relative newbie to the game. A lot has changed in six years, and part of riding the waves is watching the industry and adapting to it with new offerings, new clients and new marketing angles to stay above the fray. I would argue we’re in a form of shake-out now. The game changed and the stronger players will come out ahead, but only by streamlining and evolving. You might be a casualty of the streamlining in the industry, but it’s just the way the game is played – either drop out of the market or evolve to stake a new place within it.

Always earn more than you need – and save, too.

I made a huge mistake one year. I planned a budget based on future income and I paid for it dearly in the end. What should have been a great year staying home with my babies and writing became a nightmare of bills coming due and some serious cash flow problems. I should have stayed put in my steady job stockpiling cash before making a big leap. I should have eliminated expenses. I should have budgeted in a totally different way, because you’ll never earn enough, especially when you seem to need it the most.

Not surprisingly, about the time we climbed out of that hole and back on top of the personal finance hill, my husband’s business went under and we were right back in cash flow problems and financial stress. I make it a policy now to always market, pitch and gather work that exceeds what I need each month, because there’s always something that comes along to throw me off.

Bottom line: make a budget based on what you’ve earned on average, not on what you think you can earn. Oh, and make a regular savings plan although I’ll be honest – every time I start trying to really save, I get wiped out by some sort of household emergency or a client’s sudden disappearance. But then, hey! It’s all part of the freelance adventure!


Profile image for Rebecca Garland
Rebecca is a full-time everything. She teaches English and reading to her much loved, if challenging, high school students during the day and is a freelance education writer in the evenings. With almost ten years in the classroom and advanced degrees in business and information science, Rebecca specializes in materials that inform, educate and entertain. Rebecca indulges herself by pretending to have spare time and writing about the ups and downs of being a freelancing mama whenever she gets a chance.

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2 thoughts on “Freelance Lessons Learned the Hard Way”

  1. Your point about savings is music to my ears. Maybe it’s the “dad” in me! Most of us in the biz are still years from retirement, and there is no single more important element to your long-term well-being.

    I’m operating under the assumption that Social Security isn’t going to be worth much by the time I get there, and there isn’t going to be some sort of magic government solution as the Boomers age. Moreover, it scares me when I read the Freelance Forecast results and see that only 61% of the respondents contributed to any kind of a retirement plan–and that includes the possibility of “My spouse/significant other does all the saving.” I’m not sure what the 39% are planning to do when they get old, other than continuing the grind…

  2. I’m fortunate to have forced savings through the teacher retirement fund down here in Texas (It’s not some paid-for union perk down here in a right-to-work state, btw). I don’t have to rely on the freelance writing to do all my saving for me, but it is scary to think of how quickly retirement age will be here and the state of Social Security now, much less in the future – not that I’d qualify for it (even my husband’s!) despite paying in. Just another perk for teachers here in Texas.


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