Freelancing your way to success

The buzz of enthusiasm began early for the "Building the Freelance Business You Want" session at ScienceWriters 2008 in October in Palo Alto. Participants had good reason to be excited.


The buzz of enthusiasm began early for the "Building the Freelance Business You Want" session at ScienceWriters 2008 in October in Palo Alto. Participants had good reason to be excited.

With the panelist trio of Siri Carpenter, Christie Aschwandan and Rabiya Tuma sharing 26 years of freelance experience among them, NASW participants were schooled in goal development, time management and other attributes necessary not only to jump start a freelance writing career but also to turn it into a lucrative and satisfying business.

"The key to successful freelancing is to never forget why you are doing it," said Aschwandan, who lives on a farm in western Colorado — proof that you don't have to live in New York City to be a successful writer. "You're running a small business," she said. "You're building relationships and selling a product."

Make a Plan:

How much money do you need to make? Most freelancers lay out daily, monthly or yearly goals of projected income. To reach those goals Aschwandan recommends starting out with "bread and butter" clients. These clients are regular and provide a reliable cushion of income until you are established with enough confidence and clips to pitch to bigger markets. Second, writers need to make themselves visible with a website and by letting people know they are looking for work.

From there, time management and organization is key, not only to get started, but also to take control over the business and move forward. In Siri Carpenter's case, she utilizes Microsoft OneNote, a software system that allows her to track possible markets, hyperlink queries and organize notes and sources.

Finding the Niche:

Aschwandan loves freelancing because she doesn't have to specialize. Tuma, on the other hand, specializes in cancer. Carpenter is a trained psychologist but is more of a generalist. Whether you have specialized or general knowledge, it's important to develop an idea that interests you. "Building a successful business is about finding out what you want to do," Tuma said.

Getting Paid:

Still not meeting income goals? Try and work more efficiently, said Aschwandan. If you work more you can do more. Next, look for better paying markets or go after higher paying assignments. It's important not to get tied up with lousy or low-paying work, a common mistake of new writers. "You will never have time to go after big money assignments or publications that would be more satisfying," said Aschwandan.

It's also important to remember that contracts are negotiable. It never hurts to ask (nicely) for a better contract, and if in doubt, ask around or consult Words' Worth (on the NASW website). Aschwandan also warns about indemnity clauses (if you're not sure, look these up); kill fees (make sure its in the contract) and payment on publication (it might be awhile before you get paid).

The Procrastination Pit:

As Rabiya Tuma pointed out, working at home is a dream; its what we strive for. But for many freelancers, home can be a procrastination pit. She recommends leaving the house in the morning, going for a walk, and returning to work. Setting a 20-minute timer and writing or working through an idea for those 20 minutes also helps Tuma stay focused, as does renting or subletting an office space, preferably one with other science writers.

Get Connected:

Siri Carpenter believes the most ideal relationship with an editor is a collaborative one. Oftentimes freelancers hesitate to contact editors while working on a piece for fear of appearing unskilled. But Carpenter bounces ideas off editors because she believes in leveraging their skills. She also leverages friends and colleagues for advice or assistance with a pitch.

"Working alone can make you feel like you don't have a connection with others writers," said Carpenter. "Networking and attending conferences like NASW allows freelancers to meet new people, touch base with colleagues, test pitches and make decisions."

Laura Katers is a freelance writer and photographer living in Denver, Colo. She edits the newsletter for the University of Colorado School of Medicine, is an editor with Denver Insight and is a campaign photographer for Mark Udall (U.S. State Senate). She is also currently editing an anthology on sex and nature. Her work has appeared in Best Travel Writing, Orion, and The Denver Post.

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