More than writing: Freelancing as a business

You have a product. You have clients. Your goal is to rake in the highest revenue for the lowest cost in the most time-efficient way you can. So how to succeed?


You have a product. You have clients. Your goal is to rake in the highest revenue for the lowest cost in the most time-efficient way you can. So how to succeed?

An audience of new and seasoned freelance writers at the 2009 NASW ScienceWriters session "You Are Not Just Writing — You are in a Business Venture: Entrepreneurial Skills for Science Writers," turned to Alan Brown, Maryn McKenna and Emily Gertz, who collectively have more than 25 years of freelance experience, for ways to organize and maintain a writing business. Some tips were obvious, others clever, but all imperative for operating effectively and still finding time to write.

Plan. Before choosing where and what to write, the first thing they suggest a freelancer do is map out financial and professional goals over both the long and short term. First, estimate realistically what next year's income should be. Along with office expenses, living costs and taxes, don't forget to budget for vacation and leisure activities.

Ask yourself where you stand now, where you want to be, and what steps you need to take to get there. Finally, decide how you will divide your time between working on current projects, pitching new projects, and other business related tasks like buying supplies or running errands.

Brown notes that it is important to be honest with yourself about how much time you can devote to certain activities, as he demonstrated by revealing his time budget pie-chart that included answering emails, sitting around thinking and playing spider solitaire.

Get clients. When it comes to the best way to get new work, all three panelists agree: diversify, diversify, diversify. This can be applied in both the type of work you do — Brown has done journalism, public relations and market research — and where you do it. McKenna suggests a mix of "prestige names," easy income and steady work. It helps to have one or two reliable clients that generate up to 75 percent of your monthly income, and then add at least one new client per month.

But diversifying doesn't mean losing your identity. It is equally important to claim your niche and build and maintain a network of other writers and editors. Market your name/brand/reputation through a personal website, blog, others' blogs, or social media. Gertz, whose work primarily involves web production and blogging, sums it up by telling freelancers to "wear many hats."

Manage your money. Despite being paid per word, not per hour, the panelists encourage freelancers to assess their income in terms of time spent doing the work. Taking less money for steady work is okay, says Brown. Fifty cents per word for a 500-word news story is $250 for one day of work, whereas $1 per word for the lucrative 8000-word feature breaks down to less than $100 a day, assuming three months from pitch to publish, and less if it takes longer. Freelancers are also required to do a lot of work for free, including maintaining a website, tweeting, blogging and replying to readers. Keep track of your total per-hour earnings to determine whether your projects are in line with your financial goals.

When it comes to business costs, invest your earnings wisely, says McKenna, a former newspaper staff writer and avid social media user. Splurge on the technology, because you can't afford the time or money to be your own IT department if things are constantly problematic. But save on software, because there are enough free, downloadable programs available to help you to organize, design and connect.

Brown offers this advice: "Run yourself like a business, but don't treat yourself like one. You're human. You get anxiety; you get depressed. If you're in a bad relationship, move on and find a good one. Work with people you like, and who like you."

A final rule of thumb to keeping your freelance ventures afloat: follow your passion.

McKenna: slides | links

Lauren Rugani is a 2009 NASW Freelance Travel Fellow based in Boston, Mass. Her work can be found in Technology Review, Photonics Spectra, and her blog, In Futuro.

October 22, 2009

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