with Mir Kamin
I'm a freelance writer and mother of two working from home, which theoretically means I can set my own schedule so as to best accommodate my family. In reality, "flexible hours" often equals "working too much." Yes, I'm my own boss; no, that doesn't mean life is easy. It's hard to leave the office when you live there. But I love what I do and feel very lucky. And not just because I get paid to work in my pajamas.
To learn more about Mir, check out her profile on Work It, Mom! or visit her blog at http://www.wouldashoulda.com/
For the most part, Nataly leaves me to my own devices, here, to write about whatever strikes my fancy. But recently she emailed me to let me know that she’d gotten some reader requests for my blog. This tickled me to no end, because 1) it means people are reading and 2) it means people really want to learn about how to make a living as a freelance writer. (This is different than folks who email me wanting to know “my secret,” wherein “my secret” is assumed to be some sort of magical pixie dust rather than, you know, hard work.)
I love reader questions! Please feel free to ask them, any time. Anyway, today we’re going to look at this snippet Nataly passed along:
I’d love to hear from Mir about some stupid mistakes novice freelance writers can make. Seriously, I’d rather hear from her than make then and suffer the consequences.
Ask and ye shall receive.
Listen; I’ve been at this for coming up on five years, and I could probably write a twenty-part series on the things I’ve done wrong (or seen others do wrong) along the way. But here are some of the biggies I suggest you try to avoid:
1) Assuming you’re nobody. I would argue that a modicum of confidence is a general life skill, in any situation, but as a solopreneur, it’s absolutely essential. Talking down your accomplishments and/or goals, or behaving as if you’re not as good as your more seasoned colleagues, sends a clear message: I don’t believe in myself, and you shouldn’t, either. I see too many budding writers who are floundering not because they’re not talented, but because they present themselves poorly. Talk the talk, walk the walk; you don’t have to be a success to act like one. Have a professional-looking business card and hand it out with confidence and a smile; have a clean, organized website detailing your experience and services offered; and tell people you’re a writer.
2) Assuming you’re somebody. I know, I know—I just said you need some confidence. And you do. But there is a fine line between confident and cocky, and a big difference between professionalism and swaggering. In my experience, most rookie writers tend not to be confident enough (and this is particularly true, I’m afraid, for women), but there’s also a small minority of beginners who are so impressed with themselves—in spite of a shallow resume—that they become laughingstocks. As writers we are selling ourselves as much as our writing; while an accomplished genius can get away with being a pompous jerk, most of us can not. And even those of us who really can be impressed with our accomplishments are better served by being humble, anyway.
3) Overworking for underpayment. I’ve talked about this before, and I’ll keep talking about it until I’m blue in the face or until everyone actually listens. As a rookie, yes, you’ll be paid less than a veteran. That does not mean working your tail off for pocket change. People will take advantage of you if you let them, and the industry as a whole will suffer. You deserve adequate pay for your work, unless you’re in a pro bono situation which you’ve determined is worth more than payment. (Such situations would include: A cause you feel strongly about, a gig wherein the exposure or resume-boost is worth more than payment, or a job with an up-and-coming company where no one is getting paid, but success means everyone will be making money later if it works out.) Just because you’re just starting out doesn’t mean no one has to pay you. No one scoops fries at McDonald’s for free just because they haven’t done it before. Expect to be paid less, sure, but still expect to be paid fairly.
4) Balance failure. There are all sorts of ways novices go from “just starting out” to “oh my God what have I done?” Yes, you need to prove yourself. No, you don’t do that by taking on more than you can handle. I have heard countless stories of blogging gigs, in particular, where the requirements are either ill-defined or the time commitment expands to encompass all sorts of things, and the poor beginning writer who took it on is trying to handle it all and not complain because “this is how I break in.” Don’t take on a job (or more jobs) you can’t handle. Your work still needs to be a good fit for your life. Whatever job is in front of you is not the only job in the world; if it takes too much time, it’s the wrong one. Turning down a job doesn’t make you less of a professional; knowing your limits is part of being a pro.
5) Forgetting about accounting. Rookies are often so delighted to finally be making some money, they completely neglect to sit down and figure out what needs to happen next. And what needs to happen next often involves speaking with an account who has experience with those who are self-employed, but even if you’re not ready to do that, I have one word for you: Taxes. Freelancers pay a lot of taxes, and as a rule of thumb you should be setting aside 30% of every paycheck for Uncle Sam. (Hey, you might end up paying less, but that beats having to pay more than you actually have.) Furthermore, freelance gigs are easy come, easy go—if you luck into an awesome gig and it’s the most money you’ve ever made, that’s fabulous! Now go put as much of that money in the bank as you possibly can, because next month you might not have any work. That’s the reality.
6) Writing like someone else. I don’t even mean copying someone else’s style, although obviously that wouldn’t be good, either. What makes a good writer good is her unique voice, and, often, her honesty. There’s a difference between using various literary devices (hyperbole, imagery, etc.) and trying to be someone or something you’re not. I don’t know; maybe that works in other fields. But I would argue that writers are by nature somewhat transparent in their work, and if you’re trying too hard (because you think it’s what people want, or more entertaining, or whatever), it shows. And not in a good way.
7) Not being a professional. Just because you can work from home in your pajamas doesn’t mean you should act like you’re on the couch eating potato chips. You need a businesslike message on your voicemail, you need to respond to emails promptly, you need to honor deadlines, and you need to generally conduct yourself like someone people can respect and trust. Sure, sometimes your kid is going to be sick and that may change things, but there is a huge difference between “I’m so sorry, could I possibly have an extra hour to get this turned in? I had to take my son to the hospital for an emergency appendectomy,” and “Oh, dude, I totally spaced on that because Junior’s got a cough. Whoops!” I hope it sounds ridiculous to you—that means you have common sense. Heh. Clients don’t mind if you’re human, but they do mind if you’re sloppy and/or have a lax work ethic.
I’d actually argue that number 7 there—like the first Commandment—is the ultimate directive, with all others following from that. A great writer can fail career-wise because of an inability to be professional, and the truth is that a mediocre writer can succeed in her career if she’s the pinnacle of professionalism. And unlike an office job, there’s never going to be anyone else to blame if you fail to come through in some way. As a freelancer you are your brand, you are your company. Be a professional.
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