10 best practices of freelancers

For over a decade I marketed my services as a freelance writer. Today, I’m a lot more specialized but technically I’m still a freelancer (because I’m not an employee).

I’ve been at this game a while and I love it. And, unfortunately, I’ve seen many others come and go.

Here are 10 best practices of those who freelance or are thinking about it:

1. Work at home.

When I tell people I write for a living, many tell me how envious they are that I can go work at a local park or a local cafe whenever I want. They picture me sitting there, sipping my frappa-mocha-cappa-whatever while I think about the perfect word.

It doesn’t work that way. You get paid to produce, not to mull over the perfect word while you sip a barista-pulled dark roast. Work in a very focused home office (or, occasionally, at a client’s office). Save the park and the cafe for client meetings or breaks.

2. Freelancing is selling.

Your ability to write will not get you hired. The only thing that will get you hired is your ability to find people who need content and to present yourself as the very best option for them. Most freelancer I know who have failed or struggled or given up, have done so because they didn’t realize how much selling was required.

That happened to me the very first time I started my freelancing business. I simply wasn’t prepared to sell. So when my first freelance biz folded, I got a job in sales, learned to sell, and then restarted freelancing when I was ready… and the difference was profound.

3. You need to master your time.

No employer is looking over your shoulder. You’re the last line of defense for your own productivity. So when you set a deadline, work toward it. Put in time every day until you are done. Projects don’t write themselves and you’ll get even more productive work done when you do a bit every day instead of piling it all on just before it’s due. Set a timer and write for that period of time each day.

Full disclosure: This is a best practice that I have not yet fully achieved.

4. Figure out what gets you paid and do it over and over.

Newbie freelancers spend too much time researching, thinking, crafting, pondering. Stop doing that. You get paid to produce. You get paid to write. Of course you need to research and think and craft and ponder but the money is in the handing over an excellent piece of content. Therefore, you need to think very carefully about what you do that actually gets you paid and focus on that.

Systematize your research by building a research checklist and a library of categorized links to great content. Become good at thinking quickly about the project. Stop trying to craft something clever and instead work on something effective. Focus on what gets you paid and minimize, automate, or delegate the rest.

5. Protect your body.

You’re sitting all day, writing. That can be bad for your weight, your back, and your wrists. Invest in a good chair and an ergonomic keyboard. And maintain good health by eating right and working out and getting a good sleep. You don’t need to invest in a lot of stuff to get started as a freelancer but you’ll be far more productive when you invest in these things.

6. Build a marketing system.

Freelancers can too easily fall into a boom/bust business. When times are good, they focus on writing for their clients and they skip out on the marketing. This is fine while they have clients but once those clients’ projects wrap up, they need to be replenished with something else… and until they are, it can be a very dry period.

A strong marketing system (emphasis on SYSTEM) ensures that new clients are always coming in and replacing those that leave. Keep it simple and work on it every single day.

7. Raise your rates.

One of the things that saved my business early on and convinced me to make a living as a freelancer is a practice I adopted with my clients: To replace my lowest paying client with a highest paying client. So if I had 10 clients, I would wrap up my lowest paying client and try to find someone who paid even more than my highest paying client. This ensured that my income always trended up. Sure, it didn’t work that way all the time, but it’s still a practice I adopt to ensure my income is headed in the right direction.

8. Start early.

When you get a client project, do something big on the project within the first 12 hours. Just get started. Do some research, crank out an outline, maybe write the first chapter. Whatever. Just get some action on it in the first 12 hours and that will help you think about it when you’re not working on it, and you’ll complete the project sooner and at a higher quality.

9. Specialize fast.

If you start out as a freelancer, that’s fine. Nothing wrong with that. But my recommendation is to find a specialization as quickly as you can and zoom in on it. You’ll get paid more and the work is actually easier (because you’re not starting at zero with every project).

Sure, at the very beginning it doesn’t hurt do be a generalist — just to get your feet wet and find out what you’re interested in writing about. I would have never discovered my niche if I hadn’t done that. But as soon as I specialized, everything changed for my business.

10. Write, dammit.

I don’t believe in writer’s block. Never have. Maybe it exists for fiction writers, I’m not sure, but it doesn’t happen to me. Am I lucky? I don’t think so. I understand that freelancers get paid to produce. So I sit down and write. I start typing, even if I’m not 100% sold on what I’m putting down. That first paragraph might be rough but I can always go back to fix it later. The most important thing is getting started and building momentum. The rest gets fixed in the editing process. So just write, write, write, write, write, write, write.

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