I Made These Freelance Writer Mistakes, So You Don’t Have To.

Let me make this clear: I am by no means an expert.

I went full time freelance in November 2017, so essentially I am right at the beginning of my career. I had a bit of a step up as I was already a professional poet, so knew how much hard work it takes to get a career going in the writing world. Every writing career is a series of tiers (and tears) and getting on that ladder is the first step.  I’ve always enjoyed writing prose, blogging and essays and the like, so I decided to see if anyone would want to pay me to write prose. I have a wide range of interests: history, culture, poetry (obvs) but have also a great deal of personal experience with infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth and accepting childlessness and I wanted to share that to help others. I had left my full time, well paid job as a scientist in a hospital when my daughter died (due, in part to mistakes made at the hospital I worked in) and immediately set up an animal care business, which was a way to regroup and do something that needed compassion and kindness but not necessarily another degree or anything other than my own experience with animals (I am big on the small furries) but I’d always pictured myself at some point spending my days being creative and writing in one form or another. So I set about making that happen.

I got my first ‘break’ (not really but I’ll come to that later) when a friend who was also working in the animal care business as well as abstracting journal articles asked me if I wanted to have a go at abstracting. She recommended me to the company and I decided (while standing in the pouring rain one day, with a dog who refused to walk and regretting my choice of job) to have a go at it. The abstracting process involves reading a journal article in a trade magazine and then writing a 200 word abstract, summing it up, along with inputting some some codes so that people looking for journals on a particular topic can find it easily. the abstracting paid £4.50 per 200 words. At that point in time I was feeling like life was too short to be cleaning crap off cat litter trays and standing in the pouring rain, winter was coming and in desperation I took the job. 1. Initially I kept some pet care clients, but ceased walking dogs altogether. I really thought I could make a living from it, and to be fair, my friend does. But in order to do so I had to work at a fast rate and turn the work around quickly, which I did, from the comfort of my nice warm living room, taking regular coffee breaks to watch the poor cow who’d taken over my dog walking clients go past my house every day in every type of weather. But despite my ability to write well and write fast, I struggled to turn the work around quickly. Some articles were brilliant, clear, well written and straight to the point, which made condensing them into a 200 word abstract easy, but others were long, in subjects that I knew nothing about and had to research, and boring, I mean really dry, and slowly I began to dread the pile of journals on my desk and my breaks became longer and my frustration grew until I wasn’t doing enough of them and was desperately casting about for other work. So I started looking at copy mills. 2. First of all I started bidding for freelance work on the sort of sites where a billion people bid for the same jobs and you KNOW they’ll go with the cheapest, despite them not being able to string a sentence together. I tried this for weeks with no success and it began to grind me down, I felt useless! When I did get close to being picked for a job, they would ask me to reduce the price that i was quoting, telling me they’d just find cheaper writers, and I ended up offering my time, experience and services for less than a cup of coffee. It was soul destroying. And then, glory be, I was successful with a bid: a proper client came along wanting me to write a gardening blog. I know nothing about gardening so told him my angle would be from a beginner’s mindset – how to get started, how not to kill all your vegetables in one fell swoop etc and he seemed pleased. We had lengthy interview chats, I showed him examples of my work, we agreed a price and went off the site to organise it. 3. That was another mistake right there, as soon as I went outside of the site, I lost their protection. The guy seemed lovely and I thought we worked well together. I have always been willing and able to adapt to what people want me to write, my first blog piece was too personal, he wanted something more globally relevant, so I re worked it, twice and was really proud of the work I’d done. he said he was really pleased with it too. It was for a proper payment. He was happy with it. I invoiced him. It was £40. I thought that reasonable for a 600 word article with tips and links and all the brilliant bits and pieces you’d want. I’d spent quite a lot of time researching it and checking my sources. I didn’t hear from him. I was embarrassed and felt awkward when he didn’t respond to my emails, this was my first ever freelance writer job and I thought I’d somehow done something wrong. In the end I emailed him again and politely asked if he’d received my invoice. He replied that he hadn’t. Oh, phew! That’s where the mistake was- stupid internet!- I sent it again, to his professional address and his home address. I never heard from him again. I was so worried that he would give me a bad review on the site I’d found him on that I didn’t leave him a bad review. 4. The work never appeared on his site, but I’d done the work and he should have paid me. I felt really let down and as if I wasn’t tough enough for the business. That was another mistake.

So I continued getting stressed about the abstracting, scraping enough to get by. I joined copify, which you have to pass a test to get on and then the work is there for the taking, if you’re quick (top tip, get on early in the morning) which felt like a step up from abstracting, but was still writing on topics I had no interest in, and still paid on average £4.50 for 200 words. On more than one occasion I was asked to revise a piece three times, for stuff the client hadn’t put in their proposal, and there were no niceties about it. I felt I couldn’t complain because I was being paid such a low amount.  It was on one such occasion that I was revising something, which meant I had spent two hours working on it, rather than the half an hour I had planned for the job, that I realised I was working for  less than £3 an hour. What on earth was I doing?  I decided there and then that I needed to be more confident in myself. And I needed a plan rather than frantically swinging from one job to the next poorly paid job.

How did I go about it? The first thing I did was decide on how I wanted to live my life, rather than basing my decisions on how much money I wanted to make. I still had a visual image of myself in my mind. I was sitting at a desk with the windows open enjoying the breeze lifting the curtains, in my own office at home, coffee on the side and a planner on the wall which was full of interesting creative projects. I imagined myself enjoying my life, rather than stressing over it. And that was the key. I’d previously set 5. monetary targets, but now I was setting a lifestyle target and I needed to make enough money to be able to do that. I didn’t want anything fancy, just a stress free life (there is no such thing incidentally, but sometimes when I AM stressing about freelancing, I just think back to what it was like before and the stress drops away) I just wanted to be a writer, writing stuff I enjoyed writing, because when I enjoy what I’m writing I produce my best work.

The next thing I did was spend some time planning. I did some research online and in books on how to blog, how to build a freelance career how to market myself, all the basics. I looked at other freelancer stories online (which is why I’m boring you to death with mine, because I found real stories with actual monetary figures involved really helped) and nearly all of them talked about ‘niches’. I didn’t know what my niche was. Was it vegetarian food, because I’m vegetarian and love cooking? was it science because I’d been a scientist? Was it health? weightless? Reader, it was none of these. Your niche is what you enjoy writing about. That’s all there is to it. I like writing about poetry, obviously, but there really isn’t very many opportunities to do so. But I love history and nerdy archeological stuff, and I am passionate about the Yorkshire coast and where I live, I’m interested in mindfulness and mental health and I had direct experience of stillbirth, miscarriage, IVF, infertility and accepting childlessness. I already had a fairly popular blog which was mainly about being a poet, but all of these other topics, especially the loss of my daughter, were on that site too. So I decided not to limit myself to one niche. Amazingly, (thank you universe) it was at this time that I made a contact. Someone working at my poetry book publishers also worked on a well known magazine and asked me if I’d like to write a reader spot about all my animals. I happened to mention that I was looking for regular paid work, and they gave me a trial as their columnist. My first proper job, a regular job. I’d been poetry correspondent for another magazine, unpaid and done because I was passionate about the poetry scene, and that actually helped me because I had examples of my work to put on my CV. But I’d also had countless offers to publish my work, without payment because they could offer exposure. There is never enough exposure, and it is almost always an exploitative situation, so think carefully when you work for free. 6. It boosted my confidence enough to try pitching a magazine article idea about the whitby hand of glory, to a magazine I heard about in an online freelance group, and amazingly (thank you universe) it was accepted. It paid really well. And I was then able to use that example to pitch to other magazines which paid less well, but still paid. The current average is about £150 for 1500 words. So roughly £20 for 200 words. Now that, I can live with, and live on. It took one job, one chance to prove myself to bring my confidence back. And that little bit of knowing what I was worth meant I wasn’t quite so worried about chasing payments. Although the abstracting was filling in the holes left when the proper work isn’t forthcoming, I no longer do abstracting. In the end, I realised that the time I spent stressing over something that paid so low was time I could invest in pitching ideas and drumming up editing and mentoring work. I no longer walk dogs in the pouring rain. I no longer scrape around for £4.50. I do not live like a queen, but I sit in my office watching my own rabbits on the grass from the window of my office, coffee on the side and a planner filled with interesting creative projects on the wall. My portfolio is growing, I have started pitching to some of the bigger magazines and newspapers and that’s my target now, to write a really good think piece for somewhere like the Guardian. And I genuinely believe I will get there. So thanks for staying to the end, if you did, I hope it’s given you some ideas and helped stopped you falling into the well of despair that is under paid copy mill work. Here is my waffle, simplified for your pleasure.

  • Don’t make decisions out of desperation

Don’t take low paid, soul destroying work in order to get into the writing world, it will end in tears, copious amounts of tears and nothing to pay your mortgage with. Let the people that want to work for a pittance work for a pittance. Or keep something like Copy mill on the back burner for those times (many times) when you are waiting for the next job to drop and you need to do something. Copyfy is actually great for that.

  • Do consider how you can build your profile 

Having examples of your work to show potential clients is quite important. A blog is a good way to start. There are loads of free blog building sites out there, I use wordpress and get along fine with it. Get a blog going and make sure you put your contact details on it. You can even do a little guest blogging, or unpaid work (which is plentiful) so that you have examples to show clients, but DON’T fall into the ‘writing for exposure’ trap. Set boundaries.  If you want to do some free work, be choosy, put your foot down and make sure you are in charge of telling them when you can work. You have bills to pay. Working for exposure is often a way for companies to get really good writing for free, while they make a nice profit off of it and don’t sit at home worrying whether their electricity is going to get shut off.

  • Don’t use copy mills

They will eat your soul. You will watch people who, even in their pitch, show no signs of understanding how to write. They will get the jobs. Walk away. If people want badly written content on their websites or in their magazines, that’s their choice, you’re better than that.

  • Do know your worth. I can’t say it enough KNOW YOUR WORTH

Stick to your guns. Find out what the industry average is for the type of work you want to do and don’t go below it. Don’t write for exposure. You can’t buy wine with exposure, and that is sad thing.

  • Don’t be afraid to chase non payers up

I was and I lost fifty quid because of it. You don’t have to be horrible or aggressive, in fact don’t be as you’ll lose clients. I usually send a cheerful ‘just checking you got my invoice’ message, and asking when they think they might be able to pay me. Make sure your invoice has a date for payment on it (I usually say four weeks) and keep chasing up. You are legally entitled to interest if they don’t pay on time, and whilst I give quite a lot of leeway to small companies, big companies do not have an excuse. I once had bad dealings with a university who I was chasing for six months to get my payment. In the end I wrote them an email telling them I was self employed, that this was my income I was relying on to pay bills and buy food and I also said I’d be charging interest, and Lo! I was paid the next day. Wonder what did it, the guilt trip or the threat of charging more money?

  • Do make sure you have put parameters around yourself to protect yourself

Clarity is key, so make sure everything is agreed up front. Make sure your invoice is clear, dated, all your details and their details on it, with an invoice number and crucially, when you expect to be paid. If you are working through a copy mill site, stay on the site, get paid through the site, because the site will protect you.

  • Don’t write about stuff you don’t enjoy

That way madness lies. There has to be an element of enjoyment in what you’re doing, otherwise you’re going to be looking at the quickest way you can complete it and it will show in your work. If writing about bath faucets is something you enjoy then go for it, if you want to write think pieces and opinion pieces, then fair enough. There’s nothing that says you have to write about stuff you find boring, you get to choose. There are magazines, trade and entertainment magazines out there for literally everything. It’s just about finding them.

  • Do take some time to think about what you enjoy, set your website up, and promote yourself

I’ve found social media, especially twitter, great for advertising and job hunting. The internet is your friend, use it well. I loved reading about people’s mistakes because it meant I felt less stupid, though still made plenty of mistakes anyway. I love the top tips and the ‘best magazines for’ guides. It’s all out there. And take the time to plan how you’ll go about it all, plan your week and make research and website building part of that week.

Good luck!


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