Freelance Writing as Career: What to Know

Small Business - September 4, 2017
Mother & daughter looking at tablet while taking a break from painting a room

In Part 1 of this series, I wrote about the attitude and mindset you need to be a successful freelance writer. Now I want to talk about the business side of things — how to keep your accounts in the black and your business efficient, reputable and professional. In the eyes of the IRS, you are running your own business, and you’ll need to make some tough decisions in order to succeed and keep growing. Here are some things to know:

Getting paid is the hardest part of any freelance job.

As a freelance writer, you run your own business. Invoicing and dealing with administrative matters is part of your job. You may find yourself sending reminder emails about your invoices into the deep space void where some editors live. People don’t expect to eat a lavish meal and not pay for it for six months to a year, but they somehow expect to profit from your article and not pay you for a year.

Try to have a contract that specifies the amount of time in which the client must pay you, as well as the percentage of interest accrual for late payment (see Shake’s freelance contracts, which include late fee options). A personal connection can help — I once went through a friend who had been writing for the magazine for a long time to nudge the editor to pay me eight months after the pieces were published. But having a contract is your absolute best bet for getting paid before you starve.

It’s the sad state of freelance writing today, and most likely you’ll never fulfill your dream of writing poolside on Bora Bora. Websites like Scratch can give you an idea of which publications are worth your time, and which are playing dirty with writers. But while you’re building your career, supplement your writing business with other work, and don’t give up if it’s what you really want to do.

Examine the publication.

Where is this publication getting its money? If there are no advertisements, you may want to reconsider writing for them because they might not be able to pay you. Similarly, if a startup offers you big money to blog for it, but it’s fresh off the starting block and could fold at any time, you may want to write one article and see if you get paid before committing to a dozen.

The less glamorous writing often pays better.

Consider educational, technical, financial, digital and medical writing (along with copywriting), rather than, or in addition to, fashion, the arts or food. I never thought I’d enjoy financial writing, but it pays well, and it was much more interesting than I expected. I got to research the staffing industry and interview CEOs and equity analysts for The Wall Street Transcript. Try pitching less glamorous women’s magazines, or parents’ magazines, rather than Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar.

Make sure you get a contract.

This is 100 percent your responsibility to push for. Kill fees (the amount you receive if your article is not published) vary across the board — find out what the publication’s kill fee is before you put in all the work. Ask to have it put in the contract, or make your own on Shake and insert the industry standard of 50 percent. Make it more casual than legalese-heavy — editors are often afraid of contracts. And show it to a more experienced freelancer or business owner friend for advice.

You’re not getting the same rate as other writers for the same publication.

You get what you negotiate for. Learn the skills of negotiation. Aim high when you negotiate for a rate. If you’re able to walk away and find other options, obviously you have a lot more negotiating power. You may want to mention during negotiations that you have special skills that the average writer doesn’t, such as the ability to interview in another language or extensive editing experience (which means less work for the editor). Katie Lane of Work Made for Hire has great pieces on negotiating.

Calculate your wages not by the article, but by the hour, and take taxes into account.

Estimate the number of hours you’ll spend on any given article, considering interviews, research, revision and event attendance. Then figure out how much will be taxed (I put 50 percent of my earnings straight into savings because that’s approximately how much I pay every year in taxes for owning my own writing business).

Is it worth it to take this piece? Once you get more experienced, you’ll start rejecting lowball offers when you realize you’re working for $3.25 an hour. If you do feel you’re being lowballed, but you’re starting out and you still want to write the article for the experience, ask for your expenses to be taken care of. Travel, materials, food and entry fees to events are just some of the expenses that your publication may cover.

Some editors will ask you to do many revisions.

This can be very time-consuming, and lowers your effective hourly rate. Often contracts will not be specific about how many revisions are allowed. You may want to put in a clause about how many revisions are allowed or how much time can be spent, but it may be difficult to get the editor to sign off on that as some articles are unpredictable in how much revision they need. What you may be able to get into the contract, however, is when those revisions need to be done, because your writing calendar may not have time for them in the, say, 72 hours after you submit the piece. Be specific.

Know when to cut ties with a bad editor.

A certain amount of revision is your job. But making the final product great with communicative photos, excellent infographics, accurate captions, attention-worthy headlines, uncluttered layout and proper grammar? That’s the editor’s job. Steering the helm and knowing what direction you should be going in? That’s the editor’s job.

I once wrote a very specific long feature with multiple interviews for a magazine, with constant communication on the direction of the piece, only to discover a month after I submitted it that the editor thought the piece should have gone the opposite direction. I chose to no longer write for that editor, because to me, it’s unprofessional for a captain to not know how to steer his ship (and waste his crew’s energy and resources going in the wrong direction). It was a waste of my time, and many of the people I interviewed for the article were disappointed never to have it come out. I have to consider my reputation as a writer, and treat my sources and their time valuably.

Should you incorporate (for example, by forming an LLC)?

You want to get the maximum amount of deductions for your business. Every good freelancer knows about deductions for everything from home office space to writing supplies. Fellow freelancers may have advice on hidden tax benefits.

*** Writing can be profitable, both as a full-time career and as a side career. But whether your business is profitable depends upon your decisions. Consider the same gut instinct that leads you to great story ideas. In order to guide your career over the years, you’ll need to make smart money decisions at every step.

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