Be Your Own Freelance Hero

Watts-galahadOf all the challenges freelancers face, there’s two issues we lot complain about the most: difficult clients and cash flow problems. But there’s a much more subtle and insidious challenge: the fact that freelance or contract work by its very nature means that writers, and other content creators, are easily replaceable.

Even when things are going swimmingly (steady work, happy clients, etc.), there’s a feeling of impermanence that permeates freelancing. Clients are less likely to expend considerable resources into a freelancer the way they would into an employee, and it often seems as if they solely promote writers when it helps their own brand. For example, when’s the last time a magazine or website you wrote for tweeted out something you wrote that wasn’t on their site? Some of my favorite–and steadiest–clients don’t even follow me back on Twitter.

This is as it should be. Companies aren’t in the market to promote contractors, and are usually too busy to even notice or think about it. Instead of throwing up your hands, take charge of your own career following these steps.

1. Set up Google Authorship

Also, make sure to add a link to any work you write online in the “Contributor” section. This can have a positive impact on your Google+ profile, even if the client doesn’t link back to you. And the best thing is that the work you’ve done–and influence you’ve generated–follows you long past when your tenure with an individual client might end. You can simply toggle between ‘past contributor’ and ‘current contributor,’ and don’t have to remove that great site you wrote for a long time ago.

2. Build your own network.

The reason many freelancers rave about industry conferences? Because when you don’t exactly have coworkers, finding allies that you can relate to is invaluable. In addition to networking with writers so you can support one another and provide industry insight, it’s a good idea to network with non-writer folk who have insights on trends that can inform your writing.

Make sure to leverage people you meet through your client work as well. Your client might not spread the word about your Kickstarter project, but that guy who retweets all of your posts for said client might. Or maybe he’ll have a project you’ll want to spread the word about–it’s best to be as genuine as possible in this process. Make sure to build your own relationships with people who love the work you do for high-profile sites, and with your colleagues on these projects as well. As sites move away from allowing for comments or having central places for people to communicate, connecting with fellow writers as well as your audience becomes even more important. I use secret Twitter lists to keep an eye on what my connections are doing, and try to be as helpful as possible. Creating a network of sources is also a good idea, so that you’ll simply have to thumb through your Rolodex when you need an expert in 12 hours or less for a new site with no traffic. Just remember that networking isn’t about finding people to help you with your marketing, but about building reciprocal relationships where you help each other.

3. Limit or eliminate work where you’re not growing.

Most freelancers have ‘easy’ work that’s not at all fulfilling. It’s always hard to pass up work that’s comfortable and familiar, but at some point, it’s time to cut the cord. If you find a large chunk of your day filled with busywork that doesn’t help you improve your writing, editing or reporting skills, find a way to change that. Nobody can get you out of a slump but you. I used to get annoyed when editors requested too many revisions, cutting into my pay per hour. I still get frustrated when editors remove big chunks of text that kill the flow of a piece and require annotated corrections, or when extensive rewrite harms my relationship with a source. But the good editors who request revisions that help me improve my writing are gold. You can’t pay for that kind of training. If you think a client is being too hard on you, try to embrace it instead and see what knowledge you can tease out of the circumstance. I always compare edits to work I turned in and try to see if there are any patterns so I’ll know what to work on. The alternative–churning out mediocre content–isn’t what I’m looking for. Red flags for me include writing that is never edited at all, clients discouraging questions or brainstorming, and automated systems that make me feel like a cog in the machine.

4. Do other things to raise your profile.

If you want to build your profile, put matters into your own hand.Do a speaking gig, teach a class or a workshop, start a podcast, or work on a passion project that other people will also be interested in. Make sure to keep your site and promotional materials up-to-date as well. This also means you may sometimes write a guest blog post for free or less pay than you typically get. When I’m focused on ghostwriting, I’ll accept lower paying gigs I would otherwise turn down to keep my byline on people’s radar.

5. Be your own continuing education department.

Your clients aren’t going to send you to conferences/workshops/events, and you don’t get an annual review, so you’ll have to set your own goals and work hard towards meeting them. This isn’t about passively attending the same events you’ve always been to, but about stepping out of your comfort zone and picking up new skills as well.

5. Find a mentor (informal or otherwise).

When I informally mentor new writers, I admit that I feel far more invested in their career than I do for some of the writers I edit. There’s no deadline pressure for me, I’m not as easily annoyed by the fact that they are still learning, and it’s just a different type of relationship. Conversely, the mentee typically wants to work harder for me than a writer who’s just worried about pay-per-hour would.

6. Find a coach or support group.

My Lean In group has my back when I’m freaking out about a client hating me, but they give me good tough love, too. There’s something about having multiple people around to use as a sounding board that will help propel you forward.

7. Find an outlet for work, so you’re not at the mercy of your editors.

I desperately wanted to write about  net neutrality, but it wasn’t a good fit for any of my clients–or was something they’d already done. And the last thing I wanted to do was work on the same types of articles I normally for fun. That’s when I decided to start my podcast, so that I’d have a forum for these type of issues and slowly teach myself podcasting skills without a whole lot of pressure (since my audience is quite small).

The benefits of freelance writing can’t be overstated. You’ve got a flexible schedule, unlimited income potential, the ability to reinvent yourself time and time again, and hello, someone actually pays you to tell stories about subjects you’re passionate about, or at least find interesting. You just have to be a bit more proactive about gleaning the benefits from the work that you do. Nobody else is going to do it for us, so let’s get to it!

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  1. Yael, this is good advice. I really need to work on #5, and #7 these days. It’s a tough life we’ve chosen, but I really wouldn’t love anything else as much, despite it all.

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