Originally published on August 13, 2013 @ 7:27 am
So, how did I get started in freelance writing?
Well, once upon a time, we don't need to talk about just how long ago this was, I was the little nerd with very few friends trying to survive high school. I was scrawny and lanky, the teacher's pet, and I knew how to diagram a sentence. Yes, your typical 80s nerd right here. The kind that has become the joke in almost every 80s movie you've ever seen.
Then one day, someone asked me if I would review their English homework. And I thought, why not. So I did. And then someone else asked me. And then a third person asked. Word got around and pretty soon, every time there was a major paper due at any major class, I was editing papers.
No, this is not a story about how all of a sudden everyone was my friend in high school because I was editing their papers. Nor did I ever write their papers for them to let them cheat. I was still very much a friendless nerd, but I was also something else that most of those kids didn't know: I was homeless in high school. So the money they were paying me to edit their papers was paying for my lunches at the school.
So, no, I didn't have any big dreams of being a freelance writer at school. I had a need, and editing those papers became a way to fulfill that need.
Now, jump ahead a bit, and after high school I went to work. Nothing special, a few restaurants and then I went to a trade school for broadcasting and worked at a few radio stations and eventually went to work for television news. And while I was working in the media, websites were still relatively new. Only the biggest stations in the biggest cities had their own websites that were updated regularly – no one else really knew what to use them for yet.
So we didn't have a website designer or anything. What we had was me. And when my news director at the local CBS stations said, “hey, does anyone know HTML to build us a website?” I said “I can learn it.”
And that's what I did.
I learned HTML and learned how to build websites at home. Then I started to build websites for the station and was commissioned to do more websites for our sister radio and television stations on top of the things I was already doing, the graphics and the camera operating and the fact-checking and updating the public file.
Then, in 2001, I was laid off during a round of budget cuts. And it hit me really hard because I had gone out of my way to try and make myself indispensable to this station. I did exactly what they taught all the children of the 70s: do it all, all the things, wear all the hats.
And what had that done for me? Nothing. Turns out, there was no job security in wearing extra hats. They could still just lay anyone off at any time for any reason. And if they could do that, any job I got could do that, right?
So, it was pretty clear that the only way I was going to have any sort of job security was if I worked for myself. Then came the debate on how I should do that. And then one day, a friend of mine messaged me over AOL and asked if I would edit her site on GeoCities — yea, remember GeoCities? Well, I had nothing better to do, so I went in and did some editing.
Then she referred me to more friends. And just as what happened back in high school, all of a sudden I was doing this thing. I was helping people build and edit their websites for them. Finally, it dawned on me that, hey, this could actually be a business.
And that's how it starts for a lot of freelance writers and editors. Maybe not in high school and maybe not over GeoCities, but a lot of us tend to back into this business almost by accident. We start taking clients before we even start our business.
Unfortunately, because we started by accident, we also tend to make a lot of mistakes along the way. Freelance writers tend to undercharge for their work, skip over important things that other business owners will do such as writing up a business plan or setting up a mission statement, and we forget to build our business.
Which might sound a little silly to you, but it's true, a lot of freelance writers out there get so busy finding and working for clients that they forget to actually build their writing business.
Three Things I Should Have Done when I first Get Started in Freelance Writing
These steps are really important because they help shape the vision of your business.
So, if I had to do it all over again, I would pause before I started taking on a lot of clients, and I would do these three things to help make sure I was setting up a solid freelance writing business right from the start.
First, I would write up my mission statement. A mission statement sets up my business for who I want to serve and what my purpose is for them. It's sort of a template for how I handle all my business decisions: does this serve my mission? My mission for my ghostwriting business is to help social marketing experts share their knowledge and influence by shaping their expertise with my words. My mission here is to provide down-to-earth advice to writers who want to get paid.
Second, I would write up my business plan. Like my mission statement, that business plan helps serve as a template for almost any business decision I might ever have to make. But it does more than that. A business plan helps define my goals, both short-term and long-term. It helps define my vision of the future, as well as detail a roadmap for how to get there.
And third, I would choose my niche much faster. I went years without choosing a niche, far longer than I should have because I was so scared of losing potential clients. I mean, I was willing to write anything and everything about anything and everything. I was ghostwriting fiction novels from every genre, self-help books, personal development books, parenting books, and more website content than I know what to do with. But the funny thing was, not having a niche actually ended up costing me clients and, worse, costing me money. I spent so much time doing research for the things I didn't know just to write things up that my pay was abysmal.
Mission statement, business plan, and a niche. If I knew then what I know now, those are the three things I would do the minute I decided to start taking on clients in a freelance capacity.
Well, maybe not the niche, I know it takes a long time to decide on a niche. But I wouldn't have spent so long actively choosing not to choose a niche.
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