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10 Mistakes I’ve Made In My Freelance Writing Career

Writing mistakesNone of us were born knowing how to write or how to run a writing business. Before the internet we relied on books and magazines to tell us about the freelance writing business.

Today there is almost too much information out there. Those of us who write successful and helpful freelance writing sites look good on screen, and we are.

But we make mistakes. A few days ago, successful writer Cathy Miller wrote a great article called What Does Your Freelance Writing Business Want To Be.

There were many good comments, but John Soares of Productive Writers said, “Not everyone is brave enough to say what they did wrong and what they subsequently did to reach success.”

He’s right. You see us on the web in a polished presentation. What you don’t see is the jagged path we all took to get here or the mistakes we made. Here are eight mistakes I remember making. I know there were more, in fact I started this article with only three… which tells you something I’m sure.

  1. Not returning phone calls in a timely manner. It’s been a long time since I’ve done this one, but early on I was afraid a client who called might be unhappy with me so I’d ignore them. That resulted in who knows how much lost business.
  2. Losing a potential writing client in email. This happens today – not often, but enough so it’s a concern. Although I work to reduce spam and to unsubscribe from unread ezines, I still get a ton of email and people can get lost. When I find them, and I usually do all I can do is apologize. Usually it’s okay, but I wish I had a better system.
  3. Not following up on a potential writing contact. I rarely do this today, but in the beginning I’d either lose the contact or be afraid to contact them for fear of rejection.
  4. Not following up on a writing referral. This doesn’t happen today, but when I started I was so afraid of rejection I’d often let a referral drop. This meant I risked offending the person who had made the referral as well as lost potential business.
  5. Not realizing I actually had a business. I didn’t take myself and my writing seriously in the beginning. The result was what you’d expect – sporadic success followed by long dry periods.
  6. Thinking I wasn’t good enough or my writing wasn’t good enough to submit. Again, when I first started trying to write professionally, I often hesitated, unable to see that my writing was truly ‘good enough.’ My first magazine editing job showed me just how mistaken I’d been.
  7. Taking rejection of a writing piece personally. Okay, in truth this happens today, but briefly. In fact a client emailed me this morning to tell me he’s unhappy with a draft I’d given him. Yes, I felt that sinking in my belly and I started an email that I quickly put away. He and I have been struggling with what might be called the tone for awhile now and I’m not sure we’ll get it together. But it’s the writing he doesn’t like, not me, which he makes clear. I will soon send a responsive rather than reactionary email.
  8. Taking on a project I know I shouldn’t. Sometimes I’ve taken on projects I know deep down I shouldn’t. (No, not number 7.) I think I’ve always done this out of some version of stinkin’ thinkin’ around money. You know, I’ve felt broke so grabbed at something that wasn’t right or thought something might have a huge payoff. More and more I listen to that still small voice.
  9. Setting my writing prices way too low. Ah that was so true in the beginning. I could hardly believe people would pay me to do what I love to do and I also thought that because it’s easy for me, it was easy for others. I was undervaluing both my skill and myself.  This is obviously a self-worth issue.

  10. Not tracking my business expenses. Part of this error was simply not knowing how to run a business, which fortunately is a learnable skill. In my case, however, it also had to do with my self worth and my fear of money. Both of those are solvable too, but it wasn’t pretty.

It’s really true that writing and running a writing business does get easier with practice.

What mistakes have you made? 


Image: Attribution Some rights reserved by Pink Sherbet Photography

{ 28 comments… add one }
  • Kay Mason

    I try to see if I can research it easily before I choose it so I won’t struggle. Why are we all so uncertain, I wonder? Lisa, sometimes, not often, clients are just strange.

    • Yes, self-doubt is a huge problem, and yes,some clients are strange.

  • –Not returning phone calls in a timely manner.
    Aauugh! They do this at my day job and I KNOW we lose business because of it.

    –Losing a potential writing client in email.
    I’ve found that if I take a few minutes each day to sort my emails, I lose stuff much less often. I have folders for Accounts, Registrations, etc. and each day when I check it, I sort it. Works for paper too.

    –Not following up on a potential writing contact.
    Haven’t done this, but I’m not where you are yet.

    –Not following up on a writing referral.
    Again, not at that point yet. Thank you for sharing this though, so I don’t do it myself.

    –Thinking I wasn’t good enough or my writing wasn’t good enough to submit.
    I know mine is good, but it’s still scary. There is so much competition out there!

    — Taking rejection of a writing piece personally.
    Hate getting my book rejected. But I keep trying. After a while, if I’ve targeted all the right people and still don’t have anything, I’ll put that one away.

    –Taking on a project I know I shouldn’t.
    I tend to shy away from technical stuff in my content job because I don’t know enough (or anything) about the subject. I try to see if I can research it easily before I choose it so I won’t struggle. The pieces are short too, and I don’t like to spend more than an hour researching and writing or I wont’ make enough off them. Luckily I have the option of putting one back if I change my mind.

    –Setting my writing prices way too low.
    This may be because someone doesn’t know what to charge. I’m scared of doing this too, when I begin to take on more projects.

    –Not tracking my business expenses.
    GAH! I need to learn this. Especially the tax stuff. I made a savings account just for those, but I can’t get anything in it!
    Elizabeth West recently posted..How to Be FamousMy Profile

    • Really good suggestions, Elizabeth! Thanks. And good self-knowledge too!

  • “Setting my writing prices way too low. Ah that was so true in the beginning…” Well, when native writers are writing for $5 a piece, can you really afford to charge 20 bucks instead? I don’t think so, unless you are already a renowned writer, or you may just have to invest A BIT in marketing, promotion and brand building before you even start. Just my personal opinion!
    Ron’s SEO Copywriting Blog recently posted..A Big NO to Using Article Marketing As a SEO StrategyMy Profile

    • Anne

      Ron, you might try asking for $20 or $25 and be pleasantly surprised… not always, but maybe more often than you think.

  • I think a lot of new freelancers make the mistake of setting their prices too low when they first start out in the hope that it will attract initial customers. It can work but it can also backfire when work starts to pile up.
    steve recently posted..Durham Plumber updated Mon Jul 18 2011 4:00 am CDTMy Profile

    • Hmmm… might work as a temp initial marketing solution

  • Great post! Yes, I too have made all the above mistakes, most stemming from low self esteem as well as the other issues writers seem to have about taking themselves seriously and moving their gifts from a hobby to a business.

    One of my recent learning experiences is that I need to be organized enough to juggle a couple large clients at once and not rely on one client to provide most of my income…tough lesson. To keep marketing my services while I’m busy.

  • red

    As the foreigner, I often lazy to edit English content that is different with my language.
    red recently posted..How to research KeywordMy Profile

  • Wow, I’ve made all these mistakes over the past few years! I still struggle with #8, taking on projects I know I shouldn’t, for the same reason–I have to keep the money coming in and tend to fear nothing else will come along. The truth is that something else usually *does* come along; and when it doesn’t, I enjoy the down times to work on longer-term projects (like the novel rewrite I’m trying to squeeze in right now….)

    Thanks for such a great post!
    Cheryl Reifsnyder recently posted..Extreme Writers!My Profile

    • Yes, something usually does come along… I’ve learned to leave space for it.

  • Anne:

    What great pointers!

    My own biggest mistake, which I suspect is also pretty common, is not scheduling time for my own marketing projects. I’m getting better about it, but it’s still a tussle.


    • Mark, I hear you… I too am better than I used to be at marketing… wonder if we ever get good enough.

  • I also believed that my writting wasn’t good enough to submit it . But then I thought it would be better to let the result speak from itself and this is how I won the confidence I was lacking.
    Thank you Anne! This is a helpful article for those who still believe have no chance in becoming BIG!
    Raluca recently posted..Tinnitis Treatment: 7 Types and How to Cure ThemMy Profile

  • Such good advice, as always, Anne! Thank you so much for your candor.

    As to losing emails, I have established a separate email account that I give only to writing contacts. I use another for friends and yet another to manage e-zine, blog and group updates.

    This helps in two ways – first, I know where everything is. Second, I don’t get sidetracked into surfing the blogs and internet links that attract me away from my focus (nor do I jump into business while ignoring my friends).

    Thank you a thousand times for stressing the fact that we so often undervalue our own work! Why are we all so uncertain, I wonder?
    Anne Maclachlan recently posted..Confessions of an Accidental Horror-Fiction WriterMy Profile

    • That’s a wonderful suggest, Anne. I tend to get sidetracked like that occasionally.

      I finally learned to charge what I’m worth, not a penny less.

      I did take an assignment against my better instincts. The client was a reverend who had also had issues with his first “editor.” Red flags should have popped up but I thought I could convince him that my edits were better.

      His book read much better but this “client” wanted to leave all the mistakes in! I’d never encountered that before. Usually, they want you to polish their work.

      Finally, he wouldn’t even pay what he owed. I could’ve taken him to small claims court but it was more hassle than it was worth. The best I could have done was probably end up with $60. Not worth my time that I could be spending marketing myself or writing for someone else
      Lisa recently posted..Do left-handers and women with large breasts have greater cancer risk?My Profile

      • Lisa, sometimes, not often, clients are just strange. Most are great.

  • Anne,
    It’s true what you say about there being too much information out there. For a beginner, it’s really easy to get so caught up in thinking you have to read every piece of advice that you become paralyzed and don’t do anything.

  • Thanks for the kind words, Anne, and thanks for standing out there with me. 🙂 Those mistakes I listed were just a few of oh so many. My biggest, like many newbies, I suspect, was pricing myself way too low.

    Thanks again for the opportunity to guest post, Anne, and for your endless support in this chosen career of ours.
    Cathy Miller recently posted..Do Tags Please the SEO gods More Than Readers?My Profile

  • Regarding #5: At what point did you start to take yourself (and your writing business) seriously? What did you differently then?

  • Laura Davis

    Underpricing myself has been an issue for me, though I’m pretty well over it, now. I learned about listening to my instinct in one large and painful mistake.

    My latest? Doing business with a friend. I was proud of myself for not “pulling my punch” on the rates; I charged her full pop. I agreed to skip my usual 50% downpayment before beginning to edit her doctoral thesis, because she assured me she could pay me 100% when her financial aid came through August 1. About the time I’d finished the work, she informed me that the university was laying claim to too much of her August check, so she’d be paying me 50% in October, and the remainder in February 2012. Sure, I could have withheld my work until she paid, but that would have destroyed whatever remains of a 20-year friendship. Lessons learned? Don’t do business with friends, and never compromise on down payment. Ouch.

    • Amen, Laura. This happened to me twice. I’ll never do business with a friend again.

      I had to hound one of them for three or four months. She claimed to be poor but was living with her mom and traveling once a month for pleasure.

      The other friend moved to South Korea and forgot that she owed me money. It was a simple misunderstanding.

      I’ve forgiven both of them but the trust is lacking with the first woman.
      Lisa recently posted..Do left-handers and women with large breasts have greater cancer risk?My Profile

      • I do business with friends, but I write the contract.

  • Oh there are too many to mention. Like you I struggle with the idea that anyone would actually want to buy my writing, but also like you I have done some proofing and believe me, there are some very poor writers out there who are being paid very well!

    A lack of confidence in my skills led to all sorts of mistakes, many of which I have gotten over. However I still undercharge for my services and fail to follow up leads. You would think that after three years of doing this I would have learned that people really do like the way I write.

    I guess this is the creative streak which all of us writers have. The only problem is that unlike an artist, we can’t just paint over our mistakes. We have deadlines to meet and sometimes we end up sending out work which is not our best. this is disheartening.

    Good luck with your rejection email. I had a similar one this morning too, but in my case it was a communication error and not really my fault. But it still makes you feel that you could have done something differently to make it all perfect. After all we only strive for perfection…

    • So how can you learn not to take rejection so personally?

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