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The Business of Freelance Writing – What Does It Really Mean?

the business of freelance writing“You’re in the business of freelance writing” you keep hearing on this website and from others. Although it’s true, if you’re one of the many many freelance writers who no little or nothing about business, it can seem downright intimidating.

But what does that really mean?

Let me tell you a story

The first time I ever wrote something for publication I was in the 6th grade and I wrote about the class elections we’d just had for the (mimeographed) class newspaper. One of the teachers was apparently impressed when I said in the article, “she won because she had the majority of votes.” I know she was impressed, or at least the word majority caught her attention because I was present when she told my mom I should be a writer.

I had just started reading novels, having found a steamy romance in the 6th grade library. The teacher’s comment was the first time I made the connection – real people wrote all those books and the articles in magazines, etc. I began to think I might be able to be a writer when I grew up.

In 7th grade I took a typing class and I joined the school newspaper club. I would never admit to wanting to be ‘a writer,’ but I began to use my typing skills to pound out news stories for the junior high paper.

A real writer / reporter

About that time Ed Ainsworth came to town. He was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Fallbrook, CA, the town I grew up in, had been sued by the Navy for the town’s water and he was reporting on what was a national story. For reasons I’ve long forgotten  he would come to dinner at our house whenever he was in town. I remember him as a small man with dark hair who seem to pay attention to everything. I sensed he was a ‘real’ reporter, a real writer and that fed my nascent desire to become a writer myself, although I never dared mention that ambition. But my imagination was stirred.

In high school I discovered Writer’s Market, both the annual, and the magazine. I’d sneak into bookstores and buy them, hoping no one would notice and accuse me of wanting to be a writer.

I continued on to college, into and out of my first marriage, still harboring the dream of writing, but never having the guts to actually do anything about it.

All this time I held a dreamy, out-of-focus picture of myself as a writer – always with a typewriter, but sometimes in New York, or in a garret, once I found out what a garret was. I was dimly aware I wanted accolades of some sort. I knew I wanted to put words on paper and have others read those words.

The desire to write, and some ability with keyboards led to some low pay, but interesting jobs.

My first sale

I’d been an editor to a magazine and was on staff at another when I sold my first freelance piece. It was a booklet called either Single and Sober or Sober and Single. Hazelden, sill a respected publisher, wanted it and as I recall paid me maybe $500 for it. I also got royalties for several years.

I continued to write and submit and occasionally get published and earn some money. But a truth for me was I didn’t take my writing seriously enough or myself seriously enough to really believe I could earn a living at it. Then I lost the job I had which sent me on a scramble to get more serious about writing.

Yikes, I needed to learn the business of freelance writing!

It was at this point that I began, slowly and painfully, with fits and starts, to learn how to be in business for myself as a writer.

I don’t recommend you follow in my footsteps. My first business activity was to order business cards. You could do worse, although probably not much.

I thrashed around, taking throw-away jobs like telemarketing or slinging hash for quite awhile. I made a little bit of money, did a lot of writing I didn’t get paid for and gradually realized I had to take a more business-like approach to what I was doing.

That recognition, that I was in business for myself was the first shaky, but true step into the business of freelance writing – the business or business side of it.

I learned to set an hourly rate – I won’t tell you how insanely low it was back then. Some of my training had been from my father who taught me a bit of how to negotiate in his real estate business. I began to put some of those negotiating techniques in place in my writing business – like asking the client about their budget as a starting point.

Through trial and error, through lots of reading, for finding other writers to talk with I gradually hammered out being in business.

The next real breakthrough for me was when I began tracking all my income and expenses. I added time tracking at least often enough to be sure of my estimates and to reassure myself I was working.

The business of freelance writing is learnable

Back when I made that first sale, I didn’t have a clue I was in the business of freelance writing. Over time, I’ve discovered that the business side of things, which admittedly isn’t as interesting as the writing, except maybe when it comes to counting the money, was totally learnable.

There are tons of books to work with, lots of classes online and off, and a whole government agency called the Small Business Administration that loves teaching folks like us about business, often for free or at super low cost. My credit union often has seminars on business and if I get stuck I can ask them to either teach me or point me in the right direction. Writers forums can be particularly helpful.

I also realized there’s a ton of information labeled ‘business’ that I don’t need to know to run my freelance writing business. I don’t need to know accounting, just how to keep track of my numbers. I don’t need to know labor law unless I become an employer. I don’t need to know about the stock market, or understand banking rules.

I do need to know how to balance a checkbook (I use You Need a Budget) and to put and keep money in savings. FreshBooks is another good program to keep you ‘balanced.’ I also need to know how to write a contract or agreement, how to systematically hunt for clients, and how to make deadlines a priority.

Business-like = more money & more time

The upshot of all this is becoming more business like has meant not only more money in my pocket, but actually more time to write. I no longer chase after the small dollars. I’ve learned it takes a as much time and effort to write a thousand word article at a penny or 10 cents a word as it does to get 75 cents, a dollar or even two per word. Yep, it’s true.

There’s something about really getting that I’m in business, in the freelance writing business that helps me understand what my writing is worth and be willing to charge that much for it – and get it.

As I look back, it seems like it took me ages to figure this out. You can be smarter and faster than I was. Go for the business side of freelance writing – you’ll be glad you did.

Got business questions? Ask ’em in comments and I’ll do my best to answer them.

Write well and often,

Anne Wayman freelance writer



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