12 Survival Tips For Freelance Writers

by Charlotte Ahlin
Jamie Grill/Tetra images/Getty Images

Freelance writing! It's the perfect job if you want to be a writer, but you're not too attached to the idea of job security or regular meals. Between the internet and the self-publishing boom, it's more possible than ever to eke out a meager existence as a freelance writer. You, too, can be a gremlin who sits at home writing all day and never leaves the house! But if you're going to be a full-time freelancer, you're going to need a few survival tips for freelance writers.

As Liz Lemon, patron saint of workaholic writers, puts it: "I am a freelancer, which is pretty much a modern day cowboy." And like a cowboy, you must learn how to juggle several different writing assignments while sitting atop a dusty horse. Throw away your dreams of lounging in '20s-inspired hotel bars, writing in a leather-bound notebook while a handsome stranger tries to catch your eye. You're going to spend a lot of time at home, in front of a laptop, in your rattiest pajamas, trying to think of a good pitch for a listicle about '90s fashion. But it will be worth it, because you will be making your living as a Professional Writer.

It is possible. So check out these tips to help you live the freelance life:

1. Try to avoid becoming a vampire

Before we even get into the perils of trying to get paid as a freelancer, know this: you are in charge of your own schedule. If you do not set aside time to go outside, you will never go outside. If you work best at night, do your thing. But don't underestimate the power of stepping outside and squinting blearily into the sunlight. Write in that coffee shop with the overpriced scones once in a while. Also, make sure to make plans with other members of the living, because writing from home can be lonely work.

2. Hunt down clients and kill them

I mean, don't kill them kill them. But do pounce on every opportunity. Advertise yourself on freelancing networks. Find the sites that post writing jobs. Use social media, even though social media is gross and a nightmare. Harass your friends/mom/mom's friends until they cough up any contacts looking for writing work. Reach out to writers and publications you admire. You're the only one who can find your next gig. Just be sure to mask your desperation with well-mannered competence.

3. It’s OK to say NO

Freelancing is a hustle, but that doesn't mean you have to say "Yes!" to everything. Once you get the ball rolling with a writing gig or two, you can be a little more discerning. If you're already over-scheduled, be honest. If you don't feel comfortable writing adult content, say so. If someone wants you to help them get published, or wants you to write for "exposure," it's OK to laugh wildly in their face and then politely decline.

4. Set boundaries

Part 2 of saying NO: boundaries are your friend. Clarifying due dates and pay schedules will save everyone a huge headache later (asking for a contract in writing is both reasonable and sexy). If a client is openly rude to you, drop 'em. And be clear about your hours with clients, employers, and friends and family. Otherwise your family will confuse "freelance writer" with "unemployed," and then ask you to help them move a wardrobe at 2pm on a Wednesday.

5. Get paid

Get. Paid. Get paid. Don't work for exposure. People die of exposure. Sure, if you have a passion project that pays bupkis, but it makes you happy, go for it. But 99.99% of the jobs you take should be paid. People will ask you to write for free, but writing is your job, not your hobby. Make sure you know how, when and how much you're getting paid, upfront. Don't be afraid to negotiate your rate, or stand firm if someone tries to back out of an agreement. Your clients have to pay for the work you did, even if they don't like the result.

6. Stretch

Do it. Right now. Get out of your chair and stretch. Sitting all day to write for clients, followed by sitting all night to work on your screenplay about a 20-something freelance writer, will take a toll on you. Breaks are great, even if you just go down the block to catch a Pidgey.

7. Love the haters

If you write freelance, your work will probably be published on the internet at some point. And if, god forbid, you commit some sort of atrocity like splitting an infinitive or being a woman, the wrath of the internet shall descend upon you. Or a client will flip out because your writing does not match his indescribable specifications. It's OK. Shake it off. Come up with dynamite pitches for the next gig. Work on your own stuff. The infinitives rule is for Latin, anyway. In English grammar it's OK to very much split infinitives.

8. Time. Manage it.

There will come a time when it's one in the morning, and you're working on your fourth article of the day, and you'll start to wonder how you thought freelancing would save you time in the long run. Time management is essential. Make lists. Make schedules. Set timers. Write in the library, or the coffee shop, or join a writing group if it'll help you stick to regular writing times. Having flexible hours is a double-edged sword (like most swords).

9. Be prepared to defend your lifestyle to strangers

Some people will look at you with starry eyes, because they think the life of a professional writer must be glamorous and intriguing. Others will look at you with faint panic, because it distresses them that you've chosen such an uncertain career path. Fellow freelance writers will attack you on sight, to thin the competition. Go to workshops and open mics, find your community of artistic support, and try to look worldly and knowing in front of judgmental strangers.

10. Ramen with peanut butter is a perfectly acceptable dinner

Bonus tip: If you buy regular coffee with a flavor shot, it tastes almost as good as a latte and costs a lot less. If you can figure out how to photosynthesize instead of eating, even better.

11. Know thyself

I can't think of any phrase more eye-roll-inducing than "personal brand." But it is important to know your strengths, and showcase them. If you excel at writing humor, don't spend all your time writing tech. Figure out what sets your writing apart, and focus on that. Write the stuff that only you could write (and if you also want to have a very specific Twitter persona, I won't stop you).

12. Stop reading this article and go write

The internet is full of distractions and detours. But you chose freelance writing because you love to write. So go write! Talking about writing and reading about writing will never get you as far as just sitting down and writing. Dorothy Parker said it best: “Writing is the art of applying the ass to the seat.”

Images: Jamie Grill/Tetra images/Getty Images, Giphy (12)