How to Make Freelance Writing the Most Secure Job Opportunity Around

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on August 30, 2010 in Freelance Writing Business
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When you began your career as a freelance writer, you probably did so knowing that you were giving up some level of job security (assuming you left a full-time job to pursue freelancing). But if we've learned anything in recent years it's that very few "real jobs" are actually secure. That's often a myth.

You've probably also heard that working as a freelance writer will involve a feast and famine cycle. I used to believe that too. And when I believed it, it happened. And then I woke up. I remembered that no one controlled my career as a self-employed professional but me. There could only be famine periods if I allowed them to come -- if I didn't market myself effectively year-round or if I didn't have backup plans in place. And do you know what? Once I realized that, the feast / famine cycle stopped. I haven't had a famine period in years. You can do the same. You can make your freelance writing career an even more secure job opportunity than a full-time position. Let's talk about how you can do that.

Diversification

You've seen me write about diversification in the past. I consider it an absolute essential these days if you want to succeed as a freelance writer. That said, diversification will mean different things for different freelance writers. For me it involves combining client work with projects of my own. I make money blogging and by selling e-books for example.

Diversification in freelance writing also means taking on more than one client. On the surface it might sound more secure to land one big, regular freelance writing client who pays you for nearly full-time hours -- it sounds secure because it sounds similar to a regular job. But it's not. If that client suddenly had to cut their budget, or they weren't happy with your work, you'd be flat on your ass with no income coming in. That's not security. Job security in freelancing means that if a door closes you have enough coming through others that the loss would barely be a blip in your earnings records.

Regular Contracts

That said, I'm all for regular clients. You'll spend less time seeking work and more time on billable hours when you work with regulars. The key is simply to have more than one. There's a certain amount of stability that comes from knowing you have a six month contract bringing in $1200 per month from client A, a yearly contract bringing in $800 per month from client B, and a $2000 per month contract from client C that will last at least another 4 months until that deal expires. Then your one-off projects that can fluctuate a bit more really won't greatly impact your overall earnings so much. If clients like your work enough to commit to those kinds of time frames, chances are that they'll re-sign when they expire too.

If you're not comfortable setting up things like six-month contracts, there are other similar options. For example, base your rates on how much a client orders in each month. Let's say your minimum required rate to meet your earnings goal is $100 per blog post. You could require a ten article monthly minimum for orders. This way you know if your clients are going to come back month after month you'll have a minimum set dollar amount coming it -- it won't fluctuate radically (or at least not below your minimum).


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I mentioned this is a comment on another post here today, but if you take that approach of requiring minimum orders to get your base rates, you can always charge a higher rate to clients who want to purchase less than that. It takes added time up front to get to know a new client, their business, and their target market or audience. So it doesn't make sense to build a business around little one-off projects that might not lead to something more. If it takes extra time, there's absolutely nothing wrong with charging more for it. They can always take advantage of your lower regular rates if they choose to order more in the future based on your minimum order requirements.

Waiting Lists

I find that other freelance writers are often shocked to hear that I have a waiting list of prospects built up. These aren't people I went out and pitched. They're people who found me on their own and who really want me to work on one project or another. If something needs to be completed immediately and I'm not available, I just refer the client to someone who can help. But sometimes they really want you. In that case offer to put them on a waiting list if the project isn't urgent (and you'd be surprised how often a project suddenly isn't so urgent when it comes down to getting exactly what the buyer wants).

Build a waiting list of your own. When you do, you don't have to worry about one of your current clients leaving you behind. If they do, you just contact some prospects from your waiting list and see who's ready to move forward -- no gaps in work generally. And added bonus? When that first client comes back because their cheaper provider didn't meet the standards they were used to, you can turn them down or put them on your waiting list for your next opening. That's a gratifying feeling indeed. And if that client's lucky enough to get you back, it's much less likely they'll leave you again in the future.

Continuous Marketing

I know you've heard this before, but it's the truth. You have to market your freelance writing services all the time -- whether you currently need work or you have a full schedule. Not effectively marketing during the busy times is one of the big reasons writers do end up with those famine periods.

It's understandable. I've heard arguments like "well, if my schedule is already full, how can I pitch my services to others?" Simple answer -- you don't have to.

Marketing doesn't mean actively pitching or soliciting work. That's direct marketing, and only one small segment of marketing as a whole. No matter how full your schedule is now, you want to keep your name out there attracting interest from new prospects. You can do that through passive marketing tactics -- like the ones we promote through the query-free freelancing way.

More passive style marketing might include:

  • running your own blog;
  • releasing free or paid e-books;
  • releasing a white paper;
  • updating and improving the copy on your website;
  • commenting on others' blogs (especially where members of your target market are).

It's all about building your writer platform to build and maintain visibility and interest. Some of these passive marketing tactics can even bring in income of their own, adding to your diversification. If people contact you as a result, this is where you get the prospects for your new waiting list too. If you need more ideas, read 30 Ways to Build Your Writer Platform.

In the end, it's possible to make freelance writing far more secure than your typical full-time job opportunities. It's all in what you believe and what you choose to do about it. Are you tired of the feast / famine cycle? Have you already escaped it? Leave your stories, thoughts, tips, or ideas in the comments.

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Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, and indie author. She began writing for clients in 1999 and started her first blog in 2004.

She owns 3 Beat Media - a publishing and client services company which operates All Indie Writers as well as several other websites and blogs including The Busy Author's Guide and BizAmmo. Jenn comes from a background in online PR and social media consulting, having owned a small PR firm for several years before choosing to pursue a full-time writing and publishing career.

Jenn also writes fiction under multiple pen names in the areas of children's fiction, mysteries, and horror fiction. Jenn is an active member of the Horror Writers Association (HWA) and currently serves as the organization's Assistant Coordinator of Promotions and Social Media.


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5 Comments

  1. Matt Willard August 30, 2010 Reply

    This is definitely how I’ve approached my business. In fact, once I realized I actually LIKED working smarter and doing less overall work to gain income via passive income streams, I gained a LOT more enthusiasm for my business. My advice here is that NOTHING is certain, and all life really depends on is the rules that you set and you’re willing to follow.

  2. Carol Tice August 31, 2010 Reply

    Hi Jenn –

    GREAT post. I started out with the premise that freelancing would naturally turn out to earn less than I had as a staff writer. Then I realized that premise was wrong! And soon I was making MORE than I had as a staffer.

    I have about six ongoing contracts running right now — regular gigs are definitely a major antidote to feast-and-famine syndrome.

    I hadn’t though of myself as having a waiting list…but I guess I actually do! I’ve been telling people I’ll call them week of 9/13 for about a month now, and they’re going, “OK.” It’s not exactly miles out, but I do have a few people who seem to be waiting a month or 6 weeks for my availability.

    A short while ago, we were debating the whole which-is-more-secure issue on my site, as my friend @itsdansmith was trying to move to London and wanted feedback on whether a full-time gig or freelancing would make that move more secure.

    He’s going to explore both and see what happens…but for me, I found writing about it made me revisit how much more secure I think my freelance portfolio is in this economy than one job that could vanish tomorrow at one employer’s whim!

    I had one of those great big clients for several years…thankfully I was able to see the end coming there and make a plan to diversify, and I pretty much didn’t see much drop off once the account wrapped.

    The trick is not to get lazy when you have the whopper accounts, and remember that one day, they’re going away…

    • Jennifer Mattern August 31, 2010 Reply

      A waiting list definitely doesn’t have to be a long-term thing. It’s just about having more demand than your supply of time can cover right now, and people who value you enough to wait for you. That’s when you know you’re indispensable and not just viewed as another replaceable contractor. It’s a good place to be. And it isn’t as difficult to get there as some people seem to think.

      As for Dan, yep — love him. He used to be one of All Freelance Writing’s contributors, and now he blogs for me over at BizAmmo.com instead. He asked me about the freelancing vs full-time issue he was facing too, so I’m glad to hear he got a more public response and discussion too in order to get some broader perspective. So Dan, if you’re out there, do let us know how things are going on that front. :)

      As for not being “lazy when you have the whopper accounts,” that’s absolutely right. It’s easy to assume a good long-term gig will last forever. But many will not. You get too comfortable, and then you stop worrying about keeping interest in your services up. Things go bad (they lose funding, they get a new contact person for your project who decides to hire their buddy instead, etc.) and you’re f*d. The key is being able to call up or email someone else right away, let them know you have an opening, and have that time filled. The longer you’re gig-less during that block of time, the more likely you are to settle for something less than you deserve or simply give up on freelancing because you can’t make ends meet as well. And all it really takes is basic marketing on a regular basis. (And to the naysayers who insist they shouldn’t have to market all the time because it takes away from billable hours, and therefore content mills are a better and supposedly more stable option — if it takes that long, you just aren’t doing it right.)

  3. Devon Ellington August 31, 2010 Reply

    Great post and great ideas. For years, I was constantly berated and told I could never succeed because I can write about almost everything and chose not to imprison myself in a single niche. Then, the market crashed, and everyone who told me what a failure I was (even though I made a living) couldn’t get hired while I continued to work and build my business.

    I like the idea of stockpiling prospects — I’ve theorized about it, but now is the time to sit down and make it happen. Thank you!

    • Jennifer Mattern August 31, 2010 Reply

      I’m actually a big supporter of specialization. It’s often what sets the $5-10 article writers apart from those making 10-20 times as much (or more). People often pay more for expertise than writing ability.

      That said, specialization certainly doesn’t have to mean limiting yourself to a single niche. Sometimes it’s about specializing in certain writing styles for example — for me it’s mostly blogging, press release writing, and copywriting at the moment, although it sometimes changes a bit. You could even be someone who specializes in conducting great interviews with experts, meaning you don’t have to be an authority source in everything you write about because your “specialty” is in finding the people who are and picking their brains.

      Specialization can make it much easier to target higher paying markets given that different markets with different needs have to be targeted in very different ways at times. There are ways around that, like writing under different pen names for different things and keeping the marketing for each area separate. Or you could simply have different sites (or even just landing pages) that sell individual services effectively to their respective markets.

      Some specialty areas are also more recession-proof than others. Business writing in general, for example, will always be in demand because people are constantly trying to sell things or get their messages out. Cheap Web content will probably always have some demand too, although I wouldn’t be surprised to see the bottom fall out of that general market eventually as readers get sick of the junk and companies come back to the realization that they have to focus on quality again. Then again, new webmasters will probably always find penny-per-word content appealing, even if just during their early learning phase. Other specialties could certainly take a hit — like a focus in print journalism as magazines and papers are folding or doing all-digital. Fortunately having a specialty (or even multiple specialties) doesn’t have to make someone completely inflexible. There’s always room to adapt and change, and versatility is important no matter how broad or narrow a writer’s preferences might be.

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