How to Sort Through the Noise in Freelance Writing Advice

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on February 8, 2011 in Blogging, Freelance Writing Business
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Everyone is willing to give you advice about freelance writing -- from non-writers with preconceptions about the freelance lifestyle to professionals who have run successful freelance writing careers for years.

In between you'll find newbies who try to give advice like they've found the holy grail of freelancing, former freelancers who couldn't cut it but still feel qualified to tell you how you can, and some with a few years under their belts who have picked up plenty of good tips to share along the way.

How do you know whose advice to listen to and who to ignore, especially when you come across contradicting advice? When you come across freelance advice you aren't sure about, ask yourself the following questions:

Does this freelancer have the kind of career you'd like to emulate?

There are many types of freelance writers out there. Great advice for a freelance blogger might be completely useless to you if you want to write for magazines though.

Look at the writer's career. Is it along the lines of what you want to do in your own? If so, and if they're reasonably successful in an area you're interested in, chances are good that their advice will apply to you.

Where does the freelancer's income really come from?

Is the person giving the advice actually earning their living (or a significant portion of it) directly from freelancing? Or are they working full-time for someone else and only writing on the side?


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Are they really earning their income through ad deals on their own site(s) and not from freelancing for clients? Are they earning their income by offering other types of services where writing is only one of many (social media consulting seems to be a big one for writers to stumble into these days)?

If a writer can't support themselves through their writing, they're not in a position to tell you how you can do that. Where someone's income comes from isn't always easy to find out. But if you pay attention to what they say over time, you can often get a good idea.

In the interest of transparency, I personally earn the bulk of my income freelancing now -- business writing and professional blogging for clients. But I also earn through Web publishing and independent blogging as well as e-book sales (and I'm moving into indie publishing books beyond e-books as well). There are smaller service contracts occasionally too (like blog comment management / community management for clients), although I only take on those gigs if they're tied to my writing work. Over time I'll move more towards self-directed income sources like further Web publishing and development and e-book and book sales.

It was decided a while ago that when freelancing is no longer bringing in a large enough portion of my income to constitute a full-time income on its own, the branding here at All Freelance Writing will change to reflect that -- we'll likely go back to the original SixFigureWriters.com brand to focus more on diversifying writing projects and freelancing.

I don't appreciate it when freelancers quit for full-time jobs but still run blogs on the topic handing out advice. If they couldn't do well enough freelancing themselves to stick with it and jumped on a full-time offer once it came along, they shouldn't be telling others how to succeed in freelancing. And I don't appreciate reading freelance advice from bloggers who I know aren't earning the bulk of their income from clients (in some cases they openly admit that). So in fairness to my readers I'll never do that here. When I'm no longer predominantly a freelancer, the "freelance" blog will morph so I can share stories, tips, and advice more in line with what I'm really doing at the time.

Does the advice suit your own goals?

If you want to earn $80k+ per year freelancing, follow the advice of people doing it. If you just want to earn some spare change from your writing, follow advice from anyone who can teach you to make a few bucks here and there. But don't follow advice that doesn't apply to you -- whether based on skills or desire.

For example, I saw an article in my Google Alerts this morning about how to earn $150 a day by working for Demand. Not only do I know that associating with Demand is anything but my goal as a freelance writer (making the advice irrelevant in my case), but crunch those numbers. That $150 a day comes to $39,000 a year at most, and that assumes you write ten articles every week day, every week of the year (no vacations, sick days, or personal days included).

Now keep in mind that a freelancer's annual pay is very different than an employee's (what we tend to compare the numbers to naturally). In reality, based on Salary.com data we looked at in previous posts and comments, your $39,000 freelancing is equal to about 40% less than that as a freelancer (searches ranged from 30% to slightly more than 50%, and you should check out cost vs salary comparisons for your own area).

That means you're really earning closer to the equivalent of an employee with a $28,000 salary. Are you okay earning that little? If so, are you okay with doing that much work every week day with no break during the year? Are you positive you could even find that many available topics that suit you every day?

If you're still okay with that, then go ahead and take their advice. It applies to you. But if you want to do better, or simply know you could earn more and still have more time off, you would want to look elsewhere. You have to know your own goals before you can determine if someone else's experiences and advice can help you reach them.

There is a lot of advice out there about freelance writing -- in books, in magazines, on blogs, and just about everywhere else on the Web. You get to choose what you ignore and what you take to heart. You know where you want your freelance writing career to go. You're smart enough to sort through the noise and find other professionals who are now where you'd like to be in time.

If you're going to take advice at all, look for people in that group to get the advice from. Better yet, ask them specific questions rather than hoping they'll cover things that concern you personally. In the end, your career is entirely in your own hands. And remember, advice doesn't always have to be followed to the letter. Never be afraid to pull things of value to you and leave the rest behind. Adapt, then grow.

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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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21 Comments

  1. Lori February 8, 2011 Reply

    Great post! I’d add just one more thing – any writer who claims that their way is the only way is someone I wouldn’t follow. Like you, I’ve found that the best advice is advice that fits my particular career path. We have to follow our guts more. Even new writers have a sense of what’s going to work for them – they simply don’t trust their instincts well in the beginning. I’d tell them to ignore what doesn’t feel right for them.

    • Jennifer Mattern February 8, 2011 Reply

      I think some definitely fall into that category and just need to listen to themselves more. But I also see plenty of people who are flat out clueless — famously so on webmaster and Internet marketing forums where you have even US freelancers who truly believe $5 or less per article is the “going rate” and what they should be charging. They take bad advice because they choose to get it from the people who want to buy cheap content rather than talking to other freelancers with careers more in line with their own goals. Sometimes I’m not sure if I feel bad for them because there is so much misleading information about what’s “normal” out there, or if I feel more that they deserve what they get because it takes a certain level of incompetence to not conduct even basic research to see these folks are blowing hot air. *shrugs*

      Then there’s the group that wants to do better. They just don’t want to hear how to do it from anyone else. They’re so against getting any kind of advice (even if it’s given because someone else asked for it) that they screw up their own careers and settle for mediocrity just so they can reassure themselves that they’re doing things “their way” (which in that case is frequently the same way many others failed before them).

      So yes, I completely agree that some people have the instinct for it and should follow their gut. But I also think there are far more who should focus on finding pros they can related to and then learning to ask the right questions rather than only looking at the advice already given. Sometimes that just doesn’t apply.

      In contrast to the “only way” crowd, I’d say something equally important to look out for is the paid mouthpiece. They’ll tell you any way can be the right way (because they can’t make a solid decision to save their lives), and that “right way” today is based on whoever is paying them. If someone recommends a service — from paid job listings to freelance bidding sites to content mills — find out what role those things play in their own career. If they aren’t willing to earn their full-time income relying on those things, they have no right to tell others to do the same. Be careful of anyone encouraging you to start too low. There’s more benefit to the “advisor” in that case in that they might be paid for that supposed opinion or at the very least they’re decreasing competition for gigs at their own level. So while not all advice is necessarily bad in that sense, it’s an area where new writers really need to be more cautious.

  2. Cathy Miller February 8, 2011 Reply

    Great advice, Jenn. As someone who is a relative newbie (3 years-can’t believe it’s been that long!), I can’t believe the number of “experts” there are on freelancing, social media, etc. I know for a fact that some of them haven’t even been freelancing as long as I have.

    That’s why I steer clear of offering advice on freelancing. I’ll offer advice on business writing because I’ve got 30+ years at that, but even after 3 years, I don’t feel qualified to offer freelancing advice. Heck, I am far from where I want to be as a freelancer. I would feel like a total fraud.

    I have thought about writing a “What I wish I knew” type of eBook on getting into freelancing. And this would be one of my top “wishes.” I wish I knew how many experts aren’t, and I wish I knew how to tell the difference. Some are obvious, but others are not.

    That being said, I think you can learn something from almost anyone or any situation, but some times the cost (dollar-wise or loss of productivity) is a price too high to pay.

    Thanks, as always, Jenn, for some real-world advice.

    • Jennifer Mattern February 8, 2011 Reply

      One of my biggest tips for sorting the experts from the wannabes is to look at the numbers. If they don’t offer any, I’d run. For example, see what rates they charge. If they won’t share that information in at least a basic sense, I’d be more skeptical. If the rates are much lower than what you need to charge, they’re not an expert in your very specific niche at least. If they’re in line with, or above, your goals then you might be better off trusting what they have to say.

      When they recommend things, look at the numbers there too. This is one of my biggest peeves with those promoting mill work. They give a lot of vague numbers, and conveniently leave out important things (like the AC writer thrilled to earn a few hundred per month who conveniently forgot to mention to other writers that she had to write more than 1400 articles to get to that point). I gave an example in the post I believe of a guy offering “expert” advice on earning $150 per day using Demand. When you really dig into their numbers you can see pretty easily if they know what they’re talking about. If it looks like they’re not accounting for something or that they’re intentionally leaving info out to make something look too good to be true, it’s a good sign they’re clueless.

      There are plenty of people out there making good money by recommending crap earning plans and sites to others. Following the numbers and the money is usually a good start.

  3. Brandi February 8, 2011 Reply

    Hi Jenn! Your post is something I have been thinking about for awhile. When I first started freelancing I was overwhelmed by all the information out there and I felt the pressure to do everything everyone said just right. Can you guess that it was a recipe for disaster? In the end, I realized that like everything else in life, it’s best to listen with an open heart and then decide what feels right to you. There may be someone online who has less or more experience than me, but offers solid advice. Either way, the choice is all up to us to decide if something fits for us. Thanks for writing a great post!

  4. Sarah February 8, 2011 Reply

    I should be working, but I am obviously procrastinating. Too much…

    I appreciated your post, and I really think that freelance writers in particular need to be careful because for whatever reason, other established freelance writers (whether it be through getting their money in other ways than writing, as a self-professed “guru” or ones that actually make $$) sometimes target the newbies as vehicle for making money. It becomes really tiring, but I’ve been able to pick out at least a few who don’t have much real info.

    Some of the traits that I use to say “next” in terms of ignoring his or her advice (some are similar to Jenn’s) include:

    • How much $ do they make a year or per hour (vs me): Okay, I’m relatively new to this also (2 years now), but I’ve seen so-called freelance writers on big named blogs with lots of followers and they admit their yearly numbers and I realize that I made much more even in the first year (whereas there are others that make a lot more than me). I realize, though, that if the person makes a lot less, probably not a person that is going to offer suggestions to help me grow. At least those people are honest, though, which I do appreciate (there are probably readers who can benefit from reading those bloggers or writers, too).

    • Are they being honest and disclosing information? There have actually been a fewblogs/ bloggers where the main writer talks about how important it is to write, and how he or she struggles to get $ on the table to feed the child pop tarts, therefore the (insert writing mill name) is great. But it gets better, the poor blogger wants to help his or her readers out by having them fill out application to the writing mill and this will help everyone out. Come on, do a bit of googling …they got $ from those referrals, probably much more than was made from the hourly rate of writing for that organization. I would have been okay if they disclosed this information, but no, they didn’t. Way to exploit your readers.

    • Being hypocritical. Making a post or posts as to how it is really, really important to not work for free or sign away your rights, or whatever. Then the same person turns around and asks people to come on by and work for free on their blog, or to write for him or her and sign away all of their rights. Are they trying to implement a mini microcosm writing mill?

    My other tiny pet peeve is if there is a lot of “Look at me! Look at my platform!” in every single comment or response (occasionally, sure, but all the time?). People will ask questions in the comment and the blogger will respond in every single comment with “Buy my product, it answers your question” or “Ha! I did that and earned a billion dollars last week!” Please. Gag. I’ve actually watched this be a very successful tactic for a blogger or two in the last few months.

    I’m actually not that bitter although it may look like I am from this post, but I do think that newbies in particular are sometimes being taken advantage of and that there are so-called gurus, bloggers, writers, whatever, who just view those people as dollar signs, and it just isn’t right.

    • Jennifer Mattern February 8, 2011 Reply

      A couple of questions / comments:

      1. So do you think that any professional who sells products for newer writers is therefore not worth taking advice from, or is there some quality in particular that crosses a line — like constant product promotion, spammy email marketing messages, or something else?

      Full disclosure: I sell e-books to other freelance writers. As such I would take a bit of issue with the idea that just because I make money from that market, what I say is somehow less valid. If that’s actually the point you wanted to make, would you equally say published authors in the niche earn less credibility rather than more (which is what generally happens in publishing nonfiction books) because they’re technically selling a product to the market? Where do you draw the line between how much a professional is expected to give away for free versus them being able to compensate themselves for all of the time they dedicate to the community by selling information, products, or services to the market above and beyond those free resources they provide?

      2. I have to disagree a bit with your last point. A lot of writers really seem to struggle with the concept of guest posts. Guest posts and freelance contributions are VERY different things. And guest posts by their very nature are not paid for. Once you’re paid, it becomes a freelance contribution instead. Guest posts on the hand are a marketing tool. There will always be writing involved in marketing your services, and they’re only one small part of that (just like writing the unpaid copy on your website or your unpaid query letters).

      I would agree to a point and say that I don’t think bloggers should actively pursue guest posters to come on a regular basis. Personally I find that unethical, because they’re playing a naming game looking for freelance work and calling it guest posting so they don’t have to pay. And if they’re also giving writers advice that they shouldn’t work for peanuts or for free, I agree wholeheartedly. That’s low.

      Another disclaimer: regular contributors here are paid for contributions, and I buy very limited rights (exclusivity only applies to the Web and only for 30 days), enabling them to reuse the content wherever they please. Guest posters here are not paid, as that’s another animal entirely. Those are people who pitch me directly asking to have me post an article so they can get a link back to their website(s) for the contribution. That’s solely a marketing tactic on their part. I also write guests posts, and will again soon as a part of my next virtual blog tour.

      Here’s the thing with that. It only works if you know how to differentiate the two and if you never spend otherwise billable time on guest posts. Billable time is for freelance contributions. Guest posts — like the other examples of copy and queries — would be worked into your scheduled marketing time. So I think there’s a fine line there, and have very rarely found people to be truly hypocritical when they know the difference and don’t try to abuse the system. I’ve seen one person get into a sticky situation requesting guest posts, but they seem to have learned a lot from it and moved on effectively. I’ve seen others turn free posting “opportunities” into games or contests. But for the most part, other freelancers seem to be on the up-and-up on this front. If you’ve come across any particularly bad situations, I invite you to share them specifically if you’d like to warn other readers about them. :)

      I absolutely agree that many newbies are taken advantage of — sometimes by intended clients, sometimes by so-called experts trying to make a buck through referrals. And as someone who not only is very active in the community on a free basis but also someone who does provide more advanced information in the form of e-books (and books and e-courses in the future), I can only hope I’m as fair as possible. I try to make it clear up front who should and should not spend their money — what my product can and cannot do for them. I don’t believe in using hyped up marketing copy to prey on emotions to land as many sales as possible. So far no complaints, so that’s a start.

      But if you have a different perspective and think I’m personally still doing something wrong by working with that market (in addition to my own Web publishing and freelance work — it’s hardly the biggest part of my income unlike many Internet marketing “gurus”), I’d be happy to hear you out. It might not change my immediate approach, but I’m always happy for some new food for thought when moving forward with other projects.

      • Sarah February 8, 2011 Reply

        Whoops. Okay, by no means was I criticizing your blog or what you do, Jenn. Actually I respect the way that you conduct yourself in these realms, and if I did not, believe me I would not even leave a comment. So please realize that all of my comment was in no way directed at you (I was going to originally add that to my previous comment, but I cut it out because I thought it would obvious, heh, guess not).

        I do think that there are professionals who sell products who may have great or appropriate advice, either for free or for sale. I also think that the person who creates it has every right to ask for money, and he or she should.

        There is a line of quality (for me). I did mention that in the previous comment; there is another blog and the person mentioned her per year salary and I realized that I probably would not learn much, whether it was for free or for sale if I already exceeded it by a lot. I also believe in the ethics line (so if a person was intentionally recruiting, as I said, for something he or she knows that people would only earn cents per hour – I don’t want to give $ to that. Also, if it waaaay to spammy, promotional, I can’t stomach it any more (and believe me, Jenn, you don’t do this …you don’t offer an ebook/mentoring services/or whatever in every single response to a poster).

        Actually the real challenge for me at this point is: who has real info and who does not, and at the right level (for me)? I’ve bought lots of crap, supposedly intended to help the writer “earn a billion dollars” or whatever. I will say that I (randomly) bought “The Wealthy Freelancer” with no expectations, and was pleasantly surprised to find things that I could use and apply. Finally, I’ll be honest, at this point I have a lot of work, at a rate that I’m okay with, and I can earn more just working or looking for more projects vs reading what 10000 people are selling (again , I’m not criticizing that people are selling, but if 1 to 5% have something worthwhile, do I have the time to read all the other stuff to find it?). So as you infer, there is just a lot of noise out there at this point.

        I also do agree with you in regards to guest posting. I was actually referring to people trying to recruit people to write continuously for free, whether it is an article or as a host for a series of posts. I am aware that you pay your bloggers, and do respect that you do so.

        I actually think that you should continue to do things (i.e. sell your ebook, write your blogs) in the same manner that you have been doing.

        • Jennifer Mattern February 8, 2011 Reply

          lol It’s completely fine. I just think there’s a fine line between marketing to a group and overdoing it, and it’s good for me (and others in a similar position) to know where that line is for our readers — books vs e-books, webinars vs coaching, etc. So if my marketing seemed to push it a bit, that’s something I’d want to know (although glad you don’t think so).

          From the marketing side for these products and services, it sounds like frequency of promotion is a big thing for you. And I get that — I can’t stand seeing blog, service, book, or any other plugs constantly from the same person either. From the reader perspective, is there a specific frequency that crosses the line for you? For example, if they tweeted a product link once a day (among normally conversational tweets) would that drive you away? When does that oversaturation point seem to hit for you personally, out of curiosity? Like I said, these are just good things for us on the selling end to know. :)

          I have to agree about the Wealthy Freelancer — one of the better books out there. If you’re into commercial writing, I can also highly recommend Peter Bowerman’s The Well-Fed Writer (the newer version combines his previous two books). He has a similar no-nonsense yet conversational approach, and solid advice if that’s your specialty area.

          Well, I get accused of all kinds of things, so I find it’s best to disclose that kind of contributer info whenever mentioned. ;) It sounds like we’re on the same page re: guest posts / ongoing contribution. Agree completely that asking for regular work with no pay is utter BS from anyone claiming to be a professional in this field — especially if they’re giving advice to their readers about earning more as writers.

        • Rebecca Garland February 9, 2011 Reply

          I’ve run into similar trouble with guest posting. Some people don’t seem to realize that a guest post is free in exchange for the marketing or link. They want me to become of their (unpaid) regular contributors in exchange for name branding. Or just because it’s so very, very fun I guess. If I was a hobby writer, sure – why not? But I’m not. :)

  5. Carol Tice February 8, 2011 Reply

    Great post Jenn — and explains why I’m still freelancing and not just mentoring writers. I think the minute I start doing that and stop doing any freelance work, my advice will start going out of date and I won’t be as helpful to mentees. And the speed at which our freelance-writing world is changing these days, you’d be giving obsolete advice pretty fast.

    Also great warning about staying away from ‘experts’ whose only expertise is that they write for Demand Studios or wherever… :-)

    • Jennifer Mattern February 8, 2011 Reply

      The problem in that case is that group of “experts” is becoming mass-produced. And sadly the loudest voice is often the ones new folks find first.

  6. Shakirah Dawud February 9, 2011 Reply

    This really needed to be said, Jennifer, I’m sure we all appreciate it. When I first began freelancing, I read some books that–although going in the right direction, were outdated in implementation. I bought books that were basically trying to get me to buy something else, downloaded useless software, and implemented strategies I was never meant to implement because of the advice of others who would benefit from my doing it. And then I realized that many experts whose advice I take (because everyone else seems to be) have these huge followings and probably spend most of their working day basically making money off of us. Being marketing writers like myself, they were all able to toot their horns while sounding like they were helping me out.

    Of course our own experience can teach us a lot, and common sense can carry us farther. When stuck, narrowing down the cause of our “stuckness” is sometimes so difficult that we’ll often grab a line anywhere the keywords match our search.

  7. Rebecca Garland February 9, 2011 Reply

    Maybe this flood of noisy “experts” is the reason I do so little reading (outside of fun perusing) in this particular niche. At this point in my career, I’m either actively seeking information on a topic, joining in a discussion I already enjoy – like on this blog, or wandering around procrastinating. If I’m getting ALL of my career and writing tips from someone sharing them with hundreds or thousands of readers, I’m looking at a flooded market before I even try to implement the idea. I’ve found it’s far better to respond to what my clients need and work to build new areas of my business around those needs. Of course, you have to know who your market is to do that effectively…

    • LaToya Irby February 10, 2011 Reply

      Same here. This is the only freelance writing blog I regularly read. Most of what I read is niche- or hobby-related.

  8. Communications Forum February 11, 2011 Reply

    Great advice. I’ve never really thought to delve deep into the credentials of a freelance writer. We use a lot of freelance writers and work with a group of people we trust.

  9. Susie Klein June 28, 2011 Reply

    Wow! This is all so good and completely helpful. I have been scrolling through many areas on your site and feel like I’ve spent the day in school. In a good way of course! I am learning so much and it feels good to see that many of your tips and words of advice are confirming my suspicions about some of the so-called freelance sites.
    Thank you.
    Susie Klein

    • Jennifer Mattern June 28, 2011 Reply

      I’m so glad to hear you’re finding the information here helpful Susie. If you have specific questions, be sure to register and post them over in our new writing forums. :)

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