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Sunday, March 6, 2011

5 Surprising Attributes of Long-term Freelancers

Next month, I'll be heading to Madison and Manhattan, two of my favorite cities. I'm speaking at the University of Wisconsin/Madison's Annual Writer's Institute (I'm presenting three programs: Six-Figure Freelancing, The Art of the Query, and Your Book Publishing Options Today.) And at the end of the month, I'll be heading to NYC for ASJA's Annual Writer's Conference. I'm looking forward to reconnecting with old friends, networking with editors and agents, and learning more about how to thrive as a freelancer in 2011 and beyond.

Here's the thing--as a fulltime freelancer, I have to continually recreate my career to keep up with an ever-changing market. I started out writing for magazines, and over time, developed a number of contributing editor relationships and was able to make six figures (or close) writing features that averaged $2000 for national magazines.

Well, those days are over; as magazines have shrunk, meaning fewer and smaller assignments, I started putting more effort into writing books. Today most of my work (and income) comes from book projects, most of which are ghostwritten or coauthored. I've also spent time learning more about social media (trust me, a year ago I was clueless!) as I can see it's essential to be able to connect with both current and future clients--as well as other writers and colleagues.

At the beginning of your freelance career, you’re probably too busy looking for work and mastering the business to worry about your long-term career plans. While that's understandable, it can also be a mistake. When I wrote Six-Figure Freelancing, I interviewed more than 20 six-figure freelancing, most of whom had been self-employed for more than 10 years, and nearly half of whom had been in the business for 20+ years. While they were all talented writers, they all had other attributes in common--including:

  • Adaptability. One very successful freelance speechwriter in NYC started out as an educational film writer. When the market for educational films started to dry up, she decided to transition into corporate speech-writing, and has run a successful business since. Lesson: you must adapt to the market and/or find new markets, or you'll be left behind.
  • Focus. The most successful freelancers don't try to write about anything and everything; they develop niches or specialties for themselves. This helps them develop a name, build lasting relationships with clients, and repurpose work (whether by writing both articles and books, for example, or by reslanting or selling reprints).
  • Optimism. I've never met a long-term successful freelancer who has a bad outlook on the world. The ability to see the glass (or your career) as half-full, rather than half-empty, is an essential attribute to surviving and thriving long-term. I have lousy days and weeks like any other self-employed businessperson; we all do. But I believe in learned optimism, especially when it comes to work. After 14+ years of fulltime freelancing, I know a bad day or two is only that--not the harbinger of the end of my career.
  • A long view. Being busy is good for your bank account but can be hazardous to your long-term career. When you’re working nights and weekends just to meet your deadlines—or spending hours pitching to make sure you have enough work to pay your bills—you tend to ignore questions like “where do I want my writing career to go long-term?” The most successful freelancers don't spend their time putting out fires every day; they think about where they want to be five or ten (or more) years from now, and work toward those long-term goals.
  • A life. Freelancing fulltime can be a rewarding, stimulating way to make a living, and there's nothing else I'd rather do work-wise. But to succeed long-term, you've got to have a life outside of and away from your PC or Mac. I learned early on that working 50-60 hours a week didn't make me more productive--it just made me cranky, anxious, and pudgy. My point? Long-term freelancers have interests outside their careers, and make sure that they take vacation time to recharge and "reset."

What does this mean for you, if you're newer to the freelancing biz? Take an afternoon, or a weekend, to ask yourself some simple questions. Where do you want to be five or ten years from now? What kinds of projects do you want to pursue? How does that differ from how you’re spending your time today? And most importantly, how can you start implementing strategies to help you get there?

**One more thing: we've hit 200 followers! I'm announcing another giveaway to celebrate this, so stay tuned.


  1. ohh! I was thinking of attending the conference in Madison! We'll see if my baby let's me! Would love to attend your talk.

  2. Sounds great, Holly--it's a fun and worthwhile conference. Make sure you come up and introduce yourself if you do. :)

  3. I really enjoy reading your tips and secrets, Kelly. After much consideration, I'm down to two specialty fields and have actually started a blog for one of them. Not sure where it's going to take me, but I'm liking the ride so far. You are right about having a life. I work full time and trying to balance writing with family, etc, is a challenge. I'm inspired though, and your blog helps me stay that way!

  4. Kelly, I think you are exactly right that these are all important qualities for a freelance writer. Your comments regarding not working too much are spot on -- I often have to remind myself that relaxation actually helps me to be much more productive. Thanks for another great post!

  5. Thanks, Conni--I think you'll finding narrowing your focus more productive, especially when you have so much going on! Glad to hear the blog is inspiring you!

    And thanks, Sarah, too. I find that I have more ideas (especially for "big picture" stuff) when I'm not pushing myself too hard.

    Happy monday to both of you!