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Monday, June 18, 2012

Are You a New Writer? Avoid These Common Freelance Mistakes

I've posted before about the common mistakes freelancers make (including failing to market yourself, missing a deadline, and forgetting what your client wants, but this topic never gets old. So this post I'm talking with Jodi Helmer, who's been freelancing since 2002. 

Every writer makes mistakes, says Jodi. She admits to committing a few faux pas like resending a query to an editor who rejected it a few days earlier. Oops.

Despite the occasional gaffe, Jodi has published articles in National Geographic Traveler, Shape and American Way among others. She also coaches writers to help them achieve freelance success.

Q: What made you decide to work with writers one-on-one?

A: When I started freelancing, I had a great coach who worked with me on the nuts and bolts as well as the emotional side of freelancing. She reviewed my queries, answered panicked emails about contracts and revision requests and helped me figure out a plan to be successful. It was something I wanted to offer to other writers – and judging by the number of emails I get from new writers looking for advice, it’s a much-needed service!

Q: What is the biggest mistake new writers make?

A: I think the single biggest mistake writers make is not treating their writing like a business.

No one opens a bakery thinking, “I love baking cupcakes so I’ll buy the ingredients, mix the batter, bake the cakes and give them away!” But writers do this all the time.

It’s essential to run the numbers: What is your income goal? How much does it take per month/week/day to meet that goal? Once you know the numbers, you can start figuring out the best strategies to meet your goal.

Approaching writing like a business isn’t just about cash flow. When freelancing is a business, not a hobby, your approach changes: You’re more selective about the work you take, more apt to invest in your success.

Q: When it comes to crunching the numbers, what is the best approach?

A: I think it’s a mistake to focus on per word rates. Sure, it sounds impressive to get $2 per word but, in my experience, higher per word rates often result in lower hourly rates thanks to long delays between query and acceptance, specific assignment requirements and multiple rounds of revisions.

Figuring out what a story will pay per hour, as opposed to per word, is a better way to decide if an assignment is worthwhile from a profitability perspective. You’ll have to work with an editor a few times to determine the average hourly rate for assignments.

Q: Speaking of working with editors, what are the biggest mistakes writers make in writer/editor relationships?

A: Writers often fail to think beyond their current assignment. It’s important to develop relationships with editors. You don’t want to be a one-hit wonder with dozens of editors; a sustainable business is built on being the go-to writer for a handful of editors.

To that end, think of ways to impress an editor like including contact information for sources with the piece to help with fact checking, being accommodating during the editing process, thanking the editor for the assignment. Those little things won’t go unnoticed.

To learn more about Jodi Helmer and the mentoring programs and workshops she offers, go to And for the record, I agree with all of her advice! Thanks, Jodi, for sharing your insights here. Readers, do you agree with her biggest mistakes? Or do you have others to offer? 


  1. Who was your coach? I often think about hiring a coach as I feel like I need some direction ... do you recommend anyone?

  2. Hi, Molly!

    I didn't have a coach...but I read a LOT of books about freelancing along the way. I would definitely recommend Jodi (I've known her for years) as well as Linda Formichelli, who does coaching for freelancers. (She's the coauthor of The Renegade Writer.)

    Let me know if you have more questions! :)

  3. Thanks Kelly -- I'm practically stalking Linda (and you) for advice :)) But I still feel like I'm spinning my wheels -- I'll look at Jodi's site. Thanks.

    And I'll be in Chicago next week so hopefully you, Amanda Hoving, and I can meet up!

  4. Hi Kelly - I'm wondering if you could point me in the right direction.

    I'm a ghost and I'm trying to establish a rate for a national photo tutorial company I work for as an "editor." The work isn't difficult, usually from 500 to 750 words per assignment, three to four assignments a week. I know what I would charge as a standard rate, but 75% of my assignments are last-minute, gotta-have-it-now re-writes. In what is par for the course, the people are work for have no experience in publishing - they just need online content. They have no experience working with writers. I get paid well, but not what I deserve. How do I fix this?

  5. Good question, Louie. (But do we ever get paid what we *deserve*? :)) You might ask for a raise based on your availability/ability to meet those tight turnarounds. Say something like, "I appreciate the work and enjoy working with you, and you know I'm reliable. But when we have these rush assignments, I have to make myself available and put other work aside to meet my deadlines. Considering that, and the additional stress of these tight deadlines, could you do better money-wise?" And see what happens. And keep me posted! Good luck!