How to Set Yourself Apart as a Freelance Writer
As a freelancer, I also hire other freelancers. Sometimes, a client needs help with managing editorial workflow, so I hire/assign/train other freelancers as needed. Sometimes, a client just needs help forming and then assigning an editorial calendar. Sometimes, the client needs me to chase down freelancers and see WTF they haven’t turned in their work yet.
Whatever the client’s needs may be, I tap into my past experience as an editor and work with a wide array of other freelance writers/designers/other professionals. While this allows me a nice respite from all the writing I do on a daily basis, it also allows me a glimpse into what the freelance writing landscape is currently like, who my potential competition is and what not to do as a freelance writer, if you want to get jobs and get paid.
If You Can’t Get Work, You Might Be Doing Something Wrong
I’ve always had a hunch that I was doing something right. I consistently keep clients for years and have never had the dreaded “drought” season of freelancing (knock on wood). I keep a 6-week waiting list and clients frequently ask to increase the scope of their contracts. Even on my worst days, I can somehow squeeze a project or assignment out of somewhere and someplace.
So, given this, I was always somewhat surprised when a fellow freelancer would bemoan a lack of work. If I could find work at every turn, why couldn’t they? I’m a good writer, but not the world’s most spectacular writer. I know other writers who are much better than I am. I know writers with greater range and more commitment to their craft. I know writers with better credentials and flashier resumes. I know writers who never phone it in and pour their souls into every piece, while I sometimes very much phone it in as I cobble together a merely-good-enough story.
So why was I getting work, where they couldn’t?
As I managed freelancers and saw things from the client/hiring side, I eventually realized that it all comes down to a few things that I always do, that they only sometimes (or even never) did. And it’s these things that will set you apart from all the other freelancers and make you an invaluable resource to your clients, no matter how great those other freelancers are or how much they outrank you in experience or clout.
1. Meet your deadlines.
I can’t believe I have to include this one.
I pride myself greatly on my ability to meet a deadline. I always meet them. I live by them. I breathe by them. I adore a good deadline. I thrive on structure. Other people … maybe not so much?
I’ve worked with a variety of freelancers who just … ignore deadlines? Or don’t care about them? Or think they don’t matter? I’ve had to chase down freelancers who just miss deadlines with no communication. It leaves the editor or whoever is in charge in a lurch, because suddenly they have no content where and when they need it.
This really boggles my mind, because I, personally, would be filled with extreme guilt at not meeting a deadline. Regardless of the reasons, trust me — a piece that’s 75% right and 100% on time will always be more appreciated than a piece that’s 90% right and a week late.
2. Communicate, communicate, communicate.
If you don’t think you can meet a deadline for a reason out of your control (the interviewee you need isn’t picking up the phone, for example), tell your editor. Soon. Early. Not on the day of the deadline or even the day before. Give them several days’ notice. At least. And then, beyond that, beyond just giving notice, offer to replace whatever it is you’re not turning in.
Again, your editor or content manager needs the content. They’ll wildly appreciate it if you give them content when they need it, even if it’s not the content that they originally wanted. Now, that doesn’t mean to just write up something and say “Hey, couldn’t make my deadline; here’s an unrelated article for you to use in its place.”
But it does mean to communicate thoroughly with your point of contact if you think you won’t be able to meet their expectations in any way, and then offer to make it right. Even with little stuff, this matters. For example, a few days ago, I had an issue with one of my clients who asks me to use an SEO software for assigned content before turning it in. You just run your content through the software and it tells you where to shorten sentences, paragraphs, etc. The SEO software was down. So, what did I do? I didn’t just not turn anything in. Instead, I edited the article the way the software typically does, on my own, then sent the draft to my editor, let them know what was going on, and then asked if they’d like me to use a different software.
Communication matters. Your client does not want surprises.
3. Follow the guidelines.
Every client has their own style sheet and guidelines. Some want you to use serial commas, some don’t. Some need British/UK spellings, while some don’t. Some require external sources to be cited a certain way, while others want SEO backlinks to their own prior content. Every client has different guidelines.
Learn them. Make notes of them. Remember feedback on past projects. Write it down. When I was just starting out, whenever a client would give me feedback or send me an internal guide, I would write down all the points that I knew I’d have trouble with (ie, using serial commas or slight deviations from AP Style) and then I’d go over each piece with my list before turning it in. I have one client who, once upon a time, said they thought my use of the word “plenteous” wasn’t conversational enough. I know I use “plenteous” fairly often in writing, so now I search each doc for it before turning in content to that particular client.
Just learn your client’s preferences and then tailor your content to those preferences. You don’t even have to get that crazy with it. If they give you a style guide, go over it each time you turn something in, to ensure you ticked all the right boxes.
It’ll make a big difference and set you apart from the freelancers who aren’t doing the same.
4. Be flexible.
Not every client is going to want the same thing and not every client is going to want exactly what you have on offer. If you can, be flexible enough to change what you offer, to meet the client’s needs.
I’ve seen multiple freelancers who are incredibly hung up on that one rule they learned in journalism school and if a client ever asks them to deviate away from that rule, they just won’t. They’ll refuse. And so they lose the work, because they weren’t flexible enough to deviate away from the way they’ve always done something.
The world of content is extremely diverse. With SEO, listicles, sponsored content, marketing content disguised as journalism, affiliate links, product placements, on and on — if you want work, you can’t be married to certain ways of doing things. Even in the eight years I’ve been freelancing, content has changed so much. Things clients would frown on five years ago are common practice now.
I’m not saying that you should just write whatever you’re told. If you want to write only certain types of content, that’s fine. But don’t expect every client or publication to want what you’re selling. The freelancers who are swimming in work (and money) are the ones that are flexible enough to change up what and how they write.
5. Don’t expect your editor to do the work for you.
You were hired to offer value to your editor or content manager. So don’t expect them to do work for you. Don’t expect them to hold your hand. If they wanted to hold someone’s hand, they’d hire an intern or some student straight out of the English department.
In other words, know how to do your job before you take the job. Don’t ask your editor to find your sources, if you’ve been asked to write a piece that requires interviews. Don’t ask your editor to format your piece because you can’t be bothered to learn how to format in Word/Google docs/whatever. Don’t ask your editor to give you an outline, after they give you an assignment brief; you should be giving the outline, if an outline is needed at all.
If you can show up and make your client’s job and life all the easier, they’ll come back to you time and time again, with more assignments.
Setting Yourself Apart as a Freelancer
Setting yourself apart as a freelancer isn’t difficult — but it is hard work. But then, freelancing in general is hard work. You’re running a business. You’re not an employee anymore. There’s no one to pick up the slack except for yourself. Your clients hire you to fill a need and provide value — so if you’re not doing those things, don’t expect to be successful.
Holly Riddle is a freelance travel, lifestyle and food journalist and marketing content writer who dabbles in fiction. She can be reached at email@example.com. Her website is hollyriddle.org and her Twitter handle is @TheHollyRiddle.