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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A Cup of Ambition: The Freelance Writer

We've all heard it before, at dinner parties, from relatives, from our therapists: "Oh, you write. Does that mean you'll be a teacher?" Fine, fine. We can't make enough money to "eat" or "live" from our poetry. Every MFA graduate knows the horrible feeling that settles into her stomach as graduation approaches. You finished a whole book!, you keep telling people. And still, no prospective employers come a-calling. Here at HFR, we know how you feel. We thought it might be interesting to take a closer look at some jobs we writers and lovers of books might enjoy. Or do enjoy. Or have tried, and regret. This regular post, A Cup of Ambition, will talk to those in-the-know about what the working world is really like. (To see our previous interviewees, click here.)

Susan Johnston, freelance writer, self-employed

Tell me what you do
I write for magazines, websites, anthologies, catalogues, brochures, and more. My specialties include writing articles about career and lifestyle topics, as well as marketing copy for nonprofits and retail companies.

How did you get started?

During college, I sent a couple of articles "on spec" to a personal finance magazine for college students (on spec means you're submitting the article already written without getting a contract first). They agreed to publish my articles and assigned more (plus, I got paid, which I wasn't expecting).

I kept writing for that magazine for several more years and started querying other publications once I had a bigger portfolio of writing clips. It's usually best to send a query email before you write the article so you can get a contract and get instructions from your editor, but sometimes writing on spec works if you don't have any published clips.

The Good Stuff
I love the variety and the fact that I control my time and the projects I do. One day I'll be interviewing a CEO for a business profile, and the next I could be writing product descriptions for a jewelry catalogue.

The Bad Stuff
Freelancers don't always get the respect we deserve. I always make sure I have a contract with my editors or clients, because I've learned the hard way that some people do not conduct business ethically. Most clients do, but the ones who don't pay promptly (or at all) mess up our finances and mess with our confidence. I try not to take things personally (it's just business, after all), but when a client jerks you around and refuses to pay, it can be slightly demoralizing.

Surprise Me

You'd think that a freelance writer would be able to spend her days in coffee shops typing up a storm in typical writerly fashion. But there's a lot of paperwork and administrative tasks involved, too. For instance, dealing with contracts, invoices, estimated taxes, etc. In fact, most freelancer writers probably spend at least a third of their time NOT writing.

Spin a Yarn

Earlier this year, I did an hour focus group for people who buy consumer electronics online. I had just bought a new TV, so I qualified. During the focus group, it became obvious that their website needed a better tagline, so I suggested the first one that popped into my head. The CEO liked it.

I thought this might be a little tacky, but the next day I emailed him and said "if you ever need a freelancer, I've done ecommerce copywriting in the past..." I didn't try too hard to sell him, just planted the seed. Sure enough, he emailed me a couple of days later and hired me for a blogging project. You just never know where you might find your next client, so you need to be constantly looking for opportunities!

Who makes a good freelancer?
Freelance writers need to be highly self-disciplined and willing to sell themselves and their writing services. Being a good businessperson is just as important as being a good writer. It also helps if you're able to keep your spending in check, because payment doesn't always come when it's supposed to!

How do I become you?
Read as many books or blogs as you can before you start freelancing full time. I'd recommend both of Michelle Goodman's books (The Anti-9 to 5 Guide and My So-Called Freelance Life) and Kelly James-Enger's Six-Figure Freelancing to name a few.

Thoughts on this job for writers…
Freelance writing has a lot of flexibility, so it can be good for writers with side projects. Of course, many freelancers have trouble finding the time and energy to work on creative writing after doing client work all day, but if you set boundaries and you're highly motivated, it's possible. In fact, NYT bestselling novelist Allison Winn Scotch balanced freelance magazine assignments while writing many of her novels.

Susan Johnston
is a Boston-based freelance writer and blogger who has covered business and lifestyle topics for The Boston Globe, The Christian Science Monitor,, Yahoo! HotJobs, and many other publications. She also writes marketing materials for nonprofits and small businesses. Want to know more? Check out The Urban Muse or follow her on Twitter.

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