When I started my communications consultancy in 2008, I had more time than I did projects to manage. So writing content was one of the many hats I donned during my workday.
Our stable of clients has since grown significantly (yay!), and I no longer have the luxury of time to spend crafting great copy.
We have two full-time staff writers who handle the bulk of the work, but when there’s overflow, we rely on freelancers. We’re in the very fortunate position that we’re busy more than we’re not, but for me it still makes better business sense to contract in based on current workflow.
Those freelancers play an integral part in our company.
They’re not just names in a database — these are professionals I know I can rely on to deliver top notch work on (or even ahead of) deadline. And make no mistake, they might not be in the office with us, but they’re still very much a part of the team.
To date I’ve worked with more than a hundred freelance writers and have learned a lot from my different experiences with them.
This is my advice to freelance writers who are just starting out (and some who have had their foot in the door for a while now):
1. Read the brief
When you get a brief, read it. Then read it again. Heck, read it a third time if necessary, but whatever you do make sure you understand exactly what’s expected of you. The main items you need to determine is the purpose of the piece (why are you writing it?) and the target audience (who are you writing for?).
Remember, before you put finger to keyboard is the time to ask questions, not when you submit your first draft.
2. Do some additional research
One option is to write whatever the brief outlined. If you write well enough and deliver on time, I’ll hire you again. You might not be my first choice, though.
The fastest way to get on my speed dial is to over-deliver. Do some additional research, and wow me with a few extra nuggets of information that turn the article into one where you read every word rather than scan for the bolded parts.
The more you take the above-and-beyond approach to your work, the more I’ll hire you and the more I’ll recommend you.
3. Don’t write about a subject you don’t understand
There’s a time and place for winging it — say, when you need to come up with a solid explanation for why your kid’s tooth is still under his pillow the next morning.
When you have to write 1,000 words on a topic you know nothing about, winging it is definitely not the way to go.
At best you’ll look like you’re obviously new to the subject, at worst you’ll come off like a complete fraud. Either way, the result isn’t going to be good.
Instead, research and ask questions until it makes sense or rather leave well alone. I’ll have more respect for you if you’re honest and turn a job down than if you try and fudge your way through it.
4. Familiarize yourself with the website or publication
You’ve probably read this advice more times than you can remember.
The thing about advice that keeps popping up is that it keeps popping up for a reason.
If you don’t know who you’re writing for, your chances of producing copy that’s on point and in keeping with the publication’s style are slim.
All you need to do is read some of the articles or copy that’s already been published; I’d say at least 10 posts or pages to get a good feel. Request additional editorial guidelines from your client and go over those thoroughly as well.
It’ll be a couple of hours of your time, but make no mistake, they’ll have been well spent.
5. Don’t go off the radar — communicate with us
I get it, when the creative juices start flowing the world recedes. All I ask is that you touch base once in a while to let me know you’re on track. Likewise, if things aren’t going so well.
I’d prefer you ask questions or flag potential issues ahead of time so I can avoid a disaster, rather than become intimately acquainted with mitigating one.
6. Deliver on time (or keep us posted if you can’t)
It’s all very well producing great work. But if you don’t deliver on time, chances are I won’t hire you again. I’d much rather use a good reliable writer than a great unreliable one.
That said, I do realize life sometimes happens. When it does the best thing you can do to make yourself stand out in a sea of freelancers is give me fair warning. If I know you’re not going to make your deadline, I can roll out a plan B.
7. Run spell check
Run a spell check before you submit your work. It’s a simple click of a button and takes mere seconds to complete. Using spell check doesn’t make you less of a writer. Rather, think of it as a safety net, there to catch the little things you might have missed.
It’s human to make mistakes and you’re welcome to break the rules on purpose, but if I have to edit typos that could have been picked up in a spell check, it’s not going to reflect well on you.
8. Get your fees agreed in writing and send your invoice as soon as your work is approved
Nobody likes administrative tasks, but avoiding them isn’t going to do you (or your bank account) any favors. Once we’ve agreed to work together, send me a contract to sign. This will help us avoid those horribly awkward situations that are generally brought about when we make assumptions.
I’d also like to pay you as quickly as I can, but that’s not possible if you send me your invoice three months after the work was completed.
It’s not just about ensuring you can put food on the table; your late invoicemesses with our accrual accounting system, which makes my accountant grumpy.
One last comment on the subject of paperwork and I’ll quit nagging. Please specify on your invoice what the project was and who it was written for. That way we can make sure we bill our client — and put some food on our own table, too.
Have you learned any of these freelancing lessons the hard way? What tips would you add to the list?
Heather Baker is founder and CEO of TopLine Comms, a video and integrated communications consultancy with offices in London and Cape Townand an international client base. She is also human to the world’s coolest office dog.
Blogger on the B2B Guide to Social Media and the UK Business Blog / Founder of B2B PR and Social Media Consultancy, TopLine Communications / Executive MBA Student, London Business School