11 insider secrets for becoming a freelance pro

December 30, 2009 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Freelancing 

freelance secretsMost writers are trained to think in terms of putting in 40 hours a week and taking home a paycheck. But to succeed as a freelance copywriter, you must make a shift from the paycheck mentality to the professional mentality.

There’s a lot of information out there about freelancing, but not all of it is helpful for making a living as a freelance copywriter. Here are 11 “insider” secrets I’ve found that make the difference between the freelance hobbyist and the freelance professional.

1. Think like a professional. Whether you want to earn a little extra income on the side or go full-blown freelance, you should consider yourself in the same class as all other professionals, worthy of the same respect and income.

2. Ignore most of the advice from the freelance “industry.” Many magazines, books, and online sources give bad advice for those wanting to make money at freelancing. You must carefully weigh the advice you get, choosing to follow only what you know will further your business interests.

3. Politely disregard the advice from friends and family. Everyone thinks they’re an expert, even those who have never freelanced before. But you have to avoid seeking emotional support and start seeking success. If someone gives you advice, look at how much money they’re making from their own freelancing, if any. If they’re no better off than you, smile, nod politely, and promptly forget what they say.

4. Think long term and never give up. It will probably take 3 to 5 years to establish a profitable clientele and to get comfortable with your new business. Many freelancers simply give up too soon. Make a commitment to persist against all odds and slowly grow your business over the next few years. Easier said than done. But persistence pays off.

5. Offer special expertise. You must offer clients unique knowledge, experience, or skill in some area besides the physical task you perform.

For example, if you’re a writer, what expertise do you have in addition to writing? Perhaps you work in the PR department of a hospital, or you have a few years of volunteer experience raising funds for a nonprofit, or you’ve written a number of successful radio commercials, or you have a chemical engineering degree. Whatever it is, your specialty gives you the edge you need to a) differentiate yourself from all other writers, b) narrow your market and find the right clients, and c) charge higher, professional-level fees.

Neither your writing skills nor your special expertise is enough by itself. Put them together, however, and you have the edge you need.

6. Avoid the “generalist trap.” Being a specialist is better than being a generalist. What happens if you don’t specialize? You will offer to do just about anything for anyone, as long as there’s a fee involved.

Your logic will go something like this: If I accept a wide variety of assignments, there are more businesses I can work for. And that means I will get more work and make more money. This sounds perfectly reasonable, but it’s dead wrong.

The generalist is seen as a jack of all trades, and a master of none. All-purpose freelancers are easy to come by. So, from a client’s point of view, the generalist has nothing special to offer.

Without a specialty, the generalist invariably concentrates on selling time or effort instead of helping a client accomplish something. Businesses are task-oriented. They want to get their newsletter out. They need a brochure to help their sales staff sell more widgets. They want a video to train employees. Clients need communication tools that do something, and they are not interested in your writing skills.

Since the generalist offers nothing special and doesn’t focus on the ultimate needs of clients, he or she will actually get LESS work and make LESS money. For example, I specialize in direct mail. My marketing pieces tell prospects to “Call the Direct Mail Copy Pro.” If a client needs a direct mail package written, who will they call? The writer who writes a little of this and a little of that? Or me, the direct mail copy professional?

Clients always call the specialist first.

By narrowing your market, you can more easily find your potential clients. If everyone in the phone book is a prospect, where do you start? By specializing, you decrease the total number of prospects and make it easier to market your services.

7. Specialize by industry or client type. This is the best way to specialize if you want to easily find your clients. It lets you use your specialized knowledge or experience and helps you hone in on the clients who could benefit from your services. There are literally thousands of ways to classify businesses, and therefore, thousands of ways for you to specialize by client type. Here are three common business classifications:

  • General Industry, such as Agriculture, Construction, Manufacturing, Communications, Retail, Financial Services, Insurance, Real Estate, and Business Services.
  • Specific Business, such as home builders, hospitals, law firms, photography studios, professional associations, resorts and hotels, or restaurants.
  • Business Size, such as Fortune 500, mid-size companies, or home-based business.

8. Specialize by function or format. Specializing by function means to specialize in something businesses need to do, such as generate sales leads, increase in-store traffic, build a brand image, improve customer communications, etc. Specializing by format means to specialize in a particular physical product, such as websites, annual reports, industrial manuals, and so on.

Specializing by function or format makes it more difficult to find clients, but easier to sell your particular skill set. This is the way I specialize, though if I were starting over today, I might consider specializing by industry.

9. Go with what you know. If you have an advertising background, stick with some form of advertising or marketing. If you have a technical degree, you might try technical writing. If you used to work in a graphic design studio, your strong suit is understanding how copy and design work together. Whatever you choose should be specific enough to set you apart, but broad enough to give you a sufficient client pool to hire you.

Can you make a radical jump, say, from a public relations job in the fashion industry to technical writing for software companies? Sure. But you won’t have the right samples to show your prospects. Few prospects will believe you can handle the work, even if you can. And you’ll dramatically increase the time you’ll need to understand your new business and become profitable.

I know, because I started out as a writer for a small television station. My jump from television writing to direct mail added about three years to my learning curve and probably cost me a hundred thousand dollars in lost profits from those early years.

10. Choose what is most profitable. Not every specialty pays the same. You could specialize in newsletters, for example, but you will probably earn less than someone creating annual reports for Fortune 1000 clients. On the other hand, any sort of freelancing can be profitable if you find a way to make it work for you. If you can get $1,000 for a newsletter, and write five each month, you’ll be earning $5,000 a month and $60,000 a year just from newsletters.

11. Have more than one specialty. Being a specialist isn’t a matter of who you are, but how your clients think of you. I’m a direct mail copywriter for many of my clients, but I’ve developed additional specialties in sales lead generation programs, writing and producing radio commercials, and creating ads for software products.

For now, you should focus on one strong specialty. But keep your options open. As you get work, you’ll probably find that similar clients are hiring you and that you are automatically developing specialties in several areas.

Related posts:

  1. 15 little secrets your freelance clients won’t tell you
  2. 4 winning secrets of superstar direct mail copywriters

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Smart Comments

8 Comments on 11 insider secrets for becoming a freelance pro

  1. james on Dec 31st, 2009 6:47 am
  2. 98% of people have no goals. they walk around like headless chickens. To this effect I totally agree with you to politely ignore advice from friends.

  3. Dean Rieck on Dec 31st, 2009 11:30 am
  4. James,
    All I meant was that friends don’t know much about copywriting or freelancing. I don’t know if they’re all headless chickens, though that’s an arresting image. I grew up on a farm and I remember headless chickens vividly.

  5. Roberta Rosenberg on Jan 4th, 2010 7:22 am
  6. #9 is critical, especially for new writers. When I work with students, I remind them that they may be new at writing, but they’re not new at ‘whatever’ their expertise. Starting from what they know/love and then layering the copywriting skills on top gives them automatic direction. Logical line extensions works in product development, as well as freelance skill development.
    .-= Roberta Rosenberg’s last blog … MavenTweets for 2009-12-25 =-.

  7. Dean Rieck on Jan 4th, 2010 10:49 am
  8. I agree, Roberta. It makes things a lot easier. Of course, I did things the hard way and moved from broadcasting and publishing to direct marketing. I didn’t have a solid subject specialty. But I’d do it that way if I got in the Way-Back Machine and started over.

  9. Pete Alexion on Jan 10th, 2010 12:27 pm
  10. I thought this article was closer to reality than most of the drivel we’re bombarded with. I especially agreed with #s2-4.

  11. John Gilger on Jan 11th, 2010 1:32 pm
  12. Good article. I think #2 and #4 should be seriously considered by anyone wanting toget started in the fewwlance business. “You can make a six-figure income this year” is a SALES PITCH, not reality. If keep working to develop your skills and your client list, you can earn a decent income, though.
    .-= John Gilger’s last undefined … If you register your site for free at =-.

  13. David Kubicek on May 26th, 2010 5:23 pm
  14. #3 is especially important to watch out for. I’ve had friends and family member make suggestions to me and get angry when I tell them that would be amateurish.

  15. Cathy on Jul 24th, 2011 2:57 pm
  16. Okay, so I just begged you for hope on the last comment. You just gave it. I have been running around like a chicken with my head cut off trying to get anything I could take…I haven’t done horrible. I just heading into year two and I average $1,000 a month. Peanuts to a lot of the writers here, I know. I guess we all have to start somewhere. Thank you so very, very much for your post. You really did just give me hope. I have felt like giving up for months but I feel like I can hang on a little longer and, if I work on finding my specialty, I can really do this still! I love what I do but it has been more than full time and very taxing up to this point. Now I know why. Sorry for rambling….this just really put a lot of things in place for me and I wanted you to know how much it really did help! Thanks again and again!