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The Secrets to Becoming a Better Freelance Writer: Tricks of the Trade from an Insider

Updated: Mar 11, 2019

Freelance writing might be the best gig in town—no clock to punch, no bossy boss, no dry cleaning. The “free” in “freelance” is real, but so is the struggle for many who haven’t mastered the art of “freewheeling” their career.

Aside from a solid foundation in writing skills, some marketing savvy, and a reliable computer, succeeding at the freelance writing game calls for a few tricks of the trade.

After 30 years of working in my PJs, I have learned a few hard and fast rules that will help all freelancers up their game.

1. Rely on Routine. I’m a freak and wake up every day at 3 a.m. What can I say, I’m a morning person. I don’t even set an alarm. I love the quiet hours with my coffee, my dog, and my cat with no distractions.

You don’t have to wake up at the crack of dawn, but you do have to get into the habit of getting into the habit.

Here’s what I do:

• I check texts first, to see if any emergencies happened overnight.

• Then I scroll through my emails (now is not the time to indulge in personal correspondence—you’re scanning for business contacts).

• Next, I check all my business-related social media, so I have a complete picture of who needs what and when.

• Finally, I get to work. That’s right—write. Or edit, or make calls, or do research…whatever the day calls for.

Some days are bound to be lighter than others. When that happens, revel in the right to do your own thing! After all, this is why you hung out your own shingle in the first place.

Go ahead and call your friend for that overdue lunch date, run some errands, or go to the movies. If you just can’t stand the guilt or you are feeling especially motivated, spend your free time drumming up some new clients.

2. Kill Procrastination. Shoot it dead. It is your worst enemy, and it loves nothing more than to watch you squirm and fail.

A boss who drops by your office to nag you about that deadline may seem like an office-space nuisance, but it is also a very effective motivator.

Freelancers sitting at home only a few feet from the TV and the fridge struggle with the siren song of distraction like no office worker on the planet. Only those with a great deal of self-control and discipline can pass the daily (sometimes hourly) test of temptation.

Sadly, warnings like this only go so far, in my experience. For a freelancer to really take this to heart, he or she will have to feel the pain of procrastination’s sting at some point in their careers. It might be a lost bid, or worse yet, a lost client, maybe even a loss of self-respect, but whatever it is, it will hurt.

If you’re serious about staying in the freelance business, you MUST defeat this enemy.

Along these lines, I always advise fellow freelancers to tackle the yucky stuff first. I don’t even need to explain that to them; they get it. The cranky client who is never satisfied and always obsessed with micromanaging; the unwieldy project with too broad a scope, too few details, and no one able to answer your questions; or any other aspect of your daily to-do list that bores you or scares you—do these FIRST!

Get them out of the way. They will not go away on their own, it will not get easier later in the day, and you will not feel better about it tomorrow—do it now!

3. Track Your Time. I know freelancers who try to keep track of billable hours in their heads, or tally hours on a sticky note, or even forego any of these formal attempts and simply estimate their time spent at the end of a project.

This is not only outrageous—it’s unethical!

Productive freelancers juggle multiple projects for multiple clients every day. Anything short of a detailed account of hours spent invites chaos.

There are many tools and apps available to help keep freelancers out of hot water. I happen to use Worktime Tracker, which lets me “clock in” and “clock out” with several clients all day long. It gives me real-time reports that I can use for billing.

Save yourself a huge headache and get yourself a reliable app.

4. Master Your Motivators. It’s different for everyone—what motivates you?

Is it money? Public recognition? Personal achievement? Find out what it is that truly gets your blood pumping and capitalize on that.

If crossing off items on a list gives you warm fuzzies, then make lists and plaster them all around your workspace.

If you are goal oriented, make a chart and give yourself a gold star (don’t worry; your kindergarten teacher will never know).

If you’re anything like me, you’re needs are much simpler—I keep a huge bag of M&Ms by my desk and reward myself with one or two (or a handful) whenever I get past a road block. Okay, sometimes I eat them because I CAN’T get past the roadblock—chocolate helps me, don’t judge.

The point is, you know you—identify your motivator and use it.

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