I started out as a freelance writer in 2013 but eventually got what I’d call a big break in 2015. After four incredibly hard yet fun years, and with the scars to show for it, here are lessons I’ve learned along the way.
Grab a coffee. This go’n take a while…
- Writing professionally means way more than just writing.
Diversify your skillset.
A career in the creative arts is never exclusively about being creative. When you’re not writing, the life of a professional writer includes other activities, many of them tedious including sales and marketing, networking, publishing, distribution, and accounting.
If writing is the flashy frontend that draws us in, these “boring” activities are the gears in the backend that will make sure you have a writing career at all.
Creative people tend to shy away from these other activities, claiming they are either too boring, or too depressing. Yes it can sometimes feel like grunt work but guess what? Unless you can afford to pay someone to do it for you, you’ll just have to suck it up and get with it.
Thankfully, there are tons of resources online to help anyone’s who is looking to learn.
- When you’re starting out, it’s okay to work for free.
Note I said, when you’re starting out.
For me, this lasted for 6 months. I did pro bono work for friends, classmates, my local church, and even an NGO.
At this stage, I lacked enough confidence to ask for money in good conscience cos I didn’t even think I could deliver something worth paying for. My biggest fear during this period was producing writing that would ruin my client’s chances of making money or some other unreasonable disaster.
While this helped me work harder than I’ve ever worked before, it also prevented me from asking for money in exchange for my services. I basically worked for “exposure” but more importantly, I gained invaluable experience and built a reasonable portfolio.
- Pricing your services is a tricky science.
And it’s okay to be nervous about putting a price tag on your work. The anxiety comes from the possibility of pricing your services either too high or too low.
When you’re just starting out, I believe it’s okay to underprice yourself.
When I started earning money for writing, I used to get paid N3,000 per article. Sometime later, I was able to raise my prices to N5,000.
As my skills got better, and my portfolio increased, I raised my rates again, this time to N10,000.
I know people who charge a whole lot more than that.
It all depends on what you can live with at the end of the day. My rule of thumb is, charge whatever will not make you grumble during the job but try to be considerate of the client as well.
- Still on pricing…
For big projects, always collect at least 40 percent of the total cost upfront.
That 40 percent upfront does two things for you:
a. It helps you weigh the client’s commitment. I learned the hard way how fickle human beings can be. Committing funds to a projects helps us make up our minds. So think of it as helping your clients make up their minds.
b. It gives you some much needed runway. Big projects are long projects and usually involve rigorous research, interviews and sometimes, travel. The last thing you need is not being able to complete a project because you ran out of cash.
Make it a precondition to taking on big projects. It could be 50 percent or 60 percent upfront. But 40 is the minimum.
- On marketing and promotion.
As a fresh writer, nobody really knows (nor cares) what you do. You have to be up in people’s faces in subtle (and not so subtle) ways.
To put it bluntly, you have to be shameless about trumping your own horn. That shyness? Bury it and attend the funeral.
The goal is to ensure that with your family and friends, your name should be the first one that comes to mind when they see writing opportunities.
I got my first full time writing gig through a referral. The Editor in Chief of TechCabal had been on the hunt for good writers for months and ran into a good friend of mine at a mixer. She didnt hesitate to recommend me immediately. The rest, as they say, is history.
- The client is always right.
This one requires some humility.
Regardless of what you think, your client is never wrong.
There’s sometimes the proverbial client from hell (and experience will teach you to spot them over time), but most clients just want someone competent enough to deliver what they want. The challenge sometimes is they need help expressing their desires.
Part of the customer relationship process is educating clients on the nature of services you provide, what is possible within certain timeframes and when it is not.
If you are being asked to do something you know is not possible, let them know you don’t think it is possible. If they insist it is, don’t get into a back and forth match. Politely decline.
Every client is unique and hiring a writer over the internet has many quirks. So be courteous, be respectful, and be patient with everyone.
Another thing to take note of: You’re a hired hand. You’re being paid to deliver a service. You can offer advice, you can make suggestions or recommendations, but at no point should you become too attached to YOUR own ideas. The client has the final say on what stays or what goes in their commissioned writing.
If the client says they want their work done a certain way, do it that way. Don’t try to push your own ideas on them. Sure, your way may turn out better but let’s face it, you’re not being paid to push your own ideas. You’re paid to help actualise theirs.
- Write wide, Read wider.
Pulitzer winning author, Jennifer Egan, once said, “Read at the level at which you want to write. Reading is the nourishment that feeds the kind of writing you want to do.” In other words, the quality of your writing is directly influenced by the quality of your reading.
It’s not just quantity but also quality. Reading helps you get accustomed with different styles, rhythms, ideas and concepts. Find the time to settle down with great books by great authors, subscribe to excellent newsletters, avoid drivel, social media fluff and whatnots.
As you read, write. Put down your ideas. Try different genres. Do satire, do fiction, do non-fiction, do interviews, do listicles, do it all. Have fun with your craft.
Writing is a job but it’s also fun. Exploring genres widens your audience, stretches you out of your comfort zone and forces you to try new things.
- If you want to be taken seriously, be professional.
Arrive on time for meetings. Send reminders on deliverables. Above all, meet your deadlines. I cannot stress how important this is. I once had to relocate to an aunt’s home on the other side of town, for 3 days, just to meet up with a killer deadline.
Excuses are a forbidden thing. If there’s a complication and your ability to meet the deadline is compromised, inform the client way ahead of time.
Call, explain the situation and then humbly request an extension. Follow up with a thank you email which also doubles as documentation about the extension of deadline.
- On taking advice, stick to people who know what they are talking about.
This one is harsh but it needs to be said. Unless your mom is an ardent reader and knows how to critique a book, her feedback doesn’t really count. Ditto for your friends and families who also don’t really read.
These days, people are very careful with coming off as offensive so we pull our punches when we give feedback. But as a young writer, you need objective feedback. And it has to come from people who are mindful about good writing. Who can see flaws in your work and know how to fix it.
I wrote something about objective feedback some years ago.
These people don’t have to be writers (though they are usually your best bet) but they have to have “the eye” for good writing.
- It gets lonely.
Extremely lonely. Especially when you’re working on a piece that is kicking your ass. You will lose hours in your own mind, thinking, planning and rewriting entire chapters.
This is inevitable but please, don’t stay too long in there. Get out of your own head, talk to people often, make phone calls, leave the house, enjoy the company of others.
I’ve discovered that ideas flow easier when you have a healthy social life. The writing recluse caricature is a cliche and a harmful one at that.
Like Stephen King once wrote: “[Writing] starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.”
Write, then go ahead and live a good life.
I’d like to know if this helped.