10 Big Mistakes You Might Be Making in Your Freelancing Career

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This post was originally for my column, “Freelance by Lauren,” on the now defunct DIY Writing: A Writer’s Bucket List.

Illustration by Ramiro Roman
Illustration by Ramiro Roman

Freelance writers making mistakes? Is that even possible?

If you think I’m talking about grammatical errors and typos, you’re wrong. Those mistakes barely matter in the bigger scheme of things. The mistakes I’m talking about are much more sinister – and much more detrimental to your freelance writing career.

And much more common!

I don’t know any freelancers who haven’t made at least one of the 10 mistakes written below. And that’s . . . not so good.

So here we go:

1. Not Saving for Taxes

When you’re a traditional employee, taxes are taken out of your paycheck for you. So when you get your first freelance “paycheck,” you might fist pump the air and let out a yelp of satisfaction – you’ve just made more money in a solid lump than you ever made at one of your crappy minimum wage jobs! You’re well on your way to being a self-made millionaire! Right . . .?

Not exactly. Just because taxes are no longer taken out of your earnings doesn’t mean the government doesn’t want to collect them. Because they do. They so do.

Taxes will vary depending on where you reside, but, on average, expect about 20 percent of your earnings to be taken from you come tax time. Plan ahead!

2. Believing “All I Have to Do is Write!”

There’s a myth going around that all writers do is write. It’s usually spouted by non-writers, but I’ve known quite a few “aspiring” freelance writers who’ve been believers as well. And, boy, have they been disappointed!

As glamorous as sitting around writing all day sounds, the reality is this: To be a successful freelance writer, you have to don many hats – not just the fun ones.Especially that marketing hat! Before you can start writing for clients, you have to let them know you exist. Self-promotion takes up much more space on most freelance writer’s schedules than actual writing.

3. Not Writing in Your Own Voice

You know how we’re always encouraging you to “find your voice” and “be yourself” when you write? That’s because it’s a huge mistake not to!

When you’re new or lack confidence, it can be tempting to imitate others. You look at your favorite writers thriving in the world you hope to someday dominate and you think, “I’ll just do what they’re doing!” The problem is, when you use their voice, you sound stiff and awkward. And maybe even vaguely disturbing (like a robot wearing a flesh suit made from successful bloggers). It just doesn’t work.

4. Thinking of Other Writers as “The Competition”

One of the greatest things about becoming a freelance writer is getting to be a part of the community.

There’s plenty of writing to go around.

Thinking of other writers as “the competition” rather than “colleagues” or “soon-to-be-friends” will only hold you back.

I can’t speak for every freelance writer but, personally, around 60 percent of my clientele have been referred to me via other writers. My fellow writers have gotten to know who I am and what I’m good at and, now, when a client comes along that would be right for me, they send him (or her) my way! And I do the same for them. It’s truly a beautiful thing – and it would never have been possible if we’d been at each other’s throats instead of having each other’s backs.

5. Not Using Contracts

When a writer comes to me with a client-based issue, my first question is usually, “Well, what does it say in your contract?” At which point we either get things cleared up pretty quickly . . . or they say “I don’t have a contract” and then I feel the vein in my temple start to throb as I hold back the urge to shake them by their lapels.

Never, ever work without a contract!

I don’t care if you’re working for a Fortune 500 company or your best friend’s great grandmother: Get everything in writing. There are million and one ways for potential clients to pull one over on you. The first step toward protecting yourself is to get a contract. Always.

6. Misjudging Your Worth

Most writers who are new to freelancing have no idea what they’re worth. If you’ve never been paid for your writing before, any money can seem like “a lot.”

Know how much money you want to make for your work, and don’t be afraid to ask for it.

7. Being Unreliable

Freelance writers have a reputation for being unreliable. And, sadly, it’s a reputation they’ve earned. To quote Leaving Work Behind’s Tom Ewer:

“If you’re like most freelancers, you fall into one of two categories: those who are reliable and those who are not. If you stay in the latter group, you’re unlikely to increase your rate beyond what it is now.”

Of all the mistakes on this list, this is the one that will cost you the most clients in the long run. Missed deadlines and sloppy work won’t cultivate repeat business.

Writing is your job now, so treat is as such. You wouldn’t skip work at a 9-to-5 and expect to still get paid! Have some respect for your career, your clients, and yourself. Don’t perpetuate the “unreliable” stereotype – for both your sake and for your fellow freelancers.

8. Always Saying “Yes!”

Saying “no” to a client can be tough. Especially if you need the money. However, if you say “yes” to everyone, you’ll burn out quickly. And your work will suffer.

Instead of doling out average writing to numerous clients, try providing your best writing to a few clients. Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket, but don’t spread yourself too thin either. It may take you a while to find the perfect balance but, once you do, the testimonials will start pouring in — and you’ll still have the energy to enjoy them.

9. Not Reading?!

Writers who don’t read boggle my mind. How is that even possible?!

Not only does reading help turn you into a better writer, it can also further your career and keep you out of trouble. Read the fine print on your contracts, read up on your assigned topics, and read any and all guidelines.

10. Fearing Rejection

If you falter in the face of rejection, you might not be cut out for freelance writing.Professional freelance writers get rejected a lot. And that’s okay.

If you got rejected, that means that you tried. And that’s more than a lot of “writers” will do. There are thousands of people around the world proclaiming their love for writing — “I’m going to write a novel!” — and then they do nothing about it. No steps are taken toward making that dream come true. So if you’re getting rejected you’re already doing more than they are. And that’s something to be proud of.

Just remember to learn from it. (And the same goes for every other mistake!).

Speaking of which, have you made any of the top 10 biggest mistakes in your freelancing career?

What did you do to fix them? Let us know in the comments!

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