Freelance Writers — A Different Breed

Joan-Marie Moss

If you want a profile of a writer, you’ll look long and hard — and be very disappointed. Writers come in all shapes and sizes. The only common denominator they share is that they use ink and paper (or digital data) to communicate with others.

When the Bloomingdale Writer’s Group formed in 1990, that diversity was most pronounced. The people who joined that group included people who admittedly only write “for my own enjoyment” as well as those who dreamed of getting their names in print and those who work as freelance writers.

Frequently the group’s discussions focused on what is required to become a successful published writer.

It was surprising how many of those people were afraid that success would happen to them. These were the people who wrote breathtaking prose and poetry and then “put it in a drawer” afraid to expose it to potential criticism. And, it was surprising how differently each approached writing both in terms of their goals and the methods they used to get achieve what they thought of as “success”.

Perhaps the most astounding revelation that came out of that gathering is that the only consistent distinction between the published authors and amateurs is that published authors were getting paid for their work — even while they learned.

To get paid, though, the writers approached their work from distinctly different points of view. Some worked for corporations in 9-5 jobs, writing sales materials or technical manuals or training programs. Some worked as freelancers, writing to fill the needs of a widely diverse market, frequently working on several projects for more than one employer at the same time.

It soon became apparent that the freelancers fell into a unique, and very much misunderstood group.

Freelancers are independent writers, who make a living doing what they love best, putting words on paper. Unlike their peers who work in corporations, they tend to work for many different “employers” and even appear to be somewhat scattered because their projects take them into so many different directions.

Freelancers may submit completed works on spec to magazines — although a surprising number of them maintained that they would not work on December 12, 2012->ast a contract for payment) first. Either way, they normally don’t rely on that one avenue as a source of income. They work as stringers or correspondents for newsletters, newspapers and magazines. They write promotional pieces for their communities and local businesses. They may even expand their services to include desktop publishing, research, or teaching.

Freelance writers are highly creative and curious, as all writers must be. And they are perennial students of the world in which they live. What distinguishes them is that they take their work seriously enough to get out and find — or create — markets for their work. Successful freelancers are equally pragmatic. They recognize the underlying premise of all business: marketing is everything.

To be a successful freelancer requires a keen eye for holes in the marketplace. It demands constant contact with the market. It requires sensitivity to the psychological and emotional needs of potential clients. It relies on the ability to sell (oh, horrors!) one’s skills and the benefits that others will gain from the efforts of the writer.

From the day when the first writer discovered how to preserve ideas and communications on rocks and papyrus for future generations to enjoy, a mystique has haunted those who aspire to being writers. The mystique is almost oppressive at times for freelancers.

“I’m a freelance writer” the writer begins. The listeners’ eyes glaze over, as they say something profound like, “Sure, you are, isn’t everyone?”

One writer put it very well, “Much of my time is spent showing people that writing is not glamorous. It’s hard work to find just the right words to convey a complex idea or to sell a product. Yes, lots of people write. They spend a great deal of time trying to find and follow a formula that may or may not work. My job is to call forth all my skills and understanding of how the English language works, how words affect people, what people want, what motivates them to action and to create a piece that is so compelling that the intended audience will read and respond to its message. That takes a lot of time and it takes a lot of creative energy.”

Rarely is a great feature article or brochure or sales letter whipped up from top of the head thinking. A great deal of research is required, not only in terms of the subject but also in terms of the market and of the ultimate reader. Much of that work is never seen by anyone other than the writer. The nature of quality writing that produces results and reactions from readers is such that it must appear totally effortless.

This is not a skill that’s learned over-night. And it’s not one that can be executed without a great deal of refinement and practice.

But, freelance writers consistently tell us that this isn’t the biggest challenge they face. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of a freelance writer’s career is the need to juggle countless bits of information, countless projects — always looking ahead — all the while attending to the normal demands of a business…all the while remaining open and receptive to criticism and rejection.

Freelance writers are accountable to the people they work for and to IRS just as anyone else who is earning a living. The difference is they may work for a half dozen different “employers” at any given time. And most of their projects are short term or part-time. In order to make the equivalent of a full-time income, they become skilled negotiators and masters of time management. In fact, it’s not at all uncommon for freelance writers to find that only 25-50% of their time is actually spent writing. In today’s rapidly evolving information age, they spend a great deal of time and money just keeping up with latest developments, computers, software, internet — a writer without these tools just won’t cut it today if they hope to serve today’s sophisticated market. The rest of the time freelancers devote to creating paper trails, studying the market they serve, researching to find out who needs their services and finding ways to sell themselves to potential clients.

At first, freelancers may try to juggle all aspects of the business alone. But as their business grows, it becomes obvious that one alone swims upstream. That’s when they may begin to look for agents or brokers to handle the sales, accountants to take care of the bookkeeping and secretaries to handle the office administration. That’s when many start to reach out and look projects that allow for corroboration, at some level, with other professionals.

As the Bloomingdale Writers Group grew, the members learned a great deal from each other, each sharing their various perspectives. But it soon became apparent, freelance writers rarely remained active participants in the group for more than a 2-3 years. It wasn’t because they had no interest in writing technique or because they didn’t enjoy the camaraderie of their peers. What happened was simple. Freelancers, being business people and marketers of their work soon discovered that their market couldn’t be found in a writer’s group. And so they began looking elsewhere. They moved into professional organizations and went to events where publishers were most likely to be found. They discovered that the time spent in meeting with other writers would be best served by getting in touch with people who need their services and are able and willing to buy the services of a writer.

Freelancing is not an avenue for the weak-hearted. It takes guts and perseverance and a thick skin. Freelancers learn about writing from the market. The critiques they get can be brutal. And if their work doesn’t cut the mustard, freelancers learn quickly what needs to be done to make their work saleable — or they go into other lines of work.

But those who stick with it and succeed, join the ranks of a unique group of people, those who interact and chronicle the everyday life of the business world.

Copyright: Joan-Marie Moss 1996
JOAN-MARIE MOSS is a non-fiction author published in both national and regional markets. She specializes in business communications and public relations for businesses and professionals. In addition to serving as consultant and communications/public relations specialist offering a full range of services from writing to desktop publishing, online communications and public speaking, Joan-Marie teaches Business Writing, Copyediting and Public Relations. She has been guest speaker on WFXW AM1480 – Savvy Shopper Show, WJKL/FM 94.3 Elgin – Focus Northwest, WDCB-FM – Advice for Women Entrepreneurs, and WWCN Radio.

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