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Five Freelance Writing Pitfalls

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I have a fabulous job where I get to work with writers on a daily basis (and even get to do some ghostwriting of my own on a somewhat regular basis). In the short time I’ve spent working there, I’ve realized that if you want to be serious about freelance writing, there are (at least) five things you need to make sure you’ve addressed before you go looking for work.

1. Know Your WPH (Words Per Hour)

Do you know what your “average” words per hour rate is? Do you know what part of the day you write the most, what impact your energy level has, or any of the other innumerable variables that go into having an awesome typing session compared to a lame one?

You absolutely must have a healthy writing regimen that doesn’t wait for inspiration to strike or for your muse to decide to mosey into the room. You have to be able to sit down and, on command, churn out words during whatever time you have available to work. If you aren’t to that level of control yet, you need to practice on work of your own until you can do so, which probably means writing daily. For me, it’s all about habit, and once I get “on a roll” I can keep it up pretty easily, but if I fall off even just one day getting back on the horse is a matter of sheer willpower.

I visit 750words.com/ to keep track of myself and give me incentive to write every day. It used to be free, but now it’s $5 a month (about the price of a coffee shop latte). You earn points depending on how much you’ve written and how long of a streak you’re on, and your avatar changes to suit. It also collects interesting metadata and tracks you over time.

Here is the Excel spreadsheet I use to keep track of my writing habits: Word Count Tracker. Yeah, go ahead and make fun of me for my piddly wordcounts, but you can see how a whole month of this kind of data can be invaluable. User Notes: You can tab over across columns to generate some of the data, otherwise I just copy/paste the cell from the row above if it doesn’t automatically fill in the formula (Excel is usually smart about shifting the formula once cell over for you). You’ll also need to color the “Change” row manually if you want green or red to suit.

For more on increasing your wordcount, I found this book by Rachel Aaron extremely helpful (which is where the idea for keeping a spreadsheet tally came from in the first place): 2k to 10k: Writing Faster, Writing Better, and Writing More of What You Love.

2. Know Your Schedule

Now that you know what you’re capable of, you need to determine just how many hours you realistically have available to you. A lot of writing books tell you to break down your day to see where your time goes and how much you’re wasting (let me tell you, Facebook and the internet are your worst enemies). Sometimes this means sacrificing sleep in order to make time. I don’t have work until 10am, and though I could wake up at 8:30 with enough time to get ready and go, by waking up at 6:30 and starting writing shortly after 7 I’ve added an additional hour and a half into my schedule. The difference now is that I go to bed between 11 and Midnight instead of staying up late like I used to.

From there, it’s a matter of simple math to figure out whether you can get your assignment done at a normal pace or whether you have to pick up the pace in order to hit your deadline. Take averages into account also, so you can give yourself a bit of wiggle room in case you have an off night or something comes up and steals your time away.

3. Know What You’re Worth

With your WPH and hours available per day pinned down, you can then figure out how many hours it should take (about) to complete the assignment, which you can then compare to the sum you’re being paid.

If I’m averaging a plodding pace of 750 words per hour, it will take me 13.33 hours to get a 10k word assignment done (not counting planning). If that assignment is paying $300, which is a pretty typical starting rate for untested writers, then I know I’m making ~$22 an hour before tax (not bad). But if I factor in brainstorming/outlining/researching time, let’s say another 10 hours for good measure, that then drops to $13 an hour. Still not awful by any stretch, and more than I could make working part-time in retail.

The reason freelancing is hard to make your day job comes from the fact that finding steady and reliable work is a crapshoot at best. “Full time” work at the above pace would be a 30k word assignment, or 120,000 words a month—basically a full novel. Depending on who or what you’re freelancing for, reining in this many assignments is more or less difficult to accomplish.

4. Don’t Over-extend

It would seem to go without saying, but don’t take on more assignments than you have time for or take on big chunks when you’re already working on another project that’s going to be eating up a lot of your time. If big life events like moving, closing on a house, or having a baby are in your immediate future, you need to be honest with yourself about how this is going to impact your available time, and turn down assignments if need be.

5. Don’t Bury Your Head in the Sand

If you’ve ignored the above advice and your wordcount is now overwhelming you, ignoring it isn’t going to make the problem go away. Hard though it may be, you realistically have two options: 1) don’t get it right, get it written and just put words on the page no matter how crappy you think they are and plan on going back to revise, or 2) communicate that you’re not going to be able to do the assignment. The difference between a blacklisted writer and a writer “on probation” per se is the former will wait until after the deadline to bail, whereas the latter will give their producer/editor/whathaveyou a heads up that they’re behind as soon as they know.

These tips may seem straightforward, but they still seem to be something even established writers struggle with on occassion. Being an A-list freelancer is part proficiency (being good at what you do), part punctuality (hitting deadlines), and part professionalism (being communicative and courteous). You might even say they’re the Three P’s to becoming a “Pro.” (Ha.)

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