The Blog of John Hewitt

The Skills You Need to be a Freelance Writer

Writing skills aren’t all you need

If you’re just realizing that your excellent writing skills could be put to good use on the Internet, and earn you some attractive cash, welcome! You’re about to have the time of your life as you explore being a freelance writer.

But hold on – writing skills aren’t all you need. In fact, a lack of secondary skills is what sets many freelance writers on the road to failure instead of success.

Before you launch yourself into writing your way into a fulfilling, satisfying career, take a good look at what else you’ll need for a successful venture:

Customer service skills

Interestingly enough, writers are horrible at customer service.

Wrapped in their comforting words, they can pen beautiful content that converts and resonates – but they often come off as arrogant, overly laid back or just plain blunt in communication with clients.

Convey a positive, professional attitude at all times – and especially in email communication. Emails are no place to let your guard down and show your worst. In fact, emails are the single-most important area in which you should excel at writing.

It may mean the difference between landing a gig and being passed on.

Bookkeeping skills

If you can’t do the math, then you can’t run a business.

Freelance writers are self-employed workers. They must effectively manage their books, track their income, monitor expenses and examine their profit and loss statements. (And you thought there was no math involved in writing.)

Buy a book on accounting 101. Take a course at a community college. You can even learn basic bookkeeping online.

Otherwise, you may sit down one day and wonder why you’re not making ends meet, even when you’re making good money.

Marketing skills

The Internet is saturated with competition for writers.

The good news is, many of those competing writers aren’t very good ones. You may feel like there’s a writer around every corner, but when you take a good, close look, you’ll notice that many are just fly-by-night hacks. Sad, but true.

Learn how to tell people about your services and why you’re the best choice for them. It isn’t because you’re a crack writer, though that certainly helps. The extra qualities that make you stand out are what sells people these days.

It’s also a good idea to take a marketing course or learn more about it. Web writing often involves a healthy dose of marketing and having good knowledge helps you get an edge.

Organizational skills

If you can’t plan and your memory is shot, you’re going to have a tough time online.

The Internet world moves very quickly. You might find yourself needing a calendar to manage your schedule and a way to organize your daily workload. Freelancing isn’t a huge life of abandoned freedom – in fact, quite the contrary.

A freelance writer needs to be able to organize a day efficiently and work in all the possible interruptions that might occur. Writers need to plan, schedule and maintain a production routine – just like any business in operation.

Know realistically how much time you have available and how much you can manage before saying yes to each gig that comes your way.

Plan B

If you’re about to step into freelance writing, you need a Plan B.

Earning enough income to support yourself isn’t going to happen for a while. What’s your backup plan in the meantime while you gain clients and increase your income? Do you have three months of income set aside to support yourself?

What happens if you have a really bad month and no one needs you?

Have a Plan B at hand for the worst case scenario – always and forever, no matter how established you become. Maybe you can freelance and write essays for other students, for example. You never know what tomorrow might bring, and taking a leap of faith without a good parachute to catch your fall is a huge mistake.

Sound grim?

If you find yourself feeling discouraged about your idea of becoming a freelance writer, don’t be. Freelance writing is an exciting, fulfilling career and you’ll have a great time easing into your new job.

You also have a better idea of exactly what you’re getting into. You’re more informed, can research the additional areas involved in freelancing and learn the skills that you may need.

By taking the time to learn everything you can about freelance writing, you’re giving yourself a solid fighting chance at making it as a writer. You’ll be able to think on your game plan, prepare yourself and take secure steps to ensure your success.

Because success is what you want, isn’t it?

Successful Freelance Writers are Surrounded by Terrible Freelance Writers

It’s true. Successful freelance writers are surrounded by terrible freelance writers. Some of those terrible writers are even making a good living at it. You would be amazed at the number sub-par freelancers who manage to make money. Some of them make idiotic, easy-to-correct mistakes such as sending their proposals on scented pink paper, getting the editor’s name wrong or finishing their assignments long after they are due. Some are sloppy. Some don’t know how to market themselves. Some are just lousy writers.

Most freelance writers who make these kinds of mistakes struggle. They eventually either get better or give up. Others, however, manage to find clients or publishers and make money. They manage to be in the right place at the right time and luck into jobs. Some freelance writers manage to succeed just by showing up.

The lesson here is that it really isn’t that hard to succeed as a freelance writer. If you follow the basic steps of marketing yourself, following instructions when they are given, meeting your deadlines and building relationships with clients, you will have an excellent chance of succeeding. Why? Because you will be competing with so many people who can’t even manage to meet such minimal benchmarks.

It really isn’t that hard to rise above the pack if you do your job well. That is why good writers still make a lot of money, even with all the cheap, desperate competition out there. I have been in a position to judge other writers as an editor, as a publisher, and as an employer. I’ve put up with more than my fair share of low-quality submissions. At times, I’ve had to use writers whose submissions, resumes or portfolios were below my standards, simply because I couldn’t find anyone better. The number of competitors you must face for a given job or assignment is irrelevant. What matters is the quality of your competitors. I am here to tell you that their quality is low.If you are good at what you do, you will find work. If you aren’t good at it, you still might find work. Either way, you won’t know until you try.

Usability: Think in terms of scenarios

When you design a user interface, it helps to think in terms of the scenarios instead of tasks. A task is simply a major or minor event that needs to be accomplished. It’s important, but it doesn’t define the goals and circumstances that guide the user. That’s why it is important to think in terms of scenarios.

A user scenario involves more than just task that is to be accomplished. Scenarios can be general or detailed but they answer such questions as:

  • What are the overall goals of the user?
  • How will the user define success?
  • What level of skill, experience and authority does the user have?
  • Where will the user be when they access the product?
  • What time constraints might the user be under?
  • What influence will stakeholders besides the user have over the final outcome?

These are just a few of the possible considerations that can go into a scenario. The goal is to think in terms of the user instead of in terms of the product and the tasks.

Usability: Surfing for User Comments

One of the benefits of the web is that somewhere in the Internet, someone is talking about you, or at least a competitor. This makes it easy to get feedback. You won’t be able to get active comments on your developing interface, but you can read comments about existing products and competitors. Some sites, such as, aggregate user reviews right there with the product listings. In other cases you may need to look at forums, blogs, tweets, or anything else you can get your search engine to find.

Users will not only be commenting on your product, they’ll be pointing out the shortcomings of your competitors as well. Look for the following:

  • Feedback that discusses problems with your product or past products.
  • Feedback about your competition, especially about their weaknesses.
  • Discussion of unmet needs.
  • Descriptions of how people use your product or its competitors.

Don’t waste time getting upset by mean comments about your product. Look for concrete complaints that you can do something about. Your goal is to increase usability and customer satisfaction.

Usability: Brainstorming User Issues

Designing a good user interface on a tight budget is not an easy task. One of the things that quickly gets dropped is usability, and especially user testing. Ideally, any new interface should be deigned with input from and testing by potential users. Testing and input not only eliminate minor process issues, it also helps you clarify your whole project.

When there is little or no budget for user testing, there are some steps you can take to increase usability. One of these is to brainstorm about user issues and solutions. Get your design group together, along with anyone you can think of who might represent a user or at least a fresh perspective. Once everyone is together, spend the meeting generating a list of the problems a user might have with your proposed (or existing) product.

Some items to discuss are:

  • Process issues (steps to be taken, input methods)
  • Visualization issues (Look and feel, attractiveness, prioritization of tasks)
  • User goals (What the user gets, what the user is trying to accomplish, what the results are used for)
  • Possible user surprises (Events that a user might not expect or might be confused by)
  • Information / help points (Places where you might need to include extra information or help)
  • Expert / casual / novice user needs (Shortcuts, explanations, toolsets)

One you have a good list of the issues, discuss what you can do to eliminate as many of them as possible. The earlier you are in the planning stage when you address these issues, the less painful it will be to make changes.