Staff Editor to Freelance Writer: 4 Tips for a Successful Career Transition

by November 18, 2016
Four tips for journalists transitioning from a staff job to life as a freelancer. ("Let's go to WoRk!" image by Marco Pakoeningrat via flickr, CC BY - SA 2.0)

Four tips for journalists transitioning from a staff job to a career as a freelancer. (“Let’s go to WoRk!” image by Marco Pakoeningrat via flickr, CC BY – SA 2.0)

Whether or not to go freelance might be one of the most agonizing questions in journalism. While there have always been freelance journalists, recent turbulence in the publishing industry means a lot more people may be thinking about working for themselves.

I spent four years considering whether to make the jump from my job as an editor at a Canadian business magazine to a life of uncertainty and odd hours. In the end,  it wasn’t that difficult a decision. In 2010 the company I was working for had gone through a number of layoffs and it felt as though there were more to come. Freelancing seemed more stable: I could write for a number of outlets, would have income coming in at different times and wouldn’t be subject to the ups and does of one particular operation.

Of course there are many obstacles that freelancers have to deal with–emotions, conflicting deadlines, cold-calling editors for new work. But six years into the freelance life I’m glad I made the move. Here are four tips that helped me carve out freelance success.

Think of yourself as a business owner

It’s easy to romanticize freelancing–sleeping in, doing work outside while sipping a glass of wine–but the only way it works is if you treat it like a business. Any business writer knows full well how revenues, earnings and growth impact companies. Apply the same principals to freelancing. I’m always trying to grow revenues from year-to-year in the same way that any company would: Acquire new clients, sell more to the clients you already have and increase fees where you can. You have to pay attention to finances, because you don’t have that steady paycheck coming in every week. Lose focus and things could start to slide.

Visit editors in person

Most entrepreneurs will tell you that nothing beats an in-person meeting, and the same is true for freelancing. The vast majority of my work has come from meeting people, not from pitching. I usually approach clients by asking them if I can meet up. That sometimes means traveling from Toronto, where I live, to New York. The vast majority of editors say yes. By meeting them in person they get a better sense of who I am and I can see if there’s an area in which they need freelance help. Then I can pitch appropriate stories. Editors are usually inundated with ideas; I’ve found that if they can put a face to the subject line they’re quicker to accept.

Foster relationships

Business owners often say that the best clients are the ones you already have. They’re right. It takes a lot of effort to land a new, sustainable gig. It often starts off slowly, but speeds up once the editor gets to know you better. The editors you already have are the ones who trust you, who know you do good work and who like going back to you time and time again. Foster these relationships. Pitch them before pitching a new client–the likelihood of them saying yes to you quickly is better than if you sent an idea to someone who doesn’t know you.

It can also help to join an organization where you can meet a lot of people at once. I’m on the board of the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, and have made a lot of contacts at conferences. Other good sources are events sponsored by the Online News Association and the Reynolds Center, proprietor of this web site .

Keep emotions in check

This is hard, but important. Freelancing can be lonely; you can go a while without seeing people and you’re mostly interacting through email. That makes it easy to spend too much time inside your own head. It’s important not to take anything personally, whether it’s red marks on a document or a lack of communication from an editor you just messaged. That goes for positive feedback, too–it’s nice to be applauded because of an article, but don’t let the good news distract you from your work. It’s important to be patient (a goal at which I usually fail miserably), remember that people are busy and that the best compliment is another assignment. One big advantage of working for yourself is that you can have a lot going on at once. When one thing gets the better of you, push it aside and focus on what’s next.