November 23, 2005
How To Be A Self-Employed Writer: The Abridged Version By Rich Gallagher | printable version
I love it when someone asks what I do, and I reply that I am a writer. Because predictably, the next question they ask is what my "real" job is. Then I get to tell them that I actually do support my household as a writer, and have for a long time - and still have running water, eat out, own a home, and do all the other things that normal people do.
After a hushed silence, people then often ask, "How do you do it?" Glad you asked! Here, in summary form, is how I make a real livelihood as a writer:
1. Write what people buy.
My specialty - freelance science and business writing - is an area where paying customers have used freelancers for a long time. I am not re-inventing the wheel or convincing people of the value of what I do. The same is true for most other forms of "career-level" paid writing, like ad copywriting, ghostwriting books, or contracting for the government.
The romantic vision of writing is, of course, writing books and articles. I do both of these as well, but even in my best years, they represent a small part of a real living. In my case, I write projects for clients because - as Willie Sutton once said about robbing banks - that's where the money is. So first and foremost, know yourself and know your market.
2. Do it better than most people.
My greatest "secret" to success is that nearly every client of mine gives me repeat business and rave reviews. I listen to customers, solve their problems, beat deadlines, stay unfailingly upbeat and professional - and work hard to be very good at what I do.
3. Let your own clients sell you.
One pet peeve: most books on how to become self-employed cough and gag when it comes to how to actually get paying clients. I'll cut to the chase: you're on your own for finding your first clients. In my case, they came from networking and/or people finding me on the web (put your hometown in the metatags!). But nowadays, the vast majority of my business comes from people telling other people "I know this *great* writer who is a dream to work with..."
4. Save up six months living expenses before you leap.
Swallow hard, and then change your perspective from paychecks to cash flow. Even if you are fully booked out of the starting gate - which you won't be - it will be at least two months or more before any cash starts trickling in.
Six months of expenses sounds like a lot of money, but where there is a will, there is a way. I launched my first consulting practice with a consulting retainer from my former employer, and my second by squirreling away royalties and speaking fees from a successful book. Although I don't recommend it, some people have turned to their retirement funds, home equity or severance to finance their startup. Whatever you do, a sufficient cash cushion is critical to never feeling desperate - or worse, acting desperate in front of clients.
5. Exude success.
Everything you say to clients - and peers - should paint an image of a secure, competent professional. Never complain about anything, and be a problem-solver who can get into your customer's head. Similarly, work hard to create a professional image with your logo, website, and personal appearance.
6. Be flexible.
Remember, the answer is always "YES!" Accommodate an urgent project at the last minute? YES! Work overtime to squeeze in another project for someone? YES! Be flexible about payment terms? YES! The more times you can say YES! when other people say no, the more you win.
7. Have fun.
I really enjoy what I am doing. I love writing and love making clients happy, and it shows through with everyone I deal with. And ultimately, fun = profitable, because people like doing business with someone who loves their work.
Rich Gallagher is a freelance writer based in upstate New York. His six nationally-published books include The Soul of an Organization (Dearborn, 2002), which reached the Amazon.com top 2500, and his forthcoming book Great Customer Connections: Simple Psychological Techniques That Guarantee Exceptional Service (AMACOM, 2006). (He also has two BookLocker titles, The Perfect Company and Delivering Legendary Customer Service.) Visit Rich on-line at http://www.rsgallagher.com/writer.