October 7, 2021

More and more Americans are considering going freelance. If you’re in the media industry, there are so many ways to do it — start a Substack or your own writing business or become a consultant.

When I started my writing business in January 2021, I thought I had already done a fair amount of research. And I had — but still I learned more. There were some things I could have assumed from the outset and others that I had to learn in practice.

Podcasts and groups like The Writers’ Co-op helped bridge the gap, but I’d like to stop others from making my mistakes. So I reached out to fellow freelancers for advice. Here’s what they suggest to keep in mind before taking the leap.

Write down a list of potential clients before you leave.

A piece of advice I always give people who ask me about freelancing: Write a list of any potential clients before you leave your full-time job.

I suggest organizing this list the way you might colleges — by safety schools, targets and reaches. Safety schools are clients whom you might already know and feel fairly confident will hire you. Targets are clients who are a good fit with your skills and background. And reaches are fairly self-explanatory — these are the dream clients that you want to solicit. Organizing this before I left my job gave me a better sense of who to reach out to once I left.

So much of freelancing at first is simply marketing yourself and your work. Play to your strengths when you do this. I personally am better one-on-one than on social media, so I focused much of my branding on reaching out to editors individually. Others may want to do a Twitter thread or a few Instagram posts and reach clients that way. There’s no right or wrong answer throughout all of this. It’s just important to select a path that fits with your brand.

Figure out an organizational system before you leave.

If you follow any freelance groups, you’ll know that organizational tools are an oft-discussed phenomenon. There’s a reason for that — when you work for yourself, the only person keeping tabs on your deadlines and assignments is you.

Before I left my full-time job, I created a spreadsheet on Google Drive that tracks my assignments, their deadlines, the pay, my invoice date and my pay date. This keeps me organized on so many levels. I always know what work I have coming up, I always have a sense of how much I’m making at any given time and I always know which payments I am still expecting.

If you’re considering going freelance, think about a system that works for you. Having that in place before you leave will make your life a little bit easier as you start to juggle multiple projects and multiple clients.

Prepare, prepare, prepare.

Tampa-based freelance photojournalist Octavio Jones has one word in mind for potential freelancers: prepare. Make sure your body of work is readily accessible for any potential clients. And work on new skills that might help you be flexible. Want to be nimble with video? Practice before you go out on your own. Interested in offering social media services on the side? Do your homework.

Consider where you are in your career.

Dallas-based journalist Claire Ballor feels grateful that she had years of daily newspaper experience before going freelance. That can make all the difference, because the editing and mentorship process when working for yourself is much more isolated than when part of a traditional newsroom.

“I would not have been able to leave my job and freelance if I hadn’t had the type of editing that I had for years and hadn’t had the mentorship that I had to become the writer that I am,” Ballor said.

That doesn’t mean that early-career journalists can’t freelance — some of the most successful freelancers are those who have never worked full-time for a media organization. The lack of daily interaction with a manager is simply something to consider when debating which move to make. For some, it’s a plus.

Even (or especially) in freelancing, pay transparency is key.

East Bay-based audio producer Adwoa Gyimah-Brempong was shocked when looking at one of her freelance contracts. Was that number right?, she wondered. It seemed too high. But after confirmation with her client, she realized it was real.

She now has a group chat of industry women whom she writes about project costs and scope. Having a basis of comparison of what other people make and for how much work helps her decide what to take on and what she should pass.

“You learn by asking people what they’re making and what the people they know are making,” she said.

Saying no is just as important as saying yes.

A common piece of advice I heard in my first few months of freelancing: Say yes to everything. That can be good practice for a little while, but it can also quickly lead to burnout and a feeling of powerlessness.

Gyimah-Brempong said it’s key for early-career freelancers to know when to say no and yes.

“Saying no is really empowering if you can,” she said.

Before you take on a project, consider what boxes it ticks. Do you simply need the money? Do you want to work with the editor? Will you gain prestige from the work and is that enough? If you know why you’re taking on a project, you’re most likely to thrive.

Remember freelancing is relationship-based, not just transactional.

Freelance writer Britany Robinson has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, Architectural Digest and The Guardian, among others. She’s learned something important through those experiences: Freelancing is about cultivating relationships with editors and fellow writers. Embarking on long-term relationships with editors and writers — rather than asking for something specific once — often yields the best results.

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Elizabeth Djinis is a writer based in St. Petersburg, Florida. Follow her on Twitter at @djinisinabottle or email her at elizabeth@grafonwritingco.com.
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  • I agree that freelancing gives you so many different opportunities in life and in the way of how you’ll build your future career. I was really lucky to start freelancing at Insolvo while still being a journalism student and after having so much freedom I would not change freelancing for any kind of office work.