Asked and Answered: 8 Questions From New Freelance Writers
Plus additional considerations for Black freelancers
FREELANCING | WRITING | RACISM
I’ve been asked a couple of times recently about the advice I’d give new freelance writers, and whether there’s any difference if those writers happen to be Black. The answer is: yes and no.
There are certain foundational things that all new freelancers have to take care of. But there are also a couple of additional considerations for writers with that extra bit of melanin.
(And before anyone starts with the “not all…” arguments, this is based on my own experience as a Black woman writer, and actual incidents I had to deal with.)
So, let’s dive in.
1. What Do I Need to Get Started?
One thing that hasn’t changed since I gave my first piece of online writing advice 15 years ago is what you need to get started as a writer.
It goes without saying that you need to be a competent writer (more on that shortly), but you also need examples of your writing skills, and a place where potential clients can find you. You can do all that with your own website. My advice is:
Buy your own domain name, and set up an email account there (even if you still use GSuite in the background). It looks more professional.
Set up a simple website — a home page, about page, services page, portfolio page and contact page. You can include testimonials, if you have them, on any of those pages. Tip: LinkedIn recommendations also work well as testimonials.
Grab your social media handles, because branding and marketing matter. And definitely set up a LinkedIn profile, as it’s the main business networking site. I’ve found a few clients that way.
Many people say that it helps to put your face on your website, either as a static image or via an introductory video. Though that’s what I do now, I didn’t always, because I feared, rightly, as it turned out, that some potential clients might discriminate against me.
If you’re Black, discrimination isn’t anything new, so if you’re brave enough, slap your face on there and use that to weed out the bigots. Honestly, I haven’t missed the clients I haven’t got, if you know what I mean, and I still have plenty.
2. How Do I Get Examples of My Writing?
One issue for most new writers is having the evidence they can do the job. A really simple way to solve this is to write sample articles of the type you’d like to get paid for and publish them on your own blog. I did this once to land a travel writing gig.
You can also check out places that are looking for guest content, especially if they pay, and offer to write content to meet their needs. That works for blogging, but what if you want to do sales pages, email series or another kind of copywriting? Doing samples and publishing them on your own blog still works.
Please, please, please, avoid ever writing for exposure (there’s hardly ever as much as you think), or doing free samples (again, put these on your own blog so you can use them for marketing multiple times). Those approaches are often scams and are best avoided.
3. How Can I Improve My Writing?
Anne Wayman signs off her posts “write well and write often”, and if you write often you improve your chances of writing well.
Of course, there are writing prodigies, but that’s not most of us. The rest of us improve by consistent practice of the writing craft. Since I got my first journalism job more than 30 years ago, I’ve written close to five days a week every week. Not all of it is for publication, but all of it has helped build my writing skills.
The other essential part of being a good writer is reading. Read widely in the niche that you want to write in, but also read work that inspires you. Then assess why you’re inspired, and try, in turn, to inspire others. Again, this isn’t as easy as it sounds. You don’t want to sound like the person that inspires you, but over time you will develop your own writing voice.
4. Where Should I Look For Writing Jobs?
Getting that first job can be tricky, and it’s tempting to go to marketplaces like Upwork. Some people love it, but I don’t. It’s a race to the bottom in my opinion. Instead, look for work on All Freelance Writing, Problogger and LinkedIn. Those jobs will be better paid — guaranteed.
If you’re a BIPOC writer, you may have additional concerns when it comes to applying for writing gigs. Sometimes people won’t consider you because of your name or your photo.
I have no sage advice here. It sucks, but not all potential clients are like that, so just keep plugging away. There are people out there who want you, and you don’t have to be pigeonholed into diversity topics either.
5. What is the Going Rate for Writing Work?
Sorry, there’s no such thing; just what you need to earn. Trust me, there are people with money at every price point, so don’t allow anyone to undervalue your writing services.
Use All Freelance Writing's calculator to work out what you need to earn to pay your bills and have a vacation, then add a little bit more. That will give you an hourly rate to start with.
But don’t stick to that. The smart move is to charge by the project. Work out how long you think you’ll spend on it, add some more for contingencies, and that’s the number you give to clients. If it’s right, you’ll probably feel a little uncomfortable, but banish that impostor syndrome and send out the quote.
6. Do I Have to Pay My Dues?
I’m not a big fan of the “paying your dues” approach, though I’ll admit when I first started online freelancing, I wrote for what I’d consider peanuts now. That wasn’t always because I was Black; sometimes it was just what was on offer. But I soon learned to upgrade, bit by bit.
Now, I’ve had people take one look at me and assume that I can’t be that good or my rates shouldn’t be that high because of the color of my skin. Again, I believe this happens a lot to Black freelancers. But you don’t have to stand for it. The numbers are in our favor. There are billions of sites, and many of them need content, so there’s plenty of work available.
If you know you have skills and you’ve worked out what you need to earn, and you’re slightly uncomfortable with your rate, then it’s probably about right. Sure, some people won’t hire you, but plenty will. If you don’t have an urgent bill to pay, then hold fast. There’ll be another client along in a minute; at least that’s been my experience over the last 15 years.
7. When Should I Write For Free?
There’s one instance when it makes sense to write for free — when you see it as a valuable investment in marketing your writing business. You have to do a lot of homework to make sure it’s worth it. Lots of people ask for content, but focus on the ones that:
Relate to the niche or type of writing you want to be known for
Actively promote guest content on social media
Don’t have unrealistic requirements (if there are too many must-haves, they should probably be paying you)
My fellow Black writers, know that because of the color of your skin, you’ll find more people than usual wanting you to be grateful for something they consider an “opportunity”. You don’t have to fall for it. Do your homework and only take the opportunity if it really is one, and if it works for you.
8. How Do I Deal With Lowball Clients?
Every freelancer has to deal with clients who don’t want to pay their rates, but as a Black woman, I’ve sometimes detected some extra indignation. How dare I charge for decades of writing experience, right? So there are a few ways to handle this.
First, remember you are in the driving seat. As a freelancer you’re running your own business delivering a service to clients. They are not in charge; you are. So you can decide what’s acceptable for you.
Second, raise your rates regularly, one client at a time. As soon as one client pays what you consider a fair rate, that becomes your new minimum. Keep doing that till you get to a figure you’re happy with (though you’ll still have to apply cost of living increases every so often).
Third, and not everyone agrees with this, put guideline rates on your site. I say guideline because that gives you wiggle room if you need it, but it also gets rid of a lot of the tire kickers. In my experience, clients who start out arguing about rates (rather than a respectful mutual negotiation; trust me, there’s a difference) will be hard to deal with all the way through your working relationship.
Starting out, it can feel like an uphill battle building a freelance writing career, but if you have a site, blog, examples of your work (don’t forget Medium as an outlet), and you market yourself online, you can build a consistent and reliable writing business.
When I started writing online, I had no contacts and no clients. Within a year, I had some of each, and now clients find me. So I know it can be done. Good luck!
© Sharon Hurley Hall, 2020
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