I was telling my freelance journalist and author pal, Michelle Goodman, about how we are getting more and more inquiries from people thinking they want to be freelance writers.  Some of the folks have been laid off from corporate jobs and dream of the autonomy and freedom that freelance writing work brings.  Others are stuck in a rut and are dying on the vine at their current job and are considering career change despite the fact they might have a secure position right now — they simply hate it that much.  

Michelle has offered up some great answers to the most frequently asked questions about becoming a free-lancer.   I want to share with you….a very realistic approach to considering freelance writing!  (PS, she really knows her stuff….check out her books, My So-Called Freelance Life and The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube.)

By Michelle Goodman:

1. Do you think that pink-slipped folks who can’t find jobs in their desired industry should freelance? What should they do to get started?

If you like working solo, can crack your own whip, and know how to be flexible when projects take a left turn, then, yes, I do think you should give freelancing a go. (If not, try temping.)

To get started as a freelancer, create a killer online portfolio or website (it can be all of two to four pages), whether you’re an aspiring writer, web designer, producer, or dog walker. WordPress make this simple. So do websites like VisualCV. A website not only shows you mean business as an independent professional, it saves you loads of time in that “So tell me about your experience” dance. If you don’t have relevant work samples, you may have to do a couple of freebies (don’t give away more than a few days of your time though) to flesh out your portfolio/resume.

Send out an email and Facebook blast telling everyone you know you’re now accepting freelance projects and link to your shiny new website. Be specific about the type of work you’re looking for. If you’re not on LinkedIn, Biznik, and Twitter, time to get there. Ditto for industry-related events and happy hours. The idea is to meet as many people in your field as you can, online and off. Learn from them. Trade ideas with them. Charm them. Spread the word about your knowledgable, talented self and your services.

Finally, learn to run a business. Half of working for yourself is wooing clients, negotiating contracts, managing projects, paying taxes, and making tricky judgment calls. So if you don’t know the first thing about running your own shop, now’s the time to learn. Read blogs and books on freelancing (ahem), take a workshop at SCORE (they’re usually under $100), and pick the brains of freelancers a few years ahead of you (you buy the coffee and come to our neighborhood, okay?).

 2. What can people do to hone in on a specialty and make their skills stand out?

Pick two or three topics that interest you most (for example, sustainability, social networking, and mobile technology), and run with them. Make sure these subjects intersect with skills you’ve already begun to cultivate and markets that are still hiring. Read everything you can about your pet topics online and off. Go to industry talks and volunteer at trade shows (to get in for free) — and don’t forget to network while you’re there. Essentially, become an expert. Clients want to hire someone who knows a lot about their MO/cause/business model. Don’t just be a writer — be a business, health, or women’s issues writer. Don’t just build software –build games, ecommerce sites, or social networking apps.

If you’re not blogging yourself, or not blogging about anything other than what your dog did on the carpet, time for a new plan. Use blogging as a tool to show clients how much you know about your pet topic. If you’re unemployed, you have the time, so no excuses.

Finally, if you don’t know how to record a podcast or make a video, time to get schooled. The better your digital skills, the more valuable you’ll be to potential clients.

3. How do you recommend that workers who flee the cube learn find colleagues and learn about industry gossip and job leads?

It’s imperative you connect with others in your chosen field and that you rinse and repeat on a weekly basis. Pick five freelancers in your neck of the woods whose footsteps you’d love to follow in. Check their social network pages and blogs to see what professional events they’re attending and online communities they belong to (as well as what books, blogs, and sites they’re reading). Then follow suit. Find out what free email lists pro freelancers in your field belong to, too, and sign up. These places are often where you’ll find the best job leads, insider gossip, and professional tips. And if you’re not finding the online or offline industry meetups that resonate with you, start one of your own. Banding together with four or five or fifteen aspiring freelancers can teach you a lot. Freelancers Union makes it easy to organize your own face-to-face meetup.

4. How long do you think it would take new freelancers to start making enough money to live on? 

That depends on how much money you need to live, which you should definitely figure out right now if you’re not sure. It also depends on where you live, what field you’re in, how much time you have to look for work, and how hard you hustle. Some new freelancers line up a full schedule in a matter of weeks. This is not the norm, however. For most it takes months, if not a year or more. To be safe, expect that you won’t have a full workload and you won’t have enough money to live on your first year, and expect to spend at least 30 to 50 percent of your time looking for work, unless you’re taking longer-range projects.

Ideally, you want at least six months’ living expenses (if not 12) before striking out on your own as a freelancer. (Admittedly, I only keep about four in my savings account, but I have a lot of employment options.) I realize saving even two months’ living expenses for someone who’s barely scraping by sounds next to impossible, which is why I suggest keeping your day job as long as you can and freelancing on the side at first. If you do find yourself freelancing without a net (due to a layoff or the fact that you never had a day job to begin with it), you may have to rely on temp work or odd jobs to supplement your income during those early lean months or years.  

5. Anything else you want to add?

To beat the recession as a freelancer, diversifying is key. Don’t let any one client dominate more than 30 percent of your workload, and don’t limit yourself to one type of project. Maybe you want to write personal finance stories for the mainstream media. But writing copy for creative agencies and newsletters for business associations too helps ensure you have more clients (and checks) to line your bank account with. Ditto for writing for both print and digital outlets, especially now, when the print media is suffering such heavy layoffs. The more toes you have in the client pond, the more work you’re have access to.

Likewise, the more skills you can offer, the more employable you’ll be. The freelance writer with translation, proofreading, editing, tutoring, or production skills has more job security than the freelance writer who only knows how to write. Likewise for the graphic artist who can also code and host her client’s websites, or the virtual assistant who knows a thing or two about web research, social media marketing, and SEO. 

 

Brian Kurth is a former “Dilbert” who worked for the phone company in Chicago.  After realizing there was more to life than telecom calling plans, he founded VocationVacations in 2004.  He is the author of Test-Drive Your Dream Job – A Step-By-Step Guide to Finding and Creating the Work You Love – Hachette, 2008.  Brian is a sought-after career planning expert, strategist and speaker.  He has appeared on CNBC, CNN, FOX News, MSNBC, NBC’s TODAY Show and National Public Radio (NPR), and his career advice has been featured in articles in Fortune Magazine; Men’s Journal; The New York Times; O, The Oprah Magazine and The Wall Street Journal, just to name a few.

 

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