When I was starting out as an independent writer, I got a lot of great advice from more experienced freelancers. It helped me on every front, from targeting the right clients to figuring out how much to charge for my work. But as a former staff editor at national magazines who has now freelanced for a few years, I’ve found that some tips didn’t work for me. Here are a few pieces of advice I suggest that freelancers ignore.
1. Make sure you get paid for all of the work you do. At a freelance writing event where I spoke a few years ago, a new freelancer complained that he had to write several hundred extra words to address an editor’s queries on an article. He wanted to know if he should bill the publication for the extra words. “It’s my livelihood,” he said.
My answer was no. Here is why. He was new to writing for that publication. Chances are, if he had to make a substantial addition to the story to address the editor’s questions, the story wasn’t quite up to snuff. Sometimes, this can be the fault of the editor. Not every editor is clear about explaining an assignment or timely in responding to follow up questions from a freelancer as an assignment progresses. But, since he was a newbie, my assumption was that he had failed to address some key element of the story in the first draft. Why should the publication pay him extra for doing what he was supposed to do the first time around?
If you want to get repeat work, answer the queries without asking for extra money. If you do a good job, you’ll get more assignments. And, if the editor does, ultimately, feel you have done extra work, my experience tells me that you will get rewarded somehow. Maybe the next assignment from that publication will be an easy one that’s very profitable.
There’s one exception to this: If you have a strong working relationship with a publication, and you are being asked to do substantial extra work, like write an extra sidebar or add 1,000 words to a story, no editor is going to hold it against you if you ask if there will be extra pay for it.
2. Always try to negotiate for the highest rate. At some larger publications, the pay for star writers, photographers and other contributors who have become a “brand” can be very high. If you haven’t reached that level yet, trying to get these clients to pay you the same rate as guru who appears for them on nightly newscasts every week isn’t worth your time. You’re better off trying to negotiate a rate that is towards the top of the pay scale, but not in the stratosphere. People who have built big brands through bestselling books and the like don’t need recurring assignments to pay their bills, so it’s not relevant to them if the rate they’re getting is so high that it’s a deterrent to being hired for frequent assignments. If you do want to build up repeat work, ask for a rate that’s attractive but still within the publication’s normal pay scale. When you write your bestseller, go for the very top rate.
3. Other freelancers are your rivals. Good editors pay attention to what each contributor brings to the table. Referring work that you can’t handle to a talented and reliable freelancing buddies can help you become even more valuable to that publication. The editor will not think you are interchangeable and pass you over the next time. Showing that you have an ability to spot talent in your field may even pave the way to future freelance work overseeing big projects where a client may need you to build and manage a small team.
Joining forces with other freelancers can help you boost your bottom line. Last summer, a former editor kindly referred me to client who needed someone for a 20-hour a week writing and editing project. I didn’t have the bandwidth. I had about 5 hours a week to spare. So I suggested that she also recruit two other very busy journalism colleagues who had a small amount of time available. One of those writers found a fourth member to add to our team. Instead of losing out on a project that looked like fun, we were all able to participate in a small way. And, I might add, our weekly conference calls were a lot of fun.