About Professionalism in Freelance Writing Jobs

In his landmark book The E-Myth, Michael Gerber identified the biggest problem entrepreneurs face:

People constitutionally suited for the daily grind and details of running a business aren’t the kind of people who are unhappy working in a regular job.

In my experience, this describes the overwhelming majority of folks looking for freelance writing jobs. They own that dislike of daily drudgery and details, and combine it with an artist’s approach to the work itself.

According to editors and clients I’ve worked with, this means working with a typical freelance writer means the following:

  • Poor communication
  • Missed deadlines
  • Tantrums at editorial suggestions
  • Inappropriate behavior on site
  • Dropped assignments
  • Unreliable scheduling

If you want to to make real money in your freelance writing job, don’t do this. Communicate regularly and honestly. Meet deadlines with the ruthless efficiency of a Terminator. Take feedback professionally, and remember that your client’s office is not the desk you set up in your spare room. Do what you say you will do without fail.

I’m not saying I’m constitutionally suited for this. If I were, I’d be turning in reports at a stable job somewhere. But I do have systems in place to keep me on track. I have the same challenge finding new clients that everybody else does…but when my clients need more work, I’m who they call.

How about you? What are the challenges you face when it comes to professionalism in your writing career? What systems do you use to overcome those challenges?

6 thoughts on “About Professionalism in Freelance Writing Jobs

  1. Jason,

    I think the hardest part to begin with as a freelancer is remembering to communicate fully at the beginning of a job. There’s nothing worse than needing any work that comes along, finally getting something in the hopper, and having the client be upset with it because you two weren’t clear from the beginning about what was needed. My system now is to fully discuss what the job entails, then go for it.


  2. Something that exacerbates that sometimes is a reticence to have the hard/real conversation. Many beginners are afraid of losing a client over a small disagreement — so they avoid nailing down the details.

  3. “Systems in place” is the key thing, it seems to me. I write when I want to, but also when I need to. And the harder thing, as you suggest, is the business end of it all.

    Given that–and Jason, I enjoy your blog as an important and occasional piece of my online reading, so thanks for asking–I keep the following rules: 1) all communications within 24 hours (the extra grace I give myself within that 24 hour time frame is much appreciated), 2) the business end of writing (save when I find it appealing) can be “clumped together” every couple of days with other unappealing tasks, 3) what I don’t want to do can often be accomplished by someone else in my stead, and 4) believing that not all things are necessary or important, including the things that people are asking me for.

    The latter–akin to having “a, b and c priorities” takes care of much of the unpleasantness. Which is to say, something may be important to the person asking, but it being so doesn’t necessarily make it important to me, unless I want to make it so. As dis-functional as the fourth rule is, holding to it keeps me from living someone else’s life and and expectations when I’m busy enough trying to live my own. http://www.greggtownsley.com

  4. Yes, total clarity–in writing–is a must. There’s nothing wrong with standing up for yourself and your work–there are ways to do that professionally and without jeopardizing the assignment. The client will actually have more respect for you when they see you’re serious and thorough about a potential job. I used to do a lot of freelance artwork and in a field that is so subjective, you have to not only have a thick skin, but both sides have to have a clear understanding about the final product. In the end, there are no guarantees, but as long as you’re proud of the work you produced and how you conducted yourself, that’s all that matters.

  5. I subscribe to the Woody Allen School of Freelancing, where eighty percent of success is showing up. As an editor, a freelancer who writes with flair and passion is the difference between good and great. But professionalism is the difference between someone who I’d hire and someone I’d ignore. It’s the eighty percent. In this case, the “showing up” is the unsexy part of writing: honesty in communications, timeliness in delivery, proofread copy, responsiveness to edits.

    The temptation for freelancers is to over-promise and under-deliver. Hell, that’s the temptation of anyone with the combination of neurosis and masochism required to work for himself. Approach the writing as a collaborative effort where your success and my success are aligned. I need to deliver a certain amount of quality material to a client within a certain time frame; the more of my energy spent working with freelancers explaining why their copy hasn’t arrived or is substandard, the less time I have to actually work on the material.

    Since I’m plumbing the depths of history’s great wits, I think Voltaire provided some good guidance: “le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.” If you don’t speak French, Daniel Lawrence Whitney, the Bard of the Great Plains, paraphrases it thusly: “Git-R-Done!”

  6. Pingback: 5 Killer Freelance Mistakes You Might Be Making »

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