The top 5 mistakes new freelance writers make

Guest post by Anne Mercer

Everyone has a story about how they decided to become a freelance writer. I began my journey as a senior in college, looking for extra income to keep my bank account afloat while I searched for a full-time job. Little did I know that this quick decision would snowball into a lucrative side career more than five years later.

During my first few weeks officially giving it a go as a new freelance writer, I learned so much. However, my lessons didn't come from triumphs; they were derived from my mistakes.

Every new freelance writer makes mistakes. It's part of becoming a better writer. After all, James Joyce did write that mistakes are the portals of discovery.

When you start this new career path, do your best to avoid the top five blunders writers new to freelancing make.

Every new freelance writer makes mistakes. Uh-ohs, as uncomfortable as they can be, are a necessary part of becoming a better writer. When you start your new career path, do your best to avoid these top five blunders writers new to freelancing make.

1. Jumping at every opportunity

When starting out as a new freelancer, your only concern is to write and get paid. Write and get paid. Rinse and repeat. One of the first lessons you'll learn is that every freelance opportunity is not created equal.

Early on in my career, I accepted a small job writing a professional bio for a local business owner's new website. Since I was new to town and freelancing in general, I did not charge the proper amount for the effort exerted. Being the new writer in town, I didn't want to scare off the one lead I had by quoting too high.

What should have been a quick 200-word bio turned into hours of phone calls, video chats and endless edits, for the same price I originally quoted. I hadn't accounted for the back-and-forth communication with my client, so I wasn't compensated for all that extra time spent corresponding about the project.

Lesson learned: Evaluate opportunities thoroughly before accepting. 

Don't jump at every opportunity that presents itself to you. Instead, create a personal checklist of qualities the job and/or client must possess before you accept the work, such as:

  • Does my schedule allow for the time this job/client requires?

  • Are my personal skills and talents aligned with the job description?

  • Did my initial conversation with the client indicate a working relationship could be possible?

  • Could this job lead to future, lucrative opportunities?

Before jumping on the next Craigslist ad you find, make sure you do your research and match the client's project criteria to what you're willing to work with.

2. Failing to edit your own work

I know this may come as a shock to some, but one of the top mistakes new freelance writers make is not editing their work. We've all been there!

During my first few weeks as a freelance writer, I was also finishing my degree at an accelerated pace so I could graduate early. One night, I was so exhausted that I sent my work to the client and passed out asleep. The next morning, I woke to an email from her listing my mistakes. Needless to say, I was mortified and embarrassed by my decision to skip editing my work. I'd have been better off waiting until I was more alert in the morning or asking for an extension than sending along an unedited draft. (Don't be afraid to ask your client if they're cool with you bumping the deadline so you can finesse the content. They'd much rather have clean, instantly usable copy.)

Lesson learned: Always edit. I repeat: Always edit!

Even the most impeccable of writers needs to edit their work. Remember, it isn't the client's responsibility to edit your writing. After all, isn't your writing expertise why they hired you in the first place?

3. Pigeonholing your career into one style of writing

The beauty of writing is its lack of boundaries. We're free to experiment with language, phrasing and format.

I like to joke that my writing career began in the third grade when I wrote a poem about pizza. From there, it spiraled into movie scripts, short stories, advertising briefs and on. I was enamored with writing and couldn't stop -- still can't!

As a love of the craft's malleability, my career has included all types of writing:

Do I prefer a specific type of writing over another? Of course. But if an opportunity to try a new style of writing presented itself, I would consider it -- as long as it met the criteria of my project acceptance checklist!

Let's take it from a real-world point of view: In SEO, you use keywords and tactics to rank higher for certain search queries. If you only optimize your website content for "speech writing" but know that business owners are also searching for "content writers," how will you generate leads?

Pigeonholing your writing services into one style diminishes your chances of gaining leads and growing your freelance writing business.

Once you've established yourself, you can begin to explore niche markets and specialty writing services. However, as a new freelance writer, consider it a chance to experiment and work on your writing chops.

Lesson learned: Explore all types of writing.

4. Lacking an understanding of basic marketing principles

The majority of available freelance writing projects are for clients in the marketing industry. These particular opportunities require that you understand online marketing tactics and the concepts behind them, such as positioning and consumer behavior.

You don't need a marketing degree to grasp the basic principles. It would serve you well to learn these principles and newer digital marketing tactics through one of multiple courses available online, including:

While these principles will help you write better for the marketing world, they'll also help you stand out in an oversaturated market. Everyone has a side hustle these days -- according to Forbes, in the United States alone, 35% of the workforce are freelancers -- which means securing freelance writing gigs is harder than ever. Understanding marketing principles will help you devise a personal brand, execute a promotional strategy for your brand and work to differentiate yourself from the competition.

In the United States alone, 35% of the workforce are freelancers.

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A couple quick tips, straight from me to you:

Lesson learned: A little marketing knowledge goes a long way in freelance writing.

5. Failing to grow your network

Many assume writers are introverts who recoil from networking, yet this is far from the truth. Yet to be fair, of the mistakes new freelance writers make, failing to network rounds out the list. Networking leads to a world of new opportunities -- but only if you take the initiative.

Growing your network is the key to expanding your freelance writing business. Networking isn't limited to stuffy, in-person professional events where everyone exchanges business cards and talks shop.

Networking can include:

  • Putting your business card on a coffee shop's corkboard (I’ve had good success using Vistaprint for my cards)

  • Joining relevant Facebook groups in your local community and industry

  • Going to conferences

  • Emailing professional contacts to see if they know of anyone looking for a writer

  • Striking up a conversation with someone you met in a Twitter chat

Once I made the effort to grow my network, only then did the client leads begin to appear.

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As a new freelance writer, I made the mistake of believing that having a fairly optimized website, regular blog content and a steady contract with a client meant the leads would roll in. Of course, they didn't. Once I made the effort to grow my network, only then did the client leads begin to appear.

Lesson learned: Get out there and network from the start.

Steer clear of the mistakes new freelance writers make

I get it. Starting out as a freelance writer is nerve-wracking, and the last thing you want to do is make a mistake. Five years into freelancing on the side, I can confidently say the quality of my clients, writing and personal brand have each improved drastically because of what my mistakes taught me along the way.

Mistakes will happen, and you will learn from them. If you focus on providing (and editing!) exceptional writing, building your network and marketing your brand, you'll do just fine.

About Anne Mercer
Anne Mercer is a copywriter and content writer located in the greater Nashville area. Armed with a Marketing Communications/Advertising degree from Western New England University and a love of language, she has offered her writing talents to brands, professionals and agencies across the country. When not writing, Anne can be found in one of two places: a coffee shop or traversing a hiking trail with her two dogs and husband, Matt.