Freelance Writing: What I Did Right

MikeachimThe Everyday38 Comments

Hi!

My name is Mike, and I’m the proud owner of a bouncing part-time online freelance writing business (staff: 1), focussing mainly on travel. So that makes me a travel writer, yes? Well…er…

Tell you what, let’s discuss that elsewhere, and for the moment, I’ll say “kinda” (or add that dignity-salvaging word “aspiring”).

Ta.

Being a freelance writer! Wow. Like, getting paid – for writing. That’s like getting paid for reading – or eating cake! You must have such a cool lifestyle!

Um…

While it’s true that my fledgling business thrills me (as well as being the hardest work I’ve ever done in my life), I wouldn’t know how to answer if you asked “Is it a success?”. In some ways, I’m proud of what I’ve done. Except I’ve clearly done other stuff exactly the wrong way, and right now those things are getting a damn good shake-up.

So, before we dwell on my failings as a businessman (and hey, we both know that’s going to be the really fun part), let’s look at ten things I reckon I’ve got right.

1. I Do Unpaid work

Part of the reality of getting anywhere these days is working for “free”. It may give you something else you can quantify in advance – and if you’re being smart, it always does – but you’re not being paid in the most literal sense. This is a grey area that some people will argue is the road to being exploited by feckless marketeers. I not only think otherwise, I have secured work, built professional relationships, acquired lucrative new skills and yes, had fun doing it. It’s the quickest way to raise your profile online, and it’s a great method for demonstrating what you’re capable of because for the recipient of your unpaid services, there’s no financial risk – “first one’s free, mate” – so they’re more inclined to let you hog their webspace and sing your praises. (If you do a good job, of course).

Obviously there’s a line. But doing something for free can be the smart, profile-boosting, legacy-building thing to do, and putting aside the moral, volunteeristic aspect, it makes you look good. People will love you for it.

(But hey, don’t forget to earn money. That’s fun too).

2. I Hang Out

This is closely related to unpaid work. Is it a waste of time to engage in mass-chats on Twitter or comment on other blogs or meet people for drinks? What’s the point, other than fun? The point is the whole point of the Internet in the first place – to connect. There’s a really important word underpinning your online business: influence. Influence is a measure of how much people care about what you’re saying, doing and hustling.

By connecting better (please note, dear Follower-addled Twitter peeps, the word “better”), you spread the word.

And the word is everything.

3. I’ve Worked Hard At It

Chris Guillebeau says it. Gary Vaynerchuk says it. Anyone who is successfully self-employed knows it. If you’re working for yourself, you will work like a dawg. If you drink coffee, it will become even more useful than your skeleton in keeping you upright. If you’re a night owl, you’ll see a lot of dawn light and hear more dawn choruses than you’d ever nightmared. You will struggle to relax (see later). In short – obsession. The twitchy, deep-fried variety.

The good news is that the object of your obsession is totally worth it.

4. I Am Strangely Named

Type “mikeachim” into Google. Yes, they’re all me. Because who else would have such a stupid name? Ditto “Fevered Mutterings”.

I used to regret choosing these monikers (I’ve been stuck with them since 2004). Now? They’re an asset. It’s a fact, silly names are the new sensible.

5. I Read Widely

My twin fascinations are travel and storytelling (and the natural overlap therein). But my reading habits are all over the place – a good way to be as long as you’re also reading into your specialisations a goodly amount. Fusion food is about finding originality through blending. Try fusion reading – same principle. What do you never read? What subjects do you know nothing about? Go dabble.  Your brain will love it.

6. I Don’t Chase Really Small Change

“Needed: freelance writers to write short, timely pieces on tight deadline: payment $10 for 20 articles.”

This is one of the biggest traps for new writers. While I’d never be so pompous as to forbid anyone taking on any kind of paid work…really, you’re worth better than this by even breathing.

It’s my firm opinion that seemingly unpaid writing on your own blog – with your own name against it – has far greater value than anonymous nickel-and-dime work like this. Added to which, this is the way to burn out really fast. It’s unsustainable. You’ll be a cinder in 3 months.

7. It’s Not My Only Job

Launching yourself as a freelance writer is of course a financial risk – although arguably less of a risk right now than being an employee that can be laid off at any time. But however overcome with passion for your new career, you have to be practical. Entry-level writing doesn’t pay a lot.  You’re doing a great job if it’s a sustainable income, but most writers have to bolster it with non-writing wages. I’m one of them. That’s been a big help.

Don’t jump until you’re ready (but when you are ready, take a really big run-up).

8. I’m Thrifty

Caveats: i) I’m only recently thrifty (we’ll get to that when I list my failings), and ii) hey, I have to be.

But it’s really important to nail down your spending and really care about where your hard-earned cash is going. When I was on a larger, more dependeable income I could get away with being sloppy, however bad a habit that was. Now I can’t.

Understand where the money goes, and you get the self-confidence you will need to stay sane when money is tight, which it inevitably will be at regular intervals until you’re firmly established.

9. I’ve Blogged Some Of My Best Stuff

On January 10th 2010 I put a post up called “The Human Scale Of Cold”. It took me 5 days to put together in reading, writing, editing and re-editing. In short, I treated it less like a blog post and more like a formally submitted article. The result was astonishing and immediate – it went BLAM on social media, primarily Stumbleupon. To date, at least 37,000 pairs of eyeballs have viewed it via SU alone. Factor in over a hundred shares on Facebook and cut to Mike dancing round the garden (his emaciated frame poking through tattered clothing), planning a new website based on a thousand such posts.

(I’ll admit, I wrote a sequel in the summer. It did even better).

I can’t put that much time into blogging on a regular basis. And it would be really daft to do so, because that’s time I could spend getting paid directly. But it is worth putting some of your best writing in your blog – if only to fill out your Best Of page (a really good technique for getting people’s attention). This is the evergreen flagship content the successful blog-folk talk about, and for longterm influence, for making people understand what you’re about and why you’re worth reading, it matters.

Hold Fast, by Ben Fredericson (Flickr)

10. It’s Not Just A Business – It’s Fun

Welcome to the best and the worst thing about this job if you’re me.

I love this job. Really. I am in permanent fanboy mode at the work itself. Sometimes I have to force myself to power the laptop down, blubbering pathetically and fighting my own arm like Dr Strangelove. I am an enthusiast, and that keeps me stubbornly hanging in there when it really hurts. If I didn’t care, I’d have given up by now. This is why I’m not working in archaeology (my undergraduate degree), and why other friends successfully are.

The problem? When you love the job, you can’t switch off. (More on that later).

This is the only thing about freelance writing that I feel comfortable forcing down people’s throats when they ask me (eg. here, point 8). It’s the thing that will get you anywhere, and a lack of it is the road to failure. It’s this.

You have to care.

If you can imagine being happy doing something else, go do that instead. Being a writer, the actual writing, has to be your number 1 reward because sometimes, that’s the only reward you will have. Through sheer bloodyminded persistence and an unquenchable thirst to improve you may get “lucky” (I hate that word, but anyway) and make £squillions. Or you may make just enough to scrape by – and even that isn’t guaranteed.

Yes, this is a fickle profession, and financially you will probably suffer.

But that’s okay – that’s not why you’re doing it. Right?

(Part 2 soon).

Images: xjrlokix, Nicola since 1972 and Generationbass.com.

  • Don’t forget number 11: (look away now if you’re feeling shy, Mike) you’re bloody good at the writing bit. I know that when I come over here I tend to make snarky comments rather than necessarily commenting like a sensible person (well, I’m not one of those, so what do you expect really?), but you’ll note that I keep coming back. And the reason I do that? It’s because of the way you write.

    Katja – smitten since 2004. ;)

    • Mikeachim

      Don’t make me start waving *your* flag now. Because you, lady, have writing talent. (Which makes your nice words extra-nice. Thank you muchly and kindly).

      I’ll add no. 11 when I see you going self-employed freelance.

      And I don’t care how many snarky comments you’ll fling at me for doing it. Yes.

      • Is that a metaphorical olive I see before me? I believe it might be. ;)

  • Too funny! And I agree with the name thing — I’m the only one who comes up in a Google search. Cheers, and good luck!

    • Mikeachim

      I’ve just looked. You’re not wrong. :) Nice work – literally.

  • I loved the sentence about how your twin passions are storytelling and travel – it reflects some of my own loves in this world. Thank you for this post; it was honest, insightful and informative. I am excited to read more of your writing!

    • Mikeachim

      Thanks, Roxanne – kind of you to say!

      And yep, I reckon travel-writing and storytelling are – or should be – two halves of the same thing

  • Excellent tips, as usual. In my opinion, the biggest thing we all need to come to grips with in the new and modern writing world is that we are not only writers, we are publishers. The internet set the barrier to entry into the writing world at zero, unlike days gone by, when you’d never have a chance of getting anything read by tens of thousands of readers until you broke through with one of the few big travel magazines out there. The barrier being low is both a boon and a pratfall, but I think too many writers focus on the downside (“there are people writing for free and I can’t get paid!”), then focusing on the huge upsides. Well done, as usual, Sir. See you in a few weeks in the great Pacific Northwest.

    • Mikeachim

      I’m afraid not. :( As part 2 will explain, I can’t afford TBEX. That beer will have to wait a little longer…

      You’re absolutely right. Anyone can have a go. And there’s power and horror in that, all mixed up. It’s self-publishing spreading its wings and going slightly mad. My anarchic, rulebending side kinda likes that, but the rest of me is cowering in a corner…

      What do you feel are the biggest upsides to this kind of self-publishing? And how do you think they’ll change the world (or have already)?

  • I second Katja’s comment!

    • Mikeachim

      Aw. Then I second my thanks, except at you this time. :)

  • So…I actually don’t know what the “achim” part in your name is all about.

    You have just reminded to create a Best Of page! Thanks.

    Clever, resourceful, entertaining post. As usual!

    • Mikeachim

      “What does Mikeachim mean?” is my no. 1 most asked question. And the answer is really simple, so I tend to fabricate something complicated and ludicrous.

      But since it’s you, I’ll answer truthfully.

      Well, my name is Mike. And in 1984, as a 13 year old child, my plane crashed in the Himalayas and I was brought up by the warrior monks of “Chi”, who taught me that the best time to focus my karmic power and align myself with the leylines of the most ancient Earth powers is in the morning. So Mike + Chi + A.M. Rearrange, and there you have it.

      All true.

      Despite the fact I’m really crap at getting up in the mornings.

  • Sharon Miro

    Anymore said, and I would be gilding the lily–and you’d get an even bigger head.

    But I cannot help myself…I has a keyboard in front of me-musts be used.

    1. Doing unpaid work is liking drinking slivovitz: one needs to learn the right time to say no.

    2. Hanging out: Marketing pros say that 10% of us influence the rest. The trick is marketing to that 10%.

    3. The most successful writers will tell you the truth: writing is hard hard hard work. Ask George RR Martin why he hasn’t finhsed the 5th book.

    4. Eh, OK. I guess that why he chose Shakespeare.

    5. Someone to me: Why do you know so much “stuff”. Me: “I am curious about “stuff”-aren’t you?” Curiousity is a curse and a blessing-but that in itself is worth a whole blog post.

    6. Writing for free is not an insult, it’s a choice. Writing for peanuts is an insult.

    7. I don’t care how many jobs you have-you will always be a writer, in ALL WAYS. Someone once told me that and it has sustained me over many years.

    8. You have to know how you spend before you can know how to save–I think I have said that before!

    9. Your blog-well yes, keep the best for yourself-as a writer, there is always more where that came from.

    10. When anything stops being fun, you are required by law to walk away. That is all.

    And caring, well, that is part of the soul, right? If you didn’t care, we would be talking about plumbers tape, or wrenches. Which could be interesting, from the right perspective…

    It’s early here-I must go get some coffee. And wait to see what you did “wrong”.

    • Mikeachim

      Regarding George RR Martin: I found this truly fascinating…

      And:

      “When anything stops being fun, you are required by law to walk away.”

      I need this framed somewhere. Somewhere really visible.

      Wise, thou art.

  • Thanks for the great tips! I’m still quite *new* in the blogging world, and blogging about travel is a hobby rather than a job at the moment, but I do see the importance of writing with pasion. I was surprised that the one article I wrote about hiking in my homeland, the Canary Islands, got so many visitors… I never thought people would actually care. But I think the more love you put into an article and into the pictures you post, the more love will come back from fellow readers!
    Also, I think its important (specially in the travel blogging world) to not get too obsessed with the blogging itself – we have to find time to go outside and explore, and properly combine this with regular posts on what we discover. It’s quite difficult to turn into a successful travel blogger without actually *travelling* (in the wide sense of the word).

    • Mikeachim

      Thanks, Katherina!

      Agreed. The balancing act as it turns from a hobby into a business/obsession…that’s tricky. There’s a point when travelling is stopping you blogging and vice versa. That’s an ugly, painful place, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a lot of miserable people there, feeling trapped. It can be a calling, a profession…but if you’re not careful, it can also become a *job*. We’re all wary of that happening. After all, we’re not in this to become just as stressed and unhappy, but with a better tan…

      What’s the link to your Canary Islands post? Go on, put it up below, let’s have a read. ;)

  • Yer doing it right!

    • Mikeachim

      Ah, but these are only the things I’m doing right. :) Wait until the next part.

      But let me guess: your comment on the second part will be “Yer doing it wrong!”.

      I’ve got you worked out, Candice Walsh. Fact.

  • 4,6, and 7 are really the big ones for me. Having something that stands out and helps people remember you is a big. I also agree that you need to connect with people and make friends as you can help them and they can help you. There’s enough for everyone and being helpful gets you farther.

    • Mikeachim

      The ‘friends helping you point’ is key for me. Because a good support network – one that isn’t just treated like an audience to be broadcasted at – is the essence of making Web 2.0 work as a business model. You can’t expect people to invest in you if you don’t invest in them in some way. And if they’re friends – which ideally they should be – it’s a no-brainer anyway, as it requires no effort. You *want* to connect and share better. No need to get Machiavellian at all…

      Chris Guillebeau isn’t wrong in using the word “army”. People who will follow you, but not blindly, never uncritically. Treat them right, and they will help you where more than one pair of strong arms is needed. Treat them as link-cattle, and they’ll mutiny and bury you.

      And bringing the theory back to ground level – there’s so much I don’t know about this career. Sometimes really fundamental stuff. Sometimes things I’m not even aware of not knowing.

      Other people make me less rubbish, and for that, I can’t thank them enough – although hey, I intend to try.

  • I have a silly name? I thought it was quite sensible :)

    • Mikeachim

      No, I think you need a name that’s less silly.

      How about “Pork Is Occult?”

      No?

      “Trotters Are Sorcerous?”

  • Amen to #3!

    • Mikeachim

      And alas, no way round it…

      Good job it’s fun, then. :)

  • paS

    So, Mike.

    Thing 1: MANY years ago, when I was just not the embittered person I am today, I met with a big shot marketing guy, a VP in a Very Well Known PR Firm. And he said this to me: ‘You might think about getting a different name. I mean, Nerd’s Eye View is cute and all, but it doesn’t say travel and no one really knows what it is.’

    I liked this guy a lot, I STILL like him. He gave me good work and is a good guy and is smart smart smart. But that piece of advice, I couldn’t bring myself to take it.

    I am not sorry.

    Thing 2: I do a “first one’s free” thing but mostly, with my TIME, not with my writing. As in if someone wants to hire me to do some work with them, I’m totally thrilled to hang out with them, talk about their project, do show and tell, hell, I’ll even buy the coffee. This is essentially how I ended up in Penguinistan. I’ll happily fill out Q&As (they’re fun, and I get nice link love) and do stuff that’s not TOO much work when I can squeeze it in. But I won’t give away polished professional work. Not even on a first one’s free basis. Nope.

    What you said. On a lot of this.

    • Mikeachim

      I briefly considered editing out the word “embittered”. Because that’s not you. But then I thought, if she *is* embittered she’ll come after me for editing her comment and travel-blogging will have its first yet another blood feud.

      Nerd’s Eye View is such a great name it even got stolen for a hip hop album! Hell, I can’t see *that* happening for “Mikeachim”!

      (….and nor would I want to. Thanks, guys, but keep your bling away from my face).

      Do you mean “give away” as in “allow someone to post on their site for no fee”, or “blog on your own site”? I haven’t done the former, at least this far, although maybe the exposure at HuffPo will win me over at some point when I’ve got money coming in to compensate. But generally? Me neither. But if it’s adding direct value to my own site with my own name against it and my own reputation potentially boosted (or, hey, destroyed, you never know) – I’ll happily do. :)

      I’m sure there’s some problematic middle ground here. A co-authored, initially unpaid webzine that needs your work but doesn’t 100% benefit you? I’d feel slightly queasy. Product discount compensation? Also queasy. Blog to win a competition to be our new island paradise blogger? I’d rather drown just offshore, thanks. And so on.

      There’s still so much we have to thrash out. No wonder so much of travel blogging these days is just that.

  • What a lot of people don’t realise that travel writing and blogging are hard work. You really need to love what you do and have a passion for travel. We have put endless hours into our blog and only because we are passionate about following our goals. Hard work is the key and not stopping for anything and you will succeed. Always love reading your unique way of story telling ;)

    • Mikeachim

      Thanks, Anthony!

      Frankly, I’m amazed when I see successful travel-bloggers doing their thing, fighting scrappy internet connections and working with transport timetables and unpredictable schedules to keep on top of their blog. It really does require an impressive level of both organisation and hard work, and that’s probably hard to appreciate until you’re actually doing it.

      And yes, a stubborn bloodyminded refusal to give up. Hanging in there is a requirement, especially when saving up (and I believe you did so for 3 years)..?

  • Mikesachimp

    Who indeed would have such a ridiculous name! They’d have to be a mentali…oh, hang on.

    • Mikeachim

      You said it, mate.

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  • the blog post could’ve also been called “What I did write.” Jokes!

    • Mikeachim

      This is exactly why I should have other people write my blog posts for me. ;)

  • Thanks to HuffPo, I just found your blog – an am enjoying quite a bit! When you were first starting to freelance, how did you rustle up your very first paying gigs? (this seems like a long teeth-pulling process, but I’m hoping for a light at the end of the tunnel). I figure if I ask enough people how they really got the ball rolling, eventually my own ball will roll. Or something.

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  • Caitlin

    I am not sure about the writing for free part but maybe that is because I started out as a staff writer, but I certainly agree that you are better off strategically writing for free than chasing the really small change.

  • Hi Mike. A really helpful article and I’ll be sure to follow your advice. Incidentally, if you get a moment, I’d value your opinion of my own site. The writing’ s not to the same standard as your own, but I’m working on it and would appreciate your thoughts.