Freelance Writing: What I Did Right

MikeachimThe Everyday38 Comments


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”).


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!


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