My husband and I were having dinner with another couple recently when the husband surprised me with question. “So, what’s the business model for what you do, Crystal?” He is a retired pharma executive for a well-known Fortune 100 company, and I was stunned that he was curious about my work as a freelance writer. I gave a succinct answer that may or may not have satisfied him.
Freelance writers are used to being misunderstood, and many of us don’t do enough to clarify what we do for a living, especially with people who are in a position to benefit from our services. It’s okay with me if my mom and dad doubt that I have a “real job.” If, however, I haven’t persuaded you (my potential customer) that writing for your company and your brand is a marketable skill…well, that’s a problem for both of us.
Today, I’ll go beyond the polite, dinner-table explanation I gave our friend and shed light on what a good freelance writer brings to your business. Here are eight things the most successful and sought-after writers do each day.
We search. A good writer finds the soul in every piece of content—the part that inspires people to curiosity, wonder, laughter and awe. We may have learned this principle in journalism school or somewhere else, and it’s still true: there is no such thing as a boring story; only boring (or bored) writers.
We collaborate. Writers are occasionally mistaken as dingbats when you bring us on board for the first time. Long after you’re exhausted by our Who-What-When-Where-How-Why questions, we’re still interrogating you—and not because we’re dim. Writers must be naturally curious and learn quickly. It’s how we become knowledgeable insiders who can augment your team.
A good content marketer wants to know everything about your industry, your business, your culture and your brand. We want to know your strategic goals, your business plans, your communication strategy, the specific voice you use when you say something, the personas of people you want to engage. We want to know where you’re going and what success looks like to you. If you can answer these questions, we can begin work immediately. If you can’t, we will pummel you with questions, help you define plans and go from there.
We show loyalty. When you develop a relationship with the right freelance writer, working together should feel effortless. You will see us cover your backside at every turn. We learn where your pain is and how we can relieve it.
Everything we do, we do for you. All the professional training and development, all the work experience we’ve ever had is yours. Your goals are our goals. When you succeed, we succeed.
If we exceed your expectations, we know there’s a chance you’ll tap us time after time because you can count on us to deliver. Like any marketing agency, we juggle your work with other clients or projects. If we do our jobs correctly, you may never know it because we treat you like you’re the only one.
Reputable writers are faithful. We don’t poach your clients. We don’t share your confidential information. We don’t mention your work to competitors. You’re the one who brought us to the dance.
We are objective. Freelance writers have a radar for B.S., empty language, jargon, poor logic, aimless messages and other gobbledygook that distances you from what Cuba Gooding’s character called “The Quan” in the movie Jerry Maguire—the love, the respect, the community, the entire package of magic dust that draws people to your brand. We’ll be respectful but honest with you if we think you’re headed down the wrong path.
We meet deadlines. One of the big myths about freelancers is that we have job flexibility. I won’t lie: the ability to work from anywhere or to take a day off to tend personal business or family (without asking for permission) is one of the perks of being self-employed. But for those of us who are serious about our business, there’s another side. When we’re on a deadline that’s important to a client, we postpone/cancel/work through vacations, sacrifice social obligations and occasionally disappoint our families by working around the clock. We live in the same rushed, time-bound world that you do, and, as a valued part of your team, we go to the mat to get things done on time.
We focus on deliverables. Most of us have been employed as corporate communicators in our past lives. We know what it’s like to have a plate so full that you can’t see tomorrow, to have shifting priorities, to survive a merger, acquisition or downsizing. You’re pulled in a million directions. We’re not. We have compassion for your situation.
When you give us an assignment, we’ll stay with it until it’s done. We’re not distracted from the mission by the latest emergency of the day. Once you set us up to work, we don’t need to be coaxed, coddled or cajoled into doing it. A freelance writer is a self-starter.
We buy. Every freelancer is a small business. We pay for health insurance, technology, internet services, creative software, project management tools, professional development, association memberships, sales and marketing expenses, travel costs, legal/accounting services, office supplies, web site hosting, web development and taxes. When you borrow us for an hour, you pay for our experience plus a small chunk of our expenses—not the whole tamale you might get if we were employees.
Have I mentioned that we pay double taxes? Yes, it’s true. As small businesses, freelancers pay both the employee and the employer share of taxes collected for Social Security and Medicare. A self-employed person in 2019 pays 15.3 percent in combined self-employment taxes compared to an employee’s 7.65 percent rate.
After subtracting expenses, veteran freelancers must earn enough that we’re doing better (hopefully, much better) than we might if we sought work as a Walmart greeter—not that there’s anything wrong with that job, but it’s not my jam. The government doesn’t like it when we don’t show a profit. (We don’t either.) If a writer doesn’t show a profit a few years in a row, the IRS considers it a hobby—not a business.
That’s why writers must build three things into their rates: 1) expenses, 2) a profit margin to operate on and 3) a take-home salary after taxes. Those who don’t will ultimately be looking for a job, which means they won’t be available the next time you want to work with them.
Yes, you could just cycle through freelancers who are bridging an employment gap. They often charge less because they don’t intend to stay in business. Or you could choose someone who behaves like an enduring business partner, a freelancer who has driven a stake in the ground and treated their work the way you treat yours: like a business.
We can write almost anything. A seasoned writer may be especially good at one kind of writing, but you shouldn’t shy away from us because you don’t see a certain industry or a certain style of writing in our portfolio. We don’t have to be surgeons to write about surgery; we just have to ask the right questions to make your readers understand what they need to know or move them to action.
To wit: I write about cryogenic storage, medical devices, health conditions/treatments/services, medical research, industrial equipment, legal cannabis license applications and cannabis cultivation. I craft fund-raising messages and write personal profiles about fascinating people in art, music, science, architecture and construction, cover business transformations, explain cultural trends, share travel stories, put history in context, and write collateral marketing content.
It’s true that every writer is not meant for every piece of writing, but many of us LOVE to dive in and make complex topics more readable. We don’t agree to a project unless we think we’ve got the cojones to tackle it.
We are scrappy. Freelance writers are grounded by five realities:
1) The world doesn’t owe us a living.
2) You’re probably not going to marry us.
3) We don’t get paid just for showing up.
4) Not everyone will love us.
5) Our clients must have a marketing budget.
When your projects are done and you don’t need us for a while, we look for work with other clients, content marketing agencies, magazines, newspapers and websites. We pitch stories we know from a wide network of writers, editors and sources in our field. (Bonus: Sometimes, the stories we pitch are yours.)
Our dockets may be 75 to 100 percent full in some seasons and only 25 percent full in others. In those valleys, we may spend 75 percent of our time looking for new business and referrals. (Who said this was a part-time job?)
If we get a client who offers the right long-term engagement, we’ll take it. Those kinds of gigs may mean we won’t be ready the next time you call, but we hope that the work we’ve done for you—and the way we’ve gone about it—will keep us in your memory as a preferred resource when the next project rolls around. We’re looking for more than a bump-and-run opportunity; we want a lifelong connection with you.
There are many paths to success as a freelance writer. I don’t presume to speak for the universe of independent writers, but this is how I’ve operated for the length of my career as a freelancer. Along the way, I’ve made some lifelong friendships with people who work with purpose and passion. I’m forever grateful that I get to use my God-given talents to help them speak truth and prosper.
If you’re looking for a solid writer to join your team on an ad hoc basis, I would love to talk to you. Meanwhile, you can see some of my past work here.