In 2005, I was approached by someone who told me that the Next Big Thing in online marketing was the blog. I didn’t know what a blog was, and, truth to tell, I didn’t much care. Someone was willing to pay me a monthly retainer to provide content to a corporate blog.
With my freshly-minted M.A. in Journalism from Syracuse, it wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do. My science reporting focus didn’t pay all the bills, and we needed the rent money, so I agreed to get involved with blogging.
As you know, my recruiter was right; blogging exploded in the years after I began. Professional blogging became my family’s online source of income, and, even though the online writing landscape has changed in the last decade, I’m still the primary breadwinner.
As I reflect on 10 years in the online writing space, I’ve thought a lot about how differently I’d approach my career if I were starting out today.
1. Treat Online Freelancing Like a Business
At first, my plan was to write a little bit until my husband finished his Ph.D. and got a job. I thought I’d make just enough to pay the rent and the bills if we scrimped and had help from student loans. I never dreamed that blogging could be a business. As a result, I wasted a lot of money paying taxes I didn’t need to, and I made poor decisions that I wouldn’t have made if I’d had a business mindset.
Even if your online freelance writing is meant as a side gig for a little extra, follow sound business principles from the beginning.
2. Start Your Blog Now
As a freelance writer, you want to get paid. Often you spend so much time writing for others that you don’t think about building up your website. I didn’t have a blog until the end of 2011. If I were starting today, the first thing I’d do is establish a blog I could use as a showcase and marketing tool.
3. Use Your Name
If you’re an online freelancer, you want to be recognizable. I made the mistake of joining Twitter as MMarquit, and I’ve used that username on other accounts. I wish I’d just gone with my actual name since some guy named Jacob uses the handle @MirandaMarquit on Twitter.
Today, social media sites are well-established and an essential part of the landscape. When you can, use your name, claiming it from the beginning.
4. Choose a Pen Name that Sounds Plausible
There are times I use a pen name. In fact, I did some early writing that I’m not particularly proud of under a pen name. If you decide that you need some level of anonymity, use a pen name that seems plausible.
It’s fine to go for clever when you don’t plan to branch out and write for others. If you want to be an online freelancer who’s taken seriously, you need a “real” sounding pen name.
5. Hire an Accountant
I waited too long to hire an accountant. If I had seen an accountant earlier, I would have learned the value of business organizations beyond sole proprietorship sooner — and saved about $13,000 in taxes over the course of two years. The moment you start making money as an online freelancer, sit down with a professional and consider your options. I can’t imagine life without my accountant now; he’s worth every penny (and he’s tax-deductible).
6. Use a Consistent Avatar Across Social Media Channels and Bios
You should be recognizable. Use the same avatar across social media channels so that potential clients recognize you. I try to use the same headshot for my bios on various sites as well, although I’ve fallen behind with recent efforts since I recently commissioned new headshots.
When I first started, I tried using different images for various bios and social media accounts. After a few people told me they didn’t always recognize my image, I started standardizing as much as I could.
Your headshot should let you show a little personality while still conveying your status as a professional. Your avatar should be as engaging as you are, and easy to connect to your byline.
7. Don’t Accept Every “Opportunity” Presented to You
I used to think that I had to accept any work that paid. Anything at all. However, I’ve learned that some “opportunities” really aren’t. Even if someone pays you, it doesn’t mean it’s worth your time or effort.
Freelancers are often scared that if they say no to something, they won’t have enough work. Rather than work with someone who’s too demanding, unethical, or who has a poor reputation, I’ve learned to say no. There have been times that I wish I’d been more discriminating about the people I’ve accepted work from.
After a handful of years, I began saying no and “firing” clients if I felt it necessary. Even when I’ve been afraid to do so because I didn’t think I could “afford” to turn down work, I’ve taken that step. Sometimes it meant shelving my pride and asking my parents for help or doing a little work for content farms under my plausible pen name to get the money needed to buy groceries.
8. Some Emails Aren’t Worth Answering (This Goes for LinkedIn Connection Requests, Too)
It’s hard to ignore an email when the subject claims that someone has work for you or wants to work with you. I receive a number of these emails each week, along with LinkedIn connection requests from people claiming they have “opportunities” (there’s that word again) for me.
Unfortunately, most of these chances to work with someone are of little value. I used to answer all emails with either an agreement to talk on Skype about what’s possible or a polite refusal.
Both of these tactics often in so much wasted time. The Skype conversation is often time-consuming and disappointing and the polite refusal often prompts follow-ups. As the years have progressed, I’ve become more adept at hardening my heart and hitting the delete key.
Unless it’s someone I know personally, or know by reputation, I ignore requests to “explore how we might work together.” I’ll work on joint projects with people I know and trust, even if money isn’t involved. But if you’re cold-approaching me, you’d better lead with the fact that this is legitimate, paid work.
9. Do Some Work for Free
I used to be adamant about getting paid. I wouldn’t work for free. Now, I recognize that there are times it makes sense to work for free. If you have the chance to guest post on a blog that can bring more attention to your work or draw eyeballs to your professional site, offer something great.
There are bloggers and other online freelancers that contribute to sites like U.S. News & World Report, Inc., Entrepreneur, and Huffington Post just for the social proof and the legitimacy these sites bestow. It irks me to write for free, but the truth is that many clients don’t realize that Forbes isn’t paying its contributors and that it’s possible for almost anyone to be accepted to write for one of the U.S. News blogs. As a result, if you want to “wow” potential clients, it helps to be able to point to portfolio pieces on these websites.
I don’t want all of my time taken up by this type of work, though. I limit the amount of writing I do for “exposure,” focusing my efforts where I think they will be more effective for the long haul.
10. Take Advantage of Different Media
I focused so much on the fact that I was a writer that it didn’t occur to me to do much in terms of other media. Besides, at the time I started as an online freelancer, YouTube had just barely been activated as a domain name and webcams weren’t considered “standard” hardware in most computers.
There have been so many developments in the last 10 years that it would be foolish not to take advantage of them. Over time, I discovered the value in self-publishing a book, creating videos, participating in podcasts, and even collaborating on a live weekly web show.
If I were starting today, I’d devote some of my time to building a presence in other media. Part of success as an online freelancer in today’s world is the audience you can bring with you. If you can build an audience in different ways, and reach people where they are at, you are more likely to be successful.
How long have you been working online? If you were to start today, what would you do?
H. Luke Landes · February 23, 2015 at 9:52 pm
I certainly concur with the idea of using a pen name that sounds plausible. Ooops. Though “Flexo” had its fans and was an interesting brand on its own…
Miranda · February 24, 2015 at 7:36 pm
Ha! I remember loving the Flexo moniker. Although, to be fair, in some cases if you’re big enough (J. Money!) they’ll take you even with the implausible pen name. But, as a freelancer trying to get regular work, it helps to sound “real.”
Mike Collins · February 25, 2015 at 5:36 pm
Flexo was a cool and easy to remember name. I still remember the Simpsons-ized head shot too.
Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life · February 24, 2015 at 5:39 pm
I’m trying to figure out when it makes sense to hire an accountant. Is there a certain income level I should hit from freelancing first and any recommendations?
Miranda · February 24, 2015 at 7:49 pm
That’s certainly tough. I made the switch when I changed from Sole Proprietor to LLC. I wish I’d done the whole thing earlier, though. It depends on your situation (of course), but I think a good rule of thumb is that when you find yourself without enough room on the Schedule C to do what needs to be done, it’s probably time to rethink the situation. Personally, since I don’t have a payroll, my accountant just does my taxes each year. If you have a more complex setup, which includes payroll or regularly hiring others (1099 or W-2), an accountant can help you get everything squared away. If the fee amounts to more than you make in a month, you probably don’t make enough to hire an accountant. Finally, the final rule is if you feel overwhelmed. As my taxes became increasingly complex, I found that I spent more and more time with them. Now, I just have to do a final organization and I spend maybe two hours at tax time. The same principle applies in other areas of your business. When it feels like you are spending so much time managing your accounting items (payroll, taxes, etc.) that you feel like it’s cutting into your business time, it’s usually a clue. There’s no hard and fast rule, but I think when you’re making $1,000 to $1,500 a month, it’s worth looking into. But someone else might have another idea. I’d love to hear other thoughts.
David Leonhardt · February 24, 2015 at 8:52 pm
When I got online, there was already a New York Times journalist and a band leader with my name hogging up domain names and search results and social media followed. So I picked @Amabaie as a name that nobody would ever take and would always be available to me. And it was, until I joined Skype. Grrrr.
Philip Verghese Ariel · February 25, 2015 at 4:37 am
Nice to be here today,
I am here via David Leonhardt ’s G+ note on this wonderful post.
CONGRATS! On 10 years long journey in freelancing and blogging!
Good going, lot of tips to pick from here for a person like me, though my writings started at a very young age of course that was in my native language i. e. Malayalam. For years of effort brought me to the English blogging and writing. I could relate most of the points mentioned in this post.
I liked the one at #6. Use a Consistent Avatar Across Social Media Channels and Bios
In the beginning I used to keep other famous personalities pics as my avatar and my working in Google’s knol pages helped me to stop that practice and I learned to show my own identity with my picture. It’s a must for any blogger of any social media activists to show their own identity. I like the point you brought out on this subject . of course the pen name business too is a long story with me. At a very young age I took my pen name as Ariel, indeed there is a long story behind that, I posted a note on this story in my page, it’s good to have a feasible name as penname .
I just joined in your page thru my fb avatar.
Thanks for sharing your experience on this happy occasion of celebrating 10th year of blogging.
Have a Great time ahead with all your online activities
Donna Freedman · March 23, 2015 at 1:54 pm
If I did it over again I would have become an LLC much, much sooner. Karen Datko and my daughter both tried to tell me this but I never made time to check it out. As a result I, too, paid more taxes than I should have.
I would also say “no thanks” to more jobs if I knew then what I know now. I ran myself into the ground keeping up with all the deadlines. Too soon old, too late smart.
Finally learning to pace myself, which is a good thing, and branching off into another line of work (online writing course, individual/corporate writing coach) so that I can continue to choose only the writing jobs I want — but still keep the lights on.
Nathan · May 27, 2015 at 10:10 am
What do you say to someone who wants to freelance writing about religion? Is this a demanding field to break into?
Miranda Marquit · May 27, 2015 at 10:20 am
Honestly, it’s probably very difficult to break into. You have to have some sort of standing in the area. It helps to establish yourself as a religion writer by covering it as a “beat” on your own blog, or in some other way. But I personally think that it would take a long time for you to be profitable as a religion writer.
Is That Freelance Opportunity REALLY an Opportunity? · March 3, 2015 at 6:14 am
[…] too long ago, I wrote an article for the Plutus Awards website about the 10 things I’d do if I were starting out as a freelancer today. It was a fun article to write, since this year marks my 10th anniversary as an online freelancer. […]