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The Biggest Mistake You Can Make as a Freelance Writer

Matthew has worked as a freelance writer for a variety of clients and has learned the ins and outs of self-employment the hard way.

Freelance writing is great, but it can be inconsistent work. Learn how to lower the risk of losing all of your income at once.

Freelance writing is great, but it can be inconsistent work. Learn how to lower the risk of losing all of your income at once.

There are inherent risks that come with working as a self-employed freelance writer. It can be scary when you first start, as you have no idea how much you’ll make or how much work there will be.

Obviously, you will make mistakes. The beginning of any career typically comes with a few pitfalls. But there is really one mistake every freelance writer should avoid making it at all costs. I know because I made it twice.

How It Began

I like being freelance writer. It’s the only job I’ve ever had. I like working from home. I like making my own schedule. But I fell into a trap that I should have seen coming.

Financial planners tell you to diversify your portfolio in order to keep your money safe. You should have multiple income sources so you are protected should something happen to your job, your business, your investments, etc.

This is something you should also do when you’re a freelance writer. Never rely on just one client. There are exceptions of course. If you have a trusted, long-term client, and they’ve been good to you, then have at it. But when you first start out, it is important to be getting gigs from a variety of clients. It will help you build a reputation faster and your contacts will multiply.

I, however, learned this lesson the hard way. One day early in my career I was getting by stringing together a bunch of small-time gigs and some ghostwriting. I happened upon an ad for a startup that needed writers to create content for their businesses. They billed it as an auxiliary to social media management. Companies paid them for content to fill out their social media platforms. It was my job to write tweets for different clients to use on their corporate social media accounts.

I answered the ad. It was for remote work, which can be shady, but I had only ever worked remotely, and at the time, I figured I could suss out a scam. By nighttime, I was already working for them and getting paid. This should have tipped me off how desperate they were, but I was dumb, and it was easy money.

The orders got bigger and I took on more and more work, and within a week I was only working for them writing tweets. Mostly, people wanted jokes and entertaining tweets in order to stand out on Twitter. However, the subject matter was not the most jocular. Let me tell you, it is not easy to write 1,000 jokes about software.

Soon, I realized that I was the only writer; the couple that was onboarded before me couldn’t keep up. I was writing hundreds of tweets a day. It was fun, relatively easy work. I should have kept looking for other clients but I would just go back to writing more for this company. For two months, they were my only client.

I let other opportunities slip by; Why should I work with anyone else when this company was giving all the work I could handle?

The First Sign of Trouble

That's when things slowed down. They weren’t bringing on new clients, and the contracts they had before my arrival were running out. But, I turned a blind eye. It’ll pick up, I kept thinking. They promised it was just a short-term thing.

Then, my payments started coming later and later. Communication was less and less frequent. The jovial attitude was gone. Finally, the payments stopped altogether. I realized what was happening far too late. They were out of money and the business was failing before it would ever truly start. I got an email asking me to work on another large order. It said they would get me my money as soon as possible. Fortunately, this time, I declined. I stopped getting emails.

It’s a strange phenomenon when a digital company goes out of business. I couldn’t show up to an office to find a closed sign. No, it just disappeared in a wisp of pixels and bytes. So, I had to scramble to find another gig right away, whenever I never should have stopped looking in the first place. As luck would have it, I fell for it again.

My Next Gig

I was writing for a site that had only recently been launched. This time I kept multiple clients longer, but I eventually fell into the same bad habit and let the money go to my head. This time was a little different. I was the top writer, and I was being baited with a full-time staff writer position. I let my other clients go as I was, I thought, about to be writing exclusively for this company.

This was a big enough carrot for them to string me along for a while. I, again, let the decent money keep me from asking too many questions, and again and again, they delayed my appointment to staff writer. Finally, they told me I would be promoted. I rejoiced, and I told myself I shouldn’t have doubted them. A week later, the website folded. I was out in the cold again.

The Bottom Line

I rebounded quicker this time, but I couldn’t believe I let it happen again. So please—be smarter than me and don’t ever, ever, only have just one client. When you work as a private contractor, as most freelance writers who create copy for businesses do, it's important to make sure you have multiple clients. It can be unexpected, but businesses go broke just like we do. Protect yourself by diversifying your client portfolio.

© 2019 Matthew Donnellon