Pen To Print

Click "Enter" to submit the form.

Friday Features: What Makes A Great Freelance Writer?

By Alison Grade

The obvious answer to this question is being a great writer. And yes, absolutely to be a great freelance writer you do need to be a great writer. Importantly, though, you also need to be great at being a freelancer and that’s the bit that’s often overlooked or brushed aside, as it’s generally outside of a writer’s comfort zone.

The interesting thing is that being a better writer doesn’t always lead to more work, but when you get better at being a freelancer, that does lead to more work and more opportunities.

So, how do you become a better freelancer? It’s all about working ‘on’ rather than ‘in’ your freelancing.

Working ‘in’ your freelancing is doing the work that you do. It often involves spinning many plates, as there are many projects current and in the pipeline. And it’s these plates that pay the bills.

When you work ‘on’ your freelancing, you devote time to developing your freelance business. You do this by taking on different roles in the business, over and above being a writer. Each persona has its own role and scope of work, like wearing different hats. The four most important hats are:

  • Chief Executive Officer (CEO)
  • Finance Director
  • Marketing And Sales Director
  • Chief Operating Officer (COO)

As the CEO, you need to be steering the ship in the right direction. As the finance director, you’ll be keeping on top of the money – sending the invoices and making sure you’re paid as well as managing your business expenditure and keeping records.

With your marketing and sales hat, you’ll need to ensure you have projects in the pipeline, otherwise you will finish a big job and look around to find you’ve no work lined up. As the COO, you need to schedule your work to ensure you deliver all your client work on time, while also carving out periods for marketing, finance and strategic thinking.

So, in addition to your writer’s hat, you’ll need to keep these four hats handy too.

“That’s great,” I hear you say. “But what does that mean for me day-to-day as a freelance writer?”

The successful freelance psyche balances:

◆   Skills

£      Finances

🖤 Desires

What makes for a successful freelancer writer is balancing your time and energy across more than ‘just’ writing.

Imagine a three-legged stool, the old-fashioned kind, where each leg represents one area of focus. For the stool to be in balance, each leg needs to be bearing equal weight. If you remove one leg, or reduce its length, the stool falls over. It’s the same with freelancing.

Remove your skills  – as a freelance writer – and you won’t have the capability to able to deliver for your clients.

Remove your financial drive – finances – and you won’t have a sustainable career, you’ll have a hobby. A hobby doesn’t pay the bills.

Remove desires – your passion to get your message out there and find clients – and potential clients will never know you exist, nor the work you could do for them.

When all three legs are bearing equal weight, you can sit comfortably atop the stool. The converse is also true. If you spend too much time focussing on one leg, such as your skills  –your writing – the stool becomes unbalanced and will topple over.

It’s easily done. It’s the comfortable coat. Your skill, as a writer, is the part of the work you love, and you want to do the best writing you can. To be able to do the work you love is often why you’re a freelance in the first place.

The outcome is a library or hard drive full of manuscripts that have never been sent or read. Unlike a ceramicist or an artist who spends too much time creating (and has a studio full of almost-finished work), it’s easy for a writer to hide a library of unsent manuscripts; they are merely a series of files on your computer.

‘It’s not quite right,’ you think. ‘It’s not finished… I’m not happy with it… I’ll park it for a while and work on something else, then I’ll come back to it.’  This writing gets added to the pile and the cycle repeats itself. You remain in your comfort zone and your freelance writing career remains static and lacking in momentum, because you’re only focussing on that one leg of the stool.

By removing the comfortable coat, and focussing on the other legs of the stool, your freelance writing career will gain momentum. You will be getting your work in front of people and they will be reading it, which means you are, at the very least, in with a chance of it winning new business.

And it’s hard. I get it. Writing is such a personal thing. I didn’t know if I could write a book when I decided to write The Freelance Bible. Until I’d written a draft I was happy with, no one had read a word of my manuscript, not even my husband. It was tempting to keep tinkering and saying to myself, ‘It isn’t quite ready,’ because that would give me an excuse not to show it to anyone and then I couldn’t be told it was no good.

The moment when I emailed a copy to my husband was tough, really tough. I’d written a non-fiction, business book, but it was very personal to me. It was a labour of love. I physically had to leave the house while he was reading it! But I got through it, and I took on board his three-thousand-plus track changes and it became a better book.

Truth is, there were lots of stages like this in my journey to getting published, where my manuscript was both ready and not ready. Ready to be shown to the reader I had in mind next, and not ready, because I was looking for them to help me shape it and take it on to the next stage.

In the beginning, it wasn’t comfortable or easy. It was still very raw and personal. But I knew that, if I were going to get published and realise financial value from my manuscript, then I needed to get my message out there and focus on the ‘desires’ leg of my stool. As I did that, I found inspiration in others’ insights and my manuscript improved each time.

When I started talking to people, I didn’t know where the opportunities might be, or what might be possible. Yes, I had an end goal in mind – publication. But that couldn’t happen without my getting my message out there: I have written a book and I want to get it published. So, I spread the word and told key people in my network and wrote a few very focussed, ‘cold’ emails to publishers. Did I get a lot of NOs? Absolutely.  But I also received some interest, both through my network and my emails.

I built on that and, as I did, my manuscript began to transform from a creative idea into a business reality. What made the difference was my taking a leap of faith, believing my work had a value in the marketplace and spending time getting my message out there.

I knew that, what I had written up to that point wasn’t perfect and it wasn’t finished. But perfect is the enemy of the good. If I had continued to aspire to perfection, I’d still have a draft manuscript on my hard drive.

My way forward was to rebalance my stool, stop working ‘on’ the manuscript and instead work ‘in’ the activity of getting it published.


Alison’s book The Freelance Bible published by Penguin and available as a paperback, e-book and audiobook. You can connect with Alison on Twitter: @alisongrade, on Facebook: freelancebible, on Instagram: @freelancebible and on LinkedIn: alisongrade

Title Image (c) Kate Hollingsworth Photography


Issue 7 of Write On! Magazine is out now. Find it here.

So, how do you become a better freelancer? It’s all about working ‘on’ rather than ‘in’ your freelancing.