Your 2023 Reading List

Whether you’re a newbie writer or a seasoned veteran, it’s always a good idea to keep learning about writing (the craft and the business) and improving your skills. If you’re looking for some new-to-you resources to dig into in the new year, you’ll want to peruse this list we’ve compiled for you. (Some of us will be taking each other’s suggestions!)

We asked several Evangelical Press Association freelancers for their favorite books and they were happy to share these. Some of them are specifically about writing. Others touch on related topics such as marketing or establishing good habits. In no particular order . . .

And here’s a podcast suggestion to jazz up the list:

One last suggestion (which we are not getting paid to make): The Evangelical Press Association has compiled a library of 78 on-demand video presentations from the virtual events and webinars held in recent years and will continue to add to this treasury in the years ahead. This is a valuable one-stop source of training from industry experts in writing, editing, design, photography, digital publishing, social media, professional development, and more. The catch? You need to be an EPA member to access the library, but Associate membership (i.e. if you’re not a publication) is only $80 a year. For the price of four or five of the books listed above, you get access to a great many resources and networking opportunities, including the monthly freelancers’ Zoom chat hosted by this blog’s editors! Learn more here.

What are your favorite resources for writers? Please share in the comments section.

Thanks to Ann Byle, Sommer Cunningham, Akosua Frempong, Chris Maxwell,
Patti Townley-Covert, and Terry White for their recommendations.

More Baskets = More Stability

Freelance writers can improve their financial sustainability by building relationships with multiple clients. They can further increase their stability by writing in a few different niches. And many serious freelancers will also work toward a diversified mix of offerings, perhaps writing articles for publications, crafting books, teaching classes, speaking at events, critiquing writing, and more. Each new client and offering strengthens a freelancer’s business.

Robert Lee Brewer, Writer’s Digest (Nov. 18, 2022)

CFWN’s Top Tools & Tips (continued)

a collaboration by EPA freelancers

If you missed it, click here to see Part 1.

What are your favorite tools or resources as a freelance writer?

Lori Arnold: Otter AI transcription service has cut my transcription time by at least half. It’s pretty accurate for a multi-voice recognition system. You can also search keywords in the transcript. They offer a free basic package for individuals just starting out.

Akosua Frempong: My favorite tip came from Joyce Ellis during one of the EPA Freelancer Zoom calls and was  confirmed during another meeting by Jeff Friend. Joyce mentioned the Christian Writers’ Market Guide. I decided to subscribe to it and, through it, I got my first professional break in Christian freelance writing, writing for Peer! The guide provides essential information on the publications, including pay and, as Jeff mentioned, tips on how to get the editors’ attention. For me, as a freelance journalist and more specifically a Christian one, it’s been a beneficial tool.  

Stephen Clark: After trying and rejecting several journaling tools, I stumbled onto The Journal by DavidRM Software. This software offers much more than just journaling and is loaded with useful features that are intuitive and easy to use. You can create unlimited dated journals that allow you to create one entry per day. You can also create undated loose-leaf notebooks where each entry is just like adding a page to a binder. The notebook feature is great for organizing projects. For example, you can create a notebook titled “Articles” with each entry an article in progress. Navigating the journals and notebooks is very easy by way of tabs and file trees. You can rename the tabs at any time. Each notebook and journal can be set up with their own default font, color scheme, and passwords. Entries use formatting features similar to what you will find in Word as well as spell check, thesaurus, and auto-replace. You can cut and paste or insert text and graphics from other sources. You can search a single notebook or every journal and notebook for a word or phrase, and you can export the text (individual entries or batches) as RTF files.

Ann-Margret Hovsepian: These are my top three suggestions:

1. The Print Friendly browser extension button is the best and fastest way to print out (or save as a PDF) a web page in a readable format. You can click on any images or text you don’t want in your print-out.

2. The “Save” feature of Facebook is something I use a lot. If I see a link, quote, or idea that I want to hang on to for a future project, or just for my personal use, I save it. You can create “Collections” to organize the posts into categories.

3. I highly recommend signing up for Jane Friedman’s Electric Speed newsletter, which features helpful tools and resources and is sent out twice a month.

What is the best advice you would give other freelancer writers?

Jeff Friend: Never, never, never miss a deadline.

Ann Byle: I’ve learned these things along the Freelance Way:

1. Walk through the doors God opens. Whether the project works out or not, the exercise of moving forward without fear (or with a little bit of fear) is worth the effort.

2. Trust the process. We want the right lede, the right ending, the best story RIGHT NOW, but sometimes it takes a bit for those things to come. But they will come if you do your research, give yourself time to think, and relax. This also applies to starting a freelance writing career; you have to do your due diligence—put in the time and effort—to get started. 

3. Don’t hold things too tightly. Which is to say, your stories will be edited and the projects will go to someone else. Disappointing at times, but it’s part of the gig. 

Ann-Margret Hovsepian: Check out the five tips I shared last summer in this post: Freelancing 101. Also, here is my list of 4 Essential Qualities for Writers.

CFWN’s Top Tools & Tips

a collaboration by EPA freelancers

After a little break, we’re back! We asked several associate members of the Evangelical Press Association, some of whom are on our team of blog contributors, to share their best tips for successful freelancing. We got such great responses, we’re sharing the wealth in two separate posts. Here’s the first part, which is all about getting organized.

How do you keep track of deadlines and juggle multiple projects at the same time?

Randy Petersen: I have a calendar on my wall for deadlines and meetings. And I make a list every morning of my work for that day. I try to break big deadlines into shorter ones (e.g. one-third of the project by April 1.)

Ann-Margret Hovsepian: I use a large hard-bound spiral agenda (sorry, that’s Canadian for “planner”) with two-page monthly and weekly spreads and write down every deadline and task, adding sticky-notes in bright colors for anything I want to make sure I don’t forget. I’ve also been using Google Calendar to immediately block in appointments and meetings. I like that I can quickly access it on my phone to make sure I don’t double-book, and that I can use different colors for different types of commitments (e.g. red for professional meetings, dark blue for medical appointments, etc.)

Stephen Clark: There are three things I’ve used for years to manage my work:

1. Simple wall calendars. I always have two hanging side by side show the current month and the next month.

2. A small notebook. I make lists, write down ideas, take notes at meetings, and basically keep everything in the notebooks.

3. Technology. I use Google Calendar on the phone to manage deadlines and stay in synch with other devices.

How do you organize your ideas (and material) for future projects?

Stephen Clark: I always carry 3 x 5 cards to jot notes and collect them to scan later. Using the The Journal by DavidRM Software, I create tabs and files and add notes from time to time on various topics, and even paste in URLs to articles and other sources. And there’s always tabbed manila files neatly labelled and stored away in a file cabinet. I have sometimes maintained several files, each on a different topic, to collect clippings and notes on specific topics to pull from later. I’ve also kept one folder just for stuff that I found interesting. When I needed a fresh idea, I’d pull out this folder and just browse through it.

Ann-Margret Hovsepian: I used Evernote for a while and it’s got great features for organizing notes and saving online information (whether it’s an entire web page or just the bit you’ve highlighted on that page), with the ability to use keyword tags and much more. . . but I eventually felt overwhelmed by the task of creating folders and coming up with keywords and keeping everything organized, not to mention remembering to refer back to my notes. I find it much easier to keep a basket with colorful labeled file folders next to my desk and throwing bits of paper in there that I don’t have to hunt around for when I need them. (I’m intrigued by Stephen’s suggestion, though, and will be checking it out!)

How do you deal with information overload / digital clutter?

Randy Petersen: In research, I try not to find more than I need.When beginning a project, I may do a lot of background reading to learn about the subject. From that, I’ll develop my structure for the piece. Then I’ll have a sense of how many quotes I might need, and I find them. There’s considerable flexibility in this. Sometimes I find a quote that’s so good, it forces me to change my outline.

Stephen Clark: Ignore it. It will always be there. I use what I need and walk away from the rest. If it’s something on the internet, I can Google it later if I need it. If I can’t find a specific article or other piece of information I once read, I can always find newer resources that serve just as well. Even on my PC, it’s easy to search on files using remembered keywords and phrases. I’ll squirrel stuff away in various folders and then ignore it until I need it.

Watch for Part 2 on November 15. We’ll be telling you about our favourite tools and resources, as well as our best tips for freelancing.

Dealing with Down Time

by Randy Petersen

“How are you?” someone asks.

“Busy!” I reply without thinking.

That now-reflexive response draws empathy and often camaraderie. People nod and groan. Everyone is working hard.

But what should I say during down times, when I’m not busy? We all go through periods when the publishing cycles turn against us, when our favorite editors all go on vacation, when our inboxes contain only spam. Even more important, what should I do in these dry seasons?

The Bible talks about “redeeming the time” (Ephesians 5:16 KJV). Most modern translation rephrase that as “Make the most of every opportunity,” or something similar. Not a bad paraphrase, but Paul used a business term with the word agora (marketplace) tucked inside. In a literal sense, this is saying, “Buy your time back from the market and use it for good.”

Isn’t that what we’re talking about? As a freelancer, you market your time, but at this point no one’s buying. How will you “buy it back” and use it in a positive way? Here are some ideas.

Don’t Lose Hope

You may be tempted to mope because no one wants your wares. You might worry about your career. But reread Ecclesiastes 3 and note that there are seasons for everything. Seasons to work feverishly on deadline and seasons to slow down.

Plant Some Seeds

There is “a time to plant and a time to harvest,” says Ecclesiastes 3:2. Maybe this is a time to invest in relationships with editors or potential co-authors. Float some ideas that aren’t yet at proposal stage, and see if any seeds take root.

Think Like an Editor

If you were the editor-in-chief of a Christian magazine, what sort of articles would you be looking for? Do some play-acting. Imagine yourself at the helm of one of the publications you pitch to. Then map out the next few issues as you’d like to see them. What topics should be covered? What stories demand attention? What tone would you like to set? Then return to your own persona and look at the Table of Contents you’ve just created. Is there anything the real editor might be interested in, anything you could write?

Fix Up Your Space (and Your Tech)

Maybe this is the time to make the guest room your office, or to get a proper desk chair that won’t give you backaches. Maybe you should reevaluate your hardware or software.  You never have time when you’re in the thick of things, but now that your schedule has thinned out, maybe you can discover some better ergonomics.

Learn Something and Write About It

You’ve always wanted to learn biblical Greek. Or understand computers. Or read the top ten novels of the last century. Or figure out Twitter. You were also too busy, but now you’re not. So go for it, but also write about it as you do. Thousands of others can learn from your learning process.

Grow Your Soul

Memorize a chapter of the Bible. Practice various forms of prayer. Listen to great music, or make music yourself. Wander through an art museum, or make some art yourself. Gather wise sayings from your ten closest friends and family members. Do a task at your church that no one else wants to do.

Take a Strategy Day

Make it a personal retreat. Find a room, preferably with a whiteboard, at your church or a local library. Invite a “consultant” to join you for part of the time—someone who knows you and will help you think logically. (It was my sister who helped me storyboard a career plan at a crucial time.) Map out your plan for the next four months, twelve months, two years, in getting work, doing work, lining up regular projects, and improving your own ability. Let your vision soar, but then bring it down to specific action steps.

Down time can be growth time for you and your business. As the “time-redeeming” passage goes on to say, “Don’t act thoughtlessly, but understand what the Lord wants you to do” (Ephesians 5:17 NLT).

Freelancing 101

By Ann-Margret Hovsepian

Wouldn’t it be great if you could sit with your computer or pad of paper, write your stories, and then have them magically appear in print? And make money? Yes. Well. That might work in a fantasy novel, but we live in a non-fiction world that runs on contracts, deadlines, accounting, and—sorry, we cannot avoid it—taxes.

Although writing is a creative process, talent alone will not move you forward if you want to earn a living as a writer. You must start with administration and finish with marketing. Think of these two brackets as the bread and your creative work as the innards of your sandwich. Without the layers, you basically end up with salad. Here are some ways to make your first layer solid.

Partner with God

Before you do anything else, bathe your assignments in prayer. Ask God to give you discernment about what stories to write, to open doors for your story to get to where it needs to go, and to touch the hearts of those who read your story.

Quantify Your Goals

What do you want to write? Where do you want to see your work published? What steps will get you there? How long will it take? What will you let go of to make the time? It’s fine if you don’t know the answers to all these questions right away. Just do the first thing you know to do and that will lead you to the next step.

Manage Your Time

Figure out your routine. How many hours will you work per day or week? What time will you start and finish? Keep in mind that the time you spend on a project includes not only writing, but also reading, researching, brainstorming, and learning. Leave ample margin for revisions and unexpected setbacks. Make sure family and friends respect your work schedule.

Run a Tight Ship

Few people enjoy paperwork, but developing and sticking to an efficient administrative system will mitigate headaches in the long run. Use downtimes (when you don’t feel like writing) to clear away paperwork. An easy-to-remember rule of thumb for keeping paperwork off your desk is the “FLAT” approach: File it, Let someone else do it, take Action, or Throw it away!

Keep detailed accounts. Learn about rates, rights, and income tax rules for freelancers. Keep all your business-related receipts. Invoice as soon as a job is finished.

Keep track of your assignments, too. Whether you use a planner, a wall calendar, a computer program or an app on your phone, mark deadlines as soon as you have a confirmed assignment. If your article requires interviews, set up those calls or meetings before you do anything else. Don’t assume that your subject’s schedule will coordinate with yours.

Be Professional

It doesn’t matter how brilliant your manuscript is if you are a nightmare to work with. Remember that your editor or publisher is your client, and the customer is always right (in theory, at least). Show humility and grace when your work is criticized or corrected, even if you have to disagree, and resolve to be teachable. Not only will this show good character and make you a pleasure to do business with, but you will actually learn things and get better at your craft!

Meet your deadlines. Call when you said you would. And never, ever get “under-promise and over-deliver” mixed up!

Words of Wisdom

by William J. Petersen

When I was 20 years old, I decided to give freelance writing a try. Why not? I had been reading Sunday  school literature since I was six years old, and I understood that editors were crying out for children’s stories.

So I hastily compiled a list of six Sunday school papers aimed at kids 9 to 12 years old. Then I went to my typewriter (computers hadn’t been invented yet) and pounded out a story about a wanna-be baseball player named Herbie, who was afraid of getting hit by a baseball every time he came up to bat.

The story ended with Herbie coming up to bat in the last inning with the bases loaded. He got hit by a pitch to force in the winning run.

I decided to send the story to Scripture Press, because my church used Scripture Press materials. It was returned to me—rejected—within a week. I was disappointed, of course, and I thought the editor was stupid for turning down such a classic story for junior aged boys, but I had five other Sunday school papers on my list. If Scripture Press decided to turn down a classic, I would send it to one of their competitors!

I got my second rejection within a week, from the Free Methodists in Winona Lake, Indiana. So I sent my masterpiece to the Assemblies of   God in Springfield, Missouri—another rejection—and then on to the Nazarenes in Kansas City, and then to David C. Cook, at that time in Elgin, Illinois, and finally to a Baptist publisher.

Within six weeks, believe it or not, I had collected six rejection slips.

I was discouraged, yes, but I wasn’t quitting, though I had reached the end of my list. I thought of trying a few more denominational houses, but since I had written Herbie specifically  for the Scripture Press publication called My Counselor, I decided to give them a chance to redeem themselves. Maybe the  editor had a quarrel with the boss the first time. Or maybe he had an upset stomach, or maybe . . .

Well, within another ten days I received a letter from the editor of My Counselor. When I saw the envelope, I was sure it was another rejection.

I was wrong.

The editors had accepted “Herbie, the Ball-shy Wildcat”  for publication. It appeared in print the following year. And amazingly, every three   years during the next dozen years, the publication reprinted Herbie, and of course each time they sent me a little check as well ($15 for the first publication and $10 for each reprint).

Word of Wisdom Number One: It’s always too soon to quit.

Years later, when I was editorial director of a book publisher, a very discouraged lawyer and wannabe novelist submitted a manuscript that had been rejected 27 times. We accepted it and A Time to Kill  became a bestseller. Its author, John Grisham, became one of the best-known novelists of the past 50 years.

It’s always too soon to quit.

Branch Out

I’m not especially gifted in any particular area of writing. The flip-side of that is, I never knew what I couldn’t do until I tried. So I have tried a lot of different things: Gospel tracts, movie scripts, TV commercials, missionary biographies, Bible study curricula, quizzes, fiction, personality sketches, how-to’s, poetry, interviews, radio writing, daily devotionals, fund-raising letters, humor, writing for kids, you name it.

I am no Bible scholar, but I have written some very successful books on the lives of biblical characters, as well as curriculum for adult Bible study classes.

By trial and error I’ve learned that, despite my success with “Herbie,” I  don’t do fiction very well. But I’ve been trying to learn that craft, and managed to self-publish several unpublishable novels in my eighties.

While serving as a mentor for the Christian Writers Guild, I introduced students to all genres of writing. One writer was especially interested in fiction, but she had to go through the lessons on writing newspaper articles, how-to articles, devotionals and all kinds of things. She finally got the chance to develop her novel, but by then she’d had two non-fiction articles accepted by national publications and one magazine had invited her to do a regular column.

So you never know what doors the Lord might open for you.

Word of Wisdom Number Two: Take some risks. Branch out into new areas. Go outside your comfort zone. Don’t limit yourself to one writing genre.

Edit yourself

I’ll never forget Miss Fackler. She was my freshman writing teacher in college, and I was scared to death of her. No frog had ever  been dissected the way she cut apart my writing.

Oh, I had been accustomed to seeing red marks on my papers, showing  me where I had misspelled a word or used the wrong punctuation. But she asked questions: Why did you say this? Is that the best word to use?  Do you really need that paragraph? Can’t you say this in fewer words?

I dreaded her favorite expression: Superfluous.

But before long, I was asking some of those questions myself before I turned in my paper. In the process, I learned the importance of self-editing.

Now writing and editing are two different skills. I doubt if Miss Fackler ever had anything published, but in her role as teacher, she was a fine editor. And she taught me both skills.

You will be a better writer if you learn to edit your own work effectively.

Don’t edit as you write. Get your first draft down on paper or on the computer, and then you can edit.

Sometimes it helps to wait a few days before editing. Then, does it still make sense? Can you outline it now? One of the first things I do in self-editing is to look at the verbs and eliminate all the forms of “to be” that I can, replacing those dead verbs with action verbs. Then I look at sentences beginning with “There” and “It.”

Then I look at word-length, sentence length, paragraph length. I look at “ly” adverbs, impersonal pronouns. Use Anglo-Saxon words, not Latin compounds, wherever possible.

These cautions might paralyze you during the writing process. Write freely. But then go back later and prune your work to make it stronger.

Word of Wisdom Number three: Learn to be self-critical, to be your own editor. When you write, be warmly involved in your story. When you edit, be coolly detached.

William J. Petersen, father of CFWN editor Randy Petersen, passed away in January, 2021, at the age of 91. An editor at Eternity Magazine for thirty years, he also authored more than twenty books. These were notes for a talk at a writer’s conference a few years ago.

4 Essential Qualities for Writers

by Ann-Margret Hovsepian

In this post and in this one, I shared several tips for submitting flawless copy. What we do as writers is obviously crucial. We must write with excellence, meet our deadlines, and keep learning. There are countless practical tips and guides for writers and most of them are fairly easy to understand and implement. Continue to hone your craft and never skimp on this.

However, it’s possible to do all the right things and to write perfectly but still not succeed as a writer. That’s because, unless it’s only a hobby, writing is more than a craft. Unlike diamond cutting or brain surgery or atom splitting, a writing career goes beyond sheer skill and requires the ability to communicate and connect with others. With very few exceptions—if any—writers cannot succeed on their own. We rely on editors, publishers, teachers, and our audience. And whenever a pursuit involves other people, it also involves our character, our personality, our attitudes, and even our approach to life in general. Building lasting relationships with editors is invaluable and, over the past 25 years of freelancing, I’ve pinpointed four qualities in particular that will make a writer a winner.

#1 – BE PROFESSIONAL

It doesn’t matter if you’ve been writing for six decades, six years, or six hours. You can still present yourself as a professional, the first step to being taken seriously. That doesn’t necessarily mean wearing a suit or carrying an expensive briefcase. You’ll probably mostly deal with publishers and editors by phone and email and not see them face to face. But your phone calls and emails should be handled with courtesy. Your emails should be written as perfectly as your manuscript. Follow the publisher’s lead in terms of how informal you are in your emails.

If you’re going to print business cards, make them good quality. If you’re not good at graphic design, err on the side of making your cards simple. This applies to your website, blog, Facebook page, and so on. Invest in learning—not only about writing, but also about marketing and social media, about finances, and about time management!

Be organized. Be reliable. When you have an assignment or project to work on, organize your time and stick to your writing schedule. Keep your work area tidy. Run a tight ship if you need to submit invoices and keep track of everything.

#2 – BE CREATIVE

Creativity has less to do with artistry or reinventing the wheel, and more to do with looking at things from different angles, solving problems, and presenting familiar concepts in fresh ways. Always follow your editor’s instructions, but don’t be afraid to ask, “What do you think about this idea I had? What if we approached it this way?” Even if your idea isn’t used, your editor will appreciate your initiative and creativity and will know that you care about the assignment beyond simply making a quick delivery and getting paid. Wow your editor by going beyond the assignment when you can. But don’t change the assignment—that’s not creative, it’s annoying.

Don’t wait for inspiration to hit you. Look for it all around you. Listen to people when they share stories. Read a lot. Observe nature. Write things down in a notebook or keep a file for ideas you don’t yet know what do with.

Don’t be afraid to diversify and to work on multiple projects, especially if you want to make a living writing. Not only does this ensure you have something to work on when one project finishes, but the creativity you apply to one project will help the other, and you will stretch yourself and grow as a writer. You may also discover a stream of work you hadn’t considered before. Be willing to try new things and don’t be afraid to fail. Failure is rarely fatal.

#3 – BE HUMBLE

First of all, be YOU when you write. Embrace your quirks and weaknesses and work with your strengths. This kind of honesty and vulnerability is appreciated by editors and readers. You may be the only person who can write what you’re writing the way you’re writing it. Don’t cross the line of oversharing inappropriately but don’t hide yourself either as that will stifle your creativity and make your work dry and less believable. If your editor can’t stomach your writing, your readers may never get the chance to.

Don’t patronize. Don’t preach. Don’t whine. And be willing to work hard. Remember WHY you are writing: to serve your readers and not to sell books or become famous. (Unless, of course, those are your motives, but that’s a whole other conversation.)

This ties in with being professional but it starts with the quality of humility: Be upfront about what you can or can’t do and notify your editor about any setbacks or possible delays immediately. Most editors are understanding and reasonable when they know you are doing your best.

Be teachable and open to feedback and correction. Even if you are sure your editor is wrong, discuss the problem with civility and graciousness. Don’t be stubborn because, truly, editors usually know better. If you don’t understand an assignment or correction, just ask. Guessing about it may end up wasting a lot of time—yours and the editor’s—if you guess wrong.

#4 – BE IRRESISTABLE

The first three qualities will already put you ahead of the game. But it never hurts to add a pretty bow to a gift or delicious frosting to a cake. Here are a few suggestions of how to do that as a writer:

  1. Underpromise and overdeliver–not the other way around.
  2. Get better and better with each assignment. Don’t slack off just because you’ve developed a good rapport with an editor. You can perhaps be more casual but NEVER less professional.
  3. Treat your editor like a human being. Be gracious and caring, recognizing that he or she may be under a lot of pressure and you’re not the only writer in the pipeline. Editors get tired and sick and have families and lives, too.
  4. Be joyful in your work. Put your heart into it and love what you’re doing. . .otherwise maybe you shouldn’t be doing it.
  5. Build community. Writers are known to be introverts. It’s fine if you want to work in solitude or if you’re not very social. But, as we said before, writers must serve their readers, and that means you must be prepared for a certain level of engagement with them. The more you do this, the more likely it is the reach of your writing will grow, especially if your readers learn they can trust you.

To recap, every writer should be professional yet creative, humble yet irresistible. If you focus on developing these qualities as you also work on improving your craft, there is no reason you shouldn’t do well as a writer. Have fun!

Collaboration: A Secret to Building a Successful Freelance Business

by Sandra Reimer

In June 2004, I was downsized from a job I loved as a Community Relations Coordinator for a non-profit organization. By August, I recovered from the shock of losing my job after a decade and began freelancing as a writer and editor. Like many new freelancers, I tried different types of projects to discover what I loved to do that produced great results and clients would pay me for. 

I continued writing for my former employer, and the executive director referred me to an industrial company that needed an employee newsletter. Another friend referred me to write a newsletter for a charity. I also transferred my public relations and professional writing skills into a new industry and represented authors as a publicist for a while. 

In that first year, my freelance earnings matched my previous part-time employment income—plus, I had the flexibility to be with my two young children, who were 4 and 8 at the time. Maybe freelancing wasn’t so bad. 

Balancing Freelance Responsibilities

But the last 16 years of freelancing has not all been chocolate and whip cream. I know the stress of being a small business owner. Constantly, you must balance doing the work, managing your business, and finding clients. Most freelancers love to share their creative skills with the world but finding enough clients to earn a sustainable income can be challenging. 

To find clients, freelance creators and communicators assemble a portfolio, put up a website, polish their LinkedIn profile and get active on social media—hoping people will find them. However, on the internet, they blend in with others who offer similar services at similar prices. Unless these freelancers find a way to stand out, sales trickle in at best. 

Faced with this situation, many freelancers turn to platforms such as Upwork, Fiverr, and Indeed where clients post projects and freelancers bid against each other to secure work. Clients often award projects to the lowest bidders or the top talent with the highest ratings. Apparently, only 10% of freelancers find work on these platforms. Plus, the platforms take up to 20% of your pay, and you don’t own the relationship with the client—they do. 

Another Way to Build a Successful Freelance Business

Early in my freelance career, I stumbled on another way to build a successful freelance business—collaborating with professionals with complementary skills. 

In the beginning, I tried doing the layout for the newsletters and annual reports I wrote. The results were mediocre at best. I understand design principles, but I was working outside my strengths. Then while producing an industrial company’s employee newsletter, I met an excellent graphic designer. Soon, I began collaborating with Audra on most of my print communication. The results were outstanding as I focused on my strength—compelling writing and she on hers—beautiful design. It was easier to get repeat business when my results were more professional. Plus, I could sell higher-value projects because I provided clients with complete solutions—not just writing and editing services. 

Over the years, I have collaborated with other specialists, including my husband, a front-end web designer. Together we secured higher-value projects, such as websites worth thousands of dollars. I did the marketing strategy and wrote the content, and he developed beautiful and user-friendly websites. I continued to work with Audra on print projects. As we combined our skills, clients benefitted from professional results and complete solutions.  

My husband and I earned a satisfying income that paid our mortgage and our two children’s needs, with enough to spare for vacations and other wants. After five years, my husband went back to a corporate job while I continued working with freelance specialists on communication projects. 

Then about three years ago, I began to wonder if I could help other freelance marketing and communication professionals multiply their impact and income through collaboration. To test this theory, I am running an experiment. I launched an online community to help Canadian freelance communicators and creators trade referrals, co-promote our work, and collaborate on higher-value projects while learning together and having fun.

Editors’ note: Many of our readers may benefit from a group like this. If you’re interested in CoLaborNation, click here

Sandra Reimer is a communication strategist who helps world-changing businesses and non-profits tell their stories. She collaborates with other freelance professionals to produce compelling print and digital communication that sells clients’ products and services. Her fundraising letters and proposals have helped non-profit clients raise millions of dollars to fuel their missions. Prior to freelancing, Sandra was a Community Relations and Volunteer Coordinator for a non-profit. As a social entrepreneur, Sandra cares about the earth, earthlings, and earning.

Which Work Is Which?

by Randy Petersen

In my early days as a freelancer, I would try to keep a tally of how much money I earned each day. If I had a 2,000 word article to write for $200, and I wrote 500 words one day, that was $50 to my credit. I set up certain goals for each week and each month.

It wasn’t a bad way to ensure that I was actually making a living as a writer, but over the years I’ve learned to see my work differently.

Let’s say I start a week with a dozen important work-related things to do. Just how important are they? As I plan my days, it might help to ask certain questions that define the efforts in different ways.

Is this work I’m getting paid for? This is the simplest category, and naturally it would get a high priority.

Do I need to do this in order to get work in the future? If you spend all your time on work-in-hand, you may finish it and have nothing to do. Proposals, polishing a resume, tinkering with your website, even schmoozing with editors—all of this is valuable work that may keep the workload steady.

Does this task help me learn a new skill or subject that will help me with future work? Many of us old-timers need a crash course in modern technology. It’s hard to invest precious work-time learning about websites or social media, but that’s probably a great investment.

Does this help me organize my work? Various tools are available to help with, say, billing, communication, presentation, or research. Each one requires some time to learn, and some time to transition from an old way of doing things.

Am I building community with colleagues? It’s hard to quantify the value of networking, but it could be huge—in terms of connections made, work acquired, or expertise shared. (By the way, that’s what I’m doing right now. It’s what the CFWN is all about.)

Am I donating this work to a church or charity? You might choose to exclude this from your normal “working hours,” but it’s important to consider your volunteer work in the total account of what you do.

Is this creative work that feeds my soul? I write plays. Maybe you compose songs or poetry, or you might have a novel in the works. A privileged few make money from these artistic endeavors. The rest of us find other satisfaction in it. If this is not income-producing, it’s wise to carve out some “off hours” to do it. But don’t squeeze it out of your schedule entirely. You need this type of writing to refresh the writing you do for money.

So what?

If you love to schedule things, you might map out a week with time for all these things. In a 40-hour work week, it’s not unreasonable to spend only 20-25 hours on paid work. The rest of that time is not wasted—it’s invested in your freelance career.

This should also inform the way we estimate work time and charge for our services. Maybe you could get this 50-hour job done in one week—if you neglected all these other things necessary for your business and sanity. But more reasonably, you should take two weeks for that, and get paid accordingly. Like lawyers and doctors, you need a billable rate that supports your whole business and not just the time you spend composing copy.

In my early years of freelancing, I’d often feel frustrated at the end of a day. “I’ve been working hard for hours, but my calculations show I’ve only earned a pittance.”  Granted, freelance writing is not the most lucrative profession, especially when you’re just starting out, but understanding the different types of work might help you think and talk about it differently. And that might help you develop a more well-rounded sense of your whole business.