The worst advice I’ve ever gotten came in written form. I can’t remember where exactly I read it, but I remember exactly what it said. It said that if you want to be a writer then you need to be a writer. Successful writers don’t moonlight as writers, they write and they moonlight on something else to bring in money if necessary.
I’m pretty sure as I remember it from the context, the author of those words was essentially saying that if you weren’t going to dedicate your primary job focus on writing, then you were wasting your time. I sort of believed it and went on accordingly, waiting for my time to come when I could switch what I do to the freelance side and the writing to the “main” side.
That chance came and I did switch. In fact, I just quit the other side. I don’t moonlight anywhere. I am a professional freelance writer, and I make all of my income in that way. Don’t get me a wrong, we have other income sources and another way to get health insurance (which is probably the biggest key to going freelance).
What I know now, is that those words of wisdom were actually words of stupidity. It is a lie that you cannot or should not moonlight as a writer. It is completely false that your writing, your craft, or your freelancing career will suffer in any way if you moonlight as a freelance writer. In fact, only good things can come from comporting yourself in a professional manner as a freelance writer.
Professional Freelance Writer Skills
For starters, you will develop your writing skills. You may think you are a good writer now, and you may be right, but trust me when I tell you that when you write all day every day professionally that you will come across dozens of nuances and subtleties that you have never considered. If the freelance project calls for a newsletter with a “conversational tone” but the target audience is high-ranking municipal court judges is it acceptable to use the word “you” in the writing? Before you answer, keep in mind that whenever you are addressing judges in their professional role as judges (which you are, because they are getting the newsletter because they are judges not because they wear black in the summer) you are supposed to address them as “judge” or “your honor” depending on the jurisdiction and level of court. Now what do you think?
As a professional freelance writer, you develop a wide variety of skills that don’t come up for most people who are just “really good writers.” For example, how to handle sex based pronouns: he, she, him, hers, and so on. There is the “fake plural” format where the writer converts sentences to read with they or theirs to avoid the issue. There is the “switch hitter” format where the writer bounces back and forth between masculine and feminine pronouns to avoid any gender bias. Then there is the “forced pronoun elimination” format which I am using in this paragraph by referring to “the writer” without ever using a pronoun. There are others, and many times, the person whom the writer is submitting the article to has no idea which one they want (they probably haven’t even thought about it!) – Did you notice the false plural there?
There are thousands of other skills a professional freelance writer needs that have nothing to do with writing. There is marketing, sales, taxes, corporate structure, copyright, publishing, web development and design, not to mention setting up computers, fax machines, and printers. Every one of these skills can be developed on a part-time basis, and when you do go full time, you will be much better off for it. (By the way, there is another professional skill right there in the previous sentence. Do you know when to hyphenate part time and when not to?)
How to Get Started Moonlighting as a Freelance Writer
The first step to moonlighting as a professional freelance writer is to forget about “moonlighting.” There is no such thing. Many professional writers do not work what would be considered full time. That isn’t important. What is important is that you are a professional freelance writer. That is important. As a professional you will return calls and emails in a timely manner, you will keep track of your billing, and you will act professionally on the phone and in person. As a freelancer you do not have an employer other than yourself. This is not a detraction, it is a blessing, it allows you to specialize in clients that you work best with. And, last but not least, you are a writer, that means you write things. Remember all three and you can’t go wrong.
So, where to find your freelance writing jobs. Start small. Look for opportunities to write for established blogs. They don’t have to be big or flashy, just a step up from where the same blog would be if you started it today. You don’t even have to get paid. Right now, you want a credit of some form (a link back to your business page is good) so that you can point to a website that you do not own and say “That is my work, and it is good enough to be published by someone else.” Check Craigslist (don’t restrict yourself to your city) and forums. Read blogs that you respect and could write for if given the chance, then look for the chance. If the blogger posts about being busy, offer to help. If you see a job ad, jump on it.
A lot of people will tell you to offer your services to non-profits to build up clips. This advice only works if you find a struggling, “we’ll take anybody” non-profit. These don’t always make the best clips. The Ronald McDonald House already has fifty top-notch professional level guys who do their writing, so bring it down a notch and you can make this work for you. Think local. The Omaha Humane Society is much more likely to need some help with their writing than the national level organization.
Google. That’s right, Google. They don’t need you, but they can help you search for someone who does. Start by including your city name when you search. Too many results? Use your actual city name, that is, the specific suburb or town that is “near Ann Arbor”. Smaller towns attract less spammers and webpage builders who just try and lure people to ad based pages, so get specific.
There are also a ton of “auction” sites out there. I’d steer clear of those unless you really need the money. Getting paid can be tough, and there is a lot of low-balling and plenty of clients who don’t care about quality they just want it done cheap. That grad student in India is going to eat your lunch on pricing that deal.
Get Started Now
The important thing is to get started now. By moonlighting as a freelance writer, you can build up experience and connections that will make the transition to full time easier. More importantly, you’ll be building up writing samples all over the place. Nothing screams amateur more than someone who can only produce writings from one or two locations. The more your writing is out there, the more likely someone is to give you a chance. So, don’t wait to be switch your moonlighting. Go now!