The 6 Biggest Mistakes Freelance Writers Make When They First Start Out

1. Wavering on Price

Know a pretty much guaranteed way to not get paid what you’re worth? Wavering on price. If you find yourself scrambling to accommodate somebody as soon as they ask for a discount, you’ve already lost. If you say ‘prices are negotiable’ on your website – ditto.

Never ever give somebody a discount just because they ask for it. Ever. Stick to your guns and you won’t become known as the one to turn to when a client wants a cheap fix.

If you really really want the job, but know you won’t get it at the price you’re quoting, don’t just devalue yourself by taking a pay cut. Reduce your offering, too. Fair’s fair, amigo! Why should you get paid less for delivering the exact same thing? Ask for a longer deadline, a smaller workload, or come up with another way to make the deal fair on both ends.

2. Taking What You Can Get

I know, it’s hard when you first start out. You’re scared you won’t make enough money to pay your rent. To buy food. To have fun every once in a while. But that doesn’t mean you should take every scrap of work that comes your way. Witness Exhibit A:

One of my first ever clients paid me less than £5 per article. As soon as I ditched him, I found another client who paid me £90 per article. But if I’d still been spending my days furiously bashing out enough £5 articles to pay the bills, I never would have found the time to seek out any better-paying clients. And I probably wouldn’t have found the inclination to either, because Jesus, writing shitty £5 articles really takes it out of you.

You’re better than that. There’s nothing wrong with doing a few cheaper jobs to get a handle on things when you’re just starting out, but please, for the love of sunshine, make sure you have a plan to step things up once you’ve gotten to grips with the basics.

3. Trying to Be Everything to Everyone

You probably feel like you need to do whatever kind of work anybody asks you to do. After all, the more services you offer, the more clients you’ll be able to get, right? Not so. It’s counter-intuitive, I know, but the best thing you can do is specialise. Think about it: Your toilet’s overflowing and your lights have stopped working. Do you:

a) Hire a jack-of-all-trades to fix your toilet and your lights, or b) Hire a plumber to fix your toilet and an electrician to fix your lights? Who the fuck knows what would happen if you set a plumber loose on your home’s electrical wiring, right? Instead, you’d hire an electrician to fix your lights, because you’d know he has the proper technical knowledge and experience to do the job without burning your house down.

Same thing goes for freelancers. If you claim to be a one-stop shop, offering graphic design, web design, copywriting, and blah blah blah, who do you think your clients are going to be? I’ll tell you: people who are looking for the cheapest possible option. And that’s not what you want to be, is it? But if you offer a multitude of services, you’ll struggle to separate yourself from the rest of the freelancers wallowing around in the pit of ‘Please hire me, I need to buy noodles and bread, so I’ll do anything for you! Whatever you need!’

Here’s what you should do instead: pick one thing and focus on becoming super awesome at it. The aim is to become known for that thing. That way, you’ll be the one people think of, the one people naturally turn to, when they need whatever it is you offer. And they’ll pay you good money for it, because they know you’ll deliver top notch work.

4. Not Being Clear On What’s Expected

So you’ve landed a client. Score! Good job, you. Now there’s a trickle of sweat snaking its way down your cheek, because you’re nervous your brand-spanking new client is on to you. You’re worried they’ll be able to tell you’re new to this, and that they’ll realise they’ve made a horrible mistake in hiring you. So you try to hide it. And how do you do that? By not asking any fucking questions. You’re supposed to be a pro, and pros just know these things, right? Nope!

Why the hell would you automatically know exactly what your client wants, just from their initial speculative email? You wouldn’t. Nobody would. And when you pretend that you do know whatever it is you think you’re supposed to know, you’re setting yourself up for disaster. You won’t deliver what your client wants. Your client won’t be happy. Your reputation will suffer. You’ll have to do extra work. You’ll be stressed the whole way through. So do yourself a favour and ask your client what you need to know.

I’m not talking about your craft, of course. Your client has hired you precisely because they don’t know how to do your craft. And that’s information you can find elsewhere, anyway. You’re starting out in graphic design and you’re not quite sure how to use a particular tool to make something look a certain way? That’s the sort of shit you can Google.

But what you can’t Google is your client’s goals. What do they want to achieve by hiring you? Are they trying to attract a new type of customer? Are they trying to position themselves as a better quality firm so they can charge higher prices? Do they have any idea what they want their new logo to look like? This is the sort of stuff you need to know to do the best job you can. I mean, come on, how would you feel if you hired somebody to design a logo for you and they didn’t even ask you what colour you had in mind?

Golden rule: if you can’t Google it, ask your client.

5. Thinking You Have to Get Everything Perfect from the Start

Let’s be clear on one thing: there’s no such thing as perfect. Your definition of perfect will shift over time. What seems like it would be absolutely perfect right now will seem laughable a few years, or even months, from now. More to the point: everyone else’s idea of perfect is different too, so there’s really no way around the fact that what you create will never be perfect.

Apparently, I thought a black website with yellow writing was the way to go when I first started out. I wouldn’t dream of doing that now, but it worked for me at the time. I got my first few clients off the back of that website, and it gave me the money and, more importantly, the insight to figure out a better way of doing things. You can’t know the ‘best’ way of doing things right from the off. You just can’t. So here’s what you have to do when you’re just starting your business and you barely know which way is up:

Do the best you can right now, and adapt and change things as you learn. Seriously. It’s that’s easy.

6. Not Starting

So here’s the real nitty-gritty thing: the other points don’t matter if you don’t actually get the fuck on with it. Wavering on price? Doesn’t matter if you’re not charging anyone anything in the first place. Taking what you can get? Nope, because you’re not taking anything. And so on and so on. You get the point.

Nothing else matters if you don’t actually get out there and just start. So don’t worry about making it perfect. That’s probably your main reason for not starting, right? Well, listen up:

My first website was crap. I made the ugliest invoices in the history of the internet, and before that I had to figure out what to put on the damn things. I didn’t have a blog. I had a stupid business name that was barely relevant to what I was doing. I didn’t have a fancy email address, I just used my regular old gmail one. I didn’t have accounting software; I had a nightmare of a spreadsheet to track my income and expenses. And there’s so much other shit I’ve changed since I started, too.

The point is: I was making it up as I went along. I still am. So is everyone else. And that’s the beauty of it. It’s yours to make. You get to figure out the way you like to do things, and then to actually go out and do it your way.