Yuwanda Black is a successful long-time freelance writer whose new book — The Ultimate Freelancer’s Guidebook: Land the Best Jobs, Build Your Brand, and Be Your Own Boss — has just been released by Adams Media, a mainstream traditional publisher.
Yuwanda graciously agreed to a Q & A covering the key aspects of her freelance writing career and some of the key points of the book.
How did you get started as a freelancer?
I worked for Matthew Bender (now part of the LexisNexis family), a legal trade publisher in New York for a decade, starting there while I was in college. They started outsourcing projects to me and my sister, who got me the job there because she worked there too.
The projects consisted of everything from keyboarding and coding (SGML back then), to proofreading. We took on so much work that our outsourcing income started to rival our full-time salaries. Boy those were the good ole days, but I digress.
My sister left the company to start Inkwell Editorial, which started out as an editorial outsource agency. She landed clients like McGraw-Hill, Random House and Pearson Publishing, to name a few.
A year later, when the company could sustain two salaries, I left and joined her. That was in 1997. That’s the abridged version; but basically, I’ve been freelancing ever since.
How has your freelance writing career developed over time?
I’ve gone from freelancing for a current employer; to being a partner in running a full-time editorial outsource agency; to heading a staffing agency; back to being just a freelance writer; to starting and operating an online writing company.
You see, when I left Matthew Bender to join my sister at Inkwell Editorial, the company eventually became an editorial outsource AND staffing agency. My sister and I took on projects from companies and outsourced the work to a team of freelancers.
Eventually, many of them started to stay stuff like, “That last project you completed was done so well. Could you send whoever worked on it on-site for the day, week, etc.?” And that’s how we dipped over into staffing.
We staffed editorial talent: proofreaders, copy editors, writers, graphic designers, etc. The staffing division quickly grew to become our biggest income stream and for a few years, things were great.
Then, 9/11 happened. It crushed the economy in New York, especially our sector: editorial/advertising.
It took a couple of years for the economy to rebound, but by then I’d decided to close up shop and move to Atlanta. I wanted to be closer to my family and I wanted to buy a house.
After moving to Atlanta in 2004, I restructured the company as an online information portal for creative professionals; primarily freelance writers – which is what it is today.
In 2007, I discovered SEO writing. I got so busy within a couple of months of doing this kind of writing, that I found myself outsourcing work to other freelancers. In 2008, I turned it into a full-fledged SEO writing company – New Media Words (NewMediaWords.biz).
As you can see, my career has taken some twists and turns, but I like where it’s landed me. Learning SEO taught me the foundation of how to market online. I’ve parlayed that knowledge into a line of ebooks and e-classes and marketing affiliate products, all the while continuing to write for clients.
I like having multiple streams of income because I learned long ago that one stream can come to a dead halt out of the blue (eg, 9/11). I never want to be caught like that again.
What sets your new book apart from other books on freelancing?
Many freelancers know freelancing from only one side – getting hired. I’ve been freelancing since 1993. For eight years, I owned/operated an editorial staffing agency. I’ve interviewed and hired hundreds of freelancers (and full-time and part-time employees).
I point this out to say, I’ve been on both sides of the hiring desk. I bring all of this insight to my book – stuff you can’t know (especially from the hiring side) unless you’ve “been there and done that.”
What do you see as the top three characteristics of a successful freelancer?
You must be …
(1) Motivated: There’s no boss to tell you what to do or an organization behind you that’s going to set deadlines and/or make you adhere to some kind of schedule.
So you must be your own source of motivation. If this doesn’t come naturally to you, you should definitely look into joining networking groups (online or off), or hiring a success coach.
If you’re not a naturally ambitious person; one who’s internally motivated to succeed, it will be extra hard to do all the “unpaid” work it takes to succeed as a freelancer.
(2) Organized: Clients depend on you to do what you say when you say you’re going to do it. Miss a deadline, and it can not only cost you a current client, but any referrals they may have sent your way on their own, or when you asked them.
This means being organized. If you’re working with one or two clients, you can get by being a bit lazy and keeping everything “in your head.”
I’m still very old school. I time-block my days using a simple Notepad document, writing out duties for the next day at the end of the current day.
No matter how you do it, the point is to have an organizational system in place that works for you.
(3) Confident: Lack of self-confidence is the number one thing that many freelancers lack – experienced ones and newbies alike. You have to have a thick skin as a freelancer; and having a thick skin is just a synonym for having self-confidence.
You will be rejected time and time and time again. You can’t take it personally. You must have the balls to move on. If you’re not confident, you’ll find it hard to trust that you’re good enough to go for that job; ask for more on this project; and say no to that request from a client (unless they pay more).
All of this is not about “client interaction;” it’s a direct reflection of how secure you are – not only as a freelancer, but as a human being. In fact, the two are the same. You are the “freelance you”; so if you allow yourself to be taken advantage of in your personal life; there’s a great chance you’ll do so in your professional life as well.
Lack of self-confidence is so endemic to freelancers that a couple of months ago, I started tweeting a “Self-confidence quote of the day” as inspiration. One of my favorites is this simple one:
“The best way to gain self-confidence is to do what you are afraid to do.”~Author Unknown
Another is …
“You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.”~Buddha
The reason I love this last one is because, for most of us, it’s our own internal dialogue that sabotages us; not what someone else says or does.
Get comfortable with rejection; make friends with it; don’t take it personally – and move on. If you don’t have the balls to do this, you’ll quit before you ever experience success as a freelancer.
FYI John, I love your post entitled 7 Methods for Stopping Automatic Negative Thought Cycles, were up give some great advice for combatting negativity, which is another form of low self-confidence. You’re right, it does “create havoc with both your productivity and your happiness.” As a marathon runner, my favorite on the list is #3, ie, to:
Distract yourself with another activity. Exercise or a walk are always good, or perhaps listening to music or watching a funny show on television. Do positive activities rather than eating junk food or drinking alcohol.
A powerful urge is to turn to negative activities like drinking a few margaritas or eating a whole quart of Häagen-Dazs (oops, did I say that?!).
Yeah, I’ve been there, and doing stuff like this only exacerbates the problem, so your advice is wise.
How should freelancers set their rates?
I hate to even tackle this because every time you discuss freelancing and rates, World War III is always in danger of breaking out, especially in the freelance writing niche. So, I’ll just say this … in the book, I write in a section entitled Three Ways to Charge (Page 41):
A bunch of factors go into figuring out which method to use in charging, including your experience, your niche, your fixed costs, and your variable costs. Again, nothing is set in stone, especially in the beginning.
Following are three popular ways to charge. You may use one method with one client and another one with a different client, depending on the project. This is fine. The goal is to maximize your time, wringing the most profit out of each job that crosses your desk.
FYI, the three methods of charging that are discussed in the book are hourly, by the project and working on retainer.
How do you feel about freelancers specializing in one or more niches?
I think freelancers should specialize because it allows you to earn more by working less. How?
You gain a ton of knowledge about a particular niche when you specialize, which allows you to complete projects quicker because you already know things like: who the experts are in that niche; what the stats are; and what the pain points are.
A freelancer without this foundational knowledge would have to conduct research to gain knowledge you already have. For example, I’m an SEO writer. I know the lingo used in the niche, what the major sources are to consult for quotes/stats; how Google changes can affect online traffic; etc.
Let’s say there was a client who wanted an article entitled How to Write Content Correctly to Drive Traffic & Sales. I could bang out that 600-word post on in half an hour I had to. At my current rates, that would earn me $300.
A freelance writer who didn’t know anything about SEO would most likely have to start at Googling the acronym “SEO” and doing a lot of reading to get up to speed. It may take them three or four hours to write the same article.
Even if they charged the same thing I did, their actual earnings would less because it took them much longer to complete the task.
THIS is the value of specialization in my opinion.
What are key pitfalls freelancers must avoid?
Self-Doubt (lack of self-confidence);
People who are not supportive of your freelance dreams; and
Not consistently marketing.
All of these – and quite a few more – are discussed in the book. In fact, an entire chapter entitled Common Freelance Pitfalls to Avoid is devoted to it (Chapter 12).
What’s the most important thing an aspiring freelance writer needs to know?
You must, must, must market consistently. This is true for any kind of freelance business you start; not just freelance writing. Many freelance writers make the mistake of getting busy, then laying off the marketing.
Most of the time, it’s not because they mean to; it’s just, there are only 24 hours in the day and something has to slide. And when you’re already busy, what tends to slide is marketing.
But you can’t let it because if you do, one day you’ll look up and not have any new projects coming in. Then, you’ll go on a marketing frenzy, start landing more work, and the cycle repeats itself. You put yourself on the proverbial hamster wheel when you do this.
Stop the madness!
I don’t care if you only make one or two outreaches per day, but make marketing a part of your daily/weekly duties. This can be reaching out to new clients, or hitting up old/existing clients to remind them that you’re still around. This will lessen the time between dry spells, which are part of the business and happen to even the most successful freelancers.
But if you’re constantly marketing, when the dry spell does hit, you can take comfort in the fact that jobs will roll in – because you’ve been doing what you’re supposed to do to get them to.
Thanks for letting me share my freelance experience with your readers John, and continued success to you.
About Yuwanda Black
Yuwanda Black is the publisher of InkwellEditorial.com, home of “the hybrid freelance writer.” She’s self-published over 90 ebooks (fiction and non-fiction). The Ultimate Freelancer’s Guidebook is her first traditionally published title. Follow her on Twitter: @InkwellEditor.
What are your thoughts on what Yuwanda shares here? Any questions?