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Lessons From My First Year Freelancing Full-Time

This is a guest post by Denene Brox. Denene recently finished her first year working full-time as a freelancer writer and has graciously agreed to share the lessons she’s learned here.

After four years of juggling freelance writing assignments with working a full-time job, last July I decided to step out of the boat of comfort and security and freelance full time. I was working as a marketing manager for a small non-profit organization, and was itching to see if I could really make a living as a writer. I was also tired of spending my lunch hours conducting phone interviews with sources in my car and living a double life. Do I tell my clients that I work full time? Do I tell my work colleagues about the latest article I’m writing? It was very liberating to focus solely on my freelance business. But it was also the scariest thing I’ve ever done professionally (and I’ve taken several risks in my young career).

As I toast my first year as a full time freelancer, I’m also pondering some things that I’ve learned over the past 12 months. For anyone wondering what it’s really like to make the leap, here are my thoughts.

Lesson 1: You can’t predict what it’s really like–
You have to live it.

When I was contemplating quitting my day job, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what it would be like to go full time. Would I have enough clients? Would I make enough money? While it’s important to plan and map out goals for your business, like most things in life, you won’t really know until you give it a go. I’ve gained some new clients and I still work with clients that were on board before I made the switch. I couldn’t have predicted everything I’ve done simply because a lot of it has come my way simply because I’m full time. I have more time to market myself, come up with story ideas and network in my city as a writer (and not a marketing manager). Bottom line: It’s great to plan, but you can’t predict what will happen exactly.

Lesson 2: It can be hard working alone.

While I don’t miss office politics in the least, I do get lonely at times working all by my lonesome. There’s no water cooler chatter about celebrity gossip or the last episode of LOST. In fact, there’s not chatter at all most of the time. But, on the flip side, I’m hardly ever bored with work because I am my own boss and can focus on what I want to pursue. In recent months, I’ve started networking with old colleagues and attending networking events for young professionals to meet new people. Not only is this good for business, but it’s great to get out of the house and be around people.

Lesson 3: Despite my successes, I still struggle with doubts.

When people ask me, “So when are you going to get a real job?” it can cut like a knife. At times over the past year I’ve struggled with my decision to go full time — and hearing things like that don’t help. I’m finally starting to own my decision and do the best that I can to build my business. And I thought of a great answer to that annoying question (feel free to adopt it too): “When my clients start writing me fake checks, then I’ll get a real job.”

Lesson 4: Stay open to opportunities.

My decision to go full time was the best decision for me at this time in my career. A lot of times when we set goals for ourselves, we think they are life or death, do or die. I’m having fun with my business. Will I freelance for the rest of my career? I don’t know. I want to stay open to possibilities for new clients and even new job opportunities (if the right one came along). Freelancing feels like more of a professional adventure because I’m not on a “corporate ladder” or career track with pre-defined steps. It’s exciting (though scary sometimes) not knowing what’s around the next corner.

In the end, if you’re thinking about going full time, just know that there will be obstacles to overcome – both mental obstacles and obstacles with your business. You won’t land all the great gigs or build a sustainable business overnight (most likely), but you can gain clients and confidence along the way if you’re willing to try.

Denene Brox is a Kansas City-based freelance writer. She has written for more than 30 print and online publications including Yahoo! HotJobs, MyBusiness, Minority Nurse, and Heart & Soul. She is a copywriter for non-profit organizations in the health, arts, and social services. Denene maintains the website Freelance Write Now. Visit her online at, or follow her on Twitter @DeneneWrites.

Opportunities are Everywhere

I’m taking a breather
from my latest freelance assignment to write this. The assignment is a piece about effective micro-organisms for a small business owner in Brooklyn who I met at the social networking event I attended a while back.

When I met her I don’t think either of us really expected to end up working together. She runs a composting-alternative company. The company sells  a product called Bokashi to break down organic waste; they deliver an empty bucket and enough Bokashi to mix it appropriately (you layer it) with waste (left over foods, scraps, etc.). When the bucket is full, they pick it up and give you a fresh one.

I’m pretty sure she saw me as a potential client or at least one more name to add to her email list. She was manning a booth at the event, so I saw her as someone to talk to until I got my bearings and relaxed enough to do real networking. We exchanged cards and I began receiving her e-newsletter.

Then, last week, the newsletter mentioned that she was hosting an event–so I shot her back an email and asked if she wanted an official press release written up. I included my hourly rate. I didn’t honestly expect to hear back, but I figured it couldn’t hurt.

I heard back.

We chatted on the phone about what I did and what she does, and agreed that I would attend the event and then write up a summary/paper of the information presented. It’s that paper I’m working on now.

I do stuff like this a lot. Sometimes it pans out, sometimes it doesn’t. But it never hurts to try.

I make a point to always be on the lookout for potential clients. When I see a website with obvious mistakes or simple typos, I email the company and let them know.

Sometimes this results in a thank you email – sometimes it doesn’t result in anything. But if I get a thank you email, I may email them and let them know that’s what I do for a living–and if they’d be interested in having the rest of the site read, I’d be happy to do it for my hourly rate.

While this doesn’t result in a flood of work, it does help keep me busy. And the nice thing about emailing corrections to a website is that you can hold off on emailing them until your short on the time required to do other forms of marketing; it can help keep you from hitting a slump.

Project: Woman.

First, the history:

Since early on in my publishing career, I’ve wanted to address what I saw as a gap in the publishing sphere: professional, smart, scrappy women. I subscribed to Pink Magazine, thinking I might have found what I was looking for. “PINK represents more than a color. It´s a badge of honor celebrating a global mission of equity and opportunity - a movement acknowledging all that women are today and will be tomorrow,” claims it’s website. But as I read issue after issue, I was disappointed to find that it’s demographic was women who are already breasting the top of their fields. It wasn’t targeted at me. I’ve gone searching for something to quench that thirst, looking for a magazine or blog or website that made me go “ahhh!”

The closest I’ve found? Esquire Magazine. Smart, funny, irreverent and intelligent, it’s tone assumes it’s reader is sauve and has it all together – perhaps they just need one last tip. It’s targeted at a wide ranging age group, and each issue features something for everyone. The only problem? It’s for men.

And so, an idea was born.

I think women would enjoy a similar product geared specifically toward them. Smart political ideas like those at Double X and, but less “typical women’s mag.” In other words, probably not articles on celebrities or make up (unless there is a bigger issue being discussed – like is make up a given in the professional world? How does it affect your image, how others see you?) And, like Esquire, it should assume it’s reader is smart, sassy and sophisticated. It shouldn’t be worried about offending them, shouldn’t take itself too seriously – but it should be intelligent too. A perfect example of the type of story I’d love the site to cover would be Michelle Tripp’s recent post about TEDWomen – if you haven’t seen it, definitely check it out.

I also think there is a audience career-specific items (profiles/professional advice or Q&As with leading women in their fields). One idea was a Q&A “What xyz person in reads in their field to stay on the cutting edge.” The question is, would that be engaging enough? Would it have a wide enough appeal?

I’ve also chatted with a number of women about women-to-women mentoring, and I think some of that would be (IMHO) great to incorporate. Other ideas include financial info like at The Simple Dollar or Daily Worth.

I think the key is amazing content & a great voice.

These are just a few ideas, not things that necessarily need to be included. Ideally, it would start as a number of writers who each write a post once a month – if I have four writers, a post would go up once a week, if I have 12 a post would go up 3x a week. Once a month makes it less time consuming for each of the contributors, since it wouldn’t (at least at first) be a money-making endeavor. Although I’d love it to grow, adding more writers, so that we could get post several times a week and maybe turn it into a for-profit site.

Anyway, I’d love to hear your thoughts, comments, ideas … if I can get some people seriously interested I’d love to start this thing. Also, I’d totally appreciate it if you’d pass this info along to any other women you feel fit the bill. I’ve posted on Brazen & Twitter about this project and had a number of people say they are interested in getting involved. It looks like we can do this.

So, the first thing is finding a name.

This idea has been with me for a few years now – I even did a design mock-up in a magazine design class while working on my Master’s degree. I called that pub Neon: Helping professional women stand out. Unfortunately, there is already a Neon magazine (a literary mag in the UK). So I’ve been brainstorming. And running ideas through to see if the domain name is available as a .com. One suggestion (from someone interested) was Athena Writes, however that’s taken.

The ideas I’ve come up with that aren’t taken include “No Jane Doe” and “Daughter of the Dame.” If you have any better suggestions or even just a suggestion (I’m still completely open at this point) post it below. If you want to get involved or help out on ANY level (designing the site, hosting, writing, editing, being a test user/reader  or even just brainstorming) let me know. You can comment here or email me – mbreau (at) jargonwriter (dot) com.

Because We All Get Rained On Sometimes

One of the most dis-heartening parts of being a writer is dealing with the rejection. Often writers put work into writing out query letters and proposals, just to have them turned down–or worse yet, they don’t hear back at all.

As a result, sometimes there are days when we believe that rejection letter more than we believe in ourselves. You know, those days where you’ve fought with your significant other, spilled your morning coffee (or in my case, tea) and burned yourself, you’re behind on a project that is due that day and then you get a rejection letter. You find yourself believing you’ve made a mistake becoming a freelancer, or even thinking that you might be able to make a living from words.

Alisa at Project Happily Ever After, an excellent writer / blogger (one of my favorites, and one of the few whose every post I read) offered up a suggestion to bring us back from the edge. She calls it her “I don’t suck” list. Her blog is dedicated to “the story of how she went from wishing her husband dead to renewing her wedding vows. Her four-month project was a last ditch effort to save a marriage that many—her friends, her colleagues and even her own mother—had written off as hopeless,” this post (as do many of those that she writes) was about fending off the bad with the good.

She keeps a folder where she puts all the “feel good” letters, comments, emails, etc. that she’s received over the years. Since reading her post I started a Google document, that has slowly been growing with compliments, thank yous and other things that make me smile. It includes the comment from one of my closest friends, where he called me “A smart sassy sweetheart who has a knack for kicking it back” and comments like the one from a poster on Brazen who I helped–”I appreciate your advice so much, that I am going make a plastic likeness of you, and put it on the dash of my car!” Stored in the cloud, so I can access it anywhere, anytime, this one file can make me smile even on the worst of days.

Writers can specifically stock comments from editors they’ve worked with (“Great job on that piece”) or clients they have done projects for. That way, next time someone turns you down you can just look over the comments from someone who didn’t, and you’ll be able to rededicate yourself to the task, removing the morning-coffee stain, resolve the argument with your significant other, finish the project that’s due and re-pitch your query to a new magazine where it’s sure to be accepted (and where you’ll be paid twice as much) – or at the least, it will make you smile, and a smile is worth almost that much some days.

On a Mission: Setting Goals

Okay, so we all know goals are important right? Whether it’s baseball or soccer, without scoring you can’t win. But just having goals isn’t enough. Once you have them, you need to write them down.

A study done by the Ford Foundation and mentioned in Never Eat Alone (by Keith Ferrazzi) says that only 10% of the population has specific well-defined goals. But 7 out of 10 of that 10% only achieved their goals 50% of the time. The other 3 out of 10 people surveyed, however, achieved their goals a resounding 89% of the time–the difference? They wrote their goals down.

That’s the idea behind my goals page. To keep me accountable and working toward my goals, I write them down where the big wide world (aka all of you) can see them. If you don’t know where you’re going, you’re going to have a lot of trouble getting there.

I recently went to lunch with a good friend. She has always thought she wanted to go into law–but now that she’s working as an assistant at a law office, she’s changed her mind. As a result, she’s looking for another job. But when I asked her what type of job she was looking for, she couldn’t tell me. So, even though I check job boards religiously and forward leads to all my friends (I know it’s a weird hobby), there’s nothing I can do to help her reach her goals–because she doesn’t have them.

As a freelancer, you can’t always know how many of your queries will be accepted or how many project proposals will result in you landing the job, which makes it hard to set goals. However you can set yourself goals based on work once its awarded. You can also set yourself word count goals, or goals for number of queries submitted.

Which is exactly the point of my goals page. Although for a while now I haven’t been updating it nearly often enough, if you visit it now you’ll find I’m back on the wagon. I have several concrete goals to accomplish. In addition to writing my goals there, I have a cork board on my wall that I pin notes too. Personally, I find a great deal of satisfaction in crossing something off a list (or putting a check mark next to it). Each task has it’s own small piece of paper, pinned to my board that I can tear down when that item is completed.

Of course, everyone has their own methods, but the important part is having goals, writing them down, and spending time each day dedicated to achieving them. Slowly but surely it’s working for me.

An Overlooked Female Mentor – My Mom

This post is dedicated to my Mom. She probably won’t read it, because I don’t think she knows this blog exists, but regardless.

You see, my mom and I do not have a traditional mother-daughter relationship. Until fairly recently I didn’t appreciate her very much. We’ve never been super close: my father gave me the sex  talk. Mom was out of town when I got my period for the first time, so the only advice I received on that note was from my grandmother, and all she said was to wash the undies in cold water. I taught myself to shave. For a long time, the things that I didn’t learn from my mom, that I felt I should have, stopped me from seeing the things I that had learned from her–things that affect me a lot more than having had to teach myself how to keep my legs hair-free.

There are two things in particular in which my mother excels. She is meticulously organized and she is extremely good with money. This past weekend, for example, I was visiting my parents and one of the evenings I arrived home after visiting with a friend to find my parents sitting on the couch. Mom had the big calendar she keeps on the fridge in her lap and she was making my father go over his vacation schedule and syncing their calendars. This obsession with dates and keeping information up-to-date is something I learned from her. While attending undergraduate school full-time, taking graduate classes and working three part-time jobs I maintained two calendars–a wall calendar and a personal date book, that was on me at all times–and updated the two almost nightly. Without these meticulously kept organization systems, there is no way I would have been able to pursue so many different interests at the same time and juggle my schedule efficiently.

My mom also does taxes for most of our family, manages my father and her accounts, handles my grandmothers accounts and taught me almost everything I know about budgeting and prioritizing my spending. She taught me how to balance a checkbook and is already reminding me on a regular basis that I need to start planning for retirement.

While I may not have learned many of the typical mother-daughter lessons from my mom, what I did learn has been infinitely more valuable and has played a much larger part in defining who I am.

You may ask, what does this have to do with being mentored? A lot. You see, often we overlook the mentors we do have because they don’t fit the criteria we may expect. But our parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and teachers can all also serve as mentors. Wikipedia says a mentor is “a trusted friend, counselor or teacher, usually a more experienced person.” It describes a mentor-relationship as the pairing of a newcomer or less experiences person with a more experienced person, who advises and serves as an example.

I’ve been listening to Keith Ferrazzi’s book, Never Eat Alone, in which he talks about nurturing relationships (I’ll discuss the book further in upcoming posts). One of the important points I took away from this book is the importance of recognizing those who have helped us attain our goals and learn important lessons.

I’ve seen a lot of posts (like this great one from Speak Softly and Carry a Red Pen) and comments lately on how rare women-to-women mentoring seems to be. Many people seem to think women just become cold and defensive once they attain positions of power; I however think there are two other issues at play. First, I think when women offer advice it tends to be in a less formal atmosphere, so we’re less likely to recognize it, like with me and my mom. Second, and perhaps the cause of my prior point, is that I think women are less likely to recognize their own success; therefore they feel less qualified to give advice and tend to give it less authoritatively. That leads to fewer women feeling they have something to offer younger women. This feeling that we haven’t “earned it” has been credited with the reason women are less likely to ask for a raise, or negotiate a salary. Men are more comfortable with their own achievements, making them more comfortable offering advice and arguing for better pay. This feeling of not-having-earned-it, may also stop women from asking other women to be mentors. We don’t want to be a “bother.”

That said, another less I’ve taken from Never Eat Alone is this: It never hurts to ask. After all, what’s the worse that can happen? They can say no, and then you’re no worse off than you were previously.

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