Successful freelance writers have to master many skills. These include:
- Writing in a way that is easy for readers to understand on their phones or computers
- Appealing to both readers and search engines at the same time
- Managing competing demands on their time
- Attracting and retaining clients
With experience, freelance writers develop habits and practices to hone their skills and consistently delight clients. I asked some of my fellow WriterAccess freelancers to share their writing habits, skills, and practices – and I learned a lot from their responses!
There are some great tips here, whether you’re a newbie freelancer wondering how to become a content creator, a long-time veteran writer, or a non-writer curious about what goes on behind the content-creation curtain.
Favorite Technology Tools
WA writers find ingenious ways to use hardware and software to make their work easier and better.
Marketing writer Holly S. uses voice-to-text to get her thoughts down more quickly than she could if she were typing. Then she edits for flow. This works great, she says, when she’s aiming for a conversational tone and content that is easy for readers to understand.
Stacey C., who writes about aviation and construction, and writer Jenna I. swear by dual screens. Stacey says using two screens makes her more productive because she doesn’t have to waste time flipping back and forth between her research and writing.
With so many distractions, both on and off their screens, writers need to find ways to stay focused. Email is one of the worst distractions. Stacey C. takes her email off her computer and sends it to her phone and tablet instead.
Focusing can be especially hard for writers in noisy environments. Some writers suggest noise-canceling headphones or listening to classical music with binaural beats. I often use a white-noise machine that sounds like a fan.
Writers also need to listen to their minds and bodies and know when to take a break. Legal and automotive writer Cheryl B. walks away from the computer at least once per hour, while Stephanie L. gets up when she is not in a state of flow.
Health and medical writer Catrina C. uses the Pomodoro method. This involves:
- Intensely focusing for 25 minutes
- Taking a break for 5 minutes
- Repeating the sequence several times
- Then taking a longer break
I use the Pomodoro method, too. I try (with varying success) to resist the temptation to check my email or Facebook during the mini-breaks. I feel more refreshed and able to focus again if I get up and walk around the room, stretch, or do some wall push-ups.
Writing the Assignment
Many writers use outlines to stay organized. With headers already in place, they know where to put the information they find as they do their research.
Outlines also reduce stress. Catrina C. points out that it’s easier to get started with a 2,000-word assignment if you think of it as 10 sections with 200 words each – rather than one long overwhelming block of text.
There’s no reason why writers have to start at the beginning.
Accounting and veterinary writer Jenny G. says, “I don’t usually write from top to bottom but start wherever it’s easiest to start. Sometimes that means writing the conclusion first.”
I agree and often save writing the introduction for last.
Keeping Track of the Work
Freelancers usually have assignments from more than one client at a time. They need to develop systems for keeping track of everything so that nothing gets overlooked.
Good systems also help writers manage their time and even out their workflows.
Spreadsheets are a popular tool. Health and wellness writer Kristy S. uses a spreadsheet to keep track of her orders, due dates, prices, word counts, and year-end totals.
Catrina C. uses a weekly schedule where she writes down all her projects from multiple agencies. It lets her know how far ahead she is booked out when she takes on new assignments.
I do something similar with an old-fashioned pocket calendar that I keep next to my computer so I can see what’s coming up for the month at a glance.
Our brains are our best tools.
- Holly S. practices “good boundary management.”
- Catrina C. sets goals and rewards herself for finishing early.
- Jenna I. spends a half hour each night looking over her next day’s tasks.
Other writers strive to stay consistent, focus on long-term growth opportunities, and remain open to learning new skills.
Setting expectations matters. High-tech and entertainment writer Joe B. advises newer writers to expect revisions. He says not to “take them personally when they actually should be thought of as a normal part of the order process.”
Spending a little extra time before sending off an assignment makes a big difference in the quality of the work and client satisfaction.
Legal and education writer Rebecca D. reads the instructions carefully before she starts an assignment. When she’s finished writing, she reads the instructions again before submitting the order to make sure everything is included.
Healthcare writer Darla F. uses a screen reader when she edits. “It is too easy for your brain to fill in missing words or to replace wrong words with the right ones when you read,” she says. “The screen reader helps me catch the things my brain tries to fix for me.”
Sports and automotive writer Dan C, says the best habit he ever developed was “to write one day and then edit the next,” after he sleeps on it.
This allows him to “write quickly, just to get the words down.” The next day, with fresh eyes, he can see what he wrote more objectively and look for anything that needs to be fixed or changed.
It’s also a top practice to strive to be consistently pleasant and easy to work with. As Sheena H. puts it, clients will “remember a writer’s communication skills almost as much as the work.”
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