Growth and mistakes: Reflecting on year one as a freelance writer

This article on reflecting on a year as a freelance writer is written by Becky Zimmer who is based in Humboldt, Saskatchewan. She has experience in farm, community, small business and sports reporting.

Overhead photograph of a young woman typing on a laptop computer, which is sitting on a table
The decision was simple.

I was coming out of an editorial contract with nothing else on the horizon that wouldn’t have included a move that my husband and I weren’t ready for.

My network has grown in the eight years I’ve been living and working in rural Saskatchewan, so it became the perfect time to freelance writing a shot. That was a year ago and now I’m looking back on my first full year running my own business.

This has been the best move of my career. However, this doesn’t mean I still don’t drool over the job postings that pop up on my LinkedIn feed. Or that I’m not worried about the eventually slow times that will creep up.

What I’ve learned in my first year as a freelance writer

I still have questions, like what I could have done better or what changes I am going to make as I start year two, but here are a few things I’ve learned along the way.

Set your schedule

Our to-do lists will never be empty. That is just a fact of making work for yourself. There will always be stories to research, phone calls to make, interviews to do and travel plans to make.

With that being the case, set up a work schedule but also remember your brain needs time to rest. Take the coffee and lunch breaks, have a quitting time, take days off. The endless slog will not cease when you’re on the verge of burnout.

Set some goals

When I first started out, any story, contact, or new job was like striking gold. I was just happy to be covering the stories that interested me, but I didn’t know what to expect when it came to calculating any word count or net income goals. Some media outlets pay more than others but in my experience, community news pays far less than agricultural writing and corporate work pays more than agriculture. I wasn’t going into this looking at the dollar and cents of it all. I just wanted to work as a storyteller and communicator.

I count this year as a success.

At over 160 stories written, that’s 14 a month with most of them around the 800-word mark and $38K worth of work filed, I’ve been happy with my output.

Financially, I surpassed what I made as a rural editor and reporter, I have no bill collectors knocking down my door and my husband (who has some money anxiety) was cool as a cucumber all year.

Whether you’re looking at your output, dollar amounts or even the number of pitches and queries you make in a week or a month, set a goal for how you define success.

Keep everything in order

It doesn’t matter what you use: Wave, QuickBooks, your own Excel sheet, a professional bookkeeper. If it works for you, use it to keep all your invoices in order. The only rule of this is stay on top of your finances.

While some people have said an Excel sheet isn’t enough, I have enough people in my network, including a small business support organization, telling me that I’m on the right track. Everything is in order and I usually take a good look at it a few times a week and update my invoicing while work comes in and work goes out.

Maybe an app would be easier but for now, trying something new would take some initial time and energy before making the switch worth it.

Ask for help, never stop learning and own your mistakes

I put these all together because it falls within the same sphere: fearlessly learning the business.

I became a bookkeeper and marketer overnight when I chose to go down the route of freelance writing. I’ve been saying for years that I’m a writer not a mathematician, but now I’m wrapping my head around taxes and invoicing.

In general, humans hate being vulnerable, so accepting the fact that I didn’t know everything but also not wanting to give the wrong impression to clients and newsrooms, I had to get over this.

I’ve made mistakes with my invoicing and missed some claims for GST that would have saved me some money. But so far owning up to it has saved me stress and has not lost me any clients. We all make them but mistakes are only failures when you don’t turn them into learning experiences. Take it from Alanis Morissette: you live, you learn.

Join guilds

While I don’t mean this to be a shameless plug, this is the one piece of advice I give to writers whether they ask for it or not. Part of building my network has been finding like-minded people who are just as passionate as I am about journalism and writing. I’ve found those people in farm writers, fiction writers, and fellow freelancers through guild memberships (such as Canadian Freelance Guild) and social media.

Part of asking for help is knowing who to ask and there is no greater resource than these guilds full of experienced people who’ve been there before.
Beyond that, they have also provided a wealth of travel and learning opportunities. If you’re paying the membership, these are what your dollars go towards. Dive in with both feet and maybe even see how you could get even more involved on boards and event planning. The thing that makes these guilds great are the people in them.

Other posts by Becky Zimmer

Posted on February 22, 2024 at 7:17 am by editor · · Tagged with: 

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  1. Written by Donna Faye
    on March 9, 2024 at 11:01 am
    Reply · Permalink

    Thank you so much Becky for this honest account of your first year as a freelance writer. Good for you and all the very best to you as you go forward.

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