What I teach freelance writers about making (good) money

Spoiler: it has very little to do with the quality of your writing

René Quist
Mar 31 · 9 min read
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The iconic skyline of Rotterdam. Flickr

rief

  • Marketing is essential for writers, but how?
  • What is a smart strategy for your price?
  • How do you find new well-paying assignments?
  • Learn about the wishes of publishers

ver 15 years, I was a well-paid journalist and news editor in Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Until August 2011. Then I got fired from a prominent daily newspaper. The timing could not be worse. I was in the middle of a divorce, my youngest daughter was still a baby, and the economy was recovering after the financial crises in 2008.

My redundancy payment was just enough to cover a few months. Due to my divorce, I needed a new house, car, furniture, and lots more. So I was looking for a well-paying job. However, after years of working for chiefs, bosses, and managers, I wanted new directions. Maybe it was also because I hit 40 or because of the divorce. But it was time for a change.

My decision to start as a freelancer was a swift one. I had some vague ideas on what to do as a freelancer. But soon I realized that the clock was ticking and I only had three months before running out of money. First, I was stressed by this idea, but in just a few days, these negative feelings were gone, and I was bursting with energy.

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Photo by Rachid Oucharia on Unsplash

Maybe it was because of the beautiful smile of my oldest daughter Storm or the pristine beaches and the lovely campsite we were staying in. I don’t know. What I do know: after this small break, I was hitting well-paid gigs at ease. Within eight weeks, I made 8000 $ a month. (Scroll down, if you want to know right away how I did this.)

Years later, I realized that the unexpected holiday was a brilliant escape and energizer. It created time and space to think about who I was. Not as a person but as a product. I started to see my self as something that I had to sell. I am the marketing manager, sales manager, and CEO of Quist Inc.

I am the marketing manager, sales manager and CEO of Quist Inc.

Since then, I have used this selling technique ever since. With success, seven years in a row, I have made 70–80K a year, pretty good compared to the 30K a Dutch freelance writer or journalist on average has. Most of them are probably better writers, but I was the better salesman.

These five rules will give you a higher income

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Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

I know, sales is not a word that journalist, freelancers, and writers do like. Forget the word sales. See it as evolution. Those who can adapt will survive. With these five tips, you will score more and better-paid gigs. One warning: the advice is simple; execution can be tough in the beginning.

To look at yourself as something to you have to sell is something different than creating your personal brand. If you see yourself as a product, the next step is to apply the basic marketing principles. Better known as the 5 P’s. These 5 P’s refer to the words: Product, Placement, Price, Promotion, and People.

That day at the beach, I was entirely unaware of these principles. I was only thinking about how much I would charge per hour and which publishers I knew personally. And what magazines I’d want to write for. Only later, with hindsight, I understood that I was subconsciously applying these marketing principles.

Let me break them down to the world of writers and journalists.

1 Product — Why should people hire you?

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Photo by Xan Griffin on Unsplash

This one looks simple. But it’s a tough one to crack. What works best for most people is just to sit down and write your pros and cons. Which tasks, roles, circumstances at work do you like and which you do not like? In which conditions you can flourish and make a real difference? In addition, ask friends and former colleagues to come up with some characteristics of why they enjoyed working with you. (No, don’t ask your family, wife, husband or girlfriend. Surprisingly, young kids can be an excellent source for this because they are unbiased.)

2 Placement — Where do you want to work?

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Photo by You X Ventures on Unsplash

The question is as clear as it looks. Just write down some companies you want to work for. Also, write down your favorite roles, top jobs, and assignments that make you go. This is important because it helps with searching for better freelance gigs.

3 Price — Find out your right price for every job

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Photo by Anne Preble on Unsplash

As freelancer Excel, calculator, or Google Sheets are necessary. In every! assignment, there will be a moment you have to negotiate about the price. Yes, there is a lot of work with a fixed rate; nevertheless, you need to know if the money is appropriate.

An excellent way to calculate your price per hour is to compare it to what other people earn in a fixed contract for the same sort of work. However, DO NOT FORGET to count in the taxes you have to pay yourself, and in some cases, you also have to add VAT to your invoice. In general, 1,5 x hourly wage of a fixed contract for the same kind of work is a reasonable price for a freelance writer or journalist.

Still, I sometimes accept assignments that pay poorly. I don’t mind, because the price is one of the decision criteria. For how long is the job? Is it good for my portfolio? Is it close to home? Is it a stable company? Do I like my colleagues? Do I get new skills? Is it a company that is on my wishlist? Can this assignment bring me other, better-paid gigs? In the next paragraphs, I will give you some examples from my own.

4 Promotion — Connect with the right people

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Photo by Nicolas Lobos on Unsplash

It’s all about connections. Knowing the right people. You would be surprised at how many jobs and assignments just go the somebody that is already familiar with a company or with a person in that company.

The most asked question with freelance assignments in a company: Who knows somebody who can help us with this… Note, usually, its a friend of a friend or a connection of the manager or the owner. The trick is that you are the person that is recommended. Usually, in these cases, there is little competition and minimal issues with your price.

The only thing you have to do here: start spreading the news. Tell people that you know, online and in real life, what you are capable of, what you have achieved, what you are looking for. The word of mouth is indeed powerful, but it is you that usually have to start. How? Just tell friends and tell it on your Twitter or Linkedin. Be proud!

5 People — What is your service level?

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Photo by Carl Heyerdahl on Unsplash

Oh boy. Oh boy. As an editor in chief, I hired brilliant writers. I envied them for their pieces, and in the early days of my career as an editorial manager, I accepted their constant ignorance of deadlines or agreed on word count. Later, I turned my back on them. I choose freelance writers who made their deadlines, who had well-formatted stories and even did sent me relevant pictures. And when I had serious feedback on their stories, they tried to improve the story right away.

As a freelance writer, you are part of an editorial ecosystem. Try to fit into this ecosystem as seamlessly as possible. Don’t send your stories in a mail with a Word-file attached, but do ask what the editor prefers. Walk the extra mile. Then you will be seen as reliable and therefore valuable.

Reach out

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Photo by LinkedIn Sales Navigator on Unsplash

emember? I was on holiday with my daughter, just after I was fired. In the morning, when drinking my coffee, I was scrolling my iPad. I used one app: Linkedin. In my career as a journalist and editor in chief, I collected about 2000 connections on Linkedin. I started at A, and I worked my trough Z. Everybody who could help me with a freelance job got a personal message. Well written, in the message I referred to our connection, I explained I had started as a freelancer, and I was looking for a job. Did they have one? Did somebody in their network have an assignment?

Maybe I have sent 300 e-mails. Some recipients did not react at all, but the majority did: they all wished me luck and promised me to keep in touch. A few connections responded that there might be an opportunity in the future. Two actually came back to me with an interest in hiring me.

One was a former classmate, the other a former boss. Three weeks later I was an interim editorial manager at a publisher in computer magazines, and I was freelance lecturer journalism. Just the simple fact I got in touch with a classmate from my university was the trigger to invite me for a job interview.

As I mentioned earlier, usually within a company, the need for a freelancer pops up quite unexpectedly. The former classmate was lecturer journalism, and he had a serious problem: a colleague was ill and he needed somebody that could start right away and had experience in journalism. Bingo!

No way I could negotiate over my wage. But there was no need too; the university paid very decently: 50 dollars an hour, two days a week. Because I had this assignment, I was quite confident about my interview with the publisher. This publisher just laid off a bunch of editors, and now they were looking for somebody that could help them with adding freelance resources.

I knew what I want to charge them: 75 dollars an hour. However, they did not like my offer: not because of the price, but they just wanted to pay me a fixed fee per month for more or less three days a week: 4500 dollars. First, I felt a bit disappointed, but then I realized I scored two long term assignments, I had a job for five days a week, and I could 8000 dollars a month. Real value.

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Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

Also, the job at the publisher was exciting. My core quality as editor is creating efficiency in editorial departments. In addition to that, I had a lot of freedom, It was just a 40-mile drive from my home, and it turned out my colleagues were very friendly.

At first, the assignment was only for three months. But just before the holiday season, the publisher asked if I could manage a redesign of their major publications. My experience in this was zero, but I decided to do it. Usually, this is how things work out with freelance jobs.

Never give up

In November 2016, things did not go too well. I lost a big client, I started writing for a tech blog, but I did not go along very well with the owner. So I was seeking a new freelance job. I already knew which one I was after: freelance editor at the Dutch news agency ANP. There was only one small problem: the external recruitment agency has been reluctant several times to introduce me. ‘It is a position for starters; it is under your pay level,’ I heard three times over the past two years. These previous occasions didn’t bother me too much because I had other assignments. But at the end of 2016, that was not the case. So I convinced the agency to send my resume to the news agency. I had a few good reasons to go for this particular job: It was close to Rotterdam, a news agency is a 24//7 operation where I could work night shifts that would allow me to have other jobs. Also, I knew that once I was in, there would be lots of work.

This turned out to be so true: from a few underpaid shifts a month, this job evolved in three years to 40 hours a week freelance assignment with decent payments.

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René Quist

Written by

Journalist from The Netherlands with a strong interest in media, news industry, and innovation. Editor in chief and former lecturer journalism.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +720K people. Follow to join our community.

René Quist

Written by

Journalist from The Netherlands with a strong interest in media, news industry, and innovation. Editor in chief and former lecturer journalism.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +720K people. Follow to join our community.

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