There are plenty of good (and not-so-good) books
about how to start your own freelance writing business. I've bought some and
I've read some. I've even bought some that I've read and read some that I've
bought. But being me, I tend to write down stuff that I do in case someone else
might find it useful.
First, my list of things every writer should do
to succeed (most of which apply whether they're freelancing or not). I do my
best at these, though I'm the first to admit I'm better at some than at others.
- Write well.
- Manifest flexibility, curiosity, friendliness,
assertiveness, humility, discretion, and confidence.
- Know stuff.
- Learn quickly what you don't know.
- Work hard.
- Ask questions.
- Deliver quality product.
- Market yourself and maintain your portfolio.
- Hire professionals to help you: a financial
planner, a tax accountant, an identity designer, a web implementer, and others
- Buy the tools you need: legally licensed
software, graphics, and fonts, reliable computer and telecommunications
equipment, and a professional wardrobe.
There are resources out there--online, in print,
and in person--ready to help with all of these.
- For writing well, I most frequently refer to
Webopedia: Online Computer Dictionary for
Computer and Internet Terms and Definitions,
The Elements of Style, and
The Microsoft Manual
of Style, as well as whatever style guides my clients request. I also do
graphic and web design as integrated parts of my communications, so I also
rely heavily on my design bookshelf.
- For manifesting flexibility, curiosity,
friendliness, assertiveness, humility, discretion, and confidence, some of
those come naturally to me, and others I rely heavily on some carefully chosen
mentors in my life. For them I am eternally grateful and indebted; I just make
sure to do anything I can for them whenever I am able. If you're lucky enough
to have someone like that in your life, do anything you can to keep them
there. Book resources can't hold a candle to a mentor for stuff like this, but
I do reread
The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People and, yes, I pay attention to
Dr. Phil McGraw.
- We all know stuff. What's important is knowing
what you know and knowing what you don't, then leveraging what you know. It's
a lot easier and more pleasant to make your living writing stuff about which
you're already relatively knowledgeable than to try to force yourself into a
field just because you hear it's hot.
- For learning quickly, all I can say is I am
grateful for the Internet. No matter what I need to know or when I need to
know it, it seems I can find what I need there. Most often it's web sites of
manufacturers of whatever products or technologies I might be documenting, and
well-reputed experts in the content areas I'm researching. When I'm on
longer-term projects, I certainly invest in books, but it's nice not to have
to do it for every project, or when I want to learn more for preparing a
- There's no book to help you work hard. Just do
it. Get up every day and work. If you don't feel like working one day, that's
okay--take the day off (unless, of course, you have client meetings or other
obligations). But really, most days, work. If you need help with this one,
talk to your other writer friends.
- Ask questions, even if you think they're
stupid. Again, no book is going to teach you to do this (though maybe doing a
little homework will make you feel more confident that the vocabulary you're
using to ask your questions will prevent you from sounding stupid, or from
asking the wrong question). But while there's no book, there are still other
resources: your subject matter experts. And if you're afraid to go straight to
them, think of someone else to try asking first. Another writer, perhaps. Your
cat. Eventually you'll have to ask the person who has the actual answer, but
practice first if you need to. Just don't wait too long--remember that you
need to get the answer back in time to integrate it into the finished product!
- For delivering quality product, you have a
couple of great resources: existing quality product (whether it's your
client's, some existing documentation you've always admired--so pay attention
to that stuff when you buy things--or another writer's) and the guidelines in
the best book on the subject, in my opinion:
Documentation Projects . There's just simply nothing better than this
book: analyzing needs, creating the information and project plans, creating
content specifications, creating a tracking system, creating project
standards, conducting reviews, keeping things running smoothly, tracking
progress, managing change, developing prototypes, assessing usability,
managing production, managing indexing, copy editing, translation, and
localization, evaluating the publication and the team, and preparing for
maintenance. Just a fabulous book.
- For marketing yourself and creating and
maintaining your portfolio, two books helped me get started. The first,
Planning in 30 Days, does just what it says--do one part every day and in
a month you'll have a business plan. You might not need a written business
plan like some businesses need, to take to a bank for a loan, but you
definitely need the answers that come from going through the process of
creating a business plan. The second,
The Well-Fed Writer: Financial Self-Sufficiency as a Freelance writer in Six
Months or Less, explains how the author went from no writing experience to
making a good living as a writer by leveraging what he knew in just a few
months. Particularly good chapters for rookies include those about setting up
a system, portfolio, and sample letters, on setting rates and estimating
projects, and on managing clients and money. He's also published a new book
called The Well-Fed
Writer: Back for Seconds: A Second Helping of "How-To" for Any Writer Dreaming
of Great Bucks and Exceptional Quality of Life, currently available on
his web site or
Amazon soon. This one promises more about marketing and sales, about web
sites, networking, improving your writing, profiles of people who've done it,
and startup advice.
Next, business organization. I operate on a
calendar tax year and use a cash method. I operate as a sole proprietor, which
means I own an unincorporated business by myself. I could have opted to make
myself into a limited liability company (LLC) or to incorporate. These are the
options in Pennsylvania.
Simplest form of organization
Gives the single owner sole control and
Possible choice at the beginning
with the option to change to a partnership or corporation later
Formed by agreement between partners,
even an informal one, though a written, legal agreement drawn up among the
parties is advisable. The agreement should cover at least each partner's
contributions, how to distribute profits or losses, and dissolution terms.
Without a written agreement stating terms otherwise, the state presumes that
the partners want to distribute profits and losses equally.
Formed by at least two people having at
least one general partner and at least one limited partner.
Limited partners have limited exposure
to liability and are not involved in day-to-day management of the
Most complex form of organization
The corporate charter restricts
business activities, so most corporations define their activities in very
broad terms there.
In forming, prospective shareholders
transfer money, property, or both, for the corporation's capital stock. A
corporation generally takes the same deductions as a sole proprietorship to
figure taxable income.
Can reduce tax liability
Shareholders include their share of
income, loss, or credit on their state personal income tax returns
Must have valid federal S
Minimal legal restrictions
Owner retains all profits
Easy to discontinue business
Easy to establish
Can draw upon all the partners'
financial and managerial strength
Liability is limited to the amount
owners have contributed to their shares of stock
Any owner's death or share transfer
does not affect the corporation's continuity
Unlimited personal liability for all of
the business' debts and liabilities
Limited ability to raise capital
Business ends upon the sole
Unlimited personal liability for the
firms' debts and liabilities
Business ends with a partner's death
Any one partner can commit the firm
If the partnership elects
classification as a corporation for federal income tax purposes, it also
becomes subject to corporate net income tax and the capital stock and
foreign franchise tax
More costly and more difficult to
create because of the paperwork required
Extensive record keeping
Double taxation (on profits and on
dividends paid to owners)
How to Report Pennsylvania Income
File PA Schedules
for each partner,
C-F, if applicable to reconcile federal expenses to Pennsylvania rules,
and Pennsylvania Schedules
and so on, or the corresponding federal schedules.
The corporation itself and its
shareholders both pay taxes on a corporation's profits, though shareholders
cannot deduct losses.
RCT-101 with federal Form
990 and supporting
schedules. Also subject to capital stock tax.
File corporate net income tax return,
but pay tax only on any net recognized built-in gains that the corporation
receives. The state taxes shareholders individually as with partnerships.
To use an assumed name, visit the
Pennsylvania Open for
Business web site
Does not require filing to form the
partnership, but it may be required to register a fictitious name
Form by filing a Certificate of Limited
Partnership with the
Department of State
Form by filing Articles of
Incorporation and a Docketing Statement with the
Department of State
Bureau or visit the
Pennsylvania Open for Business web site
Form REV-1640 with the
Pennsylvania Department of Revenue within 75 days of the beginning of
your fiscal year and supply a copy of your IRS' approval notification to the
Pennsylvania Department of Revenue
Next, federal government stuff:
- I use my social security number (SSN) as my
taxpayer identification number; because I have no employees and file no
pension or excise tax returns, I do not need an employer identification number
(EIN). I file income tax returns on a
Form 1040 and
Schedule C; I've been
filing electronically using TurboTax,
but I think starting this year I'll be using a tax professional that my
financial planner has recommended. Regardless, I pay estimated taxes every
quarter using Form
1040-ES with help from
Publication 505. And I pay self-employment taxes on
Schedule SE, figured
using the regular method, to plunk down my share of social security and
Medicare taxes, though I'm confident that I'll never reap the benefits of
- I work as an independent contractor. This
means that I invoice my clients on some pre-arranged periodic basis (some
prefer weekly, others monthly, others as a project ends), they write me checks
on another pre-arranged periodic basis (generally net 15 days), and in January
they send me a 1099-MISC
to report what they've paid me in the previous calendar year.
- I don't sell any products--I deliver all of my
services as services--so I do not have to charge sales tax and
do not have to contend with cost of goods sold or inventory.
- Fortunately, I haven't had any bad debts with
which to contend. If I kept a log book in my car, I could deduct as local
transportation my mileage for getting from one workplace to another, visiting
clients, or getting from home to a temporary workplace. I ought to start doing
this. These are things with which I hope my new tax professional will be able
to help me.
- I should be able to deduct my health insurance
- Because I don't use any one part of my home
exclusively for business, I can't take a home office deduction.
And of course, there's state government stuff. As
with the feds, I use my SSN as my taxpayer identification number. I don't
operate under a fictitious name, so I didn't have to worry about that.
And local government stuff. I applied for a
permit to do business in my borough. As far as I know, that's the only thing I
need to do business here.
Last, I have a small list of survival tools
beyond my bookshelf and the Internet.
- my portfolio: This took longer than
anticipated to create, assembling samples from days gone by, but it was well
worth it. I have a paper version in a binder in my study, plus an electronic
version on my web site. I try to add a sample of
everything I do to each version whenever I complete a project, when I can get
the client's permission.
- my laptop; this cost me about two grand. I use
an IBM ThinkPad and am pretty much a Microsoft shop; not only is this the
software with which I'm most competent now, but it's also what all of my
clients use. Because sharing documents is such an integral part of my work,
that's a no-brainer. The licensed copies of every piece of software I ever use
to produce documentation. For me that includes
a bunch of
print and web publishing software, and
management software, (though I did not plunk down the money on
RoboHelp, as that's
the sort of thing the client would provide). Software set me back another
$1500 or so when I first started out. I bought some things through
SoftwareOutlet.com; other stuff I
found on Amazon or bought directly from
Adobe. Why the big deal about licenses?
Because without proper licenses, aside from personally being a big old square
and a copyright geek, I risk getting my software taken away and being stuck
without it mid-project, plus the embarrassment that would come with
prosecution. I don't keep up with newest versions as they come out; if I were
making oodles of money, I might invest in upgrades to certain things, because
some clients care about that, but most don't, so for now it's not my highest
priority. Oh, and I can't forget that among these software programs is
Quicken, which is how I invoice my
customers and track payments and all that. Couldn't run a business without it.
- my printer: I have a decent inkjet that
probably cost me $150.
- my cell phone: my only phone, so I have a very
reliable carrier, plan, and phone.
Using just one phone means my clients only need to know one number to reach
- my fax machine; I think I spent about $75 on
it at Office Depot. I use the land
line I maintain for emergency dial-up use, but only turn it on when I'm
expecting a fax, to avoid junk fax mail.
- DSL: I spend $48.95 on a very reliable and
most excellent local provider that beats
all comers hands down.
- my contact-management system: When I returned
to freelancing full time again in 2002, I started out using
Act! like I did in the 1990s. But I missed
(don't remember what any more--probably my contacts being in the same place as
my e-mail), so now that's what I use, along with my
Outlook was included with the software I bought above, and the Palm was a gift
- my web site: I designed and created it myself
(yes, created in FrontPage, because it's cheap, but I use none of its
proprietary crap, so it's just regular old HTML). I've been with the same
hosting service for about six years and
am very happy with them. I think the domain costs me $35 per year and the
server space costs me $120, if I'm not mistaken. That includes, of course, an
e-mail address that is all mine and stays the same no matter who my Internet
service provider (ISP) is, so if you change ISPs a lot, that's a benefit that
might interest you. Plus wrinklybrain is a great conversation starter.
- a backup system: I confess I only just started
doing this systematically. Until recently, I would back up files when I needed
to move them, if I got a new computer, or when it occurred to me (like if a
friend had a hard drive catastrophe), and I'd just copy them to CD. But I've
been through all kinds of changes in the last few months, including some
responsibility makeovers, and part of this was realizing that a real backup
system would protect my data and my clients' data from theft, fire, flood,
whatever, just like insurance protects my health and my home. So I now have
Backup backing up my files every day, and it's huge peace of mind, though
it's a little expensive at $17.95 per month (that's only because I have so
much data, which is because I have large graphics files).
- form letters: I don't really send them out,
but it helped to have some idea of what concepts I wanted to cover when
addressing potential and actual clients at various stages along the way.
The Well-Fed Writer was helpful in
getting started with these.
- resume: Yes, I've had a resume for a long
time, but with the help of some recruiters in my last job search, I finally
honed it. This is really an ongoing process.
- wardrobe: I'm still pretty old school here. I
have pants suits--one skirt, but I find it overly formal for every office I
ever visit if I wear it with a jacket, so I save it for non-jacket wear--in
brown and black that I wear to interviews with simple black shoes, minimal
makeup and jewelry, no nails, and basic purse. When on a project in a client's
office, I try to dress like the most businesslike person in the client's
office, so that if that person were working by my side all day--even if they
don't, really--they would feel like they were working with an equal.
- business cards: I used to print mine at home,
but when I started experiencing some printer unreliability, I outsourced to
PrintsMadeEasy - Business Cards
Processed Overnight. Yes, they're processed overnight, but they took
nearly two weeks to arrive (to be fair, I think some of that was weekends,
maybe even a holiday). But the results are smashing--a two-sided high-quality
card. I have basic contact information on one side, and on the other I have
listed types of products I've created and clients for whom I've worked--almost
a mini-resume. These cost me $17-18 for 100. For as seldom as I need to
distribute cards and as good as I want them to look, I'll be back.
- a pretty good idea of my market value: I
started with some knowledge of this from having been on the management side
and having hired writers myself, and having read some books on pricing my
services. From there I spent a lot of time talking to recruiters and
interviewing for work. When it comes right down to it, only the market can
tell you what your market value is. My market value varies, of course,
depending on what market I'm in, both time-wise and skill-wise. Instructional
design, for instance, typically pays less than technical writing, though the
line between the two isn't very clear. And I'll ask for and accept lower pay
if I'm learning a new skill, if I'm able to work from home or flexible hours,
or in other circumstances like that. The longer I work and the more
experiences I have, the better I know what my market value is.
- my financial planner: I only wish I'd found
him when I first started this kind of work.
- my clients: I am grateful for all of my
clients, but have a special warm place in my heart for my repeat clients.
These are people who tell me how much they appreciate the quality of my work
every time they ask me to do more work for them. This is why I do what I do.
Where do I find work? Lots of places. My most
important resource is satisfied clients, who provide me with repeat business and
with referrals. But when they don't have work, naturally I get to be resourceful
elsewhere. Here's a map of the virtual pavement I pound regularly to find work.
"Regularly" depends on the place: places that post jobs for lots of sources
(like job boards and the newspaper) change more frequently than corporate sites
do, so I tend to check the former daily and the latter weekly.
(Note that some of these are industry-specific,
some of these are significant to me because they're past clients or employers,
and some of these are Pittsburgh-specific. But even if you're in a different
boat (different location, different industries, whatever), I hope you'll find
the list helpful as a springboard to creating your own list.) Now then--on to