In the fall of 2005, I sat down in a Barnes & Noble to read a book called The Well-Fed Writer by Peter Bowerman.
Why was I there? Because after three years in college, nobody in any English Department across two different institutions could give me any idea of what I should do with a creative writing degree. I was desperate and broke.
When I found that book, I couldn’t afford to buy it. I sat down in a corner of the bookstore and read it cover-to-cover over the course of a few days.
The book was my introduction to the world of freelance writing, and freelance copywriting in particular.
It painted a lovely picture. I could write for clients while they FedEx me research materials? I would get pay checks in the mail from different clients, make a great living, and control my own schedule?
This was the life of a writer that I wanted.
Over the next few years, I learned as much as I could about freelance writing. I took on a few gigs here and there and did my best to build up a portfolio.
In the spring of 2008, one month before I graduated college after 5 years, I quit my job waiting tables to go full-time as a freelance writer. I’ve had a few hiccups since then, but largely I’ve never looked back.
I had no idea how unprepared I was.
Don’t get me wrong: I wouldn’t trade my career for anything in the world. There is absolutely nothing like being able to support yourself and your family by writing for a living. As I write this now, I am sitting in my home office, at a desk that I built with my own hands, with my feet up on the desk. I’m wearing slippers and a hoodie. I’m even dictating this into a microphone using Google Docs Voice Typing because I don’t feel like typing.
It’s a pretty great life.
But in the last 12 years of being a freelance writer, I’ve learned that writing is only part of the job. If I want to write full-time, and do it successfully, there are lots of other jobs that I have to do to keep my business going.
And many of those jobs I have to do every single day.
Whether you’re just starting out as a freelance writer, you’re thinking about it, or even if you have some experience, it’s important to understand the scope of the job. Being a writer is about a lot more than just writing.
Here’s a partial list of some of the main jobs of a freelance writer that they don’t really talk about. We will look at what those jobs entail, why they are important, and how I personally manage these jobs in my own business.
This is probably the most important non-writing job that every freelance writer needs to have. If you don’t market your services effectively, you won’t have clients. And if you don’t have clients, you don’t have a business. You can’t write for clients you don’t have.
So at least some of your day needs to be dedicated to generating new work. Yes, you can take a break from this every now and then, but it’s important to never get too comfortable. The second you stop marketing your writing services, you risk losing your clients and having to start over from scratch.
There are a few different ways that I handle this in my own business. First, I keep up with my email correspondence. After 12 years, I’ve built up relationships with quite a few different companies and people within those companies. Following up with them regularly keeps me at the front of their minds when they’re looking to outsource some work. Sometimes it’s as simple as sending a friendly email.
But I also make sure that I am investing in courses dedicated to teaching freelance writers how to build their businesses. You would think that after 12 years I would know everything that there is to know about building an online business. And to some extent, that’s true. But I also want to continually learn, and there are new writers releasing new courses almost every week dedicated to helping beginners figure it out. I often invest in some of these courses to see if there’s anything new that I should be keeping an eye on.
Even if I spend $100 on a course, if I can pull out one tip that gets me an extra $20,000 worth of work for the year, it’s money well spent.
2. Time Management Consultant
It doesn’t matter how good a writer you are if you can’t make full use of the time you have available to you every day.
A company might bring in a consultant to analyze how employees are spending their time every day. You don’t have that luxury, unless you hire a coach. You need to know how much time you spend working every day, and compare that with how much time you have available to you to work every day. Those are two different things.
Maximizing your time every day ensures that you will get your work done and keep your clients happy. Happy clients mean a sustainable business.
There are a lot of different tools and resources that I use to work on my time management. Just like marketing, I never allow myself to get too comfortable. I am always analyzing my time to ensure that I am making the most of it.
This means that I am always reading new books and blogs dedicated to time management principles. I also use a spreadsheet to track, say, the pace at which I write. Sometimes that information is very important for planning out my work day.
3. Business Development Manager
You can think of this as marketing to companies you’re already working with. It’s far easier to get more work from a happy client then try to drum up new work from a new client.
That’s where business development comes in. By focusing on business development, you can keep incoming work at a steady pace. Plus, even if your relationship with your client ends, keeping a positive experience with them ensures that they will be open to working with you again down the road.
For me, business development can take many forms. Some clients prefer to work using Slack. In that case, I find time every day to drop into Slack and spend a few minutes touching base with everybody that I work with. I participate in conversations and do my best to show my human side. If they only know you from work, it will be far easier for them to fire you later on.
Some clients, of course, just like to use email. In this case, much like marketing, I like to touch base with them usually once a week. This may vary depending on the client, but it’s good every week, usually on Mondays, to check in with clients and see if they have any work for you this week.
Any time I think about extra jobs that I have to do as a writer, this is the first position that comes up.
Even if you don’t have very many expenses, managing your finances is one of the most important jobs that any business owner has to do. And even if you’re just a freelance writer, you are a business owner.
By keeping a firm grip on your finances, you can learn a lot about your business. Taking the time every day or every week to review where you are from a money perspective tells you how successful your business is. It also can reveal places that may need improvement.
And of course, there are legal reasons to take on this job. You have to pay taxes every year—and usually every quarter—unless you want to be in a heap of trouble.
Right now, this role is a little bit in flux. I have been using Wave Accounting for years, as it is free and offers invoicing (more on that in a moment). But Wave is starting to make some changes, so I will be looking for a new bookkeeping solution sometime soon. I also like to use YNAB to manage my family’s personal finance accounts.
Usually on Fridays, I will dip into my bookkeeping software and review my expenses for the week. This way, I avoid a backlog of financial information that needs to be processed. I keep a separate bank account for my business expenses. This way, I am able to keep tabs on my income and my expenses and be sure that I am generating a healthy enough profit.
5. Office Supply Manager
This is an easy one. Your office, even at home, needs supplies.
Your printer needs paper. Your pens run out of ink. Your whiteboard runs out of markers.
In an office building, there’s a manager that tends to handle this sort of thing. But you’re on your own to do this at home. Fortunately, it’s one of the easiest jobs to manage.
What do I use to handle my office supplies? Amazon. Specifically, I am an Amazon Prime member. Because I don’t have to think about shipping costs, I am free to place orders as needed. It’s as simple as opening Amazon, searching for new dry erase markers, and clicking Buy Now next to a box of markers. In one or two days, it shows up at my front door.
6. Corporate Health Adviser
Yeah, I don’t know if this is an official title. But stay with me here.
Many companies like to invest in advisers or consultants who focus on work-life balance and the physical and mental health of employees. When you work for yourself, it’s up to you to manage your own health.
In 2018, it wasn’t uncommon for me to work anywhere from 60 to 80 hours a week. I had a wife and two kids, and I was managing them along with that extra workload. It was just about impossible. My health faltered, my productivity sank, and I was miserable.
When I was able to adjust my workload and keep a closer eye on my own physical and mental health, I saw my productivity go up, my income go up, and my happiness go up.
Obviously, there are plenty of ways to manage this yourself. Personally, I always invest in books related to physical and mental health. I also listen to podcasts devoted to this sort of thing. I have my Ticwatch connected to Google fit and a number of other wellness apps.
You can have anything from meditation apps to running apps, and even heart rate monitors. You can optimize any aspect of your health today.
I also make sure that I am taking regular breaks every day to manage my own health.
7. Accounts Receivable
Related to bookkeeping, accounts receivable means invoices.
Much like marketing, you can’t have a business without accounts receivable. You can have all the clients in the world, but if they aren’t paying their invoices, you’re in trouble.
With accounts receivable, you are paying attention to what work you’ve completed that needs an invoice, what invoices you’ve sent out, what clients have or have not paid those invoices, and where that money is after that invoice is paid. It sounds very complicated, but it’s pretty easy to manage. The key is tracking your work and not letting any invoices slip through the cracks.
Again, I have been using Wave Accounting for a lot of this, but I will be looking for something else. Many of my clients pay me through PayPal, so that has made some of my accounts receivable very simple. I get notifications on my phone and my watch when I get paid, so it’s pretty easy for me to keep track of who’s paid when.
This is a job that can be fairly easy, but can also get a little more dicey as you take on more projects. I find that if I manage more than three clients at a time, I need to make sure that I’m keeping a spreadsheet of my active work, or even just tracking it on the whiteboard in my office. The last thing I want is to finish up a job and forget to invoice the client.
8. Project Manager
You’ve got all these great clients, they’re sending you work, and you know how to manage your time to get the work done. But when exactly do you do the work?
This is the job of the project manager—and that’s you. It’s time to sit down and figure out when you are working on which project, and how to prioritize your workload.
Every project you have will have a deadline. It’s up to you to keep track of those deadlines and meet them to the best of your ability.
I generally use a combination of Todoist and Google Calendar to manage my projects. Todoist is possibly the best task management solution I’ve ever worked with. Any project I work on goes into Todoist and I break it down by steps. I also make sure that I am organizing each job by client, time of day that I usually work on it, and what the deadlines are. This is how I make sure no work slips through the cracks—at least not for very long.
9. Tech Support
Finally, let’s end with one of the more common jobs that nobody plans for: tech support.
Even if you have everything figured out—you know your work, you have clients, you’re on top of everything—it means nothing if your computer needs to update and locks you out for four hours while it does so.
Or if your internet goes down, it’s up to you to get on the phone with your internet service provider to get that rectified. In the meantime, you can’t get any work done.
The easiest way that I handle tech support is by using a Chromebook. Updates are instant, the interface is easy, and at this point in its development, there is no interference between what Chromebooks can do and what my clients require.
Plus, it just comes from experience. I know a lot about technology, and I am interested in it. I’m very engaged with what’s going on in technology.
If you run your own business, you should at least have a passing understanding of technology so that you can manage it yourself.
Why don’t I outsource?
Outsourcing is something that a lot of writers like to do to minimize these jobs. They want to ensure that they are spending more time writing and doing the things that they love.
I’m not against outsourcing, but frankly, I just don’t see the need for it. In my work, I’m able to manage my time pretty effectively across all of these different roles.
But besides that, even if you do outsource, you need to understand how these roles are handled. When the chips fall, you are still responsible for these jobs being done.
For example, one year I hired an accountant to manage my bookkeeping for my business. I knew what I wanted to set aside for taxes, and for whatever reason, he ignored what I asked him to do with our taxes.
When spring came a few years ago, he called to tell me that we owed $10,000 in taxes. I reviewed our correspondence and confirmed that he did not do what I told him to do. Unfortunately, I had no recourse. I owed that much in taxes, and I could not hold him accountable for it. The law states that even if you outsource the job, you are still responsible for the results.
So I fired the accountant and took over my own bookkeeping again.
Maybe it’s just the independent worker in me, but I am just not interested in outsourcing a lot of the work that I do. I’m able to manage it. But if you can’t manage it, maybe you should consider outsourcing.
Regardless, it’s important to understand all of these different roles and have a plan for handling them. None of this is complicated, but if you can make consistent progress on these roles every week, you can ensure a smooth running writing business.