Deciding whether or not to take your writing freelance is a big and complex decision. Perhaps you’re not feeling fulfilled with your current work life, but lacking the confidence to quit your full time job and go it alone?
Or maybe you’ve already made the leap, but need a little more advice on how to really get the ball rolling? Whatever your situation, this guide will help you understand the basics of being your own boss and being a freelance writer.
Working when and where you want and being in control of your own destiny are huge advantages to ditching the regular job - but many people will be too excited by these prospects to actually find out how to start and run a freelance writing business properly.
This article will help you to look at the situation objectively, giving practical tips and advice on how to develop from a freelance newbie into a freelance veteran.
Getting the wheels in motion
Fools rush in. Although going freelance is exciting, there’s no need just yet to slap your current employer in the face with a resignation letter. There are different ways of juggling your writing work with your day job which you may not have considered.
For example, employees in the UK have a legal right to request flexible working hours (aka ‘flexitime’).This is when employees are required to work for a specified period, but lets them otherwise arrange their hours to suit themselves.
Many modern offices are actually pretty happy to support employees on their out of work pursuits, as they understand that this helps employee engagement and happiness. Unfortunately, they aren’t obligated to accept your request.
You could alternatively try speaking to your boss about the possibility of going part time, or even job-sharing. The hours you gain could be incredibly helpful for finding clients, building your brand name, or researching the deeper areas of your industry, and the guaranteed income is certainly nothing to sneer at.
Be aware that even though your employer doesn’t need to know about your second job, the taxman certainly does. HMRC recommends that you inform them as soon as your business starts trading, and giving yourself a headstart by understanding what tax you will need to pay as a freelancer is a good idea.
Your tax affairs are entirely confidential and HMRC won’t inform your employer if you also register as self-employed, but be aware that if you register as a limited company your details will come up on searches of Companies House, so your employer - if they really wanted to - could always find out about your sneaky freelance business that way. It's also a good idea to ensure you have all of the necessary legal documentation for starting your business, as this will make your transition into freelance life even smoother.
Good places to find work
A perennial problem for freelance writers is finding steady work. To fill up your calendar effectively you often have to use a combination of resources to search out new clients. Local jobs boards are a good place to start, but there’s great gigs on offer if you know where to look - here are a few of our favourites.
If you’re a writer, Contently is worth investigating. Their main schtick is providing portfolios, but there’s a whole agency setup lurking behind the scenes, connecting brands looking for content marketing expertise with writers. Also, rates per article are often exceptionally high.
The private members club of freelance job sites, OnSite is an invite-only network for the digital crowd. Project Managers, Developers, Designers and the like will find quality, curated jobs from top brands and agencies. If they can get in, of course.
Freelance journos may well frequent Journalism.co.uk anyway, and while their jobs section features mainly permanent positions, there is a whole other section of the site where freelancers can list their services and location, letting editors quickly find and hire reporters for one-off stories or ongoing work.
Specialist or a generalist?
In the early days of freelancing, you may feel like you have to be an all-star player. But this means you need to take on everything: all projects, all clients, and all challenges. While this approach may supersize your skill set in the short-term, it won’t boost your bottom line long-term.
As your writing takes off, so should your plans to find your niche. This will mean turning away projects that don’t quite fit the mould (yes, you read that right). Rejecting work will become just as important as accepting work.
If you’re not specialising, you’re generalising, which means you can probably do a good job. But your clients want (and deserve) a great one.
If you want to put clear daylight between you and your peers, it pays to be a specialist freelancer. Aforementioned freelance website Upwork published research suggesting specialist freelancers, such as finance writers, were among the highest paid freelancers in the UK.
Outsourcing is a risky business. A new client doesn’t know you from Adam, so when they hire you they’re taking a calculated risk. Going down the niche road signals to a client that you’re a lower risk; you have specialist knowledge and experience of the client and their business.
It also means you can potentially become the “go-to” professional in that space, attracting even more clients because they know you’re a trusted expert in their line of work. As a specialist, you’re not only more likely to be hired, but also charge more for your services.
Calculating your rates
Working out a sensible and competitive rate to charge for a day’s work can be tricky, particularly in a saturated market like the writing industry. Following these tips ensures you get paid the right amount for your skill set and location.
Firstly, ask yourself how you want to appear to your potential clients. Are you providing a premium service, or something a bit more straightforward? Of course, you don’t want to overcharge, but pricing yourself too low could mean you’ll need to work long into the night and often through weekends to achieve your desired income.
Don’t fall into the trap of just dividing the amount you want to earn in a year by the number of working days, as you’ll end up short-changing yourself. Remember to take into account any other outgoings that will affect your net pay.
For example, if you forecast a very optimistic schedule of 250 work days in your first year, a £100 day rate would give you revenue of £25,000. But after taking deductions for tax, online subscriptions, insurance, and other inevitable expenses into account, you’ll be in for quite the shock when you see how little you’re actually left with.
To avoid making such a mistake, simply add 20% on top of your desired salary for tax, a predicted sum for expenses and holiday, and divide the total by your working days - giving you a much better deliberated day rate. Don’t forget to allow for pension payments too.
Add 10% on top of this when you give a quote, then if you need to negotiate, taking this off will still leave you with the rate you’re looking for. Unless the job is an exceptionally valuable gig for your portfolio, we wouldn’t recommend doing yourself the disservice of accepting work for less than your day rate.
To calculate your hourly rate, divide your day rate by the amount of hours you aim to work each day. Remember that to make up your desired day rate, you’ll either need multiple gigs a day, or a higher hourly rate to compensate for the gaps in your calendar.
Other payment methods
Telling the client what specific services you will provide and agreeing on a budget means that you can judge each individual project based on the time and labour it requires. Great news if you get it completed quicker than expected, but not so much if the project drags on.
Rather than being paid per hour, many freelance writers and their clients operate on a per-word basis. A sensible way to calculate your word rate is to take your desired hourly rate, and divide it by how many words you’d usually write in an hour - but it’s important not to sell yourself short. If the project will involve many hours of research, travel, or interviews, charging by the hour or day are wiser options.
As with deciding on a day rate, make sure you also factor in your lack of sick and holiday pay, as well as your tax, pension contributions, etc.
Most companies prefer to have a reliable freelancer on standby rather than scour the net for new talent every time they need a writer. A properly drafted and executed ‘retainer’ agreement allows you to wave goodbye to relying on ad hoc projects, and instead home in on clients you’re interested in working with long-term.
How to increase your rates
As a freelancer, there’s obviously no boss or HR department to make the judgement for you - so you have to be the one to make the call if you want a pay rise. See what your more upmarket competitors have to offer and where you differ - don’t risk losing out on pay because you’re too shy to up your rates.
If it turns out that you’re being paid less than the average writer in your field, consider why this might be. Think of yourself as a commodity. How available are your skills in the market, and how easy will it be to replace you? Is there certain expertise that you don’t offer, which others do? It may be the case that you need to position yourself as an industry expert.
Give your regular clients plenty of advance warning if you’re going to be charging more. Nobody likes an extra expense coming out of nowhere, and this will at least allow them to budget accordingly.
However, if you are asking for more money, you need to explain why you deserve it. Your justification for wanting more money might be because you want to take on less work, but your clients will only really want to know what’s in it for them.
Explain to them briefly what sets you apart from those charging less. Be bold - confidence in your own business will win you far more clients than trying to please everybody.
Tax relief can be claimed on anything that is necessary and essential for your duties. This covers equipment like laptops, business cards, and telephone and internet usage (keep a copy of your itemised telephone bill!) You can also claim reasonable relief towards the cost of furniture, for instance a comfy chair so you don’t damage your back.
HMRC defines allowable expenses as being ‘wholly and exclusively’ incurred in the performance of your duties, so as long as the items are not too frivolous (sorry, no coffee machine) you won’t have to pay National Insurance or income tax on it.
As a freelancer you may often fork out for travel, accommodation, and subsistence, should you need to, which are all claimable as business expenses alongside payments relating to your business for services like accountancy, advertising, or insurance. If you’ve got kids, HMRC deem childcare vouchers acceptable to claim on. You’re also entitled to a tax relief on things relating to your physical well-being, like medical insurance and eyesight tests / glasses.
Travelling to work
Although you’ll probably not be venturing too far from home to carry out your work as a writer, be aware that you can claim 45p per mile on the first 10,000 miles of business travel in the tax year. After that, it goes down to 25p per mile. Motorbikes differ slightly with a blanket rate of 24p per mile. It may come as a surprise to many, but you can also claim 20p for each mile travelled on a bicycle.
Avoid excessively using taxis, as HMRC don’t tend to accept these as necessary expenses. Tolls, congestion charges, and parking fees (not fines!) are all allowable, but as always make sure that you keep all your receipts and a mileage log.
How do I go about actually claiming?
Keep accurate records of every transaction as proof of your costs. January 31st is Self Assessment deadline day - so you have until then to get all your paperwork in order and sent off.
When it comes to filling in your Self Assessment tax return, add up all your allowable expenses for the tax year and insert the total amount. You don’t need to send in proof of expenses, but always keep proof and records.
Keeping expenses down
When you’re starting out, you’ll probably be most concerned with minimising expenses, which means you’ll most likely be working from home. If seeing the same four walls starts to drive you nuts you could try working in a park or at a friend’s house rather than in an expensive café or coworking space, although these are also great places to knuckle down.
Bit of a bonus tip here - if you stay on top of your tax affairs and are able to pay your Corporation Tax bill early, HMRC will actually give you some of it back in the form of interest.
Most businesses have been affected by late payments; but none are disadvantaged quite as directly as single-person businesses such as writers.
It can be incredibly frustrating to be rushed around, but not receive the same urgency when it comes to coughing up the money you’re owed.
Clients can be hard to win and easy to lose - but you must never be timid about getting paid for your work. Having fixed procedures in place will reinforce your professionalism, and might even increase your client’s trust in your service.
Invoice and chase letters
It’s unlikely the client is being tardy just to spite you, so a polite reminder should always be the first course of action. Drop them a quick email and ask for a confirmation of receipt, so you know someone is dealing with it. This would usually ensure the transaction is made in a speedier manner.
If a week goes by and still no payment, a firm reminder is appropriate. Pick up the phone and ask them again to confirm the invoice has been received. Keep notes of any calls or emails from the client regarding payment so you have the record of the broken promise to reference later on. Hopefully you won’t need to, but it’s good practice.
If another week of silence goes by and your requests are falling on deaf ears, it’s time to show you are really serious. From day 15 to day 30 you should make regular contact with the client by telephone to ascertain the reason for the delay. Tell your client that it’s your policy not to produce any further work until this issue has been rectified.
This may seem harsh on all accounts, but if this happens again next time, will you be able to cover your costs? Whilst you may have built up a strong personal relationship with the client, you are better off spending your time looking for clients who actually pay their freelancers.
Getting a third party involved
At this point you might be tempted to jump on Twitter and go to town on your client - but do consider first how this may come across to potential clients, who probably want to avoid anyone who is prone to drama, regardless of whose fault it is.
If you have exhausted all reasonable routes to securing payment, enlisting an agent to assist in recovery of funds will free up company time to concentrate on other clients.
Always seek out recommendations from other freelancers or an accredited body (such as the CSA) before making any rash decisions which will potentially cost you customers and return business.
If in doubt, treat a potential supplier the same as a potential customer - show due diligence and thoroughly investigate any references and licences held.
A good agency will have the experience and procedures in place to rapidly escalate your claim for payment and will be able to advise you on the best way to approach the recovery. Typically you’ll not be expected to pay for the time spent in recovery as many agencies offer a no collection, no commission service.
Overall, the best practice is to simply ensure that good clear communication and documentation is maintained from the outset of the work you undergo for a client. This means that if the client does give you the runaround, you know that you’ve done everything correctly from your end – and that you can prove it.
Bookkeeping is far from the most glamorous part of freelancing, but it becomes far more difficult than it has to be when it’s left until the very last minute.
A big no-no is to hide all your receipts in a box and retrieve them with a few hours left before the tax deadline. No amount of hair-pulling and bad language will help you in this situation. A year’s worth of bookkeeping in one sitting is a hefty task, but split over 52 weeks the same task becomes much less daunting.
Set aside half an hour every week to send invoices, record expenses, reconcile your bank account, and chase overdue payments. It’ll take some perseverance, but it’ll soon become second nature, and when you come to file your taxes you’ll be thankful that you thought ahead of time. This way you’ll always have a good idea of your tax bill, reducing the risk of being stung by the taxman at the end of the year.
Aside from making you a more organised person, a solid bookkeeping regimen will also remove those niggling financial worries that are so commonplace for business owners. Will you be able to afford your tax bill this year? Up-to-date books will tell you this and more.
21,027 self-employed individuals submitted their tax returns between 11pm and midnight on deadline day in 2014, according to HMRC. Think of all the stress and lost custom these folks put themselves through - don’t be one of them.
Avoid common pitfalls
You’re naturally working as a freelancer because you enjoy it - but when it comes to receipts, never mix business with pleasure. Leafing through endless transactions to find a specific payment will be much more infuriating if you don’t know which ones are personal and which are for your business.
Once you’ve claimed an expense, don’t bin the receipt. If the taxman decides to audit you they can go back as far as six years, and you’ll need to be able to make the case for each and every expense.
It’s a good idea to scan or photograph your receipts and back them up online somewhere to avoid them getting lost or worn out. The Google Drive and Dropbox mobile apps do an admirable job of scanning and converting receipts and paperwork to PDFs.
Once your paperwork is safely backed up online you can de-clutter with confidence -
as HMRC accepts scans of receipts if the physical copy isn’t available.
It’ll always be tempting to try and keep your operation down to as few heads as possible, so it’s understandable why so many self-employed people try to take care of everything by themselves. As most discover, keeping all the finances in check as your business grows is not just a real pain in the neck, it also gets in the way of your actual work.
The moment stressing out over the paperwork costs you business, it makes sense to consider appointing an accountant. By putting an expert in charge, you’re freeing yourself up to run your business how you imagined it would be without all the complicated number crunching getting in the way.
Dealing with writer’s block
Imagine writer’s block like a catapult - sometimes you have to get stretched really far back before gaining enough momentum to advance forward at high speed.
Inspiration can come from anywhere, but if you’re stuck between the same four walls all day, you might find yourself treading the same old ground creatively. Head out to a park, a library or a café and do some people-watching. Gain inspiration from the folks around you. What are their stories?
You may not even need to leave the house - according to a study from Stanford University, even walking on a treadmill indoors, facing a blank wall can do the same thing for your creativity as going outside. The physical motion is perhaps more important than the change of scenery.
Trying to be a perfectionist can be one of the main causes of a creative slump. Once you loosen your inhibitions, you may eventually inspire yourself to come up with some truly awesome stuff, if not a bit bizarre. Don’t be afraid of writing a load of rubbish.
Author of The Art of Work, Jeff Goines, says ‘You overcome writer’s block by writing’, and of course this can be applied to all creative arts. It’s not wasted time if you’re flushing out your bad ideas - and somewhere within one of your bad ones might be the foundations of a good one.
If you can’t get in the right frame of mind, maybe now isn’t the best time for the task at hand. Clear your mind by running a bath, doing some yoga, shooting some zombies, however you like to relax. Don’t get yourself down - everyone gets writer's block, and it will pass.
Work / Life balance
If you never seem to have any time to yourself, or you start to get complaints from loved ones that they never see you - it may be time to evaluate whether you need to take a step back from the laptop for a little while.
We recommend experimenting with different working patterns. Many parents work during the day and late at night so they have time to spend with their children in the afternoon and early evening. If you’re a early-riser, you could use that morning energy to get your emails and paperwork done before having breakfast with the family.
A recent study by IPSE found that almost 90 percent of freelancers say they are very satisfied with the way they work, and freelancers around the world routinely score higher in happiness surveys than their full-time counterparts.
But all the bookkeeping, the networking, the irregular hours, the cashflow forecasting—is for nothing if you don’t remember to enjoy the freedoms that come with freelancing.
Getting the correct advice
If you’re considering starting your freelance writing career and have any further questions or need some support in your startup journey, get in touch with our team of experts who are always on-hand to help.