Writers, generally speaking, are rule breakers. We don’t like conformity and therefore, we write. Yet, by our nature, we’re insecure little things and like to be told little rules that we can follow to achieve success in our chosen paths.
Contradictory? Welcome to the life of a writer.
The problem, unfortunately, is for those amongst us who like rules and lists and systems, there are far too many out there that not only stand in the way of our success, but also limit our productivity and the risk-taking that is so essential to success in any writing career.
That’s why I’ve come up with a list of the seven most damaging rules that are going around that I assure you, you’re free to break. And three that I highly recommend you don’t.
Writing Rule #1: Write 1,000 words a day
Why you should break it: While this is a good goal in itself, setting a goal of writing 1,000 words a day can be detrimental to your productivity and your self-confidence if you have only, say, an hour a day in which to do your writing. We’ve all been there. By the time you’ve returned from that part-time job, cleaned the house, fed the kids, put everyone to bed, had about four cups of tea, and decided to sit down to write, you’re wiped out. A thousand words then is a goal so big that it’s almost unattainable. So you shut down the computer and go to bed. You’re not going to hit 1,000 words tonight, so why even bother, right?
What to do instead: Instead of a word count, give yourself a fixed time slot in which to do your writing. In the days when freelancing took up my entire days and I felt I had no time or energy left to give to my novel, I’d show up at my desk every evening for half an hour. Sometimes I slogged through that half hour and wrote about 10 words, but there were other days when I easily touched 1,000. It didn’t matter how much I wrote, however, as long as I showed up every day for that half hour. I finished that novel a couple of months ago.
Writing Rule #2: Aim to earn $1 a word
Why you should break it: The difference between a freelancer and an author is simple: The author does the work once and gets paid for it repeatedly since the book is the product. But when you’re a freelance writer, you are the product. What this means is that you can’t scale up. Your hours are limited and therefore you need to earn as much as possible per hour if you want to make a good income.
What to do instead: Focus on your hourly rate. Whenever you receive an assignment, figure out how long it’s going to take you to do and then divide the total payment you’ve been offered by the number of hours it’ll take you to do the assignment. What’s your per hour rate? Is it something you’re happy with? Could it be better? Do this for every assignment for the next three months and you’ll start seeing patterns. You’ll figure out your hourly rate. And you’ll be able to work your way up more easily.
Writing Rule #3: Don’t burn your bridges
Why you should break it: This is generally very good advice and I’ve followed it in my career, but you know what, it’s not a rule because sometimes you just need to burn some bridges and be done with it. Like when you encounter abusive and nasty editors (it happens), when clients who owe you thousands of dollars refuse to answer your emails and take your phone calls, or when you’ve become part of relationships with editors and other writers in which all you do is give, give, give, and get nothing in return. Burn those bridges. You’re probably never going back over them anyway.
What to do instead: Build relationships with people you like, respect, and trust. You became a freelancer partly so that you wouldn’t have to deal with shitty bosses and crappy colleagues. So don’t.
Writing Rule #4: Don’t mix business with pleasure
Why you should break it: Um, so I suppose now is the time to tell you that I married my editor. We met to discuss work and ten hours later, we were still talking. Not really about work. The thing is, freelancers spend a lot of time inside our own heads and our own tiny offices talking to strangers on the Internet. The only people we see, meet, and often get along with? Other writers and, of course, our editors. It’s not surprising to see how a romance would flourish. In fact, I know two couples that each hooked up on the job. All four of those people happen to be my editors.
What to do instead: Be open to getting on with people, to falling in love, to living life. Just make sure that when you do marry someone you’ve worked with, either set ground rules or take work out of the equation altogether.
Writing Rule #5: Always get a contract
Why you should break it: This is one of those rules you’ll always hear American freelancers say, but if you have clients in Asia and Europe, I’d say there’s no need to be so anal about it. Your email conversation acts as a contract, and let’s face it, if you’re doing business internationally, you’re not going to be taking someone to court for that $1,000 they never paid you. It simply isn’t an efficient use of your time and resources and not only do you know that, but your clients do, too. A lot of business in Asia and even in Europe is done over a handshake and formal contracts only serve to take more rights away from you. (Most publications outside of the US only want first rights, so why complicate that?)
What to do instead: Make sure your e-mails are specific and that you’ve discussed rights, fees, and deadlines before you start work. Even better, do a bit of research on your clients before you start writing for them—ask other freelancers, for instance, about their experiences getting paid and how much time it took.
Writing Rule #6: You Need to Be on Social Media
Why you should break it: So last week a writer told me how she’d been interacting with an editor on Twitter for the last three months and yesterday, she finally pitched him a story idea in a tweet and he accepted. I’ve worked with this editor, as it happens. I don’t like pitching over Twitter. I’d sent him your plain old traditional query letter and landed an assignment. Same result, but two very different techniques. Should you have to choose one over the other? I don’t think so. I’m not comfortable pitching editors over Twitter, partly because I simply don’t like communicating with my editors publicaly but also because no matter how hard I try, I can’t fit my story ideas into 140 characters. So I am on social media, but not much, and certainly not with the intent of getting work. Nor should you have to be.
What to do instead: Figure out the modes of marketing (be that to editors or readers) that work for you and that you’re comfortable with. There’s no point being arm-twisted into having a Twitter or Facebook profile only to find that you resent having to talk to people through it. Find a method of connecting to your audience and your clients that you like, figure out the best practices of that medium, and then use it frequently.
Writing Rules #7: Give your client exactly what she wants
Why you should break it: I’m a journalist at heart, which means I don’t take orders very well. As it happens, I’m also a journalist who lives in countries far, far away from my editors and that means I’m the person who’s closest to the stories and the sources. This means that if my editor comes to me and asks for a story that she thinks exists but that doesn’t, I have to not only not give her what she wants, but… and more importantly… give her something she doesn’t know that she wants.
What to do instead: Talk to your editors. Don’t just take their notes and their ideas at face value. Investigate them. See if there’s any meat to them. It’s great to be handed stories, but in the end, you’re the person reporting them and therefore, the person responsible for verifying that they’re valid.
And the three rules you shouldn’t …
On to my favorite bit, which is the three rules I never break in my writing career and that I think you’d benefit from never breaking, too. Ready for them? Here goes…
1. Say no
My rule is that I should lose at least one out of four assignments offered to me because I’m too expensive. In my opinion, if you land every job you’re offered, you’re either not charging enough or you’re irresistibly charming. Either way, ask for more.
2. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver
I’m a huge fan of taking on new challenges and saying yes to opportunities, even when I’m not confident in my abilities to do them because I know I can learn. But I’m always wary of over-promising because under promising and over delivering is better than over-promising and failing to deliver.
3. Don’t work with people you don’t respect
I learned early on in my career that the people I choose to work with will influence how happy and fulfilled I felt in my career. And so I make it a point to work with people I can respect and look up to.
What are the rules you follow in your freelancing life, and which ones are you happy to break?
Mridu Khullar Relph is an award-winning freelance journalist who has written for The New York Times, TIME, CNN, ABC News, Marie Claire, Ms., and more. She runs The International Freelancer website (www.TheInternationalFreelancer.com) and will happily share 21 of her best query letters with anyone who signs up for her free weekly newsletter.