Going Pro: The Business of Professional Freelance Writing

Laura Laing

I’ve told this story a million times: When my freelance writing mentor told me that I should join ASJA, I was surprised that she thought I could get in. I had been freelancing for six years, but even though I had many national clips and was making a living with my writing, I didn’t feel like a professional. How could I, when I was working at home in sweatpants, sometimes not seeing anyone but my family for days at a time? This wasn’t a matter of fact but a matter of confidence.

What does it mean to be a professional? In ASJA, a professional writer is someone who has demonstrated their writing chops—through national clips, contracts with well-known brands or established content marketing companies, book contracts, or published manuscripts. Professional members don’t need to freelance fulltime or make a certain income from their writing. We don’t require any kind of accreditation or degrees. And there certainly isn’t a dress code.

ASJA makes room for non-fiction writers who are starting out, too. Our associate members are on the cusp of breaking into national markets. In January, we’ll launch our student membership program. As the voice of independent writers, ASJA is intent on spreading the good word and helping emerging writers gain a foothold in the freelancing landscape. We know that freelancing can be a fruitful and enjoyable endeavor.

Freelance writers come from diverse backgrounds and experiences. Some of us are full-time parents or have careers outside the home (and even outside writing). Some of us make six-figures from our writing, while others are content to add to the bottom line of our breadwinners. And if you are the mythical freelancer who eats bon-bons on the couch while writing for national publications, brands, or publishing houses, you’re welcome too.

Our programs sometimes focus on how to run a freelance business, because these skills aren’t typically taught in schools and they can be hard to come by on our own. As technology grows, we’re faced with new ways to invoice or track assignments or even meet with sources and editors. Meanwhile, government legislation and policy sometimes loom over our work. Professionals (and emerging professionals) pay attention to these new ways of working. One of ASJA’s goals is to help our members stay on top of these changes and threats.

We freelance writers are also in the customer service business. To be successful, we have to offer solid customer service to our clients. We hand in assignments on time. We provide clean copy that requires little to no editing. We pay attention to word count. We exit bad client relationships gracefully, without burning bridges. We refer our clients to other talented writers and other members to clients we love.

Being a professional is as much about how we work, as it is what we write or who we write for. Because we run our own businesses, we are careful about how we interact with our current and potential clients. We vent in private settings and keep our mouths shut in public. We write scathing emails or social media messages and delete them before hitting send or post. Our reputations are as important as the work we do, and while from time to time it’s important to shout about mistreatment or scams, we do our best to maintain a level-headed demeanor as often as possible. We swallow our pride, look on the bright side, think the best of people—and none of this means that we’re letting people walk all over us. It simply means that we’re picking our fights, looking at the bigger picture.

Professionals are good at drawing boundaries, too. We comb our contracts for egregious clauses, and we’re clear about what we can and cannot offer to a client. We send emails that summarize phone calls. We clarify assignments. We pay attention to learning curves. We set rates that reflect our experience and expertise. We don’t allow editors or clients to gas light us with promises of “exposure.” We know the value we can provide, and we hold that line.

Of course, there is also a dark side to the word professional. Black women are told to avoid natural hair styles, because they’re “not professional.” Queer folks are told that having photos of their spouses or partners in their social media profiles is “not professional.” Those with disabilities are encouraged not to make a fuss when a space (online or IRL) is not accessible. In all workplaces, those who fall outside the privileged power structure are being told that their identities alone are unprofessional.

What ASJA means by professional is that our members are striving to build businesses based on mutual trust and respect. ASJA members are curious and courteous, because we have to be. It’s in the (unwritten) job description. Plenty of journalists, authors, and entrepreneurs are exceptions to this rule, of course, but for every one of those writers, there are thousands who are working steadily at their computers, in sweats or business casual, to provide editors, clients, and ultimately, readers with words that express important ideas. We don’t have to love all of our clients, but we do need to come to each interaction with integrity and grace.

When I first joined ASJA, I got a t-shirt that read, “We Write What You Read.” I wanted, desperately, for my words to be read. I found a home in ASJA, a way to get what I wanted from my career, from my passion. I’ve not always succeeded, but in ASJA, I found hundreds of people who supported me and cheered me on. Absolutely, without a doubt, I am where I am because of ASJA—not only because of the programming, but also because I have been able to put to work the lessons I’ve learned from many of you. Sometimes those lessons have been direct; other times, I watched from a distance what others were doing and emulated it.

For me, this is what it means to be a part of a professional organization. I am deeply proud of being an ASJA member. I am honored to be among some of the finest writers in the country. As always, I invite our current members to get involved and non-members to join us.

Photo by Daniel Thomas on Unsplash