Invaluable Freelance Writing Career Advice from Leigh Ann Hubbard

Leigh Ann Hubbard is a freelance writer with a specialization in senior care, aging, and health who has been working in the field for over ten years.

Below, Leigh Ann expounds the various facets of a freelance writer's life, including the benefits of specialization, methods for finding and maintaining clients, income levels one might expect, crucial qualifications, and methods for setting sustainable rates.

What prompted you to specialize in health, aging, and senior care as a freelance writer?

Leigh Ann HubbardMy first big gig was managing editor of a health magazine my dad launched. Eventually, the magazine started targeting people 55 and older. So when I began courting other clients, health and aging were the strongest niches I had. I targeted a lot of businesses in those categories.

The first client I got outside of the magazine was a senior-care website. Then, I started getting other clients in the same niche. Now, most of the writing I do is in senior care. I’m grateful to have found a niche I enjoy learning and writing about. It’s one that’s rewarding but that I wouldn’t have predicted.

Does having a specific area of expertise help you get more work?

Yes. People regularly seek me out when they need a writer with my expertise.

Would specialization be a tactic you would recommend to other aspiring freelance writers?

I’d recommend it to freelance writers in general. Benefits include a potential for higher pay and working fewer hours on each project because you don’t have to start researching from scratch—yet delivering high-end work that nails the client’s needs. Specializing also helps you stand out from the (large) crowd.

Leigh Ann HubbardHowever, when you’re just starting out, you need clients—any clients. And you may not know what you want to specialize in. So you might send queries in a few of your favorite subject areas and see what sticks.

In the beginning, don’t be afraid to take on whatever subjects and types of writing are thrown at you. That will help you discover what you want to specialize in. It will also give you a well-rounded background. Just because you’re a specialist doesn’t mean you can’t do projects outside your niche.

You can specialize not just in subjects but in types of writing. I’m an expert in Web writing, for example. Another potentially lucrative specialty to check out is copywriting.

How much of your time is devoted to writing and producing work versus finding new clients?

Probably about half the hours I work are billable. But right now, I don’t spend a lot of time seeking out new clients. I focus more on keeping current clients happy and keeping my general marketing efforts (website, Facebook, Twitter) up-to-date.

Where do you find most of your work and clients (or how do they find you)?

I landed my first clients through direct emails. I never had luck with online gig listings. Too much competition.

Now, I think clients find me through my articles and blog posts on various senior-care websites. I’ve also optimized my LinkedIn profile.

However they find me, they almost always end up on my website and contact me through that. I believe a good website is a must-have.

Many people have no idea what full time, professional freelance writers can expect to make. What annual income might a fledgling freelance writer expect in his or her first year?

Very, very general guess: If you work at this full-time, you’ll probably make around $20,000 or less your first year. The first six months in particular can be rough.

Does a freelance writer's income rise significantly over time?

Yes. As you find more clients, raise your rates and learn how best to market yourself, hopefully relatively soon, you’ll be making $30,000, $40,000 a year, maybe more.

Your jobs encompass traditional journalistic roles (as managing editor for "My Family Doctor" magazine, which used to be a magazine but has since transitioned to web content only) as well as more modern roles (such as a freelance blogger and web content creator). Which roles pay better?

It depends. Today, traditional journalism roles usually don’t pay that well—especially at newspapers. But some freelance writers work for rates so low that they seem to get paid even worse.

When freelancing, try not to fall for the undercutting temptation. You may work for ultra-low fees starting out, to get experience, but work your way out of that as soon as you can.

So in the beginning of your career, traditional journalism may pay better. But whether it does in the long run is somewhat up to you.

Which do you enjoy more- freelance writing or more journalistic work?

My role at the magazine was as a freelancer, but it was closer to traditional journalism jobs than what I do now. Before that, though, I interned at a newspaper and worked a short while at CNN.

I enjoy freelancing more because I’m my own boss. I set my own work hours; I can travel anytime. (Granted, my vacations are almost always working ones.) I could even pick up and move tomorrow.

Traditional journalism does have its perks. You see colleagues every day. (Freelancing can feel isolating to some.) You have a regular paycheck. And when a big event happens, I’m a little jealous of those breaking news folks—all that excitement—the deadlines, the rushing, the gathering of information. But these days, be prepared to be overworked.

Many people are not familiar with the qualifications of a professional freelance writer. What do you see as the essential elements of a truly qualified freelance writer?

Besides being a good writer (good grammar and organization skills, etc.) and being a reliable professional who’s great to work with, I would list:

  1. Experience. If you have none, perhaps start your own blog, or write for friends’ websites or businesses. As a hiring editor, I’ve even looked at short stories. You need clips.
  2. Knowledge about the type of writing you want to do—typical techniques, organization, style, etc. Understand the basics, and you’ll keep learning as you go.
  3. The ability to meet deadlines consistently. Also, for article writers: good research and interview skills.
  4. The ability to motivate and supervise yourself.

It’s also good to understand how to market yourself.

What is one commonly-overlooked aspect of being a freelance writer that those looking into the profession should consider carefully before moving forward?

The feast-or-famine cycle that happens especially when you’re starting out. Have a savings plan. Maintain backup funds. Live below your means. Work up to having at least six months—maybe up to a year—of savings. If you want, freelance on the side while you keep your day job at first.

How would you recommend setting rates when you’re just starting out?

The Editorial Freelancers Association offers a pretty good idea of typical rates (though I find the upper ranges a little low). The rates you’ll see on freelance writer bidding sites are generally considered extremely low. Don’t go by those unless you’re just wanting clips and experience.

To determine the minimum hourly rate you need to make a living, divide how much money you need a month (which will be more than what you make as an employee) by how many billable hours you can work per month. Keep in mind that if you live in a cheaper area of the country, that doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t charge as much as someone who lives in New York City.

Most writers recommend charging by the word for most projects. (Charging by the hour penalizes you if you’re fast.) You can still time yourself when working on projects to see what hourly rate you’re ending up at.