The Anatomy of a Freelance Life

I’m currently writing the third book in the A Freelance Writer’s Guide To series, which is entitled A Freelance Writer’s Guide to Setting Up Shop. It’s all about how to set up your business, including the mindsets you need to have, what you need to do first, and how to conduct your first thirty days.

As I was researching, outlining, and creating the content for this book, I realized that no matter how you set up your business, what kind of freelancing you do, or who your target audience is, there are certain aspects of the business that show up across the board.

These, I believe, are the organs that make every small business work, whether you’re a sole proprietor freelancer or the CEO of a successful start-up. However, I’m going to tailor these pieces just for freelancers, since most of you fall into that category.

A Portfolio 

This is, perhaps, the most frustrating part of the freelance life. You can’t get a job without a portfolio, but you don’t have a portfolio because you haven’t gotten a job yet, right? Wrong.

Listen, companies don’t actually care whether or not you’ve written for Good Housekeeping. They don’t. I promise. It’s nice if you have that under your belt, but it’s really not a prerequisite for getting hired.

What clients care about is that you can write. Well. And consistently. Where in the world could you possibly show them that you write well and can do it on a regular schedule?

If the word blog popped into your head, congratulations. You win an invisible stuffed penguin. And who doesn’t love that?

It’s true, though. If you’re lacking in clips, a blog is better than nothing. You’ll want to have a few sample pieces showcasing your best work across several formats. White papers, articles, and blog posts are just a few kinds of content you can have available to show to prospective clients. If your work is solid, they’ll want to hire you.

A Website 

I don’t care what anyone tells you, a website is absolutely essential. Nobody takes anybody seriously anymore if they don’t have a website. All you really need on your site is a welcome page, a portfolio/publications/clips page, your blog, and a “hire me” page. That alone, if well-designed, should be enough to make a solid impression on your prospective clients.

An Invoicing System 

I have a rather rudimentary invoicing system. I keep track of all of my invoices on an Excel spreadsheet, and I invoice using a template in Microsoft Word. However, in the past I have used Freshbooks, and I liked it quite a bit. In fact, it’s my intention to start using it again in the future. However, it doesn’t have to be something fancy. You just need a way to monitor your incoming payments and outgoing invoices, as well as the money owed to you.

Contact List 

Over the course of your freelance career you’ll start to accrue a list of contacts. Editors, prospects, business associates, professional contacts, vendors, and other types of contacts will come your way. You need a system in place to keep track of all these people, categorized the best you can, so you know where to go when you need to get in touch with them. Again, mine is super simple: I use a box with index cards and tabbed index cards marked with various categories.

A Tax Professional 

I’ve been really horrible about this, but I finally got myself a tax pro. She’s fantastic, and I’ve committed to meeting with her at least twice a year. Going into this next fiscal year (in October), I know I will feel so much better having someone who is knowledgeable in the tax code to help me with my business. You can end up losing a lot of money, paying fines, and even being sued if you don’t follow the tax code. Each state is different, so make sure you seek out a qualified tax pro in your area.

Caffeine and Insanity

Okay, this is tongue in cheek. But it’s kind of true. It takes an insane amount of work to get a freelance business off the ground, and it also takes an attitude that some might think is almost too positive. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve tried something that I was certain would net positive results, only to watch it crash before it even left the ground. Upsetting? Sure. But you’re only allowed, like, 90 seconds to whine. Then you have to figure out why it crashed, fix it, and try again. If you’re looking for a cozy, secure life with relatively predictable success, go punch a time clock somewhere. Don’t become a freelancer. If you’re willing to work for your freedom, though, you’re in the right place. Eventually you’ll be able to settle into a rhythm, but it’s a lot of work up front.

Free Time 

I know this sounds like it’s completely opposed to the last point, but it’s not. As hard as you work, you do need some time for yourself, too. It’s very easy to become a workaholic in this business, but it’s not good for you. Take at least one day a week to spend time with friends and family and relax. No work. Otherwise, you’ll burn out really quickly, your work won’t be as high quality, you’ll start to resent your job, and you’ll kill the joy of working for yourself. Killing Joy is not cool. What did Joy ever do to you?


Nothing happens overnight. At least not in business. And especially not in a freelance business. Lots of people told me that I should quit early on because it hadn’t worked in a year. I almost listened, but I’m glad I didn’t. You don’t get a manual when you enter this business, so you have to figure everything out yourself. From scratch. Not only that, but you have to sort through a lot of crappy information in order to get to the good answers, and you’ll probably follow a lot of bad advice before you realize how bad it is. And people expect you to get rich in a year? Please. Have patience, work hard, and keep adjusting until it works, because it can, and it will.

This is not an exhaustive list of all the parts of a successful freelance life. However, these are the things that immediately come to mind as the absolutely essential aspects and attitudes every freelance writer must have in order to make it in this business. Keep trying, keep writing, keep learning, and keep growing. You will get there!

Check out my companion website, A Freelancer’s Guide To. I’m slowly migrating that way, and there’s some helpful information there, as well. I’m building the site, so it’s under construction, but feel free to bookmark it and keep checking back. I’ll let you know when the grand opening happens!

Until next time, happy writing!


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