Many of us who work on a per-project basis refer to ourselves as “freelance writers.” That’s what we are, after all. We’re hired guns, the people you come to when you don’t have someone on staff to write the magic words. Freelance writer is a fine title for use in the writing community. Your fellow writers understand what you do. However, in the larger world, you need a better job description.
Why? Because the term freelance writer is confusing to those who might hire you. Do you write for magazines? If so, which ones? What subjects? Do you write greeting cards, technical manuals, web content, or speeches? Or all of the above? When you put, “Freelance Writer” on your resume, people have no idea what that entails. (Frankly, from what I can tell, most people think it means you sit around in your PJ’s all day and stare at the wall. Or you hang out in a coffee shop.)
When you define yourself as a freelance writer with no elaboration, it’s impossible to differentiate yourself from the crowd. It’s also difficult for others to take you seriously. Back in the day, I called myself a freelance writer at every party and networking event. I thought it sounded cool. Plus, since I wrote in a variety of fields, it didn’t feel confining.
The title generated a lot of smiles and nods and sentiments like, “That must be fun.” But most people quickly moved on. The occasional oddball would ask me to elaborate. “Oh, that sounds fascinating. But what do you do?” Only then would I launch into a description of my actual work.
Needless to say, I didn’t get a lot of work back then. People simply had no idea what they might hire me to do for them. I was a writer. Great. That could mean anything. Most of my gigs were low paying. No one was willing to give me the big jobs because they didn’t think I could handle them. If I were just starting out today, I’d probably have been sucked into the content mills. I just didn’t have a clear idea of what kind of writer I was and what I could offer people. I just wanted to write.
Once it dawned on me that I needed to be more descriptive, I changed my title to, “Freelance Technical Writer,” or just “Technical Writer,” since at the time I was mostly writing user manuals and online documentation.
Over the years I’ve adapted the title to the kind of work I’m doing at any given time, or the type of work I’d like to be doing more of. When I say, “I’m currently writing for financial magazines and blogs,” or, “I’m currently writing grants for non-profits in the environmental sector,” people understand immediately what it is that I do.
Better, they understand what I can do for them.
When you don’t have a clear job description, it’s hard to find work. Most clients don’t want generalists. They want people who specialize in the type of writing they need and the subject matter they cover. If they’re going to pay you the big bucks, they want to know they’re in capable hands, not the hands of someone who dabbles in this or that. (Or stares at the wall all day.)
It may seem that defining your job is limiting. I thought that, too. I thought, “Hey, I do lots of different kinds of writing. If I say I do ‘X,’ I’m never going to get enough work to cover the bills. I have to be everywhere and do everything!” But the opposite actually happened. Once I started specializing in just a few types of writing (and making that clear on my resume and at networking events), I got more work than I could handle.
How? By developing a reputation. I became the go-to writer in certain fields in my local area. People recommended me to others. My name became associated with certain types of work. When people needed my type of work done, they called me. Gradually I added more specialties and worked in more niches, building up a reputation in those fields, as well. It wasn’t an overnight process, by any means, but it has been well worth it.
When asked what I do today, I still keep it to one or two types of writing. My resume is tailored to the client I’m pitching. I can anticipate the types of writing being sought by attendees at most conferences and networking events. (You’re not going to find too many people looking for greeting card writers at a software development conference, for example.)
So give yourself a better job description. Choose the form of writing in which you want to specialize and tell people that’s the kind of writing you do. They’ll immediately understand and you’ll sound like a working professional. You won’t sound like a dabbler who hangs out in coffee shops all day. Once you’ve mastered one speciality, then you can begin adding new ones to your resume.
Call yourself a freelance writer all you want among your writer friends. But when you’re talking to people who can actually hire you, give them an actionable title. It can make the difference between getting hired and just getting a dismissive nod.