Tips from the Trenches:
If I Only Knew Then What I Know Now …

You want to know my favorite thing about “living the writer's life?”

It's freedom.

I'm the kind of gal who jokes that she could never have a “real job.” Being a self-employed SEO copywriter has allowed me to travel the world (often on someone else's dime), work the hours I want, and make some pretty good cash. For a self-described “highly stubborn” woman who requires total flexibility, I can't imagine doing anything else.

At the same time, living “the writer's life” has its own challenges. You will realize your greatest strengths and discover your greatest weaknesses. You will hit incredible, exhilarating highs as the clients and cash flow grow. And, you will hit incredible, devastating lows – many of which can be minimized. After 15 self-employed years (12 of them in SEO copywriting), here's what I've learned …

  1. Find a mentor. I used to be a “go it alone” kind of gal. Now I know that having a business mentor is an incredible experience. Not only can you ask them administrative-type questions like, “How do I set up my books,” and “How should I plan next quarter's goals,” but you can also crawl to them when you're insecure, frustrated, and need someone to give you a fast boost of self-esteem. If I could do it all over again, I'd find a mentor much sooner than I did.
  2. Know that failure is, actually, okay. It doesn't feel good. And it's not fun. But, if you're not failing, you're not trying new things. Heck, I've failed (sometimes, in a very public way) and survived. At the same time, I think I would have launched more products and done more things had I been less afraid of failure. Having said that …
  3. Keep looking forward, not back. So you lost a bid that you “should” have gotten. Or you made a mistake with a client. Big deal. We all make mistakes. Ruminating on them, wondering “what if,” and rewriting history won't do anything but spin your wheels and drain your energy. Besides, you'll need that energy for …
  4. Exercise. Seriously. Do it often – every day if you can. I wish someone would have told me 10 years ago that my writing would be sharper, better, and faster after just 60 minutes of Pilates and cardio. Instead of the time-suck I thought it was, I actually have more time in the day – and my brain doesn't have that “foggy feeling” at 5 p.m. Plus, my back doesn't tighten up after eight hours of typing anymore.
  5. Plan your vacation time – and actually take it. Doing what you love can be highly addictive … and that addiction isn't always healthy. A huge trap as a self-employed copywriter is thinking, “I can work from anywhere – so I can mix business and pleasure.” That's nice for most vacations, but know that you'll need time (gasp) AWAY FROM THE COMPUTER. Why? Because your revenue depends on your ability to stay creative, mentally alert, and calm. If you fall into the trap of “working all the time,” you will start resenting what you do. Getting away from the office gets harder. And, the work becomes much less fun. Schedule your vacation three (or more) months out and take it. Don't let anything stand in your way (especially clients with last-minute deadline requests). I still don't take vacation time as much as I should, but I'm getting better.
  6. Take supreme, selfish care of you. About five years ago, my doctor said, “You can take a week vacation, or you can go into the hospital. Pick one.” Prior to that, I had no idea that my go-go-go lifestyle was as harmful as it was. If a client needed me, I was there. If there was a new speaking opportunity, I was on a plane and crossing multiple time zones. No matter what, it catches up with you. Remember, YOU are your business, so taking care of yourself is crucial. Eat well. See friends. Work when the Muse strikes you and your energy levels are good. If you burn out, your writing will suffer – and so will your mental state. Remember that no one can take better care of you than you.
  7. Take care of your finances. It's easy at the beginning of your copywriting career to leave financial planning on your “to-do” list. Wrong! I wish someone (like a business mentor) would have sat me down 12 years ago and prepared me for some harsh financial realities. In any business, there are months when you're making money hand-over-fist … and months when the phone barely rings. It's natural and normal and predictable – but for goodness sake, make sure that your financial rear is covered. Set aside money for taxes. Open a savings account. Plan for your retirement. Getting a firm grip on your finances now will help prevent (expensive) mistakes later – and you can start acquiring wealth rather than accumulating debt.
  8. Listen to your gut. Ever think, “Hmm, this client seems flaky. Maybe I should pass on the gig?” Yeah, so have I. And I lost about $7,000 when the client didn't pay me. Sometimes you won't have any idea why an idea seems “wrong” or a client “just isn't right.” Know that you have an intelligent inner voice guiding you – and all you need to do is listen.
  9. Get (legal) help. I skipped this step for years figuring I could “evaluate my own contracts.” Yeah, right. That worked really well until a client cancelled a gig and I was stuck with no recourse. Just know that clients will throw the darnedest things in their contracts. I've seen a bad contract cost someone tens of thousands in legal fees – almost bankrupting them. I've seen writers get stuck in an endless revision loop because the client wants “just a few more changes” – and nothing in the contract specified how many revisions the client could ask for. It may seem “too expensive” to hire an attorney. At the same time, I don't know what I'd do without mine. It took me five years to find him, and he's worth every penny.
  10. Form a network of people who “get you.” Ever have friends with “real jobs” say, “It must be nice to stay home all day and watch television.” Being a self-employed SEO copywriter means that you're doing “stuff” every day that most people don't “get” (and yes, that unfortunately includes our spouses and partners). Make friends (either online or in-person) with copywriters, designers, and other creative folks. During the times you need to blow off some steam – or share your successes – your professional posse will be there for you.
  11. Experience extreme gratitude. I used to think that “anyone” could do this. Now I know that those of us living the writer's life are a special breed. We can work from home and enjoy our families. We can decide to work a little harder for extra vacation money. And, we can live the life we really want to live. This has been an amazing journey and I'm grateful for it every single day.
The Professional Writers’ Alliance

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

At last, a professional organization that caters to the needs of direct-response industry writers. Find out how membership can change the course of your career. Learn More »

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Published: June 15, 2010

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