Q&A: Mindy Long on Building a Porfolio as a Freelance Writer

December 19, 2011 · 3 comments

Lots of writers are looking to make a living from freelancing, whether out of choice or obligation. But going it on your own as a writer isn’t as easy as it looks. So whenever I meet someone who’s doing it successfully, I want to learn how.

Freelance writer Mindy Long

That’s why I invited Mindy Long here today. A full-time freelance writer, Mindy (who’s on Twitter as @mindywrites) launched her business three years ago so she could work around her son’s schedule. Since then, her business and her family has grown. She’s now the mother of two and has a full roster of clients and writing projects. And she’s gracious enough to tell us how she does it all!

Welcome, Mindy! When we last talked, you let me know your freelance income has surpassed your full-time income at your last job. How did you make that happen?

When I decided to hang my own shingle, I knew I had certain financial milestones I would need to meet in order to freelance, so initially I focused on securing long-term projects with companies that already knew the quality of my work.

Right out of the gate I was able to get a monthly contract with my then employer simply by asking. I also sent an email to every editor I had ever worked with and was able to get steady work from some of those initial queries. Since then, I’ve had editors refer me to their colleagues and I’ve secured contracts that grew out of chance meetings at alumni events. I think there is work all around us, the key is being brave enough to go after it.

When I went freelance, I was scared I wouldn’t be able to make a living at it, so to have surpassed my income while getting to be a full-time mom is something I’m proud of.

What’s your background? What did you do before freelancing?

I have 12 years of experience in both print and broadcast journalism. I was working as the vice president of communications for a national trade association right before I went freelance. In that role, I oversaw the association’s magazine and I did media relations.

My combined experience gives me the ability to write print stories, press releases, brochures and speeches. I think that flexibility definitely helps as a freelancer.

You’ve managed to build your freelance career around your kids’ schedules. How old are your kids, and how do you structure your day to be productive around spending time with them?

I have a one-year-old daughter and a four-year-old son, so they require a lot of attention during the day. My routine has shifted over the years to accommodate nap and preschool schedules. Currently my son goes to preschool Tuesday through Friday and my daughter goes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. That means that Tuesdays and Thursdays are my key days to pack in interviews and calls with clients. I am on the phone almost nonstop between 9:45 and 2:15.

On Wednesdays and Fridays when my son is in school and my daughter is home, I spend time with her in the morning and then pack in calls and email during her nap time in the afternoon. After preschool pickup, the afternoons are spent on the playground and being together as we prepare dinner and wind down for the day. I try to keep Mondays dedicated to family time because both kids are home.

My kids are both in bed by 8:00 p.m., which is when I get down to business of actually writing. It is also when I take care of invoicing and research potential sources.

On the weekends, my husband takes the kids out on Saturday mornings for donuts or pancakes. They love the time with him and I am able to write. I also take advantage of my daughter’s naptime on the weekends by making sure my son has some downtime as well.

I try to avoid being on the phone when my kids are home and awake, but it is inevitable. I’ve come up with certain activities that I know will keep them occupied if I need to find 20-30 minutes to wrap up an interview or proof a story before sending it off. I’ve done everything from tying a Wiffle ball from the ceiling so my son could have some indoor batting practice to bribing both kids with Popcicles.

What types of clients do you take on? How do you find new clients?

Right now I write primarily for trade publications within the transportation industry. For me having an area of expertise means I am a go-to source for clients within this industry. That helps because I have editors coming to me with story ideas and I don’t spend a lot of time pitching stories that don’t get picked up.

I have contracts with three clients — two include writing and editing for magazines and one is for writing a newsletter. In addition to those three, I write for three publications regularly. I have several one-off projects, such as speeches or brochures, that come up about every other month, too.

I think people do business with people, so the key to finding new clients for me has been through face-to-face meetings at alumni events or from asking current clients to refer me to their network. So far it has worked.

A lot of creative types subsidize their passion with other work. Does the work you most enjoy pay most of the bills?

I became a journalist because I love learning new things and working with my sources, which I get to do every day. I would like to branch out beyond what I’m doing now and write for different types of publications and pursue some creative writing projects, but I am certain I couldn’t make as much money at that as I can with the trade publications I write for now. Since my time is so limited, I’ve had to choose to focus on the money.

I think I will have more time to start pursuing other projects in the coming year, especially because my daughter is in school now and my son will start kindergarten full time in the fall.

Now that you’re hitting a major financial benchmark, what are your goals going forward?

My primary focus is maintaining my existing client base and making sure they’re repeat customers. I have a list of “someday projects” that I want to get to, and I also want to devote more time to my blog and share what I’ve learned over the past three years. I know there are a lot of people out there, particularly moms and dads, that would like to chart their own course and set family friendly hours. I know that if I can do it, others can, too, and I’d like to let them know what is working for me.

What tips might you offer for new writers who’d like to launch into freelancing?

Being a freelance writer means you are running a business based on writing, but writing is only a part of what you do. You will spend a good amount of time pitching stories, bidding projects (which you don’t always get), sending invoices and maintaining client relationships. Make sure you have the personality to handle all of those things.

Since the overhead to get started as a freelancer is low, I think people sometimes underestimate how much time they should devote to creating a business plan. Before I quit my day job, I identified my monthly financial goals and determined how many stories I would need to write to reach those goals. I also made a list of every person who could possibly give me work, which was comforting because the list ended up being longer than I’d anticipated.

I don’t know if it would work for everyone, but I gave myself a time limit. I knew I could get by for a year on the money I had saved, and if it wasn’t looking good at the end of the year, I planned to go back to work in an office. That time limit, and my financial needs, made me eager to get my business off the ground.

Thanks for your insight, Mindy!

If anyone has any questions, I’m sure Mindy would be happy to answer them in the comments. Oh, and check out this great post Mindy wrote recently about holiday gifts for writers and writers’ kids.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jessica Sadoway December 19, 2011 at 10:09 am

Thanks for talking about building a business plan! That seems to be the stumbling block to success that too many people have. If Mindy is reading this, how did you write your business plan? Was it formal and did you have templates to work with? Or was it informal, like a list of goals and ideas?

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Mindy December 19, 2011 at 11:04 am

Hi Jessica! Thanks for the questions. I didn’t use a template, but I did include sections on financial goals, potential markets and personal goals. This section on Entrepreneur.com has good recommendations on what to include: http://www.entrepreneur.com/businessplan/index.html. For the financial portion, I calculated the amount my husband and I needed me to make in order to make ends meet. From that I determined how many articles I would need to write each month in order to meet the basic goal. I also included what I called my ‘big audacious goal’ of my ultimate target income, which I just met! As I said, for potential markets I included a list of places I already had contacts, then I listed places I could find new clients, such as alumni events, referrals from existing contacts and writing conferences. I also listed my ‘big audacious goal’ publications I’d like to write for someday. When I first started freelancing, I referred back to the potential market section frequently and made sure I was making contact with people. I’m fortunate because right now I’m at a point when I don’t have to do that, but I like having the list to refer to as needed. I also included a section on marketing, but I honestly don’t devote a lot of time to it right now. I know that with freelancing clients and income ebbs and flows, so I keep marketing on my radar, but I don’t have a set plan I follow.

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