‘Getting Started as a Freelance Writer’ by Robert W Bly

September 15, 2011 in Best Of, Book Reviews, On Writing, Reviews by pacejmiller

Robert W Bly is one of the most successful freelance writers in the world. He earns over US$600,000 a year and was a self-made millionaire whilst still in his 30s. And according to his book, ‘Getting Started as a Freelance Writer‘, you can too. Well, maybe not to that extent, but Bly believes even an average writer can earn $100,000 a year (that’s $400 a day, five days a week for 50 weeks) by simply following the principles he has devised in his book.

So is the book everything it promises to be? Hard to answer. Bly does offer many tips to people who are already freelance writers or are aspiring to be freelance writers, and most of that advice is fantastic and can help you become extremely successful, but it’s not exactly a ‘getting started’ guide as the title suggests. In reality, the book is a guide on how to be a ‘successful’ freelance writer who can potentially make a comfortable living, but if you are a writer with little or no experience in freelance writing hoping this book will provide a miracle shortcut to a cruisy lifestyle then you might be sorely disappointed.

Bly does not sugar coat it — freelancing is hard work. Extremely hard work. To make a comfortable living you’ll need to treat it like a business. You’ll have to make sacrifices. Work 50 or 60 hour weeks. Only get a week or two off a year. Kill your social life. There is no secret formula.

But on the bright side, freelancing does have its advantages. Flexibility. Being your own boss. Write about things you are interested in. Fairly good money. For many people, like me, being able to write for a living is a good enough reason in itself.

Then what does this book offer in terms of constructive advice? There are a few very important points that Bly tries to drill into his readers.

First of all, in order to make good money in freelance writing, you have little choice but to pursue commercial projects — that is, write for businesses. Marketing brochures, technical writing, annual reports, speechwriting, direct marketing, etc. These are the only types of writing jobs that will make you enough money on a regular basis to sustain a comfortable living. Sure, you can submit the occasional magazine or newspaper article, poem or short story, but there’s simply not enough money or regular work to survive on if that’s all you do.

Secondly, marketing and networking are just as important as, if not more important than, your actual writing ability (after all, I did receive this book in the mail from the publisher without asking for it, and Bly makes numerous references to his other guides in the book). It doesn’t matter how fantastic a writer you are if people don’t know who you are. Bly suggests that you treat your freelancing job like a proper business — organised, with proper files, business cards, letterheads, websites, newsletters, and so forth. Networking is also imperative — joining relevant clubs and societies, attending functions, workshops and conferences are all part of the job. You have to be a salesman — you might have to cold call potential clients (ie call them out of the blue), explain to them what you can do for their business, make yourself stand out from the pack. And once you get a client, you have to nurture the relationship to garner more work in the future. It’s exactly the type of stuff that shy, introverted writers might hate doing.

Thirdly, you have to work like a freaking Trojan and understand that time is your most valuable asset. Don’t waste your time doing things that will take you away from your writing. Hire people to do things if they can do it more efficiently than you can — your time is better spent doing what makes you money — ie, writing! For instance, Bly hires assistants to do all the stuff he doesn’t want to deal with, like running down to the post office, researching, negotiating fees and doing the accounts. Since he earns much more per hour than they do, he can afford to do so.

Other tips include specialising in a few niche areas rather than be a jack of all trades (clients prefer specialists, you can charge more, and it cuts down research time if you’ve written something similar before), recycling and reselling your old work, don’t sell yourself short and be persistent in wooing clients and tracking payments.

Now, all of this is fabulous advice — but probably for someone further down the track and with a little bit of writing experience and business savvy. What about the newbies who are genuinely just ‘getting started’? Surely it can’t be a wise idea for someone who hasn’t had much work published to start printing a stack of business cards, hire a secretary and research assistant, writing newsletters and calling random strangers out of the blue.

I suppose that’s the thing that disappointed me most about this book. While it does include a chapter suggesting ‘entry level’ work such as writing for a local newspaper and a couple of other vague ideas, there really wasn’t a whole lot of precise information for the true beginner. There’s probably a good reason for that; most people don’t go straight into freelance writing from an unrelated profession (Bly himself had worked in writing/marketing roles before switching to full time freelancing) but it would have been good to see some more concrete suggestions and realistic ideas on where to look for well-paid work when you’re just starting out.

While I would have liked to have seen more pages on the ‘getting started’ part of the profession, I would have liked to have seen less from the chapters on stuff such as poetry, novel writing and short fiction — areas that didn’t really deserve more than a couple of paragraphs and are covered in much greater depth by other books.

The one undeniably great thing about this book is that it can help you decide whether or not you are really cut out for a freelancing lifestyle. You might read it and think, darn, this is all far too hard and involves too much work I don’t want to do, or you might think, fantastic, I can definitely picture myself doing this for a living. It could motivate you into freelancing or it could scare you out of it — either way, it can assist you in making an informed decision about your future.

As for me — I was very excited when I received the book in the post. Freelancing seemed like the perfect life for a writer, and I had often been told by those in the industry that freelancers had the best of both worlds — write for a living but not being tied down by the constraints of a normal day job. It seemed too good to be true, and as this book has revealed, it kind of is. You really do need a fair bit of experience or have worked in a related industry to be able to jump into a freelancing career.

The most heartening thing about Bly’s book is finding out that being a freelance writer can be a viable career for those willing to put in the effort. Looking around online, all you see these days are content mills paying writers atrocious rates such as a cent a word, or less. However, what this book demonstrates is that there are well-paid writing jobs out there if you know how to find them, if you know how to sell yourself and obtain the all-important contacts for repeat work. It’s not a silver bullet but it could be exactly what struggling and/or writers need to boost their careers.

3.75 out of 5