The business of freelance writing

Aug 28th, 2009 | By | Category: Advice, News


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Self-employment tax form/iStockPhoto

Self-employment tax form/iStockPhoto


A layoff threw Dana Neuts into freeelance writing about six years ago. Persistence and discipline helped her turn freelancing into her main source of income.

The incoming director of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Pacific Northwest region, she spoke at the SPJ convention in Indianapolis today about what she has learned.

Neuts has a business degree, not a journalism degree, and addressed the dollars-and-cents end of freelancing rather than the grammar-and-syntax end.

The first order of business, she said, is to take stock of where you are and where you want to go as a freelancer. In her case, she was in Washington State, far from home, “a single mom, moved across the country, no friends, no family, no job.”

Dana Neuts

Dana Neuts

A half-time job gave her a base from which she launched a freelance career. She started with what she knew, business copy, but has been moving toward what she prefers, health and fitness.

The SPJ fared better financially than some of the other national journalism organizations this summer, but members are still feeling the pinch. One person at Neuts’ session said she wanted to learn about freelancing because “our company could possibly start layoffs next year and I would like to learn about this.” Neuts said, “right now is a good time to be a freelancer. Right now is a difficult time for the journalism industry as a whole, but for freelancing it’s a good time because media organizations still need to fill those gaps.”

She concedes that media companies are looking for less expensive ways to do that.


Neuts said the first step is to draw up a plan for your freelancing business. Freelancers do not need a pitch, as startups would, to entice investors, but they do need to have a solid plan that accounts for costs such as supplies, equipment, fees, mileage, taxes and insurance, as well as the sources of income. The plan should address where that income would come from, the type of work the freelancer wants to do and the time they will commit.

Neuts recommends that someone with even a small freelance business get an Internal Revenue Service business tax ID number. These are fast, free and can be obtained online. They save you the exposure of putting your Social Security numbers on W-9 forms that clients may have freelancers fill out so that pay can be reported on a 1099 form.

She also suggested that freelancers find out whether their state and city require them to have a business license. Some need to be renewed every year, some don’t. Those can be inexpensive, but are necessary. Furthermore, she said she has encountered situations in which the clients’ cities require her to be licensed there, as well. She advises people check with their secretary of state’s office or business licensing division.


As Neuts started her business, she wanted a unique name. She liked Virtually Yours, but found someone else was using it, so she went with Virtually Yourz and bought the www.virtuallyyourz.comdomain and registered the name with her state.

Later, someone started a business on Neuts contacted the company to assert her claim to the name, but after discussions, decided they were not in competition. Lesson learned: When you register a domain name, get a name that you can register with several extensions, even if you don’t plan to use them, just to own the name clear.


More than once, Neuts suggested freelancers reach out for advice. An accountant, bookkeeper and attorney can help with all sorts of issues without becoming huge expenses. She said that turning to local groups of freelancers, classes at community colleges, small-business development programs, local banks, or SCORE can help.

In her region, she recommends the Northwest Independent Editors Guild. There are freelancing groups in many regions and cities, she said.

She also recommended the SPJ freelance directory.


Magazines generally try to set their own terms and have contracts for freelancers. Others might not. Neuts recommends that freelancers work under contracts and have one ready to go when their clients do not.

She worked up her contract by reading samples she found online and then improved it, based on experience. A contract sets down what each party is providing, with dates. She toughened up her contract language to say how quickly she wants to get paid — generally within 30 days — and with penalties for lateness.

In cases where the client made the work much more complicated after the contract was signed, and even when she seriously underbid a job, she has gone back in and negotiated a change in the terms.


Neuts spent 15 years in the financial services industry and has a background in marketing, experience she applies to her freelance business.

Start with a Web site, she said. “The Web site is probably the most important marketing tool that you can have. It holds your background, shows your work, bio and links to clips.”

Web sites are easy to set up and can be almost free. She traded some writing for some Web design to get hers started.

Get business cards for meeting prospective clients professionally. She recommends, which she said is “fast and cheap.”

Neuts buttresses her Web site with lots of activity on networks that she says cost nothing but time. She uses FaceBook, Linkedin,, Digg and StumbleUpon to point people at her work. She also uses, which she said will distribute hundreds of copies of press releases she writes about her business for $37 a month. Similar services, like and help build the buzz and, she said, bring business.

She warned of marketing scams and advised people to check out suspicious sites on the Whispers and Warnings forum on WritersWeekly, which calls itself “the highest-circulation freelance writing e-zine in the world.”


Besides all the sites and service she recommended, Neuts brought copies of two books she said she has relied on.

One is My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hireby her friend, Michelle Goodman.

Neuts also recommended Get a Freelance Life:’s Insider Guide to Freelance Writing
by Margit Feury Ragland.

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