Ask Alicia: Characteristics Of Professional Freelance Writers

by Alicia Sparks on February 16, 2012

Look at Owen, being all distressed and sad. Get over it!


Dear Alicia,

I’ve never told any of my “online friends” (or any of my clients), but I work part time at a bar-and-grill restaurant in addition to working as a freelance writer.

I manage to keep up my “professional” facade online (I even keep my personal and writing social media sites separate), but I feel like a phoney.

How can I feel more like a “real” writer while I still have a part-time job waiting tables? Also, should I keep my day job a secret from writing clients?



Are you serious?

Owen, Owen, Owen.

First of all, you ARE a phoney. For as long as you keep living two lives, keeping secrets, and using freaking quotation marks around words like professional and real (seriously, what’s up with that?), you will be a phoney.

Second of all, your realness – your authenticity as a professional writer – isn’t determined by whether you do it full-time. Not all freelance writers write full-time.

Sometimes a freelancer will:

  • Have a “day job,” or a job she keeps to have health insurance, to pay the bills until they’re financially comfortable freelancing full-time,
  • Work a part-time job because it gets him out of the house or satisfies some other passion, like working with animals.
  • Work varied hours because he or she has small children at home.

The reasons are plentiful.

You didn’t mention why you have a part-time job and work as a freelance writer, but that’s not the issue here. The issue is helping you determine what sets apart professional and unprofessional/amateur/hobbyist freelance writers.

Abilities Professional Writers Must Have

There’s pretty much no wiggle room on this one. You must have certain abilities to be a professional writer. They include, but aren’t limited to, being able to:

  • Know the language. Don’t apply for an English-Spanish translation gig if your only credit is one high school semester of Spanish.
  • Produce the kind of writing you’re hired to produce. Example: Writing Web copy isn’t the same as writing magazine articles.
  • Use proper grammar and spell correctly. Spell check will carry you only so far.
  • Research. How are you supposed to write about an unfamiliar topic if you don’t know how to effectively research it?
  • Communicate clearly with clients, editors, and leads.

Don’t worry. Having the ability to do something doesn’t necessarily mean you were born with it or were surrounded by it all your life. You can learn these things.

Skills Successful Freelancers Should Have

Like abilities, you can learn and master skills.

  • Manage your taxes.
  • Market your services.
  • Handle administrative work. Examples include following up with leads, tracking queries, and paperwork like freelance writing resumes, contracts, and invoices.
  • Make productive use of downtime.
  • Understand basic technology and programs, like computers and Microsoft Word.

Personality Traits Many Freelance Writers Do Have

Personality traits are a bit trickier…

There are certain traits successful professional freelancers have; some are necessary, others you can work around.

  • Passion. Love what you do, even during those times when you hate it.
  • Organization. Know how to prioritize, set and stick to a schedule, and .
  • Independence. Be comfortable working alone and taking initiative.
  • Persistence. Don’t get easily discouraged.
  • Assuredness. Treat – and present – yourself as a professional.

These are not an exhaustive lists, by any means. Some readers might add their own bits of advice, and you’ll undoubtedly discover a few things as you continue freelancing.

Oh, and to answer your second question: You don’t have to tell your clients anything about your life that’s unrelated to the services you provide them.

So, what say YOU, readers? What abilities, skills, and personality traits have you found freelance writers need?

This post is part of the Ask Alicia series at Learn more, check out some other columns, or shoot me an e-mail directly at alicia [at] writingspark [dot] com (or click here) with “Ask Alicia” in the subject line to ask your own question.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Tania Dakka February 16, 2012 at 10:32 pm

You hit the main points on the head. So many people refuse to call themselves “writers” because they feel like they haven’t been validated by outside sources like loads of client work or a book deal. It’s all hogwash. If you have the qualities mentioned here, then you ARE a writer. Thanks for this post! Maybe some people will read it and actually validate THEMSELVES!

Alicia Sparks February 17, 2012 at 12:06 am

Validated! Such a good word – wish I’d thought to use that! It’s so true. In addition to loads of clients and book deals, there’s also the “But I didn’t go to school for copywriting/sales letters/creative writing/etc.” Blah. If you can do it, YOU CAN DO IT. Sure, it takes learning and practicing, like everything else, but you don’t need a certificate or degree or license “proving” you can do your job. Your work will speak for itself.

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