Don’t do this…

The idea for my company What-A-Cheek Enterprises began late one night on The Age subs’ desk when I realised I had forgotten to buy a Mother’s Day card for my mother.

I quickly drew one and copied it in case others had also forgotten, adding a sign: “What-A-Cheek Enterprises presents Mother’s Day cards for last-minute cheapskates.”

I sold out, and from then on I signed all my cards with What-A-Cheek Enterprises, including the invitation to the Accent Christmas party later that year. Accent was the women’s section of the paper, covering social and political issues.

I was acting Editor of Accent that week and in my rush to leave after a busy day I accidentally left the cards by the lift on the editorial floor in the Spencer St building.

I was surprised the next day to find they had been sent to the Managing Director, Greg Taylor, with a note: “Company envelope? Running a company from The Age?”

The Editor, Mike Smith, demanded an explanation. The cards were invitations to our valued contributors to attend the Accent Christmas lunch, I protested.

Mike was satisfied, but I wasn’t.

Outraged that I’d had to justify myself, I drew another cartoon of a man walking ahead with a smug expression and the thought balloon; “I’ve got a company car”, with me following behind with a thought balloon saying: “I’ve got a company envelope.” 

I sent a copy via the internal mail to Mike Smith AND to the Managing Editor Greg Taylor and went downstairs to the cafeteria for a bite to eat.

When I returned there was note on my desk for me to see Mike IMMEDIATELY.

“This is a sackable offence!” he said with red-faced incredulity.

The Union was called to try to intercept the internal mail. Too late: my cartoons arrived promptly on Greg Taylor’s desk the next morning.

“How’d it go?” the Accent editor Rosemary West asked when she returned the following Monday as I was writing my letter of apology. 

I kept my job and vowed that What-A-Cheek Enterprises would be the name of any real company I created.

Several years later in 1995 when I left The Age to start my own business working from home, What-A-Cheek Enterprises was legitimately born.

I had three clients: The Age, which paid me for my weekly column Family Postcard, New Scientist magazine, for which I did a monthly cartoon for the Antipodes page, and Playgrouper magazine, for whom I also did monthly cartoons.

Twelve years later, I had more than 50 clients, including many government, corporate and community groups.

I still worked for The Age writing the weekly editorial to prop up the ads in Saturday’s Health section and freelance opinion pieces.

At the same time, I was Editorial Training Consultant for Leader Newspapers, running the cadet program and responsible for training 120 staff in – would you believe – how to use the internet, among other things. 

News Ltd employed What-A-Cheek Enterprises for a further five years to create training materials and teach journalists online.

What-A-Cheek Enterprises was officially closed in 2012, 17 years after its inception, when I left Australia to live in Singapore.

Freelance life has always been tough, but it’s a lot tougher now as more journalists are out of work and competing in the gig economy with hundreds of others, with no union protection, and where success depends on working “faster, better and cheaper”.

DO THIS…Here’s my advice to anyone starting life as a freelance writer:

10 steps to starting your own freelance writing business

1. Choose a meaningful business name

Choose a business name that informs potential customers about the services you offer. This is your calling card. Any name that doesn’t tell your client what you do is a wasted opportunity. A name like What-A-Cheek Enterprises may have had special meaning to me, but it meant nothing to my clients.

2. Choose your speciality

My philosophy was to say yes to everything and worry about how to execute it later. This was stressful and meant I was often working beyond my real capacity, flying by the seat of my pants. Pitch to your strengths and develop your expertise in those areas.

3. Study the market

If you’re aiming to pitch to certain companies or publications, make sure you understand their deadlines, demographic and the type of content they are seeking.  You don’t want to pitch a story that the magazine ran two weeks earlier.  Think about what they are lacking, too. Perhaps you can offer a solution?

4. Build relationships

This applies to any job, but especially to freelance writers. Employers are more likely to choose writers they know. This can be difficult when you are starting out, but once you get a bite from a client it is a chance to build a relationship.

You get more flies with honey than vinegar. Be pleasant, even charming.  Be human, inquire briefly about their day, but don’t burden them with yours. Be positive. You are the solution, not the problem. Respect their deadlines and don’t waste their time.

5. Aim for quality

Freelancers need to work quickly to meet demand and maximise income, without sacrificing quality.

Before submitting your copy, ensure all names and details are spelled correctly, all your facts are checked, all your links are working, your copy is free of errors, and the brief has been met.

6. Meet deadlines

Reliability beats brilliance any day. Never offer an excuse. Never tell them it will be difficult or that you will need an extension. The only legitimate excuse is a death in the family or illness that is serious enough for you not to be able to sit upright and type.

7. Keep abreast of current affairs

Look for opportunities to make your pitches topical and relevant by keeping up with current affairs. Conflict gives you the opportunity to write about potential solutions. Pitches that are about current issues are more likely to be read by clients and readers.

8. Develop research skills

Copy that is backed by research is more valuable. Use reliable sources (not just other bloggers), and create a network of experts that you can call on for facts and statistics to back your stories.

Many universities have an excellent “find an expert” service where you can tap into lots of fascinating research, while giving exposure to qualified academics. Seek diversity of opinion as much as possible.

9. Accept criticism

If your client prefers something said another way, or shorter, or longer or wants a cut, comply –unless this will make your copy inaccurate or potentially defamatory.  This is about fulfilling the brief, not demonstrating your writing “voice”.

10. Keep records

You will need to keep excellent business records, but it also helps to keep records of conversations and briefs. This will help you check that you are on track and will also provide evidence if there any disputes between you and your clients or those you interview.

Good luck! The best business advice I ever received was that if you want something to happen, tell everyone. Sooner or later someone will be able to help you make it happen. This includes looking for work as a freelancer.