• Advice

7 habits of successful freelance writers

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Writers who tend to make a sustainable career for themselves share certain habits.

Here are 7 of them:

They read

Great writers not only read for pleasure in their formative and later years, filling their minds with great ideas and great voices. They also read like a writer, meaning that they use other great writers to teach them lessons about the craft. A writer who's reading another writer won't simply think, "wow, this is a great paragraph or sentence," but will take things a step further, asking "what was it about this paragraph or sentence that worked?"

Oh, and by the way, what can I steal/borrow/adapt/integrate/absorb/emulate/copy ("you say potato, I say potata") in order to improve MY writing.

A voracious appetite for reading will teach a writer about all the available options the craft presents, and allow that writer to find what works best for them. Reading taught me that I admire the ornate, often poetic prose style of F. Scott Fitzgerald, but I prefer to write in the lucid, humble, pared-down style of George Orwell.

They don’t follow formulas

Writers find a way to get from point A to B, and to bring their readers along with them. Creativity means you can do this in multiple ways, that you can surprise readers with humor, poetry, insights into the human condition, empathy, and more. Writers are challenged to make things new, to do things differently, constantly. If they don't, readers get bored and stray to cute cat videos (we're all weak when it comes to fluffy kittens).

Content is everywhere and attention spans are shrinking. Creativity is needed now more than ever. Alas, most writers seem to be following a formula of what worked to get the most clicks last year or last month. Readers tire quickly, and last month has a shelf life of about two minutes. Bring readers something different, and you'll have their attention.

They learn

The world is moving so fast these days, and having the ability to adapt and learn new things is a core skill every writer needs. When I was a child, I dreamed of being a print journalist -- and I did that. But now the world is different. Readers have moved away from print, along with advertisers and revenues. I've also moved away from print journalism, but continue to use my journalism skills as a brand storyteller. If you asked me six years ago what a brand storyteller was, I wouldn’t have known. I'm still learning, still adapting.

Does the fast pace of change frighten me? You bet. Does it thrill me? Yep. Will I need to keep learning new things every single day, about myself, about others, about business, about the craft of writing? Yes, a thousand times yes.

They network

The idea of the writer working alone in a basement somewhere is long gone. Writers need to be out there networking, making connections with other writers, potential clients, editors, entrepreneurs, and everyone else. Writers are as much a part of the business community as everyone else, and they need to be skilled at building solid social and business relationships. A solitary writer isn't just blocked in her career, but may face health problems too. You can't permit yourself to be isolated.

Others need you, and you need them. We have things to teach and learn, all of us. Go to events and talk to people. Try to listen 75 percent of the time and talk 25 percent of the time. Trust me, people remember listeners far more than talkers. Try to help someone by offering insights and your time. Don't just look for "important" people -- that shows you're a user. Think sharing. Try to remember and use names, say "hi" to people in the elevator, smile and nod at strangers. This is all networking, and will not only pay financial "dividends" but can make you happier and healthier too.

They work hard to meet client needs

You need to write well, of course, but you also need to work well with clients. Understand what your clients want. If you don't know, try asking them. Brand storytelling is a service job -- first you serve your readers, but you also serve your clients who seek to serve the same readers. Be responsive to requests. Do favors when you can.

Approach every assignment with the same professionalism and drive. Just because you're creative doesn't mean you get to kick back and lord it over everybody. Be professional at the very least, and always be nice when you can. Your clients will appreciate it, and keep coming back to you. Nobody likes to work with a jerk, whether that jerk is a plumber, a personal trainer at the gym, or a prima donna writer.

They restore themselves

Writers are people too, and can feel overworked and stressed out. Creativity requires actual thinking and executing upon ideas, and is draining on one's mental energy. You need to take breaks that restore your energy and creative juices. For example, I might write for three hours in the morning. Then I stop for lunch. I typically write my hardest pieces in the morning. After lunch, I write something easier, which requires less research and thinking. This system has worked for me. If I'm feeling tired, I might sleep late and arrive at the office around 10am. I listen carefully to my body, tracking my energy and creativity. As a writer, I need these resources badly, so I need to restore after I've emptied the tank. I'll go for a walk. Hike a mountain trail. Have a long lunch with a friend. Play a video game or listen to Bob Dylan. Go outside and listen to birds, or meditate, but do what you can to slow down, empty your tired brain, and remain creative.

They know when to stop a list of seven habits, as I will do here

Readers are busy and have other things to do with their day. Now it’s your turn to share, dear reader: what habits keep you creative and energized?

Comment below . . .

Boston-based Chuck Leddy is a business writer and brand storyteller for B2B brands such as General Electric, ADP, Office Depot, Cintas, the National Center for the Middle Market, and many more. He's also been published in print publications such as the Boston Globe and San Francisco Chronicle.