Why I stopped calling myself a “freelance writer”

Several years ago,  the CEO of a prominent product development services company approached me to help out with copywriting and publicity. I had started my own editorial studio, Wonder Shuttle, and gave myself the job title of creative director. That didn’t matter much, because most of my network still knew me as a freelance writer.

After some proof of work and a small discounted project, we started talking numbers for my actual rates, and when I gave him mine ($250 per hour or so, my rate has multiplied since).

He said that was way beyond the market rate for freelance writers.

Probably working in services himself and having to do a version of that explanation (product development companies offer more expertise, and are often pricier, than offshore or outsourcing app development studios), he understood and made me a good offer.

In addition to putting a small team together, we worked on a bunch of projects beyond freelance writing—obviously on blog posts for marketing and employer brand, on differentiation, building awareness for a hackathon, doing more publicity, amongst many other things. I went into the office at least twice per week.

Eventually, I joined his team as a fractional marketing leader, and I would receive an offer from them to continue working together that included equity. I would be approached to join full-time, for more equity and less cash, which I declined. (When the company was acquired several years later, I cashed the equity out, and that decision was certainly on my mind.) How many freelance writers can talk about an experience like tha

What’s in a job title?

Especially when you’re working as an entrepreneur, a job title really doesn’t matter as much as the value that you can deliver. That being said, in the world we live in, most of us are overworked, stretched to the limits of our personal productivity, and we have very short attention spans for things we don’t understand. We often let a job title make a great impression on us than it really should. 

Being known as a freelance writer is a gift and a curse. The gift is, people have all sorts of writing needs, and friends will be able to refer you to their friends if you call yourself that. For example, this CEO was a former colleague of mine, and knew I could write and was working independently, so he reached out to me.

The curse is, freelance writer is too general a term and often ends up boxing you into being just a pair of hands, when your experiences and skills are really different from the many other people who call themselves freelance writers. If you—like me—are capable of offering much greater expertise, then you need to be clear about it, and changing your job title is the most blunt way of doing that.

Landing and expanding

If you call yourself a freelance writer, you’ll need to get your foot in the door, deliver great writing (often with vague direction), make it clear to clients that you’re capable of more, tolerate the minor indiginities of having people think you’re nothing more than a mere scribe, and eventually differentiate your service and offer a consulting rate. If you raise your rates beyond a certain point, you’ll frequently hear a protest about how unreasonably expensive you are. You can only get so far away from the market rate of the very low anchor of the SEO freelance writer on Fiverr, for example.

If you stop calling yourself a freelance writer, you’ll need to figure out what to actually call yourself, explain to people what you actually do, and know a specific segment’s problems, risks, and desired outcomes really well. You will also need to do the hard work of defining a new category and how you’re different from the default option—namely the freelance writer. You will also miss out on all the referred business that you used to get when you called yourself a freelance writer, because your friends are confused about what you actually do. 

The path I chose

Fast-forwarding through months and years of experience, I intuitively chose the latter path, aimed to do more strategic work. I found that the job title editorial director described my work much more accurately. I sent a lot of forwardable emails, and focused my business away from working as a general content marketing agency into helping SaaS companies hire better at lower costs. I knew that the more focused positioning would mean I needed to eventually sever relationships with a bigger market, and I’d also need to put in more work to explain what I did differently. 

But if I did it well, it would start a self-fulfilling dynamic that would send more of the projects I liked my way, which meant more experience and referrals for doing that kind of work. In the long run, I see the field of editing not unlike design—IDEO brought forth the idea of “design thinking” and companies now often have chief design officers. There’s an opportunity for a company to put forth the importance of creativity and editing, and for chief creative officers, chief content officers, and editors in chief to join the rest of the C-suite.

I knew my skillset extended far beyond what a freelance writer or content marketer could offer, and I made sure my job title reflected that. That doesn’t mean I couldn’t have made working as a “freelance writer” job title work, just that my personality was better suited for this approach.

Merely changing a job title was just the start; the real journey takes place every day when I write and when I talk to clients, as I describe my work, listen to other people’s problems with their blogs, and connect them together.

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