Tips for freelancers to unleash their inner entrepreneur

Jocelyn Wiener

About Jocelyn Wiener

Jocelyn Wiener is an award-winning independent journalist based in Oakland, Calif. She writes regularly for Kaiser Health News and the Center for Health Reporting. Her work has run in The Washington Post, The Atlantic, the Christian Science Monitor, Pacific Standard and newspapers around the country.

Two top freelancers at Health Journalism 2018 – Linda Marsa and Heather Boerner – and attorney Ruth Carter offered a series of great tips to help you start thinking of your freelance work as a real business … and make it pay like one.

Marsa kicked off the session, “Unleash your inner entrepreneur,” with advice about getting a good mix of work, and getting paid for it:

Develop a brand

Do you see yourself as especially skilled at compelling narratives, deep dive investigations or quick hits? Have you developed expertise in Medicaid policy or epigenetics? Figure out what your strengths are, and pick the stories that play to them.

“The only way to make a real living is not having to reinvent a wheel every time you do a story,” Marsa said.

Do a mix of stories

Deep dive stories are meaningful and important – but “they take forever, and aren’t remotely cost-effective,” Marsa said. Make sure you’re doing enough quick hits to support the bigger stories, she said.

Be visible in your profession

“Networking is absolutely key,” she said. Get involved with professional organizations and volunteer to be on committees. You’ll meet new people, expand your contacts and give back.

Get skilled

“All we have to sell are skills,” she said. Take classes and workshops, attend conferences, do fellowships. And start learning to do video and other skills that can make you more marketable.

Get a professional website

She suggests checking out these freelance sites: Laurabeil.com, marynmckenna.com, erikvance.com, brendanborrel.com. And she thinks it’s worth paying the money to make it good.

Keep a paper trail

Make sure you’ve discussed, in writing, what the terms of your assignment are.

Don’t wait

If you don’t get paid in a timely manner, Marsa said: “Do not wait. Did you hear me? Don’t wait. You want to be first in line to get paid, not the last.”

Find whoever is in charge of the money

If you’re really having trouble getting paid, figure out who actually holds the purse strings and contact them directly. This can involve going over editor’s heads if need be, she said.


Boerner focused on managing your finances as a freelancer:

Use tools to track your spending

This can include Quicken, Quickbooks, Mint.com, You Need a Budget, or Excel. The important thing is to figure out what tool you will use – and then actually use it, she said. She budgets for every expense, with a goal of having money left over at the end of each month.

Track your income

Keep a spreadsheet of which projects you’ve invoiced for which clients, when they’re due, and whether the payment has been received. Are you being paid by 1099, or by W-2?

Pay your taxes

Boerner sets aside money in her spending plan every month to pay federal, state and local taxes. She pays her taxes every month, instead of quarterly, because it’s easier for her to track. She also sets aside money each month for a 401k and a Roth IRA.

Create a spending plan that is less than your average income

She has separate categories for business spending, personal spending and joint spending. She does not focus on the amount in her bank account, but rather on her monthly budget. She also avoids using credit, since it’s harder to plan for.

Her bottom line: Figure out what your means are, and then live below them.


Carter focused on protecting your work and protecting yourself. She started with a caveat: “I am an attorney. I am not your attorney.”

Her tips:

Treat your work like a business (because it is one)

This means creating a business entity (either an LLC or a corporation). It also means separating the bank accounts and credit cards you use for your business – this is important for protecting your personal assets in the event of a lawsuit, she said.

Contracts are your friends

Carter calls contracts “relationship management documents” and says you should not work for a client without having a signed one. She offers the following questions to consider when drawing up a contract:

  • What is the scope of the work, and how much can that scope change.
  • How much and when will you get paid?
  • How will feedback and delays be handled, especially when they are caused by lack of communication from the other side?
  • Who owns the final product? She suggests including a provision that says the contractor will assign the copyright in the work upon payment in full
  • Are you allowed to subcontract the work?
  • What guarantees do you give the client? (She often includes language that the contractor attests that the product delivered is their own work and to their knowledge does not infringe on any third party’s intellectual property.)
  • Will you indemnify the hiring party and/or reimburse any legal damages associated with your work?
  • Does the contract have a severability clause and an “entire agreement” clause?
  • How will disputes be resolved?
  • How can the contract be modified or terminated?

She offers a series of links with more advice on her website: carterlawaz.com

“Avoiding fires is a lot easier and cheaper than putting out fires,” she said.

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