It was all the rage about a decade ago and it’s still the rage: working from wherever you happen to be and working whenever you happen to feel like working because you only work for yourself and not some soulless corporate monster. Freelancing was one way to beat the system, the nine-to-five, which is now eight-to-six, system of employment. Of course, everyone with an ounce of common sense you can’t beat the system but you can change it. I’ve been freelancing since 2016 and here’s what I’ve learned so far.
- It will be a while before things take off.
The world is swarming with freelancers in every single area of work. This is the nicest way I could think of to say that the competition is fierce, even if only in terms of numbers. As with everything else, many are called but few are chosen, meaning 90% of the competition is worse than you if you’re reasonably good at your job. However, clients don’t know this. It will take a while to prove how good you are at your job.
I was lucky and I had writing samples when I started looking for freelance gigs – while I was still in a full-time job – so I landed my first client relatively quickly. For $5 per hour, five hours a week. Definitely not enough to live on.
I gave it my best, though, and I worked with that client for about two years, moving from articles to e-books (non-fiction) and, since the client was so happy with me, getting some five-star feedback that brought in more clients. Word-of-mouth recommendations remain the best way to find work even in this day and age.
Sometimes it takes weeks. Other times it could take more than a year with sporadic engagements. But that’s if you’re not actively looking for a job and just browsing platforms for a couple of hours every day. If you start looking for jobs more actively you will start finding them sooner.
All it takes is some basic time management skills, such as setting yourself several periods during the day of actively seeking jobs, and interspersing them with that thing people call building your portfolio. The more you look, the less time it will take to find something.
- You shouldn’t do free work… after you build a portfolio.
I know this goes against the grain but I wouldn’t treat the “Don’t do free work” advice as a hard and fast rule. The reason is simple: if I have never written about fashion before and I’m applying for a fashion writing job, I will need to convince the client I will do the job well. Showing them a sample of my articles on clearing houses in Europe will not exactly be the smartest way to do this. Fluency is one thing. Writing skills in specific areas is another thing entirely.
I’ve written a few free samples over the past six years but – and this is important – nothing that takes too much time. In freelancing, time equals work, and work should equal money but there is also a thing called missed opportunity. If you refuse a free sample you could lose a well-paying client. The one reason to agree to do a free sample is to eliminate the missed opportunity factor. Incidentally, that’s why free samples are a great way to spot the bad apples among the clients. Yes, there will be many.
A good client would ask for only a short sample and if they ask for a longer piece (or the equivalent in, I don’t know, graphic design. A logo sketch, possibly.), they would offer to pay for it. A bad client would ask for a free sample that could take hours to complete and you will never hear from them again. it happens. On the plus side, you will have a sample of a specific sort of writing (equivalent piece of work in another profession) to offer the next client that comes along.
One of my longest, and most pleasant, working engagements began with a free sample. The client was upfront about it: he said if it was satisfactory he would pay for it and send more work my way. It’s probably not the nicest thing from the freelancer’s perspective. It basically means ‘I don’t trust you’, yet.
But if you put yourself in the client’s shoes (always a wise thing to do from time to time to gain a different perspective), if you’ve paid for subpar work a few times you would eventually become more careful with how you spend your money. Needless to say, that client liked the sample and sent a lot more work my way.
- It’s enough to be good at your job.
It really is that simple, or so says my experience. When people want some work to be done, they want it done well. They are paying. So the freelancer’s only job is really being as good at their job as they can, even if it’s some form of their job they haven’t done before.
When I began freelancing, my only writing background was in business news. Since then, I’ve written blogs about makeup tips and tourism, relationship advice, scripts for an online business course, product descriptions, a magazine about 3D printing and cybersecurity, and a few non-fiction e-books about food. I couldn’t know how good I was at any of these jobs but I did my best in every one of them and judging by the clients’ feedback I did what I was supposed to do and they were happy with the results.
Of course, since we don’t live in a perfect world, there’s no way to love all the jobs that come your way. I wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about more than 50% of the jobs I did over the first two years of my new career. Not surprising, since this was the period when I was building my reputation, so to speak, and I couldn’t be too picky. But even the ones I didn’t really connect with – writing about makeup tips, for example – I tried to do to the best of my abilities. Nobody said it was going to be a smooth ride, after all.
- There will be fishy ones.
I mean clients but also jobs. Some are so fishy you can spot them a mile away: they demand rather than request services to be performed, the job description is often vague, and they want more than they are willing to pay for. These are easy, you just don’t apply for the job. But there are others that you can’t know are fishy until the stink begins.
I had a client once who asked for product descriptions. The pay they were offering was way too low but I was sympathetic after the lady told me they are just starting and can’t afford to pay more at this point. I was new and stupid. So I agreed to do their product descriptions, which were for shirts. Two days later, after the shirts were done, the lady sent another batch of things needing descriptions. But they weren’t shirts. They were furniture. And I didn’t know the first thing about describing furniture in an appealing way.
I said I’d rather drop the whole thing, no hard feelings. She asked me very nicely to give it another try (That should have been a warning sign but, like I said, I was new and stupid.). I said okay but after Easter, which was the next day. She agreed and then proceeded to bombard me with messages on Easter asking why I hadn’t finished. It was like we had never had our last conversation. This is when I finally came to my senses and ended our contract. Beware the ones that appeal to your emotions.
Some clients are not fishy per se but they fishify eventually. Every business can run into problems, of course. Every business can at some point become unable to pay its employees. But an ethical business would tell said employees they would be/would not be compensated.
One of my clients, who had paid handsomely for the work I had been doing for him, suddenly disappeared, with a three-figure sum payable hanging in the space between us. I waited a while and eventually wrote off the whole thing. A year later he resurfaced offering me another job. I agreed, as soon as he paid me what he owed me. He never did. I don’t understand some people.
- Everything is experience.
It’s important to remember this during the dry spells and the unethical clients, and those days when it seems like the whole world wants you to fail badly. Everything is experience and gaining experience is good for you. If nothing else, you could start blogging about it, warn others.
Once, about a year after I started freelancing, I was offered a job out of the blue. It was like a film: I was browsing a news website and I noticed a typo. There was a “If you spot an error contact us” field and I used it to alert them to the typo.
They wrote back with questions about what I did and a job offer after I told them what I did. It was almost too good to be true: a full-time, very well paying job in an area I was familiar with. And the promise of more to come. The only drawback was that twice a week I would need to work second shift, meaning from 4 pm to 10 pm.
Cat was about four then, still too little to entertain herself but I thought we could do it. What’s two nights a week, I thought. I could do it, it would just take some getting used to. Well, it didn’t. I managed to endure three weeks, or six shifts, of trying to work while the rest of the family had dinner, of Cat having to be put to bed and she didn’t want her dad to do it, and of writing stuff I didn’t really love writing.
I told the company I quit on the fourth week. I had started freelancing so I could have more time and, more importantly, energy for my family. This job was sapping my energy, turning me into the nervous, jumpy monster I had been in the final two years of my corporate job. They were disappointed to see me go so soon, and I was embarrassed about being so inflexible but I’d learned something new: there was a line I wasn’t willing to cross and this line was called “Evenings with the family”. As luck would have it, I started writing for Oilprice a month later.
- Luck would have it.
Luck is nothing but a coincidence that, because of the moment it happens, makes us feel like the universe is smiling at us. I can’t say I’m a great believer in coincidences because this would be nonsensical but I do know that they happen, often when you least expect them. And they never happen when you actively look for them. Luck’s kind of like love in this respect.
But since the universe is random, coincidences happen all the time. To make them luck, you just need to work hard to become ever better at what you do, whatever it happens to be. Sometimes it feels like drudgery and other times it feels like you were born to do exactly what you are doing at this precise moment. And while you are in the latter state, someone will notice it and appreciate it, sooner or later.
The sooner or later part is a bit depressing because no one can tell you if you’ll fall in the ‘sooner’ or the ‘later’ category but what I can say is that it will happen, as long as you’re prepared to do the work and the waiting. You can always fill your job-free time with some skill-honing or learning something new. Unless bills are pressing you, in which case you will have to consider a backup job.
The world is full of free online courses in everything. I did a Penn State course in epidemiology a couple of years ago, on Coursera, for no particular reason other than that I had always been interested in infectious diseases. Odd how life turns out, isn’t it? It’s the same with freelancing. There is always a surprise around the corner and most of them are nice.
P.S. Since most freelancers work from home (after they get the “work at the beach” out of their system. You can’t work at the beach, not with all that sand that gets everywhere.), here is the number-one-through-ten rules of freelancing: Always have back up. Back up your work in the cloud and on a flash drive but also have a backup laptop (they break) and a backup internet supply, and, if you’re really up for it, a backup power generator, You never know. Outages seem to be attracted to deadlines.