Freelancing for dummies: One freelancer's most valuable lessons

Aug 24, 2018

This is a post from a member of the Freelancers Union community. If you’re interested in sharing your expertise, your story, or some advice you think will help a fellow freelancer out, feel free to send your blog post to us here.

While there are many articles and books out there about building a freelance writing business, there really is no substitute for trying and failing on your own. That was certainly my approach transitioning from a traditional job where the successes and failures were shared broadly by all employees to one where successes and failures are mine to shoulder alone. Thankfully, I have found my failures to have been as instructive ss the successes. Perhaps you will, too.

Is freelancing right for you?

It seems obvious, but before you forge ahead, you should really first ask yourself whether freelancing is right for you or not. I am risk intolerant and knowing this about myself put freelancing out of reach for me for many years.

Not having had much writing experience under my belt at the time didn’t help either, as this lack of a portfolio really created a paralyzing anxiety within me to pursue my dream of becoming a writer. The feeling of anxiety hasn’t gone away, and I don’t think it ever will, but doing something I love and having had great client feedback certainly helps.

There are many reasons for going the freelance route. Perhaps, like I was, you are tired of a long commute to work and want to avoid phoning things in because the work is no longer satisfactory. Possibly, you answer to a boss who just doesn't share your visions for the future of the organization or doesn’t agree with your role in it. Maybe you are juggling many personal responsibilities in your life and remote and freelance work is the easiest way to handle competing priorities.

Whatever your reasons, if you are even considering freelancing, you are probably at the point of diminishing returns in your current career and just might benefit from exploring freelancing more deliberately.

Look before you leap

So you have decided to make the leap into freelancing. Good for you, but let’s be strategic about this. When I decided to pursue freelancing, I knew the lack of a safety net and steady income would always be a source of trepidation for me. It also shocked me that even though I have excellent research and writing skills as a lawyer, clients did not feel this easily translated into freelance creative writing. This is particularly the case since I was looking for work blogging and book ghostwriting in conjunction with legal article writing.

There is nothing that says you have to commit 100% to the transition right away. You can always ease into it. That was my plan of action, and it is working out well for me. Until you have built up a substantial client list whereby you can fully support yourself freelancing, it might be smart to hold onto the day job for a little while longer.

This may very well mean that you have to delay your full transition into freelancing for several months. It is disheartening, but it's also the way to build your freelance brand so that you aren’t merely a struggling freelancer among a sea of competing freelancers.

Know your worth

I have read many blogs that say unconditionally that you should ask for what you are worth and stick to it. Realistically speaking, however, you will have to lower your standard a little, at least at first, in order to build a client list and grow your portfolio.

A long client list and lots of writing samples is how you grow your business. Of course, accepting a fee compromise should never mean that you are taking on projects where you are expending more skill and time than can be justified by the fee.

In my experience, clients are looking for freelancers with at least a solid three years in the profession. That is probably how many years of work history you will need to establish before you can truly command your own fee. Still, even after three years, I am still shocked (and offended) by what clients are willing to pay for my skills. But, the more jobs I have booked, the more I am comfortable turning down jobs that really offer no real benefit.

Freelancing is hard work

It seems commonsensical, but it helps to remind yourself daily that freelancing is hard work. There is a reason your boss got paid the big bucks. She was responsible for generating demand for work and for providing constant workflow. When you freelance, that responsibility suddenly becomes entirely yours.

Imagine my shock starting out when I found myself freelancing about 20% of the time and hustling the rest of the time to make sure the next project was in the queue before finishing my current project. I signed up to be a freelance writer, not to be a businesswoman! Get used to the idea that you are both and you have to be equally industrious and competent doing both.

That requires that you do your research and wade through the hundreds of freelancing job posting sites out there. Many require a subscription fee upfront (i.e. Editorial Freelancers Association) and others take a certain percentage of your project fee (i.e. Upwork).

This can be hard to swallow since it feels like you are the one doing all of the work, but sometimes it’s a necessary evil. Remember, keep your eye on the ball! You bid low to get jobs so you can build a portfolio and aggregate positive feedback. All this hard work will lead to more freelancing jobs and the ability to command your own fee, which is the goal here.

You're a freelancer, not a doctor

If you ever watched the old Star Trek, you might remember the character, Bones McCoy, who was constantly reminding everyone in a crisis that he was a doctor, not an engineer or whatever the case might be. Take heed of this advice.

The temptation starting out was to bid for any and all writing jobs and to describe myself as an expert at all types of writing. I believed that since I am a good researcher, I was suddenly an expert in everything.

In a short period, I determined that strategy wasn’t working for me. Frankly, I don’t enjoy all forms of writing. In fact, I don’t enjoy most types of writing. Before that epiphany, however, I was taking on writing projects that ended up with me doing an incredible amount of research prior to writing so that my enthusiasm all but waned as I got closer to actually starting to write.

Trust me, you can’t fool anyone if your level of enthusiasm for a project isn’t there. Additionally, here I was, having left behind one career I no longer enjoyed, to now be doing work I hated with equal passion.

In order to enjoy what you do, you have to recognize what you enjoy doing, because generally what you enjoy doing, you will do well, and will want to keep doing. Once I realized the broad-side-of-the-barn approach to freelance writing gigs just wasn’t working for me, I was able to fully embrace the freelance role, only taking on writing projects in which I am interested.

Clients are also not idiots. They don’t want someone who is a Jack-of-all-trades. They want to hire freelancers who are experts in a particular area. Clients recognize that technical writing or grant writing is very different from creative writing.

This is actually a good thing, because freelancing is extremely competitive. But, if you are able to focus on two or three services exclusively, you can really sharpen your the skill. That’s what is going to get you your next client.

The bottom line

I hope your takeaway here is that there is a lot of work in the beginning that goes into building your freelance career just so you can work from home in your pajamas. Like everything in life, how much effort you put into it initially will pay off tremendous dividends in the end. You have committed to being your own boss. Be a boss and take charge of building a successful freelance career.

Michelle is a recovering lawyer and career counselor building a freelance career focusing on writing, blogging, editing and content development.