For the last six years, I’ve been a freelancer.
Even when I was still at school, even when I worked full time as a server, an administrator, an intern: I managed a whole other venture on the side, building it step-by-step. And then, a whole TWO years ago now, I decided to take the full brunt of it–I risked my livelihood and trusted my trade to vest the rewards for which my heart yearned: not just money, but freedom.
That, and I wanted to create a life that was only writing.
“Huh?” you may be asking. “Writers don’t make money doing what they love.”
Well, believe what you want, but right now I want to tell you how I am challenging those odds and making money writing for others, writing for myself, and writing exactly what I want to be writing–no regrets.
Not that it’s all fun and games, of course.
Freelancing–and more specifically, freelance writing, editing, proofreading, transcription…whatever–is hard work. It takes flexibility and a good sense for business. It means being safe and taking care of yourself out there, but also staying optimistic knowing your clients will take care of you, too.
That’s why I’ve summed it all up under three headings. I want to make it easier for you to swallow the unnaturally big apple of “freelancing” so that you can make the whole process work for YOU, no matter your future prospects or aims.
- Getting the Client
Getting the client starts long before your proposal ever ends up in their inbox. In fact, it starts with yourself: with confidence, self-awareness, and a good market sense. How else are you going to succeed if you can’t work up the courage to ask for a what you’re worth? How can you serve your future if you aren’t ready to call yourself a real professional?
That’s the first step, one you can take right now: Take ownership. You’re a writer! You are analytical, can turn a phrase like a demon, and are ready to show off your skills and apply them to challenges that drive you. You are willing to go the extra mile to please the clients of your dreams. If you have even a single year of English education, you’re already half-way there: you know how to make a thesis, you know how to organize a good research paper, and have been exposed to the criticisms of professors who make their living as non-freelance editors and writers.
Now, it’s a matter of figuring out who you are, and what you like doing. For me, it’s a blend of content writing and editing that truly makes me happy, and that’s what I’ve pursued. I like science and business, and have continued to pursue contracts that meet those interests. Of course, my main goal is to eventually publish that manuscript (that still needs so much work), but freelancing has given me the time and freedom and skills-building to finally take the time to give the manuscript the attention it deserves.
“It’s a helluva start, being able to recognize what makes you happy.”
Now, it’s time to let those interests drive you–let them help you build your brand and beat out the competition.
Ask yourself: What is it about your passions and talents that set you apart from everyone else? Again, I found that my marked skills as a client-service professional–seamlessly communicating with personnel from all walks of life–soon became my own personal niche.
“Instead of the cold, dead editorial hand guiding your piece, let me help YOU take care of it!”
This is where you’re going to begin finding your brand, a brand that is going to help you navigate the sometimes strange and overwhelming world of marketing and social media. If you have a strong brand that stands out, you’ll have more of an idea of what to post, and who your audience is. From there, you’ll start building a platform that draws the attention of people from many different industries.
Sounds good, doesn’t it?
Still, self-knowledge doesn’t stop at what you can do. It’s also about knowing your limits: where are you vulnerable. What skills do you need to begin taking on newer and more complex assignments?
Side-note: Here, I feel the need to emphasize what a huge factor professional development plays in making sure you stay on the cutting edge of your field. The sheer number of free online training you can take in any area of interest makes it inexcusable for any freelancer to not keep improving their trade skills. Further, it is integral for any freelancer to find and integrate themselves into some kind of writing or business community in their city to elevate their networking skills, and also keep away from freelancer loneliness.
For me, this meant taking a University-level certificate on Artificial Intelligence Technologies, continuing to read academic publications on business, and joining a local connector/ incubator community that featured different business people doing great work all around me. For you, it could mean something entirely different–but whatever it looks like, make sure it happens.
Back to it:
So, you are confident, you know what you can offer, and you have the skills to back up your claims. Now, its a matter of letting your client know that you’re ready to take on their project.
Personally, I get clients in four main ways: by actively pursuing client postings, passively pursuing communications jobs no matter where I am, by taking client referrals, and by doing such good work that clients have no choice but to come back for more. For the purposes of this article, I will concentrate on the active pursuit of clients through direct sales.
This heading accommodates any activity where there is a specific job posting that I feel I am qualified for. This means pitching a specific idea or competency, and persuading the project manager that I am fit for their work. This is where confidence and self-awareness comes in–here, you want to tell you client why you’re the best fit for them, pointing to specific experiences you’ve had that relate to the skills needed to complete their job.
What’s perhaps even more important, is to remember that you are pitching to a person on the other side of that email. It’s a human that is going to hire you, and it is that human that you should cater your pitch toward.
Here’s a sample of just one of the many pitches I create to get the jobs I want. You’ll notice it’s personable, relatively informal, and genuine. To me, spending twenty minutes writing a great and tailored proposal to three different jobs has proven much more financially viable than creating a template and sending it to 50 different people who will likely ignore me. Make use of the same language found in the project posting, and get cracking:
What an interesting project! As a research aficionado with a proven track record in collecting great research points and translating them to formulate new and unique ideas as they pertain to a given subject, I am confident that my accumulated skills match those required by your project description. During my undergraduate degree in English literature (where I also minored in Psychology) I worked diligently in my last year to complete an honour’s thesis project that met the high research standards of my department (and of my supervisory professors). In that sense, I have extensive experience utilizing online databases, and even have University access to most! (I work casually as a researcher/ editor for the University of Alberta in Canada). I have taken research methods courses, and have continued to demonstrate my ability to make connections where others might miss them. Indeed, my honours advisor commended my creative problem-solving abilities in a recent reference letter he provided.
That said, I am also an expert editor and proofreader who has managed her own freelancing effort in this area over the last six years. I have dual experience, then, as both a researcher and content creator, and could therefore provide a wide range of assistances throughout your research project. I also have a specific interest in “Change”–I myself have experienced profound transitional changes (I’m 27 and have moved 25 times)–and would enjoy devoting my time in helping you achieve your research aims in this area. I am also a friendly and honest freelancer who provides prompt and integrity-driven service to all clients.
Should you care to discuss this project further, please don’t hesitate to reach out. I am available anytime, and usually respond within 24 hours. Feel free to review my Upwork profile to see how other clients have fared, as well as samples of my work. For your convenience, I have also attached a snippet from a research proposal I recently created. Thank you for your consideration, I hope to hear from you soon.”
-Sample Proposal for Research Assistant Posting (Proposal Accepted/ Job Granted)
For more information on how to write a great proposal or pitch, I recommend doing a little research and figuring out what to do and what not to do when you start responding to project postings and proposals. This also goes for those of you looking to be freelance journalists: learn how to pitch to the publications–the humans–you want to write for, otherwise your ideas will always get thrown to the bottom of the slush pile.
The next question you might be asking is: “Where do I go to find those postings? Are my clients really just out there waiting for me?”
The truth is, finding clients will be a little different for everyone, but for me I like to use Upwork, LinkedIn, Job Posting Boards, Facebook, and University Career Centre postings to find positions that suit my interests. In my experience, there are THOUSANDS of jobs posted everyday looking for people like us. The key is to let them know you’re ready to take on the work, and that you can be trusted to do so. (In the past, I have also “cold-pitched” article ideas or project proposals to my favourite publications, but that is a whole other ball-game).
Sidenote: Knowing the signs of a “bad client” before you’ve even made first contact has proven to be extremely useful in my business goings. It’s what has saved me from taking on jobs that bleed my financial well (and my patience) dry. This article has some great tips on how to recognize the warning signs, and I suggest anyone looking to make a name for themselves as a freelancer read it like its their own personal manifesto!
So, to summarize: You get the client by being the best you can be, and by being confident in your abilities to deliver. It’s about managing yourself and your skill-set to meet the needs of whatever project you want to be working on. It’s about being an expert in your field, and building trust in your audience. Show them your success, and they’ll always come back for more.
2. Doing the Work
Okay! So you’ve written a great proposal, and the client is ready to take you on. I’m so proud!
No, I’m serious, that’s the big hurdle. Not that the rest is a piece of cake or anything, but you’ve done all the legwork you can to get you here, and that is no small feat. Make sure to take a moment and congratulate yourself. You are a writer. You are an editor. You are a successful freelancer who is going to blow your client away on the very first try!
Well, not always the very first try. That’s just the thing. Sometimes, you enter into a contract with someone, and realize their expectations far differed from those you’d anticipated. Or perhaps you agreed to do something for a set price, only to find that the work is in much worse shape than the client had made it out to be. It’s going to happen–don’t kid yourself. The best thing you can do is be prepared for it, and take some of that hard earned confidence to set further expectations, reorient your price point, create new milestones, and try to anticipate any other drawbacks or delays that might affect your project.
Sidenote: I would like to emphasize the importance of honesty and self-awareness. Analyze the realities of the project, and communicate them to your client. (Chances are, they’ll be happier for it).
Of course, a big part of doing the work is…ta da! Time management! (Boring).
Really though: things can get pretty chaotic, and on any given day, you’ll have to coordinate a number of alternating contracts and communications, from making more proposals to finalizing work close to complete. To give you a sense of how this chaos can look, I’ve laid out a typical day in my freelance life:
A Day in the Life of this Freelance Editor/ Content Creator
- Wake up, look at desk, see all the papers there, turn over and hit snooze.
- Wake up again, amble to the kitchen for coffee. Begin to wake up. Read the news.
- Take a look at my to-do list: what item do I want to do the least?
- Complete that item first.
- Correspond with clients, set deadlines, re-orient the day’s schedule. Eat breakfast.
- Plop myself down in front of my computer, using an hourly timer and taking breaks in between.
- Trouble-shoot with a client about a project I didn’t complete to their expectations.
- Get cute and go to the coffee shop to work more and people-watch.
- Post an ad or picture that depicts one of the following: my coffee, what I’m working on, my failures, or my face.
- Create some web-copy for one client, and a cover letter for another.
- Read over a chapter of a book to help my Research Coordinator with her thesis.
- Check my bank account. Smile a little.
- Go home and have dinner, and wonder if I should keep working or wait until tomorrow.
- Decide not to do anymore work, and do some more work anyway.
- Do some creative writing–maybe post a blog post.
- Laugh with my roommate. Hit they hay.
Mostly fun and games, right? But also, a lot of work, and a lot of constant communication. This job is a game of consistently reorganizing the chaos to make sure things get done, breaking jobs down into smaller, manageable pieces so as to not get overwhelmed. It’s about balancing customer service and editorial prowess. For those freelancers who are just starting out, it’s good to begin with fewer projects, ensuring that you are not entirely dependent on that single source of income until you have taken on enough clients to venture out completely (if that were your aim).
You’ll also notice from the above that I have also integrated activities that I enjoy. I have full control of my schedule and can vary any of these items as I please, BUT, I am my own boss. I am the one who is going to have to answer for my laziness if I choose to not do the work. For me, that means breaking up my day by going for walks, changing my environment, and always giving each project at least a little bit of attention each day. For you, it might mean giving a full eight hours to one project one day, and only four billed the next. As long as the work gets done, you can organize your time however you want.
Now, insofar as you may worry about the physical act of doing the work–or, about your skills as an editor or writer or whatever you’re marketing yourself as–that’s up to you to use your analytical, research, and creative or academic or business communications skills to complete the project to their expectations. If you’re unsure about how to proceed, DON’T ASSUME. You’re better off asking, or doing some supplemental research on your own time to improve your ability to deliver.
Before I close this section, it’s also important to talk about delivery and deliverables. Ideally, you and your client have a set deliverable (set parameters for what you’re to hand in for payment) and a delivery date. Make sure that before you send the project, that you and your client have made clear payment plans, and that you’ve prepared any relevant invoices or receipts as per your agreement or practices. Your client may realistically take a few days to get back to you, and in fact may get back to you with further requests or updates.
3. Getting Paid
I think the above segue’s nicely into the best part of freelancing: getting that money.
Under this heading, we can talk about industry rates, fixed and hourly price points, and some tips to dealing with unforeseen price increases or clients who refuse to pay (not that there are many of those).
Industry rates are important to note. Although I did begin my freelance career charging below these rates and gradually increasing them as I gained more experience, these indicators not only gave me an idea of what was fair to start, it also told me what rates would be too low.
What I want to impress here is that part of building a client’s trust has to do with being expensive. Good clients already know what it costs to create good work, and they are willing to pay that. Further, you never know how long you’ll be keeping a single client. Imagine you’ve given yourself a raise several times, but your long-time client is still paying you at your initial, beginners rates. How frustrating!
In short, it is important to keep your rates in line with your experience, and to update existing clients about an increase in your rates.
Sidenote: Honesty is again the best policy when asking your client for a price or rate increase whether due to unforeseen delays or because your own rates have increased (obviously, don’t do this mid-project with someone, but perhaps mid-contract). Contact them as soon as you are made aware of the extension/ change, and give it your all to explain the why’s and when’s of the increase.
That said, my clients don’t always come to me with hourly contracts. More often than not, they want fixed-price work; they want to set a budget and keep it there regardless of how long it actually takes me to create it. This can be really great, but can also prove risky. For instance, say you are given $200 to create an impressive and eye-catching application package for a top CEO position. At $30.00/ hour that’s just over six hours of dedicated work. If you know you can do it in five, your rate goes up. Every hour it takes you over that initial six, your rate goes down.
It is thus critical for freelancers to know how long it takes them to complete certain projects and set their quotes for work completed accordingly. Alternatively, when issuing proposals to job requests online, make sure to only apply to those jobs (or bid at the amount) that match your price point requirements. You don’t want to be halfway through a project working for free–you’ll get angry, and you won’t be as motivated to complete the project or contract.
Again, it’s imperative that you be honest. I recommend keeping a time log close by and making sure to record ALL of the time it takes you to complete something. Be realistic. Even if you end up taking eight hours (say, with the project above), you’re still doing alright, and can charge a little more for the next contract with confidence. Eight hours is not unreasonable for a project like that, especially when it would take your client much longer to complete on their own. Remember: they’re paying for your convenience, your skill, and your hard, hard work!
That’s right. Every freelancer is going to experience something of the sort at least once. That’s the nature of business of course–a client might have asked you to do something, and because they don’t want to pay, or for some reason don’t see your work as fulfilling the job they gave you, they don’t send along that cheque or transfer you’d been sincerely expecting.
Now, depending on your contract, how you approach this is going to be different, but if I can offer any advice here, it is to try your hardest to get the funds (email, phone, lawyer–up to you how far you want to go), trying not to burn any bridges, and–sometimes–swallowing the cost of doing that bad business just so you can let it’s baggage fall away. Hopefully, as you become more confident, experienced, and knowledgeable, there will be less opportunity for clients like this to get your business, meaning more money for you, and more happiness too!
SO: You’ve gotten your client, you did the work, and now you’ve been paid! It’s important to congratulate yourself along the way, even if you meet some hurdles that seem insurmountable. You’re doing this, and you had the guts to venture out and become your own boss, whether it’s on the side or full-time. How wonderful!
Equally important now is to make sure that you reward yourself in a way that makes you proud. For me, it’s treating myself to a nice solo meal, or buying the fancy latte instead of the drip coffee. It’s allowing myself to take a day off because I did all of the work I needed to do, and making time for my friends and social life to thrive, so I don’t get freelancer loneliness.
In closing, I want to share with you the optimism and health I have found in working for myself, and making MONEY doing what I love: writing. I know you can do it too, and hopefully, this guide has made you confident of what to expect.
Still, if you’re struggling and have more questions, please reach out or comment below. I am happy to explore the freelancing landscape with you, because I am invested in your future success–believe me, I know it’s coming.