But you can work in your pajamas
I have written before about how I staggered into a career as a freelance writer. If you are interested in the details of how I got started, I will link that story below. In this article, I want to talk about what you can do to stand out amongst the thousands of freelancers vying for income on platforms and job boards.
I see plenty of people make half-hearted attempts at freelancing and give up after a bad experience or a month or two of not making any significant income. If you are considering a future as a freelance writer, do your research. Know going in that it will take both strategy and effort to earn a decent living in the gig economy.
Who am I to tell anyone how to go about building a freelance career? There are many paths to success, and only you can define what success looks like for you. For me, success means making at least as much as I could in the traditional workforce while having the freedom to work from anywhere. Perhaps more importantly, it is getting paid to do what I love to do.
Defining your idea for success is an essential first step to a freelance career. After all, if you aren’t sure where you want to go, how will you know when you have arrived?
Here are my tips for those considering making the leap into freelancing, or those who are ready to move from part-time, extra income, to attempting to make a living at freelance writing.
1. Accept that you will have to keep learning
No matter how good you are at what you do, or how much success you have had, freelancing is a whole new game. I thought I was a decent business writer when I started. I look back now at some of my “best” work when I started, and I cringe. If you are not comfortable with a constant challenge and learning new things daily, then this might not be the best career move for you.
2. You have to be willing to learn from your mistakes and take criticism well
Freelance writing is not for anyone with thin skin. No matter how much hard work you put into a piece, it might not meet the client’s needs. Meeting the client’s needs is what you are being paid to do, so be prepared to do revisions and re-writes on what you thought was a good piece of writing.
You will encounter demanding clients, but you can’t let that be your excuse for every bad review or failed project. Difficult clients come with the territory, but so do great clients who are willing to teach you to step up your game. Sometimes, it is easy to confuse one type for the other.
3.Choose your clients wisely
Whether you are using the job boards and platforms to get started or focusing solely on private clients, there will be clients with whom you can’t seem to make happy.
It can be tempting to accept any job that comes your way, especially when just getting started. Unfortunately, you can derail your new career before it even gets started by doing this. On the platforms, a negative review, or unpaid contract, can cause significant damage to a new freelancer. It is not always easy to tell which clients may be impossible to work with, but the following steps can help:
- Freelancers review clients on the platforms. Do not just look at the number of stars, but learn to “read between the lines” for language that might indicate the client was challenging.
- Look at the reviews the client has left for other freelancers. Some freelancers genuinely deserve negative reviews, but if the client’s reviews of other freelancers are lukewarm, or a significant portion of them are negative, you should probably consider passing on the job.
- Make sure you fully understand and can deliver what the client wants. If you have any questions, make sure and ask them before entering into a contract. If you have problems getting answers, or communication issues before the contract is accepted, assume those will only get worse once you have a contract.
4. Don’t rush to find your niche
Many successful freelancers will argue this advice, but I think if you niche too soon, you will miss out on far too many learning opportunities. I am a former paralegal who specializes in crafting legal content for law firm websites and publications aimed at those in the legal field. However, I have spent plenty of time writing about technology, social issues, and a wealth of other subjects that have helped me. Not only did these other topics help me hone my writing skills, but they also gave me a breadth of knowledge that often comes in handy when writing about various legal topics.
5. Accept that you won’t be able to only write about things you enjoy, and still earn a steady paycheck
This one has almost become a pet peeve of mine. I see far too many want-to-be freelancers complaining about the impossibility of making it in the gig economy, only to discover in conversation that they think they should only have to write about things for which they are passionate.
It is a nice fairy-tale, but unrealistic. In the traditional workplace, have you ever loved every aspect of your job? Even on the jobs you loved, were there not parts of your day that were less than thrilling? You can’t expect freelancing to be any different.
6. Treat each client like you would the CEO of a company you worked for in the traditional workforce
As a freelancer, it can be tempting to only give minimal efforts to clients that don’t pay well, have consistent work, or offer some other obvious career benefit. Providing less than your best efforts can set a negative precedent for your freelancing career, and endangers your reputation, which is your most valuable asset.
You also never know when an “unimportant” client may be the contact that launches your next major project, writes a stunning review of your work, or teaches you something that will give you an edge over other freelancers when competing for a contract you desperately want. Each client deserves to be treated as if they are your most important client. Set the bar high in how you treat each client and improve on it as your career grows.
7. Like all good things in life, you have to work hard to make a good living as a freelancer
There are many perks to freelancing. You can choose to work wherever you want, during the hours (usually) that best suit you, and you have the freedom that even the best jobs in the traditional workplace can’t offer. The one thing that doesn’t change is that you will get out of it what you put in.
I have worked countless sixteen-hour days. I have worked on family vacations, and I have worked more weekends than I would like to admit. The flip side of that is that I can also take off to attend a midday music performance at my son’s college, take a nap or read a book in the afternoon and work that night if I want, and close my computer and forget it when a migraine hits.
In the end, the secret to success is pretty simple. You have to treat a career of freelance writing with the same respect you would give to opening a coffee shop or accepting a management job in the corporate world.
If you treat it like a hobby, and there is nothing wrong with looking for a hobby, you can’t expect to start making serious money in the few hours a week that you invest in freelance writing.
You will notice I said nothing about being a talented writer. If you are seriously considering a career in freelance writing, you probably have a natural talent for the written word. As long as you are willing to learn as you go, take constructive criticism and learn from your mistakes, your writing ability will grow to the level you need to support a career.