It takes so much more than an ability to string words together
I am still relatively new on the full-time freelancing journey, but in my second year, I see many new freelancers struggling to find their place in a highly-competitive field. The following is an open letter to all those just getting started.
Dear New Freelancer,
I am at an interesting place in my career right now. I was where you probably are a little over a year ago. I had always liked to write, I was decent at it, and I had modest goals for income — so it seemed like the time to take the leap.
I wanted to write about things that interested me, but the reality of freelancing is that few people ever make a significant income by writing personal blogs. I know there are exceptions, but I wanted a career, not a pipe dream. So I found clients that would pay me to write about anything, and I am a better writer for the experience.
You have probably been told to find your niche, establish your authority, and get busy. Unless you happen to have tons of existing contacts and a large following, that is hogwash. You don’t need a niche right away, but you do need clients.
Let go of the magical thinking that clients will line up to pay you to write what you want when you want and how you want. Google exists for a reason, so while it is commendable to be an authority on one or more topics, you need to have the flexibility to write well about any topic.
I learned so much from my early clients across a wide array of topics. For reference, I am a former paralegal, and I write content for the legal sphere — now.
In the beginning, I wrote about fishing, lost pets, artificial intelligence, and how-to articles over things of which I was utterly clueless. The process was grueling, but slowly I amassed a nice portfolio of writing samples, and it became less difficult to find clients.
Here is something crucial you need to know. The origin of the word deadline comes from the civil war. According to Miriam-Webster, the word meant “a line drawn within or around a prison that a prisoner passes at the risk of being shot.” While missing a deadline no longer means you will be shot, it can do irreparable harm to your career if you are not careful.
Clients take deadlines very seriously, and when you don’t, they assume it is because you are not a professional or do not care about their project. The gig economy is highly competitive, and clients will move on quickly if they feel you do not treat their work with the respect it deserves. If you are not willing to treat freelancing opportunities as real career builders, your career will stagnate fast.
No one enjoys criticism, but learn to take constructive criticism well. I know how easy it is to feel defensive about your work, but anyone who takes the time to provide feedback that can lead to improvement is investing in your career. Even if your writing is technically perfect, it may not fit the client’s needs without some tweaking.
Learn your true value. New freelancers are asked to walk an impossibly fine line. You need someone willing to pay for your writing skills, but without a portfolio of solid paid work, it is hard to find clients willing to pay for your expertise. You often have to take the low-hanging fruit to build a portfolio and a reputation.
However, it is risky to stay at the bottom very long. Write a few pieces, do your level best to earn an excellent review and then raise your rates fast. You do not want to invest in building a reputation and a stable of clients who are only interested in rock bottom rates if you want to turn freelancing into a career.
Be prepared for loneliness and feelings of isolation. Working alone from home can feel incredibly freeing at first, but it can become lonely if you are not careful. Plug into a network of other freelancers, and don’t forget to make time to keep up your personal support network.
COVID-19 has most of the world struggling with isolation, and it can hit freelance writers, especially hard. Sometimes the best thing you can do to improve your writing is to step away from writing. Spend time with friends, family, or doing a hobby you enjoy. A break from writing can give you a fresh perspective and make an impossible project less overwhelming.
Without the structure of the traditional workplace, it can be easy to lose sight of the importance of a work-life balance. It is ironic given that many freelancers brave the gig economy in search of a better balance in their lives. My advice is to stay flexible because there will be sixty-plus hour weeks. Make sure you balance those crazy days, or weeks, with time for the things that matter outside of work.
I know I have already touched on this, but it cannot be overstated. Reputation is everything in freelancing, and you need to protect your reputation at all costs. Screen your clients carefully, then do your best to make sure they are satisfied. Even if the client proves to be difficult, you need to attempt to bring the initial contract to a successful conclusion.
One black mark on your reputation early on can take months of hard work to overcome. Turn down jobs you do not feel confident you can do well, or be brutally honest with potential clients about your reservations. It can feel tempting to take on a fantastic opportunity, but it is not worth the reputational damage you can do if you cannot handle the project.
Freelancing is hard, and earning a full-time living will require a significant sacrifice of time and energy. Be prepared to work harder than you did in the traditional workforce, but keep your eyes on the goals you have set for yourself.
There are no shortcuts to avoid the hard work and constant learning it takes to succeed as a freelancer. That said, there is something profound gratification in working for yourself and getting paid to do what you love.
Take the time to relish each small accomplishment. Celebrate the victories, large and small. Remember, this journey is about fulfillment, and only you get to define what that means for you. While there is nothing wrong with admiring other freelancers, you are on your own journey, and your definition of success is unique to you.