Jennifer Astle

February 24, 2009

The Truth and Lies of Freelancing

It’s a tough economy out there, but you didn’t need me to tell you that, did you?  The last figures show that approximately 5 million Americans are now unemployed, mostly due to the weakened job market.  But while some are sitting around answering polls about their current employment status, others are doing something about it; freelancing.

When I began freelancing, I did what any good former professional student would; research.  I wanted to know exactly what I was getting into besides being able to perch myself up in my office with my coffee and write in between spells of my CNN, Jezebel, and HuffPo addictions.

The average site dedicated to helping the freelance writer will usually contain a list that goes something like this; Set up a blog or web page,  get a Skype account, set up an Elance portfolio,  monetize your content, and so on.  The big thing that seems to be inexplicably missing from all of these sites is a description of what it is really like to be a freelancer.

Here are my thoughts.

  • Lie:  You become your own boss. Yes, it is true that you decide what time your alarm clock goes off in the morning, no one is going to yell at you for taking a nap at your desk, and you can wear your pajamas to work.  But truth be told, your new boss is your client.  So instead of being completely independent, you may go from having one boss to several.  Each client will have their own set of criteria, style, quirks, and budget.  The only control you have is choosing which clients you service.
  • Truth:  You have to be organized. Repeat after me, I have to be organized.  I know we just went over the “no boss” thing, but set yourself a schedule complete with daily goals the same way a manager would monitor your productivity.  Otherwise, you may end up reading about the Octo-mom instead of completing projects…
  • Lie:  Write, and they will come. Sure, setting up a website and purchasing some ads might gain you some exposure, but although writing (or whatever service you offer) is the most important aspect of your business, so is finding work that pays.  Clients generally don’t go looking for freelancers via their individual websites (unless they are well known or have been previously used by said client).  They post their gig to a freelancing job board and then wait for the responses to pour in.  And they pour.  Remember, the writing is the easy part, it’s how you market yourself that will determine how much money you make.
  • Truth:  You don’t need to have a huge portfolio. Most clients don’t want to see your life’s work.  They want to see between 1-3 samples of your work that is most closely related to the gig they are seeking to fill.  If you see a job you are “write” for (oh, I’m so punny…), draft a sample that suits the project.  I did this for one project and landed one of my highest paying regular clients this way.  Customize it.  That really grabs the client’s attention, as opposed to sending a political journalism piece to a celebrity gossip blog which will promptly get your inquiry tossed.
  • Lie: You’ll make as much as you did before you freelanced. Unless you write for a particularly well paying niche market, or you are a well-respected writer, chances are you will start off at a pittance of what you made before.  You might be lucky (or talented) enough to land a large, well-paying contract, but the truth is you will probably start somewhere near 0.02/word whilst writing a page here and a page there for a number of different clients.  Repeat after me; I am not Carrie Bradshaw and I won’t be making $4/word at Vogue…at least not yet.   Speaking of money; Google Adsense – two thumbs down and the same goes for most PPC advertisers.  I’ve come to learn that it’s best to avoid alienating your clients and readers with an ad-free blog or by running a site worthy of hosting ads independently and that can be tailored to the tastes of your readers.
  • Truth: Writing for free can pay off. A lawyer knows that pro bono work can benefit them in a number of ways, and so should freelancers.  Doing this not only builds your portfolio and keeps the wheels greased in between jobs, but you could earn valuable referrals and future paying clients.  Be wary of scams, but at the same time consider doing some work for free or in exchange for other services like web design.  Other gigs may offer similar services in exchange for content.  A lot of “new sites that are launching soon” will offer the promise of pay “when the site become profitable” in exchange for your services now.  Yes, you could potentially get in on something lucrative, but for the most part you’ll be working for free.  Proceed with discretion.
  • Lie:  You’re a writer. Okay, so this is a partial truth, but you are also much more than that.  You are your own accountant, PR and marketing person, secretary, web designer, etc.  Buy the hats and wear them accordingly.   Close Word and open Excel.  Start a database.  I keep three; Contacts, Freelancing Gigs (complete with income history), and Publishing (where I track submissions to literary journals and agents).  Don’t know how to use Excel?  The “Help” button is a wonderful thing.  If you’re still stuck, buy a calculator.  If you’re really serious about freelancing, draw up a business plan and determine how much you want to make and how much work you’ll need to do to make it.

One last thought…

The media is all over the freelancing industry, noting a rising trend in the number of people either choosing to freelance or being forced to for lack of traditional employment opportunities.   Yes, it can seem scary to lose a regular pay check given the current state of things, but you’re also doing the economy a favor by creating your own job, and if you’re successful enough, possibly others down the road.

“More companies are using freelancers because their businesses are becoming more project-based, one expert said.

“As business models change, you get a lot of organizational upset and that adds to the economic uncertainty,” said Joe Pastore, professor emeritus of management science at Pace University. A business “really can’t see out much more than a year perhaps. And you’re operating from business cycle to business cycle.”

There are also big economic incentives to hire freelancers, he said. Businesses cut the costs of benefits and payroll taxes and often don’t have to buy new equipment or find work space for a freelancer.

And Pastore said because of the bureaucracy of many companies, it’s much easier to get a freelancer approved for a project with a specific short-term time period than it is to get a new full-time position approved.” Via CNN.

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