Like many English majors I went to school with, I had only a vague idea of what I wanted to do with my eventual degree. Maybe I’d pursue a doctorate and teach college, or teach non-native English speakers in some Asian country. Or maybe I’d write the Great American Novel and be set for life.
Then, reality set in.
In the middle of my college career, I got married. Though it was certainly not a sudden decision, it did throw things off course for me. Instead of living in a dorm, walking to class and thinking about nothing but school, I was living with my husband, commuting to school and working part-time. And in the middle of all this, I stumbled into freelancing.
My stepmom, now a full-time medical writer with a freelance business of her own, told me how she’d snagged some work from a site called Elance. She thought maybe I could make extra money writing on the side.
So I checked it out and found that I could, indeed, do it. Within a few months, I was making more from freelance writing than I was making at my nearly-minimum-wage job at the YMCA.
Looking back, I’ll tell you that I’m ever so grateful for that first suggestion to look for writing jobs on Elance. And I’m grateful for those first clients who hired me, in spite of my very thin portfolio.
But in spite of these things to be grateful for, I have a whole list of early freelancing mistakes that make me cringe. Like that one job that involved writing 1,000 “articles” about car insurance. (It. Was. Awful.)
So if you’re thinking about launching your career as a freelancer, why not skip the School of Hard Knocks and learn from my mistakes? Here are five lessons about freelancing I’ve learned the hard way:
1. Don’t Work for Peanuts
The number one mistake I made in my early freelancing career was assuming a penny a word is a great rate for beginning writers.
A penny a word is only sustainable if you’re writing crap –- lots and lots of crap. I could make decent money writing at this rate simply because I’m a very fast writer, and because most of the jobs offering this type of pay were incredibly redundant. Since I didn’t have to do a ton of research (or craft brilliant sentences), I could write 20,000 words in a day. And for someone working at the YMCA, $200 in a day isn’t a bad haul.
But the bottom line is that a penny a word is a terrible, terrible rate for a writer –- even a complete newbie. (Click here to tweet this thought.)
Seriously, even small, local magazines and mid-sized blogs pay five cents a word or more. That’s still not a lot, but it’s five times what I was making starting out!
So before you start putting in bids or sending out query letters, do some research. Find out what other writers –- native English speakers with comparable experience and skill –- are charging. And then, charge that. It may take you a bit longer to land your first client this way, but the extra time will be so worth it.
2. Don’t Take Jobs That Won’t Move You Forward
Part of the problem with penny-a-word jobs isn’t just the pay (though it does, seriously, suck). It’s the fact that most of these bottom-of-the-barrel jobs will have you writing for content mills.
Essentially, content mills are places that publish loads and loads of low-quality online content, which is supposed to drive traffic back to the website you link to. As Google gets smarter about how it ranks websites, content mills become less valuable for site owners, though many will still try to drive traffic by publishing hundreds or thousands of articles on the same topic. (Kind of like that car insurance job I mentioned before.)
The thing with content mills is that it’s easy to get started with them, especially if you’re a halfway decent writer. But content mills –- and other places where you can get away with mediocre writing –- will not advance your career, at all.
Trust me on this one. I got stuck writing at content mills for over a year, simply because I didn’t know how to find any other work. Sure, I had “articles” in my portfolio, but most of them were writing samples I was embarrassed to show my husband, let alone a potential client! And since I didn’t have any great clips to show off, I wasn’t moving forward with my career. In fact, it took me over a year to move up from that starting rate of one to two cents per word!
Once I figured out I needed to begin taking jobs that would actually advance my career, my whole gig-hunting strategy changed. Now, I wasn’t looking for whichever client would give me work quickly. I was looking for clients who would help build my portfolio, and maybe even give me references for future gigs.
As I started focusing on jobs that would move my career forward, I broke into a bit of print journalism, found jobs that would let me be proud of my writing and, eventually, landed a great bylined lead blogger gig.
Sure, during some very slow times in your career, you may need to take a job that won’t give you much forward momentum. But for the most part, focus on jobs that will (or, at least, could) lead to bigger, better, higher-paying jobs.
3. Don’t Keep Terrible Clients
Confession: I don’t do conflict. (Except with my husband. Somehow being married changes that non-confrontational thing. But I digress.)
And, to me, dropping a client — or even expressing a serious concern with a client’s ethics, job description or lack of communication –- feels confrontational.
So I spent the first few years of my freelance career sticking with clients, even when they were total pains in the ass. I’d just float along with a client, doing what was asked of me when it was asked, often hoping the client would simply disappear or run out of work for me to do. (Which does actually happen sometimes.)
It took a while for me to realize that it’s better, in the long run, to just get rid of terrible clients.
Clients who don’t pay enough, or refuse to raise rates after months of excellent work. Clients who give only last-minute assignments, leaving you harried and stressed. Clients who expect way too much for the money. Clients who are just rude, or clients who are vague and unclear in their expectations.
Listen up, future freelancer: these are clients who will wreck. your. career.
So don’t keep stringing them along, thinking you need the work or being too afraid to get rid of them. Just drop them, already! Trust me, when you do, you’ll quickly find a better client to fill the void.
4. Don’t Skip Marketing 101
For nearly three years of my freelancing career, I did next to no marketing. Can you believe that?
To some of you, this might sound like living the dream. Who wants to do all that marketing stuff, anyway? Well, honestly, not me. I hate marketing. It involves talking to people, and there’s a reason I work from home in my pajamas.
But I’ll tell you this: since I started actively marketing, rather than just picking up the “low-hanging fruit” of freelance jobs, I’ve made more money in less time than ever before.
The key, as a freelancer, is to figure out which marketing techniques work for you and your niche.
For instance, if I want to keep working in print journalism (which I really, really do!), I have to pitch editors with query letters and letters of introduction. If I want to land clients in the world of business-to-business writing, I may need to attend networking events, make cold calls or send information packets. And if I want to get paid the big bucks as a blogger, I need to pitch editors and write guest posts.
Whatever your niche, marketing is key to making better money. The best-paying jobs are nearly always the ones that you go out and find yourself -– not the ones that are easiest to find on sites like Elance and People Per Hour.
5. Don’t Be Afraid to Think Big
When I first started freelancing, it was just kind of a stopgap. It was extra money to fill in the blanks in our budget -– or to blow on going out and home décor. But it wasn’t something I thought I would do forever.
At least, not until I got pregnant with my now two-year-old.
From that first positive pregnancy test, I knew it was time to get more serious about freelancing. I mean, we couldn’t afford for me to be a full-time, stay-at-home-mom, but I also didn’t want to work a regular, 40-hour-a-week job that had my kid in daycare full-time.
So around that time, I started getting more serious about freelancing, and I started dreaming bigger. I read up on making it as a journalist and developed a plan to break into business writing. I learned more about getting higher-paid blogging gigs, too.
Now I know the sky’s the limit. Though I’m not really shooting for a six-figure freelancing career, that’s possible. At least I know I can make an excellent living working from home and still have plenty of time to be a wife, mom, and DIYer. I’m dreaming a whole lot bigger.
If you’re just getting started as a freelancer, don’t be afraid to dream big. Those big dreams will drive you to market more, work smarter and land better writing gigs. Never underestimate the power of a big dream.
To Your Future Freelancing Success
Maybe you’ve already started this freelancing thing (whether as a writer or in another profession), and maybe you’ve already made some of these mistakes. I know from experience that it’s possible to build a successful freelancing career on a foundation of tons of little mistakes. But the sooner you quit making these five mistakes, the more quickly you’ll skyrocket your freelancing career!
If you’re not a freelancer yet, start your career off right by thinking of ways to avoid these mistakes. I’ll talk more in my next post about how to get started as a freelancer!
Freelancers, what mistakes have you made and learned from? Share your wisdom with other readers in the comments!
Abby Hayes is a freelance blogger and copywriter who writes about personal finances for Dough Roller. She loves detailed budgets, dark chocolate and fat Victorian novels.