How Do I Become a Freelancer? A Grossly Incomplete Overview

In a few hours, I will be a guest in an editing and publishing class at Western Washington University, where I earned both my undergrad and graduate degrees and more or less got my writing and editing career started. Somehow, I am now considered some kind of authority and get to talk about how I’ve managed to fumble my way through a career as a wordsmith. Trust me, I like the feeling. But I’m just confused as to when people started asking for my advice on things.

I think the biggest part of getting started down the freelancer’s path is knowing where to start—and what things to consider. So, in preparation for my presentation, I figured I might as well give a brief scattershot of how I began, and how I sustain, this little career I’ve carved out.

These are my thoughts. They’re far from comprehensive, but hopefully somebody happening upon this site might learn a thing or two in the process. So let’s get to it.

Create a Foundation

I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to anyone who became a full-time freelancer overnight. To really get going, you need to be able to prove you have the skills to get the job done. This means either working for someone first or working freelance on the side until you think you can sustain yourself.

Get a side job

I first stepped into the freelancer’s life within the first few months of finishing grad school. I had an opportunity to edit a dissertation, I enjoyed the experience, and I decided this kind of work would be fun to pursue full-time.

But while I had freelancing on my mind, I knew had to build up to it. So, I split my time. By day, I was a humble breakfast cook, flipping eggs and talking trash to my coworkers. By night, I was getting my first few writing and editing gigs. At a certain point, I realized I was working 60-70 hours a week—half of which was freelancing. My cooking job was now taking away from my freelance career, so I decided to take the leap full-time into my newfound world.

Find your bread and butter

Even the best freelancers have feast or famine moments. Sometimes I’m so busy that I work every day for a month. Other times, I’m trying to figure out how to get out of a rut where I’m only at half or three-quarters capacity. But here’s the tip: find a bread-and-butter job—or two. Basically, you want a steady, long-term client that always has work for you.

If later down the road you’ve figured out how to target big money projects that can enable you to ride out the ruts, great (no, seriously, good for you). But that probably won’t be in your first few years. I’ve had long-term jobs at POD firms, content farms, and marketing firms that, while the pay wasn’t always at the top of my range, have kept me going through all the down times. Reliable work pays the bills—and in a strange way, frees you up for my next bit of advice.

Find your passion projects

Find your bread and butter? Great! Use the rest of your time to find work that really gets you excited, that pushes you to up your game, or that takes you into a new pay grade. The good projects are out there, but they’re a little harder to find. But when you do find them, it will remind you why you chose this career path in the first place. Right now, I’m waiting with bated breath to see if a client’s excellent mountain climbing book I edited this past summer lands with a publisher. I’m pretty sure it will. And though I didn’t write it, I’ll be damn proud when it finds a home.

Keep your ear to the ground

Even when times are good, be on the lookout for the next job—and budget time in your week to do so. This is not only another way of minimizing the ruts, but it’s also a way to keep your career moving forward. I’ve learned it’s easy to get caught up in what you’re doing in the day-to-day if you’re busy. And really, that’s fine. But my goal is always to make a little more (and work a little less) each year, and the way to do this is to keep looking for new opportunities.

Some resources I’ve found helpful:

Learn How to be a Business

I’m a lot of things—writer, editor, poet, musician, you name it. Maybe you’re different than me, but I didn’t exactly take any business management or entrepreneurship classes when I had the chance, mostly because, well, I didn’t know I was going to become a freelancer. I still haven’t taken any formal classes (and I still want to), but I’ve learned quite a bit in the meantime.

It’s on you to pay for…

Well, everything. But it’s probably more than you think going into it:

  • Office space, equipment, and supplies
  • Advertising, memberships, subscriptions, etc.
  • Insurance, and retirement
  • Vacation and bonuses
  • All the other things I can’t think of right now

Here’s the thing I really wish I’d thought of—or that someone had told me (or that I’d thought to ask): The rates you charge must take all these costs into account. Making, say, $20/hr. as an employee is a lot different than making $20/hr. as a freelancer. In other words, if you want to gross, say, $40K a year (a nice modest amount), then you need to figure out how much more you need to net before expenses to end up at that number once all your other costs are taken into account.

Task and time management

Here’s the other thing: When you’re your own business, not all of your time is spent working jobs. Accounting is part of your job. Advertising is part of your job. Honing and learning skills is part of your job. Things I can’t think of right now are also part of your job. If you’re working eight hours a day on jobs and then doing the administrative side before/after, just remember that means you’re working more than full-time.

Now, getting started, that may be a little necessary. But your goal should be a normal work week (approximately 40 hours). I tend to work for clients five or six hours a day and spend the rest of my time on various administrative tasks (even answering e-mail takes a while). So find a system that makes sense for you. I use Asana religiously to keep me on task and juggling my varying obligations effectively.

Join Some Groups

Professional development is a part of any career path. Freelancing is no different—unless you’re happy doing the same thing 20 years from now (and if you are, power to you).

So learn. LinkedIn is actually pretty decent for this if you find the right groups and like the online thing (so, so much of your job is online).

But it’s great if you can do these things in person. I’m a member of the Northwest Independent Editors Guild and have hung out with Whatcom Writers and Publishers. I also get out to the AWP and Chuckanut conferences when I can. Honestly, I’d like to do more. Freelancing can be kinda solitary, and it feels really good to talk shop with people and remind yourself that other people do what you do too. At the very least, make friends in the biz.

Be Open

When I first got into this world, I was going to be an editor. That was it. Nothing more, nothing less. I knew I could edit, and I liked doing it.

Since then, I’ve expanded into copywriting, ghostwriting, content management, and even a little voiceover. And now, I really like being able to switch around between all these skills. It keeps me fresh, it makes me a lot more employable, and most importantly, it has given me great insight and experience into the many aspects of content production (see “Think Long-Term”).

Here’s the thing I’ve found: If a client likes you and asks you to do something you’ve never done before, be honest. I’ve been asked to do new and surprising things several times, and every time, I’ve given the same answer: “I’ve never done that before, but I understand the principles, and I’m willing to give it a shot if you’re willing to bear with me.” They’ll almost always say yes. Again, if your client likes you, they’d rather take a risk with someone they trust than go out and take a risk with an unknown.

Take Care of Yourself

For the first year or so of my freelancing life, I basically forgot that I had a body. I was so focused on getting this business going that I ended up in the worse shape of my life—and full of anxiety to boot. Now, I’m not advocating that you go out and get into triathlete-level shape, but go for a walk from time to time. Break up your day. Get away from your desk. Working from home means you don’t even need to get up and commute. You don’t need to move much to do your job. This is nice, but it means that you have to go out of your way to even go for a walk.

I started exercising. But you know what else I did? I took an occasional, on-and-off job catering weddings and events at a golf club. I get to flex my cooking muscle, socialize, and, best part yet, enjoy nearly free golf at a beautiful course. The point is this: If you stay at home all the time, you get creepy and lose your social skills. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have enough social skills to lose.

Think Long-Term

Finally, have a plan for your freelancing career. I’ve talked to enough freelancers to know that there are a lot of different ways to go with this, but the bottom line is that every year you should be looking to move your business forward. This can mean a lot of things—more fulfilling work, better pay, bigger projects, whatever. Even if you think you’ll eventually leave freelancing for a more traditional job, you want to keep growing. It will make you more employable.

Myself? I want bigger projects. I want to work with production teams and make some really fun, wonderfully stupid stuff. This year, I’m laying down the groundwork to make that happen. So here’s hoping for the best.


Have any questions that I didn’t cover here? Have some experiences you’d like to share? Want to tell me how wrong I am about all this? Leave me a comment!





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