Transitioning to full-time freelancing has easily been the most challenging thing I’ve done since I first worked up the courage to leave Canada and travel long-term.
Last week marked my one-year anniversary as a freelance writer. I was still teaching in Japan when I decided to start aggressively and consistently seeking out freelance projects. Teaching English and participating in work exchanges were (and still are) fantastic ways to travel slowly and steadily without breaking the bank, but I knew I wanted the independence of working for myself and the freedom of being able to do that work anywhere in the world.
I think every person goes about finding clients and building a portfolio in their own way, but I also suspect a few aspiring freelancers – in any field – might learn something from my own bumpy road to…success? On good days, I might describe it as such. So here it is in one compact post: Everything I’ve learned over my last year as a freelance writer.
How to Find Jobs
I quickly realized that finding freelance job boards was simple, but figuring out where to focus my attention was difficult. Elance was the first site I went to, and it became the site I’ve stuck with. I wouldn’t say it’s particularly superior to other freelancing sites, but for me anyway, monitoring the hundreds of jobs that are posted on dozens of different freelance sites everyday was a bit too overwhelming. In the beginning, I found it easier to work on building my reputation on a single site. Freelancer.com and oDesk (which supposedly merged with Elance, but I haven’t seen any changes to either site since this was announced last year) are also good starting points.
I also recently signed up on Write this Moment which, as the name suggests, focuses exclusively on writing opportunities; in contrast to the other three sites, where jobs range from writing to graphic design. Lastly, at the risk of exposing myself as some kind of closeted-creeper, my other tactic is to browse other writers’ and bloggers’ ‘portfolio’ pages to check out the companies they’re writing for. It’s hit-and-miss, but it’s not a bad way to narrow down a few companies that might be looking for more writers.
Over-Deliver on Everything
I’ll be honest, starting out on Elance can be a little disheartening because hundreds of people often apply for a single job and, as you may have heard about Elance, a lot of those people are willing to work for a few dollars an hour.
For weeks after registering on Elance, I applied for dozens of jobs everyday and received no responses. At the time, I was still teaching and I was more concerned with building my portfolio than with making money, so I started making low bids on projects. I’m a little hesitant to admit this or recommend it, because writers who are willing to work for ‘exposure’ or ridiculously low fees are the bane of any freelancer’s existence – they bring wages down for all of us. Ultimately, however, I had stepped into a market where I felt like I had to prove myself before anyone would take me seriously, and the only way to do that was to get a few people to hire me, however I could. It also helped me gradually build confidence in my writing abilities. The more positive reviews I received, the more I knew I deserved more money than I was asking for.
I was writing articles for pocket change, but I wrote as if I was getting hundreds of dollars. I delivered nothing less than my absolute best, even though I wasn’t getting paid to give it. The result? I received ecstatic reviews from my clients and suddenly my Elance profile was starting to look pretty damn competitive. Now, when I send out pitches requesting a rate that I can actually live on, clients read those glowing reviews and most recognize that my work is worth those rates.
The bottom line is there are two kinds of clients on freelance job boards: 1) Clients looking to pay a dollar an hour for someone with the ability to fill space with semi-coherent sentences, and 2) clients that are looking for someone who can create high-quality content.
I didn’t take me long to recognize the difference between the two, and focus on the job postings that were worth applying for.
Once I had a decent portfolio of writing samples and some great reviews, I was able to coast a little more. Some jobs were one-off projects, but many have led to subsequent projects with the same client, or even a steady flow of regular projects.
Besides gaining a few long- term clients, new clients come to me now. When clients create a job on Elance, they have the option of sending messages to appropriate freelancers, inviting them to submit proposals for the job. I usually get a few of these invites every day, plus clients sometimes even create ‘invite-only’ jobs specifically for me, and reach out to me directly. My (now more-reasonable) hourly fee is listed on my profile, so when clients contact me, they know they’re not going to get me for $5 an hour.
Beyond the job boards, the more you write and the more people you write for, the more your work is out there online for other clients to find. One of my best clients – who I still work with – emailed me after reading my work on another site. I’ll admit that, coincidentally, some of my projects trailed off over the past week and I went back to the Elance job board, but it was the first time I had to actively look for new work since last June.
I won’ be the first or the last person to say it, but freelancing (especially freelance writing) is rarely the route to riches. In my most profitable months (so far anyway), I make about the equivalent salary of my first entry-level job back in Toronto. I have aspirations to earn more, (although that’s a story for another day) but for now freelancing gives me the freedom to travel and if you’re willing to work hard for it, it’s something anyone can do.
Do you have any tips for taking your job on the road?