I’ve been freelancing for a few years now and while a lot of bloggers and influencers insist it’s a complete dream, the reality is much more complicated.
Now, I am approaching this article as someone who has freelanced alongside other jobs, while studying, and these days, full-time.
However, please don’t let this discourage you from freelancing, either as a side hustle or a career. There’s just a bit too much fluff on the internet. So, what do you need to know about freelance writing?
Table of Contents
Before You Start Freelancing
You Will Need to Save a Lot of Money
One of the most dangerous things I ever considered was quitting my full-time job. You’ll quickly learn that freelancing is the Wild West, and if you try to freelance before you are ready, things can go sour, fast.
Even if you do have some work lined-up, it’s highly unlikely that you will have build up a large-enough income while freelancing as a side gig.
Personally, I saved for years before I quite, and the only thing I would do differently is save even more.
How to Prepare:
The best thing you can do is be proactive. There’s a famous saying, “The best time to look for a job is when you have a job”?
The same applies to freelancing. You won’t be able to build up a full-time roster of clients while working a 9-5. But you can spend some time in the evenings or weekends building your business and portfolio.
Additionally, you need to prepare financially. Even if you have some money, it will take time to replace your former salary. Save as much as possible and budget for a few weeks or months of a reduced income.
“Pay commensurate with experience” is common in the freelance world. So, as a newbie, your rates might not be the best. Plus, you’re going to need to hustle.
You should also prepare for the possibility that at some point you may need to start a part-time job to make ends meet. (I’ve certainly done my share of babysitting, admin/assistant work, and more over the years.)
Budgeting will never be more important
To start out, you will need to determine on the absolute bare minimum you can live off of each month.
Keep this budget to necessities only: rent, food, healthcare, and transportation. Then save it in a savings account and forget about it. (Or maybe the Charles Schwab ATM account, that way you have access to cash if you need it.)
This is admittedly easier said than done, and why saving before you start is so important. Remember, your income will be lower to start because you’ll be considered unproven.
It Takes a Lot of Effort to Build a Portfolio
This is particularly true at the beginning of any digital nomad job, but even more so for writers.
Cold pitches, client research, emails, and the actual work itself are exhausting. Then, there’s always the threat that a client will change their mind. (Either about you, the freelancer or the project)
The constant threat between the total freedom on how/when you work versus income security can be hard to manage.
How to Deal with “Non-Paid” Work
Especially starting out, it’s going to be important to have clients and or projects lined up. (And little secret. As a freelancer, I still set aside time each week to search for clients.)
It’s important that, in the beginning, you have the right mindset. The job might be a one-off article, graphic, or a year-long website redesign. However, these are all you can use to build your own portfolio, resume, or media kit.
How to Manage the Work Fluctuation
Focus on the good times, not the bad. Of course, you are going to need the budget. But it’s important to remember that this job ebbs and flows with the seasons.
If you’re someone that needs that financial stability (paying off credit card debt, etc), maybe hold off on freelancing full-time. Start it as a side-hustle, and then slowly progress.
How To Build A Client List
Networking is Important
Thankfully, we have an entire post dedicated to how to make friends in a new city.
But only start asking your new-found network about jobs after some time. Hopefully, your name will start coming up, too, whenever somebody mentions that they need a graphic designer, writer, assistant, etc!
How to Network Online as a Freelancer:
But you are going to need to embrace social media. (And have an online portfolio.)
Trust me, as someone who was social media adverse for most of her life, this was difficult.
I post my work on certain topics so people start to see me as an expert in desired niches, but it will go beyond that. I have to comment or share other people’s posts, and I need to engage with both editors/potential clients AND other freelancers on a daily basis.
To be honest, I have noticed a huge difference in my workload before and after I started adopting social media. I am able to see pitch callouts on Twitter. I receive emails from editors looking for my expertise on certain subjects. Plus, the freelancer community tags me in certain job postings.
I recommend doing a bit of research to see what platform is most relevant to your target audience, and focus your efforts on that one. You don’t have to post every day on social media platforms, but try to engage consistently so you’re on people’s minds whenever an opportunity comes up.
Bonus: If you can, obtain positive references from your client, and ask them to post them on your LinkedIn profile. Businesses like to see that!
Discovering Your Niche
In case you haven’t heard, Google is extremely oversaturated. There are going to be thousands of people writing about/doing the exact same things as you. (Like travel)
That’s why, as a freelancer, it’s extremely important that you know your niche as quickly as possible. (For example, this website has an entire niche dedicated to photography gear.) After focusing on that niche for a while, you can slowly start expanding into other subjects that are similar.
How to Find a Niche to Write About
What do you enjoy doing? For example, if you enjoy traveling, is it the beautiful landscapes, the food, the one-on-one small experiences?
Write down a list of about 20 different things. From those 20, you should hopefully find about 5 or so similarities. Congrats, you found your niche.
Following Up is Integral
In late 2020, I quit my job to freelance full-time, and I naively imagined that assignment would magically appear.
I spent hours pitching, researching publication guidelines, and googling potential clients. I did have some success. (Albeit, it helped that I had a portfolio and had freelanced alongside my job for a few years.) But I also heard a whole lot of nothing.
Do you know what padded my bank account?
An editor once shared her inbox with me. There were thousands of unread emails from potential clients and her team, with new ones arriving every few minutes.
With this in mind, it’s only natural that you will not receive a response the first time. It’s important to not be pushy, so wait an appropriate amount of time, and send a follow-up email.
I find it helpful to have a tracking system for all the pitches and cold emails I send out. This way, I know exactly when each message is within the “follow-up window.” I use a spreadsheet, but decide what tools work best for you.
Follow-Up Email Templates
I wait about two weeks before following up unless the message is time-sensitive. In that case, put “time sensitive” in the subject line. Then, I send the follow-up message as part of the original email chain, with an edited subject line: “Follow-Up to [ORIGINAL SUBJECT]”. This provides a reference to the original conversation which is always helpful.
Initial Follow Up
I hope you’re well [feel free to personalize as appropriate, i.e. — hope you had a great vacation in Spain, hope your daughter’s first week of preschool went well, etc.],
I know you’re busy, just checking in to see if you’ve had time to consider my [pitch/proposal/whatever you’re checking up on], below.
[Original Message Follows]
Second/Final Follow Up
I know you’re busy. I’m checking in to see if you’ve had a chance to consider my pitch below.
If you’re not interested, don’t feel the need to reply. However, if I don’t hear from you by [DATE] I’ll pitch it elsewhere.
[Original Message Follows]
Rejection is Very Common
So you’ve followed up, but still have not heard anything….Unfortunately, the most common answer to any pitch is “no.”
This can be incredibly depressing at the beginning of your freelance journey. The trick is to not get discouraged (easier said than done) and pitch more and more.
How to deal with rejection:
Honestly, there’s not much more you can do than accept rejection as a reality.
I had a mentor who told me to expect “no’s” as the default answer. That might sound a bit pessimistic, but I found it freeing. After freelancing for a while, I don’t really get discouraged anymore.
Another friend told me to batch send a bunch of emails at once, which inevitably means you will forget about them. If a response arrives in the inbox, you’re pleasantly surprised. If silence follows, you won’t agonize over it.
You Got The Job
There Will be Difficult Clients
Luckily I’ve never had too bad of an experience, just a few that demanded a bit more, but I’ve had friends who have had to endure some scary clients. Unfortunately, this is just the gamble you take as a freelancer.
How to Deal with Less-Than-Ideal Clients
Do your research before taking on an assignment. Stalk their social media profiles, websites, and even their Google Reviews. Before agreeing to the work, make sure everyone is on the same page both verbally and contractually. Then, if it ends up not working out still, consider the following —
The best thing you can do is finish the job. This protects your reputation as a freelancer and provides you with a “time I overcame adversity” story for future interviews.
Once finished (and after you’ve been paid), politely tell the client it’s not a fit moving forward.
Alternatively, you can say nothing and just decline if they reach out again in the future.
In very rare instances, send a polite “split due to creative differences” email. I would only recommend this if the situation starts to negatively impact your mental health. If you quit a job every time it’s harder than expected, you’ll quickly run out of work. Worse, your reputation will suffer.
It’s Not (Always) More Flexible than a Normal Job
Like any industry, you’ll need to learn to adapt.
Facebook and blogs used to be how freelancers built an online presence. In 2023, conversations have moved to Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok.
You’ll need to be flexible in both how you run your business, as well as how you structure your days. Yes, freelancing allows for a lot more freedom. As long as you meet deadlines you won’t have a strict schedule. You can work mornings only or just evenings. You can take random weekdays off for errands or enjoy hikes when everyone else is in the office.
However, the only one holding you accountable is you. This can (speaking from experience), lead to procrastination and stress, with you as the only one to blame.
Coworkers, supervisors, and other things can be a pain (#freelancer confession) but if the pandemic taught me anything, it was the importance of human interaction.
If you’re a freelancer, it’s even more integral. You will spend most of your time in front of a computer, by yourself. It’s bleak, but that is the absolute reality.
How to Deal With Loneliness
I recommend working from your favorite co-working space, cafe, or library once-per-week.
Also, stay connected in your local community! Participate in city activities, exercise groups, or social events like trivia nights!
It might also be beneficial to connect with other remote workers in your area. Start a book club or s standing coffee date (in-person or virtual) where you all can provide support to each other in this crazy career path!
The Job Is Done
Getting Paid can be a Headache
Once you’ve completed a project, it’s not the end of the work.
Some clients have an automated payment system (think ADP), but more often that not, you’ll be required to submit an invoice via email or an online portal.
If you’re juggling multiple projects, each client has a different invoicing system, and you’re still pitching new clients, you get the idea.
Sometimes, you may have to wait for payment, too.
My Personal Problem Getting Paid
Recently, I was paid for two articles six(!) months after submission. The payment policy was payment after publication, but due to a crazy summer, the editor held my pieces much longer than usual. They did pay within 3 weeks post-publication, but it did require me to submit an invoice.
How to make sure you are paid on time
There is not a lot you can do, if you have signed a contract.
When you negotiate the contract, you can include a minimum/maximum payment window, with a late fee if they don’t pay you on time. However, this isn’t always possible if the client already has a system and payment schedule for freelancers in place. To avoid surprises, make sure the payment date is in writing (email, etc) somewhere.
The six months I recently waited was an anomaly, but still annoying.
So, you’ve landed a new freelance gig. Typically, you should receive a contract that includes a rate, deadline, and other important contingencies such rewrites and late-deliveries. However, if the client decides you’re not needed, what’s the kill fee?
I know kill fees sound scary, but they are the rate that you’ll be paid to stop a job. Sure, it’s rare.
But occasionally a client will decide in the middle (or worse, the end) of a project that it’s not a good fit.
If you’ve negotiated a kill fee, you’ll still be paid, although it won’t be the full commission.
So, you’ve landed a new freelance gig, now what? Typically, you should receive a contract. This should include a rate and deadline. However, do not gloss over contingencies. How many rewrites are you willing to do? What happens in the event of late delivery? Most importantly, if the client pulls out, what is your “kill fee”?
I know “kill fees” sound scary, but they’re essential because it’s the rate you’ll be paid to stop a job. This is rare, but occasionally a client will decide in the middle — or worse at the end of a project that it’s not a good fit. If you’ve negotiated a kill fee, you’ll still be paid, although probably not the full commission.
How to Negotiate a Kill Fee
Make sure you bring up the topic BEFORE accepting a job. Most clients will be familiar with the idea. If not, assure the client that it is contingent on them pulling out of the deal, not you.
Freelancer Hard Truths
Well, those are just a few of the freelancer hard truths I’ve discovered since jumping into this full-time.
Freelancing is certainly a whirlwind filled with stress and deadlines, but for those who want to travel, it’s one of the best options.
If you’re becoming a freelancing, whether it be a writer or something else, there is a lot to know.