by Rachel Smith
05 November 2021
It’s the million-dollar question for every wannabe-freelancer or those struggling in the freelance trenches: what does it take to make it work, long-term? This list is by no means exhaustive but I do think these are traits that every successful freelancer probably has to some degree.
The editor hated your pitch? No worries, you tell him you’ll have another set of ideas on his desk by Monday – and you make sure your next pitch is damn better than the last. Client not sure she wants to outsource her blogging? No problem. You set up a reminder in your email to touch base in a month to see if anything’s changed. (Or, even better, use our Pitch Tracker to keep accountable!) You’re a little bit pigheaded about it, switching up your methods until something works.
I’ve lost my fair share of regular gigs. It always stings, but some hurt worse than others. I’ll always remember with a misty-eyed nostalgia my year as a travel editor for a weekly, and the ten years I spent as a movie reviewer. But when something’s gone, you have to be able to bounce back, not dwell or obsess (too much) and immediately come up with a strategy for plugging that lost income stream.
You have a system for keeping track of them, and you meet them, even if you have several balls in the air at once. Or, if you’re notoriously bad at meeting them, you’re smart and factor in a buffer zone so you have extra time to meet them that you probably won’t need.
Competition out there is fierce. If you’re patient and pleasant and know that clients and editors generally a) feel happy and b) trust you after dealing with you, you’re one step ahead. Similarly…
You know you’re good and you know what you’re worth. So when you come up against clients and editors who change their minds, change the brief, add on things that weren’t included in the initial quote or try to bargain you down when the work’s already done (and believe me, you will), you know how – or learn how fast – to negotiate in a way that’s satisfactory to both parties.
As a freelancer, you have to be, whether this means putting aside 30 percent of your income plus more for a rainy day (or slow patch), or becoming adept at turning one-off projects into lucrative ongoing work.
The notion of pulling one’s belt in was created by a freelancer, I’m sure. In other words, online shopping addicts need not apply.
Critical in today’s world where crappy word rates can raise eyebrows. Taking too long on something costs you – big time – so if you’re a Speedy Gonzales, you can take on more work.
When I worked as a sub, I got a lot of copy thrown at me that was pretty sloppy, by writers who assumed I’d tidy it up. Which I did; that was my job. But the thought always niggled at me – and still does – that if writing is your profession, you should know basic grammar and file copy that’s clean. Many might not agree with me or may be rolling their eyes right now (probably those who don’t know the difference between ‘you’re’ and ‘your’, frankly, and don’t care to learn), but the reality is, there are sadly fewer subs. And when you’re freelance, glaring errors are never a good look. Grammarly.com can help.
The client is always right unless you never want to work with them again. What you do needs to work for the client. The end.
It might be a brief that sends you breaking out into a cold sweat. It might be that they’re paying 3c/word. It might be that they give you the gig then snatch it away then give it to you again. Whatever it is, your churning gut will tell you it’s best to walk.
I did an interview once where I was asked how things had changed since I started out as a freelancer. It was quite strange actually thinking about it but once I did, I realised so much about how I work, how I source work, and who I work for has shifted over the past decade. I’ve had to adapt and I’ve sometimes done it while kicking and screaming and railing at the unfairness of it all. But if it came down to adapting to continue working in an industry I love, or leaving it to retrain and start over, I know what I would rather do.
Any traits you’d add? Let me know in the comments!