When I told my parents I wanted to be a writer, I was not met with enthusiasm. For them, the idea of writing for a living conjures up images of poor novelists whose work will never actually see the light of day. Thankfully, this couldn’t be further from reality. Even though the average person may not be convinced of its importance, businesses are still desperate for writing that will engage their consumers, and many are willing to pay handsomely for it. However, it can still be difficult to find full-time work as a writer, which is why I and many others have taken to freelancing.
Although I’m currently happily employed with a “regular” 8-5 job, my experiences with freelance work were overwhelmingly positive, and from time to time I do still enjoy writing the occasional article if a client or particular gig strikes my fancy.
If you’re considering freelancing or have just gotten started in the industry, you might be feeling overwhelmed and a little confused. While I don’t consider myself an “expert,” I have gained some valuable insights during my years as a freelancer. Here are four of the most important lessons I think that someone starting out should hear.
Consider working for peanuts.
If you spend any amount of time reading freelancing blogs, you probably already know that most authors will encourage you to only work with clients willing to pay you a fair wage, and in some ways I totally agree with this sentiment. In fact, Samar Owais of Freelance Flyer has a mantra that I live by when it comes to freelancing—“If you’re not asking for a figure that embarrasses you, you’re not asking for enough.”
That being said, sometimes this approach is not always practical. If you’re just getting into the world of freelancing and you’re like I was, then you’ve got roughly no experience whatsoever. In my early days of freelance work, my portfolio was made up exclusively of school projects, none of which directly related to the gigs I was applying for. If I had started out asking for the rates I charge now, my clients would have died of laughter-induced heart attacks before they could delete my emails. It’s only through taking on these low-paying jobs that I was able to gain the relevant experience that allowed me to increase my rates.
Luckily, the business world is filled to the brim with potential clients who want to hire underpaid freelance writers. No, the gigs you take on early in your career won’t be glamorous or that much fun, but they will provide you with a solid foundation of experience that will benefit you in the long term. However, once you’ve found your freelance footing, drop those clients as fast as you can. Obviously, you want to remain professional—finish up the current projects you’re doing for them—but if they won’t agree to an increased pay rate for future work, it might be time to start “accidentally” ignoring their emails. That’s the beauty of freelancing—you decide who you work with!
Don’t go all in too soon.
After I landed my first gig, I was ready to quit my food service job the next day. Luckily, I didn’t—because my next gig wouldn’t come for a few weeks afterward. Once you get a taste of the freedom that freelancing provides, it can be tempting to drop everything else and make it your sole source of income. However, I don’t recommend this approach for a couple reasons.
Finding work can be fickle sometimes, especially when you’re just starting out. If you’ve already got a healthy savings account, this may not be as big of an issue, but most freelancers recommend having enough money on-hand to last for anywhere from three months to a year without work. For me, this meant another year and a half at my soul-crushing food service job before I transitioned to freelancing full-time.
You also can’t be sure after just one gig if the freelancing life is right for you. There were several times along my journey when I questioned writing for a living. Between difficult clients and boring topics, being a freelancer has just as many potential downsides as any other career. If you take the dive too soon, you may find that you miss your old job, but it won’t necessarily be waiting for you if you want to return. Giving yourself some time to test the waters is a safe way to explore freelancing without making a decision you’ll regret later.
Start thinking about your taxes right now.
Taxes are by far the biggest hassle I’ve faced as a freelancer. Unlike a traditional job, where all your income is listed for you on a nice, neat W2 form, freelancing requires you to keep track of numerous sources of money. If you find yourself doing lots of work for a single client (more than $600 worth), they should send you a 1099 form, which can improve your situation a bit. However, this isn’t a guarantee, so your best bet is to keep meticulous records of the income you receive. It doesn’t need to be anything fancy—I personally just use a spreadsheet with a running tally.
As you’re probably already aware, freelance money isn’t taxed at the time you receive it. I too knew this, but in my infinite wisdom, I decided that this was an issue to worry about down the road. Well, “down the road” (aka tax day) arrived and I found myself owing the government almost $1,000 one year!
Luckily, it’s not too difficult to figure out how much you’ll owe in taxes for freelancing. The income you earn is subject to the self-employment tax rate, which is currently at 15.3% (although this could potentially change in the future). Whether you want to open a new savings account specifically for this or you want to hoard money in a coffee can in the ground, do whatever you can to ensure that you have the funds you need come April 15th.
Go above and beyond for clients who do the same.
I’ve been fortunate to work with a number of good clients during my time as a freelancer. It’s possible to find yourself stuck with the occasional bad apple, but what’s even rarer is finding a truly great client. I can count those on one hand, and I do everything in my power to keep them happy.
For me, a great client is not just someone who pays well—although that is an important consideration! First and foremost, I enjoy working with folks who know what they want. You would be appalled at the countless vague and poorly written freelance ads out there. Sometimes people won’t give you any more than, “I’m looking for a health content writer.” I know that a client has the potential to be great if they can clearly tell me what they need written, the audience it’s being written for, and what they hope to accomplish with the content.
When you find someone you sincerely enjoy working with, don’t take it for granted. Chances are they will recognize that you’re giving them your best and will hopefully reward you with more good opportunities in the future. Who knows, what starts out as a freelance gig could potentially turn into full-time work, if that’s what you’re looking for.