For someone on the outside looking in, freelance writing must seem like a strange beast. After all, what is it but a bunch of disparate opportunities all woven together to form a living wage? It might feel hard to believe that you could support yourself without a W4 under your belt, but there it is. Freelancing is real. Freelancing is possible.
If you’re serious about claiming your piece of the freelancing pie, then you’ve already hit the forums and asked established freelancers how they managed to get their foot in the door. Well, the truth is, it’s not a door, or if it is, then it’s wide open. There’s no secret handshake, no special rules, and no gatekeeper but your own inhibitions.
Unfortunately, those writers might have given you some poor advice. There are a lot of myths and assumptions about getting started as a freelance writer held by seasoned writers and newbies alike.
Myth One: It Worked for Me, So It’ll Work for You
I want to preface this entire piece with the simple fact that there is no one way to become a successful freelance writer. For example, some writers will tell you that SEO mills are poison, and you should avoid them at all costs. Others will tell you that they’re the only way to get the ball rolling on your career.
They are both wrong.
Know your strengths. Take the opportunities when they come. Don’t apologize for getting stuck writing the occasional click-bait. And remember that your journey to freelance success is yours alone. No one can or will do it exactly the way you do.
Myth Two: You Don’t Have Any Experience
Ok. Well, if you’ve spent the last several decades living with penguins, then maybe you don’t. But the vast majority of us have done something in our past lives as marketing reps, teachers, lawyers, even technicians that might qualify as writing. Some of this writing can be tidied up and giftwrapped for potential clients as portfolio material.
Still can’t think of anything? Maybe you’ve done some personal writing. Even a short story that didn’t cut the muster at a writing competition can be presented as evidence that you can paste a sentence or two together.
Myth Three: Job Sites are for Content Mills and Academic Dishonesty
Ask freelance writers about Upwork, and you’ll likely be met with a chorus of complaints, frustrations, and warnings. Many will tell you not to get stuck paying substantial fees for your work when you could use free job boards or reach out directly to potential clients.
Others will say that there is no way to make real money as a freelance writer on Upwork and similar sites. They claim that most of the jobs that get posted are click-bait content mills, SEO content mills, students looking to avoid writing their own college papers, and anonymous individuals who want to pay a pittance for a novel.
To be honest, I echo their reservations when it comes to fees, and I think it’s good to diversify your job hunt. But for all that, Upwork and its predecessor, Elance, did wonders for me. I was able to find legit and reasonably well-paying jobs through these platforms. What’s more, the escrow service they provide helps protect budding and experienced freelancers from clients that don’t want to pony up.
If you’re new to freelancing and you’re overwhelmed, a site like Upwork makes it easy to get started. But if you don’t think you need it, then there are plenty of other places to find work.
Myth Four: You Should Apply to as Many Jobs as Possible
The adage “quality over quantity” has never been more appropriate. True, freelancing can be a numbers game to an extent. After all, the more clients you ping, the better your chances of getting noticed. However, if you’re sending dozens of copies of the same stock letter out, then you’re wasting your time.
Apply frequently but do it smart. Focus on clients that match your skill set and promise substantial work. Tailor your letters and portfolio pieces to the job in question. Really, this is Unemployment 101. But for some reason, freelancers that are feeling the pressure to find work will forget everything they ever knew about just that.
Myth Five: You Have to Work for Free When You’re Just Starting Out
No. You don’t have to work for free at all. Case in point, I’ve yet to work for free, and I’m doing just fine.
Clients shouldn’t expect free work out of you. Any exposure they promise is probably not worth the time it takes for you to be their slave. Any good reviews they promise aren’t earned honestly. Don’t let them prey on you because you’re new and want experience. Your time and talent are worth more than that.
4/15 Edit: I want to add a caveat to the above sentiment. There may be times when you feel that an opportunity to guest post on another person’s blog or feature on a legitimate publication is worth working for no pay. Maybe you believe in the message, or you’re doing it for fun. If that’s the case for you, then go for it.
But there are clients out there who will prey on freelancers with the promise of exposure when they really just don’t want to offer honest pay or honest work. Don’t let clients walk all over you or make you feel unreasonable for asking about compensation.
Myth Six: You Get to Be Your Own Boss
Technically, this is true. You get to set your hours, choose which projects to take on, and decide when the day is done. Sounds nice, right? The truth is, there is a bigger boss than you, and it’s called circumstance.
At the end of the day, you’re a business owner more than anything else. You need to work even when you have no work to do, including marketing, networking, applying for jobs, and managing your expenses. Just because you can take the afternoon off, doesn’t mean you should. And if you do, then expect to make that time up later.
In short, this is not a career for people looking to turn their noses up at the status quo in favor of an easy “work-from-home” lifestyle. This is a career for people who enjoy writing and want to go into business doing something they love.