Five Important Lessons We Learned from Freelancing

Do you like making your own schedule and choosing your own projects? Are you someone who doesn’t mind being home all day and is probably also a night owl? Chances are you’ve thought about being a freelancer, perhaps for design, editing, or marketing. The publishing world, like many other industries, is increasingly relying on outsourcing work to freelancers, especially since the technology is available to make this process easy. There’s certainly a demand for freelancers, and best of all, you would be working for many different companies, organizations, and publishers, both large and small, rather than limiting yourself to one job, one set of responsibilities, one type of product.

But you’ve probably also heard that it’s incredibly difficult to make it in the freelance world. Being responsible for your taxes, your health insurance, and your ability to bring in enough income is a daunting task. These are tough questions to figure out, but if you like being both boss and employee, then don’t let the challenges outweigh the rewards. While we can’t possibly tell you all there is to know, we’ve both been in the business of freelancing in publishing-adjacent fields for a few years now, and we’ve provided five of the most important lessons we’ve learned the hard way.

A bit of background on us: Jenny primarily works in freelance graphic design and book design, though she occasionally does a bit of social media and editing freelance work as well. Adrian’s specialty is in freelance copyediting and building custom ebooks. In the past they also freelanced as a traditional illustrator.

  1. You have more connections than you think, so use them proactively.

    Jenny: I got my first big freelance job because I noticed that an organization I had connections at could use graphic design and social media help. The day after a simple inquiry and meeting, I was asked to draw up a proposal for the kind of work I’d be willing to do as an independent contractor. I’ve received steady work from them for almost two years now and have been offered other freelance work because of my time there. Take the initiative; the worst they can say is no. Other jobs have come from listening to friends, family, and coworkers. By just offering your services, even if your first clients can’t pay you much, you’ve opened yourself up to a whole new network of potential clients down the road. And, if they’re your friends or your relations, they’re far more likely to brag about you and your skills to others.

    Adrian: I bid for work regularly on Upwork (formerly Elance), but the best jobs have come from laborious networking and from existing connections. My first solid freelance copyediting job was a novel passed along to me from a writer/editor friend in New York who had worked on a previous book in the series. I got an email from the author out of the blue saying his editor had recommended me. This is how you build your client base: you don’t only advertise your services to writers—you also cultivate relationships with other editors and publishing professionals. So be proactive about widening your professional network and keeping those relationships strong. Focus on a long-term foundation of credibility and integrity, not a short-term payoff. You never know who is going to think of you when they’re swamped and need to pass off a project. Make these same efforts with your clients. An author’s trust is not lightly given, and they’re likely to come back to you or recommend you to their community if you’ve cultivated a good rapport with them. It’s not just your direct connections who will bring you work; it’s the people they know, too.

  2. Be flexible, but also know your boundaries.

    Jenny: Last-minute projects and lots of nitpicky edits are often part of the job. However, you should always be aware of the fine line between being “nice” and being a doormat: remember that you’re a professional and the relationship with your client has rules. You’re the boss now, so you have to be tough, even though it’s hard to confront someone about money. Communicate in writing about how much you’re expecting to be paid and when, what exactly you’ve agreed to do, and what the timeline for a project should be. Don’t be afraid to ask for more money if the project is turning out to be a lot more complicated than you initially thought.

    Adrian: One of the earliest lessons I had to learn was how to say no. People will ask you to work for free. They will ask you to work for experience or exposure, or to wait to be paid until after a book is published. They will want you to copyedit their 100,000-word memoir for a flat rate of fifty dollars. They will attempt to argue your rate down at the end of the project. You’re a professional; the first step to being treated like one by other people is to treat yourself like one. Be clear about your boundaries from the start and stick to them. You know that anonymous quotation—”what you allow will continue”? It’s 100 percent true. Be consistent. If you take weekends off, don’t respond to client emails on weekends. Don’t let anyone convince you your time is worth less than it is. If you encounter rate resistance, refer to the common rates listed by the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA). Ask for what feels right for your experience level, and don’t suffer bullying.

  3. Present yourself professionally, but be honest about your abilities.

    Adrian: Know your limits. Don’t misrepresent yourself or your abilities to a client because you’re afraid to say no or because you’re desperate for experience. Never agree to more work than you can handle. There are a lot of writers out there who don’t understand the magnitude of the editorial process or the differences between levels of edits. And when you offer both editorial and ebook services like me, there are often writers who think you’re going to handle everything from developmental editing to copyediting to designing an ebook in a matter of days, especially if you’re foraging for work on a highly competitive platform like Upwork. The EFA has a quick guide to types of editorial work that you might invoke for clients who don’t quite seem to know what they’re looking for. Talk with the author about their needs; if what they want sounds more like a developmental edit than the copyedit they’re asking for, tell them so.

    Be crystal clear about what you’ve agreed to do, and don’t get caught up in the excitement of getting contacted for a job. Stay realistic, and if you realize partway into a project that you’ve bitten off more than you can chew—maybe the book needs a heavy copyedit, not a light one—be honest. You should handle yourself professionally, but that doesn’t mean you have to be an automaton. It’s okay to tell a client that the manuscript requires more work than you anticipated, or that you’ve got too much on your plate, or that you’re not going to be able to meet a deadline. Always offer a solution: Negotiate a new timeline or rate, or if someone approaches you with a project you don’t have time for, defer it to a colleague. Your colleague will appreciate it, and maybe one day they’ll return the favor.

    Jenny: It might seem counterintuitive to admit that you don’t know how to do something, but there’s nothing wrong with saying, “I don’t know how to do this,” as long as you follow up with, “but I’m willing to learn or find out how.” You’ll never know how to do every single thing a freelance job calls for, because every company and project varies. I recently completed a job for a Portland publishing company where I was asked to prep a PDF file for Amazon’s First Look feature. Had I ever done that before? No. Did I know how? No, but a five-minute Google search was all it took. Editing, graphic design, marketing, writing—they’re all different jobs, but all of them ultimately come down to knowing how to problem solve. And how do you learn how to problem solve? Be curious. Ask questions. Stop worrying about what your client thinks about you and figure out what you need to get a job done.

  4. Keep a detailed record of your projects.

    Jenny: This includes how much you charged, contact information, whether or not you were paid for a job, and how you were paid (by check, cash, Paypal, etc.). Make yourself an invoice sheet and send one to every client you take on, so both parties have records of how much is owed. For tax purposes, I also keep records of my business expenses, copies of business-related receipts, and a record of how much of my income I should be putting aside for taxes. A sidenote: be knowledgeable about the business aspect of freelancing—do your homework! Read up on what you need to get started; it’s not as simple as telling the world that you’re open for business.

    Adrian: Find or make an invoice sheet and use it. Keep copies and make sure you have them backed up somewhere. I also utilize contracts on long-term projects to explicitly detail my editorial responsibilities and specify the agreed-upon rate and deadline(s). It gives the author and me a sense of security, establishes a legal relationship, and helps prevent misunderstandings down the road. You can find sample editorial contracts with a Google search to tweak for your purposes. When you’re freelancing, you’re a small business. You’re accounting and marketing and everything else. Thinking in those terms as soon as possible will go a long way.

  5. Imposter syndrome is real—but it doesn’t have to be.

    Jenny: When you’re just starting out, you might have a lot of self-doubt: Am I allowed to charge that much for a proofread? I think my client is wrong, but I’m afraid to tell them. You’re going to make mistakes. You’re going to think you’ve made a mistake. When I start to doubt myself, I imagine what I’d say to a friend who’d just asked me those questions—somehow, it’s so much easier to give advice to someone else than to tell it to yourself. You’ve done your research into average rates, and you deserve to be treated like a professional. You think your client is wrong, so you should send a nicely worded email asking about it. Finally, remember that even if the worst happens, it’s not the end of the world. There will be other clients, other projects, and you’ll improve with every challenge, every frustrating moment.

    Adrian: It’s so real! And it’s perfectly normal. Respect yourself, accept where you’re at, and don’t be afraid to ask your colleagues and mentors questions. When my editor friend deferred that first copyedit to me, I was so unsure of myself that I consulted her and former coworkers constantly about how to handle problems in the text. Most of the time, they confirmed the solution I’d already pulled from memory or The Chicago Manual of Style, but that process helped me learn to trust myself. Once, when I was nervously, noncommittally fumbling over an oral translation in class, my Ancient Greek professor said something to me that lodged itself in my philosophy: “If you’re going to make a mistake, make it loudly.” All you’ve got is your best, so give it confidently. And, as Jenny said, if the worst happens, it happens. Own up to your limits and mistakes. There will be other opportunities. No matter how they turn out, you’ll learn from all of them.

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