Or maybe I’m just the kind of person who thinks so. I’ve been a freelancer for a total of ten years now. I’m hoping that by sharing some of my experiences and insights, I can help someone else find ways to make freelancing work – or stay away from it, if that’s better for them.
So when is freelancing a beneficial effort?
Freelance work can be a great solution for parents who go in and out of the workforce. My freelance experience proved to be an important factor for me when I returned to work full-time after five years as the primary caregiver for my older two children. I didn’t have glaring resume gaps because during that whole hiatus I had been able to squeeze in at least a few hours a week on a few different projects. So instead of “1999-2004: Mommy” I could write “1999-2004: Freelance writer and editor.”
Freelancing can also be a great means to earn supplemental income if you have a spouse who has a full-time job and you’re primarily at home with kids. Working as a freelancer gives you a flexible schedule. You get to be your own boss, and you don’t have to ask your friends to get all their friends to buy makeup or kitchen supplies or children’s books from you. (Have I mentioned I hate selling stuff?)
Some fields are just really well suited for freelance work. Writing, editing, and
graphic design come to mind – all creative fields in which the work requires
mostly only equipment you can keep in a small home-office space. If your
education and talents can fit into a similar box, it might make freelancing a
really good fit.
Why might you not want to freelance?
As a freelancer, you’re responsible for your own business and everything that goes with it. Nobody else is managing your workflow. Nobody is withholding taxes for you. Nobody is subsidizing your health insurance. These factors are going to mean your work is more time-consuming and less profitable. If you have a partner or spouse with a full-time job with benefits, they’re less of a
It’s also really difficult to work as a freelancer when you have another full-time
effort going on. Right now I’m in a Master’s program, and I’ve found I can only
write about one story a month for my clients. If I take on more than that, I
have a hard time keeping up. My reputation suffers and my clients’ needs aren’t
One of my possible avenues after this program will be pumping up my freelance
business while I wait for the right time to pursue a doctorate. That would
involve a focused effort to build up my client base and get more gigs. I’ll
share more about the successful ways I’ve found freelance work in the next
installment in this series.
Finding Work as a Freelancer
In the first installment of this series, we talked about when freelancing is and
isn’t a good idea for your career. One of the biggest challenges with freelance work is keeping a steady income. To be painfully honest, when a steady income is what you most need, sometimes freelancing isn’t the best choice.
But there are steps you can take to pump up your business. I have found clients in a few ways:
Work for former full-time employers. I worked hard as a full-time employee to make my services desirable and valuable. This is partly because I occupy a certain niche as a writer/communicator who is not afraid of science or technical topics. It’s also because I am efficient and dependable. Those are things anybody can strive for. When I left my jobs, my employers were happy to continue to have me work for them.
Work found through my network. When I worked on a project editing a science dictionary that had been translated from French to English, it was because a friend from my last LDS ward knew I did science communications and spoke French. This wasn’t a casual acquaintance I said hi to in the halls at church; he was one half of a couple we shared dinner with weekly, alternating between their apartment and ours. The time we took to build a deeper friendship had many payoffs more important than a freelance job, but a freelance job was a nice bonus. I have done work for my dad’s consulting business. There’s no shame in working for family! He’s also referred me to colleagues of his whose first language is not English who need help with
academic writing. My most recent job writing science stories for a university
newsletter came from a renewed acquaintance with a high school friend who works in university communications and referred me to an on-campus entity that needed help when her office was swamped. Hurray for Facebook!
Work prepared on spec. Some readers might be aware that I have sold a few stories to the Friend Magazine, published by the LDS church. I don’t usually work on spec, but if you know a publication or client extremely well and know you can meet their needs, it can be worthwhile. Do your research and find out the right person to send your first story to. Be willing to make changes as needed. Those Friend stories kept my family in groceries through the 2003-4 academic year after we took a 1/3 pay cut and moved to California for my husband’s Ph.D.!
Work won by pounding pavement. This type of work is the smallest proportion of my freelance business, mostly because I hate the sales aspect of freelancing. However, I first started working for the University of California, Merced, as a freelancer, not a full-time employee. I prepared my resume and samples, found the right people to take them to, and showed up to deliver them in person. Very soon afterwards I began writing profiles of the first faculty members who had just arrived at the brand-new university. That freelancing relationship led directly to the full-time job I landed there in 2004. I still had to go through the regular application and interview process, but the fact that I was already working with my prospective employer provided a great advantage.
I’ve also tried preparing folders with resumes and samples and mailing them to
prospective clients. This was significantly less effective for me than visiting in person. As a solitude-loving writer it’s sometimes hard for me to grow the ovaries to request a meeting, but there are definite benefits to doing so.
As with any career choice, you have to be careful as a freelancer that you don’t
commit to more than you can handle. In the next installment of this series, we’ll address time management and work/family balance for freelancers.
Ana Nelson Shaw is an adjunct instructor and a candidate for the M.S. in
Technical Communication at Montana Tech of the University of Montana. She
consults and writes on science and higher education communications as Ana Nelson Shaw Public Information Services and has published work in the Ensign and the Friend magazines. With her husband, a professor of mountain hydrology, she is bringing up four miraculous kids who joined the Shaw family through adoption.