When I dipped my toes into the freelancing pool back in 2014, I was desperate for something different. Any alternative to a conventional nine-to-five and the sweaty horror of a daily commute into central London.
Freelancing seemed like the obvious way to go. But how to start? Like many, my initial experiences as a self-employed writer came via the big marketplace platforms. Elance and Freelancer to begin with, Upwork a little later on. All the places Google tends to land when you’re searching for freelance writing work.
The experience was positive at first, partly because I had a few writing samples tucked away on a personal blog, partly because I pitched well, and partly because I was in the right place at the right time.
But early freelance life had its fair share of challenges, too. For the first year, I was earning well below your average university graduate. Knowing how high to set my rates was a constant headache. So too was selecting which jobs to apply for and winning contracts – particularly when each one I pitched seemed to have a dozen applicants willing to work for less.
Some of the structural problems of freelancing platforms were highlighted in an article by Gareth Hancock for UnderPinned in November. He pointed out that even though 73% of freelancers use Freelancer.com, Upwork, PeoplePerHour and similar sites to find work, only 4% charge $51-$100 an hour – the kind of rate you might expect to demand when working as a self-employed creative. 40% of freelancers are working for under $10 an hour.
So, how can you become one of the 4%, or at least push up into those higher brackets? What steps can you take to avoid getting trapped in a race to the bottom?
Whichever platform you choose to start out on, it’s easy to get pulled in by the slew of content mills and low-budget clients. Many are looking for entry level writers who can churn out articles for ridiculously low prices. It’s devaluing and frustrating, but inevitably these clients are looking for quantity, not quality.
If you are a strong writer and serious about doing this for a living, there’s no reason why you should settle for a rate that works out as below the national minimum wage. You are worth more than that.
It’s worth bearing in mind that if English is your first language you already have an advantage over much of the competition. Fluent English writers are in high demand on freelancing platforms.
If you do undersell yourself, you’re bound to end up bidding against freelancers from around the world who can afford to work for much less than you can. Set an hourly rate to reflect what you can offer in that global context, and avoid pitching for work that pays peanuts. There are plenty of clients out there willing to pay decent money. If you do feel that a few low-budget projects are what you need to get the ball rolling, build a portfolio and gain some all-important feedback, have the confidence to raise your rates when things go well.
You are the boss. If you want to charge more this week than you did last, you absolutely can. What’s the worst that can happen?
It’s all well and good saying that inexperienced freelance writers can win clients and get paid well using global platforms, you might be thinking. But how can that be?
The truth is that these platforms are the ultimate leveller.
Having used Upwork as both a freelancer and a client, I’ve seen first-hand that the usual rules of the working world don’t apply. Don’t have much experience or a body of work to support your pitch? You can still win great clients.
You just need to be able to do three things: Write a convincing cover letter, back it up with a strong profile and, ultimately, deliver on what you promise.
Standing out from the crowd during the application process is not as difficult as you might think. Small touches can make a huge difference, as can avoiding the common errors applicants tend to make.
You wouldn’t believe the number of generic responses that come through once a job is posted. Too many freelancers submit what is clearly a copy and pasted cover letter. Inevitably, this means they spend more time talking about themselves than the project and fail to address the specific challenges the client is facing.
Any self-respecting client is likely to pick up on this quickly and rule that freelancer out of contention. After all, why would you hire someone who hasn’t taken the time to respond properly to the brief?
Instead, tell potential clients something they don’t know. Share an idea, observation or statistic that proves you’ve actually taken an interest in their project. Spend more time talking about them than yourself, and try to include an example of what you could bring to the table. You’ll be surprised at how effective these little touches can be, purely because the majority of applications lack that kind of attention to detail.
All of this means that coming across as a genuine, conscientious human can take you a long way.
Let the clients come to you
If you’re just starting out, it’s likely that despite pitching for work and winning the occasional project, you are still struggling to fill your schedule and convert applications into jobs.
This might sound strange, but maybe you’re bidding for too many projects? If you want to resonate with clients and pen winning cover letters, a quality over quantity approach is definitely the way to go.
It could also be that your profile isn’t up to scratch. This will be among the first things a client sees when you apply for their project, so it has to say the right things in the right way.
Start off with a winning title: What you do, but phrased in a way that sets you apart from the rest. You are not just a freelance writer. You are a Dedicated Wordsmith, a Creator of Compelling Copy.
It’s key that you outline your abilities in a way that isn’t going to make clients roll their eyes. So avoid talking about yourself directly in subjective terms. “Hard-working” and “highly-motivated” are tired cliches for a reason.
Instead, include testimonials from projects you’ve worked on in the past and find ways to big up your ability without blowing your own trumpet. If your landing pages are “born to convert” or your website copy is “elegant and engaging”, you’re starting to tell a story clients can actually buy into.
It’s also vital to make sure your profile contains keywords relevant to the work you want to do. That way your chances of appearing in clients’ search results and getting invited to their projects will rise. Rather than wasting time chasing opportunities, you’re much more likely to win new business if the client invites you to bid.
Account for Platform Commission
It’s painful to work tirelessly on a project only for the platform to come along and take a percentage of the fee once you’re done.
On Upwork, commision starts at 20%, which is, let’s face it, painful. That drops down to 10% once you’ve earned between $500 and $10,000, and down further to 5% if your billings with that client exceed $10,000. The first thing you should do is factor in the platform’s commission when you set your rates and bid on projects.
Aside from that, the system incentivises building relationships for the long term. There are some obvious ways you can make that more likely. Impress, be reliable, deliver on your promises. But also actively prospect for more work with clients once you’ve developed a strong rapport.
Upwork, Freelancer and the like have a mixed reputation. They are perceived to expose freelancers to low rates and suck them into a race to the bottom. There’s no denying that could happen if you make the wrong decisions.
But the risks are outweighed by the potential to win new business, the ability to tap into a global client base, the freedom to set your own rates, and the potential to win lucrative clients for the long term.
If you’re good at what you do and, just as importantly, skilled at applying for projects, the sky is the limit.