Articles - 14th February 2020

150 people responded to my call for freelancers. I had to choose between them

Words by Jem Collins
Illustration by Jon McCormack

Going through 100 emails is a soul-destroying task at the best of times. For me, getting to the famed inbox zero feels like being the lone firefighter sat inside an active volcano – but when it came to choosing between truckloads of competent freelancers, it was even worse.

It’s no surprise my inbox was flooded after a quick call-out on Twitter – freelancing is a seriously popular career choice. Add to that a rise in freelancers of more than 30 percent last year, and there’s a damn sight more competition than there was before.

So, just how do you stand out from the crowd? And, more importantly, how did I whittle down a group of people who all had the experience I asked for? In short, I did what everyone else does to keep sane, and created some blanket rules that made sense to me. Here’s what they were.

Contact me how I asked you to. Or you won’t hear back.

Pretty much every call for freelancers tells you how to get in touch. Perhaps the manager wants you to drop them an email with a certain subject line, or they want to direct you to a Google Form. Maybe they want you to tie a perfumed pink envelope to a pigeon and set it free as a messenger. I’m being ridiculous now, but the point is they’ve chosen a method of working that works for them. So you should adhere to that.

It can be tempting to drop a DM as you think it’ll help you get noticed, or send a vague email saying that you’re available and happy to chat because it’s quicker, but in reality it’s a fast-track to rejection. Managers and editors are busy people, and if you need that putting in context again, just consider the logistics of going through hundreds of freelance emails on top of your actual job.

When I’m going through applications, I want to have them all in one place, and I don’t want to have to do more work to find out about you. I’ve already got 149 other people who gave me the brief bio I asked for, so I won’t be dropping you a call. In essence, you need to be making someone’s life easier, not adding more tasks onto an already stacked-out day. Oh, and no-one has ever got a commission by replying to a pitch call-out asking the editor to email them. Fact.

It’s not a job application.

Perhaps one of the biggest hurdles for new freelancers is breaking out of the mindset of applying for full-time jobs. It’s understandably quite a handbrake turn from the reams of text some employers will ask you to submit for staff contracts, but for a freelance job, I’m not looking for your entire career back story.

Especially for the informal freelance call-outs you see on social media, it’s much more about providing a concise break down of what you can offer, and a couple of examples of your previous work. As a freelancer you’re a business person yourself, not someone who’s asking to be employed, so the balance of power is different. It’s a subtle change, but a really important one, and that shift should be reflected in your writing.

In short, I’m not looking for a cover letter and CV. Instead, I want a short, digestible introduction which tells me what you can do, where you’ve done things before, and the results you’ve had. Typically, this tends to translate to no more than two or three short paragraphs – anything more and I start to feel fatigued.

For me, these brief few sentences are a really important part of applications. My first move is to sweep through my inbox and remove a broad pile of ‘nos’ just by looking at what’s written in the body of the email. Only then do I start looking at the nitty-gritty of what projects you’ve hyperlinked or any portfolio websites you’ve directed me to.

A large part of this first cull also comes down to personality. I’m looking for someone I can get on with, both in a personal and business sense. You need to appear easy to work with, friendly, and show you know what you’re talking about. And, anyone who tells me that they’re “frankly the best in the business” is in the reject pile faster than you can say cocky.

Keep it relevant

Finally, a piece of advice that should come as a standard warning every time you send an email in response to a freelance job advert – make it relevant. We’ve all put in for jobs where we have never heard of the company before, but the key is to not make it feel that way. Sure, a standard email template might save you time when approaching potential new clients, but if it’s not personalised, it’s not going to land well.

Take some time to look at the business, digest what they’re asking for and tailor your approach. If I’m looking for someone to help me write careers features on my website, you really shouldn’t be leading with your ability to work in a breaking news environment. Similarly, think about it with the work you sent through – I’m not interested in the biggest name you’ve worked for or the most recent, I want to see similar work. It’s less a thematic similarity, but more the skillset behind it. And, if it feels tangential, tell me why it links to what I’m looking for.

If you take one thing away from this piece let it be this – you need to make my life easy. Sure, the gig might work well for you, but that isn’t what I need to know. From the way you email to the work you include, always think about how to help the client get things done more easily. After all, we’re all just firefighting to get to inbox zero.


Want help managing all aspects of your career, from invoices to getting clients? Then sign up to UnderPinned’s Virtual Office.

We champion the freelancers and every entrepreneur who took a leap of faith with their idea.

If this sounds like you, head over to our Virtual Office and send us your best work via an UnderPinned Portfolio. We want to hear from you!

Make your UP portfolio

Related Articles

Seven questions to ask yourself before sending a portfolio

There are many things that make the difference between a successful and an unsuccessful portfolio, and there are some factors that are out of your ...

Read more
How freelancers can detach from billable time

It’s Saturday morning. After kicking back on Friday night, I thought I had signalled ‘weekend mode’ to my mind. Sadly, and I’m not proud to admit i...

Read more
A checklist for the January 31st tax deadline

It’s boring, but if you’ve saved money specifically for this purpose, it shouldn’t be painful. Here’s what you must do to get through your self-ass...

Read more