10 Lessons in 10 Years of Freelancing

By Jaclyn Law

A decade ago, I became a full-time freelance writer and editor. It’s been a great 10 years. I love the flexibility and autonomy that freelancing affords, and I’ve been fortunate to have a steady stream of projects and clients I enjoy working with. Has it always been fun? Of course not. Every career has its quirks and challenges. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way.

1. Time management is everything.

If you freelance, you’re likely familiar with the “feast or famine” cycle. Many writers, understandably worried about the “famine” part, say yes to every gig that comes their way. Being busy is good, but being overbooked isn’t. It’s exhausting, and a packed schedule leaves no room for problems or opportunities that come up. Balancing short- and long-term projects also takes practice. Projects with long timelines tend to take a backseat to things that come up on short notice, but both need your attention.

2. There is such a thing as working too much.

When I started freelancing full-time, I worked all the time. That’s a hazard of working at home – you’re never far from your office. I earned a lot, but my days were very long and I even pulled a few all-nighters because I’d over-committed myself (see #1). Always being busy isn’t a virtue. Make time in your schedule for yourself, your family, your creativity and your long-term goals.

3. It’s OK to turn down work.

There are many good reasons to decline work: it’s not your expertise, you don’t have time, you can think of someone who is better qualified, it doesn’t pay well or you just don’t want to.

4. Break up with low-paying clients.

For several years, I spent a huge chunk of my time copy editing for magazines. It was my lowest-paid and most time-consuming gig, but I stuck with it because I love magazines and magazine people. Letting go of two of them was difficult, but it freed me up for higher-paying work. You can try negotiating with low-paying clients. I still copy edit for one publication because the client agreed to raise my rate, but I was prepared to quit if they said no.

5. Earn repeat work.

As your business grows, you want to spend more time earning money and less time marketing. That means trying to get repeat work – more assignments from clients you already have. The best way to do that is to do a great job: meet deadlines, do everything the assignment requires, be pleasant to work with, don’t do anything sketchy (like plagiarizing) and provide extra value if you can. Each project is an opportunity to earn your next one.

6. Diversify.

Structuring your business to be flexible and adaptable will help you weather slow-downs. This could mean having a variety of clients, offering a range of services or working in multiple markets. Things can change any time, so keep learning and trying new things. At a recent PWAC Toronto Chapter seminar, freelancer Alison Garwood-Jones talked about doing “work experiments” that might lead to new clients or projects. What ideas can you experiment with?

7. Don’t become a dinosaur.

Technology isn’t going anywhere, so take the time to learn what’s out there. You don’t have to become a coder, but you can learn what a wireframe is, how Google Drive works or how to write a video script. There are plenty of free educational resources online. Who knows? You might discover a passion for a certain kind of technology and start offering it as a service.

8. Stay on top of financial stuff.

How much have you earned in the past six months? Are you meeting your business goals? Have you set aside enough money for income taxes? Having a good sense of your finances can help you feel more in control of your business. Another thing I’ve learned: it’s much less painful to add up your expenses throughout the year than to do it all at once.

9. You don’t have to go to everything.

I believe in networking in person. That’s not the same as schmoozing with strangers. My version of networking involves hanging out with and volunteering with other freelancers. I used to go to more events, but I’ve realized that I don’t need to be everywhere. Instead of FOMO (fear of missing out), now it’s more like IIWI (is it worth it?).

10. Exercise.

Our bodies aren’t designed to sit at a desk all day, typing and staring at a computer screen. Set an alarm to remind yourself to get up at least once an hour. Work out a few times a week. If you hate gyms, try a fun activity like Zumba, boxing or indoor rock climbing. Invest in services that improve or maintain your health. (If you’re in Toronto, check out the artists’ health clinic at Toronto Western Hospital.) After all, freelancers don’t get sick days!

Jaclyn Law is the treasurer and a past-president of PWAC Toronto Chapter.