Freelancing: An Increasingly Attractive Option
Freelancing is an appealing option for young people starting their careers and for established professionals alike. For one thing, freelancing offers a flexible schedule. This is increasingly important for our travel-obsessed generation, which values experiential rewards over dollars. A recent Forbes article reported that a whopping 74% of Americans “prioritize experiences over products” and that “65% of millennials are currently saving money to travel,” a sharp jump from previous generations. 1It’s no surprise, then, that more and more young people are seeking their fortunes in a way that allows them to be their own bosses while bolstering their resumes.
Another appealing aspect of freelancing is the inherent flexibility writers have with respect to picking assignments. Are you fond of web content creation but find yourself bored when writing product placement pieces (or vice versa)? When you’re a freelancer, this isn’t problem! Once you’ve established a client base and reasonable portfolio, you can start to be choosy about which projects you accept.
Given these points, you would assume that most freelancers are quite happy—and you’d be right! New York-based Payoneer’s survey of 21,000 freelancers from 170 countries indicates that most freelancers answer the “Are you satisfied with your job?” query with a resounding “yes.”1
Another Forbes article projected that if freelancing rates continue to grow at their present levels, as much as 50% of the US workforce could be freelancers by 2027.3 Whether or not these exact numbers will comes to pass, there’s no doubt that many older Gen-Xers and millennials will endeavor to break into the world of freelancing.
In the same article, the author provides what is perhaps the most indicative statistic: “47% of working millennials now freelance in some capacity.” The author goes on to note that, according to Upwork CEO Stephane Kasriel, this upsurge represents a growth three times faster than that of the traditional workforce.3
Taken together, all of this data supports the claim that freelancing has become extremely popular. The big two-pronged question, then, becomes this:
What qualifications, skills, and client acquisition strategies spell success for a freelancer?
Developing the Skills
First and foremost, let’s address one of the most frequently-asked questions regarding this career move: do you need a university education to become a successful freelancer?
It would be disingenuous to suggest that possessing a degree doesn’t help with most career prospects in life. The same holds true, but to a much lesser degree (no pun intended), for freelancing. A diploma—especially in the liberal arts—signifies to potential clients that you have analytical reading and writing skills, developed through coursework that includes a variety of research and term papers. That can only be a plus.
However, such qualifications are less important to some clients than to others. Moreover, because more and more companies have started availing themselves of social media platforms for brand leveraging, there is a growing demand for people who can write in a style that appeals to a generation raised on Instagram influencers and bloggers. A diploma is not necessary for that.
Indeed, the aforementioned Payoneer survey revealed that 1 out of every 5 global freelancers does not hold a bachelor’s degree. 2This is convincing evidence that it is possible to make it as a freelancer without ever having worn a graduation cap (Do You Need A Degree To Freelance?).
Nevertheless, whether you’re writing a press release for a new pharmaceutical, an op-ed for a popular political outlet, or a trendy product description for athleticwear, you do need to have a superior command of language and a familiarity with writing styles. At the beginning of your freelancing career, while you’re still establishing a reputation for yourself and amassing a regular client base, you can’t afford to be overly picky about the types of assignments you take. That comes later. What these two points mean is that you should be able to create a variety of good content aimed at different audiences and with different purposes.
How, then, do you go about developing this linguistic prowess, especially if you’ve never taken formal composition courses? The answer is fairly straightforward: you read.
Here’s the simple truth: you can’t produce good content without having read some of it first.
This is the same recommendation frequently given to people panicking about the writing portion of the SAT, GRE, LSATS, and other standardized tests that evaluate the analytical and writing skills of potential students. As far as advice goes, it’s quite intuitive, yet many people overlook the importance of good input for good output. So, if you want to polish your writing skills, spend just a little time every day reading a wide variety of reputable publications like National Geographic, Smithsonian, Politico, The Economist, BBC, Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast, The Atlantic, Salon, and more as a way of improving your analytic reading skills. This, in turn, will help polish your writing, as you’ll become more familiar with various styles, formats, and rhetorical devices.
Even for the seasoned freelancer, reading can be a nice “brain warmup” for writing. Researchers at Stanford University (among others) have demonstrated that reading—especially focused reading—results in a “dramatic and unexpected increase in blood flow to regions of the brain beyond those responsible for ‘executive function’.”4 So, if you’re struggling with a nasty case of writer’s block, switch places and read what someone else has written! It’s sure to get your creative juices flowing. Make sure that as you read and digest these pieces, you’re being an active reader, not a passive one.
The same Payoneer report included this encouraging statistic: 47% of freelancers spend less than two hours a week looking for new projects2. When narrowed down to writing and translation freelancers, 77% spend six hours or less searching for new jobs.2 In other words, most freelancers spend far less than one normal workday a week looking for new jobs, dispelling the myth that most of a freelancer’s time is wasted on trying to find work.
But how do you begin? You may want to start out by taking two steps at the same time—unsual advice, but with good reason in this case. Set aside two hours of the day to peruse job posts on a freelancing platform, and four hours to research and write an article for a publication like Medium. The goal of the former action is to get familiar with available job offerings, while the purpose of the latter is to build your portfolio. Medium will allow you to publish anything, provided that it doesn’t violate the site’s terms or include hate speech. If you know of interesting locations or foods, you could write a short profile of them for Atlas Obscura/Gastro Obscura. While submissions to Obscura are subject to an editor’s evaluation, it’s not too difficult to be featured as long as you can provide a well-written summary of a unique experience or food. One caveat: neither Medium nor Obscura pays for articles.
You might be thinking, “Why would I go through the trouble of writing something for free?”
Fair question. In short, because potential employers will often ask to see a few pieces that you’ve written. Even if you weren’t commissioned or paid to write them, you’ll at least have a byline on the articles, which you can use as evidence of your experience.
Once you’ve reached the point where you have written quite a few pieces, you will have a much easier time attracting work. In fact, many of your employers will be repeat hirers. At that point, you’ll have established industry “cred.” Usually this means that you can start to specialize more and be a little choosier about what work you accept.
The moral of the story? First off, if you chose to start freelancing now, you’ll be in good company. More importantly, though, don’t be anxious about your qualifications or intimidated by the thought of acquiring clients and building a reputation. All of this can be easily accomplished with a voracious appetite for reading, smart use of platforms, and slow but steady portfolio building. Take a deep breath—you’re on your way to monetary remuneration for content creation (say that ten times fast)!
1NOwnership, No Problem: An Updated Look At Why Millennials Value Experiences Over Owning Things, Forbes, Blake Morgan, January 2, 2019
2 The Payoneer Freelancer Income Survey: Global Benchmark Report for Hourly Rates, Payoneer, 2018
3 Are We Ready For A Workforce That is 50% Freelance?, Forbes, Elaine Pofeldt, October 17, 2017
4 This is your brain on Jane Austen, and Stanford researchers are taking notes, Stanford News, Corrie Goldman, September 7, 2012