Finding Work as a Freelancer
To survive as a freelancer, you need to find work. Unfortunately, there is no way round this problem: no work equals no income. Finding work can also be quite a significant issue until you have built up your reputation somewhat. It can be rather easier if you were already working in the field, and you therefore have a good network of contacts who might supply you with work. However, even then, there are challenges.
Fortunately, there are a number of places to look, and things that you can do that may help. This page describes some of the options for finding work, and sets out some of their advantages and disadvantages. It also provides some tips for using these sources effectively.
Where to Look for Freelance Work
There are probably three main sources of freelance work:
1. Your Network
Depending on your previous employment, you may find that you can get plenty of work through your network, and that there is no need to look further.
People who have previously been employed as staff writers or editors, for example, may find that their previous employer is prepared to keep sending work, grateful to have someone who knows about house style. They may even recommend them to other organisations. Others may find friends with businesses who need their services, or can get work through ‘friends of friends’ or professional contacts.
How do these businesses know that you are looking for work? Two ways.
The first is that you reach out and ask. It takes very little time to send a generic but carefully-worded email to your contacts explaining that you have just started work as a freelancer. It should set out your broad areas of expertise and services, and how to contact you ‘should they hear of anyone who needs work doing’. You may get no replies, but you have lost very little by trying.
The second is to make sure that you update your LinkedIn profile, and share the fact that you have done so with your network. Don’t forget to include a way of contacting you. You can also use LinkedIn as a way to post and share articles that you have written, or work that you have done (first make sure that your clients are happy for you to do that, of course).
The biggest advantage of using your network is that it is free. It costs nothing to send an email and update your social media profile, not even goodwill. The disadvantage is that you may get nothing from it. You cannot rely on this as a route to getting work, but it is worth doing anyway.
2. Online, through freelance websites
There are a number of websites that act as a marketplace for freelance work. Googling ‘freelance websites’ or ‘finding freelance work’ should bring up a reasonable number.
These websites work by giving freelancers access to potential jobs, and potential customers access to a large pool of freelancers. Generally they operate in two ways:
Customers post jobs, and freelancers bid for them. The customer then chooses the freelancer they want, and ‘awards’ the job to them.
Freelancers can make an offer of what they are prepared to do for what price (for example, ‘Write a 500-word blog post for £20’). Customers can then ‘buy’ or ‘order’ that service from the freelancer.
It is worth taking time to explore several sites and find the right one for you. There are two main reasons for this:
Different sites have different business models. For example, some require you to pay to bid for work. Others allow you to bid for work for free, and then take their fee as a percentage of the money you earn through the site. You will have to pay one way or another; it is just a matter of whether you prefer to pay upfront, or when you have earned the money, and the amount that you are prepared to pay.
Each website also has a different geographical client base: they draw freelancers and customers from different areas. This is not insignificant, because it affects the prices that are asked and expected for work. It helps to find one with plenty of freelancers in your location, as the prices will then reflect (roughly) your cost of living.
The big benefit of these sites is that they allow you to build a reputation. The disadvantage, of course, is that it is hard to win work until you have built that reputation. For example, some sites now allow you to ‘import’ your reputation by asking previous clients and contacts to provide written testimonials, so it is worth checking.
There are also things that you can do to make your bids stand out, and to have more chance of winning work.
Focus on what you know and bid early
It is worth focusing your energy on bidding for work in areas where you can reasonably claim to be an expert, or at least know something more than the average.
You may know that you could write about anything (and after all, Google and Wikipedia are your friends), but you will stand out from the crowd more if you are able to claim personal experience of the subject.
It is also worth bidding early for work: being the first or second bidder helps your bid stand out. If 25 other people have already sent bids, it is probably not worth bothering.
The other disadvantage is that you can end up paying a large amount of what you earn as fees, especially early on. On the other hand, you often have some kind of protection, via a contract through the site, against non-payment or any challenges. This is worth checking out ahead of time as some sites have an escrow system for payments and deposits, and also provide a dispute resolution service.
3. Agencies and service providers
The final route is using agencies and service providers, such as essay sites or editing services for academic authors.
Be aware that some of these services are a lot more ethical than others.
Essay sites, in particular, are prone to accusations that they encourage plagiarism, because one person’s ghost-writing is another’s unethical submission of someone else’s work. If you are worried, check them out carefully, and just say no. You could, for example, use LinkedIn to search for other people working for those services, and try to make contact to find out what the organisation is like in practice.
Besides the danger of getting caught in something unethical, perhaps the biggest drawback of these services is that they tend to pay fairly low prices. On the plus side, however, you can often get a lot of work through them, and because they use a lot of freelancers, you do not need to have the same worries about turning down work and having them go elsewhere for ever.
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Finding the Right Route for You
Every freelancer is likely to have a slightly different story about how they started to find work and build up customers. The key, at least at first, is to try several different routes, and find the one or two that work for you.
Don’t be afraid to try things out and move on. After all, better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all.