12 Lessons I’ve Learned in My First Year as a Freelance Writer & Editor

12 Freelance Lessons

Exactly one year ago this week, my husband and I said goodbye to friends, family, and coworkers; packed all our belongings into one U-Haul and two sedans; and left the comfort of our home in Minnesota—where I’d lived for 20-plus years—for Colorado.

When we got here, I honestly wasn’t sure what I was going to do for work. We only had three weeks from the time my husband accepted a job offer to his first day in his new office, so needless to say, there wasn’t much time for me to job hunt.

Prior to our move, I worked for a magazine in Minneapolis. It was the only job I’d had since graduating from college, so magazine publishing was really all I knew. I thought about applying to a few publications in Colorado, or perhaps a communications position, but then it hit me: Why not seriously pursue freelance writing and editing? Freelancing was something I’d always dreamed of doing eventually—why not now? It was a huge leap of faith, but it was the best thing I’ve done for myself and my career.

When I first started, I told myself I’d give it six months—six months to see if I could really “make it” as a freelancer (a.k.a. pay my half of the bills). Well, it’s now a year later and my business is going strong. Here are some lessons I’ve learned in the first 365 days of self-employment.

1. Get up every day as if you’re going to an office.

It’s so tempting to roll out of bed and immediately start working in yoga pants and an oversized sweatshirt—and believe me, there are some days I do just that! But I’ve found that I’m most productive when I stick to my pre-freelance-life routine: wake up at 6:30 a.m. (thankfully we have a dog who keeps us on a schedule, otherwise I might sleep in too often), shower and get dressed, enjoy my morning cup of coffee, and then break out the laptop.

2. Create a dedicated workspace.

Whether it’s a whole room or a desk in the corner of your basement, carve out a chunk of space for your office, away from distractions like the TV and the cozy allure of your bed. Set the precedent that when you are seated at your desk, work will be done.

3. Set business hours.

When you’re in charge of your own schedule, it’s easy to feel like you always have to be “on,” answering emails in the evening and working every weekend. This does not create a healthy work-life balance. It’s important to set defined hours to hold yourself accountable, and let clients know when you’re available should they need to contact you.

4. Work outside of your house.

While working in solitude can be great for productivity, it can also be a little lonely! At least once a week, I work outside of the house—whether it’s at Barnes & Noble or my favorite coffee shop. The change of scenery, along with a latte and scone, do wonders for my creativity.

5. Take vacations.

It’s hard to justify a vacation when you no longer have paid time off, but taking breaks is necessary for your mental health. I, personally, would burn out if I didn’t step away from the laptop and cell phone every once in a while. It doesn’t need to be a big, fancy trip. Even a long weekend at my in-laws’ house in the mountains hits my reset button.

6. Don’t say yes to every assignment.

This is, by far, the hardest lesson I’ve had to learn—and I’m still working on it every day. Ideally I would say yes to every assignment, but there are only so many hours in the week! And I know that if I take on too much, my work will suffer. Be upfront with clients if you don’t have time for a project or if it isn’t a great fit for your skill set. I’ve never lost a client by being truthful about my workload and schedule. In fact, I’ve found them to be appreciative of my honesty, and usually we are able to compromise on a later deadline.

7. Take yourself seriously.

When I first started freelancing, I had a bad case of imposter syndrome, a psychological phenomenon where a person doubts their accomplishments and feels like a fraud. I was embarrassed to tell people what I did for a living and put off basic business startup tasks because I “wasn’t a real freelancer.” How ridiculous! Don’t be like me—take yourself seriously from the get-go. Craft a stellar website and order matching business cards, register as a Limited Liability Company, hire a photographer to take professional headshots, set up an Individual Retirement Account, hire a Certified Public Accountant. Your business is legit!

8. Work your connections.

Tell everyone and anyone that you are now a full-time freelancer. All of my work in the past year has come from former coworkers, friends, and acquaintances.

9. Connect with other freelancers.

From coworking spaces to Facebook groups, there are so many ways you can connect with other freelancers. Share what you’re working on, swap tips for success, and ask for advice—they know exactly what you are going through! Making connections with other freelancers could even lead to more assignments, and when I hit a rough patch with my work, simply scrolling through the social media feed of a freelancer I admire is sometimes just the boost of inspiration I need.

10. Get organized.

Whether it’s a Google calendar, a cloud-based software like Slack, or an old-fashioned paper planner, figure out an organizational system that works for you. This is crucial when you’re working with multiple clients and juggling a handful of projects. You don’t want to be the freelancer who drops the ball and misses a deadline!

11. Set fair rates for yourself.

In my field in particular, I feel like people try to take advantage of freelancers by paying unfair rates (like online content mills that offer a penny per word). That drives me up a wall because being able to effectively communicate a message is a valuable skill! Don’t undervalue your work. Crunch the numbers and figure out the hourly or per-project rate you need to charge in order to support your lifestyle. I love this helpful infographic from Creative Live.

12. Invest in the tools you need.

Now, I’m not saying go crazy and spends thousands on a new laptop when your current one works just fine, but if there is something that is going to legitimately improve your business offerings, make the investment. I, for example, recently purchased a printer with long-lasting ink cartridges that allows me to print a high volume of pages in a short period of time—perfect for when I’m working on a copy editing or proofreading assignment. Tip: Keep your receipts so you can write the purchases off on your taxes as business expenses!

Are you a freelancer? What have you learned on your self-employment journey? I would love to hear from you in the comments!

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