Open to Bidding: A Short Guide on How to Make a Career out of Freelance Work

So you want to be a writer. You want to do data entry for thousands of dollars on the Internet, sit in your undies and make a comfortable living from the comfort of your home.

You don't have an office, the world is. You don't have one boss, you have projects, you are your own boss, you are selling yourself and you're free to explore the world at your leisure. And for writer's you can do whatever you want, write novels, write any kind of project, taglines, slogans, maybe if you're lucky you'll get a good gig in creative copy.

Sounds pretty sweet doesn't it?

Well, I have some good and bad news.

The good news is that freelance work on the Internet is actually a completely realistic option. It is perfectly possible to create a sustainable business as a freelance writer, or coder, or data-enterer (that's a word, I think).

But here's the bad news: you have to work for it hard. In some ways it's a very pleasant route, and if you are willing to work at it and dedicate yourself to it, you can proudly call yourself a freelance worker. But at the end of the day it's still a job, and everything that a job entails.

In the interest of full-disclosure: I have only just started as a freelance writer, and I see the successful writers, and I'm starting to find my feet. But I had to fall pretty hard before I was able to do that. So here I am to help you understand what goes into professional freelance writing; the pitfalls, the traps, and what you can do to ensure that you are successful and safe. This is a basic guide, and won't go into a lot of detail, but hopefully you get some insight into a bit of the process.

This will probably jump back and forth between a few different topics, so excuse that please.

Research, Diversify, Invest

So you've decided: Hey I'm going to be a freelance writer, yeah! This is awesome, I'm going to be paid to do what I love.

Great, you've completed one of the first steps to being in freelance: passion. Without passion this job is not only difficult, it's even worse than other jobs.

There are no 401K's, no dental, no insurance or benefits in freelance work. A freelance job is a temporary contract assignment; it is not a long term position. So if you're looking for that specific type of security there is not a terribly good chance that you'll find it in this line of work.

Further, you need money to make money. (an excellent website) and sites like it (elance comes to mind) are both pay to use services. So you'll need to have a minimum of $9.95 a month set aside.

Further than that though are the freelance fees.

This is a standard practice and you absolutely need to keep it in mind lest you fall into debt.

Say you see this project that you would be perfect for "holy moley, $3,000 dollars? That's so much money, and I would be perfect for it!"

Let's say you are perfect for it. Freelancer is going to take a finders fee of 10%. So you are going to be charged $300 dollars for signing on with this project.

Now, that's not really a lot of money necessarily, but if you only have $1,000 dollars in the bank, you may have just lost $300 dollars before you even made your first.

So my first major piece of advice: make sure you have some capital invested before you start looking for big projects. These fees can be a killer if you don't know they're there, and if you don't know when the project will be finished, there is a fantastic chance that you are out that money for a good while.

There are a few ways to deal with this: The simplest is to ask for a milestone payment (we'll get to that) that mirrors the amount freelancer will take for pairing you, if nothing else you'll break even for the project, and you can make a profit that way. It may seem shady to the employer, but if you can explain all the pertinent aspects, and they're reasonable, you can make it work.

My next piece of advice: diversify income streams.

Think about evolution for a second; how does a species evolve? By having a number of different traits that are cultivated to survive. Think of freelancing the same way. If all your eggs are in one basket then if the basket falls over you can be seriously out of luck.

How do you fix that? be on more than one service and find other means of income in the field you are working on.

Say you're a writer (ahem), there are a number of blogging services and writing services all over the Internet that you can apply for. If you can find and join them, you have multiple operating income streams, and if one dries up, you still have one, two, or even more other sources of money. And depending on how you move your funds, you may have seed money to maintain another stream. You need to keep your options open by working for multiple services, some with guaranteed pay checks.

And that brings me to the next step of this process: bidding

Bidding on me for all the money: Bidding

Freelancer operates primarily like most freelance structures: Bidding.

What that means is anyone can say "hey, I want to work for you" and list a specific amount of money that they think is reasonable for the project, then write a short pitch, add milestones and if they're lucky get in contact with the employer, get signed, and make money.

But hold up, how do I do all that?

Well, freelance is basically a sales pitch, you have to get good at selling yourself. You have to make yourself stand out. The strongest, fastest, sexiest...or something. And you have to tirelessly bid on projects. This is the part that can be a problem.

Freelancer says you need to bid on about 35 projects before you can realistically see yourself bearing fruit. And that's a lower bound estimate honestly. I'd say to really start seeing "results" you need about 50 bids going.

That's because these employers are getting a filthy amount of bids, and you may not be perfect for the job, or someone may be better. You know you're awesome, because obviously, but they don't.

So you need to be persistent, and milestones are your friend.

I've said that like 15 times now, what do I mean?

A milestone is just a certain goal that will lead to a disbursement of a portion of the projects total worth. So if you're ghostwriting an ebook, you set up 100 dollars for the first draft, you send in the first draft you receive 100 dollars. While you may want the lump sum, the milestones have a few benefits: steadier money, some guaranteed money if you don't finish the project (oh yes, we'll talk about that), and a schedule to work around.

And you need a schedule. Though it may not seem it, you need to be disciplined to be a professional at this. That means you need to be doing the equivalent of 40 hours of work a week at a sustainable rate, and if you don't have a schedule or discipline, you'll hurt. Trust me on that.

And this leads into one of the most important parts of this job....

Be careful, show restraint.

Wait, you just said you have to tirelessly bid on projects and work 40 hours a week? How can I show restraint when I don't even have one project? That's a paradox grumble grumble

I hear you, it is a paradox, but it's important to grasp.

You know how work has the stereotypical awful boss?

Yeah, well if you get a job then the potential for an awful boss is there, most people are perfectly reasonable and willing to negotiate, however, there are plenty of people who will exploit you and your talents you have to be able to tell which is which. Not only that, you can find yourself in very compromising positions if you don't.

As a freelance writer, I've experienced first hand the thorough lack of understanding about what writing constitutes. People seem to be under the illusion that 2,000 words in 6 hours with this many parameters is perfectly fine, and that in that frame outstanding work can be achieved.

That is a common mindset, not confined to freelance work. There is this assumption that writing is somehow easy because anyone with a computer can do it.

An amateur writer can take two seconds, not so for professional writing.

A good professional writer is spending their day doing it, planning, writing, revising, pouring what is the equivalent of 40 hours a week to producing content. It takes just as much care as wood working, or music, or anything. Quality takes time, no matter what the practice, and writing employers will not always understand that.

And the Internet is filthy with scammers. If you see an attractive project that pays well for simple things, the good bet is that it's a scammer. That not exclusive to those websites, but if you fall for those things you have only yourself to blame for it.

And then there is blackmail.

Freelancer works with reputation, if you have consistently good reviews you have priority, your bids will be seen more and you will be more likely to be awarded a project. Bad reviews, predictably have the opposite effect. Some people know this, and will exploit it. They will write a sealed review and threaten to post it unless you complete a project for them.

Combine unreasonable demands, character assassination, and poor pay and you have a recipe for utter compromise.

And if you accept a job that is unreasonable and can't complete it, which does happen, then you can get a bad review, which can be a killer for when you're just starting out.

And that can easily happen, which is why I am telling you to be careful, be discerning, make sure you know what you're getting into when you sign on for a project, if you don't it could prove disastrous.

So far this article has been pretty mixed in my assessment of how to make this a sustainable career. But don't let these things dissuade you. If you are smart, good at your work, willing to be patient, and most of all discerning in who you work with then freelance work can yield fruit.

But you have to be aware that this is a business, and business operates on profit and work ethic. You have to be willing to sit down and do the work, you have to protect yourself, and you have to remember one enormous thing.

You are the business, you and you alone, and the success is in your hands.

You'll get cruddy jobs, unpleasant gigs, or ones that are straight impossible, and that's true of just about any endeavor in life. But if you have the patience and will, it will work out.

So I've said quite a bit, and there is always more to say, but I think this is a good introductory primer for this subject.

The biggest overarching thing about freelance is to work smart, not hard. And don't do things for money solely, and don't do things for reputation solely, be careful, be smart, this is fun when you're doing it right.

And that's all I have to say about that.