First-time freelancer f*ck-ups and how to avoid them

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When you make the decision to go it alone as a writer, you're well aware you'll probably fuck up at some point.Hell—we all did it.

The whole journey is a learning curve and only those who learn from their mistakes can hope to grow as a freelance professional and truly make a wicked-ass living out of it.

There are some lessons I learned the hard way, but I'll be damned if I didn't learn them fast and remember them. Mistakes are money. Wasted time is money. You get the picture.

In the interest of helping others like me, I've decided to pull together a handful of my worst newbie freelancer fuck-ups and how you can avoid them, without having to go through the painful experience of learning the lesson first-hand.

1. Avoid content mills and bidding sites at all costs

It's highly likely that one of the reasons you felt confident enough to go it alone was because of sites like Upwork, Copify and Freelancer. They pretty much guarantee you work and a huge pool of clients. All you need to do is sign up and spend a few hours writing pitches for the jobs you want.

Featured jobs will typically include: keyword-stuffed blog posts, student essays and proofreading. You'll be paid peanuts and the person posting the job is always going to choose the writer who pitches with the lowest price.

This means you're doing long hours for the worst type of client and earning little to nothing for your efforts. I tried this when I first started out, and I lasted a month and a half before I wanted to fucking kill myself. I was right back to a place where I was dreading my job—something I left my full-time job to avoid.

Long story short: the lifetime value of these clients is low and your time is better spent working up relationships with high value, repeat customers that value your work and treat you like a human being.

You'll subsequently do less work for more money, freeing you up to pitch for other high-value, rewarding jobs, thereby building your business on a solid foundation. Don't fall for the content site pitch, guys. It's grade-A bullshit.


2. Never work for free

Ooooh, this one is debatable in the freelance community. I know several writers who would disagree with this one, but my view is this: my writing skills and brainpower aremy business. Giving it away for free is just a no-no, so I charge for pitches, for phone calls and for brainstorming sessions. This might be one for you to make a personal call on—especially if you're just starting out—but in general, I'd advise against it!


3. Don't discount where it isn't necessary

Picture this: the prospect is asking you for a job estimate. You tot it up at your normal rate and the final figure is looking a little beefy. You start to freak. Can you really go in with a price this high? Are they going to think you're greedy or big-headed?

The knee-jerk reaction takes over and you drop the price to something which 'looks friendlier'. Failing that, you pitch the estimate but immediately offer to drop it if they think it might be too much. Of course they'll say it's too much. Who doesn't want to save money?! Worse yet, what if they haggle your dropped price and you end up losing money and working for even less?

Don't be shy to go in with your proper estimate. If you want the project badly enough, a little wiggle room doesn't do any harm, because you'll score a job you love. Otherwise, stick to your guns.

Last year, I lost a prospective client because they tried to drive my price down to match a freelancer they found on Upwork. I turned down the work because I know what my time is worth and allowing them to haggle is disrespectful to those clients who have agreed to pay my full rate.


4. Don't rely solely on digital job-leads

Sitting behind your laptop can feel like a nice, safe way to work up new job leads, but experience has taught me that there's no substitute for face-to-face networking. Whenever you can, try to snag some tickets to an event or meet-up that will allow you to mingle with others in your industry or people from your target market. I recommend the #copywritersunite meet up and Enterprise Nation events.


5. Don't avoid making time for your business

What now? When you're working, you're tending to your business, right? Naaaaaah mate! I'm referring to all your housekeeping. Shit like writing your blog posts, creating shareable images, looking at your site analytics and optimising the content, scheduling social posts and doing your bookkeeping. It all needs to get done, and when you allow client work to build up and consume all your time, your own shit starts to go downhill.

I try to set aside a few hours each Saturday and Sunday morning, which I use for all my own tasks. Because it's mine, it doesn't feel like work, so I'm happy to do it. It means I can start the week feeling prepared!


6. Never forget why you started the journey

I'm willing to bet that you went freelance for a reason. Was it so you could work on new and exciting projects? So you could spend more time with your kid or doing a hobby you love? Was it because your desk job was beginning to get you down and you wanted more autonomy? Whatever the motivation, try not to lose sight of it!

Remember to take time off or enjoy a long lunch. If the day is quiet, why not get your basics done and then clock off for the rest of the day? If you aren't getting the jobs you want, why not reach out with a cold pitch email? It's all within your power now, so don't feel like you have to martyr yourself!

Emma Cownley