Freelance: What is it and what do they do?

by Rheanna Chou
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When people ask me about what I do, many are completely mystified when I respond with freelance editor and writer. Once I explain it, they tell me how cool that sounds and some even tell me they wish they could do that too. Yeah, bro, it is cool. But it’s so much more than that.

So, I thought I would dedicate a post to defining this for anyone who might be considering this career path. I guarantee it’s much more involved than you think. If you’re considering becoming a freelancer, buckle up and take notes.

What do freelance editors/writers do?

Let’s start with the freelancing bit. A freelancer works independently to provide services to their clients. We are not regular employees and usually work on a project-by-project basis. For tax purposes, we are generally classified as independent contractors and fill out 1099s rather than W2s.

But let’s break that down further — editors, edit client material for clarity, grammar, accuracy and consistency.

My editing services range from light proofreading to heavy copy edits and even the occasional rewriting of some material. I also review client material for accuracy, ensuring their sources are current and still supported.

Writers, write. There are many different writing needs, but most writers fall into one or more of the following categories:

  • Copywriting. Usually for agencies that have marketing or advertising needs.
  • Social media. Writing social posts for companies.
  • Blogging. For themselves as well as others.
  • Web content writing. Think About Us pages and the like.
  • Journalistic writing. For magazines, newspapers and other newsier publications.
  • eBooks. This is one that I’m seeing more and more often, and it seems to be mostly ghostwriting (so no byline).

Some freelance writers focus on one of these types of writing needs exclusively, while others (including myself) take on two or more.

I do a combination of copy writing, social media posts and blogging. I enjoy the creative challenges presented by a client who needs to communicate their message while maintaining brand parameters. It’s kind of like a word puzzle.

Small business owners

My freelancing gig is so much more than the project work I take on. I would argue that the projects are only a small percentage of being a freelancer. Because of this, successful freelancers treat their venture like a small business. This is not something you get into because you want to work less — as a freelancer, you wear many hats.

I don’t say this to scare you or drive you away from freelancing, I say it to give you a more realistic idea of the workload than many freelancers have going into it. If you can’t think of this as your business, you probably aren’t prepared to do it.

Freelancers are general managers. In addition to whatever projects you take on, you’ll also be responsible for deciding which equipment and software to purchase and how to budget for that.

Freelancers are also responsible for their own bids, invoices, taxes and licenses. I have an accountant to help me with my federal taxes, but I do my quarterly taxes myself. I also maintain my own books using QuickBooks.

Freelancers are administrators. We answer emails and make phone calls. We schedule appointments and allocate project hours to meet deadlines. We keep everything running smoothly so that when projects come in, they get done in a timely manner.

This can be a monumental task in itself, so it’s good to invest in some project management software to keep everything straight. I’m learning all about Gantt charts at the moment.

Freelancers are marketers and sales reps. In order to sell your services, people need to know about them. And since you don’t have the benefit of a marketing/sales department, this is another thing you need to do for yourself.

If you want to market yourself effectively, you need to know what kind of marketing you’re prepared to do — we’re not all social butterflies, just like we’re not all social media gurus. It’s a balancing act and involves a lot of trial and error.  

Freelancer are networkers. To grow your business, you need to connect with people who can refer business to you. When you’re not doing everything else that goes into running your freelance operation, you need to be building a community of people you can learn from and who can help you find more work.

I try to work in at least one networking opportunity a week. It doesn’t always have to be planned — you can take advantage of a spontaneous encounters by having business cards on hand. That way, if you’re introduced to someone at the coffee house you might like to connect with, you have a quick, simple way to pass them your information and encourage them to reach out to you later.

Freelancers are continual learners. This one is huge. You aren’t going to go into freelancing knowing everything there is to know about building your empire. Or even everything there is to know about your industry. So, you need to be prepared to seek that information out.

I had a marketing professor who preached continuing education no matter what your career path. He made a point of requiring a budget specifically for this before he would even consider taking a job, just so he could keep his game sharp.

That may mean finding a solid mentor who can help guide you when you need it. It for sure means reading about your craft. Subscribe to an freelance-focused magazine or newsletter and find a couple of well-rounded blogs to follow. And don’t forget to keep an eye out for relevant conferences you can attend.

You might also consider joining a professional organization. Some offer free membership to qualified members in the industry, while others have annual dues. Just do a bit of research before joining anything — there are a lot of scams out there.

Should you do it?

Despite the many responsibilities I’ve taken on as a freelance editor and writer, I’m still glad I took this leap. I really enjoy the challenge of building a business and I have learned more about business in the last few months than I did in my entire marketing minor in college.

So, If you like a challenge and don’t mind making a few mistakes to get it right, a freelancing career can be a rewarding venture.

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