Breaking Into Freelancing

Today I’ll be responding to a friend who had questions about my post re: skill sets for freelancing. Ethan had some good ones: “How did you emerge into freelancing and how did you develop each of these skills? Did you go to school, learn in a professional setting or did you self-study and self-practice? What are your thoughts on the convention of taking the time to build a journeyman skill level in a professional setting before setting off on your own?” Whew! This one’s going to be busy. Onward.

How I got into freelancing

Much of that story can be found here, so I’ll not repeat it in detail.

Acquiring the skills to be a freelancer

Up to 2014 (when I started freelancing), I’d been a corporate guy for just over 20 years. When I went out on my own, my actual job didn’t change. The only thing that had changed was where I was working. Oh, yeah: and I was now my own boss.

Most of the skills I needed to feed myself I’d already learned in more established workplaces. The primary differences were that a) I now had to do my own marketing to bring in work and b) I was now looking for work or individual tasks rather than full-time employment. However, I did follow a few basic principles before I decided to hang out a shingle and start my own business:

  • Have a pretty good idea of how much money I’d need to make to live at a standard I was comfortable with.
  • Identify multiple potential customers (preferably people I already knew) who needed work done now or in the near future.
  • Identify how much work I could or would have to do to pay the bills.

When all that is said and done, though, I’d already learned the types of writing work that were available (and how to do them) in my corporate career before I set out on my own.

Journeyman to full freelancing

Ethan’s last question is interesting: What are your thoughts on the convention of taking the time to build a journeyman skill level in a professional setting before setting off on your own?

As I noted above, my (rather lengthy) experience in corporate America prepared me for going out on my own. That could equate to an apprenticeship for becoming a freelancer…though it need not be as long.

While I have stated that it’s possible and good to try for freelancing right out of college, I’m going to contradict my own advice here a little bit. If you don’t know how businesses or large organizations work, you might face an uphill battle when it comes to finding work. One major benefit of working in a large organization is that there are simply more people there and hence more potential contacts and sources for work leads later. You learn how systems work (or don’t) and why.

My time at Zero Point Frontiers was an excellent transition from life in the relative safety of a large company to the unknown mysteries of being a freelancer. Everyone knew everyone else. Everyone was responsible, in some fashion, for market research, seeking opportunities, or contributing to proposals and other efforts that keep the doors open and the salaries paid.

Another good place to obtain “apprentice” experience is with volunteer or related professional organizations, so if entry-level positions aren’t available in your industry of choice, that’s always an option.

As to whether this process should be a formal apprenticeship or not, my gut says no. Writers are an independent lot by nature, and some require more mentoring than others. You might learn more on your own and might just need to learn through experience or personal reading. If I ever get the darned book written, perhaps that will be useful as well.

Bottom line

It is possible to jump from school directly to a freelance career, but you face the overlapping challenges of lack of knowledge, lack of experience, and lack of contacts, which can hinder your ability to find work. Lack of knowledge can be overcome in numerous ways, including doing research on your industry or employers of choice, reading about the subject matter online, reading some textbooks on the subject, blogging about your industry of choice, or breaking down and taking some formal courses in the work you want to do. As far as experience goes, I’ve been a big fan of volunteering in my industries of choice; and though my helium hands can get me into trouble with my work schedule on occasion, the two biggest advantages volunteering give you are experience (with the broader freedom to make mistakes) and contacts who might be able to point you to regular work later. To summarize, then, A bit of experience in a large or small business (plus volunteer work in your industry of choice) can be a useful segue into the life of self-employment. Seeing how the other guys do things might make you appreciate it when you have to do it all for yourself.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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One Response to Breaking Into Freelancing

  1. Lisa Kaspin-Powell says:

    Thanks for a great and helpful article!
    I strongly second the recommendation to volunteer in order to get the skills and the contacts to jump into a freelance career. I agree that it’s a way to learn new skills and topics without pressure to deliver. It’s working for me now!

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