What the Pandemic is Teaching Me About Freelancing

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Here in the US, state of NY for me, we have spent nearly three months staying home, distancing and masking when we go out, and generally trying not to get infected or infect others. As everyone knows by now, this is likely the new normal for the foreseeable future. I’ve had enough time to think about the lessons this pandemic is teaching me about my profession, whether I want them or not.

And I think it is improving me as a freelance writer.

Twelve lessons and how to act upon them

Some of these lessons are practical and relatively easy to act upon. Others are broader reaching and longer term. For me, with my fascination with installing small habits to initiate bigger changes, the taking action part is critical. Abstractly thinking about change is just that: abstraction. Acting to change, no matter how small the action, is what gets the wheels turning.

Skills are more valuable than information

The things I know how to do are what make me money, not the subjects I write about. If I’m tasked with editing a series of industry glossary entries on subjects I have to get up to speed on, I can. The skills my client wants are fast turnaround, accuracy, SEO friendly edits, and clarity in my writing. And my skill at getting up to speed on a subject fast.

I am selling these abilities more than just subject matter expertise these days.

No matter what I charge, I’m cheaper than a direct hire

Let’s say I’m trying to earn $125/hour when I do a project. Am I pricing myself out of the market? Compared to a 40 hour salaried worker, the answer is no because they only pay me what we’ve agreed on when the work is done. My full time hire counterpart gets paid every week for all the hours, regardless of their output, plus benefits.

With remote working, more clients are realizing that it is actually easier to manage projects with freelancers than keeping employees engaged and busy. The action item here is being faster and better and less complicated. And offering yourself as a viable alternative that saves them money and time, while making them look good (don’t forget that piece, it can be a deal maker!).

Reinventing your thinking should be a regular activity

We get in ruts when change is not in the air. But boy, is it in the air these days! There is not a day I don’t contemplate how weird this new normal is. And then I think about what I can leverage about that. I didn’t used to take editing jobs, for example. But an existing client asked me to take some on and I found that they were relatively easy money. I can bang them out when my writing brain is taking a break.

Now, I’m looking for more of my ‘products’ to tell people about.

People are much easier to reach

Everyone is at home and connected. When you are in an office it is easy to let an email slide or forget to return a chat message. When you are working at home, missing a message could be a big problem because that’s the principle way people are communicating. Not in meetings or the proverbial watercooler conversation.

The action item here is when you reach out, consider that you are talking to someone in their home, one to one. Personalize the communication, keep it brief and to the point. They will be grateful.

It’s even more ok to deliver ahead of schedule

I used to think that delivering a project too quickly would tell a client that they either paid too much or that I must have cut corners. If you’re not fast as a freelancer, you may be in the wrong profession. We make money by beating our estimates.

But now, your client is at home balancing work and home life (distractions, kids, etc.). When you deliver early, they get to check something off their to do list. Just make sure the work is as complete as you can make it. Otherwise you are just creating another headache for them. Make their life easier, not more difficult.

Writing for yourself makes you a better hired gun

I write for a living. But I also write for myself and they are often wildly different things. I am a novelist of sorts (still learning there) and you may find an article on self-improvement, Buddhism, or meditation that I put out there. Or maybe even a recipe.

These things keep my writing fresh and my voice more direct and focused when I go into business writing mode. And if I think those articles are relevant, I may share them with a client on an ‘I thought you might find this interesting’ basis. This is actually one of my best marketing tactics for building the relationships that freelancing success requires.

Faith in the universe

The first month of the pandemic, a lot of my work dried up. Several clients are in Europe and they got hit harder and earlier. There was a period of wild uncertainty and adjustment to working remote, colleagues or friends and family being exposed, and other things that pushed projects into holding patterns.

But I’ve learned that universe, whatever it is, tends to take care of us if we stay positive and connected. I did not panic. Instead I thought through what this experience must be like for my clients, I kept in touch briefly, and I waited. And the work came back.

Going global is my primary strategy

For a long time I really didn’t consider opportunities outside of North America. I only speak English and that seemed a barrier. In reality those barriers disintegrated a long time ago and now, with everyone remote and tools to communicate digitally being the norm, globalization is a freelance strategy.

I realized this when I considered that I live in the largest global market (the US) and know the marketing culture here intimately. Companies in other places need to do business here and they need to acculturate their marketing to the American voice. That is now one of my marketing messages.

When you slow down, you get more efficient

When a project brief comes in I don’t jump into it. I read it and let it settle into the background for a bit. I want to think about my approach or what I need to learn to get started. I may go for a walk. Then do a little homework. Make sure I clarify any questions before I get started. Then, when I see a clear path I can usually bang it out fast.

But I don’t send it. I let it sit for about a day, if there is time, and return to it. Inevitably I will edit it into a much stronger piece. Even if it is a rush, I put it aside for a few hours because I know I can’t see it clearly right after I draft the copy.

Pandemic time is different from pre-pandemic time. Offices are often artificially rushed places because of social pressure to appear busy. My relaxed approach usually still results in it looking like I turned things around quickly. But I know how much better the work will be as a result.

Offices can be massive time-wasters

There are people that thrive in office environments and those who don’t. Usually it was the ones who don’t who eventually go their own way and become freelancers. But now everyone is getting a taste of that distinction as we all are forced to work more like freelancers.

There are already indicators that many managers are discovering that some of their people thrive in one environment over the other. This is going to reshuffle the entire org chart over time and some of that reshuffling is going to open obvious slots that are better for freelancers.

There are niches within niches and there’s money there

Everyone knows the value of specializing. I’m not a general writer, I’m a B2B technology content marketing writer. But there are a million niche areas within that general category. It could be by type of work: explainer video scripts, for example. This is specialized work. Or very niche subject matter expertise. When you have the entire globe to work in, even tiny niches can be profitable.

My action item here is to identify two of these niches, that interest me (very important!), and start targeting them. One by writing content type, like video or white papers, and one by subject matter.

I am optimistic about the future despite the uncertainty

As a Buddhist I know that the future is right now and always has been. Uncertainty is the norm and always has been. We just tend to deny that, but these days it is in our faces. This recession is not economic in the normal sense. The underlying economy was very strong and the needs it was built on are still relevant.

The difference is that we have to be flexible and a little clairvoyant. If you’re in the restaurant or hospitality business, that may take years to recover, you may have to completely reinvent yourself. That is almost always a good thing in the long run. But it can be very challenging. Use this unintentional downtime to consider new choices. I look at these lessons the pandemic is teaching me and try to learn from them.

But even more important, I look and try to decide what actions I can take now as things unfold to position myself to stay successful. There are always steps you can take, even tiny ones. It is far better than pretending something called normal is coming back. It never does.

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