Freelancing guide for beginners
For aspiring writers, programmers and designers, work experience is crucial. But what's the secret to learning the trade and getting paid? Freelancing!
All too often it takes a lowly-paid internship or endless coffee-making for you to earn your stripes and eventually land that all-important big break in your chosen industry.
Worse still, many of the part-time jobs on offer to students are completely irrelevant to your career plans, often with inflexible (and anti-social) working hours too.
However, there's hope on the horizon. With a bit of determination, you can become a paid freelancer – providing articles, animations, apps, admin support or anything else to the world. A significant proportion of the roles require no prior experience, too.
The benefits are aplenty. Not only will it look awesome on your CV and give you the freedom to work from home when time allows, but with the right project, the pay can be pretty decent.
So, without further ado, here's our ultimate guide to becoming a freelancing supremo!
What's on this page?
- What are the pros and cons of freelancing?
- What can you do as a freelancer?
- How much can you earn as a freelancer?
- 4 best websites for finding freelance jobs
- 5 top tips for writing a freelancer profile
- 4 ways to stand out as a freelancer
- Mistakes to avoid, and things to remember when freelancing
- How to withdraw your earnings as a freelancer
The idea of rocking out of bed, making a frighteningly brief commute to your laptop and beginning work sure sounds like bliss. But nobody ever said that working from home would be easy, and every advantage is tempered with drawbacks.
- There's plenty of flexibility working from home – you pick your hours, and will be able to work in the style that best suits you
- With no rules, you can take regular breaks and head out to see friends
- You can cherry pick the assignments you take on – so if a job is too complicated, or doesn't pay well enough, there's no harm in rejecting it!
- Freelancers get to work with people from around the world
- With the right reputation, the amount of money you can earn is limitless.
- Flling out your own tax returns, being paid inconsistently and having an unstable income can make things quite tough from time-to-time
- Being self-employed means you are in charge. It takes a lot of discipline not to spend an extra hour in bed each morning, or to avoid putting work off and watching The Jeremy Kyle Show instead
- Although you don't have a boss who's breathing down your neck, remember that you still need to attend to your clients – and avoid endless distractions which could stop you from hitting your deadline
- You're foraging for yourself in this industry. The best work will have plenty of competition – and you might have to see off dozens of other applicants
- Having to stay up late for meetings with clients in Australia and America isn't always fun, especially if you have an early morning lecture.
To avoid getting cabin fever, and to stay focused, we recommend heading out to a coffee shop and making the most of free WiFi where you can find it. Public libraries are also great places to work too.
Breaking up your tasks into bite-sized chunks – and ensuring several changes of scenery during the day – will help you to stay creative and fresh.
Writing and translating
This is probably the most accessible type of freelancing work out there – especially if you have an English qualification and are constantly churning out essays anyway.
Freelance jobs in this field are varied – you could be asked to write articles, whole eBooks (under the condition that someone else's name appears on the front), product descriptions for online stores, or even Facebook posts and tweets. Yes, you heard right – you can get paid to do social media.
You could even try your hand at freelance journalism, writing pitches to magazines, newspapers and other publications. Just beware that some publishers (even some big names) will try to take advantage of your student status and not offer to pay you for your work. Ask what their policy is before agreeing to work for them!
Plus, if you're fluent in another language, translation work beckons. It can be a lot less competitive for these projects – mainly because most of us only have conversational French… at best.
Freelancing as a writer or translator is recommended if…
You're a stickler for grammar, and love learning new, random things – such as whether it's normal to have a mole on your penis, or where the best place to buy a dishwasher is in Slough (both writing assignments we've seen before!).
Design is a bit more of a challenging sector to join. Not only do you need to own some industry-standard software, but you need the skills – and imagination – to use it to its full potential and meet the demands of your clients.
You could be creating a logo for a new start-up company, animating videos, illustrating snazzy PowerPoint presentations, or even working on adverts that will appear in papers and magazines.
Freelancing as a graphic designer is recommended if…
You're always doodling in class, and fancy transforming your procrastination talents into a profit. Computer skills are pretty crucial here too.
Programming and IT
Programmers are the brains behind the websites and apps we all use every day. They're tasked with building software that is well-designed and easy to use for the typical customer, and often have to write swathes and swathes of code to make it happen.
As well as this, you might offer virtual IT support. Typical projects include helping websites with their search engine optimisation (SEO), which involves making them more visible in search engine results. Analysing statistics and managing databases are common jobs on freelance sites, too.
Freelancing as a programmer or IT specialist comes recommended if…
This industry has fierce competition. One of the most popular tasks is called transcription, and this involves listening to recordings of conversations and typing them out. You could even be a part-time remote personal assistant – wearing a hoodie and joggers instead of dressing to impress.
The roles and responsibilities of a good virtual assistant include answering phone calls from customers, planning the boss's schedule and booking their travel arrangements, or performing light research for their reference.
Freelancing as admin support comes recommended if…
People think you're well organised – meaning you're always saddled with planning birthday parties and school reunions.
It turns out you can freelance as pretty much anything (assuming you're good enough at whatever you're selling).
If you're any good at impressions, you could offer to record soundbites under the guise of a celebrity (Morgan Freeman seems to be a popular choice!). Or, if you fancy yourself as a bit of a Cupid, you could become someone's Tinder coach.
Basically, what we're saying is: if you've got a weird skill that you think someone might want to pay you for, try freelancing!
And lots, lots more
From the sublime to the ridiculous, pretty much any skill can utilised and sold via freelancing. Of course, some are more in-demand than others – photography, data entry and video production are just three of the other popular fields for freelancers.
We're not lying when we say that almost anyone has the potential to become a freelancer!
In the freelance world, there's two ways of getting paid – by the hour, or with a fixed fee for each project.
Unfortunately, your competitors for the best online jobs are often from around the world. And, if they live in a developing economy where it costs a lot less to live, it can be impossible to compete with their prices and still get the minimum wage.
As such, you need to prove that you're the right person for the job with a gripping application. Also – before you throw your hat into the ring for a freelancing gig – think carefully about how long it will take, and what you would want to earn per hour.
If you possess rare skills, it's likely that you'll be able to command a higher rate, but remember, you need to sell yourself. Just make sure you have realistic expectations of the money you could earn (sadly, few clients are willing to pay £500/hour), and have a browse of the existing jobs on major freelancing sites (see below).
WARNING: In return for helping you find work, freelance companies take a cut of your earnings. Make sure you're aware of the commission you'll be paying, and add these charges on top of whatever you're quoting a client.
Never work with a client who wants to pay you outside a freelancing site (unless you know them personally). It makes it easier for them to dash off into the sunset without settling the bill, and you could be banned from applying for new jobs by the freelancing site for trying to dodge their fees.
There are quite a few well-known websites for getting started in the freelance world. Some specialise in attracting workers and clients for a particular industry, others are more generic. Here are four known to be some of the best:
Upwork claim they now have more than 10 million registered freelancers working with them and upwards of four million clients, meaning they’re certainly the biggest service of their kind.
They host everything from hourly-paid gigs with startups, to larger projects with some seriously high-profile clients, too.
The website is really clear and easy to navigate and you also get plenty of information about what clients are looking for in postings, making it much easier to write your application.
Biggest advantage: They have a secure payment protection system which ensures you’re always paid for the work you do. Clients send payment to Upwork before the job begins, and the company keeps the money safe and secure, meaning that neither of you can access it without the other’s permission. Once the job is finished, the cash hits your account.
Biggest drawback: Upwork charge a fee of 20% on lifetime earnings up to $500 with a single client (10% from $501-10,000, then 5%), which is disappointing. They also offer a weird ‘service’ to those clients hiring for hourly-paid work – they send a snapshot of freelancers’ screens every 10 minutes to make sure they’re working for their money. Pretty patronising!
Freelancer is a pretty straight forward website to use. It's easy to sign up (you can do so via Facebook!) and you can list up to 20 of your skills once registered. Then, it looks for jobs which reflect these talents.
Biggest advantage: You can see exactly how much people are bidding to work on a project – a feature that isn't normally seen on other sites. It allows you to be competitive, and see what experienced rivals typically charge.
Biggest drawback: Again – fees! Freelancer take 10% of your hourly rate, and 10% (or £3.50 – whichever is greater) of your fixed price project fees. They also run ‘Contests' whereby a client can receive multiple submissions for a project, and only pay for the one they like (full fees for all project types available here). That sounds great for the buyer, but for you, as a freelancer, you risk doing a load of work for no reward!
You'll commonly see the clients on PeoplePerHour stipulating how much they're willing to spend for a project. Often the pay's not bad, and we once spotted a job which involved coining a new slogan for a company. Their budget? A cool £287.
Biggest advantage: If you're a medium or high earner, you won't pay too much commission! For the £500 you earn each month, you'll pay 20% – but for all earnings after that, the rate plummets to just 5%.
Biggest drawback: Their fee system is an absolute pain in the rear end to understand unless you speak legalese. How much you pay depends on when you signed up, but as we're assuming you haven't joined yet (why else would you be reading this?), the rates we've outlined above are for the newest members.
This site started out as a marketplace, where people around the world could offer their services (or ‘gigs') for the princely sum of $5 (about £3.50). Examples include:
– “I will create a cinematic movie trailer for $5”
– “I will write a message underwater for $5”
– “I will do a voiceover of 100 words as an Australian man or woman for $5”
As you can see, some of the tasks are quite unusual – but this is cool, as it allows you to get creative.
Since the site was first set up, most people have started charging more than $5 for their services – or, at the very least, they've started charging more for higher levels of service. As a Fiverr seller, you can offer Basic, Standard and Premium packages with varying levels of service or speed.
It's best to offer the most basic of your services for $5. From here, you can offer add-ons for any price you like – such as a fast turnaround for $20 (about £15), or a longer video or article.
Biggest advantage: Fiverr lets you freelance in pretty much any field, doing pretty much anything imaginable!
Biggest drawback: This site has fees of 20% – so if you charged £50 for a job, you'd have to give £10 of it straight back to Fiverr.
Which freelance sites pay the most?
Let's say you earn £800 in a month (partly because it's low enough to be a realistic figure, but mostly because it's an easy number to work with). From largest to smallest, here's how much each of the four featured freelance sites would see you take home after you've paid the site their fee:
- Freelancer*: £720
- PeoplePerHour.com: £685
- Upwork**: £683
- Fiverr: £640
*10% fee based on fixed price project
**exchange rate of $500 to £370 correct as of May 2018. Fee based on earnings for a single client
So it seems that Freelancer pays freelancers the most! But it's not quite as simple as that…
Remember that PeoplePerHour.com and Upwork both calculate their fees in brackets, like a tax system. How much of your earnings you have to give up will depend on whether you're a high, medium or low earner, so it's worth considering how much you plan to work before deciding which site pays the most.
Also note that while Fiverr's flat rate of 20% might seem like a real turn-off, the site has its own merits to potentially outweigh the fees. It's arguably the best place to go if you're selling a quirkier service, so the extra business it could bring you could be worth it!
To get work, you need to make proposals (applications, basically) to the jobs available on your chosen freelancing site. This is usually accompanied by a profile which shows the feedback you've received from past clients, your rates, and samples of your previous work.
There are several sections that you need to fill in. Getting this right is crucial – especially if you're a professional writer – because in many ways, this is the most important sample you'll ever provide to a prospective client.
Unlike dating profiles, you're fully entitled to blow your own trumpet on a freelancing site.
Don't be afraid to namedrop the clients you've worked with in the past, and include quotes from their feedback in the introductory paragraph. By showing you have extensive experience, it encourages clients to take you seriously.
Get good feedback
Even if you write the world's best profile, no one will pay attention if you have a long history of one-star and two-star pieces of feedback – so go slow at first, and do every job to perfection.
Once an assignment is complete, hound your client for their testimonial. If you manage to get loads of five-star feedback at the beginning of your freelancing career, it'll becomes easier and easier to pick up new work. The first few weeks are always the hardest.
Tell them about yourself!
Just because you're working remotely, doesn't mean you have to be impersonal.
If you're great at playing the bassoon, have trained as a pilot, or you're a gold medallist archer, don't be afraid to come across as fun, friendly and engaging. The clients you'll find on freelancing sites are seldom stuffy, and love a good personality.
It's highly unlikely that you'll meet most of your clients, making it difficult for them to verify your credentials.
Thankfully, many freelancing sites can do this on your behalf, by checking your qualifications and geographical location. Once you've done this, you'll get a big, shiny tick next to your name.
Also consider taking aptitude tests in your chosen area of freelancing – short, 40-minute exams which test things including your Photoshop knowledge, coding skills, editing abilities or spelling prowess. The results then appear on your profile, and if you're lucky, you could be in the top 1%!
Keep it brief
Bearing all of the above points in mind, make a concerted effort to keep your profile concise and to the point. If a client has shortlisted 10 possible providers, they don't want to read a 2,000-word profile every time.
Boil your page down to the most important points, and carefully cherry-pick the samples included in your portfolio.
Also, we lied. There are actually six points to the perfect freelance profile.
The last one is to CHECK YOUR SPELLING AND GRAMMAR. Even the slightest typo undermines your credibility, especially if you're vying for editing work. It sounds like an obvious pointer, but you'd be surprised at how many people don't make the effort to give their profile a thorough proofread!
Now – you've got the profile, an idea of what you want to freelance in, and an expectation of how much money you want to earn. But how do you secure that elusive job offer?
Figure out which membership level is best for you
Some (but not all) freelancing sites offer different levels of membership for sellers.
For those that do, a free membership will most likely limit you to sending just a few job applications per month. Buying a subscription allows you to send dozens, boosting your chances of getting accepted.
Typically the cost of a membership will be less than what you could earn for just one job (depending on what line of work you're in, of course). When you consider that a paid membership will allow you to apply to dozens more jobs, the cost could be worth it if you're planning to get a lot done!
Be picky with the jobs you apply for
Find clients who have been incredibly detailed throughout their description. This allows you to personalise your response, and show them that you've paid attention to their needs.
And on that note, don't be afraid to ask questions if anything seems unclear in their advertisement! You don't want to agree to a job that turns out to be something other than what you signed up for.
Consider sponsored proposals
This is where you pay an extra fee to ensure that your application appears at the top of the list a client sees, and ensures you don't get buried among dozens of your rivals.
The cost can add up, but when you consider how many applications a client gets, they're probably more likely to go for someone who uses a sponsored proposal.
You'll find that this marketing technique will be invaluable when you're first trying to get noticed, but make sure that your application and profile are in tiptop shape. There's no point in paying to draw attention to a substandard candidate!
Personalise every application
The one thing you should never, ever do when you're applying for freelance work (or any job, for that matter) is use the same application for every job.
Clients can spot copy-and-paste jobs from a mile off, and they often use little tests (such as asking freelancers to use a secret word in their application) to make sure applicants pay attention. If you have an individualistic approach, it proves you care and boosts your chances.
You're almost ready to become a fully-fledged freelancer!
But before you do, just take note of a few crucial dos and don'ts for anyone looking to make a living as a freelancer:
- Remember you're responsible for tax and National Insurance contributions – The easiest way to avoid any nasty surprises is to save 20% of anything you earn, as that should cover whatever tax you need to pay at the end of the year. Our simple guide to tax is a great starting point for getting to grips with it all, and if you feel you're paying too much to the taxman, check out our guide on how to get a rebate
- Remain vigilant about dodgy clients – Always use a third-party freelancing site (or payment method) where it's available, and make sure you know exactly how much you'll earn for a job up front
- Don't do any jobs that are illegal – This sounds obvious, but there are some jobs – such as editing videos for a porn site, or even writing erotic novels – which could get you into trouble if they're not totally legit
- Never provide free samples – Although you may think it's the right thing to do – especially when you're on the lookout for your first job – many freelancing sites forbid their talent (that's you!) from dishing out free samples (probably because it means they miss out on some money). Instead, respectfully ask to be hired for the sample only – as this allows them to decide whether to continue with your services afterwards
- Profit-sharing opportunities are a bust – Clients who try to offer you a share of the profits from a website (instead of a fee for your hard work) are normally bluffing about their “amazing opportunity” and should be avoided like the plague
- Watch out for freebies – Many freelancing services offer great freebies such as complementary business cards and heavily discounted access to work spaces. But only let this sway your decision if the price is right, and if you'll actually make use of them!
- Had a good client? Generate repeat business! – Whenever you finish a project, offer a bulk discount – of 5% to 10% off – if they hire you again within seven days. Clients are a sucker for a bargain, and it's more cash in your pocket without hunting for new work! As most websites work on a feedback system, always make sure that a good customer leaves a testimonial, as this will help you to develop a reputation
- Ask if you can get your name on work – If you're looking to establish a reputation, some clients might be willing to include your name on any work you do – including eBooks you write, or posters you design. This can be rare, but there's no harm in asking. Just make sure it can be included in your portfolio.
- Check out some of the nifty tools out there to help freelancers – Skype and Dropbox can be essential – especially for communicating and sharing files with clients over long distances. Add-ons such as Pamela for Skype also allow you to keep recordings of your calls for future reference. If you get serious about this freelancing malarkey, you might also want to check out project management tools such as Trello or Basecamp, though all the freelance sites have similar functionality now.
When you've completed the work, and given yourself a pat on the back, you'll want to withdraw your hard-earned cash. Most freelance sites give you a plethora of choices, but each offer pros and cons. The most common options are:
- PayPal: The payment is pretty quick, and PayPal offers an extra layer of security. But if you're being paid in dollars, the exchange rates can be brutal… and that means fewer pounds in your pocket. Despite this, it's the option we'd recommend as it's the least hassle, most safe, and the fastest by a country mile
- Wire transfer: Getting funds sent straight to your bank is possible. However, it's not as simple as PayPal to set up, arguably not as secure, and some sites charge you every time you make a transfer
- Cheque: The most time-consuming method. Sure, you dodge a lot of charges – but not only do you often have to wait for the cheque to arrive from the States, you also have to wait a few days before it's processed and sitting pretty in your bank account
- Prepaid card: Some freelancing sites offer prepaid cards which enable you to draw cash straight from your account on their website. However, you'll have to pay fees for every transaction you make – and expect to be stung whenever you withdraw cash from an ATM.
If you've made it this far, give yourself a pat on the back, and pour yourself a stiff drink. Comment below if you have any questions, dilemmas or success stories – and let's show the freelancing world how epic students are!