Career advice you can ignore
What's up with career advice that doesn't work? And why do I get it all the time?
We’re all about helping freelancers live their best lives at Fancy Comma, LLC. That’s why we’ve dedicated this newsletter to talking about advice — specifically, advice that doesn’t work. Yup, you heard us right.
(Yes, I made this meme just for the newsletter. Aren’t you tired of career advice that isn’t relatable and doesn’t work for you? I am!)
When you are looking for work, especially when you are starting out in your career or changing career paths, you may get tons of advice. Much of this advice is valuable. Some of it, sadly, is not.
I can think of tons of career advice that I have been given that doesn’t work for me. That’s why I decided to write this post. If my career advice works for you, great — why isn’t anyone else I know giving out this advice? If it doesn’t, I guess I will have just proved my point that some career advice is useless.
Freelance writing is not a one-size-fits-all endeavor.
Freelance writing requires unique skills and a unique way of promoting yourself, building skills, and gaining clients. It takes flexibility, adaptability, and working smart to succeed. It can be difficult to figure out the right steps to advance your business, but one thing’s for sure — blindly following the advice of others without thinking strategically probably won’t work. That’s because your freelance business is suited to your particular clients’ needs, your skill set, even your schedule and unique life situation.
Sometimes, the advice of more seasoned freelancers may not even make sense for you. I am reminded of the time I told my fellow freelancers that I offer a free 15-minute consultation call for my clients, to which they responded: “You should really bill for that! It’s your time!” So, I tried to bill clients for the initial 15-minute call. It turned out they didn’t like that level of commitment and just wanted to chat to see if I was a good fit. Their advice didn’t work for me. So, I went back to what I as already doing — which was working for me.
Another example of useless advice people have given me stems from the debate on billing hourly versus fixed price. Freelancers seem to be very divided on this issue, and I do not fall on the popular side of the debate as someone who bills hourly. (For what it’s worth, I’ve finally heard of a few freelancers, such as Danny Margulies, who also bill hourly.)
Running any business requires strategic decision-making.
Listening to everyone’s advice, it can be easy to feel like an outcast just for doing what works. Running a business is cool and exciting, but it’s not glamorous — you’re often doing unpopular, seemingly mundane things to help you succeed with little fanfare. Why? Because these little things work. Often, they are time-tested … by you. Not by other people who aren’t familiar with how you operate.
Notice that I’m not saying to not ask for advice or that it’s bad to listen to people giving you career advice. Remember that at the end of the day, the decisions you make are entirely yours, and should take into account your unique circumstances. When it comes to your business strategy as a freelancer, the important thing is to stay true to yourself and what you want to do with your business. It’s all you!
Read on to learn five common pieces of career advice that I think you should ignore as a beginning freelance writer. I’m not sure whether or not you agree with me, but I’m pretty tired of hearing them, because they did not really work for me.
Ignore: “Don’t Work for Free”
Instead, think: Invest Time Now to Make Money Later
Common wisdom tells us that we shouldn’t work for free. However, especially when you are beginning your career or side gig as a freelance writer, you should think of the early work you do as an investment. Think of it like school: investing time now for a payoff (income, education, work skills, etc.) later.
Of course, ideally, you would like to be paid for all the work that you do. However, when you are a beginning freelance writer, if you are an experienced freelancer and have hit a lull in clients, or are trying to redirect or expand your repertoire, unpaid writing may be the best option. (Yes, I realize that at this point, many seasoned freelancers are gasping, wondering how Fancy Comma, LLC ever made it in the freelance world in the first place. That’s the whole point of this article…to tell you how we did make it by ignoring advice that did not make sense for us.)
Working for free doesn’t mean working unpaid for clients. Instead, think of it as building your portfolio and getting your name out there to attract clients. Writing blogs, short articles, or strategic social media posts, show your writing skills and let people know who you are.
How does this work in practice? Recently, I offered a client free work in exchange for an article with my name attached that I could add to my portfolio. I have also done reporting work for free in order to do work that I really like, which I later used to get more high-profile, paid work in the same realm. The important things here are to 1) choose unpaid work strategically to help you land more paid work and 2) balance your unpaid endeavors with paid work so that you can keep paying the bills.
Ignore: Don’t Work for Less Than You’re Worth
Instead, Think: Take Less Now to Get More Later
At the beginning of your freelance career, taking jobs or clients who pay less than you’re worth may be a necessity. This goes against everything you’ve heard in freelance circles, such as “Know your worth!” or “NEVER work for free!” So, hear me out here. Essentially, the idea is to focus on building a name and portfolio. It can be difficult to get clients without a portfolio of work, so in the early stages of freelancing, you may need to be willing to work for free (or a reduced rate) to gain the valuable experience, skills, and portfolio items that you can use to attract more high-paying clients.
Before you have built your name, portfolio, and network of clients, your options for work and clients will be limited. You can increase your rates down the line. However, at the beginning, you must focus on getting as many clients and as much work under your belt as possible. Working for free or a discount is an easy way to get more opportunities.
Remember that working for free strategically is different than working for less than you’re worth. Here, I’m talking about taking on a project you REALLY want to work on for free or at a discount because you could benefit from the experience. I don’t recommend this as a general business strategy. You should figure out how much you need to pay the bills, and base your rates around that. However, especially in the COVID-19 economic downturn, it can be beneficial to get more opportunities to help improve your portfolio.
Ignore: Take Whatever Work is Available
Instead, Think: Strategically Build Your Portfolio
As I’ve mentioned, the work you take as a freelance writer sets you up for later work. This is why it is key to strategically build your portfolio. You only have so many hours in a day to write, especially at the beginning of your freelance career. So, it is important that you think about the image you want to build for yourself.
The work you take is how you build your identity and skill set as a freelance writer. For this reason, you need to both take any available work in your fields and topic areas but avoid work that does not fit into your skill set. Remember that you can take on work outside of your wheelhouse, but it’s a good idea to do so strategically. Taking on work that requires you to do a lot of on-the-job learning can be very time consuming for not a lot of pay, which can lead to burnout.
Of course, taking work outside of your primary expert areas is a great way to build your skill set and portfolio. You just want to think strategically about how the work you do will tell future clients not only what work you can do, but what work you want to do.
Ignore: Don’t Take Work You’re Underqualified For
Instead, Think: Challenge Yourself to Learn New Skills
Clients are interested in your skill set, areas of expertise, and portfolio. While it is important to do good work, it is also important to push your boundaries by taking work outside of your comfort zone so that you can continue building in all three of these areas.
It is best to take work that is at least similar to your fields, topic areas, and writing styles of expertise and experience. However, taking writing assignments that are new to you is a great way to challenge yourself to learn new skills and knowledge.
Beyond learning new skills and knowledge, taking work outside of your comfort zone is the only way to expand your repertoire of topics you can write on. It is also the only way to increase your skill set. Pushing yourself to new limits is also a great way to build your writing portfolio.
Ignore: Don’t Take Work You’re Overqualified For
Instead, Think: Take Every Opportunity to Showcase Your Skills
Taking work you are overqualified for is a great way to build your portfolio. It is also a good way to build your client network. Basically, it is a useful way to get your name out there.
Taking work you are overqualified for can also give you an opportunity to really showcase your skills and outshine the competition. Further, taking work that is less demanding, and that you can easily master, frees up time to devote to more challenging work and skill building. It can be a great confidence boost to deliver an awesome product to your client with less effort!
Like other career paths, building your resume (or writing portfolio), your skill set, and your network of clients are all important to success as a freelance writer. However, freelance writing is unlike other more traditional, more structured career fields. Taking a one-size-fits-all approach to freelancing is likely to be frustrating as you try to sift through the advice that works for you while discarding what doesn’t. It’s good to take stock and trust your gut on things that work for you, but seem not to work for others. Being a nonconformist can really help you avoid the echo chambers of freelance advice that apparently work for some people, but will never work for you!
As a beginning freelance writer, you should look at your work as more like an investment. Consider foregoing the mentality that work is always about payday. Instead, focus on building skills and clients that can bring you a better, if slightly delayed, payoff.
What we’ve been reading
Here are a few links from around the web:
Katherine Wu, who previously wrote for the New York Times, recently accepted a staff job at The Atlantic. Read her latest about why people who get the COVID-19 vaccine can still get infected, or check out all her stories for The Atlantic here.
The Open Notebook has published a set of writers’ reflections on how they got into science writing. Check it out!