The term ‘freelance’ still invokes a sense of dread in a lot of people. They hear it and imagine either a crack team of mercenaries who kill for the highest bidder, or a shabby, poorly-paid journalist who can’t hold down a day job.
The reality is that more and more people are making the transition to freelancing. In May 2019, the Office for National Statistics found that the self-employed sector in the UK grew by 175,000 people in the previous 12 months. According to IPSE, this brought the total number of self-employed people in the UK to 4.8 million, a population that contributes £275 billion to the UK economy.
The obvious benefits of freelance work are that you are free to choose your own projects and the hours you work. Whilst this freedom does bring with it some uncertainty and insecurity — you have no sick pay, no holiday pay, and even the most successful IT consultant or the most prolific photographer will tell you that their work still comes in ebbs and flows — freelance working can still provide a lucrative full- or part-time income. And you can do it from the comfort of your own home.
I began freelancing soon after I graduated in July 2018. I wanted to start working as a journalist, but journalism — like many other creative professions — is an industry that relies heavily on freelance workers. In the digital age, most magazines, newspapers and websites depend on a small in-house team who then contract out most of the work to various freelancers, such as graphic designers, illustrators, photographers, website developers, film makers, and musicians.
One of my first clients was the online magazine published by UnderPinned, which was established in 2018 by Jack Williams and Albert Azis-Clauson. They’re an online platform that provide a virtual office for freelancers, including a portfolio building tool and a free invoicing service.
Jack told me:
‘Essentially we had the realisation that large portions of the freelance population are excellent at the work that is relevant to their own industry, but struggle to access the business side of their working lives (something most universities are NOT taking the time to teach),’
‘This includes pitching for work, managing the work in an organisational role once it has been found, and money management. UnderPinned has been built specifically for freelancers and their clients to manage that through a combination of tech solutions and educational content that is perfect for someone at university or who has recently graduated.’
The magazine, edited by Jack, publishes various educational and lifestyle articles about freelancing, from diversity at the BBC2 to perceptions of freelancing around the world. They also published a helpful COVID-19 resource for freelancers. I asked Jack about his experience as a freelance editor.
‘My experience of freelancing was shocking. I started while I was still at uni and basically worked for free for ages. My first consistent client (who, by the way, I worked for free at first, a fact I am not proud of) wrote Harry Potter fan fiction in English, which was her second language, and then would send it to me weekly to be edited.
‘She was sure, 100% certain, that she was going to be the next E.L. James, and fan fiction waits for no one with those ambitions. I was too embarrassed to tell my family and friends that I was desperately trying to get into the big bad world of editing by doing this work, and worse, doing it for free.
‘Finally, when it became too much and I said I was walking away from the bizarre back and forth, she actually offered to pay me. So that’s how I spent several months editing mildly erotic Harry Potter fan fiction (or “pastiche” as she liked to call it) for what was my first freelance job.’
Speak to enough freelancers and you’ll hear plenty of bizarre stories. But happily, things aren’t always that bad. My own experience over the past two years has been an easy one.
Portfolios. As a freelancer, the quality of your previous work is far more important to a prospective client than your full CV. Build yourself a good, varied portfolio that displays your full range and potential, as well as any impressive previous clients. A strong portfolio shouldn’t be an exhaustive list of everything you’ve ever done, but rather an indication of what you’re capable of producing.
Pitching. This is a freelancer’s most vital skill. A good email pitch is between two and three paragraphs long, and should be polite but to the point — remember, the person you are emailing is almost certainly very busy. Let the idea speak for itself: too many pitch emails are simply overwritten, in an attempt to make a dull idea seem interesting. As with the portfolio, the client won’t be as interested in you or your life story as they will be in the project itself, but do feel free to include a little about yourself and why you are pitching to that client in particular. Counterintuitively, don’t spend too long writing your pitch: early on you’ll probably receive a lot of rejections, and this will have an even worse effect on your morale if you’ve spent hours polishing your email. But stay focused and keep plugging away at it.
Know the law. ‘Freelancer’ isn’t a legal term. The legal status of a freelance worker or contractor is ‘self-employed’, and self-employment is divided into two further categories in the UK: sole traders and limited companies. By default you’ll be a sole trader, but you’ll still have to register with HMRC so you can file a tax return each year. Make sure you check the gov.uk website for the relevant HMRC advice sooner rather than later.
Don’t work for nothing. Too many clients depend on the imbalance of power in their favour to extort valuable work from honest freelancers whilst giving nothing in return. Always agree a fee with the client in writing before beginning the work. This may feel awkward, but you would never work in-house for free. If the client seriously can’t pay, ask yourself what you’re gaining from them: exposure? experience for your portfolio? Early in your career, working for exposure can pay off — but once your portfolio is varied enough, make sure you’re getting a fair wage.
Joe Williams is a freelance journalist. He has written for the Spectator, the Times Literary Supplement, Tribune, and UnderPinned.