A brief (and only a little bit) sarcastic guide to becoming an accomplished freelancer

Independent work is bullshit and here are three tips that may help make the stress a little more manageable. Maybe. Sort of. Probably not.

A brief (and only a little bit) sarcastic guide to becoming an accomplished freelancer

A quick note that this translation of my blog post into English is the generous work of Lukas Rowland. Thanks Lukas, I really appreciate it!

Are you deeply involved in the gig economy? My sincere condolences! I understand you perfectly, comrade, I too spend all my time reading all sorts of internet nonsense to become a better “entrepreneur.” If you’re a bit like me, you’re probably trying to figure out how you’re not only going to survive your professional life but, also, thrive in it? Hah! I warn you now, I have not figured that particular bit out yet.

Before I begin, a small disclaimer for the content below: I’m talking about being an independent worker, a contractor, a freelancer, yes, but in “creative” fields. Marketing, public relations, copywriting, translation — a “creative.” It’s worth being precise in this venerable era, when employees everywhere are disappearing without a trace and full-time jobs are going the way of the rhino. Even if against their own interests, a lot of people today work as contractors today — and my guide will no doubt be even more useless for those outside the strange realm I find myself in these days.

Alright, let’s get to it.

1. Set yourself a rigid weekly schedule (to then chuck it straight out the window!)

When I started working this way, I found I often didn’t have any idea what my coming weeks were going to look like. To try and impose a modicum of stability, every time a client approved a quote, I started creating new events in Google Calendar with all the pertinent information on the project, the client, and the deadline. I allocated 1 hour for small tasks, and much more for complex work. I was really excited about this trick to manage my time and it allowed me to estimate how much work I could stuff into one too-short day.

But! The most important thing to remember is that your meticulously organized time will be mercilessly tossed out the window as soon as possible! Remember, your work is 5% creation and 95% customer service. Don’t worry, your clients will usually be difficult to please, uncompromising, and uncommunicative! Don’t forget to always respond to misunderstanding and disagreements with calm — never lose your patience.

Which brings us to our next point…

Documentation, Documentation, DOCUMENTATION!!!

In the event of a real misunderstanding or error, your safety net will take the form of all the e-mails and other documents created during your professional relationship with the client.

Here is a simplified version of my process, which I follow each time without fail with every new and returning client:

  • Step 1: Establish communication — e-mail, in person, by telephone or teleconference, etc.
  • Step 2: Confirm by e-mail or telephone the timeline and deadlines of the work to be done, a schedule for return of documents or payments, and any other information I will need to prepare a quote for the client.
  • Step 3: Prepare and send a quote, often with an extra note by email that the work will not begin without written approval from the client (or the client's superior—I sometimes deal with employees who don't have the authority to make certain decisions, and this can cause issues if the real decision makers weren't completely aware of what I was doing, or worse, my fees).
  • Step 4: Work progresses. If ever the parameters of the project change substantially, I update the quote for the client or I send e-mails to the client summarizing all discussed decisions. I'm essentially establishing a paper trail of what needs to be done — this also soothes my work-related phone anxiety, some lovely emotional baggage from one of my first, really awful work experiences.
  • Step 5: Deliver the final product, accompanied by my final invoice. (If needed, I copy the details of the payment schedule or my banking/Paypal information in the e-mail itself, because often clients will not open my invoices immediately otherwise).

It's important to note I have never regretted creating too much documentation – and that I often regretted not having enough written proof of conversations or decisions — sometimes made long ago. I know that it can seem like describing the work rather than just doing it is a huge waste of time, but it takes only one problematic client out of twenty (or perhaps a hundred) to seriously ruin your life.

If ever you've had a client that took a year and a half to pay their bill, if ever you've had a client who changed absolutely everything about a contract right in the middle of the timeline, if ever you've had a client who refuses to pay the bill because they're dissatisfied with exactly what they asked you to do... to name just a small handful of difficult situations I've already faced since 2017. And these situations create an absolutely crushing stress.

One can swear to only work with reasonable, nice clients, but reality is far from that easy. I'm still young (?), but my experience confirms the vast majority of work conflicts aren't caused by malice, but by life: we are overloaded and our schedules are absurd, things aren’t going well at home or in our relationships, we are sick or living with invisible chronic issues, or perhaps we’ve actually misunderstood the goal of what we're doing without realizing it, or even just pure bad luck, like a typo that escaped went an entire team dedicated to quality control, etc. Never underestimate human error.

Anyway, when everything is going well (for myself, rarely, but occasionally) the pace of work is frenetic, and so communication will never be perfect. The act of documenting everything without cease can, from time to time, also offer everyone a little clarity and reduce misunderstandings before they arise.

Above all, no work is too small or insignificant to follow this step.

3. Finally, the miracle trick!

Here is a tool generously shared by a professional translator who presented “So You Wanna Be A Freelance Translator” at S'ATTAQ last winter. It’s actually super simple: create a spreadsheet in Google Drive or Excel and record all fees (by word, by page, hourly, etc.) approved by your clients.

Yes, even more documentation! But don't worry, this spreadsheet will soon become your Favourite Thing.

Here is a screencap of mine. In the “Notes” column, I often leave remarks such as: “client did not pay on time”, “client ghosted”, “fee reduced for a very good reason”, etc. This spreadsheet has seriously become my work bible. Especially when certain clients only give me work once a year, or less!

And… that’s really it! I tried to keep a sarcastic tone throughout this guide but it quickly got serious. I hope it’s not too tedious, but I figured it would be worth sharing since I often get asked questions on these subjects, especially on how to better communicate with difficult clients.

One final word: independent work is bullshit, the lie of being one's own boss means nothing when we're subjected to everyone's whims, when we spend half of our time crushed under or juggling debt, the stress of dealing with demanding clients, or the fear of one typo ruining your good reputation! If you're in this work like I am, I wish you lots of luck and a minimum of stress.

Perhaps this guide will help you better manager this stress, I hope so in any case.

PS (for real): Why not support this Indiegogo for this awesome land repatriation project by Métis in Space?

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