What Is Freelancing? (Complete Beginner’s Guide)

Freelancing is one of the most popular career paths, but you may be wondering what it is and how it works. It can be a very lucrative way to make a living, but it’s not for everyone!

Freelancing is a type of self-employment where an individual is paid by clients, often per hour or per project. Freelancers operate in a wide variety of industries, from writing to graphic design. Freelancers are responsible for running their own business and paying their own taxes.

In this article, I discuss how you can become a freelancer, what kinds of freelancing jobs are out there, and I’ll give you some useful resources that have helped me on my own freelancing journey.

How Freelancing Works

When you’re a freelancer, you work for yourself. Well, kind of – more on that in a moment. You have a fair bit of autonomy over the projects you take on and the hours you work. You usually work independently and decide how to run your business, within the relevant legal requirements.

Fun Fact: The word ‘freelancing’ actually has its roots in the world of combat! Want to know more? Check out our article about the history of freelancing.

Freelancing exists in all industries, and there are an estimated 1.9 million freelancers in the UK and a whopping 73.3 million in the USA. Exactly what freelancing looks like for different people varies. Some freelance on the side in addition to their full-time work. Others might freelance part-time around caring responsibilities. And many people are full-time freelancers.

Contract work, consulting, and gig work are all terms that typically indicate someone is a freelancer. Regardless of the terminology used, the main criterion is that a freelancer works for themselves. This is different from an employee who works for someone else. I take a closer look at the main differences between freelancers and employees in the next section.

Key Point: While you do get to choose a lot of how your freelance business operates, you still need to answer to clients. They’re the ones that pay the bills and tell you what to do on projects.

On that note, how do you get paid as a freelancer?

How Do Freelancers Get Paid?

Freelancers get paid in different ways depending on the type of work they do. For example, many freelance writers get paid per word. A lot of other freelancers are paid on a per-project basis. Some get paid an hourly rate.

As for the actual transfer of funds, freelancers may get paid via platforms like PayPal, or by bank transfer. This typically comes down to how the client prefers to handle payments.

To get a better understanding of what a freelancer is, let’s compare them to employees.

Freelancer vs Employee: The Key Differences

TaxFreelancers need to register as self-employed with the relevant government authorities

They are responsible for doing their tax returns and paying tax at the end of the tax year (or multiple times per year)
Employer calculate and pay their employees’ tax progressively throughout the year, on a pay as you earn (PAYE) basis

Employees don’t need to do a tax return at the end of the tax year
PayFreelancers choose their rates and how they charge clients

Freelancers invoice for their work as it’s completed
Employers set employees’ salaries

Employees usually receive a weekly or monthly wage, based on their annual salary
Work EnvironmentFreelancers are usually responsible for their own workspace, so many freelancers work from home or from a co-working space

Freelancers need to arrange their own equipment, such as laptops, stationery, and software
Employees are usually required to go into the office each day (although many people now work remotely)

Employers usually provide employees with all the necessary equipment to do their job
Working HoursFreelancers set their own work hours

Freelancers don’t get holiday or sick pay, as they’re only paid for the time they work/projects they complete
Employees, especially in an office environment, generally work 9-5, Monday to Friday

Employees have holiday entitlements so they can take certain types of paid leave

The Pros & Cons Of Freelancing

The Pros

Flexibility: As a freelancer, you have the freedom to choose when, where, and how you work. You can set your own schedule, which means you can take breaks whenever you want, work during your most productive hours, or even travel while still fulfilling your professional commitments.

Variety Of Projects: You have the opportunity to work on different assignments, tackle unique challenges, and expand your skill set. This variety keeps your work engaging and allows you to continuously learn and grow.

Potential For Higher Income: As a freelancer, you have the potential to earn a higher income compared to a traditional 9-to-5 job. Since you’re not limited to a fixed salary, you can set your own rates and negotiate prices based on your skills, experience, and the value you provide.

Independence & Autonomy: You have the independence to make decisions regarding your work, such as which projects to accept, how to approach them, and how to manage your time. This autonomy allows you to shape your career according to your personal preferences and professional goals.

Personal & Professional Growth: Freelancing provides ample opportunities for personal and professional growth. When you’re responsible for finding clients, managing projects, and delivering high-quality work, you develop essential skills such as communication, time management, negotiation, and problem-solving.

The Cons

Irregular Income: Unlike a regular job where you receive a fixed salary, freelancers’ earnings can fluctuate from month to month. Some months may be financially rewarding, while others may be lean.

No Benefits: When you work as a freelancer, you don’t have access to the traditional benefits provided by employers, such as health insurance, retirement plans, or paid time off. You’re responsible for securing your own insurance coverage, saving for retirement, and managing time off without pay.

Self-Employment Taxes: Unlike traditional employees who have taxes automatically deducted from their pay, freelancers must calculate and pay their own taxes each year.

Isolation & Loneliness: Freelancing can be a solitary pursuit, especially if you primarily work from home or have limited interaction with colleagues or clients. The absence of daily interactions with coworkers can lead to feelings of isolation and loneliness.

How To Know If Freelancing Is Right For You

Choosing whether or not to become a freelancer involves weighing up the pros and cons discussed above, and asking yourself a few important questions.

Questions to ask yourself include:

  1. Are you self-disciplined and motivated enough to work independently without external supervision?
  2. Can you handle the uncertainty and irregular income that comes with freelancing?
  3. Do you have a financial safety net to manage potential income fluctuations?
  4. Are you comfortable taking risks and navigating the ups and downs of freelancing?
  5. Do you have the necessary skills and expertise to meet client expectations and stand out in a competitive market?
  6. Are you willing to invest time and effort in networking and self-promotion activities to find clients and build your reputation?
  7. Does the flexibility and autonomy of freelancing align with your desired work-life balance and lifestyle?

Thinking about these questions will give you a better idea of whether freelancing might be an ideal career path for you.

It’s important to remember that while there are plenty of benefits of freelancing, it also requires a lot of hard work. When you’re a freelancer, you’re the business. You’re the manager, the worker, the accountant, the marketer, and the administration team. There’s also no such thing as holiday leave or sick pay, and you need to account for this in your freelance rates!

Now that you’re sold on the idea of becoming a freelancer, let’s look at some common freelancing jobs you could take on.

Examples Of Freelancing Jobs

CopywriterSoftware developerPhotographer
ProofreaderWebsite designerPersonal trainer
Content writerSEO consultantDance instructor
TranslatorIT consultantLanguage teacher
Graphic designerVoiceover artistTranscriber

How To Become A Freelancer In 5 Steps

1. Decide What You Want to Do

The first step to becoming a freelancer is figuring out which industry or niche you’re going to freelance in. This is easier if you’re planning on continuing the kind of work you’ve done as an employee, or perhaps you have a hobby you’ve started to monetize and want to build on.

But nothing is stopping you from branching into a different kind of work entirely. Start by looking at your existing skills and previous experience. Which of these can you transfer to a new industry or role?

You also need to think about whether there’s a market for the service you’re offering. Once you’ve narrowed down exactly what it is you want to do, you can then start to build your freelancing business.

2. Learn New Skills If Necessary

Next, identify whether there are any gaps in your skills for the kind of work you want to start doing. You can then find fill those gaps by taking online courses, attending physical classes, or even just reading books and watching YouTube videos.

There are also lots of free and paid online courses available for almost any skill. For example, Skillshare and Udemy are online learning platforms that offer courses in bookkeeping, productivity, marketing, writing, web development, user experience design, yoga – the list goes on!

3. Identify Your Target Market

Once you know what service you’re going to offer, you need to think about who you’re offering it to. This is your target audience, or your clients. Identifying your audience or clients helps you develop your marketing strategy and identify potential avenues to help you build your freelancing business.

This might be easier to do if you’ll be freelancing in an industry you’re familiar with or already have connections in. But if you’re changing careers or moving industries, spend some time on this step to make sure you’re targeting the right market to grow your freelancing career.

4. Set Up Your Business Structure

Once you’ve gone through the planning stages, it’s time to get your freelancing business set up from a legal and tax perspective. The specific requirements for this depend on your location. In the UK, for example, most freelancers register as self-employed with HMRC (although there can be some differences between freelancers and self-employed people).

You also need to consider the practical aspects of running your freelancing business, including:

  • Registering your business structure
  • Applying for a business licence
  • Setting up a business email address
  • Accounting and record-keeping processes, including invoicing
  • Setting up a website
  • Building an online portfolio

5. Find Clients

Now all that’s left to do is to go out there and find some freelancing work! There are several ways you can do this, and I’ll outline some of the main ones below. It will take time and effort to find your first clients no matter which route you take, and you need to be prepared for this as a freelancer.

How To Find Freelancing Jobs

Tap Into Your Network

Begin by considering reaching out to your existing network of friends and past colleagues. Let them know that you’re freelancing and actively seeking new opportunities. You’d be surprised how often someone in your network might have a project or know someone who does!

Personal referrals can be a great way to secure freelance work, so don’t hesitate to leverage your connections.

Use Online Platforms

Take advantage of online platforms that connect freelancers with clients. Websites like Upwork, Freelancer, and Fiverr provide a vast range of job listings across various industries.

Create a compelling profile that highlights your skills and experience, and actively search and apply for relevant jobs. These platforms also allow clients to review and rate freelancers, so make sure to deliver high-quality work to build a positive reputation.

Establish An Online Presence

Build a professional online presence by creating a portfolio website or a dedicated freelancing profile. Showcase your previous work, highlight your expertise, and provide your contact information so potential clients can get in touch with you easily.

Having a professional online presence helps potential clients discover you and evaluate your skills and suitability for their projects. Also consider creating profiles on social media platforms like LinkedIn or in professional online communities and groups where you can network and engage with potential clients.

Attend Networking Events

Networking plays a crucial role in finding freelancing jobs. Attend industry-specific events, conferences, and meetups to connect with like-minded professionals and potential clients.

Engage in conversations, exchange business cards, and follow up with new contacts afterwards. Building relationships and expanding your professional network can open doors to freelance opportunities that you may not have otherwise come across!

Cold Pitching

Finally, don’t be afraid to proactively reach out to potential clients by sending cold pitches or proposals. Research companies or individuals who might require your services and craft personalized messages that highlight how you can add value to their projects.

Be concise, clear, and demonstrate your understanding of their needs. While not every cold pitch will result in a job (and you’ll likely face a lot of rejection), the more you put yourself out there, the greater your chances of landing freelance gigs.

Freelancing Resources For Beginners

If you’re considering going freelance and want to learn more about it, there are plenty of resources out there (including this website!). Freelancing is a well-trodden path and freelancers across various industries are generous when it comes to sharing their experience and advice.

So, take advantage of this and learn from their experiences! Below are some freelancing resources I recommend to get a stronger grasp of how freelancing works, and how you can find success.

Freelancing Newsletters

Some great freelancing newsletters include:

  • Lance newsletter offers insights from Anna Codrea-Rado’s own journey from news editor to freelance journalist.
  • Opportunities of the Week – This newsletter from Sonia Weiser provides you with all the latest freelance writing job opportunities twice a week.

Freelancing Podcasts

My favorite freelancing podcasts include:

  • Each week on Being Freelance, host Steve Folland interviews freelancers across a range of creative industries for their career advice.
  • Out of Office, hosted by Fiona Thomas, looks at a different freelancing topic each episode, with guest interviews. Sadly there have been no new episodes since 2021 at the time of writing, but it’s worth going through the archives.
  • 99 Problems (but a boss ain’t one), hosted by Michelle Pratt and Katy Carlisle, discusses different topics affecting freelancers such as tricky client conversations, time management, and mental health. It’s also the winner of the best name ever for a freelancing podcast!

Freelancing Books

Some of the best freelancing books are:

  • The Freelancer’s Bible by Sara Horowitz. Horowitz knows a thing or two about freelancing. After all, she’s the founder of the Freelancers Union, a US-based advocacy organisation! Packed with practical advice, this book is ideal for freelancers at any stage of their career.
  • The Money Book for Freelancers, Part-Timers, and the Self-Employed by Joseph D’Agnese and Denise Kiernan. This book focuses on some of the most important aspects of freelancing – how to make money, manage your finances, and grow your freelancing business. While it’s pitched at the American market, there are lots of useful finance tips for freelancers based anywhere.
  • You’re the Business by Anna Codrea-Rado. As well as writing the Lance newsletter I mentioned above, Codrea-Rado recently published her freelancing guide. Based on her own experiences and interviews with other freelancers, this is a step-by-step guide to setting up a successful freelancing career.
  • The Multi-Hyphen Method by Emma Gannon. While not strictly a freelancing book, this is an ideal choice for anyone looking for success from an entrepreneurial standpoint. In the book, Gannon explores the benefits of exploring all of your passions and the reasons it’s okay to be a jack-of-all-trades.
The Multi-Hyphen Method book on a white background
The Multi-Hyphen Method by Emma Gannon

Start Your Freelancing Journey Today

Now that you know how freelancing works and the steps to becoming a freelancer, nothing is stopping you from starting your freelancing journey today! It’s hard work to make it as a freelancer, but the benefits of being your own boss and having a flexible career make it well worth it.

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