5 things to think about when you’re freelancing

5 things to think about when you’re freelancing

Freelancing exists in all walks of life and might well prove to be a great way for you to earn a decent living as an English teacher. It’s a difficult way to survive if you’re only living on freelance income, but it can make for a healthy supplement to your day job. In my time as a teacher, I’ve moonlighted as a translator, proofreader, English language consultant, wile you wouldn’t believe the number of friends and colleagues who’ve either been on TV or in a film on the strength of being an English speaker. Don’t think of these things as being one time money makers, but rather as freelance work that acts as consistent residual income. No one doing freelance is perfect; not me, not you, not even the best of us. We all make mistakes, all the time, but if we’re clever, we learn from them. Some mistakes, however, are more fundamental than others, and if we can correct or avoid those mistakes, we’ll get by OK. Let’s take a look at some of the most essential mistakes that freelancers, new and old, often make, and how to avoid them.

1. Charging too little

New freelancers, especially in the field of TEFL in my opinion, tend to undervalue themselves and charge less than they’re worth. That’s maybe OK if you’ve just completed the CELTA and you’re just breaking into the profession, and don’t have any previous work or reputation to point to, but once you’ve got some experience under your belt, don’t be afraid to find out what you’re worth. Otherwise, you’re selling yourself short and you’ll be working too much just to pay the bills.

My mistake:

I started tentatively translating from Turkish to English a couple of years ago. I charged very little, what I considered a reasonable rate while I was ‘learning the ropes’ so to speak. When I had people lining up to bite my hand off at the rate I was charging, I doubled my price. The flood slowed but I still found I had more work than I could manage and that I was turning offers down.

How can you avoid selling yourself too cheaply? It’s good to find out what the market average is (why not ask people on the ELT World forum?), and then charge a little more. This tells clients that you’re good. A good way to do the sums is to figure out how much you want to make, and how many hours you realistically plan to work. Then charge based on those numbers.

2. Missing deadlines

Your freelance work as a teacher might not be teaching, it could be proofreading English documents, or even translating. I do such things regularly and let me tell you that these are good additional income streams, as you can fit them conveniently around your teaching schedule. Basically, your ability to deliver quality work and meet deadlines is what makes your reputation. Also, as a freelancer, your reputation is all you have. If you miss deadlines too often, you will soon see your customers going elsewhere.

My mistake:

Even when I was unknowingly undercutting the opposition massively with my stupidly cut-price translation rates, I got a few complaints about how long it was taking me, even though I’d made sure to agree a ‘flexible’ completion date. I was kind of missing the point: in many (not all) cases, people want the document translating quickly rather than thoroughly correctly. For example, I was doing proofreading an essay for a professor who’d made some classic Turkish to English cock ups. When the meaning of a term was somewhat ambiguous, I’d always make a highlighted note in the document, explaining what changes I’d made and why. I later asked the prof about these and he informed me that he’d merely deleted them without even reading. The document was a bit of a rush job which I barely got back to him before he was due to send it to the publisher: had I checked his requirements, time wouldn’t have been an issue. I didn’t miss the deadline but I risked it for no real reason.

You can avoid problems by making deadlines one of your top two priorities (along with putting out great work), overestimate how long it will take you, break the project into smaller steps, and be accountable every step of the way.

3. Not proposing a follow-up idea

Often when a person engages in freelance work, they will complete their task and then move on to an assignment with another customer. Perhaps the freelancer hopes that the assignment that he completed was so amazing, the client will be knocking down his door the next day. Unfortunately, that often doesn’t happen. If you don’t provide the basis of future business, you might not see it.

My mistake:

I was doing some translation work for an engineering company. It wasn’t too taxing and paid reasonably well. After completing the work, I said so long and thanks. A while later, while having a beer with a friend, I discovered that he was doing some proof reading for the same company; easy work that could have been mine with a little bit of enquiry, or even if I’d made sure of giving them a means by which to contact me.

When you complete a job, propose a follow-up idea for future work. If you don’t hear back, follow up because there will be more opportunities, even if they don’t know it themselves.

4. Not having multiple income sources

You’re reading this in the first place, which is a good sign that you’re not just sitting back and trying to get by on what the day job gives you. Relying on one or two ‘patrons’ is generally a bad idea. This is especially the case if you aren’t freelancing merely to supplement your day job, but are depending on this as your only gig.

My (friends’) mistake:

Sadly, I’ve seen too many TEFL comrades trapped in the predicament of scraping by in this way when so many more opportunities are available to them. If your main customer drops you, or reduces their requirement from you, you’re in a bit of a pickle.

You can avoid being kicked out of your rented accommodation by always having multiple income streams. You might well start with one freelance job translating, teaching the neighbor’s kid or proofreading, but don’t rely on that as your primary source of income until you’ve added more. If you can get other sources of income streams, you should work hard to do so. It will make your income much more stable and reliable.

5. Choosing the wrong customers

The relationship between you and the paying customer is obviously an important one, and there are many issues that can make a customer the wrong customer, or the right customer, for you. These factors include the area of business they’re in, their location, how difficult they are, how likely they are to pay your rate, how much work they require, their ability and / or willingness to pay on time (without hassle), and more. If you choose the wrong customer, you might well make less money, be unhappy, and work more.

My mistake:

My wife and I translated a book for the Turkish history foundation. Actually, we rescued a translation that had been done so poorly it was a joke. Our problem was with the person in charge of the foundation, whose problem was with the quality of the job we’d done: she knew that it was excellent and didn’t want to acknowledge how good it was. Why? The original translator was a personal friend of hers and having to get us in for a rescue job was an affront to her. Wrong place at the wrong time, up against the wrong bitch… at least we got paid well. I’ve also spent countless hours with people trying to proofread legal documents, hoping that my translation won’t lead to law suits down the line. I know little about law English and had no business pretending I did.

Select your clients carefully. Research them, talk to others who’ve worked for them if you can. When initiating contact, try to think of it as a two-way interview, they are trying to decide if you’re right for them (some will be stupid enough to choose you merely because you speak English), but you should also be trying to decide if they are right for you. Do your first job or two on a trial basis, just to see how things work out. Every now and then, evaluate your customers to see if they’re worth the trouble.

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