Ah, the life of the creative freelancer. Waking up at noon, taking on only the projects that excite you, working only when you’re inspired… Okay, it’s nothing like that. But the way I see it, if you’re a writer, artist, photographer, web designer or another creative type, working as a freelance professional is more rewarding and fun than just about every other way to make a living.
Which isn’t to say it’s easy to be a freelancer. Building and maintaining a successful practice is damn hard work. And you’ll almost certainly encounter some huge, career-jeopardizing pitfalls along the way. It’s best to learn about those pitfalls now, so when you face them in your business you’ll be prepared to maneuver around them.
You don’t want to make any of these mistakes. They can really slow your progress in growing your business. Trust me. I’ve been a creative freelancer for almost 20 years, and I’ve made one or two of these mistakes myself, more than once. (Alright, all of them.) (Alright, alright – a lot more than once.)
1. Taking professional criticism personally.
This one is hard to avoid. After all, as a creative pro, you probably identify yourself personally with your work – or your art, as I’m guessing you think of it. One of the most common – and career-threatening – mistakes I see freelancers make is failing to take a client’s criticism professionally and objectively.
Sometimes freelancers mistakenly think they need to stand their ground and argue for their original vision; other times they just become belligerent and hostile. But remember: There are a lot of freelancers out there, and no client has to keep hiring one who makes their life difficult.
But if you see your work as your calling, as an extension of you, how can you not take it personally when a client criticizes it?
My advice? Always remember that it’s not personal. It’s a piece of work you’ve been commissioned to create by a client who’s paying you for it. Of course, you should put your best effort into every assignment you receive. And you should never turn in work you’re not confident will delight your client. But remember, it’s their end product, not yours.
And if a client is underwhelmed by your first draft? Take their suggestions, requests – and, yes, even their criticism – professionally and cheerfully. Then bang out a kick-ass second draft.
2. Delivering subpar work to smaller or less-significant clients.
There’s a great scene in the old Miami Vice TV series, where Detective Sonny Crockett is standing in a hospital operating room with a doctor who’s about to perform surgery on a kid the detective mistakenly shot.
“That kid,” Crockett says to the surgeon, “is the president of the United States.”
If you want success and longevity as a freelance professional, think of every client you land, no matter how small, as Google. Imagine that for every assignment you work on, the company’s CEO is waiting to review it. Many freelancers do just the opposite. They give less than their best to a client or project they deem too small or otherwise unimportant.
I can’t imagine a time in history when this tactic made good business sense. But today, in the era of social media, when everyone essentially has a microphone, how could it be anything but totally self-destructive?
Even the smallest companies you work for, even the lowest-paid assignments you accept, still represent opportunities to delight a client, to earn a great endorsement or testimonial, to win referral business and to get better at your craft.
3. Developing too narrow an area of expertise.
This one might seem controversial. No one wants to hire a generalist, according to conventional wisdom. Many experts tell newbie freelancers that we need a specialty, a niche. So you focus, and you become a great writer of press releases for medical device companies. And before long, you have a beautiful, extensive portfolio of press releases for medical device companies. No other types of writing. No experience in other industries.
Yes, you can use an area of specialty as a differentiator for your business. Gaining knowledge in a particular industry can separate you from the freelance pack. So can developing expertise at a specific skill within your freelance practice – white-paper writing for copywriters, for example, or shooting executive headshots for photographers.
But if you want to enjoy a long professional life as a freelancer, you need to go both deep and broad. Carving out a niche for yourself as a healthcare writer is smart, but you’ll also want to be able to show a prospective new client in another field – technology, financial services, transportation – that you can write for them too.
So don’t get complacent. Even if you’ve already got plenty of work in your current field, stay alert for opportunities to do new types of work, for new clients, in new industries. Always be open to a chance to broaden your expertise, to enrich your portfolio… and to do more great work.
To your success!
Featured photo credit: Man Typing Laptop With Retro Camera and Coffee / Ed Gregory via stokpic.com