Freelancing isn’t a modern invention. One of the earliest uses of the term comes from Sir Walter Scott’s 19th century work, Ivanhoe, and refers to hired mercenaries (or free lances). Merriam-Webster notes that the term came to mean a number of things, including, “a person who does any type of work on one’s own terms and without any permanent or long-term commitment to an employer.”
I think that covers freelance writers and editors nicely, but I also believe we have to be careful not to let our mercenary roots be the only thing that leads us in this endeavor. It’s one thing to manage your time and efforts on your own terms; it’s another thing to burn bridges or muck up the waters in your area of the freelance lake.
Because despite the fact that freelancing lets you work from anywhere in the world and take on clients from multiple countries, the industry itself is more like a lake than an ocean. That’s to say: it’s smaller than you think, and the chances of running into the same people (digitally or even in person) are larger than you might think.
East Coast Freelance Writer Meets West Coast Client, Accidentally
I’m on the east coast of the United States. In 2014, I did some freelance writing work for a document destruction company on the west coast. I was also pregnant, so my friend and occasional co-writer, Whitney (also on the east coast), was assisting me with my client workload.
Fast forward over three years. That freelance project had ended in 2014, and I hadn’t thought of the company in years until Whitney texted me: What was the name of that shredding company we wrote for a few years ago?
She was stuck in an airport, waiting it out at the bar and talking to a random person in the same predicament. Turns out, he was a rep for the very same company.
She then texted: Can anything be more random?
It is a very random meetup, but it’s not the only time something like this has happened to me or people I know. And when you throw in digital meetups, I’ve recrossed paths with other freelance writers, project managers and clients an astounding number of times through the years.
All that path crossing has convinced me:
- Freelance writers and editors should avoid burning bridges
- Freelancers should always strive for professionalism, even in casual communication with others in the field
- Successful long-term freelancing means protecting your personal brand and building strong bridges
The Gaiman Approach to Building Bridges as Freelance Writers or Editors
In his iconic Make Good Art speech (seriously, it’s wonderful — give it a listen when you have 20 minutes) author Neil Gaiman says that in a freelance world, people keep working because:
- Their work is good
- They are easy to get along with
- They deliver work on time
On paper, that might sound easy, but we all know that life conspires against at least one of those things on a daily basis. It’s not always easy to get along with a client — or other freelancers on a team — and no one hits it out of the ballpark every time. And deadlines. . .well, those are the frenemy of the freelancer, yes?
But Gaiman goes on to say that you don’t even need to do all three in every interaction in your freelancing career. “Two out of three is fine,” he says.
Whew! (Right? I’m not the only one relieved to hear this?)
But seriously, while you do want to aim for all three traits, as a project manager, I think this is completely accurate. If someone is a bit surly, but I don’t have to chase them down for work or double check everything they do, I’m going to send them more work. I’ll also send someone more work if they are a stellar writer and a lovely person, but I know they’ll turn it in three days late (in which case I bump up the deadline when I give it to them). And the nice freelancer who turns everything in as scheduled but is only average at the job? Professional reliability is a pretty big commodity for project and account managers.
Hit all three consistently, and you’ve not just built a bridge with your client. You’ve finished it in gold.
A Few Tips on Maintaining Bridges
So, how do you strive toward Gaiman’s three (and at least hit two every time)?
- Don’t take on more work than you can do. Push your limits, but don’t make unrealistic commitments that will leave you and the client disappointed.
- Do let someone know as soon as possible if you can’t make a commitment; most clients and project managers know life comes up on occasion, so they often have a backup plan.
- Don’t be a frequent flopper: emergencies are understandable, but if something comes up every week or even month, people will stop coming to you with work.
- Do walk away before you send an angry message or email, and definitely never send a message when you can still feel your blood in your cheeks. Taking a walk outside, relaxing in a shower, eating a healthy meal or talking it out with a friend first lets you cool down so you can communicate professionally.
- Don’t take work you simply don’t understand, especially when time is critical; if it’s completely out of your wheelhouse or the instructions might as well be in a foreign language, you’re less likely to be able to meet a deadline or turn in acceptable work.
- Do ask intelligent, professional questions to better understand instructions or the client’s needs. Many clients remember the freelance writers and editors who made an extra effort (as long as you aren’t just asking for the sole purpose of showing up on the client’s radar; that can seem disingenuous and be annoying).
- Don’t use unprofessional language or tone in your freelancer communications; that means no obscenities, unnecessary belittlement of others or inappropriate info sharing.
- Do treat client, project and work information with respect. While it’s not all 100 percent confidential, it’s also not all something you should broadcast on social media or other public outlets.
How do you build bridges as a freelance writer or editor and keep your personal brand safe in an industry that seems to get smaller each year? Sound off in the comments and let us know.