7 Top Freelance Survival Tips

These seven freelance survival tips will help to see you through the lean times–and there will be lean times, at least until you have an established, reliable base of regular customers.

Every freelance worker has gone through a bad patch, when none of their job bids are accepted, on-spec submissions are rejected, or rock-solid clients cancel a gig (or go under). How you deal with adversity is critical to the survival of your business.

Here are seven tips to help your freelancing business survive.

7 Ways to Survive as a Freelancer

Maybe you’re going through some rough times as a freelancer. Or maybe you haven’t faced your rough times yet. Either way, these freelance survival tips will help you keep your freelancing business alive:

  1. Be businesslike. Never think of your freelance work as “just another job.” In a very real way, you are your reputation. It’s easier to build a good reputation than it is to repair a bad one when things go wrong. Hitting deadlines, being flexible, being persistent without being a pest, acting polite in your dealings, and keeping promises and commitments is nothing more than common business sense. Nothing makes you stand out more than screwing up. Avoid screw-ups at all costs. You want to be memorable for the right reasons–by over-delivering and raising the bar for your competitors.
  2. Be original. My brother is trained as an illustrator. His mentor told him to always reject the first two ideas he had after looking at a brief for the first time. Just think what that means for a moment. The most obvious ideas you’ll get for any topic are almost certainly the same ideas that your competitors will have. Being original means shining new light through old windows. Check out the publication, project description or site you are hoping to work with. Avoid pitching ideas that are too similar to anything that’s been done by others. If you have to write about a topic that has been talked about before, ensure that your angle is unique, fresh and adds value.
  3. Be humorous. I got an excellent response rate when I sent a letter by mail (in those happy days before the Internet) to a group of targeted publications, describing my ideal ‘nemesis’ (freelance writers who missed deadlines, failed to return calls, went off on three-day gin benders and made the editors’ lives a misery). In the letter I highlighted how I was different from my nemesis in every way. One small mailing of 20 letters got me four “Nothing now, but we’ll keep in touch” letters and three jobs, two of which became long-term relationships. There is a fine line to tread. Never be offensive or tacky. Don’t make fun of religion or race. But, a well-written, amusing approach is more memorable than yet another “Hello, here is my resume I am super-cool” borefest.
  4. Be resourceful. When my freelance writing career took a turn for the worse (problems in my personal life dominated my energy and made it impossible for me to operate effectively), I needed a different way to make up the shortfall. I took to trading on eBay for several years. My writing skills made it easy to craft great descriptions that sold my products, and I even began to learn rudimentary HTML that made the switch to online publishing easier when I took that route.
  5. Don’t be afraid to bastardize your talent. If you are a great illustrator, but gigs have dried up, create T-shirts and gifts with your portfolio using CafePress or Zazzle and promote them to suitable website partners to leverage their traffic. Turn your writing talent to producing eBooks, and market them on Kobo, Amazon Kindle and iTunes. Consider offering a free report or review of somebody else’s project to get your foot in the door for future hiring. Offer your services on Fiverr, so clients can try you out before committing to bigger contracts. There are so many ways to make a living these days. Talented people with imagination are truly in a blessed position.
  6. Network. Tools like Twitter and Facebook make it easier to find hard-to-reach people. I still think it’s impossible to get onto a truly famous person’s radar in this way, but there are thousands of decision-makers on Twitter who could be reached out to with a little persistent friendliness and value-added tweeting. Don’t be a pest, but do send them links they might find useful or make suggestions about projects you could bring something to the table on. It’s always better to be constructive rather than critical. Just remember, you’d better be able to walk the walk as well as talk the talk (or tweet the tweet) if they come back to you for a proposal.
  7. Don’t lose heart. It’s easy to become discouraged when things aren’t going your way. It’s such a cliché, but there is not one successful business person–not ONE–in the world who has never failed, never suffered a setback, never been told “no” dozens of times in a row. The difference between success and failure is never giving up. Of course, you can’t be delusional about this. If your work is being rejected on quality grounds, over and over, then you need to examine whether what you’re producing is good enough. Are there skills you could improve by taking courses, reading books, or studying websites? Can you get a peer review by a totally unbiased professional who will give you a no-punches-pulled, frank assessment of your output? Is there a mentor who could take you on? Could you intern for a brief time and get free training that way?

Your Turn

Being truly outstanding, standing out from the crowd of freelance workers competing for every job, means implementing the above freelance survival tips. Sharpen that lance, and go forth to battle!

What are your best freelancing survival tips?

Image by Florian


  1. says

    First of all, wow, thanks for linking to the old post about feast and famine cycles. As a still relatively new freelancer (2.5 years, but still), this has been my greatest challenge and it was helpful to read that post, too.

    I’d also like to add “establish a savings account with 6 months living expenses” to your list. I’ve encountered occasional late paying clients or had a dry spell, and it really is better not to accept projects that are not a good fit during any dry work spells. To networking, I’d also like to add LinkedIn in addition to Twitter and Facebook as a place to find clients.

  2. says

    “Be businesslike.” I think this is the part that many of us miss! We call our work a business, but we don’t treat it like one. I always ask myself, “If someone hired you to do this right now, how would you approach it?” If someone hired you to do marketing or publicity, you would be intentional and organized but when it is yourself you are promoting, it is easy to put things off.

  3. says

    Great post, Ashley.

    One thing I’d add is to “go the extra mile”. Show the client that you really care about their work and that it’s not just an exchange of services for money.

    People are emotional and their work is extremely important to them. If the freelancer shares their view and asks questions on how to best do the work for them, then the client will feel understood.

    They’ll look at the freelancer as a partner and not only as a service provider. And that will most likely get you another project with that client.

  4. says

    Excellent tips Ashley. I’d maybe add be honest – it’s hard to perform perfectly 100% of the time, so when things don’t go as planned just be honest about it with clients.

  5. says

    Some great points made. I can especially relate to the last bit – I have failed in the past becuase I’ve given up after being rejected, but now I’ve found that if you plug on and approach a variety of people, you will get somewhere, in the end.

  6. says

    Could you intern for a brief time and get free training that way?

    This is exactly what I been considering, free training and may possibly get a paying gig. If you are trained and in the same mindset why would they not want to pass on overflow work to me.

  7. says

    Thanks for the post Ashley!

    Being original was the first thing that really caught my eye. I realized that I’ve been writing the same topics for both my blog and for others, plus I haven’t thought of anything original or unique lately. I think spending an hour or two brainstorming and mind-planning can really help bring back the imaginative juices in us and in coming up with good and valuable content.

  8. says

    I love item #3 on your list… and I’ve had great success with it. Working remotely, I get to meet new clients via Skype and the only way I can break the ice is to mash up wit and humor.. and then, I get to win contracts I’ve never imagined snagging. Like, what are the odds? There are thousands of remote workers out there and the competition is stiff. Thanks for your awesome tips!

  9. says

    Great article Ashley,

    It’s really help my way out of the situation I’m on at the moment. Trying to do my best and thinking positive, that’s what I get after reading this.

    Thanks a lot,

  10. Ruan says

    I could not agree more with the “Be original” point. Nothing bores people more than something they have seen a hundred times before.

    I feel there is just one thing that I would like to add. The point of sending letters made me think about this: Be original in where you look for jobs too. Don’t do the same as the other freelancers out there when it comes to looking for a job. For instance, I’m a writer in South Africa and I get most of my jobs by looking for jobs on Career Classified sites like http://www.jobmail.co.za . You would not believe how many people there are out there that look for writers for a once of article or job.

    And in my experience not many other freelancers use this method of finding work.

  11. says

    Great list. For me the most important points are #2 and #6. Only if you’re the original and try to be unique, you can build up your own identity as a freelancer. And I think a good networking strategy with satisfied customers who tell their partners, friends and clients get’s you the most jobs.

  12. says

    Most freelancers lack the originality which is why the stumble in the long run , as a free lancer you need to learn to use as many resources as possible so that you can stay relevent and unique , as a free lance myself i get lots of free lance jobs from http://www.adsfinder.co.za and most of my client often told me that the freelancers they were working with lack originality.


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