How to Find Work as an Independent Professional

I usually skip reading the long introductions in articles that start with “How” or Why”. So, I’ll move the introduction to the end (if you care to read it then) and dive right in.

Get trained

This is an easy one. Everybody knows the value of training and education. You learn how to do something competently and in a structured way. It gives you immense confidence to get structured training and earn a certificate. If you get on-the-job training, that’s even better. The confidence you gain shows in the way you communicate with your clients. It also shows in the quality you deliver. For a client, the choice between an untrained and a trained service provider is a no-brainer. So, if you’re not already trained, and you want to start looking for contract work, I would say first get trained, or do a full-time job for as long as you can take it, and then dive into the gig pool.

Tell people that you’re looking for work

The first thing that I did after I decided to go independent is tell people that I’m looking for editing gigs. I’ll admit that as a senior publishing industry professional I had some reluctance. I mean it was kind of a climbdown. But I was out of options, and this was the only thing left for me to do. So, I began by talking to my friends first, then I posted on LinkedIn that I’m looking for work. Then I told my extended family and posted on Facebook. It took me time to open up—it took some gradual letting-go of the ego. But telling people that I need work really worked. Friends and ex-colleagues recommended me to potential clients. I started getting work. At first, it was a trickle, but with time, it became a flow that could sustain me.

As an independent professional, you’re no longer salaried, you’re no longer cosily ensconced in the warm softness of a corporate entity. It’s all you on your own. So, if you don’t tell people that you’re a service provider looking for gigs, no one will find out accidentally or telepathically. So, please SPEAK to your people!

Be open to doing free samples as a taster

Clients want to give their business to professionals who are either reputed or referred. If you are neither, then you will have to gain the confidence of the client. One of the ways to do that is to do a free sample. That would give them an idea about the quality of your work. The trick is to do a sample, not a whole project. So, be careful about how much you take on—enough to get a good taste but not an entire free lunch! I think a day’s worth of work (four to six hours) should give the client a fair insight into your skills. This is just a ballpark, not a written-in-stone kind of metric. See what you’re comfortable with. If the client is open to the idea, you could even charge for it. I usually don’t charge—I’m confident that after they see my work, they’ll return with the whole project. And yes, I still do free samples for projects that need special skills or have special specs. For me, it’s an investment. Plus, I’m averse to charging for value not delivered.

Be open to working for lower fees in the beginning

Yes, it sucks being a newbie, but that’s how it is. I was “transitioned” out of a well-paying, senior-level corporate job. When I began as an independent editor, I was desperate (because a seven-month-long job search did not yield results). So, I wasn’t going to be fussy about rates. Overnight, my income/career graph was set to zero. I swallowed my pride and took on whatever I got. What I was being paid in the beginning was absolute rock bottom. That was two-and-a-half years ago. I’m happy to report that now I ask for—and get—10x of that. I totally understand that not everyone is that desperate. I also understand that there’s a feeling that if you price yourself low, people will assume you deliver low quality, and that you will not be able to raise your rates after that. I was willing to take that risk. I don’t know how things would’ve been if I had not taken that risk. What worked for me in that situation is that I did not have a choice. I kept increasing my rates gradually. But I feel that if I had not started off with the lower rates, I would not have found my feet at all.

Stay in regular touch with fellow professionals

Sitting alone in your home office, you wonder … “The global economy is worth trillions of dollars. So how come I can’t see any of it? Where are those transactions happening? Who are the parties?” You won’t know unless you talk to the people in the game. And that’s why you must talk to and stay in touch with fellow professionals in your field. Like I’m a member of the Indian Copyeditors Forum, Editors Association of the Earth, and ACES: The Society for Editing. The conversations in professional groups are rich in information about what business is taking place, where it is happening, and what does it take to grab a piece of it. Even one-on-one chats are illuminating. As an independent professional, you can’t afford to be totally out of the loop. So, do reach out. And as a first step, connect with me on LinkedIn! 😊

Help others, volunteer, do pro bono work to increase your visibility

Helping others is one of the best ways to help yourself. I never let go of a chance to speak to or write to a newbie or a fellow professional who has reached out with questions. It not only feels good, it also helps sharpen my thoughts. And at the same time, it tells the other person how competent I am while also building goodwill for me (I hope!). It’s a win–win proposition. Similarly, doing volunteer, pro bono work for professional associations or strategic connections helps spread the word about your abilities, which is very important. Of course, I do this after I’ve met my paid-work goals!

Talk about your work often, on all forums, and showcase your work

Most Indian families teach their kids to not brag, that is, don’t praise yourself—leave that to others. Socially, it is looked down upon. Most of us have internalized that value. Yes, I agree that crass narcissism is off-putting. But as an independent professional, you may have to unlearn that value; to be precise, dial it down a bit. Businesses advertise their products and services. That is how they attract customers. You, a gig pro, are a business too. How will you attract customers if you do not advertise?

As a management graduate, I have academically learnt the importance of marketing and advertising. Plus, I love writing. So, it was easier for me to start talking about my work. Advertising your services as a knowledge worker is a bit more nuanced than advertising a product. You can’t go all “Hire Me! Hire Me!” There is a risk that people may not trust you. What I do is I write about what my work entails, what I think, what I’ve experienced, what I read, what I’ve learned, what I’m planning, etc. I think that gives potential customers some insight into my skills, professional fitment, knowledge base, and authenticity. (No one has actually told me that. But many of my clients—and referrers—have found me on LinkedIn.) I also take part in discussions in professional groups and posts by other professionals. I reckon there are other people reading my comments and sizing me up. That’s also advertising! So go ahead and “advertise” yourself on LinkedIn, Facebook, WhatsApp groups, Twitter, Instagram, or even TikTok. Write articles (like this one), create interesting infographics, videos, and posts. Put them on your status message and stories. Invest some time into this activity. Don’t forget that you’re a business. Act like one!

Climb up the value ladder

Within your industry and your function, there are different levels of per-unit or per-hour selling prices. For instance, what you can charge for simple bookkeeping would be less than what you can charge for wealth management. There’s a ladder of value/price on which all the professionals in an industry stand—on different rungs, of course. The remuneration increases with the refinement of the service provided and the financial impact of the value delivered. If your work is going to result in a million-dollar outcome, you can charge more than if your work is going to result in a thousand-dollar outcome. So, it makes simple sense that if you want to make (more) money, you must try to climb up that ladder and do work that has a greater financial/business/social impact. For a copyeditor, it means becoming a developmental editor. And I dare say that for a developmental editor, it means becoming a literary agent or a publisher.

Now, climbing up the ladder is not easy for everyone. It requires education, skills, experience, network, and luck. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. Invest in education and training, try out new types of work and new deliverables, make new pitches, and take risks with new clients.

Having said all that, I do believe that not everyone is inclined to climb. Many independent professionals are content with where they are, both financially and psychologically. So why should they make any extra efforts? And that’s absolutely fine.

“Be nice to people on your way up. You’ll meet them on your way down”

This quote has stayed with me ever since I read it maybe three decades ago. I know for a fact that I wouldn’t have made it this far without the help of people. Friends, ex-colleagues, and acquaintances gave me work and referred me to clients. I don’t know why they did that, but one can guess that they wouldn’t have done that if they didn’t think that I’m an okay chap. You cannot go through life without making some people dislike you. But that shouldn’t be the majority of people who’ve interacted with you. No job is permanent anymore. So, I would strongly recommend that you make treating people decently your default setting. People will be kind and generous towards you if you’re kind and generous towards them. It’s that simple.

The introduction

I’ve written this article because I get this question—how to find work—very frequently from colleagues who have recently become or planning to become independent editors. I hope others like them will find this article useful.

That’s the introduction 😊 Good luck!

PS: If there are other tips that have worked for you, I would be grateful if you could add them in the comments.

Featured photo by Samson Katt from Pexels

Published by Anupam Choudhury

I'm a writer, editor, and blogger from New Delhi, India.

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