I’ve been working from home for over 10 years as a freelance writer and editor.
These days, clients search me out and invite me to work with them …
But it wasn’t always like this.
I’ve learned several lessons about remote work, particularly while launching my work-from-home career.
Some of these lessons were costly in the form of time, some in dollars and cents …
But they all taught me something.
In sharing these trials and errors with you, I hope to save you from making some of the same mistakes and enable your work-from-home career to be more successful.
Lesson #1 — Start Where You Are
When I began working on Elance (now Upwork), my hourly rate was low.
For my first project, I asked for five dollars an hour. This was back in 2010, but it was still below the American minimum wage.
At the time, I was living in India, so the cost of living was less than in the U.S.
I was also more in the mode of “I’m going to try and see if this even works” rather than “I need to earn a living.”
As I got more jobs and built a portfolio on Elance, I started asking for a higher rate for writing and editing projects.
Because I was open to working for such a low rate, that first client I worked with kept me on for several years.
By the time I did my last editing project with him, he was paying me $12 per hour — more than twice what I’d started with.
And each project with him taught me quite a bit.
He was a print-on-demand publisher and gave me a lot of helpful information about working with Microsoft Word.
He taught me how to use …
- Styles and formatting
- Headers and footers
- Content tables and indexing
- And aspects about track changes I hadn’t known
This knowledge has served me extremely well because I still use it on a regular basis as an editor.
Because I believe the greater gain was mine, I’m glad that I didn’t hold out for a higher hourly rate or a more interesting project. (Some of the books I edited for this publisher were a bit of a chore.)
I would have lost out on knowledge, experience, and a working relationship that continued for years.
As it is said:
“Small beginnings, greater ends.”
Or as Demosthenes put it:
“Small opportunities are often the beginning of great enterprises.”
Work-from-Home Lesson One Takeaway:
Start where you can, with the opportunities you have. You never know how they might grow or where they might lead.
Lesson #2 — Know a Project’s Cost in Time
As I continued working in Elance (known as Upwork since 2015), some projects went better than others.
For one of my first writing projects, which continued for about six months, my client gave me a couple of monetary bonuses for a job well done.
That was unexpected and highly appreciated.
Some projects didn’t go so well, but even those held important lessons.
At the beginning of my remote work career (when I still placed proposals on pretty much everything I came across), I saw a transcription job.
They needed 33 hours of audio material transcribed.
I did a lot of transcription in those days, and I assumed I could type an hour’s worth of audio in a little over an hour.
I was still building a portfolio on Elance, so in order to make my bid reasonable, I bid $400 for the project.
The whole project.
Five hours of audio took me nearly fifteen hours of work, as it was not simple audio, but videos with more than one speaker.
I realized I had overestimated my abilities (and underestimated the time commitment).
We were still living in India, and in the middle of that transcription job, my kids (ages 5, 3, and 1 at the time) came down with fevers.
I remember sitting in a dark room with headphones on, transcribing until one of my children would ask me for juice or a snack or needed help going to the bathroom.
Then I would sit down again, pull on the headphones, and start typing once more.
After transcribing eleven hours of audio, my clients contacted me and let me know they didn’t have the rest of the material ready and that they would get in touch when it was complete.
They closed the job and paid me for the work I had done.
They never contacted me for the remainder of the project, and I was not disappointed about that.
I realized that just because I could take on a project didn’t mean I should.
Work-from-Home Lesson Two Takeaway:
Determine the amount of time that will be involved before committing to a job rather than being stuck with a project you wish you didn’t have.
Lesson #3 — Learn to Communicate Effectively
My 20th editing project was a self-help book on relationships.
My client had mentioned in the job description that this was the second time she had posted it because it hadn’t worked the first time around with the editor she had chosen.
(Helpful tip: Think twice about taking on projects that “didn’t work out” with the first editor. It could mean things didn’t work out, or it could mean the client has unrealistic expectations.)
I was hired for the project, told the author I would have it completed by the following Monday, and got to work on the 200-page manuscript.
As I had mentioned to my client the proposed completion date, I didn’t bother to send an update.
Early Sunday morning, I saw a message from my client …
She mentioned that she assumed I was not taking the project seriously since I hadn’t gotten in touch, and to please return the manuscript, as she would find someone else.
I took a few minutes to figure out how to respond.
Then I replied that I was only 25 pages from the end of the manuscript. (Meaning I had edited 175 pages.)
I said that I would be happy to send it, as is, but would prefer to finish the editing.
I apologized for not communicating earlier and mentioned that I had been fully engaged in the editing project.
She responded within a few hours with an apology of her own.
She asked me to excuse her neurotic reaction (her words). She mentioned she had already had a couple of bad experiences and was wary about lending her work out to freelancers.
I completed the project, and she gave me a five-star review and positive feedback.
Communication is important, especially if you are a freelancer with a new client for every project.
You will find that some clients prefer more communication, while some are happy just to see the completed project at the end.
Since there is no way of knowing in advance what kind of client I have, I have learned to address the matter of communication early on in our … well … communications. 🙂
Work-from-Home Lesson Three Takeaway:
Determine in advance how often your client would like to hear from you. Then communicate according to your predetermined agreement.
Lesson #4 — Find Your Niche and Stick to It (But Not Too Closely)
When I started looking for writing and editing jobs on Elance, I placed no genre boundaries on what I could do.
I placed no realistic boundaries either.
I looked at every single job available, even briefly considering whether I could pull off translation (yes, into another language; no, I do not speak anything but English fluently).
I put forth proposals for pretty much everything:
- SEO content writing
- Children’s stories
- Editing web pages
- And more
Thinking back, I’m glad that not everything I had bid for worked out.
I would likely have ended up well over my head and beyond my skill set.
I now understand why clients often like to hire experienced people … at the beginning, I didn’t always know what I was doing.
Of course, I knew a lot about writing and editing, and I had great grammar and punctuation skills — but there was so much I didn’t know.
After several months of finding projects on Elance, I began to narrow my job searches.
Instead of looking at everything under the category of “writing and editing” (there were generally about 800 jobs within this category at any given time), I started typing in keywords of projects I had already done and in which I felt confident.
For example, in my first six months of working from home, I took on quite a few children’s story projects.
I wrote over 40 children’s stories and edited a dozen or so children’s books written by other authors.
So, I would peruse and bid for projects using the keyword “children’s story” or “children book editing.”
I still take on a variety of editing projects, but there are some I am generally on the lookout for.
If you’re just beginning to look for online freelance work, I recommend that you don’t start out in too narrow of a field (unless you have an M.A. or Ph.D. in that field; then you’re probably good to go).
You might be surprised at what categories and genres interest you that you had no idea about when you began working from home.
It takes time to find your niche, so experiment and test the waters of different styles and projects.
See what fits your interests and skills.
Work-from-Home Lesson Four Takeaway:
Take time to find your niche and develop it. Then have fun with it. You might be surprised at what your interests are, or how they grow and develop.
Lesson #5 — Make Sure You Understand Project Parameters
My third work-from-home project involved ghostwriting 20 children’s stories.
It was by far the “biggest” job that I had thus far; it also paid decently.
By the time I was done writing those, I considered myself an expert on children’s stories.
Over the next several months, I wrote another 16 or so children’s stories for various clients on Elance.
I then placed a proposal for writing “personalized” children’s stories.
I briefly researched the concept of personalized stories and was convinced I could do the job without a hitch.
The clients wanted two sets of ten stories each.
I combined an overall theme with educational topics. One series of stories were about animals and colors.
My client asked me not to write about pigs, as their readership base did not associate with that type of animal.
I wrote the first set of ten stories and submitted them.
My client mentioned again that I couldn’t use pigs as animals in the story.
I looked over the stories. I had not written about pigs.
I sent them back, stating that I wasn’t sure where the pigs were referred to in the story.
Apparently, guinea pigs were on the list of no-nos.
(I considered mentioning the guinea pigs were actually rodents and therefore not in the pig family but decided against it. The client is king, after all.)
The next set of ten stories contained one story in which the child got a baby rabbit at the end.
The client sent that one back as well, mentioning that a personalized story could not contain the child receiving a present.
In real life, he explained, the child would expect the same gift because the story was about that child.
I finally began to understand what my client meant about personalized children’s stories.
After similar back-and-forth communications, I completed that project.
I even wrote a few more personalized children’s stories down the line — avoiding the topic of baby rabbits.
I learned that I needed to research all pertinent aspects of a project rather than depend on limited or surface understanding of a topic if I was writing about it.
Work-from-Home Lesson Five Takeaway:
Many experienced authors tell novices, “Write what you know.” The same holds true with remote work. Only offer to do what you know, or what you are willing to research and learn about. Don’t try to wing it.
These are all remote work lessons I learned the hard way.
Although none of them were too costly in the form of time and money, I would have loved it if I’d had someone to offer me some work-from-home advice early on in my career building.
And I hope this advice helps you in your remote work.
All the best!
Thanks for reading!
Feel free to leave a comment. (I’d love to hear what you’re learning in your remote work career!)
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