How to Begin . . .
You might consider freelancing for a number of reasons. Maybe you want to supplement your meager graduate student stipend. Maybe you’ve finished your degree and have to find some way to pay the rent until you find a “real” job. Or maybe you just want to see what is out there--to find out what jobs suit you and what you just can’t stand. Freelance writing, proofreading, and editing can be a good way to do all of these things while getting some valuable resume-building experience.
But how do you set about freelancing? How do you get people to come to you and offer to pay you substantial sums of money to mark up their documents or churn out low-level prose?
Here is a list of tips you might find helpful for getting started:
Start small. Don’t think that “freelancing” necessarily means submitting pithy, introspective articles to the Smithsonian! You’ll do much better putting together a flyer offering your humble proofreading services to whomever might need them--non-humanities students, job-seekers who want their resumes checked one last time, local businesses who want to put out grammatically correct copy. You can then put this experience on your resume in order to work your way into the higher-paying business environments.
Consider working on the barter system. Do you need assistance setting up a new software program? Do you know somebody who has access to used but serviceable laser printers? Swap your expertise for others’ skills and materials. Not only will you get their assistance at no monetary charge, but you will make friends and connections who will help you get still more clients.
Set both an hourly rate and a “per-page” rate. The two rates will allow you to discriminate properly between different kinds of tasks. For example, if you are reading a dissertation for typos or grammatical inconsistencies you will probably want to use a page rate (e.g. 1$1.50-$2.00 page)--that way you can set the document down or take a break without worrying that you are charging your client for dead time. On the other hand, if you are doing in-house work for a small business, or for somebody who wants a resume polished, you should probably charge by an hourly rate (e.g. $30-$40/hr), since the documents will be shorter but less polished--and hence will probably need more time than a few pages of a dissertation.
Set a fair rate. This seems like an obvious rule, but it’s too important to be overlooked. Your rate should take a number of factors into account: Do you have the PhD in hand, or are you ABD? This will make a difference to your client’s idea of what counts as a “fair rate.” Are you merely proofreading or are you actually engaged in stylistic editing? The rate you apply should reflect this. Rates will vary depending on your geographic location, the demand for your services, and your competition. You can get an idea of acceptable rates for informal services by surveying your friends. To set rates for work performed in a business setting, try looking at a handy publication (available behind your friendly library reference desk) called The Writer’s Market. Published by Writer’s Digest Books, this is an invaluable reference which, among other things, will provide you with a list of different freelance markets and the rates you can apply to each.
Be honest about your writing/tutoring capacities. Again, an obvious point, but one that deserves comment. DON’T say you can tutor somebody in French if the last time you cracked a French book was for your language qualifying exam three years ago. Similarly, don’t tell people you can write ad copy if the very thought makes you queasy. You will only hurt your own credibility if you take on assignments that you cannot complete.
Be willing to market your skills in new areas. Having said the above, I will now seem to contradict it. DO try to market your skills in new fields, which may include advertising, public relations, financial writing--whatever. The point is to figure out for yourself what you can do, what you are willing to learn, and what companies might be willing to train you. Don’t forget to use what you may have learned in the course of your graduate study to sell your writing abilities. If you know HTML (for example), tell your prospective client. If you can read articles on technical topics and boil them down into one coherent, easy-to-read page, you can market that as well.
Suggest freelancing in an interview. If you get an interview with a company that interests you, but you don’t seem quite right for the job, suggest that you freelance for them. This allows them to test your skills while you find out if you like the work and the company.
Be professional. This means setting up definite appointment times and being there for them, dressing at least semi-formally (especially when working in a business setting), and delivering on deadline. It can also include some less obvious tasks, such as creating personal letterhead and invoices in order to keep track of and justify your work and fees.