Income School Blog

20 Freelance Mistakes You Make That Could Hurt Your Income Stream

Freelancing is a quite a popular career path. In fact, according to the Freelancers’ Union, in the United States alone, 53 million people freelanced in 2014. We’re sure that number has only grown in the past three years.

After all, freelancing has a lot of perks. You can set your schedule and work as long as you want. If you want to take a day off in the middle of the week, you can. There’s no commute and no dress code.

That said, freelancing isn’t all butterflies and rainbows, as some seem to think it is. The money doesn’t roll right in unless you do a lot of hard work.

Freelancing is sometimes more difficult than salaried jobs in that regard because if you don’t work, you don’t get paid.

It can take years for some freelancers to create enough income streams that they’re making good money. If you’re new to the freelancing industry, you don’t have to wait that long to pull in some serious cash.

Just start with this list of 20 freelancing mistakes. For the sake of this article, we’re going to be refer to freelancers as freelance writers, but many of these tips apply to other types of freelancers, too, such as graphic designers.

If you’re making any of these mistakes, don’t sweat it. We’ve included handy fixes that will set you on the right track and have you seeing green.

1. You Don’t Have a Website/Portfolio

You’re a writer. Website design isn’t exactly your strong suit.

When you send out a job application, you have to dig through a long list of your samples scattered online. You’ve bookmarked these, hoping this will save you time. Admittedly though, these links aren’t as easy to access as you had hoped.

You know other writers have websites, but you always assumed they designed these sites themselves or paid someone to do it. Money is a bit tight for you, so paying for website design is out of the question.

In the meantime, when a prospective client asks for samples, you keep doing what you’re doing.

The fix: You don’t have to spend a cent for a functional, appealing website.

From WordPress to Wix to Weebly, there are tons of free website creators online.

Will you have access to the premium themes? Not for free.

That’s okay, though. You don’t need all the bells and whistles. Your website should be clean and simple so your work can shine.

Make sure you create a portfolio page on your website. This way, the next time you want to contact a prospective client, you can link them to your site instead of sending a dozen random links.

2. You Stop Hustlin’

Yay! You found a client. You now have a few long-term projects to keep you busy.

You’re all set, right? There’s no need to search the job boards and keep your eyes open for more work.

That’s not true at all. Even in the best and busiest of times, you should continue to put yourself out there. Projects end, and eventually you’ll need more work to fill in the gaps.

Some of the best writers are sometimes guilty of forgetting to cast a net for prospective clients during a busy season. It’s easy to get tunnel vision, but try not to make a habit out of it.

The fix: Set alerts on your phone or your email to remind you to look for new clients. If you can’t make this a daily practice, at least scroll the job boards weekly. Apply to as many positions as your experience fits.

3. You Start a Project Without Signing a Contract

In your excitement to work on a new project, you don’t even think about a contract. You don’t ask for one, and the client doesn’t provide one.

Is that so bad? Yes, it is.

To cover your own butt, it’s best to have everything in writing.

After all, if said client fails to pay up one week, it’s a lot easier to push for your money if you have a contract that states payment terms.

A contract also protects you, the writer. This legal document presents your working terms, like how often the client expects an article. A contract also cements your position as an at-will contractor and not some random freelancer a client calls on every now and then.

The fix: For every new client you work with, make sure one of you provides working terms in a contract. Both parties should sign. Only then should you start doing any work.

In the beginning of your freelancing career, it’s easy to overlook the necessity of a contract. Don’t wait until you get burned by a client to start on insisting on one.

What if you have a long-term client relationship but no contract? It’s wise to broach the topic of drafting one anyway.

4. You Can’t Let Go of a Low-Paying Job

Perhaps it’s a company that contracted you when you had little to no experience. Maybe the client is really nice or there’s a lot of work to be had, but the pay is lousy.

Regardless, you can’t let go of this job. It means too much to you. Each time you work on a long assignment for peanuts, you think about how you could be making more money. You just can’t bring yourself to sever ties, though.

The fix: Most writers have that one sentimental client. This person was their first big break.

You can and will outgrow your clients, though (and vice-versa). That’s totally natural. The longer you have a freelance career, the longer your list of clients will become.

That’s not because you’re a bad writer. It’s because projects end and needs change. You have to keep moving forward and finally cut that low-paying client loose.

5. You Don’t Post on Social Media

While yes, with many traditional jobs, social media use is banned, that’s not the case as a freelancer. You’re encouraged to use social media to promote yourself.

Think of yourself as a business. You’re selling a service—your writing—to customers or clients. You should have a Facebook Business Page and other professional social media profiles.

After all, when you’re researching any other business, don’t you expect them to have a social media presence? Why would it be any different for you? You are a business, albeit your own business.

The fix: If you’re not already on social media, sign up. It’s free to register on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and countless other platforms. Remember to keep your posts professional yet relevant.

6. You Don’t Have Any Referrals/Testimonials

When a project ends, you’re flustered and stressed. You’re not sure what you’re going to do next. In all that haste, you completely forget to ask for any referrals or testimonials from your client.

Once your emotions calm down, you want to kick yourself. You know a referral or testimonial would make your future applications stand out that much more.

At this point though, you feel like too much time has passed for you to reach out to your former client for a glowing review.

The fix: Unless it’s been a year or more, it’s not too late to contact an old client. If your work is relatively fresh in their minds, they should be able to give you a great testimonial. You can then put that on your website and send it to future clients.

Always asking for a referral and/or testimonial at the end of every project. The more reviews you have attesting to your skills and expertise, the easier it will be for you to find more work.

7. You Don’t Know How to Juggle Multiple Projects

Unless you have one awesome project that pays all your bills, you’re going to work for a few clients at a time. This is completely normal in the world of freelancing.

In fact, you should make it a point to get work from as many clients as you can. While having one great high-paying client is a dream come true, what happens if you lose that client? Then you’d have to scramble to make ends meet.

The fix: You don’t have to be a multitasking extraordinaire to handle multiple projects at once. Instead, you need time management skills.

Prioritize projects according to deadlines. If you have one project due in two days and another due next week, start with the one due in two days. If you have two projects due on the same day, make some extra time to work on these.

With freelancing, you’re always juggling deadlines. When one ball drops out, another one comes in to take its place.

If you’re in the habit of procrastinating, you’re going to have to learn to plan ahead more. Otherwise, you’re at risk of missing deadlines, which can kill your freelance career fast.

8. You Have a Hard Time Saying No

You may have the opposite problem, too, where you take on too many projects. You want to make as much money as possible, right? That means working, working, working.

This is a good mindset to have, to an extent. As a freelancer, you do need to have a lot of motivation. After all, there’s no boss to look over your shoulder. You can wake up and watch TV half the day and write one article. You could get lost surfing the Internet and watching YouTube videos. Your friends could call and ask you to run errands.

In short, there are a lot of distractions as a freelancer. Motivation is certainly good, but not when you run yourself into the ground.

The fix: You must take some time for yourself every day. Some freelancers structure their days, choosing a set number of hours they’ll work. This is flexible, of course, but it helps these writers stay sane. Try doing the same.

If you don’t set hours and learn to say no, you’ll burn out. Then you’ll be of no use to your clients, as you’ll have a hard time getting out of bed let alone doing any writing.

9. You Don’t Have a Professional Email Address

If you had a traditional job, you’d be provided with your own company email address. Some clients will create email addresses for you to receive and send assignments.

You also need your own professional email address. It’s okay to use your college email for a few months after graduation, but then you need to retire it.

The fix: Creating your own email address is easy. You can use Gmail, Yahoo!, or a slew of other email programs to sign up for free. If you can, your address should be [email protected] or something similar. If that email address is taken, try only your first initial, or throw in your middle name.

Avoid long strings of numbers if you can. Limit punctuation to periods (like [email protected]).

Once you register your email address, use this for communicating with prospective and current clients.

10. You Don’t Know How to Follow up (or Don’t Like To)

You found a job you’re a perfect fit for. Excited, you write a concise yet descriptive email explaining your credentials. You’re also sure to attach some killer samples. Rereading your work a few times, you finally hit send.

Then you wait.

And wait. And wait.

Here’s another scenario: a client gets in touch with you about doing some work for them. You agree and sign their contract. They email details for the first assignment, which you finish before the deadline.

You send your assignment and again, you wait. And wait. And wait.

What’s going on here?

In the first scenario, the answer varies. The position may already be filled. The client may have a mountain of application emails to go through, so it will be a while before you hear back.

In the second scenario, the client may also be busy. They may have had to pass your article on to an editor or other internal team member, so they’re waiting to hear back.

The fix: You could spend all day guessing why you haven’t heard back. Instead, it’s time to be proactive.

It’s time to send a follow-up email.

Following up can be scary, especially if you’ve never done it before. You don’t want to seem too needy to a prospective or new client.

That’s understandable. Here’s how to avoid coming across as impatient and/or desperate:

  • When you’re reaching out to a prospective client for the first time, wait a week or two. If you don’t hear back about the status of your application by that time, send a follow-up email. And if you still don’t hear back, let it go.
  • If your current client has not gotten back to you, give it 24 to 48 hours. If you don’t hear back, send a follow-up. And if you still don’t hear back, ensure you’ve gotten paid and then move on.

11. You Don’t Use Writing Tools

You know how to write. It’s your job. You let your word-processing program scan for any spelling mistakes and leave it at that.

The fix: There are so many tools that can help make your job as a freelance writer easier and more profitable. A lot of these are free, too.

Here are some good ones to get you started:

  • Microsoft Office or Apache OpenOffice for writing documents
  • Microsoft Excel or Google Sheets for making spreadsheet invoices
  • Google Docs for sharing documents
  • PlagScan, Plagiarisma, or Copyscape for checking for plagiarism
  • Grammarly for grammar and spellchecking
  • Hemingway App for preventing wordiness
  • Charcounter for writing metadata and other short descriptions
  • TitleCase for checking the correct capitalization of headers
  • Cliché Finder to avoid tired clichés in your writing
  • WordCounter for keeping track of wordcount
  • and for finding the perfect word
  • Online to keep track of time

12. You Forget to Update Your Resume

Whoops. You got so busy with your latest client that you totally forgot to update your resume. It’s best to add a job to your resume while it’s still ongoing. This way, your daily duties and responsibilities are fresh in your mind.

The fix: Each time you get a new client, update your resume. As you start doing more and more work, jot down these responsibilities.

13. You Take Too Long to Research/Write

You were just assigned an article on a topic you’ve never heard of.  How are you supposed to write about it?

The answer: you research. Since you’re so inexperienced in this area, you spend a few hours reading up. Only then do you tackle your assignment.

The fix: You’ve heard of the saying that time is money, right? That’s especially true for freelancers. Every minute you spend doing something outside of work is money lost.

Those two hours you spent researching? They were great for learning, but you didn’t make any money. In fact, you lost money. You could have spent those two hours working on other assignments.

The best fix for this is practice. The more assignments you do, the more you’ll find a good researching and writing balance that works for you.

We also recommend writing about topics you’re familiar with, at least at first. This shortens research time, which means you can churn out more articles.

As you get more comfortable with researching and writing, then you can attempt projects outside of your comfort zone.

14. You Don’t Ask for a Project Brief If One Isn’t Provided

A project brief is the blueprint for your article. This includes the tone, audience, article length, and linking requirements. If pictures are to be included, the brief will say so. If you need to follow SEO practices like keywords and CTAs, you’ll see it in the brief.

A brief is named such because it’s not supposed to be very long. It certainly shouldn’t be longer than the requested article itself. These are concise guidelines.

The fix: If your client doesn’t provide you a brief, request one. If the brief you get is too short, in that it doesn’t give you very much guidance, ask for more details.

You need to have a clear grasp on what you’re writing about. If you don’t, you’re probably going to get hit with several revisions from the client. This sucks up time, and thus money.

15. You Don’t Know How to Self-Edit

Yes, you’re a writer. You get paid to write words, not to edit them. That said, every writer has to be an editor, too.

You can’t write copy and then send it in without reading it over once or twice. Clients expect good drafts that need very little finessing. If you don’t produce those kinds of drafts, you may lose a client.

The fix: Start by running a spell checker. Then use some of the tools we mentioned above to check for grammar.

Be sure to run a plagiarism checker, too. While we’re sure you’d never plagiarize, you want to be sure your work is completely original. Many clients have a strict no-plagiarism policy. If they catch you copying, your job is over.

Then read the draft yourself. Look for any misspellings or grammar issues the checkers may have missed. Once you’re confident in your work, send it off.

16. You Don’t Send Cold Emails

Throughout this article, we’ve discussed finding prospective clients through job listings. What about the jobs that aren’t listed? What about the companies that could use a writer like you but don’t even know it?

These are the prospective clients you have to pitch to. You must prove they need what you’re selling. To do so, you’ll have to send a cold email.

The fix: This is like cold calling, but in email form. For the best results, come up with a concise yet catchy headline that will attract attention. Introduce yourself, briefly noting your experience.

Then mention why you’re applying. It could be that the company has no blog. Maybe it’s the weak homepage copy you know you can fix.

Whatever the reason, gently point out the issue. Then describe how you can correct it.

This is a big gamble, yes, but it can pay off.

17. You Freak out During Dry Periods

Your deadlines are all met. Your clients don’t have anything for you to do at the moment.

All at once, you went from fruitful busyness to bleak nothingness.

What are you going to do? When will you have more work?

In freelance writing, there are feast and famine periods. Sometimes the work is abundant (feast). Other times, it slows to a crawl (famine). You have to learn to prepare for both.

The fix: First, relax. Take a breath. If you still have clients, this lull will be temporary.

In the meantime, spend your time productively. Send out more job applications. Work on your resume. Take a skills course. Earn some certifications. Read up on a topic you want to learn about. Do some creative writing.

Then, once there’s more work for you to do, resume as normal. Your monthly income may take a slight hit, but the skills and work you do in your lull will pay off later.

18. You Lack Other Related Skills

We’ve already mentioned that to be a writer, you need to be an editor, too. That’s not the only hat you have to wear.

You’ll probably be asked to find images. You should know SEO (more on this in a moment). Oh yeah, and your client may expect you to be proficient in basic HTML.

The fix: If you’re lacking these skills, take some of the advice from above (signing up for a course, reading) to learn in your personal time.

The more skills you have, the more valuable you’ll be as a freelancer.

19. You Don’t Know What SEO Is

Search engine optimization or SEO is important to many businesses, which means it has to be important to you. There are many SEO practices you will have to master, so the more familiar you are with these, the better.

Those practices are:

  • Header tags (<h1>, <h2>, etc.)
  • Metatags
  • Meta descriptions (short-form descriptions of the article)
  • Specific keywords inserted naturally a few times throughout the article
  • Inbound and outbound linking
  • Images
  • Calls to action (CTAs)

The fix: Are these terms like a foreign language to you? It’s time to learn.

It’s not only marketing clients that will be preoccupied with SEO practices. All businesses want to rank highly on search engine results pages so they can be found online. With SEO, a company can achieve that.

20. You Don’t Know Your Worth

A prospective client approaches you and asks how much you charge per word or per project. You have no idea how to answer such a question, so you lowball it. The client gladly accepts. They get your hard work for less money.

You may be okay with the arrangement at first, but eventually you’ll wonder if you could be making more money elsewhere.

The fix: Do some research online. There are many expert sources out there that have written on the topic of pricing your work. By reading up, you should have an idea of how much to charge.

Get in touch with other freelancers. Ask how much they charge per 500 or 1,000 words. Keep in mind that a person’s area of expertise and their experience come into play.

If you only have a year or two of experience, you shouldn’t be asking for as much money as a seasoned writer.

Be aware that even once you find your ideal price, some clients won’t be willing to pay it. They’re not the ones you want to work with, anyway. With time, a client will come along that has no issue paying your price.


Freelance writing can be a lucrative business, but there are many pitfalls that can cost a writer some serious income. By charging too little and holding on to low-paying clients, you’re selling yourself short.

As a freelancer, make sure you’re up-to-date on your skills. You must always meet deadlines, ruthlessly self-edit, and make use of tools to keep yourself productive.

By correcting these 20 mistakes, you can maximize your income and achieve your dream of making a living off your writing.

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