Why Freelancing is Like Learning to Drive Stick Shift

By Megan Harris

Recently, I had a rocky start to my lessons as I learned to drive a manual-transmission car. Believe it or not, it was a lot like the beginning of my freelance writing career.

“C’mon, Megan, you can do this.” I tried to start the car again with my husband’s instructions, flustered because I stalled.

The engine roared to life and I began to shift into first gear from neutral like he taught me. I eased off the clutch, but let too much slack. The car shook and sputtered before dying again.

With freelancing, there were jolts, starts and stops just like driving stick, but I eventually got the hang of it. Those of you who are still learning can relate, while those that have been in the “driver’s seat” for some time may remember what it’s like to start their freelance career.

Here are some comparisons I’ve drawn between freelancing and driving a stick, and how I’ve made this approach work in my favor:

Avoid Auto-Pilot

To drive a stick, you must use manual and be hands-on – otherwise, you crash! The same goes with freelance writing — you need to take charge of your actions and remain engaged.

Some freelance writers try to put their marketing and work search on autopilot, relying heavily on scheduled content, superficial engagement and job boards to attract clients. This approach, however, does not work.

You can’t expect to drive a manual car anywhere if you refuse to push down the clutch. In the same manner, you can’t expect clients to come knocking if you only have a website and make a few business cards but let them sit idle.

You must market yourself and get your message in front of your desired client base. I’ve used a hands-on approach to marketing, with social media in particular, to grow my Twitter following and reach out to clients.

In a short time I’ve gained over 700 followers and at least three extra clients. I also receive regular inquiries about my work solely by being an interactive, engaging and helpful Twitter user.

Using social media isn’t the only way being hands-on put me in front of clients. A prospective client found me from articles I wrote with a non-profit social media development group, and I was persistent when they had trouble getting back to me.

With patience, I’ve not only made a great connection with a client I wouldn’t have otherwise, but I netted an extra $600 in projects, with more work on the way. If I’d gone on auto-pilot and coasted through my marketing, I never would have come across such awesome opportunities to help clients.

Adapt to Your Surroundings

When driving a stick shift, it’s important to pay attention to your surroundings, more so than driving an automatic. You never know when you’ll need to shift!

The same goes for freelancing — you must learn to look at the markets around you, see what works best and what doesn’t, and adjust your strategy accordingly.

I love writing for my wedding vendor clients, be it writing a blog post or tweaking a service description. However, the wedding industry’s seasonal cycle directly affects my workload, and not always in a good way.

Observing this trend led me to be open to other opportunities outside of this niche, rather than focusing all my energy on wedding vendor clients that may not have the budget right now to update their content. Had I not shifted my strategy, my business would flounder until the next surge of wedding vendors asks about copywriting help.

Learn from Mistakes

When I began learning to drive a stick shift, I made many errors. I stalled numerous times, shifted into the wrong gear and downshifted when I meant to put the car in neutral.

Rather than get frustrated and give up, I learned (with my husband’s help) to get over my mistakes and keep trying. Before I knew it, I was driving like a pro.

You have to get over mistakes in freelance writing, too, whether that means raising your rate because you started out charging too little or learning to make project changes when you misstep.

For instance, I encountered confusion co-editing my first manuscript recently, as a new editor with an ebook publisher. Chapter numbers changed, so there was chaos as we tried to sort out what was reviewed and what needed more work.

I learned to let the problem go, focus on finishing the edits on deadline and avoid the same mistake again so the author had time to make changes before the manuscript was finalized.

As with driving a stick, professional freelancers need to recognize mistakes and strive to keep from repeating them.

What “driving” lessons have you learned in freelancing? Leave a comment and share your rules of the freelance road.

Megan Harris is a freelance copywriter and editor. When she’s not writing, she researches her family tree in her spare time and hangs out with her husband and their rescue dog, Cooper. You can connect with Megan at Megan Harris Freelance Writer.

 

  1. Hello Megan,

    The way you used learning to drive a manual-transmission car to illustrate learning how to freelance is smart. I can absolutely identify with it since I had a hard time starting my freelance writing business.

    I can specially relate to the part where you talk about adapting to your surrounding. Coming from a broadcasting background, I focused on sites dealing with music and anything relating to writing radio and TV commercial scripts, in my first months as a freelance writer.

    Gradually, I realized that the radio and TV gigs can’t continue on and on. There were times when there were droughts in that niche, so I experimented on several niches and I learned a lot
    from the experience. I didn’t only gained knowledge, I also acquired new skills and earned the respect of my new found clients.

    Totally enjoyed it!

    Keep on rocking
    Anthony Dejolde recently posted..Be Bold, Write Sexy Articles

    • Thanks, Anthony! I’m glad you could relate to this. I had a similar experience in the wedding marketing niche. I helped numerous wedding vendors develop content for their websites and blogs, but you can only write about the same topics so many times. Branching out is one of many ways you can make your freelance business sustainable.

      I appreciate your comment!
      Megan Harris – MeganWrites.com recently posted..How to Freelance with Gangnam Style

      • I appreciate also that you thought of this comparison and shared you experiences, it’s somewhat similar to one of my blog posts where I did an analogy of writing and learning how to ride a bike. At first you feel scared manning the handle bars and balancing the bike because you know you can lose your balance any minute. As you go along anyway, you tend to ease up on the handle bar since you notice that when you do, you can have a smoother ride.

        It’s like riding your freelance writing business on those early months, you feel tense looking for gigs because you know you can’t rely on the bi-monthly pay from your day job anymore. You have given up your daytime job to give your freelance dream a go.

        Now, you can feel the pressure of having a continuous string of gigs since you need to pay bills and provide for your family. Those first months of hunting for writing jobs are full of uncertainty because you are not sure you can land a gig, do a good job and be paid accordingly.

        It’s totally a new territory for you so it’s but natural to be scared. If you lose your balance you can fall flat on your face with bruises all over. Especially if you picked the route leading to the content mills. There, you might encounter those enterprising con-artists who take advantage of new writers; you can be treated unfairly by your client who pays you a few dollars for a job you have to do for hours on end. They can delay payment till you end up accepting jobs with so low-a-pay, you begin to have doubts whether you made a good decision going freelance. Or worse, you end up not being paid.

        Biking and writing, like it or not, are somewhat similar. You have to fall a number of times, before you learn to have a smoother ride. It’s not too different in your freelance writing, you have to fail several times before you can figure out some ways you can improve your skills as a wordsmith in order to attract better paying clients.

        Again thanks.
        It’s an unexpected metaphor, and an entertaining one.

        Remain awesome,

        Anthony
        Anthony Dejolde recently posted..Taking Baby Steps

  2. Thanks for hosting my post, Carol! I really appreciate it and will share it around the web!

  3. Lane Diamond says:

    My first question is the most obvious one: A manual transmission? Really? Why? (My rickety old knees hurt at the mere thought of it.) :-D

    Seriously, I remember when I started freelancing several years ago, relying exclusively on online forums to generate my early business, and then relying almost exclusively on word-of-mouth to build from there. Ultimately, my happy clients brought me more business than anything I did directly.

    As is true in any business, nothing will grow your business more than the simple–or not so simple–act of doing your job exceptionally well. On that front, I’d say you’re on your way. :-D
    Lane Diamond recently posted..A High Commandment of Effective Writing: Show; Don’t Tell

    • Hey Lane! Thanks for your comment. It was my husband’s idea to drive a manual and I had to learn in time for our moving across country.

      I love what you had to say about growing your business through good work. You can’t find good clients if you don’t work hard and put all you can into what you do. Freelancing is a learning process, but if you focus on the end product and make it the best you can, you’ll get there!

      I appreciate your comment!

    • Carol Tice says:

      What? I still miss getting to drive stick…seems to sort of die when you have kids and need to be handing them stuff and all. It’s challenging on the hills of downtown Seattle, but still wish I had a stick car…

  4. Cheri says:

    Hi Megan,
    This certainly brought back some memories! My husband taught me to drive a stick shift, and that experience was not a pretty sight. He kept telling me to listen for when the fly wheel engaged in the transmission…or something like that. We decided that our marriage was more important and had someone else teach me.

    Your analogy is a clear visual of how we need to have patience and persistence when learning something new in business an in life. I’m off to engage a fly wheel in my business.
    P.S. I still have no idea what that means.

    Cheri Plett

  5. Tracy Oeser says:

    Hi Megan,

    My first thought when I saw “manual transmission” was that point where you put the stick shift into gear (or at least, you thought you did) and the car jumps, sputters, and tries to die. Yes, avoid autopilot because you can think you know what you’re doing and become complacent and all of sudden, you’re engine is doing something totally unexpected. Great Post!

    Tracy Oeser
    Tracy Oeser recently posted..Lights & Sirens Mean….PULL OVER!

  6. Hey Megan,

    Nicely done, there is so much here that I agree with. I like the comparison here, I would have to add that for me the most important lesson this year has been, believe in yourself. I got caught up in trying to make MY business what somebody else thought it should be, big mistake… Patience and persistence is the way to go, no black hat, grow it quick for this guy.

    Nice job

    Gerry

  7. Loved this post. I was overseas for enough years that my driver’s license expired and I couldn’t do the automatic renewal. Had to do the permit test (perfect score), 5-hour class (kill me), and road test (examiner asked who I was gonna vote for) all over again. And then … ended up with my first stick-shift. I am still the most dangerous driver on the road, and parallel parking on hills is like that amusement park ride where the ship swings back and forth, faster and faster. Still, I see the analogies to freelance work, and I guess what you say about marketing yourself is true. For me, the hardest part because I’m shy … just like I’m shy about how long it takes me to shift into first and get the car moving at a red light.
    MFA Writer Guy recently posted..Last Day of Classes Before Thanksgiving

    • I totally understand feeling shy. I’m the kind of person that is shy in person but love writing, so the web is a great place for me to unveil that outgoing side. Don’t be too shy – marketing means putting yourself out there, and while it can be scary, you can do it!

      Thanks for your comment!

  8. I live in the UK, where automatics are relatively uncommon, and so using manual transmission is second nature.
    Nevertheless, I can still see the analogy – albeit from a different perspective.
    I’ve tried automatics but much prefer driving manual gearshift. This is because I enjoy the feeling of being in total control.
    Just in the same way, I’ve tried working in an employed capacity, but much prefer working freelance. This is because, once again, I enjoy the feeling of being in total control.
    Kevin Carlton recently posted..So you’re a website copywriter – I can do that, it’s easy!

  9. Erica says:

    Nice post! I learned how to drive a stick when I was 14, which put me ahead of the curve when it came time to learn how to drive from a licensed drivers ed teacher.

    I wish I had that same head start when it came to freelancing. Having done so much in technology (work of which I’m very proud), it’s hard to branch out into new industries because I’ve apparently been pigeon-holed. Now, I finally have my first gig in finance and it’s paying for my holidays.It’s a start, but I still want to branch out.

    Thanks for the parallel. I can definitely relate.
    Erica recently posted..From Corporate Copywriting to Freelance: Getting Your 3 Cs in Line

  10. Chase says:

    What a fantabulous analogy! I love a clever article with a fresh spin.

  11. Great analogy, and I’ll bite, on answering your question at the end of your post. (good blog strategy btw)…

    My car analogy on writing, is ‘don’t spend too much time looking in the rear-view mirror.’ While that is a necessary driving strategy, and applies to our writing lives as well, spending too much time looking backward can lead to “analysis paralysis”, second-guessing everything we have already done. We should just ‘glance’ at the rear-view, checking our traffic and to see who’s approaching, and then refocus on our journey head. Spend most of our time looking forward, and just enough looking in the rear-view to assess where we came from. :)

  12. Kittie says:

    Great analogy! I remember those fits and starts well both from learning to drive and as a freelance writer. Thanks for sharing your experiences and illustrating them so vividly. I’m sure it will be of help those just starting out and will have seasoned freelancers nodding and grimacing along…
    Kittie recently posted..The Three Book Diet – Can I Make It Work In 2013?

  13. Jane says:

    Autopilot is one of the biggest mistakes. The point is – it works for some strategies, but doesn’t work for the other. It doesn’t fit for all sizes. Thanks for the great tips.
    Jane recently posted..Best Black Friday Deals Internet Marketers Shouldn’t Miss

  14. How odd that this exact same analogy occurred to me the other day (although it wasn’t as well thought out and composed as this post)! It came to me because I remembered my driving instructor saying to me bluntly in my first lesson: ‘I’m going to teach you how to pass your driving test. It’s only after you pass your driving test that you really learn to drive.’ It occurred to me that my time working a nine to five job in an office was teaching me only to jump through hoops and that as soon as I became a freelance writer I was driving for real.

    Thanks for a great post.
    Kirsty Stuart recently posted..Why Freelance Writers are Leading the Country out of Recession

  15. Neil Heater says:

    I learned on a stick before handling automatic. It was my dad’s philosphy that if you can learn the harder way, the easier method will simply flow naturally. Same way with freelance writing. When you learn the emchanics, the marketing, the contract and everything else…the process becomes an easier way to flow.

  16. anne grant says:

    My daddy didn’t consider anything but straight shift for proper driving lessons. Mine was “three on the tree” (3 gears on the steering column) in a Ford Maverick. So, yes, I’m older than dirt.
    Those neck snapping adventures have come to mind often when I’m putting some challenge or life lesson in perspective.
    It fits perfectly with writing. Thanks for the illustration.
    BTW, my rescue pup is named Cooper, too!
    anne grant recently posted..This One Thing Can Either Make You Or Break You

  17. Not only does your post make good old-fashioned sense, but it also reminded me of my very first car. A VW bug (definitely stick shift); it was love at first sight.

    But… I had less than one day to learn how to drive it because I had a new job starting the next day.

    Thankfully, I had the help of a friend and VWs are a joy to drive. In no time at all I was zooming around town (caught myself doing 75 on the freeway – this when it was a mandate to drive 55 – and didn’t even realize it).

    So taking the hands on approach, avoiding the auto pilot pitfalls, and making those adjustments especially freelancing, I couldn’t agree more!

    Thanks for the post (and the trip down memory lane)!

  18. It’s so easy to relate to what you have written, as every writer must have gone through it at some point of their career.

  1. [...] across a blog post exploring the very analogy I had stumbled across in my own mind. I like to think Why Freelancing is Like Learning to Drive Shift Stick of being the US equivalent to my thinking on the [...]

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  3. [...] the very analogy I had stumbled across in my own mind. (This happens a lot.) I like to think of Why Freelancing is Like Learning to Drive Stick Shift as being kind of like the US equivalent to my thinking on the [...]

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