Have you noticed that many people online would like you to pay them to teach you how to freelance — even though they just started doing it themselves? Yes, it’s spring, and bad freelance advice is in the air.
Maybe it’s because I recently hit 15 years as a freelancer (and about 10 years as a coach), but this is a trend that worries me. If you read a lot of new bloggers’ About pages, they often gush that they’re excited to be starting a freelance business…but 10 minutes later, they switch to teaching you how to do it. Before they really have time to succeed at freelancing.
Do you smell a rat? I do, too.
What raises my hackles here, as an advocate for fair writer treatment and pay, is that I’ve had a chance to check out a lot of the advice offered by newbies — and the quality of it ranges from marginally useful to wretchedly wrong-headed.
‘Follow along’ vs experienced expert
I recently heard newbie experts called “follow along with me” bloggers. As in, “Hey, I just started doing this, and you can watch and learn from my mistakes.”
There’s clearly something appealing about hearing from someone who’s essentially in your shoes. They’re so relatable!
It sounds innocuous — until you meet all the bankrupt people whose lives have been ruined by taking disastrously uninformed advice online.
I find myself regularly picking people up off the sidewalk who ended up living out of their car after they took some of this perky newbie advice (“Just get on UpWork!” is one of my favorite gems, from a ‘coach’ who began selling a course on freelancing the month she quit her day job).
For instance, I recently learned a writer-friend had hired a business coach — one who’d quit her own day job less than a year ago. How much does she really know about product launches, or running a successful online business? I’m betting it fits in a thimble.
Don’t know what you don’t know?
I think maybe some freelancers hire inexperienced coaches because they don’t realize how much these instant experts don’t know. Freelancing is a complex undertaking, and there’s a lot to know.
What might you miss if you’re ‘following along’ with a writer at your same level? Here’s a list of things I only learned after a decade of freelancing:
How to survive a downturn.
If you haven’t freelanced through at least one major economic recession, you are blissfully ignorant of what it really takes to maintain a freelance career — and unqualified to help others survive economic uncertainty.
Consider that most newbie ‘experts’ who started anytime in the past 4 years have probably never had to suddenly replace most of their clients, change their niche, improve their skills, or otherwise turn on a dime to stay afloat.
These instant authorities may be coasting along, because they’ve never had to weather hard times. That means they can’t help you build a freelance business that will survive economic shocks.
How to move up to the big time.
I’ve heard bogus advice from some ‘experts’ that you need scores of local clips before you move up to writing for national publications. Scratch the surface, and you may discover they hand out that advice because they’ve never written for a national publication.
They never had the chops to write at an elite level, so they avoid having to admit they can’t answer your move-up questions by squelching your dreams.
How to handle crazies.
Ever had thousands of billable writing work on the line, while slowly realizing your client is a nut job? The art of managing difficult clients is one that’s usually learned over the long haul.
For instance, I had one who was like a Jekyll/Hyde personality, and you never knew who you’d get. Another only wanted to give me assignments while walking on his treadmill, shouting over the Fox News pundits. A third fired me because my scanner at home was broken.
How to subcontract.
When you’re truly successful at freelancing, you have more work than you can handle. That’s when it’s time to start subcontracting and taking a project-management fee for overseeing others’ work. Newbies have likely never done this, and can’t teach you how to negotiate this kind of more complex contract.
How to juggle multiple deadlines.
How busy has your expert ever been, as a freelancer? It’s a good question to ask, because if they’ve never been overbooked, they probably don’t have much insight into the productivity hacks that allow you to produce seemingly impossible volumes of top-notch work in no time flat.
How to upsell or get a raise.
Newbie ‘experts’ may not have had client relationships long enough to deepen them with a higher rate or more lucrative assignments they negotiated.
How to win a government contract.
Most freelancers have never ventured into this lucrative area — and if you’ve chosen a newbie ‘guru’ to follow, you might never realize there are massive opportunities in this enormous sector. They also won’t be able to walk you through the process and paperwork needed to get into this game.
How to succeed at cold pitching.
Has your ‘expert’ simply stumbled upon a few lucky gigs? Then they probably can’t coach you on how to write a query letter so compelling it gets a green light, even if the editor is a complete stranger.
How to recover from a disaster.
If you freelance long enough, something will go terribly wrong. You’ll mouth off to an editor and get fired, have an article killed, or lose a $2500-a-month client without warning. When that happens, you’ll want a coach who’s been there, and can talk you through how to move forward and keep a positive attitude.
3 Ripoff prevention tips
My take on the recent crop of newbie ‘experts’? There’s really no such thing as an instant expert. It’s an oxymoron.
If you’re ‘following along’ with a newbie, remember that what you’re reading is not expert advice. The acquisition of expertise takes time.
But there’s plenty of online fraud. So watch out.
Here are three basic questions to ask that will help you avoid being ripped off by newly minted, self-proclaimed ‘experts’:
- How do they know it? If you’re thinking about taking a course, or hiring a freelance coach, ask how they come by their philosophy or methods. Watch out for people who’ve thrown together a program or offer with a little online research, rather than out of real experience.
- Have they ever actually done it? If you’re thinking about taking a course, or hiring a freelance or writing coach, ask if that coach has ever actually done the specific thing you want help with. You’d be surprised how often the answer is no. If they have actually done it, ask how long they’ve been doing it, or how many times they’ve done it. Ask to see their portfolio. Their hands-on experience may be thin — I found one recently who’d only written for starter-market websites, but was putting himself out as a freelance writing ‘expert’.
- Can they share testimonials? If not, run. Better yet, ask to talk to past students. Don’t just drink the Kool-Aid — cut through the spin and talk to someone who’s taken the course or coaching program. They can tell you whether it’s really valuable.
There’s a reason they call experienced freelancers ‘seasoned.’ It’s because you’ve been beaten up more over time, like a hammer tenderizing meat. You’ve taken your licks and grown stronger for it. Experienced pros have got a sweet amount of real knowledge to share.
Remember that anyone can say anything online. Probe a little deeper, ask a few questions, and find out how ‘expert’ your expert really is, before you plunk down your money.
What do you look for in a freelance coach? Leave a comment and let’s discuss.