What I’ve learned from 1.5 years of freelancing

As you readers probably know, I’ve been freelancing and living as a digital nomad for the last year and a half, after previously working in localisation in London. Around my 1 year ‘anniversary’ as a digital nomad I was considering writing a post to celebrate with some sort of round-up of the year in the style of one of those ‘ten things I learned from travelling’ kinds of posts. Then I realised that I’m not really sure I learned anything very spiritual or impressive at all from my travels. I’ve mostly just learned to speak very poor Russian, how to complain effectively to travel companies in order to get discounts and what the best places to eat in 100 different cities. Not exactly the personal development angle I was hoping for. Then I realised that actually the biggest learning curve has been managing my work as a freelancer while not having a permanent address, so I’ve decided to write about that instead.

1 – The biggest challenge isn’t finding clients, it’s finding good ones and getting rid of the bad ones

When I started out I was quite frankly a bit desperate for work. I only had 1 pre-existing client who wasn’t providing enough work to make me a full-fledged freelancer. So I had to find more work, pronto. I started applying for pretty much any and every little job that came up, even really badly paid ones. As a result, I did try my hand at all sorts of projects during the year, from translating food products, to writing travel articles, to translating documents for international organisations. Some jobs were very well paid, others were frankly pretty rubbish. At the time I sort of felt like I had to take on anything and everything that came my way, regardless of the pay. However, work quickly started to pile up and sometimes I was juggling so many projects I was going a bit crazy. I don’t like to say no to work or turn down a new (or old) client, and so sometimes I find myself pressurised into taking too much on.

Eventually, after freelancing for about 6 months I realised I had more than enough work, and was spending more of my time turning things down than actually working. By this point it was inevitable that I couldn’t keep up with all the client requests on my plate, and I had to start prioritising.

My personal strategy is that I’ve ranked my clients in order of priority, so that I will always take the projects from my best long-term clients if at all possible, whilst I will only accept work from others further down the list in terms of pay or conditions if I have nothing else to do. Even now I’m still bad at turning down jobs I should turn down due to poor rates or unreasonable requests (e.g. editing of a document so bad it needs to be retranslated). However I’ve learned that you can’t accept everything and so you have to be smart about which clients to keep and which to allow to fall away.

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2 – Networking is key

I always hated the idea of networking because I thought it was all about making small talk with people in suits over tiny glasses of wine at corporate events. Luckily for me, it turns out that you can network from the comfort of your own sofa, via social networks like Twitter and LinkedIn, by helping out other freelancers by email/phone/messaging, or just by building good relationships with clients and therefore eventually benefiting from either repeat business or recommendations. In the end, 90% of my work comes from referrals either from past colleagues, friends from my MA in translation or client recommendations. It’s far easier and more effective to find work prospects like this than by pressing apply 100 times a day on proz.com

3 – Staying connected is a must

Obviously as a freelancer who works entirely through the internet, you need to have a pretty much 24/7 wifi connection. Which is somewhat more difficult when you’re travelling all the time. When I’ve been settled for a few months in one place, such as Stockholm, Odessa or Italy, I’ve had access to a wifi connection and it’s been no problem. However at times when I’m on the road a lot more, I have to prioritise staying in a place with wifi, buying a SIM card in dozens of different countries so I can use 3G and fitting my work in whenever I can, even at strange times or in unusual places. I’ve worked everywhere from a campsite to the car to airports and even the press conference room at festivals – wherever I can get some much-needed wifi.

One of the keys to getting jobs as a translator is often being quick to respond to a request. I’ve commented before about how sometimes you can reply within 2 minutes of a request from a project manager and still be told someone else has taken the job. This can be rather annoying, but you do still increase your chances of getting work dramatically if you make sure to respond straight away.

4 – A lot of the received wisdom about the translation industry isn’t actually true

Ok maybe this is a bit controversial, but I’ve found that most of the things I was taught to do at university or that I’ve read from more experienced translators haven’t really applied in practice. For a start, whilst I did join Proz.com and all those types of communities and job boards, I’ve received almost nothing from them. At most I’ve been contacted by one or two prospective agencies or clients, none of which turned into anything. Maybe I was just doing it wrong, but I’ve never got any work like this, and I’m not that convinced by it as a strategy. The same applies to joining organisations like ITI or CIOL. The lecturers on our masters degree really pushed these expensive memberships at us as if they are the only way to be a ‘real’ professional. I’m sure it’s beneficial to have that kind of credential, but at the same time, these organisations are expensive and not actually necessary. As long as you are well-qualified and produce good work, you don’t need a sticker from an organisation to prove it.

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5 – Don’t get scared by CAT tools – they’re your friend

When I started out I was a bit intimidated by all these expensive CAT tools – Trados, MemoQ, Transit, Across, WordFast, Memsource, DejaVu, OmegaT…. there are so many it makes your head spin, for a start. What are they? Which is the right one to choose? How the hell do you even use them? Oh yes, and add to that the fact that the market price for the big hitters (i.e. Trados and MemoQ) is around £600 a piece. At the beginning, I probably wasn’t even earning that much in a month. Now, I won’t say it’s not worth investing in a big industry-standard product like Trados. It actually is worth it if you work long-term as a freelancer. I have Trados Studio 2015 now and I do love it. However, you don’t have to use Trados, or immediately remortgage your house to get it.

For a start, there are decent free options around. Whilst I’m not sure about the compatibility of some totally free tools like OmegaT, there are also other ways to jump on the CATwagon without shelling out hundreds of pounds. For a start, MemoQ offers a 45-day free trial so you can get to know it and see if you like using it. After the free trial, if you’re not sure yet about paying for the full thing, you can keep using the ‘4 free’ version which allows you to at least use the basic functionality and pretend you’re a real grown-up freelancer. What’s more, many agencies actually outsource you work in an online tool such as Memsource or Matecat. This means you don’t need to buy or download anything at all. Just get comfortable with the basic functions of these tools and you’re good to go.

5 – Understanding what project managers do helps you interact effectively with them

One thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of other freelancers do not understand the role of a project manager properly at all. I’m a member of a fun Facebook ground called Things Translators Never Say, which is all about poking fun at insane requests from clients and agencies. However people often make fun of PMs in a way which makes me think they don’t really know what a PM actually does. After spending around 6 months as a remote PM during the year, I also have a much better idea of what they do, what they want from you, and how you can turn that into an advantage.

For a start, the role of a PM is not just to send you a project, then send it back to the client. It’s actually an insanely busy and stressful job that means you have 100% responsibility for the work and the quality of the final result. That means if it’s late, full of mistakes or doesn’t fit the brief, you’re in a heap of trouble. You, as a reliable and professional translator, probably don’t really need to be monitored by a PM. However, there are a lot of much less professional linguists out there who just don’t get those pesky concepts of deadlines and quality. This is the reason why project managers might bother you with emails asking how a project is going, etc. It’s mainly to check that you are actually getting on with the project and that no big problems have shown up. There’s no point in being offended about it – the fact is that many freelancers sometimes ‘forget’ to deliver a project, get behind on work and don’t bother to inform the agency/client, or sometimes even disappear completely and become unreachable. The other issue can sometimes be that a PM will send out a job to several freelancers and give it to whoever replies first. Again, this is simply unavoidable when you have an unreasonable deadline to meet. You can’t afford to wait for the translator to have their shower/lunch/coffee/break/trip/date before they eventually reply to tell you they can’t take the project. So you need to keep a couple of options open. This means that occasionally you just won’t be the lucky one who gets the project. Hence it pays to be quick to reply.

Just understanding some of these mechanisms behind how agencies and LSPs work does help you to create a good relationship with them. I now know to always reply quickly, to let PMs know my availability in advance, to turn things down politely with some information about when I might be available again, and to keep them informed about what’s going on. They will thank you for all this, but it will also help you as agencies keep coming back to whoever is the most responsive, reliable and generally professional.

So these are my 5 biggest lessons from the year. What do you wish someone had told you when you started freelancing? Share it below!

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