How I made a freelance career work for me

This morning I got a message from a working mom who I had hired as a freelancer.

Hi Ardell….I was wondering if I could do a little bit of an informational interview….I’ve been freelancing part-time for a couple of years now, but I have mostly just been picking away at small projects and am trying to brainstorm ways that I can build more of an online presence….I have a lot of technical expertise in my field of study but am completely rubbish at the marketing and business sides of work, as I’m coming from a very academic and research-focused background. I don’t plan on working as an academic coach, editor, or research consultant long-term. My goal is to do this for a few more years until my daughter is old enough to attend school and save up money to go back to graduate school….I’ve been researching academic coaching and am weighing the pros and cons of enrolling in a certified coaching program and becoming accredited by an organization…

I decided to make the response a blog post. If I’m going to it the consideration it deserves, I may as well make it accessible to others who have the same question.


I’ll start with a few recommendations. Then to put it in context, I’ll describe some of my experience as a freelancer. In most of the posts, I’ve not focused on my experience. Yet, some of what has worked for me relates to my personal choices and experiences.

Your Higher Purpose

This is my woo woo perspective, which is not unique to me. You might frame it as coming from intuition if you don’t believe in anything “spiritual.” I’ll explain elsewhere how my own experience led to this belief. All of us have a somewhat unique purpose or potential. Whatever work is in alignment with moving toward your best contribution in the world, you will be helped to achieve it. Whatever is keeping you away from that best contribution, won’t work out for long. Life conspires to move you toward your calling. Martha Beck talks a lot about how to recognize a productive direction. Her most simple explanation is to ask yourself if it feels like “shackles on or shackles off.” Her instruction sounds like a game of getting hotter or colder as you try out different directions. If you find yourself procrastinating frequently or dreading your work, this indicates that something needs to change. Moving toward your best contribution won’t necessarily be easy, but it should feel hopeful, energizing, or intriguing. During my own career progression, at times I wanted to quit editing because of (a) big challenges I’ll mention and (b) I so much wanted to do other work that seemed more meaningful. I was encouraged to keep editing as part of a “portfolio career” and to change the way I work. This meant developing a team approach, so editing could support me while other projects take time to become profitable (which they haven’t yet). This gives me more time for unpaid work on my “passion projects.”


My feeling is that certification programs aren’t going to benefit you as much as putting the same effort and expense into your own learning and marketing. In most cases, you can learn the needed information on your own. I believe credentials are becoming less important and less trusted. In fact, I know someone who claims to have a degree from a school he never attended. I shouldn’t say this, because my editing career depends on them, but in my opinion even some of the more prestigious higher ed institutions have largely become diploma mills. For me, working led to the job; the degree didn’t lead to the job.

Find a Niche

Many career coaches will tell you specialization is important. I’ve found this true for me. I typically don’t take on work that I’m not an expert at. I also don’t take on work in topics that utterly bore or annoy me. I just encourage the prospective client to find someone more qualified in their topic. This is simple age-old logic: If you’re a jack-of-all-trades, you’re a master of none. It can be difficult to turn down work. Maybe you’ll do well to offer a broad set of skills to see what you most enjoy and are good at. In that case, you might want to create multiple listings of narrowly defined expertise.

“Massive Action” Versus Targeted Action

You’ve heard of the 80/20 rule. A smaller part of your effort will yield the greater part of desired results. Sometimes we don’t know which part will be the effective part. I love Tony Robbins, but I don’t subscribe to his idea of massive action. I think that leads to burnout. Maybe he doesn’t mean grinding away at whatever is the currently proscribed path to success. One benefit to choosing an occupation that energizes and excites you is that you’ll be more motivated to put in the time it takes to achieve success. Sometimes it helps to get a personalized coaching session to get targeted action recommendations, because you could spin your wheels for a long time trying to implement the endless list of available suggestions.


I could be very wrong about any advice I give to a particular person, because it might be the exact opposite of what will work for their particular temperament and situation. Even if I knew the details of this freelancer’s situation, my advice could be unhelpful. What may help is to say what worked for me and what I learned from somewhat similar challenges.

My Education

I put myself through my undergraduate and graduate education by editing for the schools I attended. That was low paid work, but I also gained skills while being paid. Considering the cost of tuition, who knows if I might have done better without school. Maybe the most important part was the connections. Almost all of my referrals have been word of mouth and could be traced back to two professors I had worked for. One of them I met through my husband’s academic connections. I mention this because getting started as a freelancer may have as much to do with luck as my qualifications and decisions.

Other Jobs Didn’t Work Out for Me

I’m kind of aspie. I don’t think most people pick up on that, because I learned to be outgoing and friendly. I genuinely do like people, but I was painfully shy and socially awkward as a child. I think the aspie part helps me be more balanced in deciding “does this person deserve a break or am I going to feel perfectly fine making a larger cost estimate?” Aspies are notorious for being entrepreneurial, partly because they can be difficult as employees. I was let go from three jobs that were important to me, and that I was trying my best in. This helped convince me to face the uncertainties of self employment.

Learning the Craft

As a grad student, I edited for a professor as her research assistant. She referred many of her dissertation students to me over the subsequent years. To some extent, you can learn your chosen craft as you help a mentor advance in their career. I mentor only one editor. I partner with her to reduce my workload. I think she’s faster than me at the format details, and I’m pretty fast. She helps my business succeed, and I feel obligated to help her succeed.


There are always trade-offs. Of these three work characteristics—high-paying, easy or low stress, interesting or enjoyable—pick two. Or know that you won’t have all of these all the time. APA editing involves some drudgery. I trained myself to focus for hours on repetitive boring work of APA citation and reference format. I trained myself to do hours of intensely focused work of reading through dissertations. I don’t think I could have made myself do it without music, though while reading I couldn’t listen to anything with lyrics because that interfered with the work.

Having a Backup and Low Expenses

As a mother, I felt grateful I’d been able to carve out a self-employment niche that gave me more time flexibility. It was less risky with the second household income of my then-husband who worked as a college professor. His income was modest, but our expenses were low. I had insisted on paying off all our debt, so we only had a mortgage and two car payments. There was one year I calculated how much time I had spent as a freelancer based on how much I had earned. Academic editing has crunch time around semester end deadlines, but if work time were spread out over time, I had worked on average 21 hours per week. That sounds pretty cushy to work part time, but I took on unpaid work as a community center board member. I would have to go back to dig into my records to find out for sure, but I was likely charging somewhere around $50 to $60 per hour at the time. This was plenty of income for living rurally and having health insurance thru my then-husband’s work.

Overcoming Challenges

There were a couple of major setbacks. My website was hacked and my ranking demoted. I was also dropped from one university’s list of approved editors when a new director came on. Another challenge was that I had to learn the hard way to manage expectations and to not take on all the risk of delivering work without having a prepayment. For the calculation of averages I mentioned, based on the uncollected wages, I got paid for 20 hours per week, which means I did 52 hours of unpaid work that year. This is before I started insisting on an estimated half up front and got better at creating estimates. That solved the problem of doing unpaid work.

Diligence and Reputation

Many of my friends have told me they could never make themselves do the work. In Gretchen Rubin’s four tendencies of dealing with expectations, those who are obligers depend on external accountability to get moving. They’d do better in a job with a boss and co-workers who needed them to show up and not procrastinate.

I missed a deadline only once in two decades. When it became apparent that I couldn’t make it, I called and talked with the client to see if she wanted to find another editor. That was hard to do. I hadn’t yet learned how to estimate my work time well, and I had taken on too many clients. I worked 60 hours that week, and I did turn down a client that week. I often stayed up late rather than asking if a due date could be moved. I only learned later that many due dates had been somewhat arbitrary. I don’t recommend being such a people pleaser as I used to be, but it is important to be accurate about cost and time, both for your own sake as well as for clients’ benefit. One long-term client stated it was partly my reputation for coming thru on time that made me the obvious choice.

Managing Expectations

My estimates got better after I took a week to create detailed averages from the prior two years of work. I was fortunate to be able to check with an engineer friend to make sure I had done the math right, because that’s not a strength of mine. I only got the nerve to do it after months of coaching my child thru 5th grade math using Khan Academy. It might seem daunting, but I recommend finding the support to do this. I figured out the averages and range of time it took for various editing tasks. This helped me be more realistic and to not always give clients the benefit of the doubt. It helped me be more fair to myself when I could justify why I needed to charge more for a task that would take longer than usual.

Race to the Bottom

No one hired me on Upwork because I charged more than the going rate. I didn’t have to lower my rates because I wasn’t in dire necessity of having to accept every low-ball offer that might come along. Only word of mouth was effective, because clients knew that I could deliver and were less concerned with getting the lowest cost. It was worth it to know I would save them a semester of tuition. Maybe part of my success was due to starting before there was as much competition. I purchased and maintained a relevant domain name before scalpers scooped up every last word in the dictionary. Now Upwork features workers everywhere in the world, willing to work at wages okay for them but too low for OECD nations’ cost of living, which creates a race to the bottom. I still don’t feel I have much competition, because I was able to level up to be among the best at what I do.  

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