As freelancers, our instinct is to grab every gig that comes our way. Personally, I’ve never found it easy to decline work, especially if I’ve said yes to similar jobs in the past. But how will that short-term paycheck affect my long-term career goals?
The next time you’re considering a new freelance assignment, think about whether the work will help you build the career you’ve always wanted. Here are some of the questions I ask myself before taking on new work:
How much money do I need to make every month?
You have to pay rent. You have to eat. And you have to pay bills. At the start of your freelance career, accomplishing those three things may compel you to take lower rates or pick up a job that doesn’t interest you. But once you’ve booked enough work to cover the essential expenses with a small cushion—and once you have the clips and experience needed to inspire trust—the rest of your time should go toward growing as a professional.
Before you can pitch those high-quality, high-paying clients, you’ll need to develop a higher level of service. Invest your time in learning industry news, seeking mentorship, and developing new skills. It will feel strange at first eschewing that guarantee paycheck for the sake of future work, but you’ll reap the rewards later.
Does this work help me get where I want to go?
Be clear with yourself about your long-term goals. Do you want to focus on a certain topic, like tech or personal finance? Do you want to write for The New Yorker or work for an anchor client that you love? Your goals should dictate the way you spend the hours you’d normally devote to smaller gigs.
If you long to write for literary websites, for example, you should focus as much as possible on pitching those sites and building relationships within that community. You may still need to fill income gaps with other kinds of freelancing, but skew as much as you can (safely) toward that goal. If your portfolio only covers technology, you’re going to have a hard time pitching the editor of a literary magazine.
Am I going to burn out?
It’s counter to everything we think we know as freelancers, but if a client is too demanding, a gig is too boring, or you’re already stretched for time, you have to learn to just say no. Burning out on work won’t help you in the short or long term. You need energy to do your best work for the best possible clients, which means avoiding the types of gigs that leave you wishing you never became a freelancer.
Will this job prevent me from finding better gigs?
Let’s say you have two clients who regularly offer you similar assignments. One pays $300 for 800 words; the other only pays $150. You have to do twice as much work for your lower-paying client to get the same amount of money—and every time you agree to write for that client, you’re giving away time that you can’t put toward professional development or working with higher-paying clients.
If you need that $150 to hit your income goal, by all means take it, but prioritize. I start by checking with the higher-paying clients first before reaching out to the businesses that pay less. Or buy yourself some breathing room by renegotiating new rates with your current clients. Remember, the more money you make, the more work you can afford to turn down.