Many writers new to the freelancing game have checked out Upwork (formerly Elance-oDesk) in the hopes of securing those elusive first clients.
Plenty of seasoned writers, too, have visited the site thinking it could be a good way to add to their existing client base.
And many of you, as we at The Write Life know from your questions, have been frustrated by how hard it seems to successfully land gigs on Upwork that are worth decent money.
I get it. I gave the platform a try when I was first starting out and was severely disappointed by what seemed to be a glut of bottom-line gigs and overseas competition ready to undercut me at at every turn.
But you can use Upwork to find quality projects and build a successful freelance writing career; you just have to know how.
We interviewed six freelancers who’ve done just that to learn their tips for making the most of the site. Here are their biggest do’s and don’ts:
DO specify your niche
“Be an expert, not a catch-all,” advises Tyshia Ingram, who says Upwork enabled her to build a steady project stream, loyal clientele and a portfolio she’s used to land gigs on and off the site.
“You’ll definitely find a bunch of random content mills that don’t care about your experience or expertise;they just want your words. Needless to say, these clients don’t offer much. When you’re an expert, and your profile reflects as such, the good clients will find you.”
Meg Dowell agrees. “At first I would grab any job I could get, but none of them related to health or nutrition, which was what I actually wanted to/was qualified to write about. With the right keywords, you’ll find them.”
Meg has used Upwork for a little less than a year and has already managed to build up a full-time project load with clients from the site.
DO have a portfolio to show
“Try and have one regular gig going when you apply for your first gig. It helps the client see that someone else has already trusted you with work, and it gives you a chance to show off your ability,” says J.R. Duren, a freelance writer for Highya.com who says Upwork “is directly responsible” for the writing income that now supports his family of three.
If you’re brand new to freelancing, don’t despair; there are other ways to build a portfolio.
“I had been writing/editing for an online magazine for three years before getting started on Upwork,” says Dowell.
“For about six months before I started, I spent all my time writing completely for free to build up my portfolio/resume. I had also already finished undergrad and was about six months into grad school, so those things combined helped showcase that I had the skills necessary to complete jobs successfully.”
DON’T undervalue yourself
When you’re just starting out, it can be tempting to want to price your services low in the hopes of luring more clients.
But the advice we heard the most often from the freelancers we interviewed was, as Duren puts it, “Never be afraid to ask for what you’re worth.”
“A good client knows exactly what they want and what they are paying for,” says Rich Storm, a photographer and writer who’s found many gigs on Upwork that converted into regular clients.
“A good client who sees quality work will pay you what you ask.”
Dowell learned this lesson the hard way. “I was so excited to be offered a job in [my] first month that I agreed to do what ended up being HOURS of work for very little money and an overall terrible experience.
Don’t demand unreasonable rates at the start, but don’t undervalue yourself, either. Better opportunities — and clients willing to pay for good work and who will value you — will come along pretty quickly.”
DON’T forget you speak English
This may seem like a silly bit of advice, but hear us out: it can mean more than you might think.
“It can be tough for writers on Upwork [because] their rates get undercut by folks who are working from overseas,” Stom says. “A major thing that I have found when submitting bids to gigs is to make it clear that I am a native English speaker.”
Decent clients who are looking for more than just filler content will recognize the value this adds and be willing to pay more for it.
DO set specific searches
Clarifying your expertise in your profile isn’t enough; to find the best gigs for you, you also need to make sure your searches are laser-focused.
“It’s not enough to say ‘blogger’ or ‘editor,’” Ingram says. “You’ll find plenty of those jobs pop up. If you really want to find work, you have get very specific. For me, that looks like: ‘expert beauty writer,’ ‘SEO content for ‘beauty brands,” “managing editor for lifestyle platform.’
“Think about the work you want to do and search those exact phrases.”
DON’T overlook filters
Once you’ve generated a list of search results, hone it even further with filters to pinpoint just the right projects.
“At this point in my freelance career,” Ingram says, “I know what I’m worth, the value my work brings, and what I want from my freelance lifestyle.”
“For that reason, I use the filters to filter out work I don’t even want to waste space on my job feed. I always set to ‘expert experience $$$,’ the lowest budget I’m willing to accept, and project length. You can even filter out by how much experience the client has on Upwork, payment types, and more. Use all the filters.”
DO customize your proposals
Stephanie Caudle recently found herself in major debt and used Upwork to make $8,000 in eight weeks (and pay off all of that debt).
“The key to successfully winning projects on Upwork,” she says, “is to take the time and create custom proposals for every single job you apply for on the site.
Custom creation wins because it shows the job creator that you care less about copying and pasting proposals and more about being the fit they need.”
DON’T be afraid to follow up
No answer doesn’t necessarily mean “no.”
It might simply mean a client is busy or still wading through proposals. Checking in with them can bump you back up in their attention.
“If I apply for a contract and days pass by and I don’t hear anything at all,” Caudle says, “I reach out and ask if they decided to pursue other candidates. In most cases, it has led to the client asking to learn more about my work.”
DON’T hesitate to clarify
You owe it to both the client and yourself to make sure you know exactly what you’re getting into before accepting a gig.
If a project’s details aren’t well spelled out or you don’t “fully understand the vision for the project,” make sure to ask questions and clarify, Caudle advises.
Accepting a job you aren’t clear about won’t do anyone any favors.
DO vet potential clients
You’re not the only one being considered for each gig; to avoid being burned by bad clients, do some due diligence on them just like you know they’re doing on you.
“I first look at how detailed [a client’s] job description is,” Dowell says. “If they can clearly communicate exactly what they would need from me if hired, I usually feel pretty good about submitting a proposal. Also look at how long they have been on Upwork, their ratings/feedback, how much money they have spent. I generally avoid clients who have too little experience using Upwork.”
DON’T ignore your instincts
As you communicate with a potential client, watch for warning signs that working with them might be trouble.
“I read people well through their writing, so I can often tell if it’s going to work well or not,” says Samantha Strazanac, who uses Upwork frequently to find new clients for her marketing firm. “I have turned down businesses because I didn’t feel it was the right fit even though they wanted to work with me.”
“If you feel like a potential client could be a pain in the ass, you’re probably right,” Duren says.
“Five or six months ago I took a fixed-price job with a Turkish telecom company. During our preliminary conversation, I noticed their English wasn’t that great. It was a red flag, but I ignored it. Sure enough, after the work was complete, they weren’t happy with the work and threatened not to pay. The miscommunication went back to a few sentences of poorly translated English. Lesson learned.”
Dowell agrees: “If you feel any hesitation at all about accepting a job, go with your gut and move on to something else. The more proposals you submit, the better you’ll get at knowing whether or not you should work with someone.”
DO bring your A Game to every project
Most of the freelancers we interviewed credited their success to leveraging one-time projects into long-term client relationships — and the best way to do this is to treat every project like it’s an interview for a bigger job.
“I could go on and on about tips and advice,” Duren says, “[but] if I could reduce it to a quick sentence, it’s this: Honor the craft of writing by submitting excellent work on time at rates that match your talent.”
DON’T let a “fail” get you down
Bringing your A-game doesn’t always equate to a home run, and that’s OK; a big part of freelance writing is learning how to stay confident in spite of ups and downs.
“Don’t take it personally if you do a paid trial article or two for a client and they decide not to continue working with you,” says Dowell.
“That’s why you do trial work at the beginning — to make sure your skills are compatible with what they feel they need. Some clients aren’t great at communicating exactly what they want upfront, so if it doesn’t work out, it’s usually not because you didn’t do what they asked.”
DO give client feedback
Your freelancer rating on Upwork can go down if a client fails to give you feedback once you’ve completed a project for them, Dowell notes.
Give them a gentle reminder to rate you, and build up some positive karma, by giving your clients an honest rating at the end of each job.
DON’T be afraid to ask for more
Sometimes a gig blossoms into a long-term client relationship organically, but if it doesn’t, don’t be afraid to take matters into your own hands.
“If you complete one project successfully and [a client doesn’t] offer more work for you,” Dowell says, “it doesn’t hurt to offer your services to them and continue that line of communication.”
DON’T give up
The key to making a real living on Upwork? Caudle boils it down to two things: “Persistence and time.”
“Finding my first clients was not super easy,” she says. “I remember logging onto Upwork and being committing to using all of my connects in order to apply for as many proposals as I could. I set a record one day for 25 submitted proposals, and that was the day I began to see results from my invested time on the site.”
Upwork can be overwhelming, but the right job awaits those who are willing to not stop pursuing new opportunities.”
Kelly Gurnett is a freelance blogger, writer and editor who runs the blog Cordelia Calls It Quits, where she documents her attempts to rid her life of the things that don’t matter and focus more on the things that do. Follow her on Twitter @CordeliaCallsIt.