18 rules for freelancing from home

With COVID-19 getting more of us working from home, we looked at some timeless advice on how to freelance in your jammies from editor Jessica Perini.

Whether you’re an artist, writer, designer or editor, freelancing from home is like the ultimate heaven. You can pick and choose the jobs you want from a multitude of contracting work. You can break for coffee when you want, watch Netflix, or even work in your birthday suit. But freelancing can quickly transform into the ultimate hell, if you’re not careful.

You, being the boss, can turn into a tyrannical power broker; piling on the work and accepting all jobs to the point of exhaustion. You can end up working longer hours than you did in your nine to five gig. Unshowered, unchanged and unshaven, you can lose touch with the outside world.

With self-quarantining and social distancing the new norm going, ‘out there’ is just too much trouble. So you stay in. And who cares about the mounting flab? No one ever sees you anyway. But if you’re aware of the signs, you can prevent your own downfall, and partake of all the pleasures of the freelance life. So here are some basic rules for all everyone who finds themselves working from home.

Rule 1: Never wear your jammies all day

Whether you’re new to the freelance life, or a battle-scarred pro, this rule still applies. Wearing jammies all day helps blur the boundaries between work and home life. It can actually backfire as a strategy. Where you may have once stopped work at five pm, now you may work until ten. Wearing your jammie jams all day just means it’s harder to realise when you start work, but also when you finish.

Rule 2: Have a shower first thing

Having a shower first thing in the day is important, not only for your personal pong-factor, but it also serves as a powerful social development tool. If you don’t shower you’re less inclined to go out. Soon buying a banana at the corner shop could become a challenge.

Rule 3: Put on your sneakers

Putting on sneakers gives you impetus to actually go out for a walk. Walking is integral to sanity in the freelance world. It gives you exercise, mental distance, and sometimes the physical distance you need from a project you can’t otherwise escape. Also, if you’re in a creative field, walking gets the artistic synapses firing, a solution may arise where a brick wall had once been.

Rule 4: Define your workday and stick to it

Maybe your work day is nine am to five pm. Or seven am to three pm. Or four am to ten am. Whatever hours you choose, stick to them. Overwork only serves to wear you down. In the end you’re useless. So be strict about working hours, with yourself and your clients. If you’re an editor, what sort of quality work can you possibly do after eight hours anyway? By that stage the late great Fred Hollows might be disturbed by your fast diminishing ocular health.

Rule 5: Learn to say ‘no’

‘No’ is one of the most valuable words of the English language. Practise it now with me ‘no’ ‘no’, ‘no’, ‘no’, ‘no’. See. Didn’t that feel better? Don’t worry that clients won’t come if you say ‘no’. More often than not they usually say ‘Oh well, okay, so when are you free?’ Even now when I’m booked up to six months in advance, I’m still bowled over when people say ‘that’s ok, I’ll wait’.

Rule 6: Don’t fall for ‘it’s urgent, it must be done now’

People often ring me to ask if I’m available for an urgent job. Then I say ‘I’ve got a lot on, when were you hoping to book me in?’ After a short pause I hear them say, ‘Errr, now?’ If things are so urgent why don’t people think, a few weeks or months in advance, we’re going to have this job and this deadline, and we need to book in an editor? Well, many don’t; that’s just human nature. It’s like running out of toilet paper. You know you’re always going to need it, but you take it for granted that it’s going to be there.

Don’t be taken for granted like the humble butt wiper. You don’t have to buy into you client’s panic. Again, see rule 7. The more organised clients do think ahead of time. Wouldn’t you rather work for them, rather than the panic merchants? Don’t think that if you say ‘no’ to this person that you’ll never find work again. When I first started freelancing years ago I often thought this. But now I’m over it. There’ll always be more work.

Rule 7: Negotiate your deadlines

If clients say ‘five weeks’ and you realistically think it will take ten, tell them from the start. Don’t harbour these niggling doubts til you turn yourself inside-out with worry. Usually they are the generalists and you’re the expert, so you set the agenda. Explain to clients your reasoning, thoughts and doubts. Usually if they’re reasonable they’ll get it, and compromise. If not, then they’re probably not the person you want to work with, in the long term.

Rule 8: Plan down to the hour

Plan your hours for every job. Work out how many hours the job may take and write them in your diary. If you’re juggling multiple jobs work them in together. How many hours will you work each day for each job? Factor in breaks, walks, coffees, meetings, time to cook, clean up, shower, clip your toenails etc. When you provide an estimate for the client, make sure you have made provisions for blow-outs. For example, if the manuscript is much longer than expected. Or if the client starts tacking on tasks.

Rule 9: Expect distractions

If you’re working from home expect to be distracted by home tasks. Speaking from experience I can often ignore mess for maybe one or two days. But eventually I look up from my screen and screech, ‘Gee willackers Batman. Where’d all that mess come from?’ And I just have to go and pick it up. Or an author will come knocking on my door, and then I scramble to pick up the mess from the cyclone-ravaged lounge room, all before she can make it up the stairs.

Rule 10: Charge adequately for your work

An hourly rate needs to factor in administrative time, superannuation, insurance, running costs etc. When we add it all up most of us think we’re not worth this grand sum. But sometimes you need to realise your own worth. I recently had a client unilaterally raise my fees by 15 percent. That came as a great shock. But a pleasant one.

Rule 11: Create a separate workspace

When I say create a separate workspace I’m not just talking about a computer tucked into a corner of your bedroom, or a laptop on your lap in the bed. But a dedicated work space, where nothing from home encroaches. The washing shouldn’t be precariously perched on the side of the desk. Nor should the bills be buried amidst your biros. Keep everything separate. Otherwise you’ll be distracted when someone turns on the tellie, or you see a bill poking out of a manuscript. Also, if your partner is trying to catch some zzz’s you won’t be popular, tap tap tapping into the night.

Rule 12: Snatch up meditative moments

When you get stressed about the future or past, take a few deep breaths and come back into the present moment. Look out your window. Check the plants on the balcony. Feel the wind on your face. Take a moment just for you. No work. No kids. No dinner to prepare.

Rule 13: De-clutter

Once every few weeks spend some time de-cluttering. Make this a regular occasion, perhaps at the end of the month when you do your invoicing. Throw out the paperwork from old jobs regularly and delete all those old emails. Invest in an external hard drive and save the important stuff to that. It’s like a spring clean for your office.

Rule 14: Keep others out of your home office

 Try to keep the family and pets out of your home office. Otherwise you may have trouble explaining the jam stain on your manuscript. On the other hand, if you’re an artist, strawberry preserve could elevate your piece de resistance to a whole new level.

Rule 15: Avoid wardrobe attrition

Even if you only ever wear your trackie daks and uggies, buy a nice outfit now and then. Then when you get that unexpected call to work in-house, you won’t be challenged by your lack of clothing options. Though tempting, it’s not okay to wear ‘dressy’ or matching trackies in-house. Sorry.

Rule 16: Appreciate what you’ve got!

Try not to complain about freelance life to dissatisfied or downtrodden office-bound friends. They’ll get annoyed. Freelancing has its downsides of course, but if someone has a micromanager breathing down their neck, a cubicle the size of a closet and a two-hour commute, they don’t want to hear about how hard it is for you to walk into the next room and switch on your computer.

Rule 17: Don’t feel obliged to meet clients at home

Hell, why not Skype the client, if there’s no good meeting place? Right now meeting online is the default for many businesses as we all try to reduce contact and contagion. A local cafe can be handy, or meet the client halfway if that’s easier. But don’t be tempted to allow them to ‘drop in’ at any time. If you don’t charge for meetings these ‘drops ins’ can take you away from much-needed paid work. Although some clients become friends, others can drain time and money. So be discerning about who you let in and for how long  – especially in times of self-quarantining. Make sure you define the terms, if it’s work, tell them from the start, ‘I charge $XX for meetings. I’m free between four and five.’ That will keep the meetings short and to the point.

Rule 18: Diversify

Be as flexible as possible. If you can write, edit, do in-house stints, desktop publishing/copyfitting, proofreading, picture research, project management, subediting etc you’re more likely to be hired. Same would go for a freelance designer or artist. But make sure your clients know what you are willing to do, and how much time and effort goes into each task. Don’t be afraid to charge for each type of work, according to the effort involved. Don’t rely on clients for a brief. Some just give you a two-line email. Then they add to that as they think of things (usually after you’ve given them the quote). To avoid this, I always supply a brief for all my clients, whether they’re private or big publishers. Then they fill this out, telling me exactly what they want. Only ?after that do I supply a quote for the work.

This article was originally written in 2008 – a lot of has changed but a lot has stayed the same for freelancers. Contact us at editor@artshub.com.au with your latest tips, rules or rituals.

Jessica Perini
About the Author
Jessica has over a decade under her belt editing hundreds of fiction and non-fiction titles. Currently senior editor Jessica Perini Editorial Services (freelance), her other credits include: structural/copy editor of fiction titles including Bite Me! (Random House, 1999); Deja Vu (Random House, 2000); and How to Lie, Cheat and Steal Your Way to the Top (Paper Clip Press, 2004). She is co-author of The Write Stuff, an anthology of short stories (Sutherland Council Press, 1991); and If You Cry You Won’t See Me in Your Dreams, poetry anthology (Macarthur University Press, 1991), and has written for numerous publications. She holds a BA (Communications/History), Hons (History); publishing and editing course (NSW Writers’ Centre).