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Why Freelancing is Like Learning to Drive Stick Shift

Carol Tice

By Megan Harris

Recently, I had a rocky start to my lessons as I learned to drive a manual-transmission car. Believe it or not, it was a lot like the beginning of my freelance writing career.

“C’mon, Megan, you can do this.” I tried to start the car again with my husband’s instructions, flustered because I stalled.

The engine roared to life and I began to shift into first gear from neutral like he taught me. I eased off the clutch, but let too much slack. The car shook and sputtered before dying again.

With freelancing, there were jolts, starts and stops just like driving stick, but I eventually got the hang of it. Those of you who are still learning can relate, while those that have been in the “driver’s seat” for some time may remember what it’s like to start their freelance career.

Here are some comparisons I’ve drawn between freelancing and driving a stick, and how I’ve made this approach work in my favor:

Avoid Auto-Pilot

To drive a stick, you must use manual and be hands-on – otherwise, you crash! The same goes with freelance writing — you need to take charge of your actions and remain engaged.

Some freelance writers try to put their marketing and work search on autopilot, relying heavily on scheduled content, superficial engagement and job boards to attract clients. This approach, however, does not work.

You can’t expect to drive a manual car anywhere if you refuse to push down the clutch. In the same manner, you can’t expect clients to come knocking if you only have a website and make a few business cards but let them sit idle.

You must market yourself and get your message in front of your desired client base. I’ve used a hands-on approach to marketing, with social media in particular, to grow my Twitter following and reach out to clients.

In a short time I’ve gained over 700 followers and at least three extra clients. I also receive regular inquiries about my work solely by being an interactive, engaging and helpful Twitter user.

Using social media isn’t the only way being hands-on put me in front of clients. A prospective client found me from articles I wrote with a non-profit social media development group, and I was persistent when they had trouble getting back to me.

With patience, I’ve not only made a great connection with a client I wouldn’t have otherwise, but I netted an extra $600 in projects, with more work on the way. If I’d gone on auto-pilot and coasted through my marketing, I never would have come across such awesome opportunities to help clients.

Adapt to Your Surroundings

When driving a stick shift, it’s important to pay attention to your surroundings, more so than driving an automatic. You never know when you’ll need to shift!

The same goes for freelancing — you must learn to look at the markets around you, see what works best and what doesn’t, and adjust your strategy accordingly.

I love writing for my wedding vendor clients, be it writing a blog post or tweaking a service description. However, the wedding industry’s seasonal cycle directly affects my workload, and not always in a good way.

Observing this trend led me to be open to other opportunities outside of this niche, rather than focusing all my energy on wedding vendor clients that may not have the budget right now to update their content. Had I not shifted my strategy, my business would flounder until the next surge of wedding vendors asks about copywriting help.

Learn from Mistakes

When I began learning to drive a stick shift, I made many errors. I stalled numerous times, shifted into the wrong gear and downshifted when I meant to put the car in neutral.

Rather than get frustrated and give up, I learned (with my husband’s help) to get over my mistakes and keep trying. Before I knew it, I was driving like a pro.

You have to get over mistakes in freelance writing, too, whether that means raising your rate because you started out charging too little or learning to make project changes when you misstep.

For instance, I encountered confusion co-editing my first manuscript recently, as a new editor with an ebook publisher. Chapter numbers changed, so there was chaos as we tried to sort out what was reviewed and what needed more work.

I learned to let the problem go, focus on finishing the edits on deadline and avoid the same mistake again so the author had time to make changes before the manuscript was finalized.

As with driving a stick, professional freelancers need to recognize mistakes and strive to keep from repeating them.

What “driving” lessons have you learned in freelancing? Leave a comment and share your rules of the freelance road.

Megan Harris is a freelance copywriter and editor. When she’s not writing, she researches her family tree in her spare time and hangs out with her husband and their rescue dog, Cooper. You can connect with Megan at Megan Harris Freelance Writer.