Aug 16, 2013


This month marks five years that I've been freelancing. Whoa, Nelly! Here's ten things I've learned in the past couple years that'll hopefully be helpful.

1. Your Mama taught you right: good manners will take you everywhere. Okay, maybe not everywhere (i.e, roller derby league), but for freelancers, professionalism is phenomenally important. Say please and thank you, learn to apologize graciously. Act like a professional, regardless of if you have two years or twenty under your belt.

2. Be on time, every time. Short of the zombie apocalypse, you probably don't have a legitimate reason to be late on an assignment. And on that note, coffee is your new best friend.

3. Track your time and learn to schedule. I use Tickspot for timing software and Google calendars to plan my workload. Knowing how long a certain task takes will let you give clients a solid turnaround time and help manage expectations. Time tracking will also assist you in finding areas where you can become more efficient.

4. Cross pollinate! Take a cooking class, make a canoe, go to a museum, read gumshoe detective novels, explore the great outdoors. It's amazing how an activity seemingly unrelated to art will benefit you down the line and keep you from becoming creatively stagnant.

5. Don't be afraid to start small. My first freelance projects were for friends and family, local businesses and selling on Etsy. These all gave me a chance to get my feet wet and were a terrific foundation for other bigger projects down the line.

6. If it stinks, do it over. This was grilled into me in design school and if I were the tattooing sort, I'd stick this on my bicep. If you know in your gut that what you've made is just "eh" then you better believe your client/art director/coworker will spot it a mile way. Sure, it's a major buzzkill to start over on a piece you've slaved away at for hours, but if it ain't working, it ain't working.

7. Join a professional organization! If you're interested in children's illustration specifically, join the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. SCBWI's conferences and publications are a terrific resource and well worth the membership. I can't say enough good about SCBWI, seriously. A little aside, I know that professional fees can be rough, especially when you're fresh out of school (I've been there). Putting a bit aside each month makes it easier to pay your dues/attend a conference and that's how I've dealt with the affiliated costs.

8. Learn to walk away. Freelancing has its perks for sure (like no one ever stealing your lunch from the company fridge). But it's really easy to get tunnel vision when you work by yourself. In those instances, get up from your desk. Go for a walk, call your Mom, read a book, in short, get some perspective. Then, and only then, come back and tackle that monster. Find people whose opinion you trust and get their honest assessment. And by "honest assessment," I mean, you don't want sunshine and kittens, but you also don't want the second coming of Gordon Ramsey. Good critics hone in on what works and will be forthright about what doesn't.

9. You will make mistakes. Privately cry/whine to your cat/eat a gallon of ice cream in one sitting and then go get back on that horse, cowpoke. We've all been there before.

10. Take joy in what you do. Personally, I'd keep on drawing even if I never made another dime doing so. Make art because you want to, because you have to, because life would be dull and incomplete otherwise. At the end of the day, make the very best art that you can make and take satisfaction in that. Have fun.

*Edit* After posting this on Twitter, Sandra Rand mentioned that she'd anticipated "learn to walk away" referred to the importance of learning to spot trouble clients and that it's okay to decline projects. That's spot on advice and well-worth remembering, so I'm adding it to the list.


Megan Tennant said...

Thank you so much for such a directive and encouraging post! I find myself at the early stages of freelancing, and this was timely advice that I needed to hear. Really appreciate it and love your work. Keep it up!

Helena Juhasz said...

Thank you!! I love your advice and wit and humour. It was a pleasure to read.

RWDillustration said...

Great post!

Brooke Boynton Hughes said...

This is such a great post, Abigail! So much good info! :)

Maple Lam said...

Sound advice, Abigail! Thank you. Love your work too! :)

AgaĊšwiejko said...

Thank you so much for this post.
It should be obvious, but sometimes it is not and you have to hear this from others.