Dear newbie proofreader,
I’ve told you a lie – I don’t hate the term “freelance proofreader”. “I’m freelance”, “I went freelance in …”, and “since I’ve been freelancing” are phrases I trot out all the time to explain the way I organize my work life.
I'll be frank with you, though – I do sometimes worry that the term “freelance” doesn’t quite cut the mustard. If I’d spent 15 years working as an electrician for an electrical installations company and then decided to go it alone, I’d never have described myself as a "freelance electrician". I’d have told people that I was now running my own electrical business. Does “freelancer” really reflect the level of business acumen required to do my job? And it’s not just my ability to make sound judgements and take the right decisions. It’s bigger than that – it’s that whole sense of business-cultural embeddedness that’s at stake. If I don’t think of myself as a business owner, then am I in danger of not acting like one? And if I don’t act like one, why would anyone else think to treat me as one?
Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs does not consider me a “freelancer”. Rather, I’m a sole trader. I’m the owner of a business that employs exactly one person. I carry out tax self-assessment on an annual basis just as if I was that business-owning electrician I mentioned above. Just like the electrician, I’m hired by a number of different clients to carry out professional services. Just like the electrician, I set my own rates (though perhaps unlike our electrician I may agree to – or decline – an offered fee). Just like the electrician, it’s up to me to decide whether I want to accept a client’s offer of work or decline it. Just like the electrician, I work the hours I choose to work and take holiday leave when I decide to. And just like the electrician, the only person who can fire me is, well, me.
Does a freelancer work in a different way to that of a business owner? This one doesn’t. So what’s the problem with referring to myself as “freelance”? I don’t think there is one as long as I’m clear in my mind about what needs to be done – and being a business owner is more than just a being a proofreader (or an electrician). I take care of my own accounts; I need to acquire a solid understanding of the market in which I am competing and the methods I am going to use to get noticed in order to generate business leads and paid work; I have to do my own financial forecasting; I organize all my training and continued professional development to make sure my skills are up to date; I take responsibility for my tax and national insurance liabilities to ensure legal, healthcare and pension provisions are met; and I manage any personnel problems that arise (such as when I get upset on the rare occasion that someone doesn't pay me). I could say more but I have a work deadline to meet and a child who's complaining of a sore throat, so there isn’t time right now. I hope this gets you thinking, anyway.
So, dear newbie, if in your own head the term “freelance” doesn’t conjure up an image of these many hats, then I’d advise you instead to start thinking of yourself as a business owner first and foremost. To do otherwise may leave you ill-prepared for the myriad functions that you’ll need to perform (and that you may have little experience of) when you start out. You'll be the luckiest editorial freelancer in the world if the work just lands in your lap. It's far more likely that you'll have to work very hard to get yourself established. Become “freelance” by all means, but do your business planning just like any other new business owner.
With best wishes,
Louise Harnby | Proofreader
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Louise Harnby is a professional proofreader and the curator of The Proofreader's Parlour. She is also the author of Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers, Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business, and Omnibus: Editorial Business Planning & Marketing Plus.
Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader, follow her on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or connect via Facebook and LinkedIn.
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I am an Advanced Professional Member of the UK's national editorial society. Visit the SfEP website for more information.
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