Upwork is not the only way to start freelancing. I really sucked on the platform but it turned great — I became a freelance translator and content writer.
I fell for the digital-nomad-at-the-beach thing. I hated the corporate world culture and wanted to work from home. I always had a side hustle but was never brave enough to choose the freelancer path.
A year ago my ESL student suggested Upwork. He was learning how to code and managed to do a $300 gig there without much practical experience. On the other hand, until then I had been a translator, HR administrator in finance, and teacher. I had some good practical skills to offer, so I gave it a try. The idea was also to learn something new, so I chose mostly writing jobs.
This May, one year after I joined the platform, I got a notification from Upwork that my account was suspended.
I admire people who have made it there. I think they are resourceful and persistent. Here are several things I experienced along the way that may help new writers who are considering whether they should get serious about Upwork and an alternative approach to building your freelance career:
The famous skills tests
The whole thing of setting up a profile among so many other strangers and chasing after gigs without any Upwork reputation was a weird experience. Along the way I realized that many freelancers have two profiles (those who have been on Upwork for a while must be laughing at me right now. Eureka, Maria!) — one is usually for learning the ropes, and the other one is for a better reputation when they have cracked the tests or done a few gigs.
Also, you can find the key to many tests online. I was surprised how many people whose second language is English scored maximum points in spite of the time limit and them being quite demanding for non-native speakers. Although the Upwork staff changes the tests after several months, there are still keys you can find to some of them. I found a few and saw that there are even mistakes in the keys to newer versions.
Clients try to contact you via your private email
Upwork does warn you about that in the beginning. And a lot of freelancers continue their relationship with regulars outside the platform because it is more profitable for both parties.
However, if you are green, an experienced user can lure you very skillfully into giving them your private address in the beginning: as a part of the interview process, they ask you to fill a form with additional data wanted for their staff database. As soon as you write your private address, the whole communication shifts to your email. What is a possibility of settling a potential disagreement or getting paid then?
These are often clients with a bad reputation, so try to check what their former employees say about them online.
Do you want a tiresome person pay you $5-$15 for a few hours’ work?
Choose entry or intermediate level for writing, and you will often be paid $0.001 per word or even less. For such amount of money clients often demand a ridiculous amount of knowledge such as reciting logarithmic functions by heart in iambic pentameter (Just kidding. But you get the gist).
I also had a misfortune with my first job: I submitted the first draft to the client and kept her posted about all the information in it along the way. She was pleasant to work with and we agreed on details. When I submitted the whole 2000 word-post, she wanted it all rewritten in a sugar-coated style which (as far as I know) is not genuine travel writing. There was more red than black in the article. She was new to this kind of project as I was to the platform. I did what she wanted and felt bad about the poor-quality way of expression I had to use.
Deadlines are often very tight
For example, this is not a good place for moms with toddlers. Well, it wasn’t for me. I couldn’t commit and it was killing me.
I’d been familiar with freelancing before — I translated hundreds of pages for clients “for yesterday“. Still, if you choose to do content writing as a newbie, the quality is always affected by short terms. You just have to think about it, then write the first draft, the second, and read and reread several times. You need gaps between phases of work to be more creative and, well, better! If you are unfamiliar with the niche, you need more than to read 3 articles to get acquainted with it.
Having the “misfortune” to be a mom of two sickly kids only complicated the whole thing. A client asked me to do a paid test article for $10. If everything went well, he would pay me $15 for every article written for the next 6 months. It seemed like a great experience although the pay was low and the niche was too narrow and demanded a lot of research. I was to start immediately, so he gave me the title of the test article.
I was puzzled by it, so I started researching on the web. At the moment when I was supposed to “seal the deal“, my daughter began crying because her ear started to hurt. Soothing her and going through the internet, I received a message:
“If you don’t reply within 15 minutes, the deal is off.“
I realized I wouldn’t be able to commit for 6 months with such tight deadlines and an unpredictable situation at home, so I said I would have to pass.
You won’t earn much money in this rat race
As a beginner. I don’t know about writers who have made it but I doubt that it’s huge money there as well.
I did only 2 gigs on Upwork — the first one was content writing for $80, and the second — translation for $1. I wanted to get a Rising Talent Badge (which you get after 2–3 gigs, and is supposed to bring you better clients). I didn’t get it but I finally realized this is not where I wanted to work. I could earn more in my homeland where the average salary is $400 than on the most popular American platform (in my country you can earn $750 in 10 days).
If you get $10 per translator’s page in Serbia, and $5 on Upwork (minus 20% for the Upwork fee), who translates on Upwork then? If I can write a native ad for a local portal for more money than I can get on Upwork, why would I choose it? If I can make an ESL lesson for business people why would I correct six graders’ ESL homework?
Still, Upwork isn’t all that bad. It taught me a lot for free. Here are a few of its good sides:
You can learn how to write online
Upwork keeps you posted about what skills you need to know to be an online writer in demand.
And everything you need to learn is on the Internet. However, if you want to progress rapidly, get a mentor. Having an expert educate you makes you a better content writer in a shorter time (I can’t say a “writer“, it’s a holy word for me. Writers are Dostoevsky, Orwell, and D.H. Lawrence; we are online writers).
I found an excellent course on writing professional blogs and invested almost all the money I earned on Upwork. It was worthwhile.
You can learn how to negotiate with a client
I can’t tell you much about that, can I?
But Danny Marguiles says so. He built his whole copywriter career from scratch on Upwork, he even advises you on how to get started. However, bear in mind that he has a blog on Upwork as their consultant, so take his words with reservation.
I started building my own portfolio
Very often clients ask you to send them some of your previous work. I started writing because I didn’t have a Rising Talent Badge. I wanted to have something which would prove how good I was even though I didn’t do any real jobs there (which is another beginners’ common practice — they write improvised articles resembling those the clients need).
The more I wrote, the more I read about writing. The more I read and wrote, the better I became.
Suddenly I was writing more for the local market and following jobs on the Upwork feed less. I didn’t want to pitch to $5 posts when I could be paid more in my (much poorer) country. So, I did the more profitable English-Serbian translation for a living and exercised writing for fun. It became a hobby and a relaxation technique. In the end, it started to get paid. Here it is — my portfolio:
I started pitching to popular local magazines
They have over 124K, even 171K Facebook followers (parents magazines), 74K (women’s interests), 85K (a political magazine). I offered my articles for free — I thought better write what I feel strongly about without getting paid than write for peanuts on Upwork about children’s interactive games or be a ghostwriter about LGBT thrillers.
I am not suggesting that you should do it by all means. You have to know when to stop giving your content away for free if you want to get paid eventually. I was just enjoying this newly discovered craft — I never thought I was good at writing (even when my university professor had asked me if I would continue my postgraduate studies after I earned a master’s in literature, I thought she was just being nice).
I wrote about Serbian female prisoners, Serbian moms’ unfavorable situation, teachers’ adverse conditions, etc. I also offered my articles to the moms club and charity. It felt good.
The free writing was a win-win:
- I exercised my content writing skills in matters I considered important,
- the magazines got high-quality articles without paying,
- I got backlinks from the websites with great Alexa rank,
- my articles were very much read and shared,
- and people started visiting my portfolio very frequently.
When other popular magazines and profiles began sharing my articles, I would ask them to add a link to my website under the text, to get additional strong backlinks.
The next step was writing native ads for that 171K followers magazine. I got paid and the client wanted even more ads for his other products because they were appealing.
Then the portal invited me to write a few articles per month about parenting for them. Although the pay is not terrific (but it is slightly better than Upwork), it doesn’t take much time to write them. Also, I am getting big exposure with my author’s bio and links to my social media accounts under every post.
Before Upwork I didn’t know there is such a thing as digital marketing. SMM, WordPress, SEO, link building, HubSpot, what? There is yet so much to learn and it’s fun. But considering the fact how much I progressed in this short amount of time and that my name is in the magazines I could only dream of, I’m well pleased.
My real gigs come outside of Upwork. It all started with high school friends and former colleagues remembering me when asked if they knew someone who translates from English.
But then I took one more step.
The key to high-quality freelancing that pays well is getting into the expert community and meeting people or getting references. Pitching.
And it can happen completely by chance. The editor of the charity to which I gave my article for free added me to the local closed group of digital marketers. There I learned more skills and applied for the first content writing jobs outside Upwork.
So, although I received an email from them that my account was suspended, I see my experience on Upwork as a good thing. I learned a lot. It directed me towards new skills I was supposed to learn. You can see the trends and what is in demand and devote your time to learning something you can add to your portfolio. And portfolio diversification is good 😉
One more thing to help you out — it’s been three months since I started writing on Medium. Here are my FIRST IMPRESSIONS on the platform, HOW TO WRITE here to get noticed, and what writing TECHNIQUES great writers use:
How to write here to get noticed:
What writing techniques great writers use:
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