The word “freelance” is largely defined by what it’s not. A person who does freelance work doesn’t commit to one company or organization full time in exchange for a salary and benefits. Instead, freelancers work with a hodgepodge of different clients, providing services as needed on a temporary or part-time basis.
Over one-third of workers in the United States have done freelance work, and about 36 percent of those are committed freelancers without an employer (versus those who do a mix of freelancing and employee work).
Clearly, the freelance population is significant and making its mark on the U.S workforce. But what of the word itself? Some members of the freelance workforce shy away from using the word “freelance” to describe themselves, worried it communicates something negative to clients and colleagues.
The Argument Against the Word “Freelance”
In 2015 Suzan Bond published an article explaining why, in spite of doing work that fits the definition of freelancing, she stopped calling herself a freelancer. Not only was the article published in Fast Company, a significant business publication, but it was also picked as one of their top 10 business lessons of the year.
Suzan’s opinion doesn’t fall outside of the mainstream. Most of the results on the first page of Google for “should you call yourself a freelancer” include words like “don’t” and “stop” in the title.
Why does the word get such a bad rap?
Suzan makes the case that it’s a matter of how businesses perceive the title.
She explains, “Saying you’re a freelancer doesn’t signal to others that you’re a know-what-you’re-doing, take-no-crap professional…Clients too often see freelance arrangements as low-cost line items rather than strategic partnerships.”
The picture she paints of freelancing, as viewed by clients, is of a relationship where the client has all of the power and the freelancer is just trying to find stop-gap projects on the way to finding a “real” job. She argues that many freelancers don’t see themselves as business owners and that perception bleeds through into how clients see and treat them.
3 Reasons to Keep Calling Yourself a Freelancer
I was surprised by the Fast Company article since the reception to the word that Suzan describes doesn’t match the one I’ve encountered in the years I’ve worked as a freelancer. If I had, I’d be right there with her taking on the charge of encouraging different language.
As it is, I see more reasons to stick with the term “freelancer” than abandon it.
- It’s the word people know.
Being that Freelance Austin grew out of the Women Communicators of Austin organization, many of its members are professional communicators. One of the most important lessons every professional communicator learns is the value of using the language people know.
The main goal of communicating is to be understood. That’s why most professional copywriters try to avoid jargon and instead stick with more common words familiar to the widest swath of potential readers.
When it comes to describing the type of work performed by self-employed professionals, that’s still “freelancer.”
While there’s been a bit of dip in usage over the past 10 years, the word still far outpaces “independent contractor” and the newer “solopreneur.” If you tell people you’re a solopreneur, you may encounter those who think it makes you sound like you’re more serious about your business, but you’re also likely to encounter plenty of people who have no idea what you’re talking about.
Some freelancers may be more comfortable calling themselves business owners or entrepreneurs, but those terms aren’t as specific. You risk giving clients the idea that you have a team of employees working for you, which can come with a separate set of expectations. That could be fine — if you’re willing to meet those expectations.
- It makes you part of a larger community.
As the freelance community grows, organizations that bring freelancers together are popping up. The Freelancers Union is working to show that the freelance community can be a political force and uses the combined voices of many to draw attention to issues like clients that don’t pay.
More locally, organizations like this one, Freelance Austin, bring freelancers together to help each other learn best practices and find good clients. When you’re part of a larger freelance community, you learn how to avoid the kind of clients that have the viewpoint Suzan describes in her article and hone in on the ones who do see the freelancer-client relationship as a partnership.
- We can make the word stronger together.
Perhaps the very reason I haven’t encountered the kinds of situations Suzan describes is because I live in a place where the local community has helped to strengthen the word “freelancer.”
Austin has been ranked one of the best places in the country for freelancers to live and Freelance Austin’s 2015 Freelance Pricing survey demonstrated that the averages here tend to shake out a bit better than those provided by other freelance pricing resources.
All of us who do freelance work can benefit by elevating the reputation of freelancing itself. We’re not each other’s competitors, so much as we’re competing against perceptions like those Suzan describes that freelancers aren’t worth much.
The more that responsible, talented professionals call themselves freelancers, the more power we give the term.
Suzan’s article asks, “What’s your first thought when you hear the word ‘freelancer’?” I think of the many people I know running successful solo businesses, and I like to think that most of my non-freelance friends and acquaintances think of me. As long as we keep up the good work, a more positive view of freelancing can spread.
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