The 10 Qualities of the Professional Freelancer

For about seven years in the 1990s, I was self-employed, doing my thing as a freelance copywriter and creative director for my own small business, Cargill Creative. It was the time of my career, a period of exhilaration and entrepreneurship I’ll never forget. As challenging as it was to have to fend for myself, it felt good to know that almost everything I achieved was dependent on my own abilities and actions, not necessarily on any outside factors.

I was working on a high wire without a safety net and I liked it.  

As I wrote here on this blog back on June 1, 2004, about this experience…

Cargill Creative was a “virtual” agency with unlimited potential but resources that were only so deep. Schooled as a creative, I recast myself out of necessity as an account executive, a traffic manager, a salesman and an accountant, too. Occasionally I had enough money in the coffers to employ an additional writer, but for the better part of this gig it was just me, myself and I, the accidental principal who wore all the hats, the chief, cook and bottle washer. The hours were long, the responsibilities were endless, but the upside of being my own boss was the autonomy and freedom, and my professional inhibitions ran wild. It’s no coincidence that during this stretch of new found glory I explored options that might otherwise not have been available to me, throwing myself into three organizations — Toastmasters, The New England Direct Marketing Association and The MetroWest Leadership Academy — that, collectively, would have a long-term impact on not just my career, but also my growth as an individual. Call it ambition. Call it survival. Call it biting off more than I could chew (well, almost). But clearly I was refusing to be intimidated by any unfounded fears of failure, knowing full well that much of what I was doing I was doing either then or never.

I wrote the following list of “The 10 Qualities of the Professional Freelancer” back in 1995, when I was in the thick of it as Cargill Creative, but I think it’s timeless and relevant enough to republish here on my blog in 2011.


While I’m not a full-time freelancer today, I still handle an occasional freelance project on the side and I still believe strongly that any copywriter (or designer), self-employed or not, who has these qualities has the best chance to succeed.


The 10 Qualities of the Professional Freelancer

Here are 10 good qualities a freelance copywriter or graphic designer needs to succeed as a professional. If you are a freelancer, have fantasized about such an existence, or simply hire these sole practitioners, the following list is for you.

1. Fastidious. A freelancer has to be excessively critical of his or her own work and take great care to do everything right, because there is no one else to blame but yourself if something goes wrong.

2. Resourceful. A freelancer must be able to deal skillfully with new problems and unique challenges, because each job is going to be different and each client expects you to be — or, at least, to become — an expert in their field.

3. Enthusiastic. A freelancer should approach his or her craft with spirit and intensity; that way, you will enjoy your work days and the bane of your existence, deadlines, won’t be so intimidating.

4. Experienced. A freelancer should possess a body of work and a history in the business for two reasons: 1) You need to show prospects what you have done in order for them to become clients and; 2) You need to know the rules before you can break the rules.

5. Lionhearted. A freelancer needs to be extremely courageous in order to succeed. To run your own business takes guts. You are out there on your own. You have to be willing to take risks. And able to take the heat when the pressure is applied.

6. Artistic. A freelancer must express his or her creativity. You have to be able to look at things differently, do things differently, and dare to be different yourself. As Pablo Picasso once said, “Some painters transform the sun into a yellow spot, while others transform a yellow spot into the sun.”

7. Nocturnal. A freelancer should be prepared to work long hours, often well into the night, in order to complete his or her assignments on time. There are moments during the day — meetings, phone calls, etc. — when it becomes obvious that the only block of uninterrupted time you are going to come by is when the day is over.

8. Congenial. A freelancer needs to know how to win friends and influence people. Be agreeable and positive in nature and disposition. Clients will like doing business with you and networking will come easy.

9. Educated. A freelancer must know a lot about a lot of things in order to work successfully with a variety of clients. Read voraciously — books, magazines, newspapers, the Internet, you name it. Attend seminars. Ask questions of your mentors and peers. And never close your mind.

10. Rebellious. A freelancer needs to question the norm in order to find a better way of doing things. You are a hired gun. Someone who has stepped out of line and been called on to run with the ball. Don’t be a troublemaker. But don’t be a conformist, either.

Of course, there are countless qualities that the freelancer — any freelancer — should possess, too many to mention in one blog post alone. So what do you think? What qualities do you feel are essential to the success of the professional freelancer in 2011? Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment below. And thanks, as always.

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2 thoughts on “The 10 Qualities of the Professional Freelancer

  • Ashley

    I’m glad that you expressed enthusiasm as one of the ten qualities. Enthusiasm is so important and often overlooked, in my opinion. If a freelancer can’t express any sort of enthusiasm in their work and what they do to clients and potential new clients, they are less likely to get hired. Others can sense when you are less-than-enthusiastic about the work you do. If was a business seeking to hire a freelance communicator, I would only seek one with passion. Freelancers that are passionate and enthusiastic about what they do will produce better results, period.

  • Diane Toomey

    I’d add: confident, flexible and creative, although I see where these may overlap somewhat with similar traits in your list: congenial, resourceful and artistic. I think it depends on what your specific line of work is. A graphic designer, for example is by nature creative. Along with all of these characteristics, a body of work or portfolio completes the picture. Nice overview, Bob.

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