In my graduate creative writing program, the last label an aspiring man of letters wanted slapped on his work was “derivative,” “predictable,” or “plainspoken.” Formulaic writing—think: an Agatha Christie plot—was met with disdain. We were all chasing originality, and when a fellow poet told me one of my poems was “too romantic” I questioned my life choices for weeks.
Herman Melville once wrote in an article of literary criticism that “It is better to fail in originality, than to succeed in imitation.” Who was I to disagree?
When I entered the world of freelancing, I couldn’t help but bring the trappings and fixations of the literary world with me. I considered myself an artist. I wanted to produce art. I was in for a shock.
Freelancing isn’t a meritocracy
The most talented freelancers don’t always win the project or stay in business. From a client’s standpoint, superior outcomes often don’t require originality or superior quality in the creative or work product.
One specific memory from my six-month stint at a marketing agency comes to mind. I was tasked with writing some copy for a local sushi restaurant and felt quite proud of one billboard headline: “Sushi Couture.”
When I shared my idea with the creative director, he asked me what “couture” meant.
“You know, ‘couture’ as in high fashion and bespoke garments?” I said. “And what sushi lover wouldn’t love that attention to detail in their rolls and nigiri!”
“We can’t use that,” he said. “No one in East Tennessee will know what that means.”
That stopped me in my tracks. Clearly, the creative director hadn’t read the Melville article, but could I disagree with him?
I didn’t know much about marketing and advertising yet, but I did understand that the purpose of a billboard is to build brand awareness through repeated exposure, not to demonstrate some nobody copywriter’s cleverness or wide vocabulary.
“Couture” couldn’t hold a candle to “Yo, driver! Local restaurant. Nama. Good sushi.”
Freelancers can succeed with originality or cleverness and fail at the business objective, in this case, getting a key differentiator across in three seconds.
The economics and measures of effectiveness in freelancing are different from the world of art and literature. You’re not trying to win a Pulitzer, Nobel Prize, or Guggenheim Fellowship. Even winning Addys, Golden Lions, and other industry awards doesn’t guarantee you’ll thrive long term.
This reality doesn’t stop freelancers from trying to correlate talent and financial success. The narrative goes something like this: “If I just keep my head and do good work, everything will work out alright in the end.”
Will it? Is talent, good work, or quality the only red brick you need to build a thriving freelance business?
Who arbitrates what “quality” is, the freelancer or the client?
And is “good” work the only kind that is effective from the client’s perspective? Could you find a stunningly original visual identity for a tech startup that in no way connects with their target audience? Sure. And could you find dozens of WordPress websites with rotten code generating beaucoup leads? Sure.
As much as the craftsman in me would love to believe that creative talent, like love, is all we need, the pragmatist in me can’t ignore the evidence.
Art and commerce do mix, but good art isn’t enough to woo good commerce. We must proactively acquire the skills on the commerce side. Your artistic or creative talent must work in tandem with your marketing, pricing, fulfillment, and spending talent. Remove a tire, and the freelance go-kart veers straight into a tree.
Even if your creative skills are quantifiably better, higher, and more ethereal than a million Monarch butterflies, you can miss out on the clients you want if you fail to mention what they want. You tout your “award-winning” this or “top-quality” that while they’re thinking, “Yeah, I just need someone who can deliver on time.” Predictability, convenience, speed, efficiency, the mitigation of risk, and “acceptable” quality motivate them more than superior quality.
Ironically, high quality can keep freelancers stuck the same as low prices.
Freelancing isn’t a meritocracy. Quality gives you one advantage in a sea of mediocrity, but you need others to thrive long term: positioning, packaging, pricing, specialization, process, consistent marketing, mindset, and recognized authority.
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