What do you call yourself, freelancer?

editorial services firmBy Jake Poinier

What’s in a name? When it comes to freelancing, I’d argue: A lot.

What to call ourselves is a matter of frequent and sometimes heated debate on LinkedIn, as Planet Word brought up in a post today, “Are you a consultant or a freelancer?” My first recognition that “freelancer” isn’t always the best word to use was back when I first read Peter Bowerman’s The Well-Fed Writer back in 2001. He uses “commercial writer,” which is a useful distinction, particularly for those of us who focus on business writing rather than exclusively writing for publications.

The problem is, “freelance” can carry some negative connotations—fly-by-night, can’t get a real job, in-between-jobs—and I’ve learned over the years that there’s a benefit to using the right phrase at the right time. Here’s how my thought process has evolved:

  • Freelancer (or freelance writer and editor) is reserved for when I’m talking to people within the industry: graphic designers, web designers, ad agencies, magazine editors and other people who are hip to the concept. It’s useful shorthand, and immediately implies “I’m for hire.”
  • I’ll use commercial writer or corporate copywriter if I’m talking to someone who’s in a business field. For example, a marketing director or business owner that I’m confident has some experience in marketing/advertising, but might be wary of (i.e., may have had a bad experience with) freelancers.
  • Finally, when I’m talking to someone who might not be familiar with the creative industry, lately I’ve been using a complete phrase: “I run an editorial services firm.” I find that it puffs things up a bit, and will usually provoke a follow-up question.
  • Personally, I never use consultant. I suppose there might be a circumstance I’d use it someday, but I haven’t come across it yet.

So….what’s your favorite term for describing what you do? Please share your ideas in the comments!

Jake dispenses business prescriptions for freelancers at DoctorFreelance.com—no matter what you want to call yourself.

4 thoughts on “What do you call yourself, freelancer?”

  1. When talking to small business owners, I usually say, “I write newsletters” then go on to explain the other things I write. I use the word freelancer the same way you do.

    The last “real” job I had was with a group of recruiters and they automatically discarded any resume that had “consultant” as the last job title. They all thought it was code for “unemployed.” However, the world of executive recruiting is an odd world, so not everyone necessarily reacts so badly to “consultant.”

  2. Jake–I have to confess–I always get excited when I get ready to read your posts…and this was no exception. They are always spot on.

    I find that when I say I’m a writer, people give me a blank look and then say, “what do you write?” for which I never seem to have an adequate response. If I say freelancer, they look at me with a mixture of suspicion and envy.

    Like your list. I’ll try and remember it next time someone asks! : )

  3. @Dava, I like your idea of being specific about what you write, because it instantly puts a concept into the recipient’s mind. And that’s an eye-opening anecdote about the hazards of using “consultant”!

    @Linda, those are both good phrases–thanks! I particularly like the word “independent.”

    @Catherine, aw, you’re making me blush again. And you gotta love the suspicion/envy reaction–you’re an International Woman of Mystery….

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