Freelance Anniversary - Seventeen Things I Have Learned in Seventeen Years
By Megan E. Jeffery

This week marks my Seventeenth Year of being a self-employed freelance illustrator. I know it's 17, 'cuz that's the age my nephew Nathan (he of "Sit floor? Play toys?" fame) just turned, and I was doing my very first illustration (for Baby Talk Magazine) the night he was born. Coincidentally, that illustration was of babies running.

I thought I'd pass on 17 things that I've learned over the past years, listed in really no particular order of importance:

  1. Do Not Miss Deadlines. Want to keep on doing what you're doing? Then do not give people a reason not to hire you again. If you feel that it's going to be a close-call, give the Art Director the head's up so s/he can make an adjustment. Doing this will accomplish two things: it will let the A.D. know that you are conscientious, and it will most likely give you more time/relief.
  2. Keep Records. It doesn't take that long to jot down your beginning mileage and your ending mileage if you keep a little notebook in your car. And keeping up with your receipts and logging them at regular intervals will make your Future-Self happy with your Present-Self. And your Tax-Time-Self will be the happiest of all! If you need cute little pens and cute little stickers to make bookkeeping attractive, do it.
    Whatever encourages you.
  3. Say "Thank you!" If you had a shop, and people came into your shop to buy something, you'd say 'Thank you, please come again!' Doing this in your metaphorical 'shop' never hurts either. These people are choosing YOU out of a LEGION of other artists, it's something to be grateful for. People remember who was pleasant to work with, and will choose to work with them again.
  4. Remember That Telephone Manners/Attitude Are Important. Building on the point before, keep in mind that as a freelancer, chances are most of your contacts with clients will be over the phone. Keep your tone friendly & professional, don't interrupt, and ask questions when you're confused over an art spec. Better to hash it out in the talking stage than after tons of time has been spent in drawing.
  5. Get Health Insurance. I know, I know: it's expensive. But it's important. You can go through a professional organization, but what I've found to be the most expedient is to go through your local Chamber of Commerce. They can hook you up with health insurance plans that cater to 1-person businesses. If you have a spouse who is employed and has health insurance, well, then, you've hit the jackpot! :-)
  6. Get a Retirement Plan and Contribute Regularly. Again, your Future-Self will thank you. Find a stockbroker that you trust and that can guide you through which stocks/ mutual funds, etc.will be best for you.
  7. Time Management. You know how much time the job you have will take, approximately. You know you have a deadline. You know you have to sleep, and eat, and probably mow the lawn. Designing is not just about putting little swirls on a piece of paper, it's about taking into account there only being so many hours in a given day. Giving yourself some padding, timewise, is never a bad idea. Gives you a chance to do any 'tweaking' on a piece, and you never know if someone's gonna get sick, or if the car will need to be taken in and you'll have to sit and wait for it.
  8. Motivation. I often hear the comment, "I could NEVER be self-employed! You must be so disciplined!" I don't think that I'm any more disciplined than the next person, and my answer is usually something along the lines of, "There's nothing more motivating than bills to pay." I think that there is a misconception that artists have to wait until there is a 'muse' who will inspire them toward creativity and industry. Nah. You work until 'it' comes, and THEN you ride the wave.
  9. Work Schedule. If you're going to be a freelancer, you're gonna have to know yourself pretty well. When do you work best? Are you a morning person or a night owl? Get sleepy at 2pm? Work during the times that you work best, if you can swing it. I know that there are other extenuating circumstances in a person's life that make working 9am- 5pm a more likely prospect, but: if you work at your best time, you work more efficiently, and get more done in a shorter amount of time. There will be days when NO time is your best time. Work anyway.
  10. Scheduling Time-Off/Vacations. I still have not conquered this one. I find that when I have the time, I feel as though I do not have the money. And: when I have the money, I do not have the time. As a result, I haven't had a full-on vacation since '94, but don't think that this needs to be what you do. Give me your tips on this one, as I could use them! :-)
  11. Managing Stress. As a freelancer, I can pretty much guarantee that there will be stress in your life. Whether it's the stress of meeting a deadline, or the stress of finding work, or the stress of waiting for a check to come in: Count on it. But, deal with it, too. Exercise, eat right, get proper sleep: all those things that your mom told you to do when you were a kid but that you rolled your eyes at. Yeah, those things.
  12. Dealing With People's Questions. You will have interesting questions posed to you as a freelancer. Some people have ideas that all freelancers are of the of fuzzy slippers and jammy pant wearing, constant soap opera watching or constantly sleeping variety. There is really no solution to this line of questioning other than to answer their questions as honestly (not defensively) as possible. After awhile, they should see that you are a diligent worker who might have a slightly different schedule than most, but who still punches a "time-clock". Be patient, the comments will eventually stop.
  13. During Times of No Work. Don't panic. Panic causes productivity and creativity to come to screeching halt. You have other jobs to do during times when you do not have "paying" work. Market. Create a new promotional postcard. Work on some of your own projects that you 'never have time for'. Re-do your portfolio (online or real). Do some portfolio drop-offs. Got a backlog of laundry? dishes? yardwork? Do it! I have found from personal experience that more work always comes, and if I've spent the intervening time worrying, I have wasted the opportunity to get other stuff done, or have wasted the opportunity to rest/relax.
  14. Support System. Have one. :-) If you are working for yourself, by yourself, from your home, you will need human contact. Make sure you know some humans, and interface with them once in a while. If you are also fortunate enough to know other freelancers, form your own "support group".
  15. Don't Be Under the Misguided Notion that an Agent Will Work Magic For You. Maybe they will, I don't know. But don't think that once you have found an agent that is willing to take you on, that this will instantaneously bring you in truckloads of work. I would also suggest that you still 'keep on top of' your business. Do not abdicate your role as CEO of your company to your agent, or to your accountant, or to whomever else has a piece of your business. Know where the numbers are coming from. As my dad says, "Trust but Verify."
  16. Don't Be Too Proud to Call. Haven't heard from a client for awhile? Do not assume that they no longer like you, or your work, or that they think that your mother was a hamster that smells of elderberries. Contact them, remind them that you're still around, that you'd LOVE to work with them again, that working on the blahblahblah project was a blast, etc. Gentle reminders have gotten me work. Put your pride in your back pocket.
  17. Keep Yourself Creative. You know that old chestnut, "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." Well, how can you keep putting out creatively if you're never taking in? Go to a museum... Go look in the children's section of a book store... Take your camera with you on a walk... Take a class...Take up a new hobby... Get a pile of magazines on a subject you know nothing about.... You'll be surprised what following these other creative pursuits will do for your "paying"

Megan E. Jeffery received her BFA in Illustration from Rhode Island School of Design in 1987, and has been a freelance illustrator since 1989. Specializing in children's educational and entertainment markets, Megan also works for publications for adults that need a light, whimsical touch. In addition to illustration, Megan has started working in the fiber arts, creating pillows that can be found online at Her website is: and her blog, Beetlegrass, can be found at

Megan E. Jeffery copyright 2006


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