What Is Freelancing? Basics and Popular Jobs

What Is Freelancing? Basics and Popular Jobs

The gig economy is growing fast as more professionals put their skills to use as freelancers. In fact, an Upwork study revealed that 59 million American professionals were involved in freelancing in 2020—representing more than a third of the United States workforce.

What is freelancing, and how and why should someone consider becoming a freelancer? This article defines what freelancing is, presents its pros and cons, explains how it differs from full-time work, and outlines the types of freelance work available.

What is freelancing?

Freelancing is doing specific work for clients without committing to full-time employment. Freelancers often take on multiple projects with different clients simultaneously. The Internal Revenue Service (IRS) considers freelancers to be self-employed individuals

Freelancers handle contract work on a part-time or full-time basis and often sign agreements before starting projects.

With freelancing, the client pays per project, per task, or per hour, depending on the agreement. Freelance projects typically involve short-term assignments, although satisfied clients often request follow-on work. Most freelance jobs are available in the skills, service, and creative sectors, such as copywriting, programming, engineering, and marketing.

Benefits of freelancing

Being your own boss as a freelancer comes with many potential perks, including:

  • Flexibility. As a freelancer, you are able to choose your own hours and decide when and where to work. For example, you can work from home or when you’re at the beach. Freelancing flexibility helps promote a better work-life balance.
  • Choice of clients and projects. Working as a freelancer allows you to select the projects that match your skills and interests. You can also pick clients who fit particular criteria.
  • Setting your own rates. You may enjoy greater control of your earnings potential since you generally set your own rates as a freelancer. The amount of work you’re able to handle daily or weekly is another factor that is likely to determine your earnings.
  • Improved skill set. As a freelancer, you may have the opportunity to work on more specialized projects, giving you greater experience with niche subject areas.
  • Exposure to global brands. Because you can choose your clients and projects, you have the opportunity to develop meaningful relationships with businesses from around the world.

Disadvantages of freelancing

While being a freelancer offers many advantages, you’ll also want to consider potential downside concerns.

  • Isolation. Unlike a part-time or full-time job, having a freelance business may get lonely, especially if you’re working remotely. If you thrive on day-to-day interactions with colleagues in a work environment, you may find freelancing isolating.
  • Uncertain job security. Freelance work is likely to be erratic—you might have more work than you know what to do with at some points but struggle to land projects at other times. You may need to continue working in your regular job to maintain a steady income in the early stages of your freelancing career.
  • Administrative responsibilities. As your own boss, you’ll need to handle legal paperwork, invoicing, marketing, and other relevant administrative duties. These responsibilities may require considerable knowledge of bookkeeping, tax regulations, and office technology and take time from your area of focus.
  • No employer-funded benefits. As a self-employed person, you don’t have an employer who contributes to health insurance, 401(k) retirement offerings, and other benefits associated with a full-time job .

Main differences between freelancing and a full-time job

The ideal choice between freelancing and full-time employment depends on individual considerations of what is important. Compare these main differences to help you make the best decision for your personal situation.

Freelancing Full-time job
Flexibility You have the freedom to work from anywhere at any time, depending on your preferences or circumstances. And you get to pick your clients and projects. Having a full-time job means you perform specific duties during set working hours. You also typically have set responsibilities.
Stability Unlike full-time employment, freelance work can be a bit unpredictable, making it harder to plan for the future. Full-time workers generally have a stable, predictable income and work schedule, making it easier to plan for future expenses.
Benefits Independent workers typically don’t have access to employer-funded benefits like paid vacation time, retirement plans, health insurance, and sick leave. Benefits are a significant upside of full-time employment, like paid vacation, health insurance, and retirement plans.
Motivation As a freelancer, you operate as your own boss, making self-motivation a necessity. As a full-time employee, you’re expected to meet specific performance standards to earn raises or promotions.

9 categories of in-demand freelance work

One of the best features of the gig economy is that you can work in various sectors depending on your skill set. Below, we list some popular work categories available as an independent contractor.

Development and IT

This category includes several technical jobs, such as programming, UX design, and web development. Some professionals focus on quality assurance and additional technical support roles.

  • Web developer. This job involves writing code for website layouts that result in fully functional sites. Web developers are responsible for creating, maintaining, and scaling clients’ websites according to specific requirements.
  • UX designer. User experience (UX) designers help ensure a smooth online experience by designing user-friendly elements of a website, software, or mobile app. They provide usability solutions based on extensive research and competitor analysis.
  • Programmer. Programming is a popular field that involves working with computers and software development. This highly technical area is a good choice if you’re keen on writing code for a living.

Design and creative

Freelance creative professionals create visual elements, content, and products to capture users’ attention.

  • Graphic designer. If you venture into freelance graphic design, you may help clients create attractive logos, corporate literature, or website branding elements.
  • Video editor. Depending on the project scope, a video editor may do basic or more comprehensive editing. General responsibilities include putting together graphics, audio, and effects to ensure a compelling finished product.
  • Website designer. When you work as a freelance web designer, your role is to create and maintain high-quality websites. You help clients make the right decisions when picking themes, integrating plug-ins, or choosing content management system (CMS). Also, it’s your job to update the code and put together design elements, such as banners and graphics.
  • Photographer. Freelance photographers work with organizations to make the best photos for marketing, website content, and other business purposes. You might also be hired to take pictures during weddings, birthdays, and other special events.

Sales and marketing

As businesses are always looking to make money, freelance sales and marketing professionals are in high demand.

  • Outreach coordinator. As a freelance outreach coordinator, you figure out ways to spread the word about your clients’ services and products. Depending on the project scope, you might also be responsible for creating high-quality marketing materials and managing a campaign budget.
  • Marketing strategist. Clients hire marketing strategists to help develop customer outreach programs and advertising campaigns that deliver results. Partnering with an experienced freelance marketing expert can make achieving sales targets easier.
  • Customer contact manager. A customer contact manager ensures service quality matches customers’ expectations. Customer wait times form part of the minimum service standards that the manager monitors. This freelance professional also sets customer service targets and creates a staff development plan.

Writing and translation

This category covers fields like freelance writing, editing, and translation.

  • Copywriter. As a copywriting professional, you might be responsible for creating newsletters, website copy, social media posts, and other types of content. It’s your job to write engaging content that teaches and inspires readers. Some writing jobs focus on producing content published in print media.
  • Editor. Freelance editing involves reviewing content for typos, grammatical errors, and overall adherence to the content brief and style guide. You’re also responsible for fact-checking before submitting finished documents to clients.
  • Translator/interpreter. Freelance translators are hired to accurately convert text from one language to another. The translated content may appear on websites, marketing materials, and product manuals.

Admin and customer support

This category offers a wide selection of job opportunities across multiple functional areas. Examples of freelance positions under this category include customer service coordinators, database managers, and e-commerce managers.

  • Customer service coordinator. You can thrive as a freelance customer service coordinator if you have excellent communication skills. Your responsibilities may include ensuring that customers receive excellent service, performing quality surveys, and dealing with customer complaints.
  • Database manager. In this field, your role is to manage customer data databases. It’s your responsibility to keep sensitive information secure and well-organized.
  • E-commerce manager. Due to the popularity of online shopping, there’s an ever-increasing need for experienced e-commerce managers. You’ll be responsible for managing inventory, overseeing site maintenance, and optimizing marketing strategies.

Finance and accounting

You can find many new clients looking for financial experts to help them organize records, make informed financial decisions, and manage taxes (including administering payroll tax payments and filing business income tax returns).

  • Accountant. Clients hire freelance accountants to help prepare books, manage financial information, and put together budgets. Many projects also involve preparing tax returns, mainly for start-ups.
  • Financial adviser. As a financial adviser, you will work closely with clients to help them manage personal or business finances. Clients expect solid advice and compliance based on your expertise and ongoing research.
  • Investor. Many clients look for freelance investment professionals to get expert advice before making critical decisions. In many cases, an expert analyzes a target company’s equity to determine its financial health before providing recommendations to the client.

Human resources

This category covers various specialties, such as payroll manager, recruiter, and general HR expert.

  • Payroll manager. Freelance payroll managers assist clients in handling payroll functions and ensure efficient and accurate processing.
  • Recruiter. As a freelance recruiter, you’re responsible for screening job candidates and coming up with recruiting strategies. You can work with multiple clients simultaneously to help them recruit their ideal candidates.
  • General HR expert. Clients hire freelance human resources (HR) experts to assist in managing worker development. In some cases, the projects involve establishing HR policies and procedures.


You’ll find numerous job options in the legal category, including freelance paralegal, remote secretary, and attorney roles.

  • Lawyer. Freelance projects for lawyers allow you to work with companies, individuals, and law firms. Depending on your specialty, you may assist clients with corporate legal matters or family cases.
  • Remote secretary. As a remote secretary, you might work on projects involving various administrative duties, such as scheduling appointments, sending invoices, and filing correspondences.
  • Paralegal. Clients hire freelance paralegals to assist in drafting litigation documents and handling electronic filings. Additional duties may include patent work, document management, and e-discovery (a form of digital investigation).

Engineering and architecture

Architecture and engineering jobs are also available for independent workers. You can find projects for architects, interior designers, and remote mechanical engineers.

  • Architect. Many clients post projects involving building design and permit submissions. As an architect, you can pick projects involving structural or civil designs, depending on your experience and skill set.
  • Interior designer. If you’re an interior designer, you are likely to advise clients regarding furniture layout and material options. You might also use digital tools for virtual visualization.
  • Remote mechanical engineer. Freelance mechanical engineers help clients design and develop machines, sensors, and tools. Some projects involve troubleshooting mechanical issues and handling repairs.

How do I start freelancing?

Beginning a freelancing career can be both exciting and daunting. Once you understand what being a self-employed professional entails, you can put that knowledge to use. Here are some basic steps for getting started with freelancing:

  1. Identify your skills. Pinpoint what you're good at and what you enjoy
  2. Build a portfolio. Showcase your work to demonstrate your abilities to potential clients
  3. Choose a freelance platform. Research and select a platform that aligns with your skills and needs.
  4. Set your rates. Decide on your pricing structure, whether hourly or per project
  5. Create a marketing strategy. Develop a plan to promote your services, using social media, networking, or a personal website
  6. Manage your finances. Keep track of earnings, expenses, and taxes for financial stability and legal compliance
  7. Seek continuous learning. Stay updated with industry trends and enhance your skills through courses, certification programs, webinars, and other education
  8. Network and collaborate. Build relationships with other freelancers and clients for opportunities and growth
  9. Gather client feedback. Use client reviews to improve your services and build credibility
  10. Scale your business. Consider expanding your services or hiring subcontractors as your client base grows

For more, see our full article on how to start freelancing with additional details and tips.

Freelance on Upwork

Once you know the basics of freelancing, you’ll be able to understand its full potential with a robust and global marketplace. Fortunately, you’re already familiar with a great option.

Upwork is an award-winning platform that makes it easy to connect with talent and clients worldwide. Freelancers can pursue interests and skills, choose the projects they want, and build lasting, flexible careers. Clients can accomplish work and seek help from a deep, global talent pool and a wide range of experts.

Get started and experience the benefits of freelancing with Upwork.


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What Is Freelancing? Basics and Popular Jobs
The Upwork Team

Upwork is the world’s work marketplace that connects businesses with independent talent from across the globe. We serve everyone from one-person startups to large, Fortune 100 enterprises with a powerful, trust-driven platform that enables companies and talent to work together in new ways that unlock their potential.

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