What does “freelance” really mean?

a free lancerPeople use the word “freelance” quite a lot these days, generally to refer to someone who doesn’t have a “real” job. But that’s hardly an accurate definition.

The word freelance comes from the Middle Ages, when there were basically two types of knights. There were the knights who worked exclusively for one king. Then there were the “free lancers,” or knights who worked for anyone who would pay them.

The idea of freelancing is still with us, but kings have been replaced by businesses, while knights have been replaced by professionals of all kinds. Today there are more freelancers than ever before and more freelancing opportunities as well. But it’s important to have a firm understanding of what freelance really means today.

Here’s a good definition:

A freelancer or freelance worker is a person who pursues a profession without a long-term commitment to any one employer.

This describes freelancing pretty well. The part about having no long-term commitment to one employer is easy to understand. It is quite different from being a full-time employee.

As an employee, you enter into a contract with an employer. The deal is that you show up every day and do a certain type of work. In return, you get a regular paycheck and benefits. Your contract is exclusive, meaning you work for that one employer and (generally) no other.

As a freelancer, you also enter into contracts, but with many “employers.” The deal is that you will do a certain type of work, but you can generally do the work at any location you choose, and the work is usually on a project-by-project basis. In return, you get paid for the work you do according to a fee that you and the business mutually agree to for each project. There are usually no benefits. Your contract is non-exclusive, meaning you may work for as many other businesses as you like.

Some types of freelancing end up being very much like employment in that you often work for just one business at a time. Years ago, I worked for an ad agency on a freelance, but nearly full-time, basis. Later I did the same thing with a “book packager,” writing and editing school textbooks, again for just one employer and nearly full-time. In both cases, it was possible to take on other freelance work, but it would have been impractical. It was basically a job without benefits.

Let’s go back to the definition of a freelancer:

A freelancer or freelance worker is a person who pursues a profession without a long-term commitment to any one employer.

What about the word “profession”? Well, we can define profession like this:

A profession is an occupation, vocation or career where specialized knowledge of a subject, field, or science is applied.

The best way to understand this is to think about the sort of people who are usually called “professionals.” This includes lawyers, doctors, dentists, architects, accountants, and so on. Those in a professional field are generally respected and often, though not always, highly paid. Teachers, for example, are professionals, but are generally not paid particularly well.

In summary, we can say that a freelancer is an “independent professional.” A person with a career, but not a job. Someone with “employers,” but who is not actually employed.

This may all seem fairly obvious at first glance, but it’s important to keep in mind if you choose to pursue freelancing. Always remember that you are a professional, because you will need specialized knowledge and skills to do the work. And also remember that you are not an employee, because this distinction will affect how you interact with prospects and clients and can substantially affect the path of your career.

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11 Responses to “What does “freelance” really mean?”

  1. Cynthia Maniglia on June 23rd, 2009 5:03 pm

    Interesting – thanks for sharing and putting it out there for us freelancers.

  2. Ted Grigg on June 23rd, 2009 7:31 pm

    I never knew where the word “freelancer” came from. It’s quite interesting.

    It also indicates that freelancing is a real job and requires the same skills as a full time employee. But the skill set often extends beyond many employees who do not have to run a business or sell themselves to many employers in diverse industries on a daily basis.

    Employers sometimes view freelancers as people who are not able to get a full time assignment.

    That may be true in some cases, but not all freelancers who prefer the thrill of generating many assignments with tremendous diversity.

    I can say that I have never had the inclination, time or opportunity to get bored as a freelancer.

    Great post.

  3. Imee on July 1st, 2009 8:55 pm

    Interesting post… I’ve worked freelance once, I guess. Does that really count? ‘Cause I only did it as a sideline, in addition to my 9-to-5.

  4. Dean Rieck on July 6th, 2009 12:43 pm


    Sure. If you’re working on your own, you’re freelance.

  5. MJ Ces on July 21st, 2009 8:02 am

    Is freelancing for everybody? Almost everyone I know is aiming to be a full-time freelancer (I’m one of them). It’s usually the joy of supposed ‘freedom’ that lures the multitude. But freedom is relative. As you mentioned there are still contracts and ‘employers’ to deal with.

    So where’s the free in freelancing?

  6. Dean Rieck on July 21st, 2009 9:51 am


    No, freelancing is not for everybody. That’s because most people want the security of a full time job with work handed to them by someone. They need the structure of a workplace.

    But if you can make the transition and learn how to generate paying work and create your own structure, freelancing offers more security, more money, and far more freedom than full time employment.

  7. El significado de ser freelance | The last picture on August 27th, 2009 6:05 am

    [...] por el link, [...]

  8. Northside Freelance Network | Chicago | Far Northside | Blog | What does “freelance” really mean? on January 24th, 2011 11:17 am

    [...] Click through for full article [...]

  9. Jagdish Borase on January 5th, 2012 12:33 am

    for explain.

  10. Marshe on August 20th, 2012 7:32 pm

    This is very refreshing. Thanks for breaking down the definition so well.

  11. Maple on September 11th, 2012 7:16 pm

    Oh wow, I never knew that it was such an old word! I find this pretty interesting and the way you explained it makes it very clear!

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