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A Beginner's Guide to Using Upwork as a Freelancer


A simple graphic of a laptop. On the screen is the red outline of a person's portrait, the Upwork logo, and a dollar sign alongside lines.
Graphic by the author.

I first started freelancing because I happened to see an advertisement for Upwork somewhere, I can't remember where. I tried it out, and though I made many mistakes along the way and stumbled through the learning process, I have managed to build a fairly successful freelancing business that expands from my work there.


If you're interested in freelancing on Upwork, I'd like to save you some of the chaos and headache I experienced. Here's my comprehensive guide to using Upwork as a freelancer.

 

This post includes:

 

What is Upwork?

Upwork is a freelance service job board that spans multiple industries from publishing to software design to customer service and many, many more. On Upwork, businesses and individuals can post jobs with specific descriptions and requirements. Freelancers create a profile and apply for jobs. From there, contracts are established between the two parties, and the job is handled completely on-site, from hiring to end of the contract, including communication, time tracking, and delivery of products.


Is Upwork easy to use?

I'm a bit biased, as I've been using Upwork for years, but I'd say that yes, Upwork is relatively easy to use. It's free to sign up, applying is a couple of button clicks, and everything on the site is self-contained from start to finish, so you're not hunting through a thousand sites and folders. Upwork also has some convenient search options for both your contracts and your chats with clients, so finding old files or quotes to reference is simple.


That being said, like any new website, it takes time to get used to the organization and layout, and they change things from time to time which can make navigating annoying for a while. As a crash course, here's what Upwork looks like when you sign in, and what each menu tab does.


The Upwork home screen for a logged-in freelancer. A white and green website displaying a job board and a sidebar with search options.
Screenshot by the author.

We'll talk about everything in the actual Find Work section later. For now, let's focus on the top menu bar of the page.


In the top left is the main Upwork menu.

  • The Find Work tab is your home page; it's the feed of new jobs open to apply for and its drop-down is where you'll find your active proposals and invitations for interviews.

  • The My Jobs tab is for keeping track of the jobs you've already landed; it's where you can view contracts and your work diary (that's your billable time for the week).

  • The Reports tab is where you'll keep track of your money; you can see what you've earned, when it will be available to you, and download a PDF of your earnings to use for various paperwork reasons (hello, taxes).

  • The Messages tab takes you to your messages with clients.


In the top right is your profile menu.

  • The search bar lets you look for specific jobs and website functions.

  • The question mark takes you to the help center.

  • The paper airplane is for direct contracts (contracts that are handled by Upwork but can take place off of the site).

  • The bell is your notifications.

  • The profile picture lets you access your settings.


Can you make a living on Upwork?

You can in fact make a living on Upwork, but it's going to take time and dedication, just like any job. While freelancing is relatively simple as a side gig - bringing in the occasional extra dollar while you're working a 9-5 - it's a little more complicated when you're freelancing full-time.


Besides doing their actual work for current clients, full-time freelancers need to actively search for new work every day to keep cash flow consistent, which can be frustrating if job listings are thin on the ground. Additionally, when you first start freelancing, unless you already have a portfolio of work from a traditional job to show off, it's going to take a long time to work up to the highest-paying jobs and regular clients. It's also going to take you some time to learn how everything on the site works. Even with a full guide like this one, there are some things you need to learn from experience to get into a productive workflow.


Beyond that, you'll need to get good at spotting bad clients or scam listings and avoiding them. Most first-time freelancers are going to fall for a trap like that at least once; we've been taught to undervalue our work to "get our foot in the door" and breaking out of that mindset is hard, especially when jobs with terrible pay and long hours advertise themselves as "for beginners." Learning to value your work appropriately and negotiate with clients effectively can help you make a living on Upwork much faster and easier than trying to claw your way up with cheap, quick jobs.


So, yes, you can make a living on Upwork. You just need to know how to work with and on the site.


Now I'll add a brief caveat here: not all industries have solid opportunities on Upwork. For example, there isn't much in the way of voice acting work on the site. I highly recommend taking the time to research whether or not your industry has a presence on the site before you sign up.


How to set up an Upwork profile

The first step in the process is, of course, creating an account. The process is much the same as any other website; you use your email (preferably your work email) and a secure password to create a profile. Because it is a commerce website, you'll have to operate under your own name and verify your identity before you can begin building out your profile and actually working on the site.


When you first set up your profile, you'll need to choose the category that you want to work in, your experience level, and your project preferences (more on that later). You'll also have the option to link your Twitter, GitHub, StackOverflow, Dribble, and DeviantArt accounts.


You can choose to create up to two specialized profiles to display alongside your general profile. This is great if you work in multiple fields; for example, you might create separate dedicated pages for writing work and graphic design work if you do both.


The setup for your general and dedicated pages is the same.


Choosing a profile name and picture

Your profile name and picture are the first things that your clients are going to see when they click on your freelancing profile and the things they'll associate with you as you work together and chat in the messages, so they need to be both professional and accurate.


Your display name can either be your full first and last name (John Smith) or your first name and last initial (John S.), depending on the privacy setting you choose. Note that, as mentioned, you can't use a fake name when working on Upwork. You can, however, use a shortened version of your name such as Ben for Benjamin or Liz for Elizabeth.


Your profile picture doesn't need to be a professional headshot (although that wouldn't hurt) but it does have to be slightly more put-together than a selfie. Choose a picture that shows you in portrait, from about the shoulders up, looking at the camera. It should be taken in good lighting with a minimalist background so that the focus is on you.


Creating a freelancer bio

Your profile bio should have the same qualities as a professional summary on a resume; you'll want to hit the highlights of your career and education in one paragraph. It can be a little longer than that, but all of the important information should appear above the "Read More" button, which cuts you off at about three sentences. That being said, it doesn't have to be quite as formal. You can show off a little personality and include some biographical information to let clients know whether or not you'll work well together.


Consider including:

  • Your preferred professional title

  • The number of years you've been in the industry (if it's over two)

  • Your highest level of education (if it's above a high school diploma)

  • Your top accomplishments or the most impressive associations you have

As an example, this is what mine looks like:

Black text reads, "Writer and Editor. $25.00/hr. Hello!  I am a writer from Georgia, with more than five years of hobbyist and professional writing in both fiction and nonfiction. I have an Associate of Science, which focused on literature and English language and composition, as well as public speaking. I also have certifications in SEO and content marketing.  My fiction pieces range from science fiction and horror to poetry, both classical and freeform. My nonfiction pieces are research projects on subjects I find fascinating, cited, sourced, and presented either as an article, blog post, or video essay script.  My resume is available upon request. Due to privacy concerns as well as platform-specific terms and conditions, when requested through Upwork, I am only available for an interview via Upwork. I will not accept an interview via an outside platform.  Thanks for reading!"
Screenshot by the author.

My bio is longer because I've been on the site for quite some time and my profile is highly populated with experience and reviews, so I include information about my personal projects and my resume and interview policy.


Adding education and certifications

There's a section of your profile where you can add education information. Clicking on the little "+" icon will bring up this pop-up box:


A pop-up box titled "Add education" with fields for School, Dates Attended (optional), Degree (Optional), Area of Study (Optional), and Decription.
Screenshot by the author.

Fill in all of the appropriate fields for your degree, hit "Save," and you're good to go.


Upwork recently began collaborating with Credly, so you can add your certifications from that site by following this guide. It also has instructions for adding other certifications manually, which is a similar process to adding education; click the "+" icon, fill in the appropriate fields, and save.


Testimonials and work history

If you have them, client testimonials and prior work history can be a great way to build credibility with potential future clients. You'll find these sections at the bottom of the profile, below the certifications section, and again, the process is the same.

You can also send an email request for a testimonial to clients and contacts outside of Upwork, which is convenient if you're brand new to the site but not new to the field.


Approach your work history in the same way that you would in a resume; I highly recommend using the WHO method to describe how you contributed to the company or clients you worked for:

  • What was your responsibility?

  • How did you accomplish it?

  • What results or Outcomes did you produce that bettered the company?

Try to be as specific as possible when describing these contributions. Statistics are excellent if you have them.


Setting an hourly rate

Here's an incredibly important part of setting up your new profile: choosing the hourly rate that will be displayed on your page. I'm going to tell you right now that what you're considering setting for your hourly rate is too low - you're used to working with the hourly rates set by companies and corporations rather, and that simply won't work for a freelancer. Freelancers provide specific expertise and high-quality skills that companies can't find internally; as such, our work is incredibly valuable. Beyond that, we need to account for expenses that are included in more standard jobs - we need to pay for insurance, equipment, training, and our own expenses all in one.


Here's a simple formula you can use to determine what your hourly rate should be:

  1. Figure out how many hours you have available to work each week.

  2. Figure out your average monthly expenses, then add a cushion.

  3. Divide your expenses and cushion by four times your weekly hours.

A visual representation of the above steps as a mathematical formula reading, "Monthly Expenses + Cushion divided by Weekly Available Hours x 4 = Your Hourly Rate"
Image by the author.

Your hourly rate should also account for the education and experience that you have in your field. My dad, who ran his own shoe repair business for more than 30 years, once explained his pricing to me in a way that's stuck with me into my own professional life.

"My customers aren't paying for the few minutes it took me to complete a job. They're paying for the years it took for me to learn to do that job, and do it well, in just a few minutes."

Finding and landing jobs

Once you have a fully fleshed-out profile, it's time to start looking for work on Upwork. You can do that by clicking on the Find Work tab, which brings you to the main job board for Upwork.


Navigating job listings

On the main Find Work tab, you will see a list of jobs curated based on the preferences you set in your settings. You'll also have the option to search for work if you want to do something specific. There are five tabs that you can sort through:

  • My Feed, the main job feed

  • A region-specific tab

  • Best Matches which, in my experience, isn't always accurate

  • Most Recent in your chosen categories

  • Saved Jobs which you can choose and then review at your leisure

Let's explore a standard job listing on Upwork, piece by piece. This is an example I pulled from the site.

A screenshot of an Upwork job listing with the different sections highlighted by red boxes and labeled 1-8.
Screenshot by the author.

As you can see, there are eight sections to consider before applying.

  1. This first section is the title, project category, when it was posted, and which regions are allowed to apply. The newer a project is, the fewer applicants there have been and the better chance you have of being seen and properly considered.

  2. The second section is the description of the project. This will give you the details of the work to be done and any special requirements the client is looking for.

  3. The third section has the number of hours the client expects the project to take (frequently wrong, as those who don't actually do the work have trouble knowing how long it takes), the total timeline for the project, the experience level the client is looking for, and the proposed hourly rate range or project budget. It also contains the project type - either hourly or fixed rate.

  4. This fourth section won't be a part of every listing but can help you decide if you're a good fit to apply. It's questions posed by the client to try and learn as much as possible about each applicant's qualifications and fit for the role.

  5. The fifth section lists a set of skills that the client is looking for. Look for jobs that have skills that you've listed on your profile.

  6. The sixth section includes any qualifications necessary to apply such as whether you need to be a part of an agency, the necessary Job Success Score (an aggregated score based on the number of jobs you've taken versus the number of jobs you've completed successfully versus the number of jobs you've been removed from prematurely), and what language you need to speak. It also contains statistics on the activity for the listing including the number of applicants and interviewees as well as the last time the client looked at the project.

  7. The seventh section is where you'll find the application button, an option to save the job for later, an option to flag the job (such as if it's obvious spam or something illegal), and the number of Connects you'll need to apply (more on that in a minute).

  8. The eighth section has all of the information about the client including the all-important review rating and payment verification badge. Try to only apply for work when the client has an approved payment method and at least a four-star rating.

If you decide to apply, click the Apply Now button in section 7. This will open a pop-up with room to write a cover letter and upload a resume or other supporting documentation. Fill in all of the appropriate fields and hit Submit when you're done.


The Connects system

So, to apply for work on Upwork, you need to spend the on-site currency, Connects. This and the fee that they take from your contracts is how Upwork makes its money.


Depending on the plan you choose (basic or premium), you'll get a certain number of Connects every month which roll over for up to twelve months. You can also choose to pay for additional connects; this payment can be deducted from your earnings if you so choose.


Recently, Upwork introduced a bidding feature that allows you to offer more Connects for a job to get your application boosted to the top of the client's list. I've not seen much of a difference between boosted applications and non-boosted ones, so I think the quality of your application matters more than the number of Connects you spend on it.


Invitations and Interviewing

After you apply, the client will review your application and, if they like it well enough, they'll send you a message. This will start the interview process, which is different for every client but usually involves chatting about your qualifications, negotiating a rate, and potentially a Zoom interview if they deem it necessary. This is much the same as interviewing for any other job; the biggest difference is that you have more control over the rate of pay here than you would for a normal interview.


Here are some tips for interviewing.

  • Keep it professional and polite, but not robotic. You're a person, not an automation, so don't be afraid to add a little humor where appropriate.

  • Be firm about your hourly rate. If they can't afford you, they can't afford you, and that's okay. You don't need to negotiate down.

  • Be confident about your abilities. You know what you're doing, so you just have to prove it. Self-deprecation has no place in a job interview.

  • Spin negatives into positives. If you feel like you've got a weakness on the project, it's an opportunity to learn.

  • Always project your timeline as longer than you think it will actually take. Add a small amount of cushion so that you don't end up rushing the work. As a bonus, clients are always pleased if you can return work early!


If they like you and think you'd be a good fit, they'll send over an offer, which will show up in your messages as well as in your job management tab (I've always found it more convenient to look in my messages for my offers, but your mileage may vary). Review the offer to ensure that it matches what you and your client decided, and if it does, you can accept it and begin working.


Clients also have the option to send you invitations to apply. An invitation means that clients picked your name from a list of recommended candidates and decided you looked like a promising match for the work they want to be done. This means you might have a higher chance of getting the job if you submit a proposal. If you end up as a Top Rated freelancer (more info on that program here), you'll also receive invitations from a Talent Specialist who thinks you match the job. Applying to these jobs is much the same process as applying uninvited, but gives you a slight advantage in terms of being pre-selected.


Contracts and submitting work

You go through the interview process, get an offer, and accept it. Congratulations! Now what?


Now you need to actually complete the work, and the way you do that depends on the kind of contract you've entered into.


Fixed-price contracts

With a fixed-price contract, your payment is dependent upon the work you intend to deliver. In these contracts, you can either be paid in one lump sum or in milestones, which are payments broken down over time rather than delivered all at once.


To submit work for a fixed-price contract:

  1. Navigate to the appropriate contract detail page (go to My Jobs, Contracts, and select the right one, or find the client in your message and click View Contract).

  2. Select the active milestone or hit "Propose a New Milestone."

  3. Enter the details of your deliverables including either an attachment or link.

  4. Hit "Submit."

If you're submitting to an active milestone, it will immediately be considered Under Review, and once the client approves it, will enter Pending status for five days before being released to your available funds.


Hourly contracts

For hourly contracts, you'll need to use Upwork's desktop app, which you should be able to download from the site (or you can just click here). In this app, you can check your messages and track your time.


Here's what the app looks like:

The Upwork desktop app time tracker. The contract name, memo, and screenshot have been blacked out. It displays 0hrs 00m for the Current Session, 0:00hrs Today (Sun UTC), and 1:20 of 40hrs This week (UTC).
Screenshot by the author.

As you can see, it gives you the option to write a memo on your time (I use this to note what piece I'm working on or what activity I'm doing specifically), tracks your time in increments of 10 minutes, and takes screenshots so that your clients can trust that you were working the entire time you tracked. These screenshots are taken every 10 minutes.


You don't have to do anything other than track your time; on Sundays, Upwork ends the work week for hourly contracts and bills your client. They have one week to review and approve the hours billed, after which time the money will be in Pending status for one week before it's released to your available funds.


How to track your income on Upwork

I mentioned that your money goes through different phases on Upwork before it becomes available to you. This is where the Reports tab comes in; it's the part of the site that lets you track your income.

Upwork's Reports main page, displaying several open contracts and vairous earnings. The personal information has been redacted.
Screenshot by the author.

The Reports main page has four categories of earnings you can flip between.

  • Work in progress is exactly what it says on the tin. It's the work you're doing right now, with your timesheets for your hourly projects listed first and your fixed price milestones listed below them.

  • In review is the work that you've submitted but which the client has not yet approved.

  • Pending is approved work that Upwork holds for a short time to allow for disputes if they're necessary. Each item will display with the date it'll clear.

  • Available is, again, exactly what it sounds like; it's the money that is available to withdraw from your account. You can set up automatic deposits on a weekly or bi-weekly (every other week) basis.

In the long term, if you need a record of your earnings for your taxes, banks, or other instances where you might normally need your paystubs, you can choose the last option in the Reports drop-down menu, Certificate of Earnings. This will produce a downloadable PDF reporting your earnings for the current month, quarter, and year.


A legal document from July 7, 2021 displaying the author's earnings and stating that Upwork facilitated the earnings without acting as an employer. The personal infromation has been redacted.
This is a old copy of one of my CoE's. Screenshot by the author.

I highly recommend keeping track of your finances through either a personal spreadsheet like this one or accounting software, especially if you have income through multiple methods instead of just Upwork.


Conclusion

Upwork isn't for everyone, obviously. For some, it's set up in a way that isn't intuitive or the payment delays can make using the site as a main source of income frustrating. Being locked into one site can make growing your business slightly more difficult, and the number of scams on the site means that you need to be careful with your applying.


That being said, if you take the time to set up a good profile and learn how to navigate your contracts and earnings, you can earn some decent money and build a great portfolio of work on the site. It's a great entry point for new freelancers and a good way to make money outside of your day job if you want to do that without fully committing to freelancing.


It's a steep learning curve, as is any part of freelancing, but it's worth it if you want to take charge of your career.

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