Contracting vs. Freelancing in Large Corporations

Corporate-LadyIf you’ve been a freelance writer for a while, you may be scratching your head and wondering about the title of this post. More specifically, you’re probably wondering why I’m contrasting freelancing and contracting.

Unless you’ve incorporated your own business you probably already know that in the United States, at least, most freelancers are treated as independent contractors. When tax time comes, U.S. based companies who paid a freelancer or an independent contractor over the specified amount (in 2009 it was $600) will send them a 1099 form for tax purposes.

It may seem to many that freelancing and contracting are two words for the same thing. In the eyes of the large corporation, however, what you call yourself can affect whether or not you get assigned to a writing project.

This is important because corporate writing projects can be large and ongoing. A corporate writing project could keep a freelance writer busy for months.

Large Corporations and Freelancers

In my experience, large corporations tend not to use the term “freelancer” to describe their non-employee workers. This is even truer for corporations in a technical industry (such as software companies, telecommunications companies, and so on).

If large corporations don’t use the term “freelancer” much when they hire writers specifically for projects, what do they call their short-term workers?

Large Corporations and Contractors

In every corporate technical writing department I ever worked in, we hired contractors for projects that ranged in duration from several months to close to a year. The contractors worked in-house right along with the corporate technical communications staff. Better yet, when the project was complete we often renewed their contract so that they could work on our next big project.

Right now you might be thinking, “That’s the gig for me. How do I sign up?”

Well, getting on board as a contractor with a large corporation is a great deal different than finding a writing gig with a small company. The fact is that most large corporations prefer to find contractors through agencies rather than hiring them directly.

Using an agency saves the technical communications director the trouble of sifting through what might be dozens of resumes to find a qualified writer for his or her project. The agency does all the screening and sends a couple of qualified candidates to the corporation. The manager picks the one that he or she likes best.

I personally worked as a technical writer through an agency three times, so I know that this is common practice in many companies. In fact, there was one time when I was actually recommended to a corporation by a colleague. But, before I could actually start working at the corporation as a contractor, I had to sign up with that company’s agency of choice.

Large Corporations and Consultants

Another way for freelance writers to break into corporate work is to act as a creative consultant. In this scenario, the writer acts as a professional advisor to the company. He or she doesn’t actually perform the writing tasks, but is called in to offer writing advice to a corporation. At the end of the consultation, the freelance consultant is paid for his or her time.

The freelancing consultant may be asked to evaluate existing materials that the corporation has, or the company may ask for advice on how to set up their own in-house writing department.

The use of freelance writing consultants is more common for creative areas of corporations such as marketing communication departments. However, I once worked in a technical writing department where we brought in a writing consultant to evaluate our existing writing processes and style guide.

If you have a lot of experience and an outstanding resume and portfolio, consulting with corporations can be quite lucrative.

Feedback Time

Have you worked as an independent contractor with a large corporation?

Have you been a freelance writing consultant?

Do you think using the word “contractor” to describe yourself as opposed to the word “freelancer” makes a difference? Why, or why no


6 responses
  1. LIsa Avatar

    I’ve done quite a bit of contract work for large publishers and federal agencies. The gigs were, as Deb describes, usually sub-contracting arrangements with other companies.

    For example:

    subcontracting through a publisher to develop a magazine for the National Science Foundation (and, later, through a production company, also for NSF)

    subcontracting through a design firm to write interpretive materials for state parks

    subcontracting through a tech firm to write digital curriculum materials for a very large educational publisher

    While my early contracting gigs were very much through connections (I know someone who knows someone who…), I am AMAZED to say that in the last MONTH I’ve been contacted out of the blue by people who found me in LinkedIn and through my website and offered really outstanding opportunities with LARGE projects.

    Bottom line: get on LinkedIn, get a website, and show yourself off to your best advantage. You never, ever know who will be on the other end of that ringing phone!


    1. Deb Ng Avatar

      Hi Lisa – Just to give credit where it’s due, Laura Spencer wrote this post. Good tips, though and thank you for weighing in.

  2. Laura Spencer Avatar

    Great advice Lisa!

    LinkedIn is awesome, and from what I can tell, most companies have a presence there.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences. 🙂
    .-= Laura Spencer´s last blog ..My Very First Professional Writing Gig Ever (Looking Back) =-.

  3. Katie Walters Avatar

    Thank you for the very useful advice.
    I will definitely be re-evaluating my “sales & marketing” tools and how I self-promote.

  4. Thursday Bram Avatar

    Laura, you’ve highlighted why my business cards don’t have the word freelancer anywhere on them. Depending on the type of client I’m talking to, I’m a freelancer, a consultant, a contractor or a dozen other titles. But, at least in my mind, I’m always taking on the same projects.

    It’s more a matter of making sure that my clients understand what I do and if I need to change the terms I use to describe my work to get through to them, I’m happy to do so.
    .-= Thursday Bram´s last blog ..Ask Me Anything: Getting Started and Copyright =-.

  5. Laura Spencer Avatar

    Thanks Thursday and Katie!

    There’s definitely a marketing concern here. We freelancers know what we main when we call ourselves that and so do most start-up companies, but to a large corporation the term might not mean much at all.

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