If you're anything like me, you react to headlines like "Make six figures on the Internet!" or "Work online and make $85,000 per year!" with an eye roll and a healthy dose of skepticism. And it's a natural reaction - very rarely in this world does one get something for nothing.

Freelancing online, however, is a different animal. You're not making money through some mysterious click-per-view stats or affiliate links. You're not doing anything illicit. Rather, you're performing the same work you might do at an office for your day job for a virtual client located anywhere in the world. Writing, editing, graphic design, programming, administrative tasks, online research, data entry, audio recording, legal work -- the possibilities are endless. And platforms like elance.com, which brings together thousands of freelancers and clients, put these possibilities right at your fingertips.

You register for free, choose projects that appeal to you, and propose a fair hourly rate. The client hires you, and Elance guarantees your payment. Elance charges a fee for acting as the go-between, but the client pays that. You do the work, get your money, and move on to your next job.

Elance logo

Simple and lucrative, right? So where's the catch? The challenge is, of course, having the client choose your proposal, especially when you are starting out. Dozens of freelancers compete for each job -- and many of them are located in countries with very low costs of living. After scanning a few dozen proposals at $3 an hour for a project you'd love to work on, it can be easy to get discouraged.

When I joined Elance, I was living in one of the most expensive large cities in the United States of America. There was no way I could afford to work for even $15-20/hour, much less $3. But despite my high rates and my lack of prior experience, I soon had as many projects as I had time for.

Here's what I did to get freelance work:

1) Fill out my profile completely

Potential clients didn't have feedback from prior jobs to judge me by, so they had to go by my profile. I made sure to list all of my qualifications and experience, tailored specifically to the types of jobs I was looking for. The colleges I attended, the relevant jobs or internships I'd held, samples of work - if it made me more marketable, it went in. 

2) Write polished, customized proposals. 

Try signing up as a client on Elance and post a job similar to the type of work you'd like to do (don't worry, there's no fees or commitment for doing this). Look at the proposals you get. More likely than not, you'll see plenty of bad writing, generic notes, and overall confusion. Now imagine a friendly note written in perfect, conversational English, tailored to the client and the project. It will immediately stand out. 

3) Apply for the right jobs

This is probably the most important advice I can give you. First, especially when you're starting out, look for jobs that fit your unique skills. For example, I had experience creating sample questions for a particular kind of standardized test. So I looked for projects that required writing sample questions for that same test, and mentioned my experience in my proposals. Think about your current and/or past jobs, internships, volunteer work, classes -- your first Elance jobs should focus on the marketable skills you've gained through these experiences.

Another key thing to consider is the level of quality the client wants. Some clients want the rock-bottom rates, quality aside. I can't even tell you how many clients have invited me to apply for a job that pays $0.50 to write an article, $15 to re-do a college essay, and so on. You can't win here. Don't waste your time. Instead, look for projects where the client wants quality - projects where your higher rate will be a positive indicator, not a negative one. In the offline world, Saks Fifth Avenue doesn't compete with Walmart; forget the cheapie jobs and target the clients that are willing to pay for good work. 

4) Start with a lower rate

Don't charge $3/hour, but consider starting with a lower rate than you'd ideally want to make for your first project or two. Once you've gotten some 5-star feedback, you can raise rates. I raised rates after my first 3 projects and again after the next 3 to reach my ideal hourly rate.


Remember, making an effort up front will help you establish yourself on Elance for the long term. It took me about 40 proposals to get my first job (about 2.5 hours of applying, plus an hour to create my profile). After that, the invitations to apply for more work started coming in on their own. Pretty soon, I started getting requests from repeat clients, and soon had more projects than I knew what to do with! 

I'm not making millions, but Elance provides a nice extra income stream when I have some free time. And, I'm adding diverse experience to my resume. If you want to monetize your writing, design, or other freelance-able skills, try the tips above and build your own Elance mini-empire - good luck!