Thursday, December 11, 2008

5 Myths of Freelance Writing

As more newspapers circle the drain and shed thousands of jobs, I'm not exactly surprised that friends and family ask me in a timid, concerned voice, "Are you OK?" I'm not even shocked when the more bold and (okay -- rude) say, "Aren't you worried that all these laid off journalists are going to take your freelance work?"

Er, no.

So I'm going to take a brief shore break to clear up some misconceptions about what it is that I do in the form of five myths about freelance writing.

Keep in mind that this is told from my freelance life. In January I'll have been doing this for four years to somewhat financial success (I did buy a house -- not a big one -- but still, a house though I still don't have cable). Someone who's been doing this for a month and someone who's been doing this for 10 years may disagree.

I'm also not writing this to discourage people from giving freelance writing a go. I welcome them to it. It's a fun job, and I regularly give advice on how to make a go of it -- or at least steer people in the right direction. But I want anyone considering it as a job to go into it with eyes wide open. Just like I would be terrible as a breaking news reporter, not every reporter will want to freelance.

I've been working on this post for a week, hoping that it doesn't sound to harsh and that I get the tone just right. If I didn't, I apologize in advance.

In any case, here goes:

5. It's easy!
I call this work for a reason. I cringe when people tell me they want to write when they retire (I'm tempted to reply that I'll pick up surgery when I retire). I've been writing every day since I was 18 to make it look this easy. Plus, freelancing is as much about finding work as it is actually writing -- if you want to make money doing it. I don't have a spouse, rich uncle or sugar daddy who funnels money into my bank account so I can keep at this "hobby." This isn't a hobby. This is my job. Every penny I earn comes from this. Also, for the record, I do not work in my pajamas, and I do not sleep until noon (I was enraged for a week when the Philadelphia Inquirer ran a flimsy piece by a new freelancer about how easy freelancing is, accompanied by a photo of a woman typing in her PJs and bunny slippers -- with a caveat at the very end that the writer wasn't making a lot of money doing what she did. Of course not! She wasn't working!) Yes, I work out before lunch, but I'm at my desk at 7:30 am and usually there long past five plus work on weekends. It is not a job with a flexible schedule (and, no, I can't drive you to the airport, walk your dog, or wait for your repairman because, like you, I have to work). This is not a job for the lazy. It's not even a job for the pull yourself up by your bootstraps type. It's a job for the person who makes her own boots.

4. It's all about the writing.
Freelancing writing is a business, and you need business know how to make this work. I spend 30 percent of my time writing. The rest is dedicated to pitching articles, revising, meeting with clients (yes, I call them clients because I am providing them a business service), networking and invoicing. I'll get to chasing money in a minute.

3. You must start at the bottom.
I started freelancing part time when I was 21 and full time when I was 23. I had a national assignment right out of the gate. My motto has always been "the worst they can say is no." I've pitched things I probably shouldn't have pitched -- a feature to Woman's Day, a column to Allure -- and gotten them, even if my background says I shouldn't have. If you hold back as a freelancer, you're never going to get to that next step.

2. We're hurt by this economy.
This could go either way. It's hard to tell how many jobs I could have had if not for tough times. But I'm already in the trenches and people now come to me with assignments -- I've built up enough clients and work over the last four years that magazines and universities know me and will sometimes call me with work (or remember I'm here with a gentle nudge). Don't throw rocks at me, but I haven't been this busy since spring 2007. I place my writing in different fields, so whatever hit I'm taking is softened or even countered by businesses that are growing (e.g. healthcare and education). It's a business tactic -- diversifying my work so that I can continue ahead if a client cuts back or goes under. And I can't get laid off if I'm my own boss.

1. You must be poor/you must be rich.
Two opposite sides of the scale, but I get both. Even though I'm six years out of college, I still get that "wow, you can't do much with an English degree" attitude. Yes, writing can pay if you do it right. On the same note, some folks hear what I make per word in an article, or what I charge as my per hour rate and think I must be rolling in the dough. But freelancers shoulder the responsibility for so many more costs -- everything from office supplies to health insurance, not to mention having to set up our own retirements savings accounts and the fact that if we get hurt/sick/suffer writer's block, there isn't still a check coming to us every Friday. Oh, and then there's that pesky matter about folks not liking to pay us on time. At least once I month I have to bring out the "give me my money" stick. Could you live knowing that someone held your check (and mortgage payment) for a month for no reason? That an editor lied about why you haven't been paid on time? That your payment is held up because, even the editor has revised your piece, it hasn't been 'approved' yet (I've had checks held for nine months because of this)? That you won't get paid on time because someone lost your invoice? That a magazine will pay you half your fee because they assigned too many articles that month and, even though your work is stellar, they have no room for it? Could you deal with having to completely re-write something for no additional fee because a senior editor changed his mind? That, readers, is the ugly and frustrating side to freelancing.

What I'm trying to say is that you can't just put out your "I'm a freelancer" banner and expect work to fall into your lap. It takes time to get going in this job (and even longer for checks to start coming in on a regular basis), and it's hard work to make it a viable small business. Even at four years in, I still feel like I'm working my tail off to keep this going.

But I absolutely love it (except for the late payment part). I love it for more than just the writing -- I love chasing down assignments, securing new gigs and jumping into a new project. I like finding work that interests me instead of someone else telling me what to do. I like that push at my back to keep going, to do better.

I like knowing that, while I might write for 20 different clients, the only boss I have is me. My father has always said that the unknown about my work would keep him up at night. Sometimes it does. But the possibility of getting laid off would, too.

I'll get back to the shore tomorrow. There is, after all, a Running of the Santas on Saturday. And who wouldn't want to write about that?

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Monica Bhide said...

Excellent post. I agree with all your points.

Apryl Chapman Thomas said...

Couldn't have said it any better. Great post!


Jill U Adams said...

You go, girl! I've been a little unmotivated in recent weeks, but your post has me all charged up.

Jenny said...

Great post Jen!

My favorite line: "This is not a job for the lazy. It's not even a job for the pull yourself up by your bootstraps type. It's a job for the person who makes her own boots."

Amen. But it's still the best job in the world.


jen said...

wow Jen.
I was an English major myself (and currently an 2nd year English teacher.) I knew what I wanted to do with my English major but for practical reasons ~ I was a single mom at the time I was in college. I love to write but never thought (still don't) think I could make a living at it. Now, reading your post I know I made the right decision for me. Thanks for all the info ~ makes me feel like I am not missing out - if this makes sense..
keep on doing what you love and love what you're doing!

Anonymous said...

What a great post! These myths not only apply to freelance writers, but anyone that is in business for themselves.

Julie Sturgeon said...

You go, girl!

I've been freelancing for 13 years now, and you nailed it. It's a JOB. It just has a different location and rhythm than reporting to an office every day. But it's still work.

Regan Tighe said...

Fantastic post!

The BIKE Lady said...

Perfect post for me to read this morning, Jen, as I'm working to complete a book project that I worked really hard to get.

Your words say to me that my focus is exactly where it needs to be. I remember you were here not that long ago, and look where you are now. I am reminded today that, yes, there will be more work for me after I finish the book, because I know what to do next.

Thanks, Jen!

Ellen said...

Jen - What a great post!! As a relative newbie, I found it inspiring. You gotta love the chase and you gotta love the work!! And it is WORK! I know a lot of people who need to see this post who think freelancing is the easy way out!

Michelle Rafter said...

Jen: This is spot on.

I think another thing that drives freelancers is diversity. Writers, or at least reporters, generally gravitate to the profession because we're interested in the new and different. Freelancers get that on two fronts - we enjoy working for a variety of clients and on a variety of types of projects and subjects. No two work weeks are the same, or even two work days. Some people couldn't imagine dealing with so many variables that change so often. We thrive on it!

Michelle Rafter
WordCount - Freelancing in the Digital Age

Amber / @jerseymomma said...

Wow, this post couldn't have come at a better time for me. I've dreamed of being a writer since elementary school, but never took the dream seriously until I got pregnant and couldn't go back to law school.

But what I've learned is that it's not for the weak, thin-skinned or unmotivated. Landing the jobs that pay well is quite hard and pitching is such a time suck (and those are hours that I'm not paid for).

Love the advice about "all they can say is no." I hear people complaining all day long on twitter about bad pitches, etc. and it stops me dead in my tracks from taking a risk out of fear of doing something wrong or getting "blacklisted".

But please keep these posts coming because I love your style and the way you do business and appreciate any tips and advice you have to offer ;)

Susan said...

As always, your writing continues to inspire me to be better at my own work.

Mary Lebeau said...

Great job, Jen! You're right on the mark.

Lynne W. Scanlon said...

When I was in my 20's, I also freelanced and wrote books -- successful books by anyone's definition. I found it made sense, however, periodically to "come in out of the cold" and work on-staff for six-months, a year or two . . . or even more -- four years at AdWeek, for example. I filled the coffers, let someone else worry about my health insurance, developed lots of new business contacts and learned much, much more about publishing than the exciting (but somewhat isolated) world of freelancing would allow.

Lynne or WWofP

PS I drifted over to your Web site from Books, Inq.

Kristine Hansen said...

Amen, Jen! I was nodding my head a lot while reading your post.

Rachel Rose said...

Hi Jen!

Your post is spot-on. I may even pass this link along to the people I've encountered who are convinced that I "have nothing to do" now that I've started my career as a freelance writer. (In fact, I've learned that not everyone believes freelance writing is a legitimate career.)

It's hard enough trying to convince non-writers that writing is grueling, exhausting work. But, it's even harder to convince them that making a living out of writing takes skill and business acumen! (BTW, I've also experienced the 'What can you do with an English degree?' question... Arrrrggh!)

I'm new to the freelance world, having started my career in television news. I'm not only learning the tricks of the trade, but I’m also learning how to defend the trade when inquiring (and sometimes rude) minds want to know.

Thanks for the post! :-)


Andrea Q said...

Excellent post! Thank you for sharing the "inside story."

Betty and Boo's Mommy said...

Excellent post, Jen!

--Deb said...

Fabulous, fabulous post. I wish I had something to add, but ... what else is there to say? (grin)

Daphne said...

Jen - what I love about your post is not just that it's all so very true and that you captured it all so succinctly but that the enthusiasm and energy you have for your work.

Ted said...

Nicely said. Goes as well for freelance directing, acting, painting...fill in your art here. Knowing your business as well as your craft is, indeed, essential!

3centsworth said...

What a motivating piece!

Sara Aase said...

Thanks for #3, a reminder to be bold! Besides the PJs, my favorite myth is that this is the perfect career for people with kids. Because I can just write while they fend for themselves! Enough pictures of people at a keyboard with a kid in their lap. That works for about 30 seconds.

localocean said...

The best part about all of this is that the shoes match the gold lame dress.. perfectly!

tootie said...

Neat post! I've wanted to get into freelancing, and I appreciate the honest look at it.

Gina @ Six in the Country said...

I started my writing career as a freelancer. Yes, it is hard. Impossible, no! I started by calling newspapers around my small community and asking if they needed stringers. I wrote anything and everything I could for about a year. I loved it, but then my favorite paper to work for offered me a full time job, making much more than I could as a freelancer. I also still write for others, on the side. Although I left that job, they wanted me enough to lure me back a year later.

Writing is work. Hard work! Thanks for the honest perspective!

Anonymous said...

So glad I found you via rocksinmydryer.

Thanks for honesty.

I'm still an aspiring writer.... I'm thankful for your words as they remind me to keep at it and that it is indeed hard work. I refuse to give up. However, I need to quit slacking and put forth more effort.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing insight on a working freelancer's life. Posts such as this provide quality information, realistic expectation, and a heavy dose of reality to those wanting to write.
I organize a writer's group, and often find new members filled with enthusiasm but also misconceptions on the writing business.
Thank you for this great post.

Karl Rohde said...

I have been an IT consultant for 15 years, most of them self employed.

It's refreshing to see someone else experiencing the same issues I constantly encounter, but in a different industry.

Great piece, and here's to a great 2009 - the doom sayers can go away ;)

Anna said...

Great post - I'd love to see more tips on your #5. Especially the part about people expecting you to be available all the time for them. I'd like to hear how other writers handle the family/friend demands that are harder to put off than ignoring the telemarketer phone calls.

Sanjay Nair said...

Fantastic Post Jen. Got me motivated to write something on the same lines.

Will browse through the rest of your site now!


Kristen said...

What an excellent and informative post. Thanks for sharing your expertise!

Egy Azziera said...

There is an amazing amount of people who want to become freelance writers in the belief that it'll catapult them into a world of freebies, glamor, job security and celebrity friends. I hate to break it to you but whoever told you this is lying.

Wildwood Crest Hotels said...

I could not have said it any better. Great post!

Matthew said...

I love this! I work as a web developer and have discovered that finding freelance jobs can be 50% of the business.