Notes for the first-time freelancer

Notes for the first-time freelancer

freelanceDear writer,

My name is Adeline Teoh and I am a full-time freelance writer. I tap out this missive to you for two reasons: one is to give you an idea of what to expect when you embark on your own freelance career; the other is to provide you with a cautionary tale about the potential pitfalls when becoming a freelancer.

First let me begin by saying there are many writers who make a good living from freelancing, but there are many more who struggle. Sometimes you’re just not suited to the swings and roundabouts freelancing offers; occasionally the market will let you down.

The first step of your journey should be a mindful one, so answer this question: Why do you want to freelance?

The most popular answers are:

  1. To be able to write on a variety of topics
  2. To be able to choose clients
  3. Flexibility of workday

I would certainly subscribe to all three of those reasons, with time flexibility the most prized attribute. You see, I am not a morning person and have always struggled to get into the office (when I had a salaried job) by 9am. Moreover, my most productive writing period tends to occur between about 8pm and 2am.

I’d also add to that list: no commuting and no office politics.

As a caveat, you need to compromise on a few things. There is the potential for financial instability, a need to have (or employ someone who has) business and administration skills, plus a lack of immediate work social life and work-related support. Of course you can work to patch those possible issues but they are more apparent in freelancing than in most salaried jobs.

In addition to your primary skill (that’s writing if you’re a writer, designing if you’re a designer etc), you’ll also need a number of support skills. All of the following are definitely handy:

  • Budgeting
  • Marketing
  • Networking
  • Administration
  • Time management
  • Negotiation skills

I’d also say the following attributes are certainly common descriptions of my freelancing peers: versatile, assertive, disciplined and reliable.

Evaluate yourself:
What skills do you already have?
What skills do you think you’ll need to attain to be a good freelancer?

As an aside to that, I also find that freelancers are usually introverted rather than extraverted (which is not to say anti-social). This is because freelancing, even if you have a desk at a creative hub or similar, is a sole trader business and self-reliance is really important. Speaking in generalities here, extraverts tend to get their energy from being around other people, while introverts generate their own and can lose it among other people.

I know I do better work when I’m on my own, or am at least more productive, even on days when I have the flat to myself versus the days when my partner is home in another room. When I’m on my own I don’t have to think about other people, just the work.

A common question I get from young writers, journalists in particular, is ‘when is a good time to start freelancing?

My short answer to that is ‘when you want to freelance’, as opposed to when you are forced to freelance through circumstances such as redundancy or an inability to land a salaried role. Freelancing works best if deep down you want to freelance, rather than as a default option working towards or falling from a salaried role.

Remember it is a legitimate career choice in itself, even if it struggles to shuck off the stereotype of lazy writers turning in copy only so they can get wasted on goon every night (because times are tough and no one is gifting Grange). Most of the freelancers I know are incredibly hardworking.

A more practical answer to the question, one that will indicate you are ready to freelance, is if you have one or more of the following:

  • Solid portfolio and/or work history
  • Well-regarded subject knowledge
  • Demonstrable skills
  • Good network of people who will give you paid work
  • Decent understanding of what it’ll take to run a business

When I first went freelance, I had worked for 2.5 years at a niche publishing company that had a bunch of custom clients (car magazines, shopping magazines, a tourist bureau publication) and a couple of newsstand publications (a magazine aimed at professional women and one for the art, design and architecture buffs). I worked my way up from editorial assistant/receptionist to staff writer and figured I had a decent number of clippings over a broad range of topics to go forth and freelance.

I had planned to freelance while I travelled: a month in South East Asia, then three months spread over the UK, Europe and North America. I had saved a lot of money for the trip, easy enough when you live at home and your parents don’t believe in children paying board or HECS, and I planned to sell some stories to travel magazines along the way to sustain me and also make parts of the trip tax deductible.

The first year I went full-time freelance (2005/06) I earnt about $10,000… after spending $15,000 on travel and only a nibble on my travel pitches. Luckily I had a buffer of savings (and a roof over my head—thanks mum and dad!) but I had given it a shot and it didn’t work out. So I got myself a job.

I recount this because in hindsight I realised that it wasn’t enough to have a solid portfolio. I also needed to network, I needed business skills, I needed some way to show I knew about a topic or had the skills to write about a subject. The portfolio showed promise but it wasn’t enough.

If you are already working, whether that’s contract, casual, part-time or full-time employment, I would advise you to dip your toe in the freelancing pool before taking the plunge. Build your network of clients (whether that’s editors, communications managers, organisations etc) and put the feelers out before you leave your other job.

The second time I went freelance I started doing the odd job after hours in addition to my (very) full-time job. It was a recipe for burnout, so when there was a reshuffle at work I managed to secure a part-time role. This allowed me to take on more freelance work. It was not until I could see a dependable flow of lucrative work that I decided to become a full-time freelancer.

So if you have a part-time or casual job that allows you to pursue freelancing part-time, you’re in a really good position. Money is coming in, so you don’t have to worry about financial risk so much, and you can build your portfolio with stories you actually want to write, though you probably don’t want to work in a role too close to writing or you could risk burnout.

If you can help it, don’t go into full-time freelance work until you’ve saved up at least 6 months’ income, preferably 12 months. (No, I’m not kidding, cash flow can be a bitch.) Preferably this is after you’ve started by going part-time freelance first so you understand your work pipelines and cash flow etc—more on this later.

Be aware that, at least at first, you will need to have a tolerance for jobs you might not enjoy but take to sustain yourself until the jobs you do want come along.

My next post will be on types of freelancing and the different kinds of clients you may encounter.

This is the first of a series of posts based on a freelancing workshop I gave at the National Young Writers’ Festival on 2 October 2015.

Writing is like dancing

Writing is like dancing

Having spent the better part of the weekend at the Emerging Writers’ Festival (bar the few hours I spent drinking tea while mulling over the fate of Storm in a Teacup in its last days as a cafe) I began to form a somewhat distinctive understanding of the ways in which people regard writing and it has begun to influence the ways in which I frame various debates on writing.

The best metaphor I could come up with was writing as dancing; almost everyone can do it, but not everyone can do it well. Some people do it for fun—in the privacy of their own home where no one will see it, or in a club with others—and some people do it for money. Some do it for lots of money in a way that makes them feel sleazy. Some dancing is art, some dancing is experimental, some dancing is simply moving your body because you can’t think of any other way to express yourself.

How you think of writing has a very strong bearing on how you think about the cuts to journalism, being paid and being published. It will influence your approach to fame, to craft, to exposure.



I am not a great dancer, but I am a good writer.

I write for money.

I write for fun.

I write because I can’t not write.

PayDay #3: Asking for payment

PayDay #3: Asking for payment

So you want to be a writer. A professional, paid writer. Assuming you know roughly what you want to be paid, the next step is actually asking for money. In a world where $0 for words appears to be the default rate, this is no easy task. Tiered systems, where more experienced or prestigious writers command a different rate, complicate things further.

Your first step should be to find out if the publication (or organisation) pays at all. Publications will generally state on their website whether they pay and how much they pay. If they don’t, basic research skills (ie a decent search engine) and some careful questions sent through your network should tell you. There are also some great resources such as the Emerging Writers’ Festival and Hey Pay Up that can give you an indication of whether a publication pays and if so, how much (or the range).

The rest of this post will cover:

  1. How to ask for payment
  2. Rejecting unpaid work
  3. Upping your rate

asking for money

Asking for it

I once went to a talk featuring journalist Wendy Bacon who says she always has the money conversation as early as possible, which generally meant at the pitching stage. I personally don’t think this is necessary if you know that the publication does pay in the range you’re happy with and prefer to bring up rates once the editor has accepted the pitch.

Most publications will have a commission document that contains the brief, deadline, copyright stuff and payment details (including the rate and perhaps how to invoice). If not, I will usually send a reply email that confirms the scope of the work and the deadline and then throw in something along the lines of: “Would you mind confirming the rate?”

If you know what they pay, you can write something like: “I understand you pay ##c/word, can you confirm this is the rate?”

Not sure whether the publication pays? It may be wise to take Bacon’s lead and pitch your idea with all the charm you need to get the editor interested, then mention money in the same correspondence. Bring in your research at this point just to make them understand that they’re not dealing with a chump. A line like: “I’ve had a look at your submission criteria but it doesn’t mention your rates, do you mind letting me know how much you pay?” could work here.

Rejecting unpaid work

Say the editor comes back with “actually we don’t pay”; if you feel you can get paid elsewhere, gracefully withdraw your pitch and pitch elsewhere. “Thanks for considering this article, unfortunately I’m going to need to withdraw my pitch.” You can soften and personalise the withdrawal any way you like; trust me, most editors wish they could pay/pay more and they understand you need to make a living. Don’t be nasty, though, because one day they may receive a budget or edit another publication that does pay so it’s not a good idea to get into the bad books.

If you are approached to write something for a publication and it turns out they meant ‘be a word slave’, allow yourself to be flattered for a moment (after all, they chose you over all those other potential word slaves) and then work out if you want to do it for free or not.

Not? Don’t feel bad about being direct. Freelancer Benjamin Law once recalled being approached to emcee an association awards night pro bono. He wrote back something like: “Thank you for thinking of me. Unfortunately I need to prioritise paid work at this time so am unable to accept your invitation.” The funny part was the association came back and then offered to pay him. So sometimes editors or organisations may just be fishing for free content but may be willing to pay the right person.

Getting a pay rise

Of all the money conversations, I have the most difficulty with the one asking for a pay rise ie upping my rate.

With freelance budgets getting tighter and publications turning to pulp left, right and centre, you’re never going to be offered a higher word rate without asking. In many cases you get what you’re given and there’s no room for movement. Still, even though things are pretty cutthroat out there, it’s sometimes worth asking the question, particularly if you have a good relationship with your editor and if you know there’s a rate range and you haven’t yet reached the upper tier.

As with any pay rise negotiation, know what your value is to the organisation. Do you turn around a story quickly? Do you have expert contacts that no one else does? Is your copy so squeaky clean editors save time on the proofing stage? Build a case and find out whether a raise is possible. If yes, keep in mind two figures: what you want and what you’re prepared to accept (which may be what you’re already getting).

Also consider other non-monetary perks you might be able to angle for in lieu of a raise if there’s no budget to meet your asking price: do you want first dibs at certain stories? Can you renegotiate resell rights? Does the editor have contacts s/he can introduce you to where you might get more or more lucrative work?

Remember: If the publication can pay, it should pay. Never ever do the work or invoice an editor without discussing money and rates first. Good luck.

PayDay Series

  1. Should I write for free? 
  2. What should I charge?
  3. Asking for payment [you are here]