October 7

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 you may not have considered.

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.

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October 23

Readings, panels, anything: a review of #NYWF13

If you were on Platform 3 at Strathfield Railway Station at 4.57pm on Friday, 4th October you would’ve seen a wild-haired woman launch herself at the closing doors of a northbound train yelling “NOOOOOOO!” to the bemused sardined passengers squished therein. Maybe you would’ve laughed at her chunky backpack bopping the back of her head as she sprinted up the ramp. Perhaps you’d feel a pang of recognition from the times when you had also barely missed a train.

Well haha suckers, the guard opened the doors for me and you had to put up with my stinky, backpack laden self for two and a half hours on the crowded shitkansen*.

Strathfield Railway Station
Strathfield Railway Station, where we lay our scene || Photo: I, J Bar via Wikimedia Commons

This introduction is important because it is pretty much the only way I begin the annual pilgrimage north to Newcastle, the This Is Not Art Festival (TINA) and the National Young Writers’ Festival (NYWF) therein. I believe I’ve only once missed a train (and one time I drove up with friends) and every other time I’ve managed to twist the tight platform change in my favour wherever I’ve lived in Sydney.

Catching the train enabled me to check into the YHA and walk down Hunter Street for the start of First Time for Everything. And thus begins my series of micro reviews of the readings and panels I attended at the 2013 National Young Writers’ Festival.

* Shitkansen: portmanteau of shit and Shinkansen, Japan’s high speed rail network, describing the very slow train from Sydney to Newcastle, a trip that takes longer today than it did 50 years ago. Naming rights go to Marcus Westbury, godfather of NYWF, the This Is Not Art Festival, Renew Newcastle and Newcastle in general.


First Time for Everything
Featuring: Ben Jenkins, Tom Ballard, Jessica Alice, Seaton Kay-Smith, Alexandra Neill, Patrick Lenton, Dan Ilic, Patrick Kelly, Nick Sun

A whirlwind of anecdotes and wry observational humour, this session was perfect Friday fodder. Highlights included details of Alex Neill’s courting method, the ‘scribble and thrust’ (hey, if writing is your forte, I don’t see why not), the revelation that Dan Ilic’s mother is a virgin, and the thought processes that go through one’s head when trying to light a fire in Antarctica ie someone’s bathtub, courtesy Patrick Lenton.

Hi, Heartbreak
Featuring: Tom Ballard, Holly Childs, AH Cayley (I believe there was someone else I’ve missed…)

Heartbreak + time = comedy. These readings were tragedy laid bare but with so much to laugh about I hope it ended up being a catharsis of sorts for the performers. The crown went to AH Cayley, who owned tragicomedy with her tale of stalking an ex on an online dating site only to find out that it wasn’t her ex but a… fuck musket. And 16 other hilarious euphemisms for the profile pic that greeted her when she signed up and handed over her credit card.

(Later that night I met AH in the bathroom at the YHA and told her I liked her reading. She was still in her green sequinned dress. I was in my PJs, flossing.)

Reading the Trolls
Featuring: Dom Knight, Karen Pickering, Ben Pobjie, Amy Gray, Bethanie Blanchard, Lucinda Hearn, Tom Tilley, Geoff Lemon

I don’t subscribe to the definition of trolls being clever disruptors. Trolls live under a bridge, terrorising those who are brave enough to cross it. They are pests that, along with spam, phishing and viruses, negate all that’s otherwise good about the internet. This reading was a lesson in how nasty trolls could be to those who dared cross large public bridges, ranging from negative reviews to exceptional abuse.

The most powerful was Karen Pickering, a feminist target who nevertheless stood proudly and said: “They call me a slut and a bitch as if that’s an insult. I own those words. I do not choose to think of them as negative.” In response she also outlined some of the best correspondence she’s ever received, including from women who said she’d saved their lives by putting herself out there day after day to cop the abuse vicariously.

Fail Better
Featuring: Luke Ryan, Kaitlyn Plyley, Chris Somerville, Alli Sebastian Wolf, Jessica Alice, Ben Jenkins

I was hoping this would be a panel but it was a reading that turned out to be a pretty entertaining one considering it was scheduled on Sunday morning after the Paranormal Formal. I liked Jessica Alice’s take on getting started as a performance poet, and Alli Sebastian Wolf’s tips on how to fail were welcome reminders that it is better to take a risk and try something brilliant and fail than not try at all.

Ben Jenkins capped the session off with anecdotes of failed sketches from his student drama days. If you must fail, he said: “Fail in a ball of glory.” This process is a crucial step to getting better: “It’s important to suck because it recalibrates your instinct. This stops bad ideas before they leave your face.”

Royal Exchange, Newcastle
Royal Exchange, where readings, panels, anything happens || Photo: royalexchangenewcastle.com.au


Fresh & Frank: an Insider’s Look at the Publishing Industry
Featuring: Lex Hirst, Hannah Temby, Bethia Thomas, Nadia Junaideen, Nikki Lusk

A cohort of people who work in publishing telling young writers what to expect of the publishing process—particularly as the market changes—is a very useful panel for any writers’ festival. I didn’t learn anything new (let’s face it, I’ve been to a lot of writers’ festivals) but as a matter of schadenfreude I love hearing the slush pile horror stories. The key takeaway for me was that a writer does not just write; the role of an author is also a matter of brand management.

Lowering the tone: Writing for Kids
Featuring: Eliza Sarlos, Claire Zorn, Katherine Sullivan, Amy Gray

This panel looked at the challenges of writing for a younger readership from a variety of angles: Eliza with an illustrated children’s book on female heroes, Claire writing as an adult about young adult protagonists (Amy Gray: “The Sky So Heavy has been described as The Road but with more gags. I think we all agree that’s what was missing”) and Katherine as a teenager writing for teenagers. I would’ve liked to hear more from Katherine about the censorship issues she’s faced working with much, much older editors but overall Amy Gray balanced the panel well.

I reckon I could listen to Claire talk about her book, the writing process, the editing process and the publishing process in a standalone session. She was very thorough and informative. She can come back next year, please!

Too Close for Comfort
Featuring: Benjamin Law, Michelle Law, Rebecca Harkins-Cross, Sam Cooney, Lizzie Stafford, Paul Donoghue, Bridget Lutherborrow, Patrick Lenton

This panel had an interesting premise: writer types who live together/are related and the challenges and joys that entails. I went because my partner, who is a professional mathematician, also happens to have finished one more novel than me and is also, by accident, an award winning** playwright. It failed to fire as I hoped despite the occasional laugh. I felt the panellists weren’t quite sure what kind of purpose the topic served and a few acted as if they weren’t confident that they were interesting enough to be up there.

I think I gleaned kernels rather than a buffet of insight. Also, it turns out Patrick Lenton is terrible at grammar and Bridget Lutherborrow is bad at spelling “but together we can write sentences”.

** A minor award, but still!

Featuring: Brodie Lancaster, Steph Harmon, Sarah Oakes, Oliver Laughland

An informative—stopping just short of practical—panel on how to make something clickable and shareable, and the difference. People click on things they’re interested in, but share things that make them seem smart and/or funny. The view from the trenches was interesting, particularly as each panellist had a different readership (The Vine, Junkee, DailyLife and The Guardian respectively) and it was nice to know that it doesn’t matter which article you’re proud of, the one that goes viral will always be something baffling.

Featuring: Adolfo Aranjuez, Bethanie Blanchard, Lisa Dempster, Erin Handley, Elmo Keep

A panel on money is essential for those writing for a living or looking to write for a living and this one did not disappoint. The panellists discussed contentious topics such as when to write for free, what ‘exposure’ can do for you, how to set a rate and how to ask for money. There was troubleshooting advice on what to do if you don’t get paid (or payment is late) and this golden rule from Elmo Keep: “Anything you spend time on that someone else is making money from, you should get paid for.”

Lush 4 Lyf
Featuring: Chad Parkhill, Seaton Kay-Smith, Stephanie Van Schilt, Lucinda Hearn, Patrick Lenton

O ho, a panel about booze and writing held in a bar! Drinks in hand, the panellists and audience meandered through drunken recollections with the occasional look at how alcohol informs (or misinforms) one’s practice. Turns out one or two drinks are good for writing and any more starts to detract from work. The panel also busted the myth of boozy prose being the best prose with the revelation that writers like Ernest Hemingway, known for being fond of the bottle, would only write while sober. Also, did you know a lot of comedians get paid in drinks?

Notes from NYWF13


Ninety9 Launch
Featuring: Vanessa Berry

Vanessa Berry is my zine idol. I met her for the first time in the Watt Space Gallery where she’d recreated her bedroom from the 1990s including original posters, knick-knacks, toys and her famous zines. She launched her book Ninety9 by reading a chapter and explained a little about the making of the book. Incidentally, I devoured the book on the shitkansen ride home (it was all I expected it to be and more). Now to turn inspiration into motivation to finish my third zine…

(I later met Vanessa in Sydney before her 90s Tour of Newtown. I went to The Pie Tin for a snack, sat at a table and heard my name and she was there having a cup of tea. Lovely to chat to her about the book after I’d read it!)

Featuring: Steph Harmon, Luke Ryan, Elmo Keep, Amy Gray, AH Cayley, Lizzie Stafford, Paul Donoghue, Neha Kale

I expected this to be a shambolic rant-a-thon about how Andrew Bolt needs to spontaneously combust but it turned out to be a debate, four speakers a side, about whether publishing opinion was a worthwhile pursuit.

Both sides were fairly moderate with the affirmative tempering the topic with a caveat about whose opinion was worth publishing, though Amy made a great point at one stage: “People sometimes need an interpretation of an event instead of a recital of the event.” The team for the negative eventually won, though, because everyone knows most opinions are craphouse and need to die a horrible, horrible death away from public eyes.

Dodging the Saturday social
Featuring: Terry Pratchett, Charles Dickens

I ended up finishing Terry Pratchett’s Dodger (a semi-historical fiction about Dickensian London featuring well, Dickens, but also Sweeney Todd and a few key philanthropists and politicians of the day) instead of going to the Paranormal Formal despite the fact I’d bought a zodiac t-shirt and found my Taurus paraphernalia to wear. Sorry. The next morning, in deference, I had a London Fog tea (milky Earl Grey with vanilla) with breakfast at Sprocket.

Also, here are some places where I had decent coffee: Caffestry, Good Brother, Soul Foods

Zine fair! Party on! Excellent!
Featuring: zinesters, my hard-earned cash

Every year I make this lame Wayne’s World joke and thinks it’s funny until I realise that a lot of the NYWF attendees weren’t even born when that movie came out. And then I feel very old indeed. As I mentioned in my post about Melbourne rituals, zines are pretty much ‘shut up and take my money’ territory. I now have a rule that I have to circle the fair once before actually buying. Unfortunately this year I circled in the morning and then by the time I’d gone to some panels and come back, some zinesters had left (there was a zine about music that sounded interesting, it was being sold by a lady at a table near the entrance so if anyone knows who this is, please put me in touch) and other zines had sold out (How Misogyny Hurts Queer Communities). I did pick up a decent haul, though, including a grab bag that contained What I Learnt from School Sex Ed (one illustration reminded me very much of a flasher I wrote for Seizure, La Vie En Rouge), the entire back catalogue of miniatures and Bastian Fox Phelan’s Tarot.

And that, dear friends, was my #NYWF13. I use the hashtag because I am a Twitter native and hashtags make me feel like there is order in the world. (It also links to the tweets that use the hashtag but for how much longer I don’t know.)

Speaking of Twitter, some shout-outs:

People I knew of but had never seen live before #NYWF13 who are awesome

People I’d never heard of until #NYWF13 who are awesome

People I stalk at multiple writers’ events who are awesome

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October 10

Through NYWFs of times past and what I found there

It’s a ritual that spans more than a decade: the annual trip to Newcastle for the National Young Writers Festival (or NYWF, which I don’t think anyone has attempted to pronounce yet*). I’ve been coming since 2001 (not consecutively, I skipped 2005 because I was gallivanting around the world but I was sad to miss it nonetheless) and I have reached an age (that’s 32, young folk) where the body gives up but the mind urges me on.

View of Newcastle from the Obelisk || Photo: Adeline Teoh
View of Newcastle from the Obelisk (you can *just* see Nobbys Lighthouse) || Photo: Adeline Teoh

I have brought friends and boyfriends to this cradle of words in years past but my default is going solo. All the better to socialise, my dear.

I’m the one who’s terribly dressed in shorts and a pair of cheap shoes (this year Dunlop Volleys, two pairs for $20) and maybe a writerly t-shirt (or an ill-fitting singlet with the signs of the zodiac on it as a vague attempt to fit in with the Paranormal Formal theme) and nobody cares. That’s the best part. No one judges you on your attire. The only no-no is trying too hard and even then if you try too hard in the right direction you’re probably going to be okay. Or no one will notice. I digress…

I’m the one who asks questions like a mature age student but is rewarded with some wonderful insights into the writing lives of festival panellists. I started to think I was losing it when I began to babble about my partner’s predilection for sci-fi at Too Close for Comfort (a panel about writers who are related or partners) but later that night I met Bethanie Blanchard and she told me I always ask good questions and she would know because I’ve asked them at her about three times this year, once at the Melbourne Writers Festival and twice at NYWF.

I’m the one who talks to all the zinesters who have zines that interest me and buys them. I devour a number of them on the shitkansen** home. Only once did I drive up: in a car belonging to a person who is no longer a friend. (The reason I drove was that she was too scared to drive on the freeway, but she also tried to make me drive her around Newcastle instead of schlepping down Hunter Street to get to all the venues.) For all its faults, I really do prefer the shitkansen.

I’m the one who gets to the Saturday night social late and leaves halfway to catch a Cracked Theatre production (or finish reading Terry Pratchett’s Dodger) and then comes in at the end to win the most sober person in the room award.

I’m the one you may spot at a distance early in the morning or late at night, either at Nobbys Lighthouse or up by the Obelisk at the top of the hill.

When I started coming to NYWF I was in my final year of a three-year arts degree majoring in media and cultural studies. I had just finished an internship at Pan Macmillan in both the publishing and publicity departments and was just about to complete my editorship of Soma, Macquarie University’s annual arts publication. I am now a writer with many hats—some paid, some unpaid—but certainly quite rich by the standard of the average NYWF attendee.

But more than anything else, the riches I’ve gained have been social. I’ve benefitted from seeing familiar faces year after year as they’ve become more successful and yet still find time to share their journey with those just starting out, people like Benjamin Law, Anna Krien and Lisa Dempster. I now count a number of NYWF veterans as acquaintances including Lisa (I remember buying Lisa’s Scrabble zine in the early years and then some years ago her book… now we catch up at NYWF and other writers festivals around Australia) and resident Novocastrians Alex (Neill) and Alex (Bennetts) (soon to be Melbournians).

And finally, NYWF reminds me that I must must must write more. ‘Look at all this talent, this energy, this passion for writing,’ says the festival, ‘et tu?’ I’ve yet to finish my novel or my third zine. I’ve yet to sit on the other side of the panel. I’ve yet to get hilariously drunk at the Saturday social. Maybe next year?

Site of the former PAN building, hub of NYWFs past || Photo: Adeline Teoh
Site of the former PAN building, hub of NYWFs past || Photo: Adeline Teoh

* I think it should be pronounced 'knife', where the 'w' in NYWF is silent.

** Shitkansen: portmanteau of shit and Shinkansen, Japan's high speed rail network, describing the very slow train from Sydney to Newcastle, a trip that takes longer today than it did 50 years ago. Naming rights go to Marcus Westbury, godfather of NYWF, the This Is Not Art Festival, Renew Newcastle and Newcastle in general.

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