Notes for the first-time freelancer
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:
- To be able to write on a variety of topics
- To be able to choose clients
- 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:
- Time management
- Negotiation skills
I’d also say the following attributes are certainly common descriptions of my freelancing peers: versatile, assertive, disciplined and reliable.
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.