Monday, May 5, 2014

What It’s Like to Work as a Freelance Writer/Editor (Uncensored)!

I’ve done a little freelance writing and editing, and pals of mine will sometimes ask to “pick my brain” about how the freelance deal works. I’m one of the most open souls around and will pretty much tell you anything unless it’s illegal for me to do so or embarrassing to someone I love (Exhibits A through Z: anything else on this blog). So here you go this is what I have to say about writing and editing on a freelance basis. I’m guessing that some of what I have to say could apply to other types of freelancing, too.

First the caveats.

1. I don’t freelance for a living. You’re better off asking someone who does. I should qualify anything I have to say here by letting you know that I do not freelance full-time, nor do I have any desire to do so (for reasons that I’ll go into more detail about below). I acquiesce to taking on the occasional shorter-term project when I have time to do so in the evenings and on weekends, and I say no to stuff if the thought of doing it stresses me out too much. These days I hardly ever do any freelance work because I’m lucky to have a very good full-time job in addition to being married to a guy who is a paragon of financial prudence and responsibility.

However, if you’d like to make a go at freelancing full-time
it can be done. I have a friend who’s an absolute rock star when it comes to things like networking and building her brand, and she seems to attract new clients like moths to a flame but she works hard at this aspect of the job. I don’t really do any of that frankly, I have no desire to spend a lot of energy on that stuff but if you contact me privately (anyone reading this blog will know how to do that) I can probably put you in touch with her, and perhaps she can share some of the secrets of her networking mojo with you.

2. If you want to freelance full-time, not just on random evenings and weekends for supplemental pocket change like I do
you will need to be a rock star when it comes to things like networking and building your brand, too. If you’re like me and even the word “networking” gives you the unholy heebie jeebies, you’re probably better suited to working full-time for a company or organization that does most of that image-management and client-acquisition stuff itself. If you’re like me, and you just want to shut up and writefreelancing is probably not for you. There are those who love to hustle, and then there are the rest of us.

3. You have to be prepared for a “feast-or-famine” work cycle. This is true especially if you’re just starting out, and is possibly less true if you’re like my aforementioned friend and have a nice stream of regular clients. As a freelancer, you’re not paid to be on anyone’s staff, and you’re not paid to simply be available (i.e., no lazy days when you’re feeling “off” or there’s a momentary lull in assignments and so you spend your day reading Harry Potter fan fiction on the Internet but get paid your normal salary anyway).

As a freelance writer or editor, you’re paid for the work you do, period. This work is often done on a piecemeal basis, and those pieces might be tiny or they might be giant. While working on longer-term freelance projects, I’ve had days on which I was honestly working a solid eight hours or more, starting at 8 or 9 a.m., working through lunch, and stopping around 6 p.m. when my husband came home for dinner. I’ve also had days on which I answered maybe one work-related question via e-mail, not even (what I’d consider) a billable hour’s worth of work.

If you’re in decent-enough financial shape to have money coming in at highly irregular intervals and in wildly varying amounts
freelancing might work out for you. In my experience, this is usually the case for people with exceptionally supportive family members or significant others (with a few rare exceptions, including the rock-star pal I mentioned above, who is also a single mom).

4. Sometimes it feels very easy to be a freelancer
so easy that it feels as if you’re getting away with something. The truth is that if you’re a reasonably mature and professional adult who has a basic grasp of etiquette and can type an e-mail in which most of the words are spelled correctly and not dissolve into hysterical giggles when you have to talk to a client on the phone, you can probably handle freelancing, even if just for a handful of small clients. This stuff's not radically different from the survival skills you'd need in any office environment. Unless you’ve lived all your life in a barn underneath a rock at the bottom of the sea, you can probably do OK. 

The freelance component of the freelance-writer equation is not hard. You do your work, and you do it well. You turn it in. And then you send an invoice, and then you (eventually) get paid. The only hard part, at least in a technical sense, is just keeping track of how much people owe and pay you, and then reporting this amount on the proper form when it’s time to do your taxes. (It’s the 1099-MISC form you’ll need; the “MISC” stands for “Miscellaneous Income.” If you always file your taxes via TurboTax like I do
I had to Google this just now, but there appears to be a way to simply enter your 1099 info online when you do your other tax stuff. Don't quote me on this, but I'm fairly sure you will not need to buy an envelope and a stamp, because good lord, who uses those anymore?!)

Oh, and you’ll need to gird yourself for when a good chunk of what you make comes out in taxes (duh, just like all jobs). Also, you’ll want to find a basic template to use for invoices
just do a Google Images search and a bunch will show up. Even this administrative junk is really not all that hard.

A word of caution about how made-in-the-shade the freelancer life might seem at times: I know people who’ve quit their day jobs and embraced the anointed “freelancer” title (again, often with the not-always-publicly-
acknowledged financial support of a family member or spouse), and I’ve seen some of these people fall into the dreaded smugness trap: “You guys! I slept in today, and am sitting here at the world’s most charming café with my laptop and my dog my ‘office’ for today, ha ha in jeans on a Monday, with no boss looking over my shoulder, making my own schedule! How has the rest of the world not caught on to how genius this is?! I pity the poor office drones shackled to their fluorescent-lit cubicles and toiling away in soulless corporate drudgery.”

Please don’t ever say something like this. I beg of you. Don’t make me come smack you.

Yeah, it’s great to be sitting there working at home in your pj’s, playing music and singing along, maybe going to the gym or taking a nap at some point during the dayjust because you can, because the Man isn’t monitoring your every move.

But the fact that most people don’t freelance doesn’t mean it hasn’t occurred to them that pajamas are more comfortable than blazers, or that home is a nicer place to be than an office that they have to commute to. There are many reasons to work for the Man, including…

5. If you freelance, you will pretty much have to take care of all your own benefits. This means finding yourself some health insurance and paying for it on a regular basis, unless your folks or spouse have you down as a dependent. This means taking what is essentially unpaid vacation and sick leave for any days you decide not to work for any reason. 

All that Debbie-Downer stuff said, freelancing full-time can be done, and it can be done well, dagnabbit. I strongly advise people to ease into freelancing at first
I basically tell them, “Don’t quit your day job” and I personally found that freelancing full-time wasn’t for me. I relied on freelance work as my primary source of income for a spell because I had to, because I was between jobs. The cash I was making from freelance work eventually dwindled to the point that I registered with a temp agency just to have a (slightly) more reliable flow of money coming in. So I'm not going to front like I'm a success story.

But if you’d like to ease or jump into freelancing, here’s how I would recommend going about it:

6. Ask your past bosses if they need any help. I would say that approximately 99 percent of all the freelance work I’ve ever done came from former editors or supervisors at newspapers, companies, and organizations I worked for in the past. Your old bosses know you, in some cases they hired you, and
unless they fired you or otherwise didn’t like you they most likely know you do good work and are reliable. With a former boss, you’re not some stranger making a cold call – you are a business contact. You are presenting them with an opportunity to work together again. (See all that stuff I put in italics? That’s some lingo you can use to put a positive spin on the e-mails you send to these erstwhile bosses of yore. Just don't ever say synergy in an earnest manner, because as of that moment you and I are no longer friends.)

7. Just say yes. If you’re just starting out, the old “Beggars can’t be choosers” saying applies, at least a little bit. Someone wants you to write an article about pet allergies in the voice of a cat?* Do it. Your cousin wants you to write a press release about his new rock ‘n’ roll church that meets in a movie theater, and you’re not particularly religious?** Unless something about doing this requires you to violate your principles, go ahead and write it up for them. At this point, your dream assignment might not be about to land in your inbox just yet. Do some work, establish a portfolio of finished pieces you can show to future clients, and think of any and all assignments
from the mind-achingly dull to the ludicrous as practice. (Besides, the quirky stuff makes for good anecdotes later.)

Some people will disagree with me on this. They’ll say to only accept work that you’re passionate about. Hey, if you get offers to do work that you’re passionate about
I’m all for it. But the reality is that you might get some pretty darn corny or less-than-exciting assignments in the beginning or during dry spells, so I suggest you go ahead and say yes to as much work as you can without crossing your stress threshold.

*I have done this for a former employer.

**I did this, too.

7 ½. But sometimes say no. At some point you have to use common sense. Some whackjob sees your freelance-writing site and asks you to pen his biography about how he traveled back through time to train with the Roman gladiators then went on to fight valiantly in the Moons of Jupiter Wars, for a nickel an hour? Say no. No, wait – forward his information to me, because hot dog, that is a book I want to write.

8. Nerd out. Go above and beyond, as the teachers used to say about their star pupils. Write the best little e-vite, the most Pulitzer-worthy press release, this world has ever seen. Offer unsolicited suggestions, as long as they’re genuinely good ideas
this can often lead to additional work. For example, maybe you noticed that part of the client’s website is a little lackluster or outdated, or you have an idea for a cool image or graphic to accompany your text. Speak up. Spit it out. Show them that you care.

9. Don’t undercharge
but don’t overcharge either. I realize it's au courant to believe the memes that say each and every one of us is a snowflake and a superhero and perfect just the way we are, and that other people should recognize and respond to this self-assigned specialness. With that in mind, it’s tempting to suggest prices for freelance projects that are at the higher end of the spectrum. Also, if you lowball it, the client is sure to see you as small-time and take advantage of you, right?

This is true
but it’s also true that some clients won’t use you if you charge too much. They might like you and want to use you but their budget might not let them. So if you want to hold out for the high rollers, that’s fine just realize this might mean taking on fewer paying assignments, or turning down interesting work for poorer organizations who do good things for the general karma of the universe.

One approach is to use different rates for different clients
maybe you’ll do the work for much cheaper (i.e., a discount) if it’s for someone who gives you a lot of solid work on a regular basis, or for someone who’s recommended you to additional clients, or if it’s for a good cause (writing marketing materials for a cash-strapped nonprofit’s fundraiser to help low-income youth, for example). It’s up to you, but I’ve found that it's worth it to take on the occasional small fry. For one thing, doing good work (no matter the price you charge) helps cement your good reputation, and a good reputation can lead to (sometimes extremely) good pay for bigger projects later on. And again: You’re getting practice even if it’s not a dream assignment for a dream rate.

My specific rates?
It totally depends on whom I’m working for
at the higher end of the spectrum, I’ve agreed to create all of the content for a brand-new website for $1,000 (I write fast, so for me this wound up being the equivalent of just a few hours of work). I once spent about a month working on promotional materials (everything from press releases and website copy to social-media messages) for a former employer’s annual Capitol Hill shindig, and during that time my every-other-week income was about as much as I'd made at a previous $40k-a-year job.

However, I’ve also done pro bono stuff for relatives and friends, and most recently I wrote an array of marketing materials for $35 an hour, mostly because it was for a charitable organization and I’m not relying on that income at all (I write fast, so the grand total for my efforts came to $70).

For a smaller client, I suggest charging something in the $25-45 per hour range (I'd go smaller if it’s a project that requires a bunch of hours, so that you're still affordable). Bigger companies and organizations often have a little (or a lot) more to spend, so I feel more comfortable suggesting a price closer to $50 an hour. It’s weird but true, in my experience
folks at the bigger companies seem to respect you more if you suggest a higher rate.

This will probably be more helpful to you than anything I just said:

10. At the end of the day, it’s the quality of your work that matters. Look
you can hustle till the cows come home. You can set up some snazzy website with glitter graphics, or a Facebook page, tweet about your services all the livelong day, attend every networking cocktail party in town and add a trillion people to your LinkedIn network.

But what gets you chosen to do work, and what brings more work in, and what bringsgood work in, is, well, the work itself. If it’s writing work that you seek – can you write? Can you demonstrate, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that what you write for clients is leagues better than the words they could have strung together themselves for free? Can you, to quote the cheerleader movie, bring it? This, as with all jobs, is what ultimately matters.

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