The 7 inevitable truths about being a freelance writer
There are certain realities you need to prepare yourself for if you’re a freelance writer, or want to be one. This is not about working from home and finding yourself in your pyjamas at 3pm (although trust me, that may well happen), or about friends who think you are permanently available for coffee because you are freelancing.
The 7 inevitable truths about being a freelance writer
1. Editors will ask you to write on spec, even if you have a publication history
Some publications have a policy that first-time writers have to write on spec for them. It’s like an insurance policy – a way of guaranteeing that they don’t need to pay you a kill fee if you don’t deliver what they want.
Other publications may not have a policy, but the editor will ask you to write on spec. If you feel confident in your ability to deliver the story – push back. Say something like, “I don’t usually write on spec – is there something you feel concerned about with this piece?” or “I don’t usually write on spec – can I give you more information about a certain aspect of the pitch so I can secure a commission?”
At times, editors will be immoveable and then you have to decide whether you want to write an article without any guarantee of it being published. This year I’ve been asked to write on spec twice. Once was for The Guardian. I did query whether I had to and the editor told me all writers new to the publication have to write on spec. So I took the chance, wrote the article and it was published.
Another publication asked me to write on spec, I wrote a response similar to the ones above and the editor commissioned me.
Truth 1a. Oh, and another truth about editors - they will move on – every single one of my editors who I have worked with in six years of freelancing is no longer in their original position. It’s something you have to get used to, and at times, you can use it to your advantage.
2. Other freelance writers are the best
Since I started freelancing, I’ve been part of a few writers’ groups. Most are online and they are fab. Having a space where you can ask questions, vent and celebrate is important when so many of us are scattered across different countries, sitting at our kitchen tables, co-working spaces or cafes.
This year I’ve also made a concerted effort to reach out to freelancers I admire like Libby Hakim, Megan Blandford and Lani Goonesena who are also writing full time – I’m interested in the stories they’re writing, the balance of content/copy/feature writing they are doing, and just generally how they’re travelling.
And fellow freelancers make the best colleagues – often they are happy to proofread pitches or articles and offer advice about places to pitch (or avoid). I’ve also recently started passing work onto other freelancer writers. I’ve invited some into 'secret' Facebook groups that I think will be helpful for them, read over their pitches, given them rate information about certain publications or contact details for people responsible for commissioning content.
But it's not all give-give-give.
This year I have benefited from a writer passing on contributor guidelines to a particular publication that I wanted to get published in but couldn’t find any information about their content calendar, another writer passed on a huge story to me with the faith that I could be trusted with the sensitive topic and write about it in a way that would do the story justice, and another writer offered me overflow work when she was frantically busy.
I really believe that collaborating makes us stronger. This is what we would naturally be doing in a regular office environment (and yes, out in the wild).
There's no need to be a stingy freelancer
I know there is some reluctance to be generous with ideas, advice or support because there is a feeling that all freelance writers are in competition.
For me, our ideas are competing, but I’m not.
I don’t have an issue passing on information about a particular publication I write for, because if someone is pitching the same editor as me and they have the stellar idea and I don’t, then honestly, I’m happy for them. The contact details alone isn't going to get a pitch over the line.
4. You need to invest in yourself
Whether you go to conferences, do a course, meet up with more experienced freelancers, listen to podcasts or read books about writing, it’s so important that you are developing and honing your skills. In order to grow your business (and as freelance writers we are a micro-business), you need to invest in yourself.
There are so many opportunities out there that it can be overwhelming to know what to choose. I’ve recently returned from the Melbourne ProBlogger conference, where the speakers really emphasised the importance of making decisions that will ultimately get you where you want to go (sounds simple, eh?)
So I'm now starting to ask myself if a particular professional development opportunity is going to push me further in the direction I want to go. I'm also asking myself if writing for a particular publication is going to meet my goals (which may be learning more about a particular subject, of meeting my income target for that month, or of getting published in a particular magazine or newspaper).
Part of investing in yourself is saying yes to opportunities that scare you. That's where the growth happens. I was recently part of a webinar where I was one of three panelists speaking about being a freelancer in a regional town. We got such great feedback that I was exhilarated for the rest of the day.
5. Case studies and experts won’t get back to you until right on your deadline
If you don't take anything else away from this post, know this - tell case studies and experts that your deadline is earlier than it is.
Know your deadline for when you need to file to the editor, but always bring it forward for when you are finding case studies. If your article is due on Friday, don't be telling your case studies that. Instead, tell them when you need to speak to them by, or when you need their email responses by.
The most stressed I’ve been is when I’ve told case studies and experts my date for submission, assuming they'll do the maths and get back to me in time for me to transcribe their article, and include their comments into the piece. But they don't.
So tell them it's due a week before. A month before. Just tell them when you need their comments. And always give them a date – not ‘at your earliest convenience’ – give them a concrete day when you need to interview or get their answers by. Can you tell I've been tripped up by this one multiple times?!
6. You'll say yes to the wrong things
For a short word, 'no' is sometimes awfully hard to say. At least, it is for me. I recently said yes to a lucrative project that I knew wasn't a good fit for me. Why? Because I was flattered the organisation had approached me, because the remuneration was excellent and because I had capacity.
I'm now doing the project and giving myself a good talking to each time I open the Word document to work on it because I'm not enjoying it. At all.
I knew as soon as I got approached that this wasn't a good move. But I still said yes.
I keep reminding myself that things are only mistakes if I don't learn from them. So I'm chalking this one up to experience and practising saying no.
7. Freelance writing is both tiring and exhilarating
In a regular job you have down times, you have periods where you can ease off a bit and you’ll still get paid. Freelancing, not so much.
But, you can’t be productive all the time.
I’ve definitely had days where I just can’t motivate myself and end up surfing the web or puddling about on news sites, pretending that I’m researching story ideas. On those days, I’ve found it’s best to shut down the computer and take a total break.
I don’t think I’ve ever worked so hard in my life. But I look at the articles that have been commissioned and published, the words that I’ve written and it’s all me (well, apart from a couple where the editor has had big input!). I have been responsible for every single dollar that I’ve earned and there really is no better feeling.
But this week I have nine feature stories due and to be honest, I wondered if I might skip this blog post altogether because I feel like I’m drowning in work.
But one of the promises I have made in this freelance life is to do what I say I’m going to do, when I say I’m going to do it. And let me tell you, I’m not looking forward to the next few days, but I am looking forward to Friday evening when I will have submitted all nine articles.
So on Friday evening, think of me and raise whatever is in your hand because hopefully, with a little luck and perhaps a few tears, the articles will all be submitted.
And then it starts all over again on Monday. Yet another truth of being a freelance writer.
What are your truths about being a freelance writer?