Are you ready to become a full time freelance writer?
Around this time last year I started thinking about going full time as a freelance writer. It was a scary thought – would I be able to earn enough money, would I be able to maintain the energy required to run a small business (which is effectively what you’re doing when you’re a freelance writer), was I still going to love writing if it became my full time job and was I going to be successful?
They are big questions to ponder, especially when the average pay for Australian freelance writers isn't always that great.
Before I started freelancing full time I wasn't quite sure what questions I needed to ask (and answer) in order to feel secure in my decision to earn a living from freelance writing. In retrospect, I think I should have asked myself these four questions below.
Are you ready to become a full time freelance writer?
1. Are you committed to maintaining relationships and building new ones?
This may seem obvious, but 10 months into being a full time freelance writer, I think this is one of the most important things I've learnt.
Freelancing is all about relationships.
Yes, editors will move on, but the nature of freelance writing is that editors and clients need content. So keep in touch with editors who move on and with clients even when the work dries up. But don't just keep in touch because you want to get more work, be authentic in your interactions with them. If you see an article you think they might find interesting, let them know, or if they share news on Twitter or LinkedIn, comment and engage with them.
So much of the work that has come to me this year (without pitching) has come through word of mouth or just from keeping in touch with editors and previous clients that I've really enjoyed working with.
If you are considering freelancing full time, you'll need a number of publications or organisations to write for to ensure that you are spreading out your risk. So if the work dries up with one editor or client, you have others to fall back on.
In October 2016, I was regularly writing for several publications. Sure, I had written for lots of others, but I didn’t have rock solid relationships with those editors. I knew that in order to ramp up my work (and income), I’d need to either get more work from existing editors and/or diversify.
I had some income from some content work and some research work, but when freelance writing was a side hustle, I never invoiced for more than $5000 a month. In fact, I looked back over my monthly invoices for 2016, and on average I was invoicing for $1500 a month.
Not enough for a family of four with a mortgage to live on.
In the months building up to 2017 I made a concerted effort to let editors know that I was keen and available for more work, as well as pitching to new publications. To start, my plan was to pitch more to the editors who knew me and my work, and from there pitch to new editors and potential clients.
Even now, while I have almost more work than I can handle, I'm still reaching out to new editors and sending out letters of introduction because I know that to have financial security as a freelance writer, you always have to have your eyes on the future.
Building relationships isn't just about editors and clients - it's also about having a community (or even just a few people) around you who get what you do. While freelancing is becoming more common, lots of people who work 9 - 5 don't really get what it's like to be a freelance writer. Being part of some great Facebook groups for freelancers, or attending meet-ups for freelancers can really help you stay motivated (and sane).
2. Do you have a financial buffer?
I can’t stress how important this is.
Freelancing can be fickle – invoices get delayed, lost or misplaced, pitches don’t get answered, clients and editors move on, and in the beginning, it takes a whole lot of energy to ramp up to a full time workload.
This is where it’s vital to have a financial buffer in your bank account.
Some people recommend having three to six months worth of living expenses and I think that’s solid advice.
Before going full time my partner and I saved enough money to cover the inevitable flux of income.
And I also made an important decision. Since I wasn't going to be getting a regular pay cheque, every fortnight I pay myself a ‘wage’ out of the buffer.
This means that regardless of whether I made that amount during the fortnight, I have some regularity to my income.
It can be hard to come up with sparkling ideas for pitches or send out endless letters of introduction to potential clients, but there's nothing more anxiety-producing or inspiration-stopping than when you know you need 5 or 10 great ideas or a couple of new clients right now in order for you to eat next week.
RELATED: When I started freelancing, I organised a very simple excel spreadsheet to set up my target monthly income - I credit this with really focusing me on the income I needed to earn each month. You can read about how it dramatically increased my income in this blog post.
Writers have asked me for a copy of the spreadsheet so I've made it available for download here.
3. Do you really want to be a full time freelance writer?
For some people, being a full time freelancer just doesn’t work. It doesn’t make them happy.
The hustle for work, the potential for isolation and financial insecurity don’t always add up to happy campers.
As a freelancer, you’re not only a writer, but an accountant, an IT technician, a boss, an employee, a creative entrepreneur – you’re juggling all kinds of balls at once.
If that doesn't fit with your life right now, there is no shame in recognising that going full time is not viable for you, for whatever reason.
I think we often have a tendency (or at least, I do) to make grand statements about our future path, but those statements often just put more pressure on ourselves. My philosophy has tempered over time. I now tell myself that I'm going to try a new thing and if it doesn't work, that’s ok, I'll try something else.
You don’t have to be a full time freelancer to be a success. Having a part time job for cash flow and security can really ease your mind and free it up for thinking about great stories for the days you do have to write.
Sometimes I’m presented with great opportunities and I often feel as if I have to take them. But just because the opportunity is there, it doesn’t mean you have to take it. Do you really want to work full time as a freelancer, or do you just want to want to be a full time freelance writer?
4. Are you prepared for the lag?
When you start freelancing full time you have to prepare for living a few months in the past.
What do I mean?
Well, pitches to editors may take days, weeks or months to get commissioned (I recently had an editor commission me five months after my first pitch), invoices do not get paid immediately - in fact, if you are writing articles for magazines and newspapers it’s likely that you won’t get paid until at least submission, and more likely, on publication.
That can means days, weeks or months (or even years – yes, I’ve waited over a year for an article to be published) until pay day. At any one time I have multiple overdue invoices. It’s just part of the business. It shouldn't be, but it is.
As you know, I started freelancing full time at the start of this year and it was only last month that my monthly income was comparable to what I was invoicing for.
So it takes a while to catch up and stabilise. You have to play the long game with freelancing, so if you make the decision to become a full time freelance writer, it's likely that you won't really feel as if you're full time (either in terms of work load or income) for at least a few months.
It's like a ball rolling down a gradual incline - it takes a little while to gather speed, but once you do, you'll be off.
Are you a full time freelance writer or want to be one? What do you need to be ready to go full time?