People fantasize about freelance life — no boss! no meetings! no cubicle! no commute!
Also — no steady income! no security! no workday!
One great pleasure, though, is disappearing when we can find the time and money to do so.
So we’re off to Jose’s hometown, Santa Fe, New Mexico, my first visit there in 20 years, right after we met.
We’ll visit childhood friends, hike, get a massage at 10,000 Waves, play golf.
Jose just finished photo editing for the U.S. Open, held in Pebble Beach, California — sitting in the hallway of our one-bedroom New York apartment. His workday stretched from 7:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. for a solid week. I don’t know where he gets the stamina!
I’ve spent the past week pitching a lot of stories, all of them to new-to-me markets, and now await (I hope) a few assignments to come back to.
In American life, workers feel lucky to even get two weeks’ paid vacation, while Europeans are accustomed to five. Working freelance, we generally take five or six weeks, although three-at-once is the most we can do because of Jose’s work.
Two of my favorite journalism assignments in 2018 involved a six-hour drive from my home in New York to farms in Quebec, near Montreal. I worked in French and learned a lot, quickly, about agriculture, thanks to Messieurs Bachand and Bousquet.
A city girl, I’ve never lived on or worked on a farm, but I love one farming concept deeply — the fallow field.
The field left to recharge, empty, after being over-planted.
Welcome to my brain!
I started writing for a living as a full-time undergraduate at a demanding university, juggling term papers and exams with assignments for national magazines and newspapers.
I didn’t take a break until I was 30, completely worn out and — very fortunately — financially able to do so for three blissful summer months while living in a small town in New Hampshire.
I haven’t written much lately.
Many people dream of “being a writer”. The part often overlooked is the tremendous hustle required to sell that work.
I send out pitches for stories to various editors — five last week, three this week — and wait for replies, whether a paid/work/yes or a no…meaning more pitching and still no income.
I look daily for story ideas and, with some, do initial unpaid pre-reporting to see if there is a saleable story; one I’ve been chasing for six months and which (yay!) prompted an immediate “I’m intrigued” reply from an editor I’m dying to write for.
My latest book proposal is now with two editors at major New York City publishers, so I also await their decisions. I may apply for another fellowship, the application due June 26.
It’s been eight years since Malled was published.
I’ve recently attended two local networking events, as I’m long overdue getting out to meet local businesses that might be able to use my writing, editing, blogging and coaching skills. I enjoyed both events, but whew! It’s also tiring being charming to strangers.
Instead of writing all the time, I’ve been reading a lot (even fiction! Station Eleven, by fellow Canadian-in-NY Emily St. John Mandel), and going to the gym and shopping for some new summer clothes for a June vacation in Jose’s hometown, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
It’s disorienting to write less, mostly because that’s where the money eventually comes from!
But I’ve also been coaching other writers (details on my Welcome and About pages here), a nice income-producing break from word production.
This summer has meant dodging endlessly between various doctors, hospitals and offices, so the time and energy I’ve had for making a living has been limited.
Some of what I’ve been up to:
— Tried again to see if there might be a staff writing job for me at The New York Times, since there’s a new editor on a section that could use my skills. I got a nice, quick reply so we’ll see if it turns into anything more serious.
— Twice revised a 1,000 word profile of a French farmer, working in French, to insure accuracy.
—- Found/interviewed 11 people for a 1,500 word story about how fitness has become something aimed largely at the affluent. Editors, both of them new to me (always a nervous moment) both liked it a lot.
— Pitched a story set in British Columbia to a Canadian business magazine (no decision after 3 weeks.)
— Invited to a conference in northern Ontario, decided to head up for a break.
— Pitched two ideas to Amtrak’s magazine, which had asked for pitches. Twice. Crickets.
— Sent an LOI to someone who does content marketing, (the only source of true income now for writers), and got a quick, positive reply but no immediate work.
— Checked in with an Atlanta editor, (thanks to a friend’s referral), to see if she’s got anything. Stay tuned, she tells me. (Again.)
— Took a story killed by the Times (which cost me $500 in lost/expected income) and re-framed it as a pitch to a business magazine. Three weeks later, still awaiting an answer after an initially positive reply.
— Pitched a story about an unusual Canadian arts program to The New York TimesMagazine (twice); no answer.
— Met with editor of a brand-new website focused on people in their 50s and 60s, and chatted over lemonade about story ideas. We hit it off, and I hope to produce two stories a month for her.
— Was interviewed twice for a job as editor in chief of a small weekly newspaper in a very wealthy town in my county. Very odd experience! We decided, cordially, this was not a fit for me.
— Pitched/wrote/revised a story for The New York Times about one specific element of my recent medical experiences.
— Got a surprise assignment to interview the new coach of the New York Rangers hockey team, whose offices are a 10-minute drive from my home. Met him on a Wednesday and turned in 1,200 words by Friday morning.
— Reading a book of letters written by Martha Gellhorn, one of the 20th century’s best female journalists and war correspondents, (and one of Hemingway’s wives.) She knew everyone, and many of her letters are to her good friend Eleanor Roosevelt. In 1938 she was paid $1,500 by Collier’s magazine for a story — the equivalent today of $26,000. I get paid $1,500 today — 80 years later! — for some of my stories — and my monthly health insurance alone costs $1,400. Do that math.
— Joined a new-ish online writer’s group, StudyHall, which has proven surprisingly civil, friendly and extremely supportive of one another.
— Blogged, as usual.
— Read, as usual, the NYT and FT seven days a week, plus several books, plus NPR, plus magazines, (mostly for leisure, like Vogue and House Beautiful and Bon Appetit.)
— Send out four LOIs (letters of introduction) to what I hoped might become new clients. Crickets!
— Applied for staff jobs at the L.A. Times, The Independent, Globe & Mail and a local business newspaper. The Globe responded quickly and kindly, (I used to work for them), but, as I suspected from the start, will likely send someone down from Toronto as a plum gig. Applied a while back for a reporting spot at ProPublica — 700 resumes received. Form letter rejection.
— Helped a younger writer (who pays me for it!) navigate some tricky bits of freelancing.
I’ve been working full-time freelance, alone at home, since 2006. You’ll notice how little time I actually spend writing –– compared to marketing, follow-up, networking and admin.
I sure don’t sit around awaiting my muse — the UPS guy, maybe.
To the post office, sending off, sometimes via snail mail, LOIs, aka letters of introduction. Their goal is to introduce me to a new-to-me editor or client, enticing them into working with me.
The return rate, i.e. paid work, isn’t terrific, but it must be done. I sometimes enclose a copy of my latest book, along with my resume, letter and business card. Sending one package from New York to London (I sent two), would have cost me $22 (!) each. I argued with the postal clerk and got it reduced to $10.
That’s a business deduction.
I have a new ghostwriting client, for whom I produce two blog posts a month. Staying on top of invoicing is key, since some clients take forever to pay, even “losing” your invoice. Working carefully, I now avoid most deadbeats, and have used lawyer’s letters when needed to successfully get the payment I was owed.
I teach writing classes here to professional designers — I attended school here in the 90s
The necessity of freelance journalism, for all but the fortunate few, is pitching — i.e. coming up with ideas and finding markets to pay you (well) for producing them. That also means sifting through dozens of email pitches from PR firms, most of them completely useless and of zero interest to me.
Pitched two ideas to a university alumni magazine, one of which piqued their interest, but hasn’t yet produced an assignment.
I find most of my ideas through pattern recognition — noticing cultural, social and economic trends and offering an idea when it’s timely and in the news. Stories without any time hook are called “evergreens”, and are harder to sell.
Pitching also means plenty of rejection. A health magazine said no to three ideas, (asking for more.) A psychology magazine ignored my pitch for a shorter essay and asked if I’d write it at twice the length — but insisted I show clips (published work) just like it, which I don’t have. An editor I’ve already worked with hasn’t replied to two more pitches.
Pitching also means following up, dancing the razor’s edge between being annoying (too soon, too often), and being ignored.
We rely fully on my income as well, so I can’t just sit around hoping for weeks on end.
Offered a brief, easy assignment, into the city to cover an event for a trade magazine in another state. They offered one fee. I negotiated it 30 percent higher.
Negotiation is always nerve-wracking, but it’s essential. Many women writers fail to ask for more, and end up broke and annoyed because we don’t.
Have a phone meeting next week with a new-to-me editor in Canada, so need to read her website’s work carefully to make sure my ideas are a potential fit.
I’m heading to Europe in June for four to six weeks, and already have several feature ideas I want to pitch, so I can write off some of the expenses, dig deeper into that country’s culture in so doing and earn some income to offset the costs of the trip.
Without some solid data and proven contacts, it’s harder to sell a story, at least one worth $5,000 or more, a very rare bird to catch these days.
I’ve already found an interpreter in Budapest, so that’s a start.
Have been chasing a PR official in Europe on a story for more than three weeks, my deadline long past. The editor is easy-going so we can wait, but the income I relied on for a finished/accepted/invoiced story? That’s now weeks away.
My favorite activity. A new blogger hired me to coach him, and we worked via Skype from my apartment in suburban New York to his European home, a seven hour time difference.
I also worked with a four-person team at a local art film house to help them better shape their pitches and press releases to journalists.
Two newspapers every day. Twitter newsfeed. Social media. Books. Magazines. Websites. (Plus NPR, BBC radio.)
If I’m not reading constantly, I don’t know what’s going on and could miss something crucial I need to know to pitch and write intelligently.
The least of it!
Blogging keeps me writing between assignments.
Without which, nothing happens.
Connected with an editor in Canada (thanks to a referral.)
Connected with a Toronto entrepreneur (we met through Twitter) with whom I hope to do some long-distance coaching for his clients.
Connected with a fellow writer I met last spring at an event of fellow writers who all belong to the same on-line group — she might have assignments to offer.
Spoke to a freelance photographer in California about writing and editing her new website.
Spoke to a PR exec in Seattle about possible blog writing and a white paper.
She and I met for the first time last summer through a group of women writers who joined an on-line group and some of whom have trekked out to lunches and dinners to meet one another face to face. So fun!
One of the toughest challenges of working freelance — i.e. with no fixed income or employer — is how lonely it can be. Many of us, as I am writing this blog post, are at home in our sweatpants or gym clothes. Maybe in a co-working space (which costs precious income) or in a coffee-shop or library for a break from midwinter cabin fever.
So making a new friend, and someone with whom you can really share the ups and downs of our field, (and frank details of the places we’ve worked or want to work or think we want to work) is a joy.
It’s also the only way to make a living at this level of the game. Sarah and I are peers, with credentials and experience. We’ve won prestigious fellowships and traveled the world. We’ve taught writing at New York City colleges.
We’re still figuring it out.
When you work for yourself and have creative ambitions — like winning a fellowship (or another and another), or a writer’s residency or selling a book (or your second or third or eighth) — you’re constantly juggling short-terms needs for income with longer-term needs for growth and learning.
How many conferences to attend? Who’s speaking? Who will I meet there? Is it worth it?
How much time can I afford to “waste” on a passion project for whom no one has assigned an economic value (yet)? When will I sell it and to whom? What if no one ever buys it?
Should I take (keep) a part-time job to stay afloat? For how long? Doing what?
That same night I attended an event designed to teach me how to better make use of LinkedIn. It was a firehose of data and exhausting, although I met some nice new people and learned a lot.
I’m also in the middle of pitching several stories to several outlets and fielding requests for more details on them — among them The Wall Street Journal and a major national magazine I don’t want to name yet.
I feel like the hotel clerk in an old-fashioned hotel, the kind with real metal keys and numbers engraved on them, or a sorter in an old post office, popping letters into the right boxes. Deciding who to pitch, when and why is an art, not a science, and it requires skill, nerve, research — and self-confidence.
Rejection is normal.
If you want to crawl into bed in the fetal position when your work is rejected, cowboy up! Not an option.
Figure out what didn’t work and move on.
Freelancers live like Sheherazade, spinning tale after tale after tale to save our lives, to simply earn enough income to pay the mortgage/rent/groceries.
We also teach, online and in person; I offer individual webinars ($150, skedded at your convenience) and coaching at $225/hour. Details here!
Our health insurance bill recently jumped — from an impossible $1,500 per month to a WTF $1,800 month. So this week I’ll also be ditching a plan I like and trust, but which is killing us financially, for one I hope will give me what I need most.
Peace of mind.
I’m also trying to figure out what to do about a book proposal I wrote in December but is stalled; my agent isn’t happy enough with it to send it out. And no one wants to read a proposal without an agent’s imprimatur.
I’m also endless revising and fact-checking my latest story for The New York Times, for whom I’ve been writing for many years; some clips here.
Readers have no idea how heavily edited — and questioned and challenged, by multiple tough editors — each of their stories is. It takes a lot of time and energy, even after I interviewed eleven sources and, oh yeah, wrote the story.
Next month, I’ll once more be a finalist judge for Canada’s National Magazine Awards; I won mine in 1998. I speak fluent French, so some of them might be en francais.
That’s another way we give back to our industry, an honor when asked.
In addition to my daytime work, this week includes a variety of social and professional evenings out as well.
One is an event where an editor I need to meet face to face, (and who I’ve already written for), is speaking. Another is a new-to-me market, invited by a friend who’s already well-known to them and who generously asked me along.
The third is a retirement party for a friend, colleague and neighbor who’s leaving The New York Times.
On my last day of work at the American ad agency, something strange happened: I was smiling. A weight had been lifted, and I felt like a prisoner about to be freed. And despite my fear that no one would hire me, I soon found a job in Zurich doing exactly what I had been doing in the United States: copywriting for an ad agency.
My job title was the same, but I worked part time — and for a higher salary than I had received working full time in the United States. When I was politely asked to work additional days beyond the ones specifically mentioned in my contract, the agency paid me for that extra work.
Not only that, but instead of two weeks of vacation, I had five. And I was encouraged to use every single day of it, guilt-free. Once, when I went to Spain for “only” 10 days, my Swiss colleagues chastised me for not going away long enough.
Instead of worrying about working weekends and holidays the way I had in the United States, I planned trips like the rest of my colleagues: Paris. Prague. Zermatt. For the first time in my working life, I was living, too. Because of this, my creativity flourished. I had both time and money, and because I had real time off, I was more productive when I was at work. In my spare time I wrote blogs and essays and I swam in the lake.
I’m firmly and decidedly out of step with American values in this regard.
In 2015, I’ve spent 3 weeks in Europe in January, another three weeks in June in Ireland, 10 days in Maine and 10 days in Ontario.
Because my husband and I are, as of this year, now both full-time freelancers, (he’s a photo editor and photographer, I write for a living), we can work from anywhere there’s wi-fi and can take as much time off as we can afford.
We’re not wealthy and we live a fairly frugal life, with a small apartment and a 14-year-old car. Nor do we have the financial responsibilities of children or other dependents.
We’ve had terrific careers and won awards and the respect of our peers and while we still need to work for income…it’s time for us.
I’m not fond of the word “self-care” but it’s a concept I believe in strongly, especially for women who are socially encouraged to give everyone else their time, energy and attention — but often feel conflicted or guilty when they stop long enough to take equally thoughtful care of themselves.
Self care can take many forms:
— massage, manicures, pedicures, facials
— dressing well
— a barbershop trim or shave
— regular medical and dental checkups
–– cooking or baking something delicious, especially “just” for yourself
— a pot of tea in the afternoon, possibly with a biscuit or two (no sad little teabag in a cup!)
— drawing, painting, taking photos, nurturing your creative self
I caught up with Gerald Friedman, who teaches economics at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and has written about the gig economy, to find out how this trend happened and what it means to workers and our increasingly unequal society.
Lynn Parramore: How did the shift away from full-time employment to the gig economy come about? What forces drove the change?
Gerald Friedman: Growing use of contingent workers (in “gigs”) came when capitalists sought to respond to gains by labor through the early 1970s, and in response to the victories capital won in the rise of the neoliberal era. Because contingent workers were usually not covered by union contracts or other legal safeguards, employers hired them to regain leverage over workers lost when unionized workers gained protection against unjust dismissal, and courts extended these protections to non-union workers under the “implicit contract” doctrine.
Similarly, the rising cost of benefits due to rising healthcare costs and government protection of retirement benefits (under the 1974 ERISA statute) raised the cost of full-time employment; employers sought to evade these costs by hiring more contingent workers…
GF: Talk of “microentrepreneurs” presents a favorable view of the rise of the gig economy, one consistent with liberal values of individualism and opportunity, even while ignoring the oppression and poverty-wages many find in the gig economy.
There are certainly some who enjoy the uncertainty of irregular employment. When unemployment rates fell to levels traditionally associated with full employment in the late-1990s, however, we saw how workers really feel about gig jobs: they rejected them and the contingent economy contracted.
Given a choice, workers choose careers and jobs, not freelance gigs.
…By removing any social protection, the gig economy returns us to the most oppressive type of cut-throat and hierarchical capitalism, a social order where the power to hire and fire has been restored to employers, giving them once again unfettered control over the workplace.
The American workforce is now one in which an estimated 40 percent of us work with zero safety net, beyond that which we create: (six months’ basic expenses saved, a separate emergency fund, a low-interest line of credit, disability and life insurance.)
Knowing how to survive thrive without a steady paycheck is a crucial new skill.
My husband recently left a secure, well-paid job at The New York Times.
But, after 31 years there as a photographer and photo editor, having done almost everything one can do in a career, (including helping them win a team Pulitzer Prize for their 9/11 coverage), and offered a healthy buyout package — which gave us the requisite six months’ of expenses cushion of savings –– he decided to leave a month or so ago.
While he seeks another full-time staff job — which he may not find — he’s discovering how pleasant life can be without a 2-hour train commute, (costing $300 a month), fighting his way crosstown through aggressive crowds and having to book vacation in the first week of January due to seniority issues.
It can be a huge adjustment, no matter how desired, to move from the relative security of a salary that arrives on schedule and is predictable in size and due date to the roller coaster life of the self-employed.
Jose has seen me work freelance since 2005 and knows I know those ropes.
Now he’s learning them as well.
I liked this piece about moving to freelance work from The Guardian — and her realization that giving away your time without financial compensation, even barter, however friendly and helpful — is something no full-time freelancer can afford.
Just because the client is prestigious and/or your bank balance is running low this month, don’t just leap at any offer you get. Is the client a good fit for your skills, experience, temperament? Have you done your due diligence on that client’s track record of payment and ethical behavior?
Don’t say no to what looks like a lousy offer; consider its every possible benefit
The hourly or day rate might be lower than ideal. It might be a low-prestige gig that pays well, or quickly, or both. The gig might introduce you to a new market and possibly expand your skill set, in effect paying you (even if not very well) to learn on the job.
Never agree to a gig without a clear, written agreement as to the scope of work
One major non-profit recently advertised for a photo editor freelance job, with a long list of responsibilities — with no clue how many hours a day or days a week or weeks per month they were offering. They just kept asking “What’s your day rate?” Nope. Avoid low-balling yourself before you know what they expect in return.
Never agree to a gig without a clear, written, signed agreement/contract
Things go south: your editor quits or gets fired; the budget is suddenly cut; your client hires a new assistant who hates everything you produce. You need protection. Spell out all your responsibilities, all their needs and the dates when you will be paid. It must be signed by both parties.
Everything is negotiable — including your decision to turn down a gig or leave one mid-stream
No one, ever, wants to walk away from a (well) paying client. Sometimes, though, it can be a wise choice to politely recuse yourself from a quicksand scenario where one client is sucking up all your time, energy and patience. Life is too short. (See: emergency fund.)
Negotiate! When someone offers you X fee, always ask for more. It’s been statistically proven that men almost always do, and often get it, while women just say “Thanks!” and get taken cheaply.
Your best sources of work are referrals from people who know, like and respect you and your work
It’s completely counter-intuitive that the fellow professionals with whom you’re now competing for freelance work can be, in fact, your best sources of good opportunities. In an office setting, you can face politics, nepotism, favoritism, seniority, sexism. For every ally and work-wife/husband, you might face a Game of Thrones-ish power struggle with someone.
Freelance life can offer plenty of stress, but if you have a strong, sturdy network of skilled, smart and ethical people who you help as often as possible! — you’ll never starve.
A ferocious work ethic — even if you wake up at noon and work in sweatpants — matters more than ever now
No missed deadlines! No slacking off!
You are selling your time, skills and experience. Never underestimate their value
Every freelance dollar you earn must now 100 percent fund your healthcare, retirement, sick days and paid vacations. You’re also on the hook for paying the full 15 percent of your income to fund Social Security, (employers usually pay 50 percent.) Boost your rates accordingly.
You must take breaks, both in your workday and your year
Without exercise, friends, face to face meetings and pleasure, you’ll quickly burn out. It’s isolating and lonely to work alone every day all day. It’s also tempting to work far too many hours instead of shutting off all electronics and access to email at a set hour so you can enjoy a full life, not just a new form of wage slavery.
Follow my friend Wendy’s three rules whenever possible as you choose (or refuse) a job:
Is it fun? Will I learn something new? Is it well-paid?
It should hit two of three.
Have you moved from a staff job to freelance life?
How’s it going?
What else would you advise a newbie to this way of working?
As some of you know, I was a nationally ranked saber fencer in my 30s, a sport I took up when I moved from Canada to New York. I’ve been athletic since childhood — competing in swimming, diving, sailing and other sports, and recreationally playing squash, softball, badminton and skiing, horseback riding, cycling and skating.
But working with a two-time Olympian as my coach forever changed the way I think, behave and react to stressful situations.
Having just finished a 15-week semester teaching college writing and blogging, it became clearer to me once more what useful lessons any creative person can learn from competitive/serious/elite athletes, like:
Pain is inevitable, suffering optional
We’re all facing challenges, whether finding clients, paying our bills, drumming up ideas, collecting late or missing payments, seeking inspiration. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and depressed when it piles up, but much of this is — sadly — quite normal. Knowing that others are facing similar issues, and finding solutions to them, will give you a necessary sense of perspective. We all struggle! Some show it more than others. The most successful, though, are able to pick up and keep going.
Your competitors are fierce, determined and well-prepared — are you?
It’s naive and foolish to think your success is going to happen quickly and smoothly. If it does, cool! Champagne! For most creatives — whether you’re a fine artist, graphic artist, writer, photographer, film-maker — it’s a road filled with people every bit as determined to succeed as you are. Possibly much more so. Find the smartest and toughest mentors possible; take classes and workshops to sharpen your skills; attend conferences to see what everyone else is up to.
A great coach is essential
I would never have considered it possible to compete at a national level were it not for a tough coach who pushed hard and knew exactly what excellence looked like — and what it required to achieve. It’s hard to get up to speed if the only people you turn to for help and advice are all working at the same level as you, or below. Aim high!
Practice, practice, practice
I’m amused by people who say they want to write — but never do. Nor they read. That’s a toughie, really. Athletes spend hours watching footage of themselves and their competitors to analyze what’s working and what’s not. Then they get to work on their weaknesses. It won’t happen if all you do is wish and hope and read blogs about other people succeeding. You have to do it, too. A lot.
Your mind and body need to rest, recover and recharge
In a gogogogogogogo culture, where everyone is always tweeting and trumpeting their latest success — a grant, a fellowship, a new book, a big fat gig — it’s tempting to compare yourself unfavorably and feel you’re falling behind the pack. No matter how hard you practice, train and compete, you also need downtime to rest your mind and body. Take a hooky day. Sleep in. Play with your kids/dog/cat. Take in a matinee or a museum show. Pleasure refreshes our spirits. Rest recharges our minds and bodies.
Stamina is key!
It’s tiring to stay in the game, week after week, month after month, year after year. It’s also difficult to stay if and when you’re weary, fed up, hurting from rejections. Stamina — which includes mental toughness — is often what separates champions from also-rans.
What are your competitors doing better — and how can you do so, too?
No matter your creative field, you need to stay abreast of developments. What new skills do you need to be acquiring? Do you need to find a new teacher?
Someone is always going to lose. Sometimes that’s going to be you
Yes, it hurts! No one likes losing and it can feel like the end of the world when you do. Take it as a testament to the strength and dedication of your competitors.
Is this your best sport?
If things are going badly, no matter how hard you try, maybe this isn’t your game. It can be very painful to admit defeat (or what looks like it) but it might be worth considering if your very best efforts keep producing little satisfaction or success.
Working through pain is simply part of the process
We live in a world that focuses all its energy on winning, happiness and success. But we’re all likely to have down times — illness, lost clients, a period of creative frustration. Knowing it’s all part of the game reminds us of that. A pain-free, disappointment-proof life is usually unrealistic…and resilience a key component of creative success.
A few thoughts — I have been fulltime freelance, (this time, have done it many times before for years on end), since 2006; I live in the spendy NYC suburbs. I write for a wide range of publications, from The New York Times to Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, More and websites like Quartz.com and Investopedia. (I also teach freelancing, writing and blogging, privately to individuals.) Samples and rates here.
I won’t talk here about your need to be a great writer or boost your “brand” but the array of other skills you also need to succeed in a highly competitive business.
A few thoughts:
1) If you’re simply not making enough money to meet all your costs, (and save money as well), take on part-time work and make sure you remain solvent by so doing. Babysit, tutor, dogwalk, retail — do whatever it takes to keep your credit score stellar and your bills paid, always, on time.
I took a part-time retail job in Sept. 2007 when the recession hit hard and stayed in it for 2.5 years until I had replaced that income and doubled it (monthly); people (i.e. ego-threatened writers) kept saying to me (since my previous job had been as a NY Daily News reporter)…”Oooooh, I could never do that.” Oh, yes you could. Get over yourself and make the money you need. Your landlord or mortgage company couldn’t care less if their payment money comes from the NYT or from….anything else. And, oh yeah, that grueling, low-status, low-wage job experience became my well-reviewed NF book , “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” and won me a TV option from CBS for a sitcom.
2) See point one — you never know what will happen if you dare to step off the well-trodden and safe/comfy path of: “I’m a freelance writer.” Detach your ego and status anxiety from your income, always. Yes, of course, be excellent, but do whatever work you take on to the best of your ability. Excellence shows and people appreciate that.
3) Do everything you can to separate yourself from the pack. There are thousands of us; one “secret” women’s writing group I belong to online has — (yes, really) — almost 2,000 people who self-identify as freelance writers. So figure out what you do better than anyone or more quickly or more efficiently (not more cheaply!) and seek out clients who really value those skills and will pay you well for them.
I speak two fluent foreign languages, have published my photos in major media, and have no kids or pets and have been to 39 countries, often alone — so I can travel easily and work in other languages. Many people can’t or have never done so. That wins me good work.
4) Be a human being. When possible, get to know your clients/editors as people — they, too, have pets and kids and birthdays and illnesses and surgeries. Send them nice cards and/or flowers. Check in with them every few months, and just ask “How’s life for you these days?” I did that for one editor facing very serious illness, someone who had not assigned me work for several years and I wondered if she ever would again. She did. I would have done this anyway. Your clients are just as human as we are; in other words, create and nurture your professional relationships with care and sincere thoughtfulness.
5) Don’t expect (too) much too soon. By which I mean, get a very clear sense of your current and true market value and work from there. Just because you want to be in a Big Name Magazine right now doesn’t mean you’re ready or the editor agrees. Ambition matters, but realism and a little healthy humility also have value, (says this native Canadian.)
6) Be positive, upbeat, friendly and confident. The economy is still shitty and shaky for many people and working with someone smart, capable and who will not let them down — no matter what! — is appealing to clients, some of whom may, realistically, fear losing their jobs if you screw up.
7) Live as low/cheaply as you possibly can. The less overhead you carry, the more creative freedom you have to take on and do interesting work more slowly — i.e. work of serious long-term value, not just buying this week’s groceries.
8) Reach out for new non-journalism opportunities, every day: online, by phone, through social media, at events. Two of the most life-changing, fun, challenging and well-paid opportunities for me in 2014 came because I simply took a chance and reached out (i.e. cold-called) two major organizations I never thought might welcome my skills. They did and I’ve never been happier as a result. Just because we’re “freelance writers” doesn’t mean we only have to work for really crappy pay from struggling/cheap media companies.
9) If you keep comparing your income to the Big Stars making Big Bucks, you’ll die. Just focus on what you can do, well and consistently. There is always going to be someone making a lot more $$$$ — and crowing loudly and tediously about it. Just do great work!
10) Have fun and take very good care of yourself — go for long walks, alone or with your dog or a good friend. Get plenty of deep sleep, including naps. Go see a movie or spend an afternoon at a gallery or museum. Eat your vegetables! Being a freelance writer can be terrific, but also lonely, isolating and wearying, leading to burnout. This is a sort of job that requires mental, physical and emotional stamina. Rejection is normal. Get over it!
Want to learn more? Want to boost your your freelance income?
A recent survey by the Freelancers Union is interesting — the New York-based group asked 1,100 people what they think of their freelance life — 88 percent said they would not even take a full-time job if it were offered to them.
The report offers a remarkably clear portrait of America’s fastest-growing workforce.
The biggest takeaway: Nearly 9 in 10 independent workers (88%) would keep freelancing even if they were offered a full-time job.
With that level of freelancer pride, no wonder freelancing is booming. Half the workforce may be independent by 2020. Freelancers Union’s own membership is up 410% since 2007 — and the number of millennial members has surged 3000% in that time.
One of the things I find intriguing about freelancing full-time is how differently we each do it.
The basics — earning reliable income every month — never change. We pay the same prices for gas and groceries and clothing as people with paychecks — who may also get raises, bonuses and commission.
But editors sometimes kill a story and sometimes for capricious reasons, which costs us income; it grabbed $3,000 out of my pocket in the past nine months. Not fun!
We only get what we negotiate.
I read Laura’s list and I don’t do several things she does:
— My only time measurements are a calendar and the clock, not the cool and efficient apps she and others use to track their time and rates.
— I use a line of credit when people pay me late, or stiff me, instead of relying on short-term savings, (although I usually keep six months’ worth of expenses in the bank for emergencies.)
— I also have no regular monthly gigs, so I start most months with no idea what I’ll make. I have to pull in $2,000 just to meet each month’s expenses — anything after that buys haircuts, clothes, entertainment, vacations. Nor does it cover costly surprises like last month’s $500 car repair bill or last year’s $4,000 (yes) replacement of the head gasket.
It’s also very difficult now to pull $4,000+/month within journalism when most digital sites offer $300 to $500 for a reported story so I seek out print markets paying $1,500 per piece or more instead.
The ideal, for me, is a $4,000+ assignment I can lavish a few weeks’ attention on exclusively but which also allows me some time for marketing smarter, deeper stories just like it. I dislike jumping constantly from one thing to the next, even though maintaining cash-flow — i.e. a steady supply of payment — demands it.
Unlike Laura, I have a husband with a good job and steady income; he will also have a defined benefit pension, which reduces our need to save quite as aggressively for retirement. (We still do it anyway!)
Ellen, a new Broadside follower, writes here about why she quit her job to go freelance — doing data entry — and is loving her new freedom.
And this, from The Guardian, about the absolutely desperate financial reality of being an author — only 11.5 percent of whom earned their living solely from writing. Their median income? A scary 11,000 pounds — or $18, 826 — which actually sounds high to me!
That answer may be not be as much as some might hope, at least at the outset. Ms. Dieker, who also posts her monthly freelance income on her Tumblr, says that she’s hoping to make $40,000 gross this year, but that other freelancers routinely ask her how she manages to make that much when they’re bringing in much less. She also notes that she’s making a lot more than when she started out: “Like any other career, you grow it.”
I’ve had staff jobs and enjoyed them. I’ve had colleagues and enjoyed them. I do miss a steady, 100% reliable paycheck.
And I have yet to earn the equivalent of my last staff salary. I’m not sure I ever will, much as I try.
But you also get used to making your own schedule. You get used to seeking out clients you enjoy, not tolerating and sucking up to your coworkers or bosses, at worst, just to stay employed.
And watching so many journalism staffers lose their jobs? Not cool! When freelancers lose a client, and it happens, we just go find another one, or several.
Freelancers, as the survey proves, cherish our freedom to manage our time; while writing this blog post I also had time to make soup, marinate salmon for dinner and do a little light housework. My husband was working from home that day, so we also had some time to chat and enjoy lunch together.
I started my workday at 7:30 a.m., wrote and filed one story; started work on another and cold-called an editor I’d pitched last month. We had a great chat and — cha-ching! — she may actually have a $4,000 assignment for me sometime later this year.
I’ve already nailed down an assignment in England for January 2015 and am discussing one in Argentina. Few staff jobs offer that kind of range.
But you must hustle! As business guru Seth Godin writes here, on his blog, if you can’t sell what you do, you’ll never make a penny at it — no matter your education, hard work or talent.