By John White
The freelance writing life, as my colleague Jim Schott points out, is “a hard way to make an easy living.”
I often quote him because freelance writing does seem like a hard way to make a living (easy or not), especially if you’ve never spent time around people who are in business for themselves. But every day, people cross their fingers and decide to make a go of freelance writing.
If you’re a beginning freelance writer, the way you work is changing. Here are five New Realities for you to consider:
1. You are now in business for yourself, so stop handing out résumés. Your new tools are business cards, an elevator speech (figure out what you write and how to explain it to people in 15 seconds) and a portfolio, whether online or printed.
I get nicked around the ears a lot for proclaiming this New Reality — especially in writing communities where the résumé still has some currency. But in the quest to reinforce the perceptions of colleagues and prospects in your network, nothing says, “I’m in business for myself” quite like a business card, and nothing says, “I’m looking for a job” quite like a résumé. Besides, when somebody at the PTA meeting next month says, “So, how can I find you when I need a writer?” what are you going to pull out of your pocket or purse: A business card or a résumé?
2. Speaking of your network, that’s where the jobs are. The sooner you figure out a way to engage the people in your network consistently and successfully — phone, direct mail, meeting for coffee, e-mail, or on social media — the sooner you and work will find each other.
Keep in mind that you must feed the people in your network two things: Content that helps them, and information about what you’re doing. Nobody cares that you’re available for work right away, but they will care about ways you can help them solve their problems. And sending an occasional note to people in your network is a good way to remind them you’re still in business for yourself. Ask them what they’re looking for so you can keep an eye out for it.
3. You are now responsible for sales, marketing, operations and accounting. That does not mean that you have to do all of them yourself, just be conversant in all of them. Eventually, you can delegate some or all of the details to a partner, spouse or virtual assistant — if you’re a maniac like me, you’ll try to hang on to all of them — but don’t forget that it’s your business, not theirs.
“Fie!” you exclaim, “I just want to get paid for writing all day. I don’t want to waste time with all of that other nonsense.” Sorry, Shakespeare, but somebody in your one-person company needs to send invoices, chase money, back up the hard drive, pay bills, find prospects, close business, read contracts, upgrade your computer…in addition to writing all day.
4. Your workday will feel strange. For several months — or maybe a couple of years — especially if you’ve departed a corporate setting. Your ideas about how you spend hours in the workday may change completely.
If you’re outrageously successful, perhaps you’ll find that all of your time is booked and billable and your workday is like Mark Zuckerberg’s. More likely, you may discover downtime that makes your workday more like a Boston terrier’s. Once you’ve started meeting your income needs, you’ll find that the downtime is less unsettling. “Money will come when you are doing the right thing,” wrote Michael Phillips in The Seven Laws of Money — be prepared to wade through some strangeness on the way to that right thing.
5. You will almost certainly have good and bad months. Or good and bad quarters, or good and bad years. This is the way of all living things — We humans fancy ourselves the exception, but the freelancers among us know better. Happiness and security rarely occur together in nature.
Steady paychecks are in your rearview mirror now, so you had better concentrate on cash flow. Aim for six months of buffer in non-retirement savings. Everybody’s mileage varies, but this freelance writer has had to dig uncomfortably deep into his 3- to 6-month buffer only twice in the past 13 years. Sure, it’s a drag not always being able to predict income two or three or six months out, but if you’re flirting with freelance, you’ve probably already worked out that there’s not much more security inside a company than outside of it, right?
So cross your fingers, mull these New Realities over, and decide whether you have the stomach for the freelance writer’s lifestyle. If you try it for a while and still can’t earn enough to keep body and soul together, at least you can say you tried. But I think most veterans will agree in the comments below that the universe yields to the determined psyche.
And that’s the most compelling New Reality of all.
John White of venTAJA Marketing is a marketing communications writer for technology companies. He posts about technology writing from the perspective of the marketing manager. It’s dirty work, but somebody has to do it. Download his eBook, “10 Questions to Ask When Hiring Your Marketing Communications Writer.”
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photo credit: Meisje van de Sliterij