According to a new survey, 54 million Americans – or 34% of the workforce – are engaged in freelance work. Almost 8% of those are freelance writers – and that’s around 4,320,000 people.
It’s clearly an increasingly popular market, and with good reason, but it’s not always all it’s cracked up to be. If you’re thinking of becoming a freelance writer, make sure you go into it with your eyes wide open.
Let’s start with the good.
If you want to take a holiday, take a holiday. If you want to sleep in until 11, sleep in until 11. If you want to hit the gym at 3 to avoid the post-office rush? Yup, that too.
One of the best things about being a freelance writer is that you answer to no one except yourself; you own your decisions.
Obviously you still have responsibilities and those responsibilities dictate your priorities but the point is, they’re your priorities (and your consequences). Not the company’s. Not your manager’s. Your good is the greater good.
All you need to be a freelance writer is yourself, your laptop and an Internet connection.
There’s no specialist equipment and, although some freelance writers do spend time with clients in-person, it’s not a job requirement.
With tools like Skype empowering worldwide inter-connectivity, there are few situations where a face-to-face meeting is more cost-time efficient than an e-meeting anyway, so it’s not a big loss if you never meet clients offline.
All of which means this: you can work from wherever you want, whenever you want. Maybe that means that little café you love with the hand-roasted beans, or maybe it means joining the hubud in Bali.
Forget ‘the world is your oyster’ – the world is your office.
Being a freelance writer means having a portfolio of clients, rather than a single employer.
Because your skill is writing, rather than something strictly industry-specific, those clients can be much more varied that if you were, say, a freelance plumber.
Even if you specialize in writing for a specific area, the variety of work is endless. Being a great writer is similar to being a great actor: you have to be able to master different voices, different styles, different personalities
Work never seems mundane, because you’re constantly applying your skills in a different way.
One of the traditional arguments against freelancing is that you sacrifice job security. This is quite a fallacy.
When you first strike out as a freelance writer, things probably are less secure than having a full-time job, but once you’ve built up a client portfolio you’ve got a properly diversified income stream.
Your financial security is no longer dependent on one client but on many; this spreads and therefore minimizes your risk. In an insecure economy, it’s more important than ever not to put all your eggs in one basket.
Markets change constantly. New opportunities spring up; new niches; new areas where you could make a mark. Being a freelance writer gives you the fluidity and agility to take advantage of new opportunities with minimal risk.
The e-learning market is a great example. Growing rapidly, it’s an area that’s attractive to a lot of freelance writers right now – but it’s still a relatively new industry and the bubble could yet burst. Freelance writers can easily dip a toe in the water with new markets like this – a new project here; a new client there – without needing to dive in and hope they swim.
As a freelance writer, your clients are paying you to stay ahead of the curve on their behalf. At least a third of your time isn’t spent writing at all, but reading, listening, watching and absorbing as much as possible, in order that you can write with authority.
For people who love to keep learning, being a freelance writer absolutely ticks that box.
For most freelance writers, this is the most overwhelming positive: you get to do what you love.
It goes almost without saying that you have to love writing (and take a word of advice – if you don’t, don’t try and be a freelance writer. It’s bloody difficult if you’re not passionate about it), but it goes deeper than that.
Precisely because it’s such a flexible career, and because you’re your own boss, you can choose the sort of life you want to build for yourself. You can work for top-dollar with huge advertising companies, or throw yourself into that creative not-for-profit that you admire, or neither, or both.
It’s not about building an attractive resume, or showing career progression, or avoiding career gaps – it’s about choosing what you work on and when in the combination you find most fulfilling.
Being a freelance writer is not all sunshine and flowers, though. This job is very far from easy and, if you want to do it, you should know what you’re getting into. Here are the massive downsides to being a freelance writer:
Harsh truth time: there are a lot of aspiring freelance writers out there, and a lot of them aren’t much good at all.
Freelance writing sometimes seems to be a default career choice for those who want to freelance, but lack the writing-specific skills, knowledge or willingness that should back that up.
Finding work is competitive, and finding high-paying work more so. There’s no shortage of writers looking to undercut you, selling on price because that’s all they have to sell on.
Being a freelancer writer means being able to sell yourself. It means having a really solid value proposition, and being able to pitch confidently to clients. It means knowing your worth, and being willing to negotiate constantly – because no one’s going to hand you anything on a plate.
There’s no simple path to success; no ten steps you can follow to automatically ‘make it’ as a freelance writer. The scale and diversity of the market are amazing, but it also means that you have a really strong sense of purpose or you’ll struggle to navigate in any meaningful way.
Clear goals and a clear mission to realize them are essential: without them, you could end up on a plateau, working endless hours and earning just enough to get by.
Most of us have days where we just need to take things easy.
Maybe you’re ill, maybe you’re run down, maybe your head just isn’t in the game – whatever. Even if you’ve never pulled a sickie, I’m sure there have been days where you’ve been in the office more in body than in spirit, and that’s OK – if you’re employed.
One of the best things about being a freelance writer is the amount of effort you put in directly correlates to how much you earn – but it can feel like one of the worst things sometimes too. If you don’t draft, you don’t get paid – full stop.
That makes those off-days a lot harder to swallow.
The correlative to the above is that it’s worryingly easy to work yourself into the ground and burn out.
That freelancers have to be self-motivated has been said so many times as to be stale, but that doesn’t just refer to getting up and putting in the hours. It’s just as, if not more, difficult to know when to stop working and take time for yourself.
At the same time though you’ll never not have responsibilities again, if you want to be successful. You can aspire to work/life integration, for sure, but you can never truly switch off, never really leave work behind, because there’s no one else to take the reins.
Finding ways to be compassionate and present in all the elements of your life becomes more of a challenge for freelancers.
If you become a freelance writer, you’re lucky if 75% of your time is billable. Writing might be what pays the bills, but you’re running a business now.
That means tax, business development, sales, marketing and so on.
The time you spend responding to emails will suddenly crystallize once you realize you’re earning zero dollars an hour while you do it.
I don’t just mean lonely in the sense of literally being alone.
I mean it in the deeper sense, that you lack a shared purpose. Even if you hang out in co-working spaces or work on-site with clients, you’re running a business of one.
If you freelance, you can find yourself yearning after the shared sense of achievement, the camaraderie, you get when working in a team.
The thing about being a writer is this: it’s a vocation more than anything else.
If you’re thinking of becoming a freelance writer and you’re focusing on the reasons you want to freelance rather than the reasons you want to write, it’s probably not the career for you.
A good test is this. If you won $100 million on the lottery tomorrow, what would you do?
After the travelling and the cocktails and the new car; once the celebrations died down? If the answer isn’t write then don’t become a writer. Find a way to carve out a career doing whatever your answer was instead.
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