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Get a Freelance Life: Mediabistro.Com's Insider Guide to Freelance Writingby Margit Feur Ragland
PART I: Are You Ready to Be Free?
Chapter 1: Is Freelancing Right for You?
Things to Consider Before Taking the Plunge
So you want to be a freelance writer. Welcome to the club. There are many wannabe freelancers out there but only a limited number of talented, dedicated, motivated, hardworking, and successful freelance writers. Its not that its an impossible goal; its that freelance writing is hard and demanding work—although potentially very rewarding. Its doable, if youre cut out for it. Here are eleven questions to ask yourself before deciding whether freelancing is right for you.
1. Do you like being alone?
Working at home is certainly a luxury—you can sleep in, work in your PJs, take a break when the sun is out, or meet friends for a long lunch. But it can also be lonely. Theres nobody standing at the water cooler (or at your fridge) waiting to discuss last nights reality-TV program. Theres nobody to vent to after an editor asks you for the third rewrite of a piece that was a bore from the beginning. And you have only yourself to rely on when trying to come up with a catchy headline.
The good news is that many writers have developed creative techniques to deal with this isolation: heading to a coffee shop every morning for a cup of joe, the newspaper, and some conversation; weekly meetings with different editors; a class at a nearby college; regularly scheduled lunches; volunteering a few hours a week; or even partaking in online discussion groups.
Loneliness will kick in, so be sure you can handle it. And have a plan to nip at least some of it in the bud.
2. Where are you now?
If youve been working as an accountant for the past fifteen years, even if youre very proud of what you publish in your diary each night, its probably not yet time to jump ship for a full-time freelancing career. Thats okay—the great thing about freelancing is that you can start doing it while youre still doing something else. You can slowly but consistently start accumulating writing samples (known as clips) and establishing connections; this lays the groundwork for a freelancing career.
On the other hand, if youve been getting published fairly regularly (lets say once or twice a month) in a few different publications that pay at least decently (around $1 a word), you might be in a better spot to make a go of it.
But youll need to continue to work your connections correctly and leverage what youve already been doing. And youll need to be realistic. If youve been employed as the restaurant reviewer at a community newspaper for the past two years, dont expect to quit and jump right into freelance travel writing.
And before you say hasta la vista to your boss, work to keep a relationship—and even better, a freelance income—with your current employer, if you can. This is key. The benefits of having a steady gig set up before you set out on your own are great.
And dont be afraid to ask yourself some of those dreaded interview questions, such as “Where do you want to be in five years?”
WHEN TO MAKE THE MOVE
“Theres never really a completely safe time to start a business. Its always a risk. But one good way of going about things is to start your business while you are still employed. If youre a staff writer, start building a client list of freelance assignments. Yes, its tiring to have a full-time job and then work on the side, but it sure beats not being able to play your rent. Once you get a list of clients, you can use this as leverage to get more and more clients.”
—Duy Linh Tu, a founder and creative director of Resolution Seven, LLC. Duy is a writer, videographer, motion graphics designer, and photographer and he teaches new media at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
(Possible answer: Working regularly with around ten different publications, writing at least four articles a month, or bringing in at least 5K a month.) If you are planning on embarking on a solo career, youd better be able to answer that question for yourself.
You cant just call yourself a freelancer and expect assignments to roll in. Know where you are and where you want to be, and map out a reasonable plan to get from A to B.
3. Can you afford it?
Dont get fed up with your boss and decide that today is the day to go it on your own. Unless you have a few regular well-paying gigs already set up or a handful of folks just itching to buy your work, chances are you cant go freelance cold turkey—you cant afford it! It takes some seed money—not to mention preparation and prior thought—to take the giant leap into a writing career.
Obviously, the amount of steady freelance income you need before
BEFORE YOU QUIT
“If you are contemplating leaving your full-time job to go freelance, make sure you have some ‘cushion to protect yourself. It generally takes a bit of time to get paid when you first start up in the freelance business, anywhere from three weeks to six months once you complete a job. So make sure you have about three to four months of living expenses saved up in the bank, and then another $500 to $2,000 on hand for all the start-up costs of your new business, such as accountant and lawyer fees, a computer, business cards, office supplies, a cell phone, a second phone line, and more.”
—Howard Samuels, CPA MST, managing partner in S&C LLP, a NYC-based Certified Public Accounting firm specializing in tax for small businesses and individuals
“My advice is: First, trim the fat. Get rid of cable TV (you wont have time to watch anyway), get rid of your gym membership (go run in the park), get rid of whatever you really, really dont need in your life. Then, create a realistic budget. Youll be surprised at how much you were spending before on things that were not absolutely necessary. Once you get enough work to be able to support about 75 percent of that amount, take the plunge, quit your job, and start your business.”
—Duy Linh Tu
quitting your day job depends on your financial needs. You shouldnt go solo without first looking at your monthly expenses and comparing that to how much you can realistically bring in each month. (Theres more on setting up a budget in Chapter 15.) If youre unable to analyze your budget on your own, set up a meeting with an accountant and have a chat to gauge whether you can really afford to take this big step.
In addition, remember that even if you get $4,000 worth of assignments in the first month of freelancing full-time, theres no telling when you will be paid. For instance, if your contract says youll be paid “upon publication,” you wont get a check in the mail until the month when your article appears in the publication—which could be months and months after the piece was first assigned.
As we mentioned before, if you can set up a regular freelance gig with your current employer (especially if youre already working in publishing), you will be a step ahead of the game.
Assignments take some time to start rolling in—checks take even longer. Develop a financial plan before making any rash decisions.
4. Are you flexible?
Few freelance writers have a regular schedule. Chances are you wont have, say, one article due every Tuesday at noon. The experts you want to interview are seldom available when its most convenient for you. And editors often call needing quick turnaround on a piece—seemingly invariably on a week youve set up as your “nice and easy” week. When you have a huge project due on a Thursday for publication A, chances are great that on Wednesday morning your editor from publication B will call needing a revise of the piece you handed in three weeks earlier, and shell need that revise ASAP. Somehow, you have to make it all work.
The freelancers life can be unpredictable. Youll have to develop a schedule that works for you, but one that allows unexpected changes to your plan.
5. Can you stick to a budget?
The term biweekly paycheck is unknown to freelancers. Waiting to get paid can be even harder than waiting for an assignment. And when that nice, big check does arrive, itll look large . . . until you remember it might need to carry you for a good long while (and that youll have to pay taxes on it; as freelance income, nothings been withheld).
So if youre not good with numbers, youll need to find someone who is, quick. (Theres more on this in Chapter 15.) Freelancers need to be aware of all necessary expenses, monitor spending closely, map out a budget plan long in advance, and act as an accountant on nearly a daily basis.
Freelancers dont have regular paychecks. You need to have a budget that builds in a cushion for slow months and late checks, and you need to be able to monitor it and abide by it.
6. Are you organized?
If you miss deadlines, misplace interview notes, or hand in sloppy work, chances are youre not going to get many repeat assignments. Freelance writers are often juggling multiple projects at any one time and, except for a lucky few, act as their own secretaries and mailroom workers and benefits experts and supply clerks. As well as monitoring your own budget, you have to manage your own daily schedule, all your interview notes, all your fact-checking materials, all your sources contact information, all of your due dates, and on and on. It can be daunting, but you must stay on top of everything.
A freelance career will work out only if you can stay highly organized.
7. Can you separate work and life?
Working out of your own home can quickly overwhelm you, becoming far more than a nine-to-five, Monday-through-Friday job. Sure, the more you work, the more money youll bring in. But theres a breaking point, and you need the self-control not to get pulled toward it.
The nice thing about freelancing is that you can work all weekend if you have no plans, or burn the midnight oil for days at a time and then take a completely worry-free three-week vacation. Problems begin to arise when you find yourself spending every waking moment in front of your computer. You think about going to the gym, but then you cant stop thinking about that looming deadline. Your family is heading out for a picnic in the park, but you just brainstormed a better lead for that assignment due next week. Eventually, all work and no play becomes too much. You need to keep a good balance between your work life and the rest of your life.
You must be able to develop methods to enforce a relatively normal work schedule.
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