So you want to be a freelance writer

Some of you may not know this unless you’ve really examined the end of my CV, or know me well in person: I was a freelance writer and journalist for ten years prior to earning my MA and Ph.D. and becoming a professor of writing. I meet people all the time at conferences, in workshops, and in my classes who want to be freelance writers. There is a certain glamour and gravitas to the idea of not only working for yourself, but also making your own schedule, writing only the stories you choose to write about, and meeting all sorts of interesting people, and traveling around the country reporting on all manner of events and activities.

Yes. I know. I had those same thoughts when I decided to take the leap out of ad agency media buying into the full-time freelance life in 1996. As you already know I’m about to burst some bubbles, let’s start with the good news:

I did meet and interview lots of interesting people, from senators and CEOs and artists to city workers and fellow writers and chefs.

I also traveled regionally and wrote reviews of bed and breakfast inns, restaurants, and local bands.

My skills as an interviewer, writer, reporter, editor, researcher, photographer, and idea-generator improved exponentially in the ten years I worked at this career. I was offered no less than three full time positions making a lot more money (and benefits), but rejected them all because I wasn’t ready to leave the freelance life.

There is a great deal of freedom in being a freelance writer. You DO make ALL of your own choices. You also do all of your own billing and must police your own progress, even when you’re feeling tired and unmotivated. You do not have a boss standing over your shoulder, which is a delightfully liberating sensation….but the flip side is that you are now solely responsible for your own productivity and money-making. You only make money when you are writing – there is no slacking. No hours on Facebook chatting with friends. No “killing time at work” before happy hour. If you aren’t pitching ideas to editors, interviewing subjects, and writing those assigned pieces, you won’t get paid. And if you don’t get paid, your rent and electric bill and cable and phone won’t get paid. And those companies don’t care if you were tired and unmotivated last week.

As a freelancer, you are running a business and must treat it that way if you want to be successful. You must schedule things. Plan months in advance the stories that you will produce for different publications. Keep appointments. Show up on time. Learn to navigate innumerable personalities and expectations – from interview subjects to editors to people who actively treat you like a second-class plebeian. Cold call all sorts of people – editors, possible interview subjects, surly senators who challenge your knowledge of a particular piece of legislation. Take it all with that proverbial grain of salt while swallowing your indignation. You will learn patience. You will learn that people who ask you to do work sometimes won’t pay you per the original agreement. You will learn legal parlance and how to write a threatening collection letter without sounding threatening.

You will wonder what happened to the glamour. You will feel no gravitas. You will watch your bank account shrink and grow sporadically, which can be anxiety-inducing.

All this said, I don’t regret spending ten years being a professional freelance writer because of the valuable lessons and skills that I learned. I have taken this knowledge with me into my professorial career and other life events. The knowledge serves me well.

If you decide to leap, I wish you the best of luck. The dividends from freelancing can be monumental, but they will not primarily be financial. Accept this and you will thrive and love it the way I did.

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