At the start of 2016, along with resolutions of ‘more exercise,’ blah blah blah, I decided to take control of my professional career and become a freelance journalist. This was not a big leap from my previous positions in Marketing and PR, where I was in charge of planning and writing content for company blogs but of course it had one huge difference: I would be self employed. The decision was derived from my passion for writing, and my frustration with bosses whom I considered to be incapable, which may or may not have been true in hindsight. It’s not been the easiest of roads, so let me pass on my experience, which can hopefully ensure that someone else’s will be a little less painful.
The best way to develop a career in freelance is to begin working whilst in another job. This means that when you choose to leave your current position you will have a framework in place. I did not do this, and it worked out OK, but mostly because I had my husband to support the two of us whilst I was beginning to gather clients. A significant other/savings account/generous parents are necessary if you wish to start freelancing cold turkey because it takes time to get going. This is the most important thing you should know: a stable career in freelance will take time to develop, at least three months, so prepare for the interim when you will have a financial drop. This was particularly difficult for me as I felt like a total freeloader; my husband brings in a fairly good salary which, when left unsupported by mine, did not allow much disposal income for drinking cocktails and the like. Hard times.
Once you’ve had a taste of financial independence, it’s hard to rely on someone else for pocket money, which could encourage you to make silly choices. After a month or so, I was almost ready to take any job, regardless of the pay. Luckily, I held on to that ‘almost’, which brings us to lesson two: know your worth. If you choose to go the freelance route,I imagine it’s because you consider yourself skilled and capable enough to make it on your own, don’t loose this confidence when you begin to doubt your decision. A certain amount of pride can be a positive thing, and in this situation it certainly is; do not take those shitty jobs where new companies with little money are trying to take advantage of people by offering them next to nothing to complete a job that they would not accept for themselves.
In such situations, it is always worth it to drop them an email and attempt negotiation. You’re alone now, no boss or company name to lean on, so you’ll need to develop a thick skin and start acting tough. Don’t be afraid to tell prospective employees what others are offering/paying you, and shame them a little bit. Only attempt this if you will then walk away if they refuse to up the offer (remember, pride).
Pride, however, is a double edged sword, and while payment may be negotiable, subject matter often is not. Until you build up a name for yourself, you may have to write about topics which do not interest you, or do not intellectually challenge you to pay the bills. This is not something to be ashamed of, it goes with the territory. Ideally, such gigs will be balanced by other, more fulfilling jobs, so think of the lesser gigs as ‘fillers’, or supporting acts.
The only exception to the Knowing Your Worth rule, is the one which permits taking a job for free to bulk up your resume. Even if you were a big shot in your industry, tables turn once you enter the world of freelance. There is a range of new competition and it is literally, a battle of survival. Use the slower, beginning stages to add some household names to your CV, regardless of the pay. I have found that writing for one prominent newspaper has been the key to securing many, smaller jobs, despite the fact that these lesser institutions offer me almost double the payment.
Any freelancer must be organised and self-motivated. The job is often unglamorous, and involves sitting in your house all day in pyjamas trying to prevent yourself from constantly getting up to grab a snack. No. No more snacks. Instead, strong caffeinated drinks, periodic strolls outside to see the light of day and stretch your legs, and stern talking to yourself. In tough times, I work on a reward system where for every 100 words or so, I can watch an episode of ‘The Real Housewives’.
Lastly, we must talk about topics and, in this area, I can only speak from experience as a freelance journalist. Freelancers are usually hired for feature style articles, i.e., the big, bold articles that appear on a double page spread. These pieces are incredibly fun to write, but they require a lot of research and therefore a lot of time. Prepare for this financially and time-wise so you can enjoy writing such pieces.