22Feb2013

A Few Things You Might Want to Know about Being a Freelance Writer

Old-fashioned typewriter on grass.

Ah! Freelance writing. It’s a glamorous, wonderful career, right? As a freelance writer you can get paid to travel, eat, drink or go to spas (BUY MY EBOOK HERE!).

You can work all the hours you want and no more. And industry standard rates are a dollar a word.

Right?

Uh, wrong. For most of us, anyway.

Herewith, a few things you might want to know before you even contemplate chucking in the day job, should you have one (and, if you’re thinking about that, you might want to see my post So How Can I Earn Enough Money to Travel the World?).

Everybody Pays Late

I get very cross when I read advice to freelancers about income that fails to mention this. Yes, yes, yes, we need to get the work. We GET that! We don’t get paid until we have done the work! We get that, too. But, often, we do not get paid until a VERY long time after we do the work.

Standard invoice terms (outside the rarefied world of blogging – on which see this), are 30 days from submission of copy, accompanied by an invoice. That means, in practice, that the earliest someone will even THINK about paying you is 30 days after it hits the accounts department, or, more accurately, the Friday after 30 days after it hits the accounts department.

That is also the earliest date on which it is acceptable to tentatively enquire if you can have your money now, if that’s not too much trouble, please, pretty please.

This process can require submitting anything from your bank details to a blood sample to a hair from the head of Yoda to the accounts department, which may, if you’re working with a big company, have been outsourced to anywhere from Bulgaria to the Philippines.

You can often get later terms than this, such as “90 days after publication”. Yeah, that’s right. You do the work, you submit the work, they sit on it for a while, publish it in a few months, and then pay you 90 days after that. In theory.

Some big organisations also require a Purchase Order (PO) to be raised, a process which can require submitting anything from your bank details to a blood sample to a hair from the head of Yoda to the accounts department, which may, if you’re working with a VERY big company, have been outsourced to anywhere from Bulgaria to the Philippines.

If you’re used to a salary dropping into your bank account on the last Friday of every month, this is a very, VERY rude shock. And, no, I’m still not used to it.

When You Need the Money, Everyone Pays REALLY Late

Sod’s Law guarantees that the month where you REALLY, REALLY need the money – perhaps you have no money for food, or perhaps you really, really want that super-duper facial – is the month when EVERYONE pays you late.

You’ll know you’re a proper freelancer when you can practise the Freelance Panic Shuffle.

This runs roughly as follows. “What will I do if X doesn’t pay me today?” to “What will I do if X, Y and Z don’t pay me this week?” to “What will I do if X, Y, Z, A, B and C don’t pay me this month?”

The answer? Victory Gin!

Particularly egregious errors will be shared on Facebook and Twitter for their friends and passing grammar Nazis to snigger at.

Being a Professional Writer Is not about Being a Good Writer, Particularly

You can be the best prose stylist on the planet and if you can’t angle a story, pitch a story and sell that story, you are not going to make any money.

Being nice helps, too. Which means, in particular, not being princessy about editing. They cut your best sentence? Really, please, please, please don’t fight with them about it. Unless you’re part of a media dynasty.

I’ve never been good at friendly emails, but I hear that’s pretty key too.

Which Doesn’t Mean You Can Be a Bad One

You will not get far as a writer without the basics of grammar unless you’re, ya know, the future Queen’s sister, or, perhaps, Beyonce.

There are exceptions to this rule. I once received an email from an editor at a women’s mag requesting that interviewees for a feature be “Caucashun only”. I’m not sure exactly what it says about me that I was more shocked by the spelling than the racism, but I don’t think it’s anything good.

Grammar matters if you’re a writer. It’s like steering matters to being a driver. There are many other elements to writing well, but grammar is the bit that stops you hitting things.

Still, at most publications the person who reads what you submit will most likely have a background in proofreading and so will be adopting the brace position with every howler you drop.

Well, no. They’ll cringe at the first error you make, and then throw it out of the door. Particularly egregious errors will be shared on Facebook and Twitter to entertain their friends and fellow grammar Nazis, along with, if it’s really horrifically bad, a screenshot with the offending elements highlighted in green.

Grammar matters if you’re a writer. It’s like steering matters to being a driver. There are many other elements to writing well, but grammar is the bit that stops you hitting things.

And, Further, You Need to Know Stuff

“I don’t have the figures on this” might work on a blog. It’s not going to get past your average paying client. It is really helpful to have expertise in an area, which means genuine, been-there, non-Google, non-Wiki expertise.

Note to travel bloggers: this does not mean reading a guidebook and inaccurately summarising plagiarising it. Nor does it mean paying someone you found on Fiverr.com to do this for you.

And, yes, this does happen.

Freelance Writing is Not, Actually, just Writing about the Fun Stuff You Did

Yeah, I’m afraid, for all but the elite, writing tends to involve research.

I’ve never worked on a guidebook. But whether you’re bar reviewing or covering hotels, you’re talking about trudging from place to place, hitting a tonne of spots in a day, and eliminating, testing or noting and reviewing. It’s leg work. Quite fun leg work, if it’s bars. But leg work, all the same.

Ditto book reviewing. For every book review you place, there’s a tonne of books you’ve read just because that’s your job.

Those “What I Did on My Lovely Holiday” pieces you see in the newspapers? Most of them are press trips, or paid-for holidays offered to the papers in exchange for coverage, increasingly given to staff, including secretaries, who’ll do the writeup for zero cost, because, fuck it, they just went to Mustique with the family gratis for a fortnight, something they’d never otherwise have afforded.

This is, incidentally, precisely the type of cost equation that makes the following piece of advice highly relevant….

Frankly, ladies, that time spent honing your prose is, for most of us, better spent on grooming.

It Helps to be Part of a Double-Income Household

If you’re trying to support children as a freelance writer, it is advisable to have one person in the household with a steady, reliable income, whether that’s to paper over any skint patches or to fund absolutely bloody everything so that you can pursue a decorative career that makes you endlessly fascinating at dinner parties while also remaining flawlessly groomed.

This is especially important if you want to write books, a sector where most are lucky to earn as much as 10 cents a word.

Alternatively… You can be lead earner. That means you need someone around to look after the kids while you gallivant off selling well-structured, well-pitched pieces and bringing in the dough.

Frankly, ladies, that time spent honing your prose is, for most of us, better spent on grooming.

Pitching is Critical

The good writers, by which I mean the workaday ones who make a tonne of money without being famous, can parse and snip down every single trip they take into a tonne of individual jobs – and sell them.

It’s about honing angles, knowing your market, turning your five-day trip to Paris into ten or so unique and saleable pieces that aren’t replicating what’s in the guidebooks.

That, gentle reader, is the hard part. As with most freelance endeavours, when it comes to freelance writing, it’s not doing the work but getting the work that’s the difficult bit. (And even when you’re travelling, work is still work.)

Fighting over whether we can use “helps reduce fine lines” instead of “can help reduce the visible appearance of fine lines” on some piece of 98%-water-100%-voodoo facial bollocks.

Most Words You Will Ever Read Have a Paid Writer Behind Them

I have done a shit-tonne of crap writing jobs in my time, and let me tell you this: even the blurb on your loo roll has been written by someone, and, if it’s a big brand, been approved by layer upon layer of marketing honcho, battled vigorously with the legal department, and probably debated at the kind of meetings that make you want to stab your own eyes out with a plastic fork.

I’ve been to some of those meetings. And whenever I feel low, I look back at them.

Because I still could be reaching for the grey folder we kept of beauty lies that the legal department let slip through and fighting over whether we can use “helps reduce fine lines” instead of “can help reduce the visible appearance of fine lines” on some piece of 98%-water-100%-voodoo facial bollocks.

For Most of Us There’s More Money in Corporates, Always

Wanna make money as a writer? Get a few high-profile or expert journalism gigs, then shill to corporates in your sector.

£400 a day is an entry level day rate here, which is more than what the majority of pure journalists will earn, and each time you get a new client, you can shove another few quid on your day rate until someone baulks.

Corporate copywriting, like technical writing, can be soul-destroying, but it’s also possible to find an enjoyable steady rhythm in it. (Pam Mandel does technical writing for money and travel for a bit extra.)

I’m not old enough to remember the days when you needed to shoot a photo for publication with everything carefully planned out so that you could physically drop metal letters into the spaces between the individual products that you’d shot.

The Freelance Writing Landscape is Ever-Changing

I started writing before the internet was on most people’s horizons. Which is to say, the first office I worked in didn’t have email, although I’m not old enough to remember the days when you needed to shoot a photo for publication with everything carefully planned out so that you could physically drop metal letters into the spaces between the individual products that you’d shot.

I don’t think the kind of dispiriting, $5 a piece jobs you get on elance or on fiverr.com existed when I started. For the ne plus ultra of these (so far), I give you Leif Pettersen.

What’s new? Content. Print media may be shrinking, but web content is growing and there are plenty of organisations out there ready to pay well for good content, AKA good writing. Social media – yes, looking after Facebook can be a full-time job. It is also possible to make money self-publishing ebooks, without necessarily making yourself the apex of a pyramid scheme.

Regular Gigs are Critical

Unless you’re in the top 0.001% of writers, who can flog a piece for $5000-$8000 every so often and then fuck off, or have an absolutely bloody loaded partner – a good divorce settlement will do too – regular monthly gigs are critical.

That could be people who’ll take a piece off you every month, a weekly column, a daily content gig – but you really want enough regular gigs to cover the baseline expenses, which frees you up to go after higher-paying stuff in the interstices for gravy.

And that, for now, concludes the lesson.

Look out for my upcoming post on how to be a freelance writer. But, for the meantime, consider whether this is actually what you want.


Picture credit: jetheriot.

33 Comments

  1. Anne-Marie says:

    Brilliant – and it shows why YOU can make a living at it!

  2. I think you just took my breath away because I’m feeling dizzy. After being shanghaied into freelance translation – now going on 20 years – you remind me of what I once aspired to be.
    You’ve still got it, probably better than ever; I lost it so bad I can hardly kickstart a coherent sentence unless I’m translating it. I and the crowd who drink from your cup.
    Moral of the story: hell if I know.

    • Theodora says:

      Oooh, I think you’ve still got it too, Horatio…

      But it’s funny how those off-the-cuff decisions we make in our 20s, or thereabouts, can come to define our lives…

  3. This is a most cogent and honest primer for beginners, the best I’ve ever seen!!!
    best,

    Pat Mandell
    Rockport MA

    • Theodora says:

      Thank you! I get so many people asking, “How do you do this?” and I always want to say, “Here are a few things you should know before you do.” Off to chase some invoices now!

  4. Elizabeth says:

    True, so true. Every bit of your advice.

    I did some ‘travel writing’ and arts writing for a few publications. It was something I’d always wanted to do. But eventually I realized I’m no good at it–after writing a book.

    • Theodora says:

      Did you sell the book?! There are so many different skill sets out there… I’d love to do a book at some point. The closest I’ve got so far is editing one, and that’s really not my strongpoint…

  5. Yvette says:

    Hahaha love it. :)

    As I mentioned briefly on Twitter, I do science writing because I realized it’s just not worth your while if you know/enjoy science to write for other fields. It’s not my focus right now but what pays for my weekend trips around Europe (I also realized I don’t like mixing my work with my vacation, so only write as a hobby for that).

    But then I also know I’m lucky to have two passions in life, and I actually get paid to do one of them. :) I imagine I will try my hand as a science writer someday, but certainly not until I have my doctorate.

    • Theodora says:

      Well, of course, the reason science writing is so well paid is that you REALLY do need to know your stuff, not that it stops the tabloids. Food, travel, arts, even music, you can blag as an enthusiastic amateur. That is definitely not true of science.

  6. Angela says:

    Great insight. ‘On getting paid’ is something I’ve only learned from experience… something that every new writer should definitely be forewarned of!

    • Theodora says:

      Yes. There are, of course, the few who just don’t pay. But they tend to be very few, and they tend to come with forewarning.

  7. Hi Theodora, I am a freelance makeup artist and hairstylist and I just want to say, freelancing is the same whether you’re a writer, a musician, or a makeup artist. It’s a tough way to make a living but it does allow for a lot of freedom in how you will schedule your time. I wish I’d thought it through as carefully in the beginning. I just did it. Now I’m pretty much unemployable. Great read thanks!

    • Theodora says:

      Oh holy cow, me too! But I think we freelancers need to look at whether we were always fundamentally unemployable, as in employment could not make us happy. Thanks for the corrective, though. It’s definitely the case that freelance rules apply to almost every freelance industry you can think of. And some you probably can’t.

  8. I feel fortunate to have a not-so-demanding day job that lets me write and blog to make a little bit of money on the side. I came to the conclusion that I wouldn’t make enough to quit, so I appreciate your honesty (and the tongue-in-cheek!).

  9. Louisa says:

    Thanks for pointing out hard freelance writing can be, but it is important to work on your writing style. You can look good AND write well.

    • Theodora says:

      I’d agree that working on writing style is pretty key: you’ll never get beyond bottom of the barrel jobs on fiverr.com and elance.com if you can’t write well. I didn’t mean to completely de-emphasise that aspect of the craft, but I do think it’s important to point out that, as in most creative endeavours, ability is only a small part of what’s out there to help earn a living.

  10. Hahaha awesome. Oh how I still remember my first thoughts of being a travel writer (not blogger) and earning a full time income while luxuriously travelling the world picking up writing gigs when I need the extra cash. Unbelievably that was less than a year ago! It is amazing how quickly reality smacks you in the a$$.

    • Theodora says:

      Oh, don’t, don’t, don’t… Yeah, it’s not an easy sector in which to work in. I think once you can build up a client base, it’s easier…

  11. Carmen says:

    Great article!

    I’m about to make the jump to freelancing. Luckily my current and past employers are to give me freelance work.

    But can I ask – how did you find freelance gigs? Searching job sites? Or through word of mouth?

    Thanks!

    • Theodora says:

      I still do a lot of freelance for a past employer, so that’s the best way to start. With writing journalism, you typically need to pitch, AKA, decide on the story and place it, which is something I’m bad at, and ditto with writing the type of journalistic web content I also do.

      Copywriting I’ve typically got by referrals, although there was a patch when I was desperate when Zac was tiny and I built a list of agencies and did an email mail shot.

  12. Elizabeth says:

    This post is nothing short of epic, as overused as that word may be!! Thank you for your honesty in portraying the ups and downs, you did so accurately and also furthered my goal of having a drink with you someday, somewhere! And on me of course.

  13. Wesley Wong says:

    Wow….Thanks and every time I read something on your site I learn soooooo much. Not that I have ever expired to be a freelance writer (being a freelance photographer was enough for me..and yes I remember the days of the electric typewriter….) But I’m glad I read your article before I sent my stuff to you….will have to re-think some of the wording…..again….hahaha…….Your Great !

  14. Wesley Wong says:

    Ouchhh…..talk about poor spelling….I meant to say “aspired to be a freelance writer”…hahaha…..maybe it was a Freudian slip…… ;-)

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