Want To Be A Freelance Writer? Here's What It's Really Like
Did you just collect your English degree? Are you wondering about a post-graduation existence in which you live out your fantasy of life as a freelance writer, tapping out delightful things for magazines and other outlets, occasionally petting your cat, and looking sweetly out the window? That sounds like a lovely life. But I can officially tell you, as a veteran freelancer with 10 years of experience under my belt, that freelance writing is not like that. (Well, the cat part may happen, but the rest is not a given.) It's odd, hard, often very rewarding, and sometimes drives you so far up the wall you spend the entire night reading random books on Mesopotamian language to avoid actually dealing with your accountant. (It's happened.)
I don't mean to discourage you from a freelance writing career, of course — we need young women with eloquent voices putting their words out into the world, and being freelance can give you freedoms that being tied to a particular place or company simply cannot. But I also want to make sure that before you pursue a freelance career, you know exactly what the freelance life is really about.
Freelance writing can encompass a huge variety of genres, so consider this advice confined to the bits in which I actually have experience: subject-oriented journalism (art, fashion, science), editorials, and copywriting work for specific clients. Freelance medical writers work in an entirely different field with different requirements and structures. If you want to get into that, you'll need to do some specific research; this article's scope doesn't quite cover that.
What does this article cover, you ask? Let's start off by busting some myths about the freelance writing life.
Myth: Freelance Writing Is Carefree And Glamorous
Reality: The Movies Get Freelance Living Very, Very Wrong
It was Martin Amis who described the writing life most accurately: "Well, it is a sort of sedentary, carpet slippers, self-inspecting, nose-picking, arse-scratching kind of job, just you in your study and there is absolutely no way round that. So, anyone who is in it for worldly gains and razzmatazz I don't think will get very far at all." And he was discussing the far more creative and glamorous-looking world of writing novels. At least with novels, you have the vague possibility of being asked to a party at some point, or out to coffee by an editor who worries you may have merged with your chair.
Freelance writing, by contrast, is often a series of extensive battles with willpower, with internet connections, with deadlines, with pay structures designed to make your bank manager put her head in her hands and weep, with tax regulations so labyrinthine they come with their own minotaurs, with clients who have mysterious requirements they choose to impart only via Braille or gradually translated runes, and with the overwhelming urge to do the easy thing and go off to run a Fortune 500 company. Freelance writing can be exciting, enjoyable, or a great excuse to learn about topics you'd never get anywhere near in another job — but do not get into this line of work thinking it's all charming latte-sipping and idle tapping in a cafe. (Unless you're independently wealthy, in which case, have fun.)
Myth: You Can Write About Whatever You Want
Fact: Most Of Your Assignments Will Be Determined By Your Client's Interest
Here is a rough, though by no means exhaustive, list of the things I have been paid to write about, in the 10 years in which I have been using freelance writing as a method of supporting myself:
Whether or not it's a good idea to buy a private jet, or if renting is more convenient.
Private catering and the fridges used therein.
A small, angry American garage band.
A slightly bigger, less angry American disco band.
Wedding gown trends.
Baz Luhrmann's Christmas designs for an American department store.
BDSM safe words.
The correct etiquette of sexual selfies.
More wedding gown trends.
And that was before I came to work at Bustle, where my remit is "science/history/feminism/shouting."
Freelance writers in their early careers very rarely have the luxury of free choice when it comes to commissions; the most that many of us can do, if we're not working with dedicated employers or publications who throw regular things our way, is to go for jobs that we hope will teach us something new.
Most of us, though, particularly when we're starting out, have to operate with a less focussed approach where we take whatever's available and do our damnedest to make it sound delightful, persuasive, and grammatically correct to a tight deadline. The best way to do this? Be curious about everything, and dedicated to making even the most fluffy or superficial assignment excellent.
Myth: You Can Easily Make A Living Doing It
Fact: Making A Living Just By Writing Can Be Difficult, Especially At The Very Beginning Of Your Career
The reality of freelance writing is that using it to earn a living without some other jobs on hand — particularly when you are at the beginning of your career — is relatively rare. Many freelancers supplement their writing income with part-time employment, teaching, and other more reliable sources of pay.
There are a few reasons why the idea of freelance writing as your sole income stream can be unrealistic. The freelance writing market is a) highly saturated with very talented people, b) populated with many clients who expect that writers will work for below-market pay or for free for the sake of "exposure," and c) unreliable. Freelance life of any kind requires a commitment to the constant scramble for new work — so maintaining an income level without back-up (at least at the beginning of a career, before you have a solid stable of outlets and editors who regularly accept your pitches) is tricky.
I am, in that particular sense, very lucky. But I do want to break down the reality of my working life for you: I write 13,000 words a week. Every week. That's 52,000 words a month, more than the average Masters thesis. All of it highly researched, perfectly spelled, and subject to multiple feedback edits.
If you're looking to getting into freelance writing as a full-time career, producing that much work might be what it takes to earn sufficient money for a survivable income. I know everyone tells you that Carrie Bradshaw was pure fantasy, and that no writer lives that kind of life and does that little work, but frankly, it can't be repeated enough: Carrie Bradshaw was a fantasy, people.
Myth: All You Need To Launch A Freelance Career Is Your Own Blog
Reality: Just Having A Blog Will Not Get You Freelance Assignments
When we imagine starting a freelance writing career, we often think of a common narrative: if I write a blog that gets regular traffic, I'll get hired to freelance immediately on the strength of it! Blogging can be a great way to strengthen your writing skills and hone your voice; however, blogging does not automatically put you on the path to paid work.
A blog demonstrates your voice and opinions — but what clients often want, whether it's in copywriting, editorial work, journalism, reviewing or other kinds of work, is a bigger package: reliable production of excellent work that is exactly what they want. Your ability to shape your fluency to meet the brief is, frankly, sometimes more important than your talent for crafting a well-argued personal argument to your followers about why Rihanna represents the best of late capitalism.
There is, of course, no harm in developing a really good blog; highly-read blogs lead to opportunities and connections, which are what really gets the ball rolling for freelance careers — as long as you then turn out the work. If you manage to turn a blog into a viable career as a freelance writer, you are clearly a hugely talented individual and I want to be your friend. But do not rely on your personal blog as the key to success; building a portfolio of vastly different bits of professional writing work is likely going to be much more useful.
Myth: Working From Home Is Definitely Preferable To Office Life
Reality: Working For Yourself Has Downsides, Too
There are huge advantages to freelance life, one of which is that you can make your own hours. (This does, however, lead to the well-acknowledged problem of being totally out of sync with 9-to-5ers, with the added worry that you may not have got out of your pajamas all day.)
It does, however, have many drawbacks. It can be dangerous for mental health because of its high degree of isolation, requires rigorous self-discipline in the absence of a physically present boss, mandates that you are responsible for all your own tax, accounting and insurance, and generally requires you to be a Very Grown Up, In-Control Adult. And that's before we take into account the fact that you have to go to bat for yourself with every new commission — and stay on top of your own legal rights.
Every freelance writer needs to know their rights, because, depending on where you end up working, there may be no company structure with its own legal team looking after your rights for you. I've had a client put out a book of my work without my permission and with no extra income for myself, because of a bad contract I was foolish enough to sign. (They asked me to write an introduction for it. For free. I declined.) I've had people blatantly steal and republish my work in national newspapers without credit. Content production of any kind is fraught with issues, and freelance writers need to learn fast and get expert help quickly. Taylor Swift's advice to young singers to get a good lawyer comes to mind — but the industry often doesn't pay enough for that help to be easily available, a point that less scrupulous employers can prey upon. So it falls on us to know about our own rights. There's a lot of information out there about how freelancers can protect ourselves when it comes to payment, legal liability, or other issues, and reading up on it is a crucial step in getting your freelance career off the ground.
None of this information is intended to scare you — none of these facts mean that freelance writing can't also be a fun, exciting, rewarding career. But it'll be more fun, exciting, and rewarding if you go into it with your eyes fully open, wise to potential roadblocks and aware of your rights.