The Art of Freelancing
—By Laura Shebey
.....After reviewing the books for the first half of my article, I still had many unanswered questions, and wanted to learn more about the personal experiences of real freelancers. In the books, the authors gave several accounts of personal experiences, but none of the examples were very detailed or specific. I was finally able to ask the questions I had brewing in my mind when I conducted the following interviews with two currently working freelancers, Anne Wallingford and K.K.
.....When Anne Wallingford, a former middle school science teacher quit teaching after sixteen years, she moved from Chicago to a small town in north central Ohio, where she took a job with one of the six major high school science catalogers. Over a three year time period, she worked her way up through the corporate ranks, going from product specialist to catalog manager. When the economy hit a serious downturn in the late 1980s, she was downsized along with the many other employees. "I was fortunate, though," explained Anne. "The firm that downsized me offered me a ten month freelancing job with their manufacturing division. This is what I consider the official start of my freelancing career." Anne has been freelancing full-time for the last fifteen years.
....."At the end of the ten months, I knew I would need to find more work," she continued. "But in a manufacturing town that had lost its manufacturing base, there were not a lot of job opportunities. I frequently reminded myself that I had often been told by friends, through the years, that I was an excellent writer, and so I made up my mind that I would write to earn a living. There was nothing glamorous about my decision to continue as a freelancer; it was the only option I had."
.....Initially, Anne worked as a stringer for a local newspaper and sold a few articles to other markets. Within a few months, she had built enough of a reputation with the newspaper that she could switch to a larger competitor where she was responsible for the newspaper's monthly 12-page business insert as well as many weekly news and feature articles. "Not only did this job pay the rent every month, but I had some very interesting assignments and interviewed many fascinating people. I loved hearing the stories that people had to tell, and I knew from feedback to the newspaper that my articles and columns generated interest."
.....While Anne was working for the newspaper, she took on a part-time teaching position at the local technical college. Through her work at the college, she came into contact with the president of a nearby hospital, and networked her way into a job as the Interim Director of Marketing.
"The newspaper job paid the rent, the teaching job paid for groceries, and the hospital job paid for everything else. The hours were long—I usually worked fifteen hour days, six days per week—but even so, these was fewer hours than when I worked as a corporate employee. Best of all, I found that I really enjoyed the work. I enjoyed meeting new people, and enjoyed the challenges of each job, and I especially liked being my own boss. After a year of freelancing at these various jobs, I was not only keeping the wolf from the door, but I had put aside enough money to take a vacation. I returned to Chicago to visit my family."
.....For various reasons, including a wider range of writing opportunities, Anne moved back to Chicago where she landed a consulting job with an elementary/middle school math cataloger. "The firm had been successfully marketing themselves in the math market for twenty years, and the president had decided to add a science division. I was in the right place at the right time and had exactly the right mix of skills to land the assignment." While Anne was busy developing a science division for the firm, she continued to pick up smaller freelancing assignments during this three year period.
.....Today, Anne divides her time between catalog work (books and multimedia for the high school market) and editing/writing for publishers and development houses. At this point in her career, she even has clients contacting her. She credits this turn of good luck to three things: networking, her presence on the Internet, and her ability to do quality work. "Networking turned out to be my most effective marketing tool. It really is a case of who you know, not what you know, that gets your foot in the door. Make no mistake, though—once you have a foot in the door, it's what you know and what you can do for the client that keeps the job."
.....Because I have always been interested in how a person goes about becoming a freelancer, and what type of process they must go through in order to be known by the outside world, Anne's response not only made a lot of sense to me, but also made me think deeply about the questions she posed:
.....Intrigued by all she had to say, I concluded my interview with Anne by asking her to discuss the pros and cons of freelancing, since there seems to be a fair amount of both. Anne came up with a total of four, each acting as both a pro and a con depending on how they are treated in each situation. Her examples included being able to set one's own hours, not having a boss standing over one's shoulder, being able to work at home, and being able to spend more time with one's family.
"Are you willing and able to work long hard hours to establish your credentials? Do you really enjoy what you are doing and this shows because you do good work? Are you willing to spend as many, if not more, hours marketing and selling your skills as you do using your skills? Are you willing and able to do all the tasks needed to run a business, including keeping financial records, performing general clerical tasks, janitorial duties, and selling and marketing yourself? Are you able to perform these tasks on a regular basis and still have the time and energy to do your work?
"Although some freelancers have made a conscious decision to work this way, most have ended up as freelancers through a process, not as a conscious decision. Becoming a freelancer is not a career choice. Freelancing is more a reflection of what a person is than what they do for a living. I sometimes compare freelancing to being a restaurant owner. It's either in your blood or it isn't."
"First, you are able to set your own hours. Many non-freelancers think it must be nice not to punch a time clock. It is. It's a beautiful spring day and you want to goof off? Fine. As long as you meet your deadlines! You might take off several days in a row; but you're just as likely to find yourself working straight through forty-eight hours to finish a task on time.
"Second, you don't have a boss standing over your shoulder. Says who? You have the toughest boss in the world: yourself. Oh, and your clients. When you are "it" and there is no one else to take the credit or blame, you start finding you are harder on yourself than any boss ever was. At least you will be, if you intend to survive as a freelancer.
"Third, you can work at home. You can wear your pajamas all day if you want. You can sleep until noon and work until 4 a.m. You can do any and all of these things. As long as you work. As long as you meet your deadlines. Some people find it almost impossible to work from home even though this was their dream for many years. It's amazing how many distractions, small and large, can lure one away from the job. (A lot of freelancers find that the refrigerator and the television are the two worst temptations.)
"Fourth, your family. You choose to be a stay-at-home mom who works out of the house. That's fine. But what do you do when the baby starts to cry? Or Junior starts whining? The dog has to go for a walk? Sissy wants to show you the teacher's comment on her homework? You know you have to work but are you willing to make the sacrifices needed to work from home? And is your family willing and able to accept the fact that when you are working, you are "at work" and are not to be disturbed? Well-intentioned family members have brought about the downfall of many a freelancer's aspirations. Is it possible to be a work-away-from-home parent? Yes. But it's not any easier than being a work-from-home parent. Some say it is harder."
.....Anne drives home the point that, as a freelancer, a writer must be committed to success. She states that working from home does not require as much professionalism as an employee has, instead it requires more. "Don't tell me you can't do the rewrite to meet the criteria of the assignment because you don't have the time to spare from other home-related obligations. You signed the contract. Do the job. Many prospective clients already hold it against you because you work from home; don't justify their negative opinions."
.....The next person I interviewed was K.K. K.K. is a high school friend of my mother and has been freelance editing for science publications and travel guides for about five years. Before K.K. had children, she was a writer for the state health department in New York. As a stay-at-home mom, she looked for work that was both flexible and/or could be done at home.
.....For her first freelancing experience, K.K. worked as a private contractor, gathering research and compiling a newsletter on grant information. K.K. said the research was interesting, but not as positive as the freelance editing work she does now. For the newsletter she was paid a set amount each month, no matter how much time she put into doing the work.
"I worked all night sometimes to make deadlines and traveled to libraries to read grant publications and gather information I couldn't get at home. I didn't make enough money for the many hours I put into the job. Also, I worked alone and had all the responsibility for the newsletter without the credit or enough profit. I was actually a subcontractor for another contractor. The good part was that I got experience, gained confidence, had a reason to tell people I was a freelance editor, and I learned that, for me, it's best to charge by the hour. My first freelance-editing job was a few pages for a group travel guide for a state tourism office. This has blossomed into four years of work so far. I like working as part of a team with graphic artists, and I learn a lot and get paid much better.
.....In her experiences, K.K. has come across four aspects of freelancing that lead to frustration and discouragement. Her number one complaint is the self-employment tax. "Not only are taxes higher, but there is no job security." Her second complaint is not getting any benefits, such as insurance, paid holidays, sick or vacation time. "While this is a pain, for me, the freedom is worth it. My husband gets benefits for our family through his job, so we are not lacking as far as benefits are concerned."
.....K.K. went on to explain that sometimes freelancing gets a little lonely because you are not a true member to any one group. "Sometimes the feeling of not belonging is hard, but once again, it is worth it to me."
.....The last discouragement K.K. faces is having to deal with people who get offended when she corrects their work. "People take it personally when I offer suggestions on how to make their papers sound better. I am usually very tactful, so that's not often a problem."
.....Before I concluded our interview, I asked K.K. what advice she would offer to a person who wants to get involved in freelance writing. Her response was very interesting, and I enjoyed listening to what she had to say.
.....After reviewing the four books and listening to Anne and K.K. speak openly about freelancing, I feel as though I have a much better understanding of what is expected from the freelancer, and how to go about searching for employment. The books I reviewed were interesting and helpful, but it was the responses to the interviews that further sparked my interest in freelancing. Overall, I enjoyed writing this research paper, because it forced me into exploring a topic I have been wanting to learn about for a few years, but have put off more than once due to a lack of time and effort. I enjoyed the learning process and feel very fortunate for having the opportunity to speak with both Anne and K.K. about what they know best.
"Read a lot. Talk to people everywhere, make contacts. If invited, always go to lunch, office parties, coffee hours, or picnics. It's a good way to meet potential clients and keep friendly with the ones you have. Use a grammar book. Read grammar rules for fun. Have a good resume and work/writing samples ready. Maybe get a regular job first, for experience. Maybe that's not necessary. Tell potential clients about your strong points and how you like to write, work hard, pay attention to detail, and keep commitments. Be professional and humbly proud of yourself."
By request, the initials K.K. have been substituted for the interviewee's actual name.
To read the Book Review portion of Laura Shebey's article … Click HERE
© 2000 by Laura Shebey. Edited by Anne Wallingford.
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