Tuesday, October 21, 2014

4 Things I've Learned About Freelancing

I took my first freelance writing job in 1997. A few things have changed since then -- blogging became a thing; the Internet exploded into a global shopping mall/news feed/soap box; and social media took media, well, social. But for all that, I'm not so sure that the art of freelancing itself has changed all that much, aside from the fact that there are a zillion more opportunities to practice it. So this post is aimed primarily at writers who have just started freelancing or are debating whether to bother. Without further ado, here are four insights I've gained in my years as a freelance marketing copywriter in Austin (and, thanks to the Web, everywhere else):

1. Uncertainty is a certainty. If you absolutely must have an exact dollar amount dropped into your bank account every week or month, you're better off with a 9-to-5 writing job. Freelancing isn't a feast-or-famine existence; it's a feast-and-famine existence. Your income will blow hot and cold, with good months following bad months in what almost seems a perverse rotation. The only way I've found to flatten the curve a little is to build up a large, varied clientele. The more eggs you have in your basket, the more easily you can ensure tomorrow morning's breakfast.

2. Clients come and go. When I began my writing career I made the classic mistake every freelancer makes at some point (and then never again). I had two big clients that accounted for my entire monthly nut, so I figured that I was all set for the indefinite future. Well, you can guess what happened -- the indefinite future became definite. One client decided to do all its copywriting in house, and the other got absorbed by another firm and more or less vanished in a puff of smoke. the lesson: always add new clients to your list, no matter how heavily booked you may think you are, because they will come and go. Businesses restructure; business owners change careers or retire. (Or even die. Yes, that's happened to me.)

3. You can't do it in a vacuum. Freelancing appeals to us solitary types because we're able to think and work largely unmolested by the outside world. But if you think you can spend the rest of your writing career staring serenely at your wall, think again. Whether you write marketing content for businesses or you submit articles on spec to publications, you need to get out there, talk to people, listen to people, and generally soak in what's going on and how your colleagues feel about it. For me, the most efficient way of doing that is to frequent weekly or monthly networking organizations. You may also have luck finding topic-based get-togethers on Meetup.com or similar sites. Even casual social gatherings can provide you with valuable insights and information.

4. It works if you work it. Okay, that isn't always true; there are plenty of hardworking souls for whatever reason found that freelancing simply didn't work for them. But I can at least state with confidence that it doesn't work if you don't work it. Now, if you're just coming off a brutal career in which long hours were the norm, you may well want to give yourself some slack time (if you can afford it) before plunging into your new life. But if you're attracted to freelancing because "it beats working for a living," then you'll soon find that your definition of "working" needs an adjustment. Freelancers can decide when they want to work, but not whether they want to work. That rent won't pay itself. For better or worse, you're your own boss now -- so lead wisely.

One final tip: No matter how much planning and weighing of options you do, you'll never really know whether freelancing agrees with you unless you give it a whirl, at least as a side job. Who knows -- you might find yourself sharing your own insights on the subject one of these days!