What It’s Really Like To Be A Freelance Writer: 5 Things I’ve Learned

Image via BookMama

When I mention to people that I’m a part-time freelance copywriter I usually get a lot of questions about what I write and how I make it work, followed by a small exclamation of envy. One friend of mine, who’s been following my journey from occasional travel writer to actual freelancer, told me I must be “living the dream.”

While this is most certainly my dream and has indeed become somewhat my life, I didn’t get here by accident. Countless hours have been spent thinking up ideas, pitching to editors and writing for free so I could ‘build my profile’ (whatever that really means these days). Now I’m at a stage where I wouldn’t write a word for nothing unless it was a) for charity/a good cause or b) getting published somewhere really cool.

Getting to the point where you can genuinely call yourself a freelance writer (pinches self) is no easy feat. Neither does it entail “living the dream” seven days a week. I’ve put together a little guide and insight into the reality of being a freelance writer for prospective writers that are with me in the trenches or anyone that’s just curious.

1.    Getting people to pay you decent (or any) money is, like… hard!

Image via Alex Nguyen These are British pounds, by the way.

When you first wade out into the mire of publishing companies, online magazines and websites it seems like everyone wants something for nothing. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read sentences such as: “We are unable to offer any financial compensation but will give you fantastic EXPOSURE”; “We will PROMOTE your blog/social media pages/website through your articles”; “We can give you great EXPERIENCE and feedback on your writing”. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve written for free more than once and it has definitely helped me get to where I am now but I chose my platforms wisely (for example, the UK’s leading travel magazine or one of the most well-known gap year planning websites in the country). Building up a portfolio of writing is key to getting future work and increasing your earning power, so ultimately you will probably have to give away a few freebies when you start out.

Even as an established writer with several ongoing jobs I still pinch myself when a company is prepared to pay me a decent amount of cold hard cash instead of offering, say, $10 per article. Freelancing has so many benefits in terms of flexibility, being your own boss and focusing on your passions but a get rich quick scheme it definitely ain’t.

2.    You still have to do things you don’t feel like doing, the same as any other job.

laptop park
Image via CollegeDegrees360 If only freelancing was just like this…

Just because your work is your passion it doesn’t mean that you are going to love every minute of it. This is true of anyone who has their dream job, or any job for that matter. There are always tasks you enjoy more than others. For me, the planning stages of an article, where I begin to get my teeth stuck into a topic, are probably my favourite. My least favourite is when I am about 150 words from finished and my momentum is waning, or anything to do with composing and sending invoices. Maybe it’s my British-ness but I find asking people for money, even for work they’ve commissioned me to do and I’ve worked hard on, kind of awkward. Plus, I’m terrible at maths.

I have a few strategies for getting through the tough times and keeping my mojo when I feel like slamming my laptop shut and downing a glass of wine. Generally, if there’s a title I think I’ll find less enjoyable than the other articles I’m currently working on I’ll try to tackle that one first. It’s never usually as bad as I anticipated from the brief and means I can enjoy writing the easier, more interesting pieces as a reward. If I’m having particularly bad writer’s block/brain freeze/can’t be arsed-ness, I stop and start again the next day to reset my mind. A change of scenery can also be good to refresh creative inspiration. And I have been known to start on that wine before the article is quite finished.

3.    You’re going to be alone. A lot.

A freelancer’s little helper. Image via Lis Ferla

I’m a sociable kind of girl. This explains my undying love for the hospitality industry (if the writing thing doesn’t work out I’m going to open the most kick-ass bar one day) and the large amount of online conservations with friends I constantly have ongoing. I just love people. That being said, I’m a committed solo traveller so I also feel very comfortable with only myself for company… for a while. The major challenge about being a freelancer is that you are alone pretty much all the time. You may sometimes do the odd day in the office if the company you’re working for requires it, but you’re still an outsider at the end of the day.

If you’re not good at being alone most of the time, I don’t recommend freelancing. You need immense personal motivation (or a lot of looming deadlines) to get up in the morning and sit down at your desk for another day to yourself. I do have my cat to talk to, but this puts me into worryingly crazy-cat-lady-esque territory (the less said about that the better). Usually there is no one else there to rant to when you’re stressed or celebrate with if you land a new job or help you solve any problems you come up against (except wine. And the aforementioned cat). Some of you might be lucky enough to live near a cool freelance community but if you’re a rural type like myself your best bet for human contact is a local library, café or even a pub (for those with more self-control than I).

4.    There’s no such thing as a ‘day off’ anymore.

Dafne Cholet

I’ve had exactly three days off in the last month. One of which was filled with family duties, one of which was meant to be a work day but was consumed by an unstoppable hangover (oops), and one on which I literally did nothing but endured a guilty nagging feeling come sundown.

Perhaps if I was better at organising my schedule I would get more time off, but the point I am really making is that every day involves some form of working; whether that’s replying to emails, mentally planning writing ideas or actual writing. It’s a draining lifestyle at times yet impossible to switch off from when it’s what you really want to be doing with your life. I’ve missed out on a new job in the last couple of weeks because I took a day to reply to an email offer and they’d hired someone else already. The five minutes I could have taken out of my day might have led to an exciting new opportunity ending up who-knows-where. I could beat myself up about that, but I choose to see it as serendipity and believe that a better opportunity will come my way soon. In fact, today it has.

5.    Seeing something you worked hard on get published is a feeling like no other.

Image via John Liu

Aaaaand this is why we do it. It’s not for the money or the boasting rights or because we are “living the dream”. It’s because we love to write, it’s all we know we can do well and there is no better feeling (career-wise) than seeing a piece you put your heart into published, out there for the world to enjoy. I learn a little something from everything I write and my ultimate joy comes from the hope that those reading my work will also learn something. Even if it’s that I’m secretly a crazy cat lady, at least they learned something.

4 thoughts on “What It’s Really Like To Be A Freelance Writer: 5 Things I’ve Learned

  1. I did editorial freelancing (and very small bits of freelance writing), but I know this song all the same. Two things helped me: 1. A small local group of freelancers formed from an online group, and they were wonderful. I used to call them my virtual colleagues. We helped each other both professionally and–well, one person used to call the group “the water cooler.” The social overlapped with the professional, as it does on most jobs. 2. Someone in the online group said she put aside 10% of every paycheck so she had money to fall back on. My partner brought in a regular paycheck, so we weren’t heavily dependent on my income, but it did help to know that other people experienced those gaps when every job on the planet seems to dry up, because sometimes they did.

    1. Thanks for your comment Ellen. I’ve just joined a Facebook group of female travellers and it’s awesome to be part of such an inspiring online community! I’ve just started adding to my savings again and that feels really good 🙂 freelancing ain’t easy, but it’s worth it.

  2. Love this Helen. Honestly, it really inspires me. I think the reason I’ve been so slow to get my blog off the ground is because I’m terrible at organisation and I’m not always the best at self-motivation, but I hope I can change that because I also hope that one day I can call myself a freelancer as well!

    1. It’s taken me several years to have the time and motivation to really go for it. If it’s really what you want to do then you’ll make it happen. Although, blogging for fun is great, too! Good luck, you can do it 😀

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s