My First Full Year of Freelancing

This is more of a practical post for a change. I’ve had a few people reach out to see how freelance writing was going, so I’ve written a a rundown of my experience in the first full year.

Also, if you’re one of the many people who found this blog over the holiday season by Googling “Barbie Dream House” because of my old post from 2017, welcome! I hope you found the gift you were looking for.

Whenever I head into the holiday party season, I try to think of a succinct way to sum up the past 12 months of my life. This way, I can quickly answer the “so, how you’ve been?” small-talk question that often makes me freeze up, forget my name, and make the other person wonder what they possibly said to deserve the look I’m giving them. I had a particularly hard time figuring out what to say this year. The past 12 months have been a strange blur. We moved apartments, we saved our sick cat, I broke my toe. I dealt with one of my longest and darkest dips of depression I’ve dealt with in a while–hence the lack of blog posts. Honestly, it was a really weird, hard year, and I’m incredibly relieved to head into a new calendar with new exciting projects ahead.

Despite all the garbage, one reason the year was such a hot mess is that I was finding my footing in a freelancing life. And you know? I think I may have temporarily found it. I’ve had a few people contact me about how to become a freelance writer, and up until now, I’ve really just wanted to yell, “RUN! DON’T DO IT! IT’S NOT WHAT YOU THINK!” But I can chat with a clear head now. So I’ve been meaning to put everything I’ve learned in a post, just in case it helps anyone move in the same direction.

Here are the common questions I get about being a freelance writer:

So what do you do?

Somewhat accidentally, I began freelance writing for marketing agencies through websites like Upwork and Clearvoice about three years ago. I left my admin assistant job a year and a half ago to write full time. As an actor, taking on someone else’s voice in blog post form came easily. In a nutshell, brands use blog posts to bring people to their sites and buy their stuff. I write those posts. Sometimes it’s about cat birthday parties. Other times it’s about consolidating your student loans. I’ve even written about bug zappers. I would win at Pointless Jeopardy, if that were a thing.

But how do you pay your bills?

This all started from an unexpected hobby. I’ve written on this blog for nearly ten years now and have had a few unpaid posts published on sites like Offbeat Bride. I also write essays (yet to be published) and have 120 pages of a book that’s a not a book yet. This lead to having a portfolio, which lead to posting on UpWork (a freelancing job site), and eventually connecting with clients.

At first, I set my rate way lower than I should have been charging. Not only did this become a problem for me, but it lowers the bar in the industry as a whole. My biggest piece of advice for new freelancers is not to low-ball yourself. Dig around to see what the current standard rates are for your skill and try to get past imposter syndrome when you pitch your number.

This isn’t easy, I totally get it. Sites like Fiverr are teaching clients that creative workers should work for less than a living wage. Still, plenty of serious clients are willing to pay for quality work. If your “budgets don’t match” –my favorite way of wording this problem–you simply don’t work together, and that’s ok. As I’ve said before, I wouldn’t walk into a fancy shoe store and rant about how I can find a better deal at Target.

But for realz, how do you pay your bills?

When I started this whole shebang, I saved a bit of a cushion (nothing crazy) to help me through the inevitable slow months in the beginning. Around the four-month mark, my monthly income doubled, mainly due to finding a groove with a few steady clients and learning how much or how little I could take on without losing my head. A tipping point came when I really gained momentum with a few brands. I now make nearly what I made as an admin assistant, though I still set a ton aside for slow months and the terrifying amount I’ll have to pay in taxes this April.

How do you find work?

Upwork has been my launching-off point, but it’s important to know that the site can feel a bit like Craigslist. I’d say 20% of clients are amazing, kind, professional people who want to discuss your rate and contract while 80% want to yell at you for not accepting jelly beans as payment. Trust your gut when reading through posts or speaking with a potential client. Full sentences and punctuation are important, and try not to confuse negotiation with bullying. The beauty of freelancing is that you can walk away if someone starts to take advantage of your time.

I’ve since moved on to working with a few clients on my own, mainly through connecting on my blog or website, but I’m at about 50/50 now.

I hear you work from home, does that mean you can babysit my child all day?

I do work from home! But no, I unfortunately cannot babysit your child. People seem to–often quite innocently–forget that working from home doesn’t mean you’re not working. Yes, my flexible schedule means I could technically work in the middle of the night, switch Tuesday with Saturday or sit on my roof in my pajamas. But since all my bosses work regular hours, and since my brain turns to goop after 4pm, I tend to keep a steady schedule.

If you embark on freelancing, my dear friends, you are forewarned. Loved ones, landlords and doctor’s offices assume this means you do not work. It really confuses people when you say you don’t have an office or business to go to.

I do, however, have freedom to be a bit more social. With some heads up, I will happily shift things for a cup of coffee. It’s important that I see other humans.

What do you mean “slow months?!”

Freelancing is indeed feast or famine, as I’ve always heard. Last year, March and September were ROUGH. I cannot say why. People just vanished. I felt like the Mr. Cellophane of writers. But the months surrounding the famine made up for it in feast. So have heart, and squirrel away money for the weirder months.

Why do you do this to yourself?

Working in an office with benefits like sick days would be nice, but I didn’t do well–and have never done well–on other people’s schedules. In every traditional 9-5 I’ve ever had, I’ve flown through projects and find myself wandering the halls and staring out windows having mini existential crises at the copy machine.

This was a lifestyle change more than a career change. Structuring your own schedule is not for everyone, and I have plenty of days when all I want is a holiday party or a water cooler or a 401k. But then I fly through a project unexpectedly fast and go for a hike. So there’s that.

This may change–the stagnancy of freelancing may become too much of an issue soon, but for now, I’m feeling good.

Do you have advice for new freelancers?

Yes!

  • Believe in the value of your work. It is okay to say no to low rates or requests for free work.
  • Understand scope creep. This is when you sign on to write an article at a set price but then the editor asks you to add several extra steps, make more revisions that agreed upon, and asks if you can walk their dog, sell them your hair or peel them a grape. No.
  • Have a place to write that isn’t about making money or building a career. Like this blog is for me.
  • Remember that your editors are humans just like you and it can be weird to never meet your boss in person. You can stay professional while being personal and confident. It’s normal to miscommunicate at times.
  • Revel in good edits. Great editors can make you a better writer. Try not to take them to heart whenever possible.
  • Listen to your gut if you think someone is trying to rip you off.
  • It’s okay to be confident and to negotiate. I read today that women are more likely to be seen as difficult if they negotiate whereas men are seen as strong. F* that.
  • Create a central location for work flow. I keep all current projects in a Google spreadsheet with notes on pending payments and revision requests.
  • Get out of the house! Cats are great company, people are better. Air is helpful. Walk around the block.
  • If you’re going to sit in a coffee shop for two hours, buy things. Tip.
  • Give yourself a break during slow periods. Use this time to figure out your dream clients and apply to your heart’s content. The work will come back.
  • Remember to read and fill your creative tank.
  • Build your freelancer network. Working alone can be tricky. I’m not great at this yet. If you’re a freelancer, hit me up. I want to hang out!

So are you no longer an actor?

Well, here we are–the question I’ve been battling with for the past year. And I don’t have a clear answer for you. I’ve recently started thinking about my acting career as a bad boyfriend. Theatre doesn’t return my texts, Theatre doesn’t seem to want to go on dates anymore, Theatre makes me feel lousy about myself. And yet, I keep thinking that Theatre and I are still a thing. What am I even getting out of my relationship with Theatre? Financial instability, lack of creative fulfillment and a bad body image. If Theatre was a guy, we would not be dating.

On the other hand, being an Admin Assistant (a path that was never meant to be more than a temp job to support acting), was a bit like dating a boring guy named Ned that is stable but has nothing much else going for him. Your parents approve–as long as you’re happy!–but know that you’ll probably look back one day and realize you settled for Ned. Ned complains about his 9-5 but will never leave it, claims that his wife gives him no freedom and then sits in a windowless room to watch football for 12 hours every Sunday.

Writing, however…Writing is returning my calls, making me feel motivated AND has some financial footing. So who knows, maybe Theatre will get their act together. Or I can…date both at the same time? My metaphor died. Either way, you get the idea. And I’m glad I didn’t settle for Ned.

So is this your career now? Marketing writing?

Nah. I will always be an artist at heart, whether that means finally finishing my Camino book, getting back into acting or putting on cat puppet shows on the street corner (as my sister always predicted would become of my career). {Side note: I also draw the line in my marketing writing with companies I cannot morally support}.

My goal for 2019 is to create a better discipline for working on my own writing as much as I work on marketing work. It’s time to get things moving, and this weird past year of finding my footing, though stressful, was incredibly important.

All this being said, please do not hesitate to reach out with questions or advice if you’re thinking of making the freelance leap. I am still relatively new at this, but can definitely guide you in the right direction.

 

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