I went freelance last July, after working on the staff of an online magazine for a few years, and since then lots of people have asked me for advice on how to make the transition from full-time employment to a freelance life.
The truth is, though, my own experience of this phase of my career has been far from typical: for starters, I shifted gears in my career in part so that I could have another baby, and I was only able to do that because my husband took over as our family’s primary breadwinner. (Up until that point, we had relied almost entirely on my income, so I needed the steady paycheque and security that full-time employment offered.)
So, rather than just offer my perspective, I thought I’d ask three freelance writers to share their top tips and advice for anyone who’s curious about what this type of career involves, and how to make it work for their own life. I hope you find their advice helpful!
Ianthe Butt is a freelance editor and journalist specialising in travel (trends, culture, nature, adventure). She splits her time between London and on assignment around the globe, as well as undertaking in-house editorial and consultancy projects. Her background before going freelance was five years’ experience working in-house at British Airways’ High Life, and after that time at Conde Nast Traveller. She went freelance in May 2017.
- Get outside every single day: Even if your office is a desk at home, do not sit at it all day. Whether that means visiting a coffeeshop to work or taking a walk in a local park a bit of fresh air (even when it’s the last thing you feel like doing) will work wonders for your mood (and help you shake writer’s block).
- “The highs are higher, and the lows are lower”: That’s what many freelancers told me before I got going. And it’s absolutely true. Some days when you’ve filed copy, had brilliant feedback from an editor, secured a new commission or get booked on an exciting project, you’ll feel on top of the world. Other times when you’re chasing overdue invoices (this will happen, frequently), following up on pitches, or just not nailing the right ideas, the freelance blues can arrive. So, be kind to yourself, and learn that—like in any office job—some days will be good, and others less so. There’s no point beating yourself up about it.
- Cut yourself some slack: If there are days (when you don’t have an imminent deadline) that you feel like you’re hitting a wall on a writing project, I say put it aside, do something else for a couple of hours. Respond to some email, read a magazine for some inspiration or a good book. Or, if you can, shut the laptop and just get outside and do something else. Get a good night’s sleep and come back to it with fresh eyes in the morning, getting up a couple of hours earlier to make up the time if needs be.
- Make sure you have a support network: While I love the freedom that freelancing brings, I’ve found that building up a network of freelancer friends makes a lovely support network in place of colleagues in an office, as I definitely miss the camaraderie that brings.
- Revel in the freedom of being completely in charge of your own time: If you fancy a long weekend off, just make sure you plan in a few extra hours of work at an evening or weekend, and it’s easily done.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for a fair wage: Never undersell yourself; factor in your experience and expertise, how much work will go into it, the time it will take, and charge accordingly.
- Make sure you have a few steady and reliable clients: If you have that, it takes the pressure off pitching for fresh things all the time.
You can follow Ianthe on Twitter, here, and on Instagram, here. Ianthe started the hashtag #newweeknewwork for creative freelancers to share what they’ve been working on, because it can get lonely when you don’t have office-mates to share your work wins with.
Louise Burfitt is a new freelancer/editorial business owner from London, soon to be living in the countryside just outside Oxford. She spent four years working in-house in London publishing houses and content agencies, in roles as varied as “in-house translator”, “web editor” and “staff writer”. She spent her last year in London as a full-time copy-editor at a food magazine. She’s now running her own fledgling portfolio business as a writer, copy-editor and German translator. She specialises in non-fiction books, food content and travel. Most of her income at the moment comes from in-house editing work at her former workplace (a content agency) and remote translation work.
- Finding balance: Looking back at my experience so far, I have a feeling balance is going to be the most elusive thing to achieve. The moment a project comes in I feel the urge to drop everything to complete it and will happily spend evenings and weekends tinkering with a project until it is just right. I love what I do and I am still delighted by the idea that someone will pay me to sit at my desk, in my home, to work with words. I’m more than happy to put the time in, and some! While this is great in some ways, it’s not so brilliant for my spine, work-life balance or—ultimately—my mental health. (Nobody was built to work all day and night!) This is something I think I will come up against again and again in my freelance career: knowing when to stop working and when to take a break are lessons I’m still learning.
- Prior experience helps: From almost the first day I set foot in an office as an editorial intern, aged 22, I knew I wanted to be my own boss someday. Said office was a pretty stellar one: a high-flying London publishing house overlooking the river, trolleys stacked high with cromalins and rooms filled with the addictive hum of frantic typing. It was thrilling, and an invaluable experience, but—as an introvert and a fiercely independent one at that—I knew I wouldn’t be truly happy until I was running my own show. I am pinching myself that I’ve been able to do so relatively early on in my career. I think already having professional experience in the working world, contacts in publishing and a lot of extracurricular reading helped. I was also able to plan in advance and save up quite a bit of an emergency fund for those first few months, where workflow can be more of a trickle than a flood. (And, it has to be said, as a middle-class, educated, white British person with a family home in London, I am immensely privileged. I never want to be ignorant of the role that plays in my opportunities.)
- It’s hard: It’s all been said before… as a freelancer, you’re your own accountant, boss, HR manager, tea-maker, secretary. That can be scary. YOU have to be the one to call up clients, you have to be the one to deal with problems as they arise, you have to know when to say no and when to step up to the challenge. It’s also incredibly empowering. In the past month alone, I’ve never felt more like I’ve got this! Wearing so many different hats, so often, is liberating. It is a very quick and efficient route to realising your worries of “I can’t do that!” or “I could never do XYZ” are redundant. You can—and you will.
- You’re a business: It’s easy as a freelancer to see yourself as simply a paid contractor, especially if you go into the offices of companies and organisations to work and are paid through their payroll system. The best advice I received, though, was to see yourself as a business. A plumber wouldn’t do a job for less than his or her set rate just to “get exposure”. Writing a business plan encourages you to think strategically and to realise the importance of investing in yourself and your services. Setting goals can guide you in the kind of work you accept and the rates you offer.
- Appreciate the perks: There are definite downsides to freelancing. It’s precarious, the work ebbs and flows, it can be very lonely—and nobody likes an extra reason to need to call HMRC! But for me, so far, the benefits outweigh these cons and I’m taking pains to appreciate them. I no longer have to squeeze myself onto a District line carriage filled to bursting. I can choose my hours, working in the evenings sometimes so that I have time for a long lunchtime walk in the daylight. I can work from the train, or a café, or one of Oxford’s beautiful libraries. Forging your own path is far from easy, but the road is dotted with real positives. Appreciate them!
- Find like-minded colleagues: If you’re going to be working from home, you’re likely going to be colleague-free. No more awkward conversations by the microwave or in the lift… Hooray! But, of course, like-minded colleagues are a boon and can be a real support, as well as an invaluable source of advice on all things work-related. While you might not be able to share an office, the internet has made it pretty easy to find similarly-minded freelancers via Twitter, LinkedIn or other networks. Have a search for Twitter hashtags or organised chats that relate to your niche (ie. #copywritersunite or #xl8 on twitter) and contribute. You’ll soon find you have an ever-widening network of contacts in your industry, in your own city, country or beyond. Great for advice and great for occasionally passing on work, or being able to pass it on if your diary is full.
- Separate work and home: If you’re working from home, I think it’s crucial to have an area that is designated for work and puts you in the right mindset as soon as you sit down. It doesn’t have to be big; it can be as simple as an alcove in your living room with shelves fixed to the wall above a desk and a comfy chair. If you have the space, a home office is also an excellent idea. This will help you have your own dedicated working space, and also signal to those you live with that you are “at work” when you are in this area. It will also avoid the temptation to work from your sofa/bed! (Bonus tip: getting dressed early on in the day is another thing I swear by. I can’t feel motivated in pyjamas or exercise gear!)
You can find out more about Louise via her website, here.
Zoe Lea is a novelist who writes psychological thrillers. Her first book, If He Wakes, is due out this April. The book is about two friends, one witnesses a crime and the other discovers she’s unwittingly at the centre of it, the book follows their journey as they both uncover their involvement in the crime and what impact it has on their friendship.
- You need to be very self-disciplined: My working life is a bit different when compared to other freelance writers as I’m not actively writing pitches and chasing down editors every day, I’m writing a novel. So it’s a much slower process. I can go for weeks, months even, without being in contact with my agent or editor about my work in progress and that’s something I wish I’d known at the beginning—just how long it takes to write a book and the discipline that’s needed!
- There’s lots of admin involved (and admin can be fun!): In contrast to this slow progress of writing a novel, as I have my first book coming out soon, there’s a lot of admin involved with that which is all, really, really, lovely. So today for instance, I have to write my acknowledgements for book one, then get my head around a plot point for book two. It is a complete dream come true for me, and to be honest, I still have to pinch myself that it’s really happening, but it has taken a long time to get here.
- Remember, writing a book takes ages: So much longer than you think it will, and for that, you have to be dedicated. It takes commitment to write whilst paying the bills, so make sure you love the idea you have and are completely devoted to it. You might not see any reward for your work for years, it really can take that long, so be prepared. Make the time to write and keep to a plan. It works better if you write everyday, even at weekends and holidays, as you need to keep the idea fresh, so do it daily even if you only get a few hundred words down.
- Be prepared to edit: Then edit again. And again. I remember when I’d finished the first draft of my novel and thought that was it—oh the naivety! Learn to listen and to change your work for the better. It’s a mix between loving your idea so much you’re prepared to work on it for an age on your own, then be open to changing it all as your agent and editor recommend.
- You’ve got to be tenacious: The other thing I wish I’d known was how tenacious you have to be in regards to getting your work seen and how resilient you have to be to rejection. Writing the book is the easy part, it’s getting an agent and publisher that’s hard, so be persistent about it. If you’ve finished a book and are awaiting feedback from an agent, you should be writing another whilst waiting. If that agent passes, ask for feedback and send it to another agent, never dwell on the rejection. Enter short story competitions to get your work out there, join a writing group where you can get support and swap ideas, keep up to date with literary news so you know what agents are actively looking to take writers on. Sign up for newsletters detailing new writing opportunities and courses. Be on the lookout for any opportunity where you might receive a critique or get your writing in front of an agent or publisher. Know that you will get rejected, many, many times and learn not to take any of it personally.
- It’s worth it: Having a complete stranger read your novel, then contact you with their thoughts, is such a reward. To know that you’ve entertained, that you’ve transported someone into your imaginary world and made a connection, is for me, the best.