Monday, February 11, 2008

My Top Five Myths About Freelance Writing

I'd like to think I wasn't terribly naive when I started freelance writing. I'd read a lot of books about the freelancing experience, I'd done some work part-time by the time I quit my job, and I thought I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting into. But I definitely made the leap with a few preconceived notions that later turned out to be false. Here are my personal freelancing myths--and the truth about them.

I'd work in my PJ's all day. When I started freelancing, I was in love with the idea that I'd never have to dress in "business casual" again. I got ready to throw away all my dress pants and nylons. But after about a week of typing in my flannels all day, I got sick of it. I felt like a slob--and to be honest, no matter how much writing I did, I never really felt like I accomplished much if I never actually got dressed. As time went by, I actually started looking for opportunities to dress up. Today, I don't necessarily wear a suit to my home office--my dress code is pretty casual. But I do make an effort to look presentable each day, even if all I have in front of me is a solitary day of writing.

I'd have no boss--I'll answer to myself. I loved the idea of having nobody to answer to, picking my assignments, and cutting ties if something isn't working out. And while freelancing definitely gives you more freedom from authority than you'd usually have, I also found it doesn't free you entirely. You still have clients--and they're your bosses. Each time you take on a new client, you have to learn all over again about their likes, dislikes, communication style, and expectations. If you have a few regular clients (like I do), you may find you want to work extra hard to please these folks. And if something isn't working out between you and a client, it's true you can cut ties. But you have incentives to try to make it work first--you may have already spent their deposit, or maybe they're well connected and you don't want to get a bad reputation in their industry.

I'd have total freedom. I had visions of waking up at noon every day, taking vacations whenever I wanted, and working "only when I felt like it." A few weeks on the job quickly proved me wrong. As a freelancer you have to meet your deadlines religiously, respond quickly to client communications, keep up with your marketing, and work to grow your business. With all there is to do in a day, I've found that getting up early is the only way I can get anything done. Working "when I felt like it" is right out; I have to pay the bills, after all. And yes, I can take vacations whenever I want--as long as I have no projects going on that week. As with a regular job, I have to make sure my vacation doesn't interfere with anything pressing.

As a professional writer, I'd never have to do math. I used to be a bit of a math phobic. I avoided taking any math classes in college; my rationale was that since I was going to be a writer, I was never going to need it. This was probably one of my biggest mistakes. I need to know how much to set aside for taxes, how much I need to make each month to survive, and how much to charge. I also have to know a lot of other things I never thought I needed--including basic sales techniques, technical skills, and marketing.

I'd be back in an office in six months. When I made the leap, I wasn't sure how it would work out. While I'd made money freelancing previously, I hadn't made enough to completely replace my full-time job. I had a lot of ideas for getting more business, but I had a secret fear that I wouldn't last long. A year and a half later, it's worked out better than I had hoped--and despite the fact that some of my illusions turned out to be untrue, this is still the best job I've ever had.


Unknown said...

Yea, that math one fooled me, too. Thank God for Quicken and a husband with math aptitude. :)

Star Lawrence said...

I used to joke that you can set your own hrs as long as they are seven days a week. I have been freelance 26 yrs, but had a "real" job before that--where a guy came around and dropped a check on my desk every two weeks. I miss that guy.


Star Lawrence

Michele said...

I really love how you've shared your fears and explained the raw truth, Jennifer! I know this post will be so helpful to new writers.

Like you, I'm not fond of math and I was real surprised by the need for technical skills.

This is a wonderful post, and the last sentence is beautiful. :-)


Anonymous said...

It is great, isn't it?

The best part about the whole boss thing is that, as a freelancer, you get to fire your "boss" whenever you like -- as in drop clients who are too much of a pain in the . . .

Kathy@TheFlawlessWord said...

Some days I do sit around in my PJs for half the day, but RE "I actually started looking for opportunities to dress up," I can so relate. Good thing (unlike most modern-day church goers) I still believe in donning my Sunday best. Otherwise, I'd never be able to get all dolled up. ;o)

Jennifer Williamson said...

Ha! It's good to see I wasn't the only person who had these ideas!

@Lori: Doesn't that stink? Here I thought I could get away with never having to deal with math ever again after high school, and now I find I landed in a career path where you need it to succeed. Thank goodness for calculators.

@Star: that comment about 7 days a week is so true. I worked this entire weekend. Granted I didn't mind so much because a). I could do it in my living room with a mug of hot chocolate, not in an office, and b). I actually like to write--not to mention c). I make more money by doing weekend work, as opposed to when you're on salary. But still--fewer work hours is not a selling point of this career.

@Michele: Thanks! Glad you liked it.

@Kathy: It's funny; I never used to bother trying to look exceptional when I had an office job. Now I get dressed up, put on makeup, and actually make an effort to accessorize when I go to meet friends, go to play auditions when I'm in a play, or even just going to the supermarket sometimes. It's a little ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

I had all of the same ideas, and I also laboured under the idea that my house would always be spotless because I'd have all that time to clean and iron and generally keep on top of things. Er, all what time?

I also agree about the working in the PJs thing. I just can't do it - I have to get dressed. And sometimes I long for the opportunity to get dressed up a little. At the moment it's jeans and vest tops all day, every day...

Anonymous said...

I hate math, just for the record. Had I been good at it, I would've been an accountant. However, I can now budget, manage and invoice like a thoroughbred on a racetrack heading in for the finish.

As for the rest, I'm often overheard saying, "Don't go into business for yourself." There's a reason for that!

Anonymous said...

Great list!

Sometimes I find myself dressing in business casual just so that I can get work done. When I'm in PJ's, I feel lazy and unproductive (even if I'm getting stuff done), but when I'm dressed a bit better I feel like a professional.

Anonymous said...

I hate sitting around in my PJs! It doesn't matter what's going on in a given day, I need real clothing and make-up to feel like I'm awake.

Great post - not many people consider the math side of freelancing.

Jennifer Williamson said...

@Devon--very true. It's one of the best parts of the business--even if you hate your boss, you're not working with him very long.

@Amber--yeah, but then your husband/boyfriend/whoever expects the house to be spotless--and the errands to get done, and the grocery shopping to get done, and all that--because hey, you're not really working, you can do it.

@James--yeah, but then people don't listen, right? I remember someone telling me once I would work twice as hard for myself as I ever would for someone else, and I didn't listen. They were so right.

@Chad/Taekwondo--the clothing thing was surprising to me. I really thought that would be awesome, but the novelty wore off pretty quickly. Right now I'm wearing jeans and a sweater, but they're kind of dressed-up jeans and a sweater. And earrings. Why? I don't know; nobody's looking at me. Just because.

Anonymous said...

Great post, Jennifer!

The "total freedom" myth is a popular one; thank you for debunking it for us!