Freelance writing tips: 5 lessons I’ve learnt

I have a lot of opinions on being a freelance writer in Ireland in 2017. Although it’s offered me opportunities to work at companies I used to dream about while growing up in a small town, I still feel like the whole house of cards could collapse at any time, that every publication I write for could go the way of the dodo and we’ll all be replaced by ‘influencers’. Welcome to the Freelance Fear.

It’s an interesting but challenging time to be a journalist. Each week I hear that a journalist I thought was killin’ it has become a press officer or joined a tech company and there’s a strong sensation of ‘don’t wanna be the last one on this sinking ship’ when I meet other journalists, even editors. While it’s admittedly tough out there, at the same time it seems like everyone is a freelancer and there are few staff jobs anymore. In the US alone, more than a fourth of the workforce is now part of the freelance ‘gig economy’ so this way of working isn’t going away any time soon.

Much to my Imposter Syndrome’s chagrin, I get asked a lot about freelancing and young journalists regularly tap me for advice, so I thought this post might be useful to young journalists venturing into the freelance world or, y’know, jaded older journalists who want to know they’re not alone in their pit of self-doubt.  I’ve skipped the obvious advice about networking, being nice and actually reading the publication you’re pitching to (because, duh) and instead gone for the things I’ve learned the hard way.

Here’s 5 things I’ve learnt about working as a freelance writer:

1.Get a sideline gig that you can rely on. Someone tweeted a while ago that freelancing is what you do between your waitressing jobs (or something) and at the time I didn’t get it but now I do. I’m not suggesting you apply to McDonald’s (only if you really want to) but the truth is I have yet to meet another Irish freelancer who makes their living solely from writing. I know freelance journalists who edit content for tech firms, who do social media for travel companies, who teach a language to exam students, who work as extras on TV shows or as tour guides – you name it. If you’re reading this as a journalism grad and your dream is to be a freelance writer, the sad reality is that you gotta do what you gotta do and writing increasingly becomes a small part of that. In Ireland the wages are really bad for freelance writing (I could write a whole other post on this subject!) so if you want to survive, pay your rent and not sponge off your parents, get a side gig to sustain you. On that note, this is a good read on whether you should pursue the thing you love as a job or leave it as a hobby.

2. Send your invoices in the minute you finish the project/contract. In the beginning I tried to be the Freelance Fonzie by playing it cool because I did not want to look like the dreaded desperado freelancer everyone talks about with scorn so I wouldn’t send my invoices in right away. Big mistake. It’s practically a journo cliché to whinge about chasing payment but it’s soul-crushingly true. I can’t think of another profession where you’re expected to survive without payment for months on end. Right now, I’m chasing payment for work I completed in December and last month had to chase a university for payment after someone in Accounts ‘mislaid’ my details. These aren’t random acts of carelessness; this is the norm as a freelance journalist and you have to get used to chasing to get paid. One way you can limit the ‘fuck you, pay me’ period is by getting your invoices in ASAP.

3.Say no to things that haemorrhage your time and definitely to things that don’t pay. An editor recently disagreed with me on this point but I feel really strongly that the oft-repeated ‘say yes to everything!’ as the key to freelance success is a crock. Sure, when you’re starting out you shouldn’t say no (and your financial status probably won’t let you say no) but when you’ve been around the block a few times, you start to suss out what’s a real opportunity and what’s just not worth it. In my experience you need to weigh up whether a project is likely to vacuum up all your time and take you away from other projects and whether this is worth it in terms of what it brings to your CV and, of course, your wallet.

4.Get an answer to “who do you write for?” Freelancing makes you feel a bit Alexa Chung in that you’re all over the place but for some reason people think you do nothing. Even though the freelance economy is booming, people who are used to 9-5, working for one company, will be curious about what you do, who you write for, how much you get paid and the colour of your knickers. Last week at a work event an older male journalist (it is ALWAYS an older male journalist) quizzed me with the most demanding, stern face about how I make a living and who exactly I write for. The worst bit is, I would never dream of doing this to another writer so I was a bit flustered and mumbled something about the most recent publication I filed copy with. Anyway, I totally recommend that you figure out an answer to “what do you do/who do you write for?” and learn it off by heart. Not only will you sound like a Strong Woman Who Knows What She’s Doing but it’ll help with the crippling self-doubt that goes hand-in-hand with freelancing.

5. Tell people you’re available and always looking for work. At the start I was very aware of not looking desperate and, because ‘freelancing’ is synonymous with ‘unemployed’ in some quarters, I didn’t want to tell anyone that I was looking work. All sorts of WRONG. Unless you’ve got Tony Soprano-style connections, work won’t just land on your lap. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt it’s that other people are very busy so they really won’t pick up on your subtle clues that you are in fact gagging for a job despite your cool demeanour. Nor can they read minds. No matter who you bump into, whether it’s your brother’s girlfriend’s cousin who happens to know someone at Vogue or the bigwig at your internship you happen to be sharing an uncomfortable silence with in the lift, channel Peggy Olson and let them know you are mad about their industry and would love to work more with them. You never know what’ll come out of it but I guarantee you that nothing will unless you tell people.

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