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What it takes to be a freelance writer

“The freelance writer is a man who is paid per piece or per word or perhaps.”  – Robert Benchley

These words perfectly describe the reality of being a freelance writer. I am absolutely certain the statement above carries the same weight for other people in the business. Not that it matters – it’s just the way it is. In a fast-paced modern world when everything and everyone is online, perhaps those words carry even more weight.

This will be my introductory text and it may be a bit personal so bear with me.

I’ve been doing this for a couple of years but only as of this year, I turned it into a living. I am immensely grateful to be a part of the Journalancer team for a number of reasons. The main one is that it showed me how much work it really takes to find and keep a client. Accordingly, I had to step up my game. It’s been a learning curve ever since and I’m glad it is. Why? Because being a professional freelance writer is much different than being an aspiring freelance writer. For a long time I was a part of the latter category, too long now that I think about it. Not that I’m a professional now – there’s still some learning to do and honing my skills, but I feel better about the work I put in. I feel much more confident about taking all sorts of different tasks because of the enormous experience I gained. Stakes are different now that I freelance as a full-time job.

If I had to single out one thing that is absolutely essential in this line of work, it’s patience. The minute you start doing this job, arm yourself with tons of patience. Sometimes, there is a lot to put up with and you just need to power through it. This is especially important at the very beginning of your career as a freelance writer. That’s the time where you either make it or break it, at least it was for me. That’s when every client matters, even if the pay is below your expectations. It’s about making a name for yourself, creating a standard by which you want others to respect you. Fortunately, I learned this the easy way. I have a great mentor in Sead who went through the exact same process when he was starting.

Still, you have to be cautious as it’s very easy to make a mistake and later regret it. As much as you need to be patient, you also need to be direct and flexible. What people looking to employ you don’t understand is that there are some natural disadvantages to this job apart from the obvious benefits. Since you are a freelancer, you get paid by how much work you do. In that regard, you need to let your employer know that there are certain rules at play. Being direct about these “rules” is key, especially if it’s a long-term commitment. Setting the right, direct tone from the beginning avoids misunderstanding later.

For instance, taking a vacation requires some flexibility on both sides. You have to account the fact that the vacation is not paid as you’re not working. If it’s strictly a financial issue, there are some options to exploit. You can work extra in weeks prior or after the vacation or take a light load during. Either way, good and upfront communication goes a long way in this business. You’ll see it best when arranging your working day. The business hours of your choosing means there are limits to when you are available. A good, old-fashioned 9 to 5 doesn’t necessarily mean working an hour extra is absolutely out of the question, but it also doesn’t mean it should happen frequently. That is something you have to make absolutely clear and make your employer aware of it. That’s flexibility for you – being able to accommodate others while not compromising yourself.

I won’t go much into writing proficiency as that’s a given in this line of work. It’s a starting point and without it, this would be a pointless exercise. But I will say that improving and learning about different techniques is always welcome and potentially beneficial. This, of course, depends on your aspirations. I always thought that being able to write about a wide array of topics, rather than focusing on a single category, can be useful for future endeavours. Not that I want to be a writer for Cosmopolitan, but knowing the required tone and style can’t hurt. You never know if you might need it someday.

All in all, the job is easy or hard as you make it. As with everything in life, it has its harder and lighter sides. There will always be a certain amount of constraint. This work may not allow you to write freely, mostly at the very beginning. What matters is how you position yourself. Being a freelance writer takes a lot of dedication to the craft because without it, you won’t advance much. Along the way you’ll learn to be patient, to be flexible and resolute. Not every client will be worth your time and effort. It’s important to remember it’s a learning process and never ever shy away from advice or help.

Image credit: Luke Hayter | Flickr

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