Mark Terry

Friday, February 08, 2008

Freelance Writing For A Living, Part 9

February 8, 2008

I've come to the end of my dissertation on Freelance Writing For A Living. I think over the last 8 posts I've given a lot of good, solid (unsolicited) advice. Take it or leave it, I really don't care. It's your life. These things have worked for me and if you go out and buy books on freelance writing, they'll tell you pretty much the same thing. They might even tell you what I'm about to tell you, but some may not.

Not everybody is cut out for this.

It's not a talent issue. I think, in order to make a living as a freelance writer, yes, you have to have some writing talent. But not tons. Good, clean, efficient writing is good enough.

In the world of freelancing, I think there are more important things than being a great writer.

You need, somewhere in your head, to believe that deadlines are life and death. Don't miss deadlines. It really screws up publication schedules and by missing them, you're hammering nails in your writing career's coffin. Editors won't work with writers who regularly miss deadlines, no matter how good your work is.

Give the editors what they want. Provide good clean copy of the appropriate length with no typos or grammatical problems, on time, covering the topic the way they wanted you to--do that, you're golden. It's tough to hit that all the time, but most of the time. If you can generate good ideas for them as well, you'll do just fine.

Be easy to work with. Deal with editing and criticism gracefully and punctually. Give value-added service, meaning, deal with problems before they crop up, give them interesting sidebars from time to time, just for the hell of it. Pitch them ideas.

Okay, Mark, but where's the this-isn't-for-everybody part?

Bunch of points here. My friend Tobias Buckell is a freelance writer and novelist and he wrote about this here. The isolation can be crippling. I don't mind it much... but I mind it more 3-1/2 years after going full-time than I did the first year. I like to go out to lunch because, well, I like to eat out, but also because I'm around human beings. Same goes for the gym. Because I work out of the house all the time, I've started craving travel. I just want to go somewhere ELSE. Honestly, some people just can't handle this.

Do you need financial security? Give up this gig, then. I was supposed to get a check for $10,000 in January, that was needed to carry me through a couple months. Haven't got it yet. Checks NEVER show up when you need them or expect them. Last year, I was contracted for a big project in January, given half the money in advance, then told they would have the survey data to me in June so we could finish the project by September 1st. Know when I got the survey data? Thanksgiving Day. Know when I got the rest of the money, $7500? January 2, 2008. (And by the way, think this through a bit. The client cut that check in 2007, so that money goes on my 2007 IRS 1099 form, suggesting that I should have paid taxes on it in the final quarter of 2007, which was due January 15th. But I didn't. So now my 2007 taxes are a bit kitty-whumpus, although at least I'll have money to pay my Q1:08 taxes with.) This shit happens ALL the time. If you just can't manage your money or desperately need a check coming in every two weeks, find something else to do.

Like to coast? I, personally, think you should get out of this gig, if you do. By this I mean, hmmm... Quite a number of years ago I heard an interview on NPR's "Fresh Air" with Terry Gross. She was interviewing, I think it was, an accordion player, considered to be one of the best and most innovative in the country. But he'd spent the majority of his career teaching. She asked him why he hadn't spent it performing. He said, "You realize that being a musician is like getting laid off three or four times a week? You do a couple gigs at a bar or a restaurant or whatever, then you're done and you have to find another one. Being a professional musician is like looking for a new job every week."

So is being a freelance writer. Almost all of us try to get to the point where we have a steady clientele that sends us regular work. Some of us even try to be editors of newsletters or journals or whatever, so we have some steady income. Even then, it's not guaranteed. Also, in freelance writing, things change constantly. My first paid, published piece of writing happened in 1993. I started freelancing full-time in 2004. Of those clients I had in 2004, I'm only working with one of them now (and signed a 5-year contract with them last year, so I will be until 2012.) You just can't get complacent or too comfortable. Editors change jobs or retire and the new editors bring in their own writers. Publications decide they no longer want or are able to work with freelancers. Publications go out of business. Sometimes you just can't seem to come up with publishable ideas for certain publications. In less than 4 years I've had all of those things happen to me and I'm sure that in 10 more years, all of it will probably happen again.

I treat it (most of the time) as an adventure. I'm eager and curious to see what happens next. Where will this writing life take me? It's taken me to some unexpected places, many of them very cool (and some not so much so).

No sick days. No health insurance. No paid vacation. No retirement except what you plan for yourself.


I love it. I was just explaining to a neighbor yesterday that I have guitar lessons on Thursdays at noon in a nearby town. I also go to the gym every day somewhere between 10:30 and 11:00. As I put it, "There aren't a lot of perks to being a freelance writer, but a flexible schedule is one of them. I don't abuse it, but I do take advantage of it."

I have some married freelance writer friends (Hi Mary & Eric) who apparently like to sleep in late and start work something after noon and work late into the evenings. My friend Toby is a night owl who works late into the night and early morning (no kids, it shows). I heard novelist and freelance writer Lev Raphael once say he couldn't stand to work a regular schedule, it's soul deadening. Alternately, my freelance writer friend Doug Stanton, when he lived out in the country, had a separate building for his office and when he wasn't traveling (he wrote a lot of celebrity profiles and adventure-type articles, like flyfishing in Argentina sorts of pieces), he worked very regular hours. (You might note that he also dubbed his office The Pain Cave, to give yourself some idea of his attitude). Doug wrote a bestselling book titled "In Harm's Way" a few years back, so I'm not even sure how much writing he's doing these days, but you get my point.

I tend to work 9 to 5-ish, although I will work evenings and weekends as needed. And I've put up my schedule enough on this blog for people to know that my 9 to 5 schedule is a little soft around the edges. I tend to get to my computer around 7:30 for a half an hour or so, then back at 9:00 for an hour or two, then to the gym, then a long stretch from 12:30 or 1:00 until 5:00 or 6:00 or later. But I'm regular about it.

I also really like the work. I think in order to make this work, you not only need to like to write, but you need to have a fairly strong sense of curiosity (at least while you're working on a piece). Over the years I have been very interested in music, publishing, writing, literature, art, culture, martial arts and biological science--throw in current events, weight lifting, biking and kayaking and those are my personal interests. If I had been asked in high school and maybe even college if I was interested in insurance, government regulation, podiatry, travel, business, economics, plumbing, electrical, computers, computer security, yoga, autism, politics, computer engineering or any number of other topics, I probably would have said no. But I've written about all of those and been very interested in them while I did.

I've learned a lot while writing for a living.

Sometimes it's wonderful. Sometimes it's less so. Not a single day has gone by when I've wished I were back working at the cytogenetics laboratory at Henry Ford Hospital. Not one. (And like many writers, I occasionally have nightmares where I'm back working there).

But some days...

My wife and I were commiserating a while back about the stresses of each of our jobs and I commented, "Do you ever have days when you just wish you could go to work, do you job and get paid for it? Something fun and interesting but that didn't require quite so much responsibility?"

Because here's maybe the biggest, hardest thing about being a freelance writer. It's all you. Whether it works or fails, it's ALL your responsibility. There's no boss to tell you to get to work or to come in on time or how to do your job. There's no accounting department to remind you to pay your bills or your taxes. There's no IT department to call when your computer goes ker-blewy. There's no billing department to nag a client whose check hasn't come on time. There's no sales department to go out for you and look for work.

It's also one of the coolest things about being a freelance writer. The sense of ownership is absolutely amazing.

I hope this series has been of use and of interest. If you have any questions or even suggestions for other topics of this sort, drop me a line.

Mark Terry


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think there's anything I could add but *amen". As I was reading this I kept thinking of things I could add, but then you immediately covered them, even right up to the end where I was going to mention the woman who'd left her legal editing job to do the same thing freelance but went back because (incredibly to me) she said that left on her own, outside the office, she couldn't motivate herself to get the work done.

As difficult as freelancing can be, though, it gives you ownership of your own life, or at least a lot greater degree of ownership. Setting your own schedule every day, deciding for yourself what you want to do, rather than taking orders, being able to choose your own work...these are important. Sure, sometimes you might choose to take work that you'd prefer not to do. Maybe you need the money and it's the best thing on offer right then. But, knowing you could refuse, if you wanted to, makes even unpleasant decisions more palatable.

I could never go in to a regular job again, unless it was for a strictly limited time...maybe....The idea of someone else dictating to me how to spend my life just seems unnatural to me at this point. And hell, it is unnatural.

This last installment, just on it's own, would sure make a great article by the way!

9:49 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Thanks Eric.

One of the things I was thinking but didn't say was that I work significantly harder for myself than I ever did for anyone else. In fact, although I don't think I was a bad employee, I think it's safe to say that I'm one of those people who, just by having a boss, gets my back up and starts this passive-aggressive I'm-not-going-to-do-what-you-want-just-because-I-want-to-prove-to-myself-that-I'm-independent sort of thing, if that makes any sense.

Some people work very well for other people. I just don't think I'm one of them.

10:00 AM  
Blogger Writing Nag said...

Thanks for your series, I need to direct my readers to these posts. Very well said.

7:10 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

It's SO true! My husband and I are like pavlovian-trained mice. We can pick up the sound of the mailman's truck two streets over, even if we've got three TVs blaring and all the fire alarms going off. Going to the mailbox becomes a major event.

I'm not sure if you covered this, but one of the things I struggle with (freelancing-wise, not writing freelancing-wise) is balance. I mean, if you take just enough work to stay balanced, just enough work to pay the bills but not be stressed out, then something always happens (like a kid quits or something), where I need more students. And when you need it, it doesn't come as fast as you need it to.

It's like, I always have to take more work than what I can handle, simply to make sure my bases are covered.

7:35 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I know what you mean. There's a a degree of busy-ness that I like. It's probably busier than a lot of people would want to deal with. If I go over it, I'm buried. If I go under it, I go nuts and there isn't enough work.

I can't quantify it, but I would say I probably want enough work to give me more than a 40 hours workweek (with all goofing around allowed), but that I can just manage to squeeze into 40 hours or so. But when it gets too high, I get crazy.

In 2006 I had over 100 invoices. I was crazy busy. In 2007 I had about 11, but I made the same amount of money. I was doing fewer projects for more money. Ultimately I like that, although you can get lags in money that takes getting used to.

One of the things I noticed in 2006 was that if I have more than 3 or 4 deadlines in one week, I'm stressed out, even if the projects are small.

10:47 AM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

Thanks so much for these Freelancing classes. I'm looking to start small. See if I can do a few and how it works. I have no problem with deadlines. The business I'm in now has lots of them. (Bone crushing deadlines.)
One thing I worry about is what if I take a job and they don't like the finished product?
Thanks again!

5:13 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

They'll let you know, one way or the other. Either by flat-out telling you that you missed the market--it happens to anybody. I recently had one that I'm reworking. It doesn't happen often, but it does happen.

Or, you'll know (or guess) because they won't respond to your correspondence afterwards.

Good luck. Do your best. Can't do better than that.

9:07 AM  
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I just happened upon your blog while googling "getting started as a freelance writer" (or something like that), and this series has been most helpful and inspirational! Thank you so much.

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