Freelancing Diaries: Part 2 — Pros & Cons

December 8, 2015 in Freelance

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Well, the time off between my last post and this one is indicative of how much less free time I thought I would have when I first embarked on the freelancing journey.

Every time you think you’re going to have a block of time to do something like read or do a blog post, something else inevitably pops up. Case in point: I had just finished a couple of projects last week and still had an easy one I thought I could take my time with, but on Monday I received an urgent call asking me to be an interpreter for a foreign production team in Taiwan working on a big concert over the next couple of weeks.

I initially declined because, as a freelancer, I wanted some “free” time. My family had already planned a weekend away with friends during the days of the concert and was planning a birthday party for my little boy. But then my wife and other family members convinced me I had been an idiot and that I shouldn’t have turned down the opportunity. Holidays can be rescheduled and kids parties aren’t that important in the scheme of things (they don’t even know what day it is anyway), but great cases like this one don’t come around very often.

It’s not easy — 14 days of interpretation and translating documents on demand, attending meetings and being around for the entire set-up and testing process as well as all rehearsals and playing an integral part in the actual concerts (I’ll be interpreting the video director’s commands to the cameramen throughout the shows). It means consecutive early mornings and late nights (I had a 16-hour day yesterday and had to be back by 7am this morning), which would have been fine 10 years ago, but now, after having worked in the cruisiest job known to mankind for four years, I’m really starting to feel it.

That said, it’s an awesome gig. You get to meet a lot of great industry people (personally I don’t care much about meeting the artists and celebrities and what not) who can open up a lot of doors for you in the future. You learn a heck of a lot in a short amount of time. You get to experience a major production and see everything close up. And most of all it pays very very well. In hindsight it should have been a no-brainer, and I would recommend would-be freelancers to never reject a case outright — say you need to check your schedule or some other excuse and you’ll get back to them soon. Then sit down, have a good think about it, speak to people and make some calculations if you have to. Then make the decision. I was just lucky I still had a chance to get the gig back this time.

Accordingly, I thought now would be the perfect time to discuss some pros and cons of the freelancing life. So here goes:

Pro: Be Your Own Boss

This is probably be biggest difference between being a freelancer and working for someone else. It changes everything when you are working for yourself.

When you work for a company like I did, for instance, you might want the best for your company, but ultimately you still put yourself first. And of course that should be the case. But often your personal interests and the interests of the company aren’t necessarily always aligned. You might want to go out for a long lunch, start work late or leave work early for whatever reason, and as a result your work will suffer. But if it doesn’t affect your pay or your performance review, you probably don’t really care that your company’s productivity is affected.

When you work for yourself, you’ll naturally want everything you do to be the best it can be, because your interests and the interests of your business are completely aligned. It no longer becomes what you can get away with — it becomes genuine compromise. And it’s compromise that has real consequences you care about.

Pro: Flexibility

What I love most about being a freelancer. If the new Star Wars movie comes out, I can catch the first session in the morning. I can go to any movie or restaurant when there aren’t as many people. I can go shopping, spend time with my kids, go to the gym — basically do whatever I want, whenever I want. In theory.

In reality though, it’s still about compromise. Yeah, you might be able to go watch a movie during the day, but if you have urgent work on you might have to cancel — sometimes at the last minute. Or you might have to work late into the night or even all through the night instead just to maintain that flexibility. Alternatively, you’ll just earn no money and you soon won’t be able to afford going to the movies.

Con: Can be hard to get motivated

Freelancing is a double-edged sword. You can work really hard and make way more than holding down a day job, or you can be really lazy and stare at the wall all day and find yourself in financial strife. It’s up to you, really, and I think I’m lucky in that I’ve been highly motivated in my first 6 weeks or so as a freelancer. I want to get more work and I don’t mind doing more, even if it’s just for the money.

That said, I can definitely see the other side too. I was very unmotivated at my previous job because there was zero accountability and productivity had no correlation to performance. That is rare though, and I’d imagine in most regular jobs people would do their best to earn higher bonuses and pay rises, etc. More importantly, you’ll probably have some authority figure or supervisor making sure you do your work and do it well. As a freelancer, the whip cracker is yourself, so you might end up being really unproductive if you just can’t get the motivation to do your work. This happens a lot especially if the deadline is not urgent. I had the same problem as a student, leaving everything to the last minute. You get tempted to surf the net and watch what Jordan Schlanky is up to on YouTube or check out what’s on TV or in the fridge every two minutes. Anything but work.

If you fall into that category you need to fix that mentality or stay in your day job. I have a feeling I may have to battle the motivation demon eventually. Things are just too fresh and exciting and busy right now for me to get lazy. And besides, I need all the money I can get right now.

Pro: Do what you want and enjoy

This is another major reason I chose the freelancing life. As much as I didn’t mind my old job, I didn’t love it. I liked the hours and some of the people and the cruisiness and being up-to-date with world news, but I didn’t like a lot of the actual articles I was translating. Plus I hated the company and the disgusting office and the way the organisation was being run.

On the other hand, I love translating movies and TV shows and songs. It’s fun and varied and I enjoy doing it. Makes a whole world of difference if you have to sit in front of a computer anyway.

Of course, I don’t love every case I get (even so, when the work is directly linked to your income you don’t mind it as much), but by and large it’s a much better situation for me and my family than it was before. And I still get to keep in touch with my old colleagues.

Con: Can’t say no

I mentioned this in my last post about freelancing and I believe it is true. As a freelancer, saying “No” to a case that comes knocking could be a fatal mistake. It’s particularly true for clients who are not regular or repeat customers.

We’re all creatures of habit: all things being equal, those who employ freelancers will tend to go back to the last person they used, so if you say no, you might lose that client forever. Most of my clients these days have come from friends or colleagues who couldn’t do a case for whatever reason, and since then I’ve become their primary source of translation cases. Even this lucrative concert deal I am on now came from a friend referral; I originally translated an album for the band, and then a month later some old songs for the upcoming concert, and now I’m suddenly interpreting for the production team.

Conversely, there have been a couple of cases I’ve turned down in the last couple of years (either because the money was too low or I didn’t think I could do it) and I never heard from them again. In fact, this includes a friend who wanted me to translate something for them for free.

So if you’re going to be a freelancer, you better be prepared to say “Yes” to everything, no matter how impossible it may seem — until you can afford to say “No.”

Pro: Make a lot more money

Though you could also make a lot less money, I still say this is a “pro” because you have the “potential” to make a lot more. If you’re in a normal job you can only hope for pay rises and bonuses, but if you freelance you can, theoretically, make as much as time permits.

Granted, this involves having enough cases and cases that pay well, but once you get that stream flowing and you maximise your efficiency, the freelancing life can be much more lucrative. More money and less work hours. Who doesn’t want that?

Con: Flat out or starving

I’ve been mostly flat out thus far, but I hear the freelancing life is one of extremes. One experienced freelancer told me that you’re either flat out with work and stressing out over deadlines or bored out of your mind with no work and stressing out about paying the bills.

So yes, freelancing can be stressful either way, but as this same freelancer told me, it’s really about managing your time and making compromises. That way you don’t have to be flat out or starving — you can be reasonably busy or enjoying your free time instead.

‘Getting Started as a Freelance Writer’ by Robert W Bly

September 15, 2011 in Best Of, Book Reviews, On Writing, Reviews

Robert W Bly is one of the most successful freelance writers in the world. He earns over US$600,000 a year and was a self-made millionaire whilst still in his 30s. And according to his book, ‘Getting Started as a Freelance Writer‘, you can too. Well, maybe not to that extent, but Bly believes even an average writer can earn $100,000 a year (that’s $400 a day, five days a week for 50 weeks) by simply following the principles he has devised in his book.

So is the book everything it promises to be? Hard to answer. Bly does offer many tips to people who are already freelance writers or are aspiring to be freelance writers, and most of that advice is fantastic and can help you become extremely successful, but it’s not exactly a ‘getting started’ guide as the title suggests. In reality, the book is a guide on how to be a ‘successful’ freelance writer who can potentially make a comfortable living, but if you are a writer with little or no experience in freelance writing hoping this book will provide a miracle shortcut to a cruisy lifestyle then you might be sorely disappointed.

Bly does not sugar coat it — freelancing is hard work. Extremely hard work. To make a comfortable living you’ll need to treat it like a business. You’ll have to make sacrifices. Work 50 or 60 hour weeks. Only get a week or two off a year. Kill your social life. There is no secret formula.

But on the bright side, freelancing does have its advantages. Flexibility. Being your own boss. Write about things you are interested in. Fairly good money. For many people, like me, being able to write for a living is a good enough reason in itself.

Then what does this book offer in terms of constructive advice? There are a few very important points that Bly tries to drill into his readers.

First of all, in order to make good money in freelance writing, you have little choice but to pursue commercial projects — that is, write for businesses. Marketing brochures, technical writing, annual reports, speechwriting, direct marketing, etc. These are the only types of writing jobs that will make you enough money on a regular basis to sustain a comfortable living. Sure, you can submit the occasional magazine or newspaper article, poem or short story, but there’s simply not enough money or regular work to survive on if that’s all you do.

Secondly, marketing and networking are just as important as, if not more important than, your actual writing ability (after all, I did receive this book in the mail from the publisher without asking for it, and Bly makes numerous references to his other guides in the book). It doesn’t matter how fantastic a writer you are if people don’t know who you are. Bly suggests that you treat your freelancing job like a proper business — organised, with proper files, business cards, letterheads, websites, newsletters, and so forth. Networking is also imperative — joining relevant clubs and societies, attending functions, workshops and conferences are all part of the job. You have to be a salesman — you might have to cold call potential clients (ie call them out of the blue), explain to them what you can do for their business, make yourself stand out from the pack. And once you get a client, you have to nurture the relationship to garner more work in the future. It’s exactly the type of stuff that shy, introverted writers might hate doing.

Thirdly, you have to work like a freaking Trojan and understand that time is your most valuable asset. Don’t waste your time doing things that will take you away from your writing. Hire people to do things if they can do it more efficiently than you can — your time is better spent doing what makes you money — ie, writing! For instance, Bly hires assistants to do all the stuff he doesn’t want to deal with, like running down to the post office, researching, negotiating fees and doing the accounts. Since he earns much more per hour than they do, he can afford to do so.

Other tips include specialising in a few niche areas rather than be a jack of all trades (clients prefer specialists, you can charge more, and it cuts down research time if you’ve written something similar before), recycling and reselling your old work, don’t sell yourself short and be persistent in wooing clients and tracking payments.

Now, all of this is fabulous advice — but probably for someone further down the track and with a little bit of writing experience and business savvy. What about the newbies who are genuinely just ‘getting started’? Surely it can’t be a wise idea for someone who hasn’t had much work published to start printing a stack of business cards, hire a secretary and research assistant, writing newsletters and calling random strangers out of the blue.

I suppose that’s the thing that disappointed me most about this book. While it does include a chapter suggesting ‘entry level’ work such as writing for a local newspaper and a couple of other vague ideas, there really wasn’t a whole lot of precise information for the true beginner. There’s probably a good reason for that; most people don’t go straight into freelance writing from an unrelated profession (Bly himself had worked in writing/marketing roles before switching to full time freelancing) but it would have been good to see some more concrete suggestions and realistic ideas on where to look for well-paid work when you’re just starting out.

While I would have liked to have seen more pages on the ‘getting started’ part of the profession, I would have liked to have seen less from the chapters on stuff such as poetry, novel writing and short fiction — areas that didn’t really deserve more than a couple of paragraphs and are covered in much greater depth by other books.

The one undeniably great thing about this book is that it can help you decide whether or not you are really cut out for a freelancing lifestyle. You might read it and think, darn, this is all far too hard and involves too much work I don’t want to do, or you might think, fantastic, I can definitely picture myself doing this for a living. It could motivate you into freelancing or it could scare you out of it — either way, it can assist you in making an informed decision about your future.

As for me — I was very excited when I received the book in the post. Freelancing seemed like the perfect life for a writer, and I had often been told by those in the industry that freelancers had the best of both worlds — write for a living but not being tied down by the constraints of a normal day job. It seemed too good to be true, and as this book has revealed, it kind of is. You really do need a fair bit of experience or have worked in a related industry to be able to jump into a freelancing career.

The most heartening thing about Bly’s book is finding out that being a freelance writer can be a viable career for those willing to put in the effort. Looking around online, all you see these days are content mills paying writers atrocious rates such as a cent a word, or less. However, what this book demonstrates is that there are well-paid writing jobs out there if you know how to find them, if you know how to sell yourself and obtain the all-important contacts for repeat work. It’s not a silver bullet but it could be exactly what struggling and/or writers need to boost their careers.

3.75 out of 5