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Whether you’re a failed novelist, a fresh college grad, an actual aspiring copywriter, a journalist, a poet in general, or simply otherwise unemployed, freelance writing as a career is probably the most manageable profession in writing today. But if you’re hoping to get started on a career in writing for other people, for agencies, or for publications from the comfort of your own swivel chair, there are a few notions you should probably have cleared up before you give it a go.
1. You are your own boss.
We don’t just want to be our own boss because our past bosses suck; we want to be our own boss because bosses, by default, aren’t us. As “my own boss,” I don’t have to ask myself if I can start work at 11:30am. I don’t have to ask myself if I can come into work in long jonhs and a stretched-out v-neck. I don’t have to ask myself if it’s cool if I take a 20-minute dump whenever I feel like it. I just do these things.
According to a Bit Rebels freelancer survey, the #2 reason freelancers choose to forgo an organized job is for creative control. The number one — “I wanted more flexibility” — basically falls under being your own boss, too. We don’t want to be told what to do, even if we’d tell ourselves to do some of the same things.
While I and my fellow freelancers may not have to answer to a higher-up tapping his watch, telling us to wear pants, or holding meetings during post-lunch peak-dump hour, the fact is you will always be at the mercy of other people as a freelancer, and you never know what they will require of you.
You might literally have a dozen bosses at any given time; each client is a boss, and while they can’t “fire” you, per se, they can actually fire you. Or leave you a bad review. Or blackmail you for a refund, not pay you at all, etc.
There are no limits to the ridiculousness of the types of people who hire complete strangers from their porn factories in Bangladesh. Trust me, I’ve worked for them. And what’s more, freelance “bosses” live everywhere from Singapore to Australia to Kansas, and some of them will require Skype meetings at midnight or call you from the East Coast and wake you up at 7 am. You are not your own boss; you just set your own workdays.
2. Copywriting is like being on Mad Men.
It’s not like Mad Men in almost any sense, and though you can incorporate suits, highballs, and cigarettes as desired in an attempt to replicate, you won’t want to.
Unless you’re part of a Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce-esque agency, you’re not getting clients like cigarette companies and foreign cars that will pay you a year’s wage for an intensive, well-thought-out campaign. If you’re like me, you’re getting clients like this:
Often these are worth about $20 if you’re lucky and just require English words that are good enough to pass by duplication filters. Of course I realize this is sort of the low point of copywriting, and it really goes way up from there, but for the bulk of start-up freelance copywriters who don’t have an in with agencies, this is more like what you’ll be doing regularly.
3. Working from home isn’t an office job.
I’ll go ahead and dispel the popular notion that freelancers work whenever they want; pretty much they end up falling back on 9-to-5s — they can just do it from a beanbag, if they actually have a beanbag.
What it comes down to is you have two time obligations: the hours you can most easily communicate with clients, and the hours you can actually focus enough to get work done. Since most of us are more or less wired to wake up in the morning and stay focused through the afternoon, this will look a lot like a regular job schedule. Fellow Matador contributor Emily Hanssen Arent has a great bit about her writing routine — basically it’s a full workday starting at 6am split up by a break in the middle.
And since all this often happens in a room designated as an “office,” what you get is pretty much a surrogate office job. But since you wanted to be “your own boss,” you alone can get yourself to do the work. If you interrupt your day of writing with YouTube, playing songs on your guitar that you just remembered you knew how to play and don’t want to forget, or anything besides more work, you’ll quickly learn you need some semblance of a regimen. The alternative is starting work in the morning and then ending it before you go to sleep, which sucks enough to force you into a routine.
4. You’ll have more free time.
According to this freelancer industry report, about half of freelancers claim to spend just as much time working — or more — as they did before they became self-employed.
Personally, I work 7 days per week at about 4-7 hours a day, which probably wouldn’t work for everyone, but it amounts to a full-time job. Really, freelance writing means you work as much as you want to, so if you want more free time, technically you can make that happen extremely easily. You’ll just be piss poor all the time and will end up taking a regular job again to pay your credit card debt and student loans.
That said, if you want to make freelance writing into a full-time job, you have to make it a full-time job, even when there’s no work to do. Build a website, start a blog, search for work, write speculative articles for paying publications (how I started here at Matador), write pitches — whatever you have to do to be productive, do it 40 hours per week or you’ll never make any money.
5. The grass is greener on the free-er side.
You might be surprised to find that not all freelancers are freelancers by choice, or that they even like being self-employed.
A 2011 FreelanceSwitch study on freelancers showed “[54%] of freelancers wouldn’t even consider working as an employee again, regardless of what the job paid or what it entailed.” That means 46% would consider being an employee again, regardless of what the job paid or entailed.
This seems incredible to me, as I don’t think I could ever go back to a structured job again. While this doesn’t mean half of freelancers are unhappy, it does mean nearly half of the 1,200 surveyed freelancers were open to the prospect, possibly due to lack of income. And what may be more telling, the survey showed that over 40% weren’t happier as a result of self-employment.
The bottom line is freelancing isn’t the best fit for every writer, and as I discussed in my first post, it’s tough for writers with their own creative agendas to “turn off” work writing if they’ve been doing it all day. That said, for most of us it’s one of the only ways to get paid to write, and for those writers who prefer not to be tethered by the impositions of a rigid office structure (probably most of us), it’s the only job there is.