So You Think You Want to Freelance…

So, you think you want to take up freelance writing. I’ve been in your shoes. It’s exciting, but a little nerve wracking. It feels like you’re stepping free from the shackles of 9-to-5 work and into the warm sunlight of creative freedom. But before you embark on this journey, I’d like to offer my perspective.

For nearly a year, I worked as a freelance writer in addition to a part-time job. In that time, I learned a few things about what it takes to freelance — the good and the bad. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

You Might Not Get to Write About What You Want
When you’re a freelance writer, you have to treat your writing like a business, which means you have to write what pays. In a lot of cases, clients are looking for ad copy or a blog for their business. You do have to play to your strengths, but making a living requires that you write about what your client is willing to pay for. It’s not exactly creative freedom. I got lucky with a recurring gig writing about foreign policy, something I’m actually interested in, but you might find that your bread and butter accounts are writing about laminated plywood.

You May Not Get Paid at First
There are some freelancers who make six figures, but the vast majority are like me — eking out a meager living. You see, the trouble with the Internet is the same thing that makes it great. Nearly everything you read online is free. Advertisements bring in some money, but the precedent for free content means that a lot of clients don’t pay well. When you’re just starting to build your portfolio, it may mean taking low-paying or even no-paying jobs before any money starts to come in.

You May Not Get Paid at All
When you’re dealing with people on the Internet, you may end up discovering that lots of people don’t honor their agreements. The Internet is the Wild West and sometimes people will back out on the deal you’ve made. If you don’t go through a website that mediates payment between freelancers like Elance, you might write wind up getting shorted. I ran into this problem with a couple of clients who conveniently forgot to pay me. Short of taking them to small claims court or drowning them in angry emails, you’ll probably lose out.

I decided to stop working as a freelance writer on a regular basis when I landed a full-time marketing job. It was too much time, I couldn’t write what I wanted and I wasn’t making enough to support myself comfortably. But if you can stomach the long hours, boring topics, and the possibility that you will work for free or less than minimum wage — if you want to choose your own hours, your own projects, and forge your entrepreneurial spirit into a business built on words — I’d say go for it.

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Jonny Eberle is a writer, photographer and filmmaker in Tacoma, WA. You can follow him on Twitter or leave your comments in the comments.

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