Lessons from five years of freelancing
I’ve been a full-time freelance journalist for five years! Here are some things I’ve learnt in that time:
- Always, always file on time. If editors know they can’t count on you, it’s incredibly easy for them to ditch you.
- When discussing a deadline with an editor, always give yourself an extra half day or full day, depending on the length of the piece. You can probably do it in less time than that but sometimes things happen, and you do not want to mess up with 1.
- Always say yes if an editor from a publication you like gets in touch for the first time (unless the money is ridiculously low). Even if you’re quite busy. Even if you don’t love the commission. You can start turning them down once you’ve written two pieces for them, because the relationship has, by that point, been established.
- If possible, dedicate a two-hour slot a week to admin — invoices, chasing invoices, replying to emails you may have missed, etc. It’s really easy to drown otherwise.
- Try to stick to something vaguely resembling office working hours, from the very beginning; it’s surprisingly easy to find yourself finishing a bit of work at 11pm otherwise.
- Don’t work long days unless you have to; office workers are in for nine hours a day because they have meetings and admin and faff, you don’t. It’s entirely possible to work six hours a day as a freelancer and not a minute more.
- If work isn’t coming in, don’t force it; you don’t have holiday or sick pay but you have the ability to piss off to the cinema or the beach at 2pm instead of sitting at your desk, staring at your inbox.
- Be honest about how much money you have to earn each month to have a decent life; transfer yourself that amount at the beginning of each month, and if you’d earnt more the month before that you can put the extra money in savings.
- Do your tax return as soon as you can, ideally in April; you don’t have to file it yet, but it helps to know exactly how much money you’ll need to pay at the end of the year.
- Try to meet as many editors as you can; it’s a lot easier to build a good working relationship with someone you’ve had a coffee or a pint with.
- Try to be strict about not working weekends; if you do end up working on a Saturday or Sunday, do make a point of taking a day or half-day off in lieu. If you end up working a little bit seven days a week, you’ll go mad.
- Never, ever be even slightly rude to anyone, even if it’s someone junior, even if they work for a publication you don’t care about, even if they’re in the wrong; you’re entirely dependable and people move jobs. You never know where they’ll go next.
- Build a network of other freelancers; you don’t have to become best friends with any of them, but you can help each other by passing on commissions you or they are not right for.
- Do try to network and socialise as much as you can; when editors are trying to think of a journalist for a commission, you really want them to think of you first.
- Force yourself to get out of your comfort zone once in a while; the whole point of being freelance is that you don’t have a set job. Experiment, throw stuff at the wall, see what sticks. Even if you try something and end up not enjoying it, you’re still getting paid.