Guest post by Avery Elizabeth Hurt
French author Pierre-Jules Renard is supposed to have said, “Writing is the only profession where no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money.” That may be both true and occasionally a comfort, but even if no one considers you ridiculous if you earn no money, they aren’t apt to sell you groceries.
I have been very fortunate to be able to earn a living from freelance writing for over thirty years. I call it “working without a net.” My writing hasn’t always kept me in high cotton. I’ve had good years and lousy years, but for the most part the good years have seen me through the lousy ones. Like most writers, I struggled at first, but work picked up considerably when I started specializing in health and science writing, mostly for magazines.
Freelance writing is a hard field to survive in, but it can be done. Here are some things I’ve learned along the way that might help you survive, too.
Take it seriously. Okay, I know one of the biggest appeals of freelancing is that you can work in your jammies, take breaks whenever you like, and slip out in the afternoon to weed the garden or go for a walk with the kids. You can do all these things and still put in a full and productive week. However, you do have to put in a productive week. If you aren’t willing to show up for work and stay there until the job is done, you won’t survive as a freelancer anymore than you’d survive in a regular job. And it is a job — even if you are eccentrically dressed. Think of it as a job, and you’ll be more likely to keep it.
Develop a specialty. I’ve written about a lot of things: baseball, higher education, lawn furniture, tequila (the research for that one was a kick). But most of the time I write about health and medical issues or science-related topics. Having a specialty helps in several ways. First, it narrows your focus when you send out proposals to editors. You pitch a certain kind of story and have the clips to show that you can write it. It also saves time when you get an assignment. If you have a specialty (what in journalism we call a “beat”) you will build up a collection of reference books, web links, sources, and contacts in your field. You will also develop a deeper knowledge of your chosen specialty.
Understand your editors’ needs. Always keep in mind what your editors are up against. When you get an assignment for an article, you’ll receive instructions (sometimes vague, but instructions nonetheless) about what the editor needs. And you’ll have a deadline. Missing a deadline or leaving out an essential part of the project (for example, the editor asked for a sidebar on a new drug, but you totally forgot that part) means that your editor will be behind on her schedule, may have to round up another writer, or do extra work herself — which I assure you she doesn’t have time for. You’ve not only made yourself look unprofessional, you’ve screwed up someone’s else’s life. Being aware of and considerate of the big picture will keep your editors coming back.
Be willing to adapt. It’s easy to get in a groove and get very comfortable there. But life changes fast — and journalism seems to be bent on demonstrating that fact to anyone who may have missed the memo. For many years, I wrote only for print and liked it just fine that way. Then print, well, I don’t need to tell you what’s happening to print. So I learned to write for the web. Now I’m learning about blogging and maintaining websites. Who knows what will come next? Being willing to adapt when times change is essential to surviving in this business.
Keep at it. It sounds like a tautology and may be, but the fact is, if you want to survive as a freelancer you must not give up. Of course, surviving those lean years — especially in the early days before you have a savings cushion — can mean doing without some things. You may have to keep the old couch a few more years and learn to make your own pizza. But if you really want to freelance, it’s worth it.
Plenty of people will try to discourage you from working without a net, but don’t let them. If you really want to make a go of freelancing, you have to hang in there, even through difficult times. It’s not an easy career — especially not in today’s market. But it can be done.