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Writing For Yourself Is Key When You’re Thinking Freelancing

wfyfMost writers consider the ability to work at home to be one of the most positive aspects of freelancing. You can get up when you want, work wherever you’re comfortable and wear what you like.

Working at home also means having more time to spend with your family. “I love being with my children every day,” says Shirley Kawa-Jump, who divides her time between writing freelance articles and marketing materials. “I see them off to school, go on the field trips, bake the cookies, read them stories at night.” Briggs has been able to save money by keeping her four horses on her property, instead of at a boarding stable. “This is a wonderful luxury, even if it means a lot of time spent with a pitchfork in my hand,” says Briggs.

Drawback: Isolation. Working at home, however, can also mean working alone. If you’re used to lunches with coworkers, chatting around the water cooler or regular face-to-face meetings with clients and customers, you may find the writing life rather lonely. “When the FedEx guy shows up, it’s an event!” says Briggs. Peter Vogt, who writes primarily for electronic markets, agrees: “You know you’re lonely when you walk to the gas station just to talk to someone.”

Solution: Writers have found many ways to overcome this isolation. Some keep up “virtual” connections and stay in touch with friends and other writers by e-mail. Or they join online critique and discussion groups. “I rely heavily on e-mail for human contact and work-related discussions and gossip,” says Briggs. Other writers make a special effort to get out of the house and meet colleagues for breakfast or lunch, or they keep in touch by phone. “I don’t have any rules about not chatting with friends during working hours,” says magazine writer Barbara Stahura. “When I get a little twitchy from lack of face time, I go out to lunch or for an evening with friends.” Several writers recommends taking a class at a community college, signing up for exercise classes at a gym, or taking one’s writing to a local coffeehouse.

Patricia Fry, author of 11 books and articles for more than 160 magazines, has solved the isolation problem by incorporating human interaction into her work. “I do a lot of interviews, for example, and I work with an occasional client. I speak publicly to promote my book. I belong to writers/publishers groups and attend book fairs and other events. I also get out and do some volunteering locally. And I have the company of four lovely cats.”

Variety, flexibility and self-esteem

Benefit: “It simply would not be possible to write for such a wide variety of audiences in a salaried job,” notes Suzan St. Maur, who divides her time between business and corporate clients and writing nonfiction books. “It is this variety that keeps me interested, perky and inspired.” Stahura reports that her magazine topics range from spirituality to technology, including personal essays, radio essays and poetry. “I get to talk with interesting people I’d never otherwise have the opportunity to meet … [and] to indulge my curiosity about a wide variety of subjects and get paid for it.” Sobczak’s writing ranges from speculative fiction to nonfiction coverage of a variety of social topics (including minority relations, ethics, business law and history), as well as “nongenre works centered on relationships and modern means of communication.” Lawrence Schimel, who left New York City to pursue his writing career in Spain, publishes fiction and poetry and edits a variety of fiction anthologies.

A writing career is psychologically rewarding as well. “Any success is sweeter because it is based solely on me expressing myself,” says Nobleman, who divides his time between magazine articles, nonfiction books and cartoons. Briggs feels that writing puts her in “control of her destiny.” Another magazine writer, Amanda Vogel, enjoys “the sense of accomplishment I feel when I complete an article or score a plum assignment–and the opportunity to constantly set and achieve new goals.”

Drawback: Your job is now “9-to-forever.” That sense of accomplishment often comes with a price: When one’s home is one’s office, it can be very difficult to “leave” the office. “There is almost no line at all between my business and home life,” says Turk. “I take a weekend day off very reluctantly. I constantly check e-mail after hours and on weekends and work on projects until late in the evening, on weekends and vacations.”

While some writers (notably those who were single) don’t consider this a problem, those with families note that work often interferes with family time. Kawa-Jump notes that in her ease, family was actually the cause of her erratic work hours: “With a 3-year-old, I work around his schedule, which means lots of early mornings, late nights and working weekends. Clients and interviews happen during the day, so there really is no time when I am not working.”

The temptation to take on more work than you can handle (or handle on a “normal” work schedule) can be hard to resist, especially when income is tight and every new assignment can mean a much-needed cheek.

Solution: Experienced freelancers advise that you choose your assignments carefully. A $500 article offers a much better payoff for your time than five $100 articles. Another suggestion is to learn to say no, especially when

editors make unreasonable demands. One writer, for example, was asked to proof her book-manuscript galleys over the Christmas break. Yet another is to learn to recognize, and turn down, “bad” clients–clients who don’t know what they want, or keep changing their minds, or ask for endless revisions.

Another solution is to take physical steps to “close the office door” at the end of the day. One way to do this is to set an alarm clock for a particular time–for example, 5 p.m. When the alarm rings, your workday is over. Granted, there will always be times when an important assignment requires “overtime,” but this should be the exception rather than the rule. Another approach is to change into “work clothes” during the day, and back into “casual clothes” at night. A simple change of wardrobe can mean a change of attitude as well. Finally, if you find it hard to resist the temptation to check e-mail, actually turn your computer off at the end of your workday.

What it takes to succeed

If you want to be a successful freelancer, forget the 40-hour work week. Most respondents work at least 45 to 55 hours per week, and nearly a third work more than 60 hours. In addition, the majority of those hours (generally as much as 80 percent) were spent writing, rather than in other tasks such as marketing or bookkeeping. Respondents offer these additional tips for success:

Don’t quit your day job right away. Rather than plunging directly into full-time freelancing, start by freelancing in your spare time, while keeping your regular job. “It may initially mean late nights, weekend work and missing some social engagements,” says Nobleman. It also means, however, building up a client list, building skills and work habits, and determining whether this really is viable and something you want to do full time. In addition, keeping your day job will help you build a financial reserve. Medical writer Turk recommends having at least six months’–but preferably a year’s–income stashed away before you “make the break.”

Diversify. Several writers recommend finding more than one type of market area. “I’ve found diversification instrumental in growing my business–I’ve written for Web sites, corporations, hospitals, magazines, newspapers,” says Amy Sutton, who has been freelancing for just under a year. “Don’t limit yourself by saying `I only write for magazines.'” Schimel agrees. “Some years I make scads of money from writing poems, and other years it’s the anthologies, and other years it’s my own story collections. I think it’s exactly that versatility that lets me be a full-time freelancer, because whenever one of the genres bottoms out or if my muse in a particular area dries up (last year it was fiction), I can still make a living writing in other arenas.”

Specialize. Even as you diversify into different market areas, it may be a good idea to pick a subject specialty. Pick an area in which you have particular expertise, so that you can sell editors on your credentials as well as your writing ability. “You’re more appealing to editors if you know what you’re writing about,” says Vogt, a career counselor who writes about career development issues. “Figure out what you’d like to write about, and then find markets for it.”

Work hard. “Be prepared to work harder at this than any other job,” says Kawa-Jump. Again, most respondents report working far more than 40 hours a week. Keep in mind that as a freelance writer, you also have to handle all the administrative tasks that would normally be handled by “other departments” in a corporate office, including marketing, bookkeeping and billing. In the office, you get paid “even when you’re having a nonproductive day,” Sobczak points out; as a freelancer, if you’re not working, you’re not earning.

Learn to market. In the corporate office, work lands on your desk whether you want it or not (and often, you don’t!). The freelance life is just the opposite; work doesn’t come to you unless you go out and find it. This means learning how to write effective queries, how to conduct good market research and find opportunities, how to negotiate contracts and payments, and how to follow up.

Some writers make a commitment to send out a specific number of queries per week–five, 10, even 20. “I think many freelancers underestimate the time and effort involved with marketing themselves,” says Briggs. “They don’t feel comfortable selling their work, but they need to come to grips with the fact that editors aren’t going to come swarming to their door, begging them to write for them for large sums of money!”

Be professional. “Your reputation is everything,” says W. Thomas Smith Jr., who specializes in everything from military science to Southern culture and history, and also teaches a senior-level course in magazine writing at the University of South Carolina’s College of Journalism and Mass Communications. “Never lie or misrepresent anything to an editor. Never make excuses about anything. Meet your deadlines. Don’t be afraid to send flowers and thoughtful notes to an editor, but very sparingly, and never in a fawning, kiss-up manner. It’s all about commitment.” Good writing may bring in your first assignment; qualities like reliability and responsiveness are what keep editors coming back.

Accept rejection. Rejection is an inevitable part of the writing life. “Don’t get discouraged by rejections; learn from them,” says magazine writer Vogel. “Let the negatives roll off,” Smith agrees. Keep in mind that rejection often has nothing to do with the quality of your work; editors can accept only a limited number of articles, which means even very good work must often be turned away.

Have faith in yourself. If you don’t believe in your writing ability, you’ll have a tough time trying to “sell” yourself to others. It’s important to keep a realistic perspective: Success in the writing business rarely happens overnight. “Work diligently; be patient,” says Stahura. “If you’re following your heart, success will come.” Smith agrees: “Be persistent. Never quit, because that’s when you lose.” Successful freelancers are those who stay with it in spite of the rejections and the setbacks.

Success can also take time. Though half the respondents became self-supporting in less than one year, nearly a third found that it took two to five years to become fully independent.

Follow your heart! “Don’t become a full-time freelancer unless it is a compulsion,” says Fred Bortz, who left a 25-year career as a physicist in 1996 to pursue a career in writing. He notes that freelancing is a perilous venture; it isn’t for the easily discouraged. But if writing is your joy and your passion, freelancing can offer an opportunity to do what most people only dream of–the chance to earn a living by doing what you love!

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