Recently, as I browsed through the posts over at the Absolute Write Water Cooler, I ran across the question (paraphrasing here): Is it possible to make a living as a full time freelancer?
The short answer is, “Yes, I’ve been doing it since 1994.”
BUT (You knew there was a but, didn’t you?)
Making enough money to pay your bills by writing doesn’t happen overnight. It takes planning, perseverance and some other word that probably starts with P, but for some reason, my mind just went completely blank. Pandemonium? Pterodactyl? Patience! Planning, perseverance, and patience! (Sorry, aliens have invaded my sinuses and are stomping around while nailing things to the walls. It plays havoc with the thinking process.)
When I first started out, I knew nothing about freelancing or running my own business. It took me about three years to establish myself and start making enough money to pay my bills. That was in a better economy than the one we’re living in now. Times are tougher, gigs are fewer, and the competition is fierce. If you are contemplating launching a freelance career now, I’d offer these suggestions.
1. Keep your day job if you have one. Think of it as your safety net while you work on starting your freelance career.
I can hear groans already. “But how will I find time to write, market, and sell my work while my soul and energy are being sucked out by the day job?”
My answer: Suck. It. Up.
If you want to leave the day job badly enough; you will make it happen. This is the proving ground. Even when writing IS your day job, a billion other things will compete for your time. Making the writing happen while working another job teaches you discipline. Discipline to write when the time is available and to juggle multiple projects and deadlines. Trust me, you’re gonna need it. Practice now.
2. Pay your dues. Most publications are happy to try out new writers, but rarely do they assign the main features to untried talent. Make yourself familiar to editors by writing fillers and other small pieces and working your way up. This works well with the advice to keep your day job since smaller “break-in” pieces are easier and less time-consuming to research and write.
3. Don’t be a market snob. Look for markets EVERYWHERE. Sure you want to wind up in the big leagues with your byline out there for the world to see, but wouldn’t it be nice to eat something besides ramen while you’re getting there? Everything with print on it was written by someone. Regional magazines, take-out menus, travel brochures, flyers — someone wrote them all. Why not you?
It never hurts to ask a company if they need freelancers. If you see something you could have written, send a letter of introduction and inquire about opportunities. The worst that can happen is they will tell you no. What have you got to lose?
This advice goes hand in hand with…
4. Aim for steady work. Repeat business is a freelancer’s bread and butter. A column, or a regular client or two with reliable gigs can keep you from constantly feeling like you are chasing your next meal.
Which leads us to…
5. Squirrel away the money you make from writing while you are still at the day job. I know times are tough. A big chunk of my steady income disappeared this year due to budget cuts, and I’m back to scoring gigs one at a time to make it up. If your day job is paying the bills, I strongly suggest building up the old savings account using the income from writing. This will be your safety net when you do finally walk away from the day job.
Keep writing and persevere. Going full time as a freelancer can be done. Just be smart about it.