When I was doing freelance writing for several years, this was the question I got asked so many times: Can you survive as a freelancer? I guess it was the more polite version of these other questions: Can you put food on the table through freelance writing? Can you pay your bills as a freelance writer? Can you still travel or even support your habit of eating out with a freelance writer’s paycheck? I always had the same answer: Yes, yes, yes. And I would follow it up with variations of this piece of advice: Just make sure you hustle.
Being a freelance writer or editor affords you to manage your own time, choose which jobs to accept, and work from home (or any café you deem has great coffee and wi-fi). But freelancing also brings with it a certain level of uncertainty. You’re not sure when the next project will come or how long the regular freelance writing gig you have now will last. There’s no job security. But there are a lot of opportunities.
When you talk to freelance writers and editors who have been on the scene for more than 10 years, they will tell you that the freelancing scene is thriving. Ime Morales, founder of the Freelance Writers’ Guild of the Philippines, says, “[It] has improved in a sense that it offers more opportunities, not only for work but also for learning. For me, therefore, it is thriving but then again, it may only seem to thrive for those who keep a wider, wiser perspective.”
Jing Lejano, the former editor of Good Housekeeping Philippines who has been freelance writing on and off for more than a decade, agrees. She believes the rise of the digital platform has ushered in exciting times for freelancers. “Yes, print is dying. However, the trend towards digital has brought on more opportunities for writers and editors. The need for content is there and if you can adapt, then good for you!”
How do you make sure you thrive in the freelance landscape? How do you hustle and adapt to get a steady stream of projects? Here are a few tips to help you on your freelance writing career.
Sounds like a plot for a book-turned-Hollywood movie (and it was, see Jim Carey’s, Yes Man). This is also what Lejano will tell you. She sent her kids to college while freelance writing—so yes, the respected editor knows what she’s talking about. “My advice…after ensuring that you’ll be working with a legit org, always say yes. You’ll never know where a project can take you!”
This piece of advice is especially helpful to people who are starting their freelance writing careers. When I left a full-time position in a magazine and ventured into freelance territory, I was only used to writing editorial features. When a geothermal energy company approached me to write the brochures of their power plants, I said yes. I was interested in sustainable energy, but I didn’t know anything about power plants. Still, I accepted the project and just read up on everything I could about it. Years later, I got to work on the same company’s coffee table book about their CSR.
Having said that, while it’s good to always say yes, make sure that the company you’re signing a contract with is one that you’re familiar with. This way, collecting payment won’t be an issue. So do always say yes. But also know who you’re saying yes to.
When you’re dealing with different clients, some of whom you may have only worked with for the first time, you’ll only get judged by the work you submitted to them. They won’t care if you wrote a great travel piece online that went viral a year ago.
For Agay Reyes, a freelance head writer for television and online, submitting quality work is the best strategy of a freelancer. “If you do this, people will keep hiring you and you’ll end up with a roster of regular clients. This also paves the way for referrals, because people will always want to work with writers who can deliver the goods under minimal supervision and revision.”
Being able to turn in quality work every time is the goal, of course. But if you make a mistake, learn from it. Step back and give your work (or the project) your own post-mortem.
If you’re a journalist originally trained in print or an aspiring writer ready to take a crack at online writing, keep in mind some tips to become a better online writer. While most writing guidelines still hold true (e.g., do your research, know your audience, keep it simple, etc.), there are a few things to take note of for online writing. (For one, you have to keep in mind that Google and other search engines are also “reading” your articles to rank them for keywords.) Learn about the industry you’re entering.
According to Morales, freelance writing or editing can be a lucrative career. But, just like any other career, it would take years of experience “to make mistakes and learn from them, [build] your network, [improve] your skills…People will like working with you if you are able to build a good reputation.” Which brings us to our next tip—
Without any job security to hold on it, freelancers have to maintain a solid reputation. “Work with dignity and don’t be an a**hole,” says Morales.
In my first few years working as an editor, I luckily met many different types of contributors—most of whom are the nicest and most dependable people you’ll ever come across. There were some, though, who were a challenge. Whenever it is a choice between two equally competent writers, with one of them easier to work with than the other, it’s a no-brainer that editors or clients will prefer to work with the one who won’t require much hand-holding or ego stroking. So play nice.
Sports analyst and freelance writer Carlo Pamintuan is a fixture at many PBA games, and his byline appears regularly on Sports 5. As the sports leagues he works for have an off-season, he admits he has to be creative to make sure he has enough saved up for the lean months. “I [also] look for other work options during that time.” The prolific writer then takes on writing projects on a wide range of topics including lifestyle, men’s grooming, and even insurance.
“For me, the key to the freelance lifestyle is to be flexible. The game is all about expanding your knowledge so you’ll be able to write about more topics and work for, and with more, people,” says Pamintuan. “[Freelance writing] can be a lucrative career because there’s no end date to writing. You’ll get better and have more clout in the industry as time goes along.”
One of the challenges of being a freelancer is not knowing how to cost certain projects, or being uncertain whether the fee for a project is commensurate with the time allotted for it. While there are many writing opportunities these days, especially online, there are also many projects offering appalling rates that go as low as $1 per article.
Morales suggests that one of the ways to overcome this hurdle is to know your worth: “Value yourself, value your work, and be firm about your principles.” To make sure you can live on a freelancer’s paycheck, you have to see to it that the paycheck is worth your time. “You don’t need to keep agreeing to fees that hurt not only your ego but also the industry in general,” adds Morales.
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