I just got a press release that promised me “September is the new January!” And while I don’t really understand why we have to replace January, I do adore back-to-school season and that fresh start feeling it implies. (Despite my end-of-summer denial referenced here. What can I say? Like ninjas, I am the ultimate paradox.)
Plus for me, September is especially January-like because it’s the annual anniversary of when I launched my freelance writing life and the start of my personal work year. Yes, this September 2012 marks seven lovely cubicle-free years for VA.
But oh, grasshoppers. It didn’t start out very auspiciously. On September 4, 2005, I got laid off, along with all of my colleagues, when Rodale folded Organic Style Magazine. All of us junior editors were totally blindsided. (Sadly, this was a pretty short-lived innocence. Seven years of freelancing, much of it during a recession, has made me way less astounded when magazines folding. Now it’s more like a drinking game.) I went out drinking with my co-workers then proceeded to my parents’ house in Philadelphia, where I reorganized all of their closets. Because that was the only sane response.
The next week, I cleared out my cubicle, used my last non-severance paycheck to buy a desk from West Elm and a mattress from Bloomingdale’s and declared myself in the freelance business. (Getyourmindoutofthegutter. The mattress wasn’t actually a business expense, my then-boyfriend-now-husband and I just rilly rilly needed a new one and it seemed “prudent” I think? To buy it while I still had cash on hand. Please keep in mind that I was 24.) I very consciously did not go on job interviews. I did start pitching every editor I had ever met. My former senior editors at OS, who were (and still are) like the coolest group of moms/big sisters you’ve ever met, started telling their editor friends to assign to me, or at least, reject my overenthusiastic pitches kindly. I am so, so grateful for this.
In retrospect, I love to tell people that getting laid off was the best thing that ever happened to me. Because this is mostly true — it was a tremendous opportunity and I was terribly lucky to be 24 and unencumbered, not say, approaching retirement or putting a kid through college. But for the first few months, it was also hella stressful. Think: Waking up at 4 AM every day, wondering if I could really call myself “employed,” hounding tourists in a Times Square bars for their best “how I dumped him!” stories, being the most awkward guest at every party trying to stammer an answer to “what do you do?” type questions. I eat Cheerios for lunch at 3 PM in my pajamas and never feel like I’m allowed to stop working is not the ice breaker you might imagine.
Anyway, here we are. And this isn’t meant to be a “look at how awesome my life is!” post, but dude, the freelance life is kind of awesome. I do get dressed every day and eat real lunches now, but that’s strictly a personal preference because round about year two I found it quite necessary to start drawing some lines between “working” and “not working.” (Weekends, for example, are not for working. There are some late nights on big deadline weeks, but for the most part, post-6 PM is not for working either because my brain is too mushy.) I also get to work on a crazy range of fascinating assignments, travel to cool places, and most crucially, tell stories about real women and the issues we care about. (Or sometimes, just think are fun.)
These days, I get a fair number of emails from people wanting to know more about how to be a freelance writer, so even though I am far from an expert on this (it’s been seven years, not seventeen!), I thought I’d speak to that a little bit here. In honor of this little freelance-versary, here are seven things I’ve learned in the past seven years. (Look, I come from lady mags. We love our packaging!)
1. You need a business plan. Yes, I know, you’re a writer, you’re so creative, you sucked at math. Me too. But every year I sit down and write a business plan assessing how the past year went and listing out my professional goals for the new year and (wait for it!) my financial goals. As in, how much money I need/want to make, and how many stories that means I need to bring in every month.
2. You need to keep track of your plan. The first few years, I was great about writing the plan, not so great about remembering the plan month to month. Now I have the world’s most elaborately colored Excel spreadsheet and a Google calendar that tell me exactly how many assignments I have going, how much I need to be pitching, and how close I am to hitting the month’s goal. I know that sounds terrifying, but it’s actually hugely comforting.
3. It’s only a job if you treat it like a job. Otherwise, you’re just fancy-unemployed, friends. Treating it like a job means working regular hours (they don’t have to be 9 to 5 but they do need to be consistent — for awhile I worked 11 am to 7 PM, or 8 AM to 10 AM followed by a big break, then 2 PM to 8 pm… you get the idea), meeting deadlines even when they are self-imposed, and also not working when you’re not on the clock. Or else you go insane. I come from a proud family tradition of workaholics and thus, require a lot of practice on this last part. But it’s true.
4. Freelance writers are like plumbers. When plumbers get a call about a job, they don’t stop and ask: Will unplugging these pipes make my creative heart sing? Will snaking this drain light my soul on fire? Does this toilet contribute something to the collective consciousness? They tell you how much it costs and then they fix your toilet. Being precious about assignments, especially when you are starting out, is a surest path I know to fulfilling that “all freelancers live on Ramen noodles” stereotype. Which is an ugly stereotype that I, for one, would like to see die — it only hurts our collective professional reputation and encourages the publishing industry to think writing equals cheap, expendable labor.
If you’re still living out your Rent! The Musical fantasy, that might be fine with you. But consider this: Being very picky about what you’ll write also limits you as a writer because you’ll end up writing a lot less. And you aren’t training yourself to write well over and over again in a variety of settings. This is why my portfolio is divided into thirteen topics. Diversifying keeps you in business and makes you a better writer (also it’s more fun).
5. But you still need to have a passion project(s). Obviously, some assignments do light your soul on fire. And the biggest perk of being a freelance writer is that you get to pursue them. Over time, this is also how you build your niche and reputation. So this is good. Do these things. Eventually you earn the right to be a lot pickier about your work and it pays to be strategic. Just also remember that you gotta make rent.
6. Forget about word rates and know what your time is worth. Look, freelance rates are all over the maps these days. Print publications pay $1 to $2 per word and that rate hasn’t changed in donkey’s years. Online pays in crazy talk — I’ve been quoted anywhere from $200 per post to $15 to nothing. So you have to think that rates are like clothing sizes; there’s no such thing as standard. Forget about that. Instead, figure out what your time is worth by the hour and by the day. (You can do this because you wrote a business plan, remember?) Then divide the quoted rate by the amount of time you’ll need to spend on the assignment. If it works out to be lower than your per-hour or per-day rate, you need to get paid more. Feel free to question this math in the comments if that was confusing.
7. Get thee a room of one’s own. Borrowing liberally from that other writer named Virginia here (yes, my namesake) but good Lord, she was smart. Part of the reason I used to wake up at 4 AM every night was that I put that West Elm desk right next to my bed. I mean, there wasn’t any other place in our teensy apartment. But my work/life balance improved significantly once I earned enough to rent an apartment with an office. Side note: You can share an office with a friend or co-worker. You can maybe share an office with your spouse, but this is dicey. But you definitely cannot share your office with your kids. Some days, I can’t even share it with my cats.
Hey, fellow freelance writers/business owners/self-employed peeps: What am I missing? What am I going to learn in the next seven years?
And generally speaking, dear blog readers: Is the writing life something you want to hear more about? Or are y’all yawning and wondering when I’ll tell you more about body image, Mary Kay, or maybe lighthouses? (Can’t say I don’t try to keep it interesting round here.)