The Born Freelancer on Being a “Real” Freelancer

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in the comments. 

I was talking to a freelance colleague of mine recently who was being dismissive of a fellow freelancer:

“Pffft! He isn’t a real freelancer; he’s only writes when he wants to write”.

In other words, he had another full-time job and only wrote what moved him to write. He was every bit as talented a writer as any full-time freelancer; he had just made his lifestyle choices early on in his career. He had decided to keep his work separate from his passions.

I’ve known lots of writers who feel the same way. One I knew years ago told me she’d rather work at any job for the money so she could keep her writing life separate. She still considered herself a professional freelancer (not a hobby writer) and expected to be paid when she did write but only when she had a project she felt sufficiently moved to undertake.

I would posit that contemporary freelancing is what you make of it. It takes on as many different forms as there are individuals engaged in it. Today I thought I would consider the pros and cons of some such modified freelancing options with the hope that it might help some of you clarify your own thoughts when facing similar choices.

So first, let’s start with the advantages of writing (or any creative act) as a full-time revenue stream.

Advantages of full-time freelancing

* It’s what you love to do. What could be better than doing what you love to do, full-time? I think for many of us this is its biggest attraction. My idea of success has remained unchanged for most of my working life: Doing what I love to do; with people I like to work with; and to make enough money at it to live comfortably. It fulfills my need to be creative; to live within a daily schedule of my own specifications; and to devote what time and energy I have to causes, ideas and projects that stimulate my imagination.

* It broadens your comfort zone. Being a full-time freelancing generalist places me in work situations that frequently challenge many of my preconceptions. If you are a full-time working freelancer, you (generally) take on whatever work comes your way. I’ve written about subjects and people I never would have thought about if I had had a completely free choice. As a result, my eyes have been opened to possibilities and alternative solutions to problems I might never have otherwise considered. This has proven useful for both future work projects as well as for my own personal growth.

* You get into a routine or rhythm. Writing or any creative talent thrives on constant attention. It’s the same for athletes – the more you work out, the better shape your reflexes, instincts and left jab! Working full-time enables you to work in a more efficient manner since you are continuously “up to speed”. So there is also the added benefit that it allows you to take on more work. Remember the old saying, “If you have something you need doing ask a busy person”. A full-time writer has their working life infrastructure fully in place in order to enable them to complete new tasks on deadline and without too much anguish (it is hoped!)

* Your full-time branding enhances future work opportunities. When editors and producers know you are full-time a vast number of them will take you more seriously and are more likely to respond to you more readily with future projects. Your networking opportunities should therefore expand exponentially. Their perception is that if you are making a living at creativity full-time you must be better than someone who isn’t. Totally unfair but true (the perception I mean) in my experience.

Advantages of part-time freelancing

* Stability of income and time usage. Obviously having a full-time (or part-time) job other than creative freelancing will give you greater security and stability. A 9-to-5er knows pretty much when they will be expected to work and how much to expect in terms of regular income. For many writers the uncertainty of income and how much time they will need to spend working is the greatest reason to avoid full-time freelancing. A 9-to-5 job affords them a greater peace of mind which in turn frees them up to work more productively on creative activities after hours or on weekends.

* You can refuse uninteresting offers. Quite simply, this is a huge benefit of not full-timing. If a project fails to excite you on any level you can simply turn it down. Most full-time freelancers can’t afford this luxury. In fact, many full-time writers I know actually aspire one day to be in such a position themselves – to have what is euphemistically known in the industry as FUM or “F. U. Money” – enough money in the bank that they can turn down uninspiring jobs. Part-timers can do this right away!

* You can ignore unwarranted criticism. A full-time writer learns to accepts unwarranted criticism and capricious rejection as part of their daily routine if they are going to survive. A lot of gifted writers do not have the temperament required to do this and suffer great and crippling emotional turmoil as a result.

* Your work remains pure, untainted by drive for money. This is a persuasive argument for many creative artists: your work remains untainted by externally-imposed constraints and demands other than what your project itself may require. On the other hand, a lot of projects probably stay at the bottom of a desk drawer because their creators lack the motivation for completion that requiring a paycheque can so readily inspire!

Composite freelancing options

Of course, the modern freelancing life is a complicated one. The freelancing options today are not always as clean cut as I’ve outlined above. So now I’d like to consider still other freelancing career/lifestyle variations, many of which contain a “mix and match” element.

* Alternating work for hire and our own projects. Many of us full-time freelancers manage to survive utilizing this hybrid career approach. We alternate between gun-for-hire projects that are done strictly for the money (albeit they are still creative projects) and developing our own properties (usually requiring much longer to pay off financially). The gun-for-hire projects require our intellects but not necessarily always our hearts. (Find one that does and life is sweet!) They help us pay for all the down time our own projects need to get off the ground. Finding the right balance between the two is an art in itself. Too much emphasis in one direction and you may feel you are “prostituting” your talents; too much the other way and you risk enforced dieting.

* Reality of work opportunities. Freelancing as a full-time career is not as easy as it was just a few years ago. Consolidation of so many media outlets means more work for fewer people. Consequently many freelancers must knit a varied income pattern of freelance and non-freelance revenue streams according to their needs and the fluctuations of the marketplace. You take on non-demanding non-freelancing jobs when the freelancing work falls off and drop them when it picks up again.

* Writing part-time in order to get into it full-time. This is a well-populated category in which many part-time freelancers find themselves when they begin their careers. They believe that their ultimate goal is freelancing full-time and that it is only a matter of biding their time with other work until they are enabled to do so. This is a reasonable and honorable position to be in. But if you are in such a position you should really reexamine your underlying goals and ask yourself if they actually will be fulfilled by moving full-time into freelancing? I hope this post will provide some thought-provoking options to ponder.

* Once full-time, looking to get out. I know some full-time freelancers who have simply had enough. So their careers are in transition but in the opposite direction. They are looking to get other work, any other work, so they no longer have to endure the daily uncertainty and grind of freelancing. Freelancing is not just about the work itself. It is also about selling your work. I sometimes figure I spent maybe 75% of my time and energy self-marketing. Even more when work is harder to find. A lot of full-timers tire of the process after a time or else find their personal situations changing as they get older (families on the way, etc.) They start looking for other (allegedly) more stable, less stressful revenue streams outside of freelancing.

The takeaway

What I hope I’ve shared in this post is that contemporary freelancing takes on many forms, many shapes, many twists and many turns. I would posit no single form of it is necessarily the “gold standard” definition any more; what is best for you is what form of it works for you. Each variation of freelancing carries with it its own pros and cons. Today there is even frequent change and evolution within each individual’s freelancing career; it is nothing if not a dynamic approach to living modern life.

In response to that freelancer I quoted at the beginning of this post, I responded: “The only difference between part-timers and full-timers of equal talent is how they choose to pursue their freelancing careers. The colleague in question has chosen the best path for him for now. And so, IMHO, when he’s working he’s as real a freelancer as any of the rest of us.”

And possibly a whole lot saner too.


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Posted on November 18, 2014 at 9:00 am by editor · · Tagged with: , ,

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