Redefining success as a freelancer
When I entered journalism school in 2011, I thought I would graduate, get a job at a magazine and — if I were lucky enough — secure an associate editor position. The kind where you wrote longer feature stories as well as helped other writers with their articles.
It wasn’t until I graduated that I realized just how meandering my path into journalism would be. Sure, I landed some internships and journalism and communications jobs. And now, nearly 5 years after I graduated, I have been able to support myself as a freelancer.
But am I successful? And what does that word even mean when you are a freelancer?
When you work on staff add a publication, success means promotions, raises and perks. It can mean going from an assistant position to getting an assistant of your own. It can mean finally making purchases that were out of your reach just a few years ago. Maybe you want a larger apartment or a nicer car.
It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day grind of being a freelancer. Your pitching stories, taking assignments from clients, chasing invoices and marketing yourself all the time. So, how do you measure how well you’re doing? To whom do you look for validation that your work means something? Readers? Editors? Award judges? Your bank account balance or credit score?
I started thinking about the word success after walking out of a job interview last week. In the beginning, I started building my freelance portfolio in hopes of acquiring a full-time job. It came up again when I came across Giulia Pines’ Medium piece on defining success as a freelancer. Through punching above my weight with every feature and even smaller articles, I had hoped to demonstrate to potential employers what I could bring to the table as a staffer. However, as I went on job interviews, I started hearing a similar refrain from employers who felt that my freelance portfolio signaled that I was overqualified for their job or that I had less than the ‘right’ amount of experience.
During the aforementioned interview, the interview were referred to my freelance career as successful and remarked on my overall writing abilities as beautiful. I tried not to cringe and downplay my talent, and I likely failed, as that is my reflex. It has always been difficult for me to take compliments. There’s something comforting about the feeling like you’re not that great at the thing that you love. It makes it easier to accept your mistakes.
Winning awards doesn’t seem to be the way… As Rose Eveleth points out in Nieman Storyboard, it’s expensive for freelancers to submit their work in award show contests. Unless our editors want to enter our work on our behalf, freelancers will have to shell out their hard-earned cash at a chance to add another bullet point to your resume. For someone who’s making it but not ballin’ out, that indicator won’t indicate my success until I can afford to invest in clout.
My bank account is a middle ground. On one hand, I pulled something off that I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to do: pay my bills solely from freelance writing — a feat that many freelancers struggle pulling off at first, if ever. On the other hand, I’m not in the position where I can walk into the nearest Mercedes dealer and walk out with a 2019 car with all the bells and whistles. Not that I want that, :)
Being a freelancer means not always knowing what’s happening within the newsroom. It’s rare that editors approach me for articles, so it’s not totally clear to me whether my work is reaching editors at publications for which I want to freelance. And yet, when I go on job interviews or am out networking, someone will mention a story that I’ve done or ask me how I’m doing. There are so many writers vying for spots in prestigious publications that I think it’ll be a while for me before I can use editor attention as a success indicator.
But what about readers? One of the few positives of social media is being able to somewhat measure engagement with readers. You can see in real time how many people are sharing and responding to your work. But what if you work on something for a long time and the social media rollout lands with a thud? I love it when my articles gain traction, but I’m hesitant to use virality as a measure of success.
The only metric that I can consistently return to is my own content. I remember jobs that I liked going to every morning. I’m not a fan of long commutes, but for the right job I don’t mind. With other roles, however, the commute to a not-so-great workplace was filled with anxiety. It was not easy to get my freelance business going. There were many days when I questioned whether I’d be able to support myself with writing alone. But now that things are going, I wake up in the morning excited to work on various assignments, research and pitch ambitious projects and write in my pajamas. I don’t know whether my full-time job will be in my future or if the freelance path is better for me, but I’ll judge my success by my weekday morning feelings.
How do you measure the success of your freelance career? Tell me in the comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.