Can You Make It As a Freelancer?
The first time I asked myself that question was in August 2017 when I went full-time freelance. With more money in savings than I ever had, I had a loose plan to pitch a handful of publications with which I had a relationship and I knew paid decently. My rough plan was pitch these publications a certain number of stories per month and reach a monthly minimum earning goal. But, as I quickly burned through my savings over the course of a few months, I realized that plan wasn’t going to work.
The thing that I soon discovered was that you can’t put your income in someone else's hands. As fellow freelance writer Luke O’Neil explained in a 2018 Medium post, receiving a swift rejection from an editor is better than waiting forever for an answer. As any freelance journalist will tell you, it’s impossible to know whether an editor will get back to you in a timely fashion. And the obvious problem with that is you can’t pay your bills with “maybe” receiving a commission.
And yet, here I was, a full-time freelancer with no generational wealth who had to figure out how to make it work. So I did. Today I’ve been freelancing for more than a year full-time. And yet I can also recognize how hard it is for other freelancers who are trying to make ends meet. I started thinking about this after reading a recent article in The New Republic that circulated widely among fellow freelance writers. In it, the The writer details his triumphs as a freelancer as well as the shortcomings of trying to make a living, chief among them the debt and constant lack of financial stability.
As I watched a stream of tweets following the articles publication, many freelancers share their own experiences with making ends meet as a freelancer — or not. While some said that freelancing was absolutely a viable way to make a living, others said that they faced similar struggles of not being able to pay their bills and not being able to reach life goals that would have otherwise been attainable in the pre-Internet journalism era.
I have mixed feelings about this. Obviously I’ve been able to sustain myself as a freelancer for a little while now. I can pay my rent. I have a small savings. I’ve slowly been chipping away at debt. But I also recognize that it’s hard for other freelancers. Other freelancers have not been lucky enough to land anchor clients or freelance for publications that pay well or gain enough notoriety to become a columnist or regular contributor to a publication. From the outside looking in, making it as a full-time freelance journalist can seem like it’s only attainable for a select few journalists. And not being able to be a part of the club is not only devastating to one’s self-esteem but also to your bank account and your dreams.
Some research suggests that women are having a harder time freelancing than men, but there’s not much available for gender non-binary creatives. According to a 2017 report from HoneyBook, women freelancers make 32 percent less than men in creative industries, which amounts to women earning $30,700 annually and men bringing in over $45,400 every year. To make matters worse, the report also found 63 percent think men and women are paid equally in creative industries.
In my view, it is both true that some freelance journalists have been able to make a living as journalists and for other freelance journalist it is extremely difficult to survive. And for those who can’t survive, their ideas die with their dashed ambitions, making the overall quality of journalism severely diminished because only the select few who can make a living or afford to work for lower wages are the only ones who can contribute.
All I can say is is that it’s been easier for me to find freelance clients then it has been to find a full-time job. And as a person who has had multiple negative workplace experiences, I find solace that freelancing gives me the freedom to create the work I want to create without sacrificing my mental health. Beyond a freelancer starter kit, here are some other strategies I have implemented to make freelancing work:
Treat freelancing like a business
The first thing that I learned when I started freelancing was to have alternative income streams. Editor’s are not going to respond in a timely fashion, and they may not understand how crucial it is that the publication pays its contributors on time and response to pitches quickly. So I had to make sure that I had other ways of making money. Any other skills that you have should be incorporated into your freelance business. If you know a foreign language, know how to copy edit or fact check or write a cool newsletter, you have marketable skills that will translate into more potential clients. Think of it like Hulu. Yes they charge subscribers to access their service, but they also have advertising, too. May be a bad example, but you get my point. The more revenue streams you have the more you can insulate yourself from income volatility.
Find anchor clients
This was tough for me to do, so I sympathize with freelancers who have a hard time doing the same. As I’ve mentioned in past posts, I found a good clients through my own network as well as reaching out to people and pitching them regularly. If you have contacts that work at different publications or companies that need a writers, drop them a note and let them know that you’re looking for work. Don’t be shy and don’t feel ashamed. The volatility of the media industry is not your fault. You are talented and you are worthy. Let other people know that you’re open for opportunities. And whenever possible, positional relationship as such that you can contribute to their company on a regular basis. For example, you can write monthly blog posts for a company or contribute to a magazine.
Look for opportunities in different places
A lot of freelancers referred to this as finding your niche. I don’t think it’s wise to have one or two niches. Instead if you have three or four areas that you are very familiar with, use that as a framework for finding clients in unexplored territory. For example, I have a bit of experience creating content marketing materials. So I’ve taken that and have written for several content marketing firms and other companies outside of my reporting beats. Another way you could do this is by pitching to business-to-business publications. If you know something about insurance, retail, or banking, look for trade publications in those sectors. Trust me, if a industry is big enough, it will have a trade publication that covers it. And chances are the older and bigger that industry is, the better the pay will be. You can find a helpful listing of trade publications in the Writer’s Market.
Develop a support system
Yes, you should have friends and family around you as you try to build your freelance business from the ground up. They are going to be immensely important and will act as a sounding board from outside of the industry. But you also need a support system of people within the industry, a board of directors for your career so to speak. These people should be editors at different publications, mentors in academia, and even people in ancillary industries. The people within your field and related industries are crucial, because they will send opportunities your way as they come up. But beyond that, it’s helpful to be around them when you don’t need anything as well as sending opportunities or kind gestures their way when you don’t need something.
As a woman of color from a low income background, I am very sensitive to the fact that some people have a harder time making it in this world than others. I don’t mean to trivialize that struggle in this post. However, I do think that freelancing is a pathway for me to sustain myself while I look for work. It’s also a way to sequester myself from unwelcoming work environments.
Ultimately, this industry is very broken, so it’s important that it gets fixed so that more creative skin not just survive but thrive. Part of that starts with us pushing back against low rates and slow payments. But the onus is on publishers to recognize that all talent — whether it’s interns, freelancer, part-time or full-time staffers — deserves to make a living wage and be paid within a timely-fashion.
Have you been able to make a living as a freelance journalist? Are you freelancing full-time and have a live to tell about it? If so, share your experience in the comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org