What I’ve learned in my first year as a freelancer
When I left my staff job in July last year, I didn’t have an exact plan for what would happen next, but I knew the steps. Take some time off to decompress (happily coinciding with getting married). Start applying for jobs a month later and, all being well, find work in a similar role in another newsroom or media outlet’s offices.
But as the decompression took hold the idea of what I would do next became less fixed. What was stranger was that this lack of certainty didn’t scare me as much as I thought it would. What if I used this as a chance to reassess how I work and what I work on? What if I could be doing things differently but hadn’t given myself a chance to think about it before?
That’s how life as a freelancer began for me. It wasn’t a huge epiphany, rather a nagging feeling that I might not want to rush back into a version of how I’d worked before (even if there was a lot about it that I really, really loved). Here was a chance to change and interrogate myself about what I want from work and a career.
I mark my first “official” day as a freelance journalist and consultant as 18th September 2016. I’m now just over a year in and while I have by no means cracked it, I’ve learned so much from fellow freelancers that I thought it was time to share some of my own (very individual) experiences in the hope they may help anyone also considering the jump from staff role to freelance.
- The power of the network
I cannot say loudly enough how generous former colleagues, old contacts and friends-of-friends-of-friends have been this past year. When I first started researching freelance journalism job boards and Facebook groups I was daunted by the size of the community. I was scared I’d get lost in a sea of far more experienced freelancers. Instead, what I got and still get was an enormous support network full of people facing the same trials and tribulations, but rooting for one another. It’s a way to network too, but somewhere you can share and support, rather than feel like you are simply asking, taking and schmoozing.
Working on staff, I did “network” but not in an active way, not in order to secure paid work. Thinking like a freelancer means allowing yourself to do more networking. I love building contacts for stories, but professional networking has never been my favourite thing if I’m honest. Reminding yourself that it’s part of the job is a good place to start and don’t underestimate the network you may already have. Starting with people you’ve known a long time or who said “let’s meet for coffee” once made it a lot less daunting at the beginning and, again, people were so happy to share their time and insights. I hope to be able to do more of this myself in return.
2. Being your own boss
My boss is usually pretty fair. She has a tendency to be my harshest critic, but she’s also good about letting me have the afternoon off if I’ve done lots of overtime that week. Sometimes she forgets to think about what’s gone right and focuses on what hasn’t.
Talking about myself in the third person is possibly a sign that I spend too much time remote working. I’ve had a lot of people in the past year say to me “I could never work for myself, because I’m not disciplined enough/wouldn’t be able to get myself out of bed/work best in a team.” My freelance situation does involve a lot of remote work, involving just me, but it doesn’t always. It’s worth thinking about how you work best and if you can replicate that in your freelance working environment.
I discovered that I am pretty disciplined and can motivate and organise myself to work from home. That said, I swapped out a 5-day-a-week commute so the perks were clear from the beginning. I do, however, pitch for regular in-house work and like to do a certain amount of this each month if I can.
A side point: sometimes it’s not about being your own boss, actually you’ve swapped one line manager for four, five, six or more. But reminding yourself that you have ultimate control over what you do or don’t take on can be grounding in stressful moments.
3. Sounds like a plan
My initial “strategy” when I went freelance was pretty simple: generate enough work to keep myself busy and afloat financially for the next year. I kept coming back to this every time I beat myself up for not having written a book yet, secured commissions in all my dream publications etc, etc. This is a business and businesses take years to establish themselves. Finding work and keeping it is a good place to start and I did assess the areas in which I could work (reporting, writing, editing, consulting and training), but I didn’t have a business plan as such.
I do now. It was much easier to write after a year of experience in the freelance world, but I wish I’d done it earlier. My objectives for year two are much more detailed. That’s partly because I realised I needed to do an annual review and that, in the future, I need to review how things are going much more regularly.
I was so focused on my survival goal in year one that I rarely stopped to reflect on what direction my work was taking me in. There’s no one overseeing you to give an appraisal or set objectives. Year two is still about generating regular, financially supportive and interesting work, but it’s also about personal and professional development (fingers crossed). The past year has taught me that I need to carve out time for those things, because the day-to-day can really suck you in.
4. On that note… admin and tips
Being your own boss, marketer and accountant generates a lot of admin. I’m not going to bore you with details of how I manage email, but some tools that have helped me along the way:
- Accounts and invoicing software: I use Freeagent, but there are others available. Makes invoicing, sending reminders and tracking your earnings and expenditure really easy.
- This post on calculating rates for consultancy, training and project work.
- These posts on writing a business plan.
- Posts, like this, on places to pitch.
- Tools, like Trello, for keeping track of pitches, work leads and projects.
Finally, this isn’t an Oscar acceptance speech, but it is a nice opportunity to say thank you to a whole lot of people who have been so generous with their time and advice. The unswerving support award goes to my husband, John, with an extra mention for those days when I clearly haven’t spoken to enough people IRL.
There are too many folks to mention here, starting with everyone who got a vague email from me last summer asking for “advice” - just getting a response and some encouraging words meant more than anything to me at that stage.
Thanks to: confidantes and fellow journalists Helen Roxburgh, Hattie Crisell and Marta Bausells, as well as old pal Ravender Sembhy; sage advisers and inspirations Jon Bernstein, Jaz Cummins, Ben Matthews and Nicola Slawson; trainer extraordinaire, Danielle Batist; and many, many more.
If you’d like to talk to me about writing or editing commissions, or consultancy and training projects, please do get in touch.
The beautiful illustrations are from Laura Salaberry.