Living the Dream? Here’s What No One Tells You About Freelance Writing

The illusion of freelance writing (left) versus the reality (right).

A friend once told me that I was “living the dream” as a professional freelance writer. When asked what they meant, they simply said: “Because you’re your own boss, you work the hours you want and you get to see your children.”

It’s an interesting set of assumptions — because they’re all completely wrong.

While I am (technically) my own boss — I’d argue that a boss (in the conventional sense) has been replaced by the fleet of customers I have on my books. They’re all my bosses now. I suppose the one advantage is that the tables have been turned. I can choose whom I work with and “fire” any one my “bosses” if I want to.

And, yes, I do get flexibility in my hours. But I just worked for most of the bank holiday weekend as I listened to my children playing outside. So, that’s points two and three of my friend’s statement scuppered too. But, to be completely objective, I do get to pick my children up from school every day — I just have to work until 1:00am most nights to make up the hours.

Now, please don’t think this is going to be a big rant about the woes of freelance writing. If you’re thinking about a career as a freelance writer, I ABSOLUTELY recommend it (I even used capital letters to emphasise this point, which means I’m REALLY serious about this).

The best and worst part of my work is: I love it. Why’s that a bad thing? Because I can’t say no to the flurry of fascinating work that comes my way — so I always end up with too much on my plate.

Boo hoo. Poor me. What a chuffing first world problem.

I could write a very smug and self-indulgent piece on why I LOVE my job. (Yes, capital letters again. I know you noticed.) But I don’t think you’d want to read that. And I don’t think I’d want to write that. (Which breaks the golden rule about only writing stuff you’d want to read.)

Anyway, the assumptions people make when I say I’m a freelance writer are intriguing. (My favourite question so far from someone I’d only just met is: “Are you writing the next Fifty Shades of Grey then?” No. I’m more geek than grey.)

So, I was particularly fascinated by this white paper on The State of Freelance Writing in 2017 by the bods at Freelance Writing. It gives a fascinating insight into life as a professional freelance writer. Here’s a synopsis of the findings:

  • Most freelance writers earn $10,000 or less annually
  • Most freelance writers work less than 20 hours a week
  • Those who earn 40K+ work full-time
  • Most writers gained specialised expertise in previous jobs. This expertise then allowed them to be better freelance writers.
  • Writers predict the industry will become more competitive
  • Writers also predict they will continue on in the field for the foreseeable future

The full infographic is at the end of this post if you want to see all of the stats.

Why a specialism matters

I was quite disheartened by the findings of this white paper. It seemed, on first inspection, to paint freelance writers as a struggling bunch of workers with a below-par income.

But, the middle sentence, really stuck a chord with me: Most writers gained specialised expertise in previous jobs. This expertise then allowed them to be better freelance writers.

And I think that may be the thing no one tells you about freelance writing:

The secret is in the specialism

I’m quite flattered when people ask me for advice on following a career as a freelance writer. I’ll be honest, it’s more luck than judgement that has led me to “living the dream”.

But the one bit of advice I give time and TIME again (see, capital letters, this is important) is to (drumroll please): HAVE A SPECIALISM.

I’ve touched on the importance of a specialism before, and it’s absolutely vital if you want to thrive and survive as a professional freelance writer.

Throughout my 10+ years as a writer, I’ve always focused on science and technology. After all, I have two degrees in physics, I’ve worked as a research scientist and software developer (amongst other things) and have an unhealthy obsession with Brian Cox. I write about the stuff I love and know about.

That’s not all.

If you really want to succeed as a writer, you need to give your clients real value in everything you write. No one wants to read another listicle about the top 10 ways you can do XYZ — people want real insights from real people.

So, make sure you find your niche and work hard to become an expert in this area.

Before I came up with the (dubious) tagline that “I’m the freelance writer who gets tech”, I was part of the below $10K salary demographic identified in the Freelance Writing survey.

As soon as I started shouting about my expertise in science and technology, the work snowballed.

So, if you want to “live the dream” — you have to invest the time in that dream. You have to work out what you want to write about. Then, work your socks off to achieve that dream.

And try hard not to punch anyone in the face who claims you’re “living the dream” as a freelance writer as the work until the wee small hours to make another ridiculous deadline.

After all, you’re you own boss, right? And you can work your own hours, right? And when did you last see your children?

The real truth about freelance writing is: it’s a tough job.

But it rocks.

Here’s the full infographic from Freelance Writing: