Five things I’ve learned in my first freelance year

Just the right words was one year old yesterday. It’s probably appropriate to mark this milestone with a bit of reflection. So, here are five things off the top of my head that I’ve learned in my first year as a freelance writer.

Balloons

1 – Freelance is fun

The past year has flown by and been one of the most enjoyable of my life. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been hard work. But it’s also been tons of fun. I am loving the variety that comes from working for a number of clients on a wide range of different projects. No two days are the same.  The range of writing tasks and audiences I’m communicating with means that I never get bored.

After ten years working as writer for a not-for-profit organisation I was desperate for a change, eager for a new challenge. Starting my own business was not even in the back of my mind. However, it turns out that being freelance suits me down to the ground. It can feel precarious at times, but it’s still fun. There’s something tremendously liberating about being my own boss and not being frustrated or distracted by office politics. The buck stops with me, and I’m happy with that.

Liquid

2 – Freelance is fluid

It didn’t take me long to discover that being a freelance writer almost guarantees you won’t have a regular workload. It’s more of a workflow, or work-ebb-and-flow, to be precise. Although I’d secured a couple of regular clients before taking the freelance plunge, after working on a few initial projects I’d accumulated, there was a distinct tumble-weed period. Inevitably the panic began to set in at that point, but after speaking with a few of my peers I began to realise that this fluidity of work is completely normal. Once I accepted that I felt a lot calmer, and sure enough, within a week or so things suddenly started picking up and I had plenty to be getting on with again.

The remainder of the year followed a similar pattern, with droughts giving way to periods when I’ve felt myself drowning and struggling to keep my head above water. The trick is to keep doing what you’re doing, and take the long-term view. Once you’ve accepted the cyclical pattern of work, and recognised that a dry stretch is only going to be temporary, you can stop worrying and actually use those quiet periods constructively. Do some marketing. Update your website. Or even give yourself a few days off. It’s hard to give yourself permission to take a break, but during a busy period that simply isn’t an option. If you see a lull, treat yourself to a little holiday. Whenever I’ve done that I have returned full of energy and enthusiasm, and usually to a full inbox and a plethora of new projects!

Pile of work

3 – Freelance is frantic

When it’s busy, it’s very busy. I think I’d learned within a month that as a freelance writer you end up doing the jobs that nobody else wants to do. Or the jobs that nobody else had time to do. As a result, clients tend to turn to you for help when they are perilously close to a deadline.

Several times in this past year I’ve received a brief for a job that needs turning around the same day, or within 24 hours. On those occasions, instead of muttering in my head about the lack of planning that has led to such an ‘unfair’ deadline, I’ve gladly accepted the challenge and relished the opportunity to turn things around quickly and ‘save the day’ in the process. Such tasks may involve an impromptu display of juggling other projects, priorities and clients but the adrenaline rush, job satisfaction and appreciation when you’ve come to the rescue usually compensate for this.

Fakir balancing on pole

4 – Freelance is flexible

What a shocker! I know it’s a given, and one of the main reasons for going down this route in the first place, but until you experience it for yourself, it’s hard to appreciate just how freeing it is to work in a flexible fashion. I’m not just talking about working hours, though it is great to be able to start later in the morning and work on into the evening if you want to, and I’ve personally loved being able to break up my working day with regular exercise at lunchtime.

I’ve also been impressed by how easy it is to work exactly wherever and however I want to suit my needs and preferences. Working in a quiet environment, or one where I control what noises I listen to has made me much more productive than I was battling to concentrate in a busy open plan office. I started off working from home and then after a couple of months had the opportunity to work from a friend’s house with a bigger office and found that suited me even better and helped me to keep more regular business hours.

But perhaps the best flexible factor of all has been the sheer variety of projects I’ve worked on. As a creative type I get bored easily, and ten years of writing within the same industry had drained me considerably. In the past year I have worked for eight different clients, within six different industry sectors in three different countries. I’ve worked on a huge number of projects, ranging from video scripts about pensions to websites for small businesses in Oxfordshire to employee benefits handbooks for blue chip corporations to advertising copy for a social media start-up in the United States.

Flexibility keeps me fresh and means I haven’t even considered returning to a 9 to 5 salaried post for a single minute in the last year. Not even once.

Yellow smiley faces

5 – Freelance is fulfilling

The nay-sayers, doom merchants and scaremongers would all have you believe that becoming a freelance writer is “a big risk”, that “you’re on a hiding to nothing”, and that if you’re self-employed “there’s no safety net” and “it’s all down to you.”

I say, ignore these pessimistic spoilsports and concentrate on the flip-side. Focus on the positives of freelance. If you’re a success, it’s all down to you. When you get a new client, when you complete a project and know you’ve done a great job, when you get client feedback that confirms you have – you get all the credit. Living off your wits sharpens your skills, focuses your efforts and gives you a sense of achievement and job satisfaction that is second-to-none.

Of course, not all clients may appreciate your efforts. They may frustrate you beyond belief with their ‘constructive’ criticism and ‘helpful’ edits. They might not even say anything, and just send you the next assignment without any feedback.

But when you get those appreciative emails or grateful telephone calls from delighted customers, there’s nothing like it. You know that your expertise, skills and sheer hard work have made a difference. And it feels great.

Finally…

These are just five things I’ve learned in my first year as a freelancer, that all just happened to begin with ‘F’.

I’ll be sharing a few more things, more briefly, in due course.

If you’ve learned similar or different freelance lessons, please feel free to share!

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2 thoughts on “Five things I’ve learned in my first freelance year

  1. Matt, I’m really pleased to hear that this article has encouraged you and I wish you every success with your future direction.

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