I started working as a freelance writer in the summer of 2011. I had just graduated college and was contemplating either going to graduate school or heading into the corporate IT world with my degree in telecommunications and information management. I was working as an editor of a magazine startup but, with working over 60 hours a week with minimal pay, I knew I needed to do something else.
I wanted to travel and explore the world, but that required a lot of flexibility and money — both resources I was strapped for. I heard about an opportunity to freelance with Yahoo! and decided to apply. I wasn’t sure how much money I could really make being a freelancer, so I kept my job as music editor for the magazine.
A couple months after being hired with Yahoo! as a contributor for their travel and entertainment sections, I was making decent money, enough to pay my bills and even save some, so I decided to quit my editing job. I remember it was the moment I received an email to work with a band called Pizza that I was like, “alright, I think I’m done here.” There’s only so much obscure indie music one girl can take.
After I quit it was so strange to not be working a structured schedule, and it was even stranger to not be working full time. I could work anytime I wanted and in the comfort of my pajamas if I felt like it. I could say yes to any plans my friends offered and rearrange my schedule accordingly and still get paid. It seemed like a dream, right? Nearly three years later, I’ve learned a few things about what it’s really like to be a freelance writer.
You have to be self-motivated.
Sure, it’s awesome to be able to wake up at noon, grab a laptop, and declare your bed (or if you’re traveling, the beach) as your office for the day. It can also be really hard to motivate yourself to work with no one bossing you around, no office to have to get up and go to, and no scheduled time to work.
After a few months of freelancing, I took note on times I was the most productive (early in the morning, turns out) and also what I needed to do for myself to become focused and productive. Sometimes it can be difficult for me to balance my freelance writing and other writing or editing projects. I’m someone that likes to have a ton of different things going on, and it can seem like I’m writing all day, every day, for someone or something.
When I write all day for different publications, it can be hard to sit down and work on my book or a blog I’m working on. So now I get up in the morning, make a pot of coffee, take a shower, and basically get ready as if I were getting ready to go into an office. If I’m traveling, I head to the nearest coffeeshop in the morning or work from my hostel before going out and doing any sightseeing for the day. Adding structure to my day helps me stay motivated.
You learn how to say no.
Your best friend wants to go to the movies or head to the wine bar for $4 glasses of wine. Your significant other wants attention. Netflix streaming is begging you to just watch one more episode of that show you’ve been binge watching. There are always opportunities to get distracted and do something, anything other than write.
Once in a while if I’m hanging with a friend I’ll say, “Okay, I need to be back home by this time to work,” and they get annoyed. “You just have to write an article, what’s the big deal? Can’t you go do XYZ with me and write later?” NO. This can be really hard for me as I’m a huge people pleaser, but I’ve learned how to put my foot down. You just have to learn how to say no — to your friends, your partner, and sometimes even to yourself.
You have to explain to people you’re not just ‘on your computer.’
I think this is one of the most difficult aspects of being a freelancer for me. People see you on your laptop and they think you’re doing nothing. They think you’re just browsing Reddit for the millionth time or Facebooking or doing something else completely irrelevant.
I stayed with my parents last December for a month in Houston, and I always felt bad because I’d stay holed up in my room all evening working so I’d have free time during the day to spend with my mom. Didn’t I want to watch The Voice with them? Why was I being anti-social?
Finally, after a couple weeks of this, I had to sit down with them. “Look, I’m not trying to be anti-social. I’m working on my computer. Writing is my job. I’m not just sitting on my computer doing nothing. I have deadlines every day, and if I don’t meet them I won’t be paid. Just like you go into your office every day and sit at a computer, I have to do the same thing, except I don’t have to go anywhere.”
I’ve had to have this talk with a few different people. What’s the difference if I go into an office for 12 hours a day and work on a computer or work on my computer at home or in a coffeeshop for 12 hours a day? Work is work regardless of where you go.
You’re considered unstable.
Most people don’t get what freelancing is all about. In America you’re supposed to get a 9-5 job after college, complete with a 401K, benefits, a savings plan, the whole gig. I mean, that’s what everyone does, and if you don’t follow suit you’re looked at like you’re lazy, unreliable, and broke. When I told an ex-boyfriend’s mom I freelanced, she instantly questioned me about how much money I made because she told me that to her, freelancing sounded like it wasn’t a steady job or reliable income.
Sure, I don’t have benefits and sometimes I’m broke between checks, but I’d much rather have flexibility in my career while doing something I absolutely love than take a different job just to please the people around me who would feel better themselves if I did the standard 9-5. One time my aunt asked me, “Don’t you just want to get a real job?” I have a real job, thank you very much.
You have the world at your hands.
I realize at this point in the article I’ve listed some negative things about freelance writing, so now it’s time to talk about why it’s freaking awesome. As a travel writer, I get opportunities all the time to write pieces on really, really cool topics.
Last year, I was offered the opportunity to spend 10 days off the coast of Belize on someone’s private island to cover a research project being conducted by Cornell University about the Great Blue Hole that included 10 days free food and accommodations while staying in paradise. Hello? Is there anything more perfect than that? Sadly, I had to decline the offer. Still drying the tears over that one.
Other times I’ve been able to research and write about serious social issues taking place in Africa or Papua New Guinea. This is the kind of thing I live and breathe for. Learning about new cultures, other worlds, strange cuisine, and interesting people is what fills up my heart with happiness. As a freelance writer, I have the ability to constantly seek out new opportunities all around the world.
You can live anywhere you want.
Recently, I found a few different apartments in Costa Rica for $400 a month including all utilities, fully furnished, and right on the beach. I have the freedom to take up an opportunity like that anytime I want to. And believe me, I’m extremely tempted considering how awful winter in Michigan has been.
I know freelance writers who’ve made homes for 3-6 months or more at a time in Thailand, South America, Ireland, etc. Why? Because they can. They have a thirst for culture and adventure that can’t be fulfilled elsewhere. As a freelancer, you can make a home anywhere in the world as long as you have good wifi.
With all of this said, I love my job. It might not be right for some people, but for me it’s exactly what I’m looking for. If you’re thinking of becoming a freelance writer, there are tons of opportunities out there — but understand it takes a lot of hard work and patience, it’s not always easy, and there are a lot of people who are going to tell you to give up and get a “real” job.