© 2008 -- 2011 the Grandpa at The Word Mechanic. All rights reserved.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Thoughts on being a freelancer, lesson one

A long time ago when I was reliable, meaning when I could be counted on to post regularly, and when people left comments, a few readers asked me to blog about my writing career. Truth be told, it's not that interesting. I write and I edit because I like working with words and meaning and ideas, and I like getting ideas across to other people. I'm also good at it. Plus, I don't know what else to do. Everything else seems boring.

[Well that's not exactly true. What's boring is reporting to someone else and letting that someone else dictate how I spend my time. If I'm going to screw up, if I'm going to miss out on life, I want it to be my fault. I don't want it to be because I didn't have any choice but to do what I was told. And there are a lot of other things that are not boring. I miss being an English teacher. I miss running college writing centers. I miss sharing ideas about how people learn with other professionals. And I really miss helping students realize what they're after. I also like to draw and play the piano. I'm not very good at those things, but I like doing them. And I like punching the speed bag. (There was a time in my life when I wasn't bad at that.) And if I could figure out how to make money doing any of those things, I'd give it serious thought. But I digress.]

Next, several people have asked me for advice on becoming a freelancer, and it occurred to me that I could do both, talk about my history as a writer/editor while talking about what it takes for one person to do it.

So, Lesson Number One in How to Become a Full-Time Freelancer: Don't Quit Your Day Job.

In 2006, there were 305,909 people making money as a writer or an editor. That really isn't a very large percentage of the working force. 197, 495 (or 65%) of them were "employed." That means they weren't working for themselves. 108, 413 (or 35%) were classified by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as self-employed or unpaid. For 80,000 of those workers, writing or editing was classified as their primary job. And for 28,000, writing or editing was a secondary job.

Now there are several important things to note in the above paragraph. The first is, given the amount of writing that gets done every day, there aren't that many writers and editors who are working, comparatively speaking.

The second thing is that the overwhelming majority of those who are working are working for someone else. They are not self employed. They are not their own boss. They are not masters of their own time. If you want to write or edit and get paid, your best bet is to find a job where that's part of the job description. There are a number of sites on the Internet where those kinds of jobs are listed. Google writing jobs. You'll find them.

The third thing to notice is what I bolded in the paragraph above. BLS labels self-employed writers and editors as potentially unpaid. There are a lot of people out there who will publish what you write and pay you by sending you a copy. There are even some, who will make you pay for the copy. Other people will pay you by the word--often starting around 2 cents. And I know things have changed since I started, and you can write stuff and post it on site on the Web at a site that will pay you based on how many page clicks you get. Well, call your family. Call your friends. Tell them to click through. Tell them to tell their friends to click through. And then wait.............

The unfortunate thing about that is if you don't have a network (meaning connections), and you don't have a track record (meaning publications), you actually have to write for those people [two cents a word/pay by click]. It's the only way to build a publications list. You need that to get jobs.

So when I was in my 20s, I read everything I could about making a living as a writer. I went to college, dropped out, went back, dropped out again, went back ad nauseum. Finally, I dropped out and went to work in the hospitality industry. I was the youngest maitre d' in the history of Brookside Country Club. And I was damn good. But there was one thing that was consistent. I never stopped reading Writer's Digest. [That is not an endorsement. In fact, for those who are serious about wanting to write for a living, I'd recommend not reading it.] And I focused on the things that would make me an instant success. I settled on syndication. That was the way to go. You write something. You send it to a syndicate. They sell it and split the money with you. It's easy living.

So I was a young husband and father. We traveled. [ha!] We went from Columbus to St. Louis. I talked to people in whatever job I had. So I came up with an idea called From Here to There. The idea was I wrote these little essays about the people I met or the sights I saw. And then the syndicate would sell them. We'd be rich. We'd use the money to go somewhere else besides St Louis and write about it. It would be a wonderful life. I sent it off to syndicates. I got rejected over and over again.

That's not the way it works. [To syndicate, you get get your work published in several different local venues. Then you gather data to show that readers are reading it and responding. Then, maybe a syndicate will be interested. The real way it works is the syndicate finds you.] My approach, though, did work for some people (the ones who wrote the articles for writer's digest). For the vast majority of us who were clueless, it was just one more indication that we were not cut out to be writers.

We like to think of ourselves as Ernest Hemingway or Joan Didion. The truth is most of us are Joe the electrician [the plumber was a false identity] or Rosie the riveter. The Romance of writing catches our attention. The labor of writing somehow never peaks over the horizon. Writing, for the vast majority of us who make our living this way, is hard work. And it's work the uninitiated are never told about. Unless you have a track record, you are not going to make it as a full time freelancer. [There are always exceptions.] So keep that "day" job. Or better still, make that "day" job a writing job.

Enough about you. Let's talk about me. I had publications as a kid. Still, aside from a couple of prizes, I really didn't get paid for anything I wrote until I was in my mid twenties [maybe I'll talk about what happened when I first got paid in lesson two]. I didn't go out on my own to become a full time freelancer until I was in my late forties. I didn't feel comfortable at it until I was in my early fifties. But then again, I'm not all that comfortable right now, and I'm a long way past my early fifties. Still, I make a living. I have money coming in. And I have jobs in hand and jobs on the horizon.

For those of you who are still with me, the next lesson (lesson two) may be called "What Do You Know--But It's Not the Only Thing That Matters." And I'll talk a little bit more about what happened when I got my first paycheck.


  1. Grandpa, (it is clear that you did not come about that name lightly) your post are ALWAYS fascinating and always worth the read... I pity anyone who did not stay with you to the end.

    As a writer I do not hope to simply make a living off of what I do, my day job does take care of that, and hell yes, I still play the lotto.

    What I want to do as a writer is convey a story of significance. Surly you must have some joy in that accomplishment.

  2. Marty,

    when, I think about it, I still play the Lotto. But people who write for 2 cents a word can't afford to buy a ticket. ;0)

    You've got the right attitude. And your story is significant. Keep at it. There is joy in that accomplishment

  3. I actually got a few "aha's" reading this.

    Thanks for shedding light!

  4. I had to seperate the drive to write my little novel, from the attendant nonsense like money or the publishing game. Those I know who published LOTS of books back in the day, tell me that publishing is a jungle today. So I jumped to print on demand and ran with my dream.......There have been (mostly non-monetary) rewards, but I did get a $125 check today from a store that loves, pushes, and reorders my book...

  5. I loved every word of it...you're a born writer, a career writer, a natural writer...and like Marty says, sorry for those who didn't take the time to stay with you to the end...

    I love your writing and I love reading about how it manifest in your life, and how your life shaped itself around that need to write.

    Part 2? Bring it on :)

  6. I suppose it is a very good thing that I don't want to be a paid writer. Or a writer, period. I know my limitations. I'm good at "mommy posting" and a few thoughtful "hmmmmm" sentences thrown in. :) I'm beginning to think, and fear though, what people want to do and what people actually do....are never the same. And this makes me sad. I hope Lesson Two will be an upper.

  7. Hi Grandpa, you are absolutely right. When it comes to writing it's really hard but when you don't give up. It actually works out in the end.

    I've read Chicken Soup writers for the soul and the writers have shared how hard it is and how many times they've been rejected. Writing is really hard work.