Words for sale

Ever thought about being your own boss? Of course you have. Sleep in! Watch bad daytime TV! Have no boss! Work when and how you like – in your pyjamas, or better still, naked! Yes, the temptations are all present and correct. Of course, for those of us who make our living by shaping the words into magnificent forms, being your own boss is often about freelancing.

Perhaps it provides an insight into my personality type, but I don’t believe I could be a full-time freelance writer. I need to know where my next pay cheque is coming from, and the thought of demanding someone pay an overdue invoice so I can pay my rent fills me with dread. A quote from American humourist Robert Benchley seems appropriate: “A freelance writer is one who is paid per word, per piece, or perhaps.” [Benchley evidently did indeed have a way with words – this is one of his most famous quotes: “Drawing on my fine command of the English language, I said nothing”]

In the rare instances where I’ve freelanced it’s been more about luck than any particular skill I possess in convincing someone to accept my words. It’s primarily been through friends or former colleagues who are now in editorial roles. In other words, while I would always hope that talent will win out, the old mantra appears to be true: it’s not about how good you are, it’s who you know.

No, full-time freelancing is not for me. However, I greatly admire those who strike out on their own and fearlessly shop their wares – in this case the written word – around town.

Now that we’ve established that I’m no expert, let me introduce someone who is. The very talented Sarah Megginson has freelanced for most of her working life. It’s something she’s done on the side even when she’s had full-time jobs. Now she makes a living from freelancing full-time. She’s also just become a new mum. How does she do it? What insights can she provide? What are the highs, the lows? I interviewed Sarah recently, and she shares her thoughts below.

Can you briefly outline your professional background?
I graduated from uni with a Bachelor of Communication in 2002, and worked in radio promotions/marketing for a few years while writing for anyone and everyone that would publish me (often for free!). Once I had a big enough portfolio, I finally got a full-time job as a journalist, working at a property magazine. I freelanced for other magazines while I worked, and early in 2009 I began working for myself full time.

Have you always done freelance writing work in addition to the 9-5 jobs you’ve had?
Pretty much. In the early days when I worked in radio, I freelanced wherever I could to try and build up my tearsheets. Back then writing was “fun” and I loved writing on my evenings/weekends – getting paid to write seemed like a dream come true!

What sort of publications are you currently writing for?
I write for and edit a monthly in-store music and movie magazine for Sanity stores, and I freelance for a bunch of magazines, including Cleo, Cosmopolitan, Your Money and Your Investment Property. The magazine work takes up about half of my business – the rest of the time I work with corporate clients, doing things like writing enewsletter articles and website copy, proofreading marketing materials, ghostwriting etc. I’ve even ghost-written a couple of books!

What sort of practical considerations does a freelancer need to make before making this more than something they might do ‘on the side’?
Wow. Big question. There is so much you need to consider, but I guess I’ll highlight the biggest things I’ve learnt. Firstly, you need to have the right personality for it. You kind of have to be hyper-organised! You’re effectively running your own business and writing takes up about 70% of your working day, but you also need to spend time processing invoices, chasing up job leads/money, pitching stories, researching ideas, updating your website, etc. I have an epic excel spreadsheet that details the jobs I’m working on, upcoming deadlines, publication dates, pitches I need to follow up, etc. I guess it’s similar to managing your deadlines when you’re a salaried journalist, but there’s a bit more pressure – if I miss a deadline it could cost me the job and any future work with that magazine. You also never, ever switch off! I write for such a varied bunch of magazines so I’m always looking for unique story ideas, thinking, “Is there a story in that?” Once, I was chatting with a friend’s friend at a bar and he mentioned that he was a property investor – and that one of his tenants had died in his property! It was really awful, but what an interesting story. I interviewed him the following week and ended up selling a four-page feature to a national property mag, all from a random chat in a bar!

What do you like most about freelancing?
Freelancing has loads of perks. The money’s great. And I’ll admit that I’ve worked in my PJs on more than one occasion! I literally haven’t set my alarm clock in two years, which is the biggest bonus for me, I’m a night owl. Some days, if I’m really not in the mood to work, I’ll give myself a day off. Or, I’ll watch a few episodes of Grey’s Anatomy in the morning then start working at midday. I have loads more time to do my own “life admin” stuff, like pay bills, visit the dentist, etc. But it goes both ways – if I spend too much time faffing about during my workday, I usually end up working at night/on weekends to make up for it.

What do you like least about freelancing?
You have to be really self-motivated. It’s so easy to be distracted by emails or cleaning the house or walking the dog or whatever, so I’ve found the best way to be productive is to get up, have a shower and try and start my workday by 9am. You also have to learn how to park work at the end of the day, which is not easy when you work from home. It helps having a dedicated home office; in my last apartment I worked off a laptop on the dining table, and that didn’t work so well. Now I have my own little office with a door, so when I finish up at night and close the door it feels like I’m “knocking off” for the evening.

Have you ever had to chase up unpaid invoices?
Not really, the majority of clients pay within 2-3 weeks. I can only think of two or three occasions where I’ve had to be really forceful to get an invoice paid.

How do you get on when you don’t know the editor (or another contact) at a publication? Any advice you’d give to budding freelancers when trying to make contact?
I always start with a polite email. It used to be that you had to hit the phones, but these days email is so much more convenient for everyone. It sucks to call an editor and it turns out that they’re on deadline, and they’re super busy and stressed and your pitch gets a crap run because it wasn’t the right timing. As far as advice goes, I’ve always found that being pleasant and professional goes a long way… that means spelling the person’s name and publication correctly, triple-checking the email to make sure there’s no spelling mistakes, etc. It sounds obvious but make sure you read the magazine you’re contacting, because you’ll look like you haven’t done your research properly if you pitch a story that they literally just ran the month before. And lastly, give them a reason to get back to you. Don’t just say “Hi, I’d love to write for your magazine, here are some samples of my work!” Offer a couple of strong story ideas and ask for their feedback, or at the very least, ask for a copy of their contributor guidelines.

With the rise of blogging, etc there’s a lot of talk about the demise of the journalist. What are your thoughts? Will there be a place for professional writers even if the medium through which their words are distributed changes?
Yes, absolutely! Bloggers have their place, but there’s so much more to being a journalist than simply being able to write. You need to know to ask the best mix of questions, where to go for research, how to gently prod for more information when someone is giving you yes/no answers (gah!) – and then you need to distil all of that information into relevant, interesting, engaging prose, and also edit it down to fit your word count. Self-editing is such a skill. Online you can blather on for thousands of words, but that’s not always a good thing! I always remember my university lecturer saying, “Why say it in five words when you can say it in three?”. The world will always need journalists. I hope.

Finish this sentence: “The publication I would most love to write something for would be….. because…..”
The publication I would most love to write something for would be any inflight magazine because I’d love to write a really fun, quirky travel piece!

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Comments
3 Responses to “Words for sale”
  1. I think the author sells himself short a bit. After all, this is the guy who’s interviewed everyone from Powderfinger to St.George Bank!

    I also moderately disagree with the claim that “the old mantra appears to be true: it’s not about how good you are, it’s who you know.”

    I’ve fueld the freelance jet recently at The Punch and despite having no relationship with anyone there, for reasons I’m yet to discover they’ve run a few of my pieces. I’m not saying that my writing is any good, but don’t be discouraged people. Freelancing can be done!

    That said, the broader point of the article, that it would be damn hard to forge a career out of freelancing, definitely has a lot of merit.

  2. Iain Hopkins says:

    Dylan, thanks for your comments. Ahh, but you’ve missed my non-cynical additional point – that talent will win out. Obviously it makes things a whole lot easier if you know someone but ideally that shouldn’t matter; your talent should shine like a beacon through the fog of poorly structured sentences and just plain terrible metaphors (er, like that one. Or was that a simile?). Obviously you are talented, otherwise The Punch would not take your work! Keep it up!

    Iain

    PS – real talent would be combining St George’s Head of HR with Powderfinger in the same article. Perhaps asking Powderfinger for their thoughts on talent retention and comparing it to St George’s strategies? Hey, Powderfinger have just split up, I’m sure they’d have an opinion…

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Roger Christie and Gemma Crowley, jojo. jojo said: RT @rogerchristie: Awesome article and interview on #PRINKS from @IainHopkins re freelance writing – http://bit.ly/h0nRVm […]



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