Most of my adult life I’ve been dreaming of and working towards the day when I had a skill that enabled me to work as a freelancer. Finally, in April of this year, with the completion of a Creative Writing Degree and a Diploma in Copywriting tantalizingly close, I decided the time had come to make my long-standing goal a reality.
With that momentous decision made, I officially registered as a sole trader with the official bodies that needed to know that I had become a freelancer.
Years back, after leaving college with one solitary A level and a Foundation course in Theatre, I imagined I might become an actress. That soon faded into nothing and I fell into temporary work with numerous employment agencies; you know the ones that entice you into their office with the promise of dream jobs then tell you, once you’re registered, that they only work they have available right now is the night time shift in a factory making cardboard boxes. Oh, and did I mention it’s minimum wage and starts tonight?
In the early years of my working life I signed on for any job going: I cleaned, served food, stacked toys on pallets in a warehouse, worked in a scrap yard unravelling giant coils of metal, a factory that made wooden toilet accessories, made sandwiches, stuffed envelopes, packed cakes into boxes, worked in a dairy, and made cardboard boxes.
The unedited version of my CV is embarrassingly long and demonstrates my commitment issues: a month here, a week there, and many random one-off days after which I called it quits.
During this time, I longed and searched for a different way to work and live, believing it had to be possible. Surely I couldn’t hate normal jobs with regular hours this much without there being an alternative.
So I read endless career guidebooks, sifted through course brochures desperate to find a way of earning a living that didn’t enslave you to the 9 to 5 of office hours, to factory and office politics, and those drink machines feeble attempt at coffee delivered in beige plastic cups.
Of course, after a few years and once I’d settled down and had a mortgage to pay and really experienced the essential need of earning money to live, I fell head first in to the world of customer services and sadly, stayed there.
Well sort of. To date my longest job is almost three years, in which I worked within the call centre of a major company that had a lot of angry customers. My desk was situated in a pod, I wore a headset (which I actually rather liked) and had to deal with over a hundred and twenty calls per day to avoid being shouted at…
Working there was the longest, most miserable three years of my life; I hated every moment.
There was at least one upside; my pod was beside a window that overlooked the car park. Most days I’d gaze out wishing I could be somewhere else, anywhere other than sat there, confined in an office that was so oppressive, so restrictive I struggled to think for myself or breathe.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I’m afraid of hard work. In fact I thrive on it. What I can’t abide is the daily, weekly, monthly routine of working nine to five. The dullness of it, the confined space, the gossip, the repetitiveness of it all and crucially the lack of creativity and sense of personal purpose and meaning to my working life.
Work for me needs matter in some way, to make a difference. I also want to express myself whilst I work, and I want to enjoy my own freedom whilst I’m doing that.
For me, freelancing then has always been the answer, the Holy Grail I’ve been striving towards. Because when you’re the boss you create the work, determine the rules, set the working hours and get to choose the brand of coffee.
The reality is though that freelancing brings with it its own set of challenges. As a sole trader you are the boss and that means you’re in charge of everything, because freelancing is more than just the undertaking of those creative projects you love to do. There is also the business aspect to freelancing to consider, which can seem overwhelming and at odds with the artistic nature of your work.
When it’s your name on the headed paper, business card and invoice, you become responsible for all intricate and time-consuming jobs that become essential: setting up a business account, registering with the Inland Revenue, finding the right accountant, creating a website, sorting out the legal side of things, setting a price list, marketing your product and services, book-keeping, filing, advertising, while looking for clients and offering competitive quotes when required.
Then, when the clients and work begins to appear, the challenge deepens. As a freelancer you are the first point of contact for potential clients and those who choose to use your services. Suddenly, there’s no manager to turn to. You’re on your own. You have to do what you think is best and cope with the consequences of that. And working with clients directly can be interesting, fun and also at times extremely difficult.
When you write for a business it creates a real-life sense of urgency and your writing skills need to adapt, because when your client requires a leaflet or web copy written to a deadline that’s when they want it.
In copywriting there is limited time for revision or reflection. There’s no creative breathing space for your internal critique who always believes ‘another revision could improve this’ because your client has already used your copy and your work is live for all to read.
Stress then is an unavoidable part of freelancing. As a writer you want to provide the best work possible but you have to learn to provide the best in the least amount of time and that can cause sleepless nights.
That’s not all. The hours you work can be long too.
As a freelancer you might well avoid the 9 to 5, but potentially you could find yourself doing an 8 to 9, or a 7 to 11. Depending on the work you have to do, you could end up working more hours per week. And discover that you’re no longer able to switch off and relax in the evenings because you’re listening for the ping of work emails, hoping that a new project may come in. Then frustrated to find that you’re now required to do another set of revisions on work you assumed was completed.
Now there’s no boss to tell you to go home, or offer you a raise or bonus or even a ‘well done’.
There’s no simple way to say it. Freelancing is not an easy way of working and earning a living. You have to look for potential work and sell yourself – for many of us, never an easy task. You have to invoice for your work and deal with late paying clients (I’ve found patience, persistence and a friendly approach pay off in the end), and clients who make demands above and beyond what they’re paying you for, you can feel ‘on call’ seven days a week unless you are strict about taking week-ends and days off.
There’s the worry about money too – the costs of running a business, putting a price to your talents and the worry about making sufficient money to live on. Then there’s the never-ending concern: when, when will the next paying client appear…
It’s not easy.
That said you do have creative and personal freedom. You put into your business what you want to get out of if. You create a working schedule that suits you. If you prefer to work in your pj’s then you can. If you’re in need of inspiration and fancy enjoying a leisurely autumnal walk whilst the sun is shining, you go for one. You are free to write during the early hours if you feel inspired to, and work with your cat snuggled upon your lap drinking your favourite brand of coffee.
When you’ve completed a project and the client is happy, the sense of personal satisfaction feels fantastic.
Yes, there are scary moments and stressors and it takes time to build up and establish a client base, but with all that it’s worth it. It’s worth it because work no longer feels work. Work becomes pleasurable. Nowadays, when I look out of my office window, I’m no longer wishing I were any place but here. Instead, I’m admiring the beauty of the view and pondering how best to describe it.
Wednesday 23rd November was National Freelancers Day.