The one in which I talk about being a freelance writer

Something about the words “freelance writer” and “work from home” almost always elicit a swoon of envy and wonder, when people ask me what I do. I suppose it is an envious place to be, and while I can’t deny the copious levels of joy and satisfaction it has given me, I am just as quick to tell people that while the life is beyond awesome, the work isn’t always smooth sailing. Especially if your personality is anything like mine.

Two things:
– I’m not a born networker. I can’t seem to make forced connections, name-drop, and shove my business card in people’s faces unless meandering conversation somehow leads me to do it. Everything needs context, and I find it excruciatingly difficult to push my agenda when it is not called for. I know a few people who can, some of my close friends even, and I am always watching with a mix of awe and disgust.
– I have a pretty sound work ethic. Which is to say I am anal about getting utmost clarity before I begin a project, so I can get pretty annoying with the multiple emails and calls clarifying a thousand doubts. Also, I like to understand everything there is to know before I commit, and once I do I drop all else to meet that commitment. Most cases, this has worked for me. Problem is this attitude seems to be fast disappearing in this industry. And leads to a whole lot of disappointment and frustration when you realise nobody really gives a rat’s ass what assignment you put aside to honour a commitment you made to them. They will still leave your emails unanswered, get what they want from you and forget to send you a simple email to say “yes we received your work.”

The husband tells me that I’m too nice for the kind of work I’m trying to do, and that is my biggest hurdle. It’s true to some extent, but mostly he’s just being polite by using those words. What he really means is I don’t have what it takes to be an efficient freelancer. I can’t don’t network my way through writing gigs, and force my way through layers of hierarchy to reach head-strong editors, or pull the right strings to make the right contacts. It doesn’t come easy, it isn’t second nature to me. And to make things worse, I don’t have a thick enough skin to stomach the levels of unprofessional, bad behaviour that I have encountered over the last year.

I’m the kind of idiot that drops an opportunity to write for a local newspaper because the editors emails to me showed no value or respect for my work. I filter the assignments I choose based on how clear the client is about what he wants, and if I get the slightest hint that I am going to be going around in circles trying to deliver the right writing, while the client figures his message out on the go, I don’t take the project on. I am that idiot who told the features editor of a leading Indian daily newspaper, that she can’t mooch off of me and take my work for free based on the big name she works for.

I sometimes get emails asking me questions ranging from what made me take this decision to how I manage my time at home all day long. Once I was even ask how I manage my income and finances. For a while I’ve been thinking about doing a post on my side of the story. But a recent bad experience with a local newspaper spurred me to act on this list I’ve been silently compiling over a few months, more to remind myself about a few key things when dealing with people who come to me with requests for work.

If you’re good at something, don’t do it for free
I’ve struggled with this one for the longest time. How much is too much? What if I scare them away with my rates? Maybe I should undercharge to begin with? Should I be nice just this once? But I’ve learned the hard way that most people who approach you need you more than you need them. And if they’re half-way smart they will realise and acknowledge it. If they need and value the work you can do for them, they will be willing to pay a reasonable price for it. This is by no means a license to charge anyone the earth, but a fair compensation of your time, effort and skill involved in completing the task is a must. And no, it is not too much to ask for. Just like I told the newspaper lady who presumed I would be okay with her assumption that she had my words and pictures for free just because she was offering me mileage in her esteemed newspaper.

“A quarter of this nation, reads our newspaper. That ought to be enough mileage for you, right?” she asked.

WRONG.

Sometimes the opportunity has more to offer than the pay
This is another tricky one. I’ve stuck by it though, in situations where I was getting to work on a once in a lifetime project, or if it was something I was looking to get a break into. But even that, I have been careful to choose people who value the work we did together, and who respected talent and skill for what it is. Freeloaders don’t deserve niceness. I’ve been wrong in my judgement in some situations, and gotten a raw deal. But with every bad experience, I’ve learned to weigh my choices better.

People who pull rank, need to be reminded that you’re not an employee but a consultant providing a service that HE/SHE needs
I once approached a newspaper with some samples asking if there was a possible fit in the kind of work I could do and what they are looking for. They claimed there was and took me on. One assignment down, lots of back and forth, painful editing and frayed braincells later I realised the brief on the piece wasn’t clear. And I had written something that was totally off the mark from what was expected, because it was wrongly communicated to me. I offered to correct it, once I had understood what needed to be done, but there isn’t always enough time when you’re chasing a print deadline. Bad experience to begin with, was made worse when the Very-Full-Of-It Editor called me testily, taking off on me over a telephone call (our first interaction ever), without giving me space to get a word in edge-wise. I took it for about five minutes, before I interrupted to say my piece and make it abundantly clear that I had adhered to a brief that was given to me. Too bad that his features editor had got the brief wrong. I then not-so-subtly reminded him that he hadn’t employed me, so had no business pulling rank on me. And that if he did, I would just take my writing elsewhere. To an Editor who was willing to speak civilly.

If you know you’re right, don’t hesitate to tell your client so
One of my most loved gigs comes with a client who doesn’t know her elbow from her arse. She fancies herself a mumbo-jumbo editor, and I have to constantly toss between speaking up and telling her what’s right, when she makes asinine edits to my work, and bite the bullet and let smaller things slide, in the name of picking my battles well. But I deal with her because I never have to see her face, and aside from dealing with her painful emails that reveal a ton of insecurity and other issues, the gig is fun.

The last year has been adequately peppered by projects that could have been, assignments that would have been fun, work that could have been mine. The direct consequence of it all is I don’t rake in a ton of money. And what I am quick to tell people envious about my situation is that I can choose to take this gamble because 1) thankfully my life doesn’t run on the money I earn 2) The husband has generously given me the free reign to do what I want, experiment, stay home, bake, write, read — do as I please, while he has solely taken on the burden of ensuring that the house and our lives continue to run smoothly. What I earn serves as a healthy dose of pocket money. So it works for us.

A lot of it may have to do with the fact that our life is quite simple to begin with. It’s comfortable, but not lavish beyond our means. And that is not something we left to chance. It was entirely our doing. When I decided to quit work and we consciously chose a single-income existence we had to pare down the frills and bells, prioritising what we needed, compromising on a few things we love but decided we could do without. Everything that wasn’t essential, had to go. It meant giving up the big, lavish holiday for the year, it meant waiting to buy a Kitchen Aid till the time was right, and it meant taking the train when flying was too expensive. Even then, in the months gone by, I have never felt a dent in my lifestyle, or like I have missed out on something I could have had if I had a little more money.

So is this work from home thing as easy as it seems? Yes. Most of the time it is. Because the joys outnumber the woes. But every now and then I have my patience tested by clients who think they’ve bought me over at Rs. 3 per word. Or that they’re doing me a favour by lending me their big-publication-name. So no, it’s not easy all the way. But who said everything you want, everything that’s fun and everything that’s good for you had to be easy?

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16 Replies to “The one in which I talk about being a freelance writer”

  1. Ok, Your blog titles remind me of F.R.I.E.N.D.S episode titles at times..

    About the entry..

    At the end of the day, you’re trying to make money. The idea is that you should be comfortable with it. If it makes you do something that you are not comfortable with (in the long run) then don’t do it.

    About talking to the customer, what I have observed is that many times people don’t like to be told that you’re right and they’re wrong.. Which is why they must be communicated the same in a manner that makes them feel that what you’re telling them is a better idea, or you must bring them to a conclusion that what you’re offering is better. It is because some people let their own exaggerated sense of being right get in their way of doing their job, or letting you do what you are employed to do. Is this way of dealing with them right? Not entirely.

    Besides, I look at it as symbtiotic relation. You want work and have skills, they want to use that skills. It is better if people saw it that way and made both lives easier

    1. Youre right. There was a time in my life when work = money and it was much easier to just let everything else slide, in the name of “this is my bread and butter, and if it means i have to deal with the crap that comes with it, so be it” — but that has changed. I now value the work experience, the nature of the work itself and I’ve become picky about what I want. It seems the surer I am of what I want, the harder it is to find civil, good people to work with. My experience has shown that most people dont care for anything other than just some bloke who will get the job done.

      As for tact in communicating whats is right and wrong and telling the client something in a way that he/she is willing to hear it, I try. But honestly, I suck at it. I lose my temper easily and if someone rubs me the wrong way I am forever in rage when dealing with them.

      I have been lucky to meet/work with a few people who DO get the symbiotic relationship, I just wish there were more such people!!

  2. You’ve expressed everything so very well! As an entrepreneur in the service industry, I agree 100% with everything you’ve stated.
    We Indians believe in paying only for tangible stuff, not for intangible stuff like skills, knowledge, experience, etc..
    It’s extremely demotivating for the Service Engineers in my team. I tell them that their work is like salt in food. Whenever food is tasty, people say it’s just rightly cooked, spices are balanced well, acidity (thanks to Masterchef Australia for this word!) is perfect, presentation is appealing, etc., etc.. Nobody ever says, “Salt content is correct!” However, if food contains excess salt or less salt, the same people will immediately complain bitterly about the salt content!

  3. I am a freelance writer who works from home as well. And like you I have a major problem networking and have turned down ‘just to make some money’ writing opportunities, because of the editor I would have had to work with. So as of now, I write for one publication, for an editor I love and I am pretty happy:) Tons of time to read, introspect, try my hand at cooking for the husband and find my dream. I love reading your blog. You inspire me to find my passion and you put into words many things I feel and go through. Thank you:)

    1. That sounds a bit like my situation. I bank on two consistent gigs. They have some minor issues i wish i could iron out. But that is too ideal a situation. And i able to overlook those minor issues when i think of the hassles of dealing with multiple bad clients! Puts everything in perspective!

      And glad you can relate to the blog. I always am fascinated by people who say that. Thanks for dropping a comment :)

  4. Had to comment on this one because I could relate to every word. I worked as a freelance content writer for a while and I know how hard this whole gig is for people who cannot network. Also, I was the idiot who *always* under quoted.

    Nasty, presumptuous editors are a nightmare. My worst experience was an assignment I did (or was about to do) for a playschool in Mumbai. They had just changed the name of their school and wanted me to redo the content for all sections of their website, plus draft their direct mailers.

    We started with the direct mailer. They gave me no brief. No amount of phone calls or requests for briefs worked. All they said was they wanted to send a letter to parents informing them of the change in name. After I spent considerable time and effort in reading up on rebranding strategies, I created what I thought was a good direct mailer (I have this on authority from the right sources), they rejected it. And they wouldn’t tell me why. Without a brief, I was clueless as to what they wanted all along. And now all they said was that it wasn’t what they were looking for, without telling me what they were looking for in the first place.

    It was very bitter and I decided to walk out of the assignment, though the money was very good. They refused to pay me for the direct mailer I had created. I had chosen to work without an advance. I decided to let go of the money instead of fighting for it. What hurt me so much was that I found out they went ahead and circulated the very same direct mailer I had drafted. I could have fought with them, but again, I let go. I still feel the sting when I think of this.

    I’ve had other people holding up payment for no reason. And till date, the payment has not reached me. I’ve just given up now.

    Another problem I faced was the ‘non disclosure’ clause some companies had. They did not want me to have their brand name on my resume, even though I had done a lot of writing work for them on a contractual basis. I understand their reasons, but it did not work too well for me.

    Having said all of that, I did thoroughly enjoy my time as a freelance writer. The money was not too much, but whatever little bit that came gave me more joy than the salary from my full time job did. I would still choose that over a full time corporate job. But if people make it sound all rosy, I am quick to point out it is not.

    1. That sounds terrible! But it isnt the first time Iv heard of such a thing. Clients can be so nasty and spineless. I am always more disappointed by dishonesty than anything else. Thankfully nothing of the sort has happened to me. But i suppose thats because iv been in the industry for 6 long yrs before i decided to go solo so i have a fair idea of what to do to get the basics covered. Contracts, taking an advance, inserting clauses for those pesky clients who rework stuff a million times and get more work done than you might have anticipated.

      That said i think the freedom this gives me is unparalleled. I cannot think of ever going back to a full time set up unless it is something of my own.

  5. Beautiful post, Haathi. I have always been an employed content writer, but I am now trying to break into the world of freelance content writing. So, this post will be a great guide for me. I agree with most of the points you have put forth here, and can relate to most of what you are saying since I am pathetic with networking and name-dropping, too. I know of a lot of people who do it oh-so-effortlessly, too.

    It would be great if you could share with me some thoughts on how to break into this field, if you could spare the time, please.

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