When I tell people I’m freelance and work from home, most presume that I fanny around all day long in my pyjamas watching daytime TV and having long lunches with pals. Some bits of that are true – I probably think in my head that Mark Cagney and Alan Hughes are my actual colleagues – but the reality is that freelancing is not for the faint-hearted and it can be a particularly challenging way to make a living. I’m going to focus on print and digital media because it’s the area I work in, but freelancers operate in many industries, including TV, radio, beauty, accountancy, influencing, consultancy, transcription, translation, PR, photography, graphic design and IT. What we have in common is that it all comes down to us as individuals to make our careers work. There are no pensions, no paid holidays or bonuses, and most of my freelance friends are back to work a couple of months after having babies. There are no unions to defend us, no HR people to complain to and very few rights when you’re freelance. Chasing payments can be one of the most trying aspects of the job. So why do I do it so? Mainly the freedom, to be honest. Having worked in many different companies and industries, I am just not suited to the 9-5 environment. I hate having to live by the clock, and love that I can start work at 5am if I want a few hours free during the day, or finish later that night. I can go shopping when it’s quiet, take a nap if I’m tired, and never have to battle traffic, I can even start work without getting showered and dressed. I consider myself very lucky now to have some lovely regular gigs working for great people who pay on time. It wasn’t always the case though, and I had to kiss my share of employment frogs before I met these particular princes (actually, princesses). People ask if it gets lonely being at home, and while I definitely miss the banter and the close friendships you forge at work, I also don’t have to put up with annoying colleagues or customers. My five little dogs are the best colleagues you could wish for and they never get on my nerves. As an extremely nosy person who loves being all up in everyone’s business, working in-house inevitably leads to me becoming embroiled in the internal politics and dramas of the place. I’m better off at home where there are fewer distractions, and nobody to eat the yogurt I left in the staff fridge!
I feel sorry for some of my friends who combine freelancing with raising children though. While they are grateful to be around their children, it can be hard trying to manage the challenges of getting work done and keeping children alive at the same time. It’s no coincidence that all of them are women! Journalism is especially challenging now because printed newspapers and magazines have become an endangered species. With consumers migrating to digital offerings and the decline of advertising revenues, many outlets have closed recently and others are laying people off. This has resulted in a stream of people spilling out into the already overcrowded freelance pool. With so many additional people fighting over a smaller piece of pie, freelance journalism has become like the Hunger Games. It means constantly pitching ideas to potential employers, keeping ahead of the curve so that you get in with a topical idea before everyone else, and competing with your friends for work. Many editors are so snowed under themselves, most of your pitches will go unanswered. You also have to shamelessly self-promote, which can be mortifying, but you have to keep yourself “out there.” As a freelancer, you have to remain strong and keep the show on the road through times of personal turmoil and adversity. If staff members experience problems at home, companies generally make allowances and cut them some slack, at least for a period of time. People rarely make allowances if you’re freelance. One of my friend’s clients gave her a serious amount of grief while her mum was dying, and she had to work on a project in her mum’s hospice room to satisfy the demands being imposed on her. It added a horrible layer of stress to an already heartbreaking situation.
Two of my beloved dogs died in the past few weeks, and I came home from the vet and went straight back to work. I was blinded by tears looking at the screen, but the show had to go on as deadlines had to be met. As a freelancer, you’re always acutely aware that you’re filling in gaps and lucky to have work, so you just keep your head down and keep going. You can’t be sensitive either. Due to page cuts, a weekly newspaper column I wrote for 15 years was recently culled, along with several others. My immediate editor called me in to break the news in person, which was honourable of her as many freelancers are let go by email, and the column ended a couple of weeks later without any fanfare. When you’re freelance and the rug is pulled from under you, there is no redundancy, no flowers or cards or goodbye lunches and no heartfelt farewell emails. You don’t get to say goodbye to your loyal readers because you’re just gone and that’s it. This kind of thing can take a toll on you, but if it does, the freelance life isn’t for you. On the positive side, you can also just up and leave if you don’t like the treatment you’re getting or something better comes along, but that can be tricky if you’re reliant on the income. You also have to be very self-motivated. My employed friends regularly speak of performance management reviews at work, which they usually detest. As a freelancer, you’re spared this particular form of torture, because the very fact that you’re still getting work from an employer is your actual performance review.
You won’t be sent on career progression courses to move you on to the next level either, nor will an employer have an interest in helping to strengthen and develop your skills. As a freelancer, it’s up to you to keep up with ever-advancing technology, and any courses you take to enhance your abilities will be at your own expense. I’m acutely aware that there are so many younger, fresher people waiting in the wings, and I make it my business to keep up with popular culture and technology so that I don’t become a dinosaur in an ever-evolving landscape. When it comes to finances, this is the rock upon which many a freelance career has perished. Well-meaning people will advise you to know your worth and not to settle for a rate that is too low, but the sad reality is that it’s a buyers’ market. Unless you have a particularly unique skillset, if you don’t want the low-paid gig, there are thousands who will eagerly accept the proffered rate or even less to do it. And doing your own taxes can be challenging – I have come a cropper there rather spectacularly. I have always found that putting all of your freelance eggs in one basket is not a good idea. You need to have a few different things on the go at any one time, so if one piece of work goes, you’re not left destitute. This can be difficult if you’re a writer because some employers don’t want your name appearing in other publications, so you’re not free to spread yourself around. At one stage in my freelance career, my cat “wrote” my articles for one publication, as I wasn’t allowed to write for anyone else by another paper but couldn’t make ends meet. You have to take work where you can get it though, as you can be snowed under one week and end up working through the night, and twiddling your thumbs the next. It also means that deadlines regularly clash, and you spend your days panicking over getting it all done on time. It is interesting though, because you are working for various employers and constantly learning.
Not having a steady job is both challenging and freeing. I was 35 when I started writing for a living because a PR company I was working for full-time closed down. I now have friends who would love to change careers but feel they would have too much to lose as they have pensions and job security. When you’re freelance, you really have nothing to lose by trying to change direction, so you don’t have to spend years stuck in a job you hate because you’re afraid of what you’re giving up. This means that you can explore careers that excite you and develop skills that make you feel fulfilled. And that, I think is why I love freelancing. Sure it has its challenges, but it keeps you sharp and engaged, and you become very resilient and self-reliant. Life is never dull when you’re freelancing, even though at times you could probably do with fewer challenges. And sure who needs paid holidays anyway!