Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Freelance Writing: Alternate Careers Continued

Not Your Typical Career Advice Post

I realize that some veteran freelancers may think it unwise to call freelance writing a "career" (in the sense of a full-time, paid position with benefits) and, at this point, I'm inclined to agree with them. Breaking into freelance writing is almost as difficult as finding a tenure-track academic job, only the pay is much worse and more sporadic. Simply put, making a proper career out of freelancing takes initiative, time, guts, connections, and supplemental resources; it's not the path of least resistance. You may have to live in someone's basement for a year, go without electricity or cable, or even subsistence farm your parents' backyard, in order to live the freelancing "dream." In fact, you may be waiting for the dream to pan out indefinitely. I'm not joking.

Crap, did I forgot to pay the electric bill again?

My own attempts to segue into freelance writing have convinced me that while it can be a great way to broaden your professional social circles, experiment with a variety of writing genres, and diversify your writing portfolio, it's not the best way to make money. Consequently, it's also usually not the best time investment. You might pour your heart and soul into researching, writing, and polishing that 1,500 word article over a period of several days, but you're still only going to get paid $100. And who wants to start off on an alternate career path that is not only strewn with significant hurdles but also pays worse than adjunct teaching? As for myself, I refuse to gear up madly in pursuit of yet another career promising limited, or nil, financial returns. (Been there, done that, thank you very much.)

I am, however, interested in attaining the following, all of which I believe freelance writing does afford:

1. Professional contacts in the non-academic world
2. Experience writing for a wide variety of print and online publications
3. Hands-on experimentation with writing genres outside my traditional comfort zone
4. Ability to reach new, diverse audiences
5. Short-term, incremental steps away from academe

Freelance writing is great for those of us who enjoy writing and working independently but are not sure if we're ready to make an actual career as a professional writer, either inside or outside the ivory tower, on our own or as part of an organization. I think we learn best by doing, and freelancing is one way to get busy and flex your mental muscles. FAST. You don't have to sit around for months and months waiting for the perfect full-time job to materialize. Instead, you can get out there and start working on small projects right away and even make a little pocket change. You can also make contacts with editors and establish positive working relationships with media professionals outside academe.

The important thing to keep in mind is that freelancing is not something you'll suddenly transform into a full-on, well paid career overnight. It's better, in my opinion, to think of it as a practice run, an experimental jaunt into the world of non-academic communication. It's a great way to test the waters and gain confidence in your ability to market yourself to, and communicate with, a much wider public than the small, exclusive circles of academe to which you've been confined in the past.

So far my freelancing "career" has consisted of article writing for legitimate magazines and other print/online publications, column writing for Inside Higher Ed, and manuscript editing and proofreading for various academics. All of these were either ongoing paid assignments or one-time only gigs, and they were acquired in a variety of ways. In some cases I sent queries and sample clips to editors before they commissioned me to write an article; in other cases I submitted completed articles and hoped for the best (not all were selected for publication); and still in other cases editors and fellow academics contacted me directly to ask if I would write a specific piece or proofread a text. Finding work through people you know, or organizations that you trust, is a wise way to get started. So, too, is submitting queries to editors at well-established print and online publications.

Do keep in mind that the world of freelancing is full of bottom feeders. Avoiding scams is key. Be wary of anything that sounds to good to be true! I was nearly suckered into a lucrative sounding part-time freelancing gig with a fictitious company whose sole intent in advertising for a freelancer was to convince X number of job candidates to pay an exorbitant fee per month to join an online site for writers. (Yes, is a scam. Don't fall for it!) A little online research indicated what was really going on and the misstep was easily avoided, but it is annoying to have to sift through false leads. For this reason, I would avoid hunting for freelance writing and editing leads via websites like There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this site but they tend to just scan Craigslist, which is full of dicey ads, and then post links to job openings that may or may not be legitimate. Why waste your time? Time is money . . . and mental and emotional energy.

In sum, on a scale of 1 to 10, I'd rate freelancing a 3 in terms of viable career options for humanities Ph.D.s. While I enjoy the work and will continue to pursue freelancing opportunities on the side as they come my way, I think I (we) can do much better.


WorstProfEver said...

Great analysis of the situation, and I think 3 is a fair number. At one media conference I attended a few freelancers told me that you can make a living if you're willing write advertorials, ghostwrite(good post on that here) etc. but they agreed it was really tough to break in, and that it was all about networking -- especially difficult when you're still teaching!

Eliza Woolf said...

Thanks, it seems like making a living doing anything remotely enjoyable is a hard sell these days. Networking is key in every industry, too, which is very difficult when you're always on the move (like me) and attending to a wide variety of other professional and personal tasks. But I am still glad that I tried freelancing; it's good experience and can be fun.

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Inez Shutts said...

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