Facing up to the realities of freelancing

16023731It seems odd to be able to remember exactly when you started your first proper job out of university, but I know it was November 25th 2007.

I don’t remember the date when I left, exactly, which reflects on my mental state at the time. I do know I’ve been freelancing for just over two years.

Whether freelance or on-staff, I’ve been doing the same job for nearly eight years. Only recently have I felt burnt out and disillusioned for a longer period. I don’t think it’s just because I’ve been doing this for so long – it’s the impact of changing life goals, too.

To be blunt, I’m seeing friends buying cars and houses, and I’ve got those ambitions for my fiancée and I – and in my current job it’s going to be difficult to manage either. That’s true of shallow stuff, like a new car, and more important things: houses, children, travel. It’s a harsh truth that freelancing isn’t often compatible with financial security.

IMG_1008The Finances of Freelancing

I’m in a lucky position, I think, as far as freelancers go. I’ve got regular gigs with several sites and magazines where I’m managed by talented, friendly and accommodating editors, and good relationships with most of the companies I deal with. I’ve recently started working with a couple of other titles, which is always good – diversity is important.

My work earns me a reasonable, comfortable wage, and in the two years I’ve been freelancing it’s been steady. That’s a godsend.

The downside of freelancing, though, is that you can’t earn more unless you’re willing to work more hours or make big changes to the work itself. It’s not like I can give myself a promotion, either.

I’m not willing to do the former, because it effects my health quickly and badly. And the latter? I write, and the economics around writing are not healthy, no matter what you’re typing. Just look at this survey, which found that the median income for a professional writer has fallen by 29% since 2005. Or look at these pieces, which examine dwindling rates of pay and the financially tricky state of the media in general

My work will never earn me more, as far as I can see. To be blunt, again, rates will likely continue their slow decline, along with the number of outlets that are willing to pay reasonable amounts.

The situation seems to have accelerated in games – the only other one where I’ve got a bit of experience – where there appears to be fewer outlets paying “big” bucks alongside a more prevalent culture of working for free. I would not be surprised if tech went the same way.

IMG_2690We’re Going Through Changes

I could make modest changes to my work in a bid to increase earnings. I could try to move towards features rather than reviews, but while this is more creatively fulfilling and less repetitive it could earn me less, as commissions tend to pay more but take longer.

I could move towards corporate work. I’ve done some before, and it seems to pay well, but it’s a recipe for burnout and a lack of enjoyment. I know from the last months – or years, I suppose – that I do not function near my best when I’m not enjoying my work.

It looks like, eventually, I’m going to have to make a larger change and find something else. It won’t happen soon, but it’s something I have to consider.

I’d like to think – or hope, however naively – that I’ve got some transferable skills. I can write, I know about many facets of technology, and I’ve got social media experience. I know that I work hard, and I can work on my own or as part of a team.

IMG_0470Freelance Life

It’s not only the economics of my job that have got me thinking – it’s the lifestyle, too.

Like any job, it’s got pros and cons. The freedom is fantastic: I can go to the gym or the shops when I want. I can take lunch breaks to watch TV shows or to have a quick blast on a game. I can’t overstate the commute: walking down a hallway is preferable to sitting in traffic or on a train.

But, conversely, there are psychological effects. A home office means it’s tricky to switch off when it’s all just upstairs. It’s also easier to work longer hours, which leads to fatigue and poorer performance.

I miss the fun, camaraderie and social aspect of working with a team, which sounds trivial but can actually be important. Anyone who follows me on Twitter can guess I use it as my own version of office chat, but I noticed myself becoming more introverted after a few months of freelancing. I’ve fought that by making myself leave the house, attending more social engagements and joining a writing group, but it was a worry.

I’m keenly aware that I lack the pension and benefits given to people who work for a proper company. There’s also the simple fact that you get paid for the whole working day: for meetings and coffee breaks, for making phone-calls and writing emails.

As a freelancer I only get paid when I deliver reviews. That’s just how it is, but every hour I spend answering emails, dealing with couriers, chasing payments or trouble-shooting test rigs is time where I’m not earning.

A friend says he feels like “you need to do around three times the amount of work” as a freelancer to earn as much as you would in a conventional job. As time goes on, I’m becoming increasingly cynical about whether the benefits of freelancing are worth the various costs.

IMG_1056Day-to-day Freelancing

Feedback is another issue I’ve pondered. When it’s from readers, it’s usually negative, and often angry. When it’s from editors, it’s rare. I’ve only got constructive help from some when I’ve asked.

I was pleasantly surprised when a new boss phoned up a couple of times, and followed up over email, to offer praise and constructive criticism for my first pieces. That’s not happened before, and I was surprised by the difference it made to my mental state, at least temporarily.

I suppose that the image of a freelance writer is someone sat at home, hunched over a desk and hammering out the words, but it can be dispiriting when you feel like nothing more than a content machine, finishing one job and jumping straight to the next.

One thing people have said is that working from home requires good discipline. That’s true, but I’ve found it that requires trial and error to maintain – I’ve experimented with paper and electronic to-do lists, checklists for finishing reviews and proper, printed schedules to keep me to a rigid working day.

It’s all designed to help my productivity, and it does keep me on the straight and narrow. But, over the last few months, I’m finding that it’s not enough.

IMG_1124Guilt, Guilt and More Guilt

I’ve got a lot of guilt surrounding everything here, about lacking motivation and feeling so tired. I feel as if I should be stronger, have more willpower, just push through it. Keep going. People always seem interested when they ask about my job, so surely my relatively lucky position should be enough of a catalyst?

Perhaps this is just the babbling of a burnt-out writer who doesn’t know how good he’s got it, who’s looking at the other side of the fence enviously at its lusher grass. And perhaps I’m naive about other jobs, because I’m only ever been a tech writer.

Perhaps I just need some time off, but I don’t know if that would help on a long-term basis or just be a temporary fix.

But, on the other side of the guilt coin, it’s counter-productive to deny how I’m feeling. Writing this can be cathartic and can help me process the situation, although I worry about it affecting my work prospects.

I feel guilty about addressing the money situation so starkly, too, because I’m getting along fine and I’m aware that many aren’t – and isn’t it just vulgar to talk about money? But, again, my brain gives me a counter-point: what’s wrong with wanting to earn more?

If you’ve made it this far, then thank you for reading, and please accept a humble apology. This has been a long and rambling entry that I hope has addressed several of the more pertinent issues surrounding freelancing.

I haven’t drawn any firm conclusions about my own future yet. The only thing I know is that some sort of change needs to happen.

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