Facing up to the realities of freelancing

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.


It’s a tricky one, I don’t think there is a hard and fast answer. Maybe looking for part time, regular work to balance against freelancing will allow you to have a bit of a pay rise, more regular income but still plenty of free time to spend as you choose? I think the main thing is to set achievable goals (and wanting a secure home and children is hardly unreasonable) and think what you actually need to attain them.

There definitely aren’t any easy answers here though, but I think saying that things aren’t perfect is a great start.

Yeah, for sure there’s no right or wrong here, which is why nothing is off the table for me right now. One of the major things I’ve taken away from the feedback here, on Twitter and on Facebook is that I am sorely lacking variety in my work. Getting more variety in order to keep my spirits up is certainly achievable, but I worry that adding more variety may make me happier but do little to increase my earnings.

So, yes, part-time work or stopping my freelance all together may end up being the answer. I can’t emphasise right now how little of an idea I have of what to do next 🙂

Read this and found myself nodding along in agreement a heck of a lot.

I’m a freelancer too (author, you’ll know me from my email address) and after three years of working myself to the bone and after putting it off for almost a year, I’m filing for bankruptcy tomorrow and switching to a fixed contract with a new company. Nobody else in the world knows about my financial issue which has entirely been brought on by freelancing. Nobody in my ever-decreasing social circle that has been neglected due to having to work hundreds of hours a week knows about it. My family, who I see once a week if I’m lucky because “Sorry Dad, I can’t come over tonight because I’m heading on to my 19th hour of work today” don’t know either.

To the rest of the world, I’m the big cheese because I run my own company. I get to get up whenever I want and if I dare to say “No, I won’t have another pint, thanks. I’ve got an early start….” I get mocked because…well…I do what I want, right? I can get shitfaced, stay out until 4am and then sleep it off and get up in the afternoon, can’t I? I can look after my friends’ kids during the day if they fail to book a babysitter, can’t I? It’s not like I’m DOING anything. “Oh, I saw you playing Rocket League at 10am…don’t make out that you’re busy” is genuinely something that was said to me last week becuase I wouldn’t go and pick up a friend’s dog from the vet and look after it until they got out of work. Didn’t bear in mind that my playing Rocket League for 30 minutes at ten in the morning was the END of my day and that I’d been working all night in a week where I’d put in 100+ hours. I make my own rules! Not like I have to punch the clock or anything.

Indeed, I don’t. I get up whenever I wake up (usually just a few hours after I fell asleep) and make coffee. Then I’m instantly at work until I fall asleep again. If all the work is done, I can’t relax and I get that guilt thing. My office is RIGHT THERE all the time. The first thing I do when I wake up, while my head’s still on the pillow, is grab my phone and see if I’ve somehow slept through a conference call that I didn’t know I was supposed to be on. After all…I’m available 24/7, right? That clock doesn’t get punched, so who gives a damn about my social life? When you get an email at 11pm that says “You can jump on a call in 10 minutes, right? Just need to go over something…” and that “something” is a single question that could easily have been asked via email and that isn’t time sensitive at all, you kinda know that you aren’t getting that much respect.

All this so that the various startup clients I’ve managed to sign can absolutely work me into the ground, run their new business for 30 days after my work is done while my invoice terms expire and the payment is due, then fold that business because it didn’t suddenly make them a million pounds in that first month. The phone numbers stop working. The email addresses die. The sites are taken down. In total, I’m owed £30k over the last two years, which – after taking lots of legal advice – I will absolutely never see. Probably could have got SOMETHING out of them, if my contracts were more rock-solid, but it still wouldn’t be anything like what I’m owed.

Plus in my industry, there’s the lovely tag-along payment term that nobody mentions. “Oh yes, we’ve got your invoice…we haven’t paid it yet but we will if you can just on our site.” They know full well that a freelancer needs to be paid and as such, they know full well that they can hold that money up because after all, the electricity company doesn’t care about “Well, I’m owed £XXXX and I refused to do 20 hours’ extra work for free, so I can’t pay you right this second.”

There’s no respect for freelancers and my experience of the whole thing has been awful. My pride has been ripped away, as has my self-esteem and opinion of my own worth. I am good at my work (I think) but to most people, what we do ISN’T work. We aren’t digging a hole in the road or sitting in ANOTHER needless staff meeting at 11am when we could be working, or rushing out to get lunch at Pret so that we can get back for the pointless afternoon SCRUM. Therefore, we don’t matter. So, we need to put ourselves first. The key is creating a balance, which is something that I have entirely failed to do. You seem to be more aware of yourself and what you need in your life than I am, which isn’t something that you should downplay at all. It’s absolutely essential. While you may not have all the answers, you’re much further along in your journey to find them. (Certainly further along than I am, anyway.)

Still, by the end of the week (end of the month at the very latest) it should be all over for me. I will have reached the bottom, will be bankrupt, and will be climbing back up. I’ll still be freelancing (technically) but I’ll be on much more solid terms as a full-time contractor.

Ironically, if I’d have stayed at my old 9-5, I would have been made redundant this week and been given enough redundancy pay to take more than a year off. I’m not even slightly exaggerating.

(Apologies for the rant. It started out as “I hear what you’re saying” and ended up as what it is. It isn’t gonna be an easy week.)

🙁 what a crappy situation. Obviously your comment is anonymous but I know who you are and I can’t think of many people who deserve a huge amount of success after so much hard work.

You say that I sound like I have more awareness, but it sounds like you’ve got plenty – you know you’ve got to take a step backwards in order to move forwards, but it seems like you’ve acknowledged it’s a crappy situation and have identified the best way out of it and have committed to getting on with it. That’s more awareness than most people I know!

Also, god, you’ve hit the nail right on the head about something I didn’t talk about at all during my post – and that’s people’s attitudes to freelancers. Sure, there are lifestyle benefits to working from home and running your own business – you can take time out when you like, you have far more versatility than most workers. But on the other side you often work far harder – people seem to want to acknowledge the former but never the latter.

You’re not alone in this, dude. People in corporate roles feel this way too. Just keep your chin up and your friends close. 🙂 x

I agree with most others. It is the kind of thing that has made sure I didn’t do the same. I guess the best advice is to try and get at least one part time job and build a free Lance career around the rest of your time.

Thank you so much for sharing this experience. I got into exactly the same situation, and felt exactly the same.

We haven’t met, but I do recognize your name from ‘the industry’.

I found that online tech writing became absurdly comoditized. Plus, I burned out because I was having to become more and more of a content monkey, rather than doing what I thought my job should be: quality research reported back to readers.

In the end, a friend of mine in the 3D rendering industry approached me to work with them because I had done that as a hobby and produced images he was impressed with.

I haven’t looked back, it pays much better and engages a totally different part of my brain.

Thanks for the comment – I’m really glad, above all, that so many people have been able to empathise with these feelings. It helps when you know that you’re not alone!

You’re spot on about the burning out. Sometimes it feels like you’re a copy monkey, moving through commissions as quickly as possible, so yeah.

Glad that you’ve got out and have found something that sounds far more rewarding and engaging 🙂

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