Love letter from a freelancer


When she entered the freelance writing world, our columnist thought all she needed was the passion for writing. She was wrong.

Dear Alex,

Like you, I love writing. While I wish I could quit my job now and do it full-time, I’m not that risk-taker kind of girl and I’m afraid it’s not sustainable. I was wondering if you would mind sharing some tips. What’s the single most important thing that kept you going? – Nadia

I CLOSE this reader’s e-mail and wonder what I would tell her. Seven years ago when I entered the profession bushy-tailed and wide-eyed, I would have told her, “The ability to write terrifically”. My answer would be very different today. After doing this for so long, I have to say quite a few initial myths have been debunked. For the unprepared, freelance work can be fraught with heartbreak and shock.

Myth No 1 – No more boss to report to, yay!

Fact: Urm, now I have MANY bosses to report to – all with different working temperaments and styles. But fortunately, the majority are reasonable and understand that a freelancer’s life is fraught with challenges. You never know when I’d end up with an editor or publisher from hell (touch wood!), but I’ve heard of horror stories from friends who worked with people you would want to feed rat poison to.

Myth No 2 – No more politics, yay!

Think only the corporate world has politics? The freelance universe is not politics-free, baby. The game is even harder to play because you’re not in the organisation, so you’re at the mercy of other people who are kind enough to lobby on your behalf.

Myth No 3 – Being a good writer will guarantee an endless supply of work.

A lot of things are out of your control. Even a great relationship with your editor or client doesn’t guarantee long-term work. For example, I was replaced by another full-timer in a magazine that I wrote for. It was really no surprise, though there had been no fallout.

If anything, our relationship had been cordial, and the team had always made me feel part of the family. But it was only a matter of time, for I had made my choice pretty clear when I rebuffed the editor’s numerous attempts to get me onboard full-time. I prize my freelance freedom because it gives me the liberty to pick and choose projects.

Even though their business represented a hefty chunk of my revenue, I understood why he would hire someone on a permanent basis. It meant no more logistical nightmare – he wouldn’t have to dance to my schedule. But it still hurt.

You live with no security blanket, no matter how long you have been in the market. It’s so easy to remain complacent and stop marketing yourself – that’s when you get hit the hardest. An editor could quit/get fired/retire at any time. Magazine turnovers, in particular, are very high.

Last month, an editor I’ve worked closely with, quit. I was always stressed whenever I worked on her assignments because she had such exacting standards, but I continued to say yes anyway. Why? Because from her, I learned how to improve my openings, craft catchy pun-rich headlines and up my game, all by silently drooling at her pitch-perfect writing.

She was a natural who could write with wit and gravitas and currency, and made it look effortless. She told me in a conversation that “I don’t think I can be a good coach” when I suggested she teach travel writing, but she was wrong. I had found a terrific teacher in her.

The biggest myth about being a freelance writer is that it’s a solitary, lonely position. Far from it. On a direct level, your very survival depends on whether your editor trusts or likes you enough to assign you that plum assignment, and once you’ve landed it, whether you have enough contacts to track down that lead.

When you’re in the field, again it depends on whether you can convince people to part with often confidential information. And while you’re writing, you rely on your online colleagues to keep you sane while you attempt to write a crackerjack story that will delight your editor, a towering figure whom you respect and fear, and desperately want to impress.

These are the things that keep me writing: loving parents who supported my decision to make an unconventional decision, even though they were absolutely terrified; brave editors who took a chance on an unknown writer with no track record; understanding clients who pay out of their own pocket first, because they don’t think it’s fair to keep me waiting; readers who write in to tell me my articles struck a chord with them and offer to host me at their homes when I visit their hometown next; blindly loyal friends who “Like” and “Recommend” my articles because they know how important their support is.

You know the survey that states half of all people say their boss is a big reason they stay at a job? It applies to writing, too. No amount of love for a craft – including writing – can be sustained without a strong support system.

A writer’s job is just like any other job; it’s all about people. The best thing you can do for yourself is to surround yourself with people who love you enough to support what you love doing – even when they have no idea what the heck it’s all about.

Good luck, Nadia.

Alexandra Wong (www.bunnysprints.com) thinks time flies when you’re doing something fulfilling. Write to her at star2@thestar.com.my.

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