Giving up a salaried job on a magazine to take the leap into freelancing was the most nerve-wracking thing I’ve done so I know its not an easy decision to make.
There will also be those who through redundancy or battles with an increasingly frustrating job market, are considering freelancing due to a lack of other options.
It’s not all been plain sailing but I have certainly never regretted taking the plunge.
So here’s my top tips for making it work.
1. Get organised
Let’s start with an obvious one. You need to be organised to be successful. Not least because you are effectively a one-man band, acting as secretary, accountant, editor, IT helpdesk, all on top of the day job.
Get a diary, contacts book, invoice and accounts system from the word go.
Make sure you know what you need to complete every day. You can’t beat a good old fashioned hand-written list. I have them everywhere, and often end up with subcategory lists. But there’s nothing like getting it all ticked off.
Remember if you get sloppy, it will show and you will look unprofessional.
2. Be flexible
It may have always been your dream to write for the New Yorker but when you’re starting out you can’t afford to be picky.
At the beginning is the time to say yes to anything. Bit of copywriting – yes. Free blogpost – yes. You will find that work leads to more work and it keeps you busy and keeps the ideas flowing.
Also be flexible in when and where you are willing to work. Is there a shift with odd hours that no one else wants to do? A conference that needs covering but the office can’t spare the staff?
3. Find a niche
The world of science and health writing is a pretty small one. Word of mouth is important and I know the area well.
If you sit down every morning twiddling your thumbs thinking I need an idea for a story you will be overwhelmed.
So what do you excel in? Do you prefer real-life stories or do you have an interest you know a lot about. Music? Politics? If you have already worked at one or several publications, did you have a specialty?
Having a niche will help you target your ideas and focus your energies as well as gaining the in-depth knowledge to quickly build contacts and develop story ideas.
3. Sell yourself
The only way people will know about you and what you offer is if you tell them. Ask editors what they want from a freelancer and if you can be added to their database. Send ideas and be proactive.
Also in these days of social media, Twitter and Facebook are your friends. Have an online presence and make it easy for people to find you and get in touch.
Join Linked in and any associated groups relevant to your work. Search online forums for job offers or to share experiences.
4. Deliver the goods
It should go without saying but you would be amazed how many freelancers let you down. I’ve been on the other side of the fence and it is incredibly frustrating when you have a big gap thanks to a freelancer not filing their copy on time, or at all.
There has to be a level of trust and the minute you don’t deliver on a commission you give up any chance of working for them again.
If problems come up as you’re working on an article, give plenty of warning and offer solutions. Burying your head will not work in your favour. Of equal importance is sticking to the brief. If an exciting development comes up, keep your editor in the loop.
Of course you as the freelancer can be let down by editors not running with stuff they commissioned but that’s what kill fees are for and you can always offer it elsewhere.
5. Broaden your offering
I began by offering my skills as a writer who did a little bit of sub-editing. These days I’m a writer, editor, lecturer, conference organiser, and much more.
I’ve rewritten official reports, commissioned talks, set up degree courses, developed websites, advised scientists on research papers. And all under the general umbrella of ‘journalist’.
A freelance career can take you in many directions, don’t be afraid to explore them.
6. Have dedicated workspace
When I started out we were living in a one bedroom flat and the only space for my desk was in the corner of the living room. All well and good until the other half came home early and turned the telly on full blast.
You may not have space for a separate office but you do need a space that is just for working and is peaceful. Working in bed on a laptop may seem like the dream but it’s not going to be productive.
Better still to be able to shut the door on it at the end of the day. It is all too easy to let home and work life merge into one big blur.
7. Do some research
Who are you going to write for? Are there any agencies or organisations in your field to help you get work?
Ask other freelancers, find out what publications or organisations you could contact.
And come up with ideas and develop them. You can’t just sit and wait for work to fall into your lap, at least not at the start.
I started by sending a quick email to all the relevant magazines, journals and websites I could find to introduce myself, offer a short CV and ask if they used freelancers and how they used them.
This approach did lead to work – albeit not immediately – and I found out who likes to be sent tips and how, when they commission and other useful bits of information.
Also make sure you’re signed up to all relevant email alerts and RSS feeds to keep you in the loop.
8. Be available
It may be tempting to sleep all day and work into the night but what happens if an editor or potential employer emails or calls expecting a quick response. To a certain extent you are going to have to keep office hours.
There are plenty of last minute commissions that need to be turned round yesterday. If you’re at my desk and can answer an email immediately you will gain a reputation for being dependable and they’ll think of you first next time.
Likewise if you’re working on something and a new commission comes your way don’t immediately say no. Think if you can rejig something or compromise on that early finish you had promised yourself.
I only work two to three days a week but I am contactable at all other times. Many of those I work for won’t even realise what my hours are.
9. Think like a business
A successful business would have systems in place to deal with and maximise workflow, manage accounts, and promote itself.
You need to get yourself in this mindset – even if in reality you work on your own from the back bedroom.
Be on top of payments and expenses.
Make sure you are professional in all your communications.
If you’re out and about meeting a lot of contacts, have business cards printed. Think about getting a website – this doesn’t have to cost anything.
While you may not need to go as far as having a ‘brand’ you do need to consider PR and how you are perceived.
10. Make connections
To a certain extent, making connections does happen organically over time. But you can push this process along.
I’ve already mentioned social media but staying in touch with old contacts as well as making new ones is vital.
If editorial staff move on, make sure you introduce yourself to their replacements.
Go along to industry events to network (and yes I know you would probably be elsewhere).
As a staff journalist you would be doing this and it is even more vital when you work for yourself.