Is a freelance life a lonely life?

Today is my first full day back working after nine months maternity leave and one of the first items to catch my attention this morning was this article on the loneliness and social isolation faced by homeworkers.

More and more of us are switching the grind of the daily commute for home comforts.

No tiny cubicle in an open plan soulless office for me

No tiny cubicle in an open plan soulless office for me

But is it a case of the ‘grass is greener’ and the reality not measuring up to the fantasy?

Not as far as I’m concerned.

Maybe I’m unusual but I really don’t think I could go back to office politics, sad sandwiches and strip lighting.

Last night I got about three hours sleep thanks to nocturnal children and I’m not sure I could have faced making myself presentable, travelling in hot sweaty weather, and joining the office hamster wheel.

I am by no means slacking off, in fact after some breakfast and three cups of tea I feel almost human and was at my desk by 8.30am.

My list of tasks is getting ticked off pretty quickly and efficiently.

The window is open, sun streaming in alongside a gentle breeze and the radio playing quietly in the background.

I am sat in a pleasant, comfortable, calm environment. Admittedly I am still in pyjamas but this is by no means altering my ability to do my job.

I have spoken to colleagues by phone and email so do not feel I am lacking human interaction but it has been on my terms.

Flexibility

Perhaps if I was sat at this desk five days a week, eight hours a day I would start to get worn down by it.

But surely that’s the point of freelancing, that you are master of your own destiny.

I can arrange meetings and take on different types of work which enable me to have human contact.

When term starts again, the teaching sessions I run will provide some interesting variety.

The Guardian article points out that your personality type may determine how well you adjust to home working.

I am sure this is true to some extent but I would never describe myself as an introvert, quite the opposite in fact, I am a pretty social creature.

Yet I am also a harried mum who looks forward to the nursery days when I can work in peace and quiet with no distraction, organising my time to suit and finishing tasks one at a time.

This blog post has taken about 20 minutes to write and I do not have to explain my productivity to anyone or why I took time out from other tasks.

I get paid for the work I do and the more I choose to take on the more I earn.

Alternatively if I want to take a break or day off that is my choice.

That freedom, for me, outweighs any occasional feelings of loneliness.

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Five reasons to give freelancing a go

Pic ollesvensson http://www.flickr.com/photos/ollesvensson/

For a calm life, move out of the office.

Working as a freelancer was always part of my master plan, mainly because of geography.

When your specialty is health, medicine and sciencey stuff, job opportunities are largely restricted to London, yet I could not envisage living there long term.

The solution, I convinced myself, was simply to enjoy the London lifestyle for a few years (tube-office-pub-tube), get some experience under my belt then move back t’North and work for myself.

There were those that raised a sceptical eyebrow but this is exactly what I did and I can now tell you not only is it possible to earn a good living as a freelancer, it brings with it a whole host of benefits I did not expect. That is if you can cope with a little uncertainty in your life.

For any of you considering working for yourself, here’s my top five reasons to take the plunge.

1. You don’t have to get dressed

Most working days my commute is a walk up a flight of stairs. No one cares if you are in your PJs because they have no idea.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t get dressed. There is something to be said for looking presentable as a way of getting into the right mindset.

But working in slobby clothes is a treat everyone should have once in a while.

2. The more you do the more you earn

If you’re doing it right and don’t fall into the trap of working for free, your earnings will be linked to productivity.

If you take on more work, sit at your computer til the wee hours to meet deadlines then you should at least be rewarded handsomely.

Pretty much the opposite to the average staffer experience of working harder and harder doing five people’s jobs thanks to necessary cutbacks yet year on year yet earning the same measly wage.

The most common question I am asked is how do I motivate myself to actually work (subtext am I secretly watching trashy daytime TV?)

Well its fairly easy – if I don’t work I don’t get paid.

It is not at all hard to get stuff done when there is a specific financial incentive attached.

3. No office politics

Before going freelance, I wouldn’t have even considered this one but after rounds and rounds of job cuts and efficiency savings at all three of my pre-freelance gigs, I would say this is now the thing I love the most.

I don’t have to get involved in petty niggles brought on by the slow chipping away of staff morale.

I don’t have to play mind games and second guess what people are up to.

I don’t have to deal with management consultants coming in to tell me how to do my job or non-sensical restructurings that leave all the best members of staff running for the hills.

All I have to do is take the commission, do the work, meet the deadline and move on to the next job.

I mostly work from home, but when I do have to go into an office I turn into a bemused observer watching the natives act out their bizarre rituals.

4. Flexible working

When I started out, flexible working meant travelling to London two days a week to work part-time for the BBC (in a job I was offered just as I planned to move 150 miles north) and building up my freelance career from home on the other three days.

These days flexible working is all about fitting in childcare and it is a HUGE benefit to the entire family.

The youngsters among you who don’t have nippers won’t care about this yet but those who do will be looking on with envy.

I can’t stress enough how easy I have it compared with those who have to work set hours with unbending bosses watching their every move.

It also means we pay for two days childcare but I work on average three days a week, building up time in evenings and weekends.

You can’t work with children around (pre-school children anyway) but you can work unusual hours and have start and finish times that fit in with the nursery day.

Flexible working means you can have that long weekend away, that you don’t have to worry if your holidays clash, that you can take more than four weeks a year should you wish. Of course if you’re not working you’re not earning but it’s surprisingly easy to make up the time.

5. Being the boss 

Of course someone else is paying you so effectively they are in control but for all the bits that matter you are the boss.

You choose when and how you work and when you have a break.

If you’re sick or tired you can go have a nap and catch up later without anyone breathing down your neck (or even knowing).

And depending on who you are working for and the relationship you have with them, you are quite often left to your own devices in terms of the work.

There is definitely no micro-managing. Out of sight, out of mind. All anyone cares about, is that you deliver the goods on time.

And in my yearly appraisal, I always do excellently.

Next time… The downsides and how to manage them

Style or substance. How much does presentation matter?

I freely admit I might be a little bit of a pedant when it comes to spelling and grammar. I can generally spot a mistake a mile off and it really irks me.

Walking past a sandwich shop the other day I saw a sign in the window for ‘Fresh Baguetts’ and it did not get the day off to a good start.

spellingmistake

Recently a similarly minded journalist pointed out the disgrace that was the decision by a council in Devon to ban the apostrophe from its street signs.

The policy seems to have been based along the lines of ‘rather than get it wrong, let’s not bother at all’.

Surrounded by such lackadaisical attitudes, perhaps it is not surprising that my students have a general tendency to be a little slapdash on spelling, grammar, punctuation – you know the boring stuff.

It’s not that they don’t know how to do it, it’s that they are busy concentrating on getting their words out and think they can worry about that bit later, then get distracted.

Just to put my old lady hat on for a minute, it can’t help that most communication these days is done in a hurry. Text speak, emails with no punctuation, shortened sentences to fit the 140-character Twitter rule.

While truncated, unpunctuated slang has a place in quick fire messages between friends, it is definitely not okay when writing news, features, or opinion.

Is it readable?

Presentation really is key. Of course you need to get the substance right too but if anything prevents the reader following what you are saying, they will give in.

The job of the journalist is to make it easy for the reader, not tie them in knots.

That’s not to say the professionals always get it right. The Grauniad earned its nickname back in the day for frequent typos.

Mail Online drives me to distraction with constant spelling mistakes, duplicated sentences, and general glaring errors. I’ve spotted mistakes (without trying) in place names, people names, baby genders, ages – the stuff that you really need to be getting right.

And it is particularly a problem in the world of social media and blogging. There is a lot of poorly executed stuff out there.

Maybe I have highly tuned ‘error antennae’ after years of editing copy.

But people do notice mistakes, and happily point them out, and it makes you look unprofessional. Most of the time your byline will be on the offending article and there is no hiding from your error.

And don’t go thinking the subs can sort it out. For much of my time at the BBC we edited each others copy, and even if you are lucky enough to have a fully staffed subbing desk you are not going to further your career by turning in half-assed stuff.

Spellcheck again is a great tool for the odd mistake but over-reliance will be your downfall.

You shouldn’t need a little wavy line to tell you when something isn’t right, and trust it too far your work will be americanised before you can say ‘zee is for zeeeeeebra’.

So as my intrepid band of first-time bloggers get ready to put their stuff out into the world, now is the time to check, check, and triple check.

It may not be the most exciting of jobs but I trust me it is a very important one and you need to get into that habit now.

Speed and quality from a home worker

A memo sent to Yahoo employees telling them they must be physically present in the office has caused quite a stir this week.

CEO Marissa Mayer has put the new rules in place, overturning policies allowing staff to work from home, with the view that to get the best out of employees they need to be “working side-by-side”.

When the news hit the media, it prompted a huge debate on the pros and cons of so-called tele-working.

So I thought I would do a bit of jumping on the bandwagon and argue my case as one of these skiving homeworkers.

Colleagues are potentially less annoying for the home worker. Image by SuziJane

Colleagues are potentially less annoying at home. Image by SuziJane

Now from the start I should make it clear that I don’t work for Yahoo or for any other one company, I am self-employed.

Which puts me at a distinct advantage when not having to deal with office politics including edicts sent down from on high which in one fell swoop disrupt routine working practices.

For this I am incredibly grateful. And working for myself I don’t really have to care about HR policies that have little impact on me.

But I do take issue with the assertion that we home workers are a lazy bunch.

This line in the memo particularly raised my ire: ‘Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home’.

It is true, I have been known to work in my pyjamas, but this does not make me any less efficient or professional.

It just means I am comfortable and getting straight down to business rather than faffing about with make-up and getting my hair in a fit-to-be-seen state.

Most interviews I do are over the phone, and it makes no difference to anyone that this is done from my home study, rather than being sat in a open-plan office somewhere.

Train tedium

I spent years doing the commuting thing. First in London where you have to travel for at least an hour whatever distance you live from the office.

That just led to many post-work trips to the pub because I couldn’t be bothered with the journey home. Not good for the liver or the bank balance.

Then for about four years I travelled between Sheffield and London, dividing my week in two. And I can hand on heart say, that I did not slack off on my days at home.

Of course I could juggle my time more easily – a godsend when training for a marathon – but those hours were always made up elsewhere or I wouldn’t be able to meet deadlines and get paid.

Now I work fully at home – with the odd trip out to teach some students, the one bit I can’t get away with doing in my PJs.

And I am busier and work longer hours than ever before – but with the ability to set my own flexible timetable I only need to find part-time childcare for my toddler.

This does not mean I work with a toddler sitting on my knee. I do it when she’s gone to bed or is having an afternoon nap.

Of course not all jobs are suited to home working – I think we can all agree that pilots, GPs and builders need to turn up at the ‘office’.

Even within journalism, it is very much dependent on your work with daily editorial meetings and specific computer software providing a barrier for many.

But I take umbrage at the idea that just because you are working from home you are slacking off.

If anything, when you’re trying to get an article or report done, there can be fewer distractions.

Finding a sensible balance, judged on an individual basis and dependent on the needs of the job would be a more considered and grown-up approach than ‘you better all sit where I can see you so I can check you are busy enough’.

What to do when the words won’t flow

These days I rarely suffer from writers block – too busy trying not to drown under a sea of commissions.

But when the words just won’t come or you cannot find a way to get the article started , it is blooming annoying.

The nearest I’ve come recently is on a piece I’m doing about stem cells that had an open-ended deadline and I made the fatal error of leaving it too long between the interview that told me everything I needed to know and writing the thing up.

It is only 1,000 words and the draft has been sat untouched for weeks.

And actually the key point is that there was no tight deadline to focus my mind.

It has now become a huge pain, constantly pushed to the bottom of my to do list as other more pressing matters vie for my attention.

I think I’m vaguely hoping that publicly admitting to it will shame me into finishing.

Perfecting procrastination

When I was a student of course I was an endless procrastinator. I could have won awards.

There was always an excuse, or a night out, or some epic sleep session that was more important.

And actually it was never that I was lazy (epic sleep notwithstanding) just didn’t know how to get past that ‘staring at a blank page not knowing where to start’ feeling.

Photo on 01-02-2013 at 11.42 #2

What do you mean I’ve already had four cups of tea and it’s not yet ten?

Then the deadline would be on top of me and I would be forced to do it and the words would come.

If someone had told me I would be eking out a living sat on my own in my little study with no one to crack the whip I would have dismissed them as unhinged.

Yet nothing’s changed really, I am exactly the same now, except my deadlines are constant and usually its a race against time to get it done.

I spend way more evenings sat at my desk slaving away than I ever did as a student.

But then if I don’t do it on time, I don’t get paid, or repeat commissions and end up looking seriously unprofessional which focuses the mind somewhat.

My saving grace is that I have opted for a career with constant deadlines which mean I don’t have time to procrastinate.

And now I can see my students suffering the same fate as I once did.

When they eventually enter the real world and have to churn out hundreds if not thousands of words every day, they may be in for a shock. I certainly was.

So here are my top tips for becoming a prolific producer of words.

  1. Set yourself achievable deadlines. Don’t wait until the big deadline is looming and then panic. Break it up. Something like write 150 words then have some chocolate (I fear I’m giving away too much about my working practices here).
  2. Just write something, anything. Don’t worry about starting off with a perfectly constructed intro, just get something down. Nothing worse than staring at a blank page willing the words to come.
  3. Write for fun. The more you write, about anything, the more it flows. Those with blogs now have a perfect excuse to keep putting pen to paper (or finger to keyboard).
  4. Get busy when the idea is fresh. If you’ve an interview, write it up right away when it is still all clear in your mind. Same goes for any ideas you might have. Even if you end up with a draft or a load of notes. It gives you a good starting point next time you sit down to work on it.
  5. When in doubt, get planning. If you’re really stuck it probably means the idea is not properly formed or you don’t have enough to work with, so instead of staring at the screen, do some research, write a bullet point list of what you want to cover and a get yourself a plan of action.