Freelancing is one of the fastest-growing work trends across many industries, including highly skilled fields such as journalism.
To put that in perspective, a 2017 study by the ONS found that 4.9 million people in the UK were self-employed, while the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed (IPSE) found in 2018 that two million of those were high-skilled freelancers: a growth of 46 per cent over the past 10 years.
However, self-employment isn’t for everyone. Rolling out of bed and into a meaty article for The New Yorker or National Geographic may seem like the dream, but that isn’t always the case. One of the hardest things to face is the instability of freelance life – not knowing where your next paycheck is coming from, how much it will be, or if your client will even pay on time. As such, it can be hard to justify turning down any offers that come your way, but taking on too much work can be just as dangerous as not having enough.
‘I Am Physically And Mentally Fried For 24 Hours’
“I find the freelance life is truly ‘feast or famine,’” explains Joely J Johnson, a seasoned freelance journalist. “I sometimes wind up having to work weekends and late nights. I have 50-50 shared custody of my nine-year-old son, and so I try not to work when he’s with me, [but] this is not always possible.”
Johnson’s plight is not unusual. After all, flexible working hours are one of the reasons people choose to make the move to the freelance lifestyle. But finding that work/life balance can be difficult.
“I’m still trying to find a system to help me manage my workload, both when I’m too busy and when things are slow,” Johnson admits. She believes that the fear of receiving too much work also puts her off pitching sometimes, adding to her worries in times of “famine” – when work is slow.
Accepting too much work within a tight time scale has a physical impact on journalists like Johnson, too. “I am physically and mentally fried for 24 hours or more after working late into the night,” she recalls. “It’s also no fun.”
Overworking yourself is definitely no fun, but organisational psychologist Jane Piper explains that it can be downright dangerous, too.
“Too much work will cause stress,” she points out. “In turn, stress reduces your ability to perform well when it comes to creative tasks such as writing. In the end, it will be a negative spiral: the longer hours you work, the less you achieve, the more stressed you will feel, resulting in poor quality work, causing more stress… and so on.”
“Stress reduces your ability to perform well when it comes to creative tasks such as writing.”
Jane Piper, Psychologist
We all know the benefits of taking regular breaks and drinking enough water, but pacing yourself comes into play when accepting work, too. Your mental health should be your priority, and looking after it should have a positive effect on your work.
“We can’t just keep on working and expect the same level of performance and productivity,” Piper explains. “Take an athlete as an example. She has to take time to recover her muscles after training.
“The athlete would perform worse if she is over-trained and exhausted. The same goes for the brain: Your brain works better when hard work and relaxation is balanced.”
However, turning down work can induce similar levels of stress, as many freelancers fear that editors may blacklist them or offer work elsewhere in future if they decline one offer. This can lead to difficult decisions, especially when faced with a tight deadline, an important client, or a busy schedule.
While it may seem sensible to take on as much work as possible to earn as much money as you can during “feast” times, you can instead implement systems and tactics to earn as much without taking on an excessive workload.
Varying Levels Of Risk To Your Reputation
Freelance journalist Kim Thomas decided made a big decision about her own self-worth, with the aim of having a positive impact on her work schedule. “I decided some time ago that I wouldn’t take on work that paid less than £300 per 1,000 words,” she tells Journo Resources.
However, soon after she made this decision, she had to turn down a new byline in a national newspaper due to her increased rates, but she thinks it was a trade off worth paying. Knowing how much your work is worth is very important, and simply increasing how much you are paid by even a small amount will lead to a bigger number on every invoice you send.
Even if you don’t believe you can charge £0.30 a word like Thomas, just increasing your rate by five pence a word earns you an extra 50 quid on the same article you would have written for less. A similar process takes place simply by bargaining back with an editor for more – explaining your worth through a lens of expertise, short-time frames or specialist skills. Or, as Where To Pitch’s Susan Shain puts it, “making myself feel sick” when she sends her rates.
“I decided some time ago that I wouldn’t take on work that paid less than £300 per 1,000 words”
However, Johnson has a riskier system. “I used a very reliable friend, also a writer, to help me crank out a bunch of short pieces for a ‘one-off’ client,” she says. “I did not tell the editors and paid my friend the same rate I was getting.
“In another situation, I hired another friend, a stellar copy-editor, to save me when there was no way I could hit an editing deadline. I offered her a flat rate and she totally delivered. Again, my client knew nothing.”
We’d recommend exercising extreme caution with this system, as your reputation is on the line for little gain. Plus you run the risk of having to pick up the slack if your friend doesn’t deliver on time. And, if the quality isn’t up to your standards, you’ll have to edit and rewrite, increasing your workload.
For what gain? A good relationship with a one-off client? Johnson hopes her friends may offer the same to her when she’s in a slow period further down the line, but she’s taking a big risk in the meantime.
Selling Different Angles To The Same Work Can Increases Efficiency
James Durston maintains that honesty and communication are key to any relationship between freelancers and editors. He sits on both sides of the table, as he has experience as both a commissioning editor and a freelance travel writer.
“The key is to be transparent, honest and professional, and ensure while you’re getting what you want out of this strategy, your clients are also getting what they want,” he tells Journo Resources.
Don’t worry, this isn’t one of those ten-a-penny “productivity hacks” that just involve going for a walk and drinking cucumber water. Durston’s system revolves around earning more money for your groundwork by selling different angles on the same story to different publications.
“You just went on a trip to Bali. Instead of pitching a single ‘Bali travel story’ to your target publication, which might earn you $400, you drill down to ‘Bali hotel story’ for outlet A, ‘Bali food story’ for outlet B, ‘Bali nightlife story’ to outlet C and so on. If you make all those sales, suddenly you’re potentially earning $1-1,500, rather than $400. That’s a simplistic example, but illustrates the theory.”
This way, your one time-consuming trip has evolved into three stories rather than one. The same principle can be applied to interviews or press trips across all fields and genres, but Durston emphasises the importance of being clear with your editors and keeping each angle distinct to avoid any grievances.
“Suddenly you’re earning $1-1,500 rather than $400.”
And ultimately, everything boils down to communication. Most editors won’t mind if you turn down a piece of work because you’re too busy, or if you ask them to defer the deadline of a non-timely story because you’ve got a lot on. However, if you send them a thousand words of nonsense from a 3am panic-writing session, they probably won’t ask you to do anything else for them in the near future. The same goes for negotiating higher rates; the worst thing that can happen is they’ll say no.
Negotiating with editors may feel harder without an extensive portfolio or masses of experience, but that doesn’t make it any less important, especially as a way of reducing stress and the strain on your mental health. The visible improvement in your writing and pride you can take in your published work is little more than a side-effect, but it’s a welcome one.
Experts have previously predicted that 50 per cent of the workforce will be made up of freelancers by 2020, and while that estimate seems a little off, they correctly projected that more companies than ever would be relying on contract workers in all manner of fields.
Freelancing has the potential to be a flexible and lucrative opportunity for those willing to take their skills on the road, but take care when diving into the pool of self-employment. Know your self-worth, put systems in place to maximise your productivity, and, most importantly, know when to stop working for the sake of your mental health.