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Home > Publications > Quill > Cheer up, freelancers


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Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Cheer up, freelancers

Emily Perlman Abedon

When the stock market recently hit a shocking low, I received a call from a friend whose income hovers just above the poverty line.

“I can truly say I’ve never been so happy to have absolutely nothing to lose,” she said.

Of course, just about everybody has something to lose. My pal was referring only to her lack of investments in Wall Street, and feeling glad not to be facing what she called “the agonizing uncertainty” being experienced by those employed in the country’s financial sector. Is her joy a form of schadenfreude: pleasure at others’ misery?

I don’t think so. I prefer to believe she is simply conjuring up a sense of gratitude as a weapon, to battle against the woeful emotional state that seems to have beset every working person I know. I have had a similar thought about being a freelance writer: Self-employed means no job to lose.

I am aware that my reasoning might be faulty. Massive layoffs at publications nationwide mean there are many more freelancers now — excellent journalists vying for decreasing assignments. My local newspaper recently offered buyout deals to the employees who had the highest salaries. These newly jobless men and women are among the most experienced and talented reporters in town, and many are looking for freelance gigs.

Media-business headlines continue to hail goodbyes to national magazines that disappear because of “market changes” and “industry challenges.” In those periodicals still printing, names on mastheads now regularly show up on bylines as well — an indicator that budget cutbacks sometimes are forcing editors to write articles themselves, rather than hire freelancers.

Though some pundits say that print media is merely in a transition, not in danger, the distinction is irrelevant for many journalists who can’t afford to wait for a difficult phase to pass.

It recently occurred to me, however, that freelance writers may be among the best prepared for the bumpy ride. After all, most freelancers are quicksilver characters. One moment you are so swamped with assignments, you barely sleep for days; then, suddenly, the phone isn’t ringing, and you worry that you’ve filed your last story for all time. The same skills that freelancers use to constantly restart prolific phases — creativity, fighting spirit and the ability to compose timely, well-crafted queries (to name a few) — are helpful tools to help us stand out in the crowd and survive the obvious challenges.

Michelle Goodman, author of the new book “My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire,” agrees.

“As a freelancer, I get paid by about half a dozen companies each month, so job security is not something I fret too much about,” Goodman wrote recently on ABC.com. “If one client dries up, as happens at least once a year (if not once a quarter), I have four or five other sources of income to rely on.”

Goodman notes that freelancers not only have the backbone and flexibility to weather a downturn, but also offer employees exactly what they need in budget-crunching times.

“It takes far less time and money for a company to recruit a freelancer, who they do not have to train, than it takes to recruit and hire a new staffer,” she said.

Her upbeat portrayal of the freelancer advantage is encouraging, but Goodman does not suggest that any of us are getting a free ride past the fray. She lists “proactive, enterprising and bootstrapping” as top qualities we all must hone immediately, if any kind of a living is to be made as freelance journalists.

“The key to finding work right now — and always, actually — is to be as well-connected as possible to both editors and other freelancers, who are often one of the best sources of referrals,” Goodman said. “If you’re really lean on projects and cash, be flexible enough to take projects that wouldn’t necessarily be your first (or second, or third) choice. And, to stay as hirable as possible, cultivate as many additional editorial skills as you can, whether you edit, design, teach or copywrite.”

Nearly all the freelancers that I know are diversifying their skills by writing, not just for print, but for online publications — an addition that provides the security of varying work, but almost always brings in less money per article. The bottom line here seems pretty simple: You have to work harder to make the same amount.

Still, there is reason to be glad about the shift toward the cyber world. An e-mail I received from a favorite editor, who is currently at a dot-com, spelled it out like this: “While the rate’s not great, the deadlines tend to be pretty generous, the rewriting tends to be very light, and if you like the work, you can make up for the rate in volume, because I have no qualms about assigning the same reliable person over and over again.”

To be that reliable person, for as many editors as possible, is the key to successful freelancing, in every economic climate.

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