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Thursday, December 2, 2010
Freelance Toolbox

Are you cut out for the freelance life?

By Dana Howard Neuts

As our media world changes and adapts to new business models, rules and tools, I am often asked what it takes to be a freelance journalist. Sure, it requires a passion for journalism, some marketing know-how and a lot of business savvy, but to earn a decent living, a freelance journalist also needs skills and resources that are not necessarily obvious to the outside observer. A successful freelancer must also possess specific knowledge and skills, have access to necessary resources, be willing to adapt his or her personality as needed, develop a curiosity about the ins and outs of freelancing and define an exit strategy, or Plan B, should freelancing fall short of fame and fortune. Are you cut out for the freelance life? Let’s see if you have what it takes.

Specific knowledge and skills: Whether you attended j-school or learned to be a journalist “on the job,” good communication skills are a freelancer’s most important asset. From being able to pitch a story and close the sale to quality writing, reporting and follow-up, every freelancer has to know how to work well with others. This means not only knowing what questions to ask and when but, more importantly, how to listen. The successful freelancer must also possess a broad vocabulary and a good command of spelling, grammar and punctuation … or at least know how to use reference materials. Good editing and proofreading skills are also critical, so you are known by editors and clients as someone who submits quality work and is easy to work with. These skills will also be helpful when seeking editing and proofreading work to supplement your writing income.

Resources: In addition, access to needed resources is important to every freelancer who wants to be organized and efficient. Dedicated office space, whether it is the dining room or a corner in the kitchen, is a must. This space sets the stage for the freelancer — and his or her family — that this is where the work gets done. In this space, the freelancer needs the required hardware, software, office equipment and reference materials to be as productive as possible. This includes the freelancer’s own set of office supplies (e.g., pens, stapler, printer ink), so the family doesn’t need to interrupt to borrow the thesaurus.

Personality: A full-time freelancer should possess or develop certain personality traits to run a writing career like a business. Those traits include being organized to be efficient and productive, focused and self-disciplined to meet deadlines, patient and diplomatic with editors and clients, and persistent with sources and pitches. A successful freelancer must also be a self-starter, willing to seek out work and be a strong self-promoter, explaining why he or she is the ideal writer for a particular story or assignment.

Willingness to research: Along with these traits, a good freelancer needs to take the initiative to learn how the freelance world works. Instead of randomly asking “how do I get started,” search online for freelancing or buy guides like “My So Called Freelance Life” by Michelle Goodman or “Get a Freelance Life” by Margit Feury Ragland that describe the nuts and bolts of freelancing. Other resources include finding a mentor, talking to other freelancers, engaging with your local SPJ chapter or participating in SPJ’s Freelance Committee and Independent Journalist blog. To be successful, a freelancer must be willing to do the background work needed to start and maintain a business. Do not rely on others to do the work for you. If you do, you won’t make it.

Plan B: In the business world, this is called an exit strategy, but it applies to freelancing as well. Figure out how you are going to cover your expenses (e.g., mortgage, groceries, insurance) as you get started, and develop a Plan B to get out of freelancing if it doesn’t prove to be fruitful. Do you have unemployment income to fall back on, at least for a short time? Maybe your spouse has a full-time salary that will pay the bills as you test the freelance waters. Could you get a part-time job, or start freelancing in the evenings, so you can stay afloat financially? Consider a combination of these ideas to create a strategy that will work for your situation.

The bottom line is that freelancing can be a fun and financially rewarding career if you have what it takes to be successful. But it isn’t easy. It requires a lot of hard work, persistence and tenacity. Consider this advice carefully as you decide if you are cut out for the freelance life.

Based in the Seattle area, Dana Howard Neuts is a full-time freelance writer. She is also the owner and publisher of iLoveKent.net and iLoveCovington.com, hyperlocal blogs in South King County, Wash. For more information about Dana, visit virtuallyyourz.com.

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