How to make it as a freelance writer
Back in 2010, US culture site The Awl ran a widely circulated story about a freelance writer who was so impoverished he had to resort to making soup out of crushed vitamins for dinner, despite being published everywhere from Rolling Stone to The New York Times. That piece, which still surfaces on social media feeds, worked as a cautionary tale for would-be freelancers. ‘If you ditch the day job,’ it seemed to suggest, ‘you’ll end up broke and alone.’
Last month, I celebrated my three-year anniversary as a full-time freelancer and I’m happy to report that I’ve never had to learn how to crush vitamins to make soup (I hate soup). But I have learned that you can build a freelance career that sustains you creatively and financially, if you can take risks, be strategic and prepare yourself to work incredibly hard.
There’s nothing more toxic than the myth of the starving artist. Not being able to make rent might be seriously stressful, but it can also shrink a writer’s creative ambitions.
Although I’ve always dreamed of being a freelance writer, the idea that there’s a hero moment that sees you dramatically quit your job to spend your days scribbling in your Moleskine at a cafe or relocate to Iowa to pen thinly veiled fiction like Girls’ Hannah Horvath is a lie that’s mostly designed to hold you back. Personally, I studied Professional Writing and Cultural Studies in my hometown, Perth, Western Australia, headed to London to work and travel in my early twenties, and spent four years in Melbourne working in business writing and custom publishing. However, I always felt a niggling dissatisfaction that I wanted something bigger and I trusted this enough to spend early mornings and weekends pitching and writing about art, film, travel and culture for publications such as Broadsheet and Metro. When I moved to Sydney to freelance, my portfolio and experience meant that editors and clients took me seriously even though I was as good as unknown when I got there.
These days, I spend my time juggling features, columns and profiles for publications such as Daily Life, VAULT, Open Skies and The Collective with copywriting and content projects that draw on my skills as a writer and editor, and ensure that my bills get paid on time. In the first couple of years, I was so hell-bent on succeeding that I’d regularly clock 60-hour weeks, but I’m now in a much better position to slow down a little and take stock of what I’ve learned.
Firstly, the one thing that’s enabled my writing career is the fact that I found a niche that pays well. Writing articles on topics such as business and technology afford me the hours I spend pitching to overseas publications, labouring over a piece of cultural criticism that truly matters to me or doing whatever it takes to nail a story. There’s nothing more toxic than the myth of the starving artist. Not being able to make rent might be seriously stressful, but it can also shrink a writer’s creative ambitions.
You might not have a boss peering over your shoulder, but failing to think of freelancing as a profession is a rookie mistake.
As important as it is to be practical, it’s equally essential to back yourself and your ideas. Two of the biggest stories I’ve published - a piece on a secret collaboration between Chicks on Speed and Julian Assange which ended up as an exclusive for The Vine and a feature on art deco cinemas of the world for the cover of in-flight magazine Open Skies - wouldn’t have existed if I hadn’t pursued them relentlessly. Often, being a freelance journalist means pulling out all the stops.
You might not have a boss peering over your shoulder, but failing to think of freelancing as a profession is a rookie mistake. For me, working out of a co-working space in Newtown, monitoring my cash flow, reading magazines and online publications obsessively and improving my craft on a daily basis are non-negotiable. Hopefully, this means I’ll still be doing this in three years’ time.
Neha Kale is a Sydney-based freelance journalist writing for Daily Life, The Collective, VAULT, Broadsheet, Open Skies, The Vine, i-D and more.