If you’re doing it right — and making a good living off it — freelance writing is a real job. In fact, most successful freelance writers put in well over 40 hours a week when they are getting their businesses off the ground.
Unfortunately, though, a lot of wannabe writing pros are unprepared when they decide to take the plunge and go freelance. Here, 5 ways to know that it’s time to say sayonara to the Schedule C and start sending out your resume.
1. You’re on the verge of bankruptcy and your basic needs aren’t being met.
You don’t have two nickels to rub together…and you’re in dire straits! But you think freelance writing will net you fast, fast cash.
There’s a reason you’ve never seen a late-night infomercial or a back-pages ad in Popular Mechanics touting this profession as a get-rich-quick scheme. Not only does it take skill and hard work, but it’s one of the worst jobs to have if you’re already living paycheck to paycheck.
Unlike a job with an employer, you can’t count on a weekly or bi-weekly shot in the bank account. (One high-profile newspaper once took seven months to get a check out to me, and many freelancers have horror stories of never getting payment from shuttered mags and deadbeat publishers.)
Let’s not forget that the old adage “It takes money to make money” applies here too. You’re not sitting around in a safari jacket scrawling your next magnum opus with an affordable feather pen, are you? At the very least you need a reliable computer, internet connection, and phone to function as a business. It’s hard to focus on an interview when can’t pay the bill for the cell phone you’re conducting it on.
And “basic needs” are more than food, water, and those two proverbial nickels. Do you have health insurance? Are you contributing to a self-employed retirement plan or IRA? Do you have an emergency fund to cover those times when you, too, might wait seven months for a check to come in?
If your basic needs aren’t being met, you may want to consider seeking out employment until you’re over the hump.
2. When you read the beginning of this post you wondered, “What’s a Schedule C?”
Writing can be a hobby, but freelancing is a business.
When you go into business yourself, you are your own employer. This means things that your boss or the company accountant did on your behalf when you worked a 9-to-5 are now up to you.
It’s a legal requirement that you withhold and pay your own federal, state and local income taxes. (And guess what: since employers chip in to their employees social security and Medicare tax contributions, and you are now your own employer, your bill could be even bigger.)
If you haven’t been sending in tax payments, or even filing taxes on your earnings at all, you’re not just in violation of the law — you also aren’t treating freelancing like a real job.
3. You get nothing but rejections–and that’s on a good day.
“Nice” rejections where editors and clients ask you to stay in touch are one thing. But if you’re pitching plenty and hearing back never, or you only get boilerplate rejections, it may be time to reconsider the source of your future income.
If you don’t know when you’ll land your next article, then you don’t know when you’ll get your next paycheck. That uncertainty leads to desperation — both financial and emotional. It is one thing to be perseverant and another to be a glutton for punishment!
4. You’re amassing clips and experience, but not cash.
You’re writing for pennies a word (or less!), but your big break is right around the corner, right?
Don’t count on it.
Many a fledgling freelance writer has toiled away for far too long in the depths of content mills, (very) small regional magazines, and other no-or-low paying gigs in the name of “getting clips and experience.”
Sure, you need to have clips to show off your mad skills, but editorial standards tend to be as low as the pay in these cases, and no editor will be impressed by a barrage of hyperlinks to penny-a-word articles.
My advice? Completely skip the content mills, and start pitching to the big boys as quickly as you have a good idea. Most editors will be more receptive to a great query supported by a single clip than a mediocre, poorly researched one with lots of mediocre clips.
If you just can’t bring yourself to pitch high-paying markets, it may be time to consider getting a job and relegating freelance writing to “hobby” status.
5. You’re more worried about keeping up appearances than making a living.
A reader recently wrote in to Linda saying that she is on the verge of bankruptcy, and freelancing hasn’t worked out for her after several attempts, but she finds the idea of working in retail or food service “distasteful.”
Personally, I have a greater aversion to not having a paycheck when the mortgage is due and there’s no food on the table.
Maybe you made a big to-do about leaving the rat race behind, and now…it?s not going so well. This is important, people: do what you have to do to make things work for you financially.
If you love writing and feel like you just need a little more momentum, then keep it up as a second job while you take on something that pays the bills. Once it really does pick up, then you can slide back into a life of writing full time and kick that other job to the curb.
In the meantime, there is honor in doing what it takes to support yourself and your family. Think about it: would you rather say out loud that you are taking a new job in addition to your writing so you can pad your bank account, or that you don’t have enough money to feel your family and keep the lights on?
Bottom line: freelance writing can be a satisfying and lucrative work, but it takes a greater commitment to be your own employer than it does to be an employee. Do you have any other tips for fellow freelancers about self-employment? Share them in the comments below.
Daisha Cassel is a freelance writer who keeps four nickels in her pocket at all times just in case she ever wants to experience the luxury of rubbing two nickels together in stereo.