There are moments in life – say a Tuesday morning when you left your freelance writer partner in bed listening to The News Quiz whilst you went off to work – when you wonder if you’ve made bad choices. Not about the partner, who is a delight, but about giving up on freelancing in favour of a job that actually pays you something.
Some freelance writers make a decent living, but it’s not all lie-ins and Radio 4 for any of them – it’s incredibly hard work. Sure, my husband wasn’t up and ready to start the day when I left at 8.15 – but he a) doesn’t exactly have far to go to the office and b) works on stuff at all hours of the day including weekends to make sure it all gets done.
He also earns a pittance for it. For every 8 articles he pitches to his most prolific client, they might print one. The journals that print his poetry sometimes pay, often do not. His biggest money earner, a comedy poetry night, uses its proceeds to pay the acts and gives the rest to food banks and other charitable causes.
I gave up a permanent job in 2010 to try and become a freelance writer, and I found it a struggle. On paper it went well, but financially… less so. I contributed to IdeasTap (paid, but now defunct), the Guardian (who generally do pay, but the section I was contributing to did not), The List (who only paid if you got into print, not online – naturally my stuff only seemed to end up online), Mslexia (who pay for print but my 6 months as a guest blogger were exposure), STV online (unpaid), and a few hyperlocal publications in Edinburgh that were operating more for love than money, and were barely making enough to cover costs.
I regularly pitched to print editors, knowing that was the only way to make actual cash even though print circulation was and continues to be in a downward spiral. I was met with a wall of silence, sometimes punctuated by kindly meant rejections which generally went ‘this isn’t for us, but if we were going to run it we’d give it to someone in house.’ On several occasions they then ran it, or a version of it, presumably written by one of the three remaining in-house staffers.
For me, this response of ‘we’d rather give it to someone we know’ was the crux of the issue. To be a successful freelancer you need to have contacts. To gain contacts you need to work with them, or know them from somewhere else. For most people, who don’t have a conveniently placed family member or pal in the industry, this means you need to do unpaid work experience.
As a 25-year-old living independently in a city I didn’t have the contacts, and I just couldn’t afford to do unpaid work experience. I pitched regularly, applied for journalism jobs constantly, and got a couple of interviews (The Beano and The Guardian, fact fans) – but I didn’t get them. So I did what a lot of people do – I temped enough to cover the bills, and wrote around the edges. I temped as a graphic designer, a media relations assistant, and as an admin person. Gradually the things I was writing moved away from pitches for paid journalism, and back towards fiction.
I’ve never really expected to make a living out of fiction. That’s not to say I don’t think I could/should be published. I mean, I have been. It’s more that I’ve read far too many articles about how much authors, particularly children’s authors, actually make to think that merely getting myself published is enough to pay my rent. (See research by The Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society showing that the top 5% of writers – people like J.K. Rowling – earned nearly half of all the income received by professional authors in 2013, whilst most jobbing writers are on £10, 432 or less – and data compiled by Nielsen BookScan that the gap is only getting wider). But I really did think I could do it with journalism. I was sad that I couldn’t make it work.
Nevertheless, work it did not. I’m actually OK with rejection – writing is subjective and can always be improved; newspapers are ridiculously thinly stretched these days and I can totally see why editors go with journalists they know and trust. What I can’t deal with is not knowing whether I’ll be able to pay my rent next month. That is incredibly stressful, and I don’t channel that stress into art, I channel it into cheese sandwiches (then stress about the fact I probably can’t afford to be buying this much cheese).
So after a couple of years, and with a decent collection of exposure under my belt, I moved into Communications (essentially PR for the 21st century). I suppose that makes me a classic journalism sellout, but I quite like it. There are still a lot of journalistic elements to a comms job: interviewing people, digging to the heart of a story, finding the best angle and presenting it in a newsworthy way. I still get to work with editors, journalists and professional photographers. Stories I have written appear in national media far more frequently than they did when I was pitching them as an unknown writer. And there’s very much still the opportunity to work all hours of the day, to very tight deadlines, and feel a little bit like your employers are taking the piss. The difference is, there’s a salary at the end of it, and sick pay, and holiday pay. Just enough of those sweet sweet statutory rights that keep people in office jobs the world over.
As it happens, the freelance writer husband I mentioned has increasingly begun to feel the same way, compounded by very adult whisperings we’ve had about things like potentially buying a flat (yes, less than a year after our last move. We’re idiots). He had a longer run at it than I did – four years to my two – but he needs a break. He’s just managed to acquire a part time job working for a charity. Having regular income will mean he can focus on the creative elements of writing – the reason he started doing it in the first place – and less on the boring copywriting stuff he does to keep himself in Chinese party snacks.
In my more maudlin moments, I will concede all this feels like a defeat of a sort. Part of me is worried we’ll get sucked into our ‘normal’ jobs, and ultimately look back on our early thirties as the time we effectively gave up on our dreams. But most of the time, I think doing this means we’ll both keep plugging away at what we love and hopefully gain some modest success at it without killing ourselves. Maybe in another few years, with more contacts and experience, we can look at freelancing again. For me though, the real mistake would have been in allowing myself to get to the point where freelancing ruined writing for me.