How do you advance your freelance career at the age of 33?
April 24, 2010 8:10 AM   Subscribe

How do you advance your freelance career at the age of 33?

Got into journalism late. Struggled a lot. Now have a steady income of regular work, and work at a national 3 days a week.

But - I want a family, and a long-term future, and just bought a house and I'm not sure that freelancing is the easiest design for life.

Also I've just broken up with SO, and need a clear direction for the future.

SO MeFites, any thoughts? How do you progress a freelance career without going old and grey and miserable and poor? Anyone work in journalism and managed to make it pay?
posted by spaceandtime30 to Work & Money (8 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Freelancing isn't easy... I did it exclusively for a year before taking on a staff position at a magazine, and I continue to freelance occasionally (though I'm mostly consumed by book writing nowadays.)

Back then -- mid-1990s, just as the web was getting going -- I did it by finding a reasonably steady gig with one magazine and one set of editors... I established myself as a dependable go-to guy, and they would assign me work as often as I pitched ideas to them. That allowed me to be more selective and careful in pitching story ideas, and to start thinking about longer features rather than worrying so much about short, breaking-news ideas that kept the bills paid.

It wasn't a bad life. The main problems I had were the fluctuations in income (which diminished when I had a steady stream of work) and the lack of separation between work life and home life (which got worse over time. It was hard to delineate boundaries between on-duty and off-duty, but you've got to do it.)

Not sure this is answering your question, as it's hard to generalize my experience, especially many years later, in a tough economy, and with journalism in the decline. And I don't really have a recipe for how to succeed in freelancing. However, I do know that there are opportunities out there, but at the same time, there are plenty of talented people who are losing their jobs. All in all, I tend to think that if you've got the goods -- if you can do deep reporting and tell a great story -- you'll be able to find a reasonable amount of work. Whether it will pay the bills is harder to say.
posted by cgs06 at 9:02 AM on April 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Could you give us more parameters that define success for you in terms of freelancing? (Miserable and poor mean different things to different people). What is your definition of success as a freelancer? To earn X/year? Interesting projects? Projects about topic X? I think it would help other posters decide whether they have something useful to offer as a suggestion or not.
posted by Wolfster at 9:02 AM on April 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

My only thoughts--as someone who struggled hard too in the magazine journalism world--is that every person I know is having the same problem. Check out this Slate piece about the steady decline in freelance rates. That was from 2005, years before the big crash.

The guy I know who has one of the last glossy magazine editor jobs is thinking of switching to a different field. And a rock journalist I know with great clips is hustling for $100 assignments. So I am not sure about there being a reasonable amount of work.
posted by thelastenglishmajor at 9:12 AM on April 24, 2010

It seems like a lot of stuff is becoming more internet-oriented and internet ghostwriting (like is cheaper for companies. I can't say this hasn't worked to some people's advantage, I was frustrated about not being able to do some freelancing on the side and textbroker is just what I needed. (not Pepsi Text-ish, I'm sure there's other sites out there too).

I read a great book awhile ago called How to Become a Fulltime Freelance writer by Michael Banks and I felt it was good in the sense that it was very non-nonsense in the way it was asking the hard questions of not just whether you are a good writer, but are capable of the scheduling/hard knocks/poor wages of freelance writing.
posted by Wuggie Norple at 11:08 AM on April 24, 2010

I started freelancing about 14 years ago. I've since expanded into marketing consulting, although I certainly still freelance as a writer, and I have people working for me. Since starting a family, this arrangement has become even better for me, as I work flexible hours, need less childcare, and can work from home. However, over time, I've built up a good network and reputation, established some methodologies to reduce repetitive work introduced multiple income streams (including passive income). I strongly recommend having a business an marketing plan in place, so that you know where you're headed and how to get there.

It depends what you want to do, though. Me, I'm okay if some of my work is not "journalism", because I get to help people achieve their own dreams through their businesses and because the money pays for my dreams, such as my home, vacation, time with kids, etc.
posted by acoutu at 2:05 PM on April 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding acoutu: start moving into corporate writing Speech-writing, reference writing, that sort of thing. There are tonnes of companies that do this, essentially they pay you as a freelancer or sub-contractor. Once you've done this for a bit, the relationships you will have formed with the company in question (if you're work is good, nay excellent, and you're doing something hard, like speechwriting) will be remain if you leave the company and start "freelancing" by yourself. Alternately, if you're good, and you stay with the company, you will probably be able to move up the ranks very quickly.
posted by smoke at 6:00 PM on April 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

I agree with acoutu--I would take the skills you've acquired from journalism and look for additional work as an editor, grant writer, copywriter, proofreader, marketing consultant, etc. Strong writing skills and a firm grasp of style and grammar are always marketable skills; you'll just need to adjust your resume to fit the job.

Telecommuting jobs can be hard to find, but they're becoming more common and offer many of the same benefits of freelancing (flexible schedule, working from home) with the security of a steady paycheck.
posted by janekate at 6:32 PM on April 24, 2010

It sounds like you're a generalist. I'm sorry to be pessimistic, but that is probably going to be a declining industry for quite a few more years.

If you don't want to leap into the marketing side just yet, get a sideline in some kind of business journalism. Think of an industry/subject you have some knowledge of, or failing that, an industry that has a lot of dedicated coverage in newspaper sections, trade publications etc. It won't be nearly as boring as you think, will pay actual money, very likely lead to more staff work; and building some specialist knowledge will make you far less likely to be undercut by younger/cheaper/cuter models. It will also give you better-paid options in marketing, speechwriting etc, should you wish to eventually do that.
posted by 8k at 6:39 AM on April 25, 2010 [1 favorite]

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