When people find out that I’m a freelance writer, one of the first things they want to know is, “How did you get into that?” Sometimes it’s just passing curiosity. Other times they want to know because they aspire to quit working for “the man” and go out on their own and writing seems like an easy way to do that. (Before I continue this story, let me tell you that it isn’t an easy way to make a living. Sure, I work from home, but I have deadlines and responsibilities just like any other profession. I also get the joy of handling all of my own marketing, accounting, taxes, and office expenses, whereas someone else handled all of that when I was working for “the man.” So if you think being a freelance writer is all easy and fun, think again. It’s a job just like any other job.)
Anyway, people always seem to assume that I had some definite plan that I was following when I decided to become a freelance writer. They want my roadmap so that they can follow it, too. The thing is, I never had a definite roadmap and I haven’t met very many freelance writers who did. It’s rare to find someone who came out of college saying, “Yeah, I’m going to be a freelance writer!” At best you might find a freelance writer who came out of college saying, “Yeah, I’m going to be a journalist or PR person,” who then stumbled into freelancing after putting in a few years in the corporate world. Those of us who had road maps are rare. Most of us just sort of fell into the occupation, but that’s not a bad thing.
If you want to know how it happened to me, here’s the story: I came out of college with a degree in “Communication.” Not quite as useless as a degree in Philosophy, but close. I’m still not even sure how I picked that major. My first job was as an administrative assistant at a small software company. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before the company discovered that I had some ability with words, layout, and design and put me to work writing and designing some brochures. Next thing I knew, I was writing marketing materials, too. I got really lucky when one of the writers in the software department quit and I got tasked with writing online help files. I also got to write grant proposals and, once the infant Internet came to town, I got to write the website copy. If it needed words, it seemed to find its way to my desk. That’s the benefit of a small company. You can be asked to do anything and everything, building skills as you go along.
Unfortunately, the company was a horror show. I eventually found another job. I was actually hired as a “Technical Writer” at that company where I stayed for another couple of years gaining experience and practicing my skills. (Not that I really considered myself a writer at that point, despite my job title. I just knew that somehow all these projects involved writing. I still wasn’t thinking in terms of making writing a career. It was just a job.)
When I was laid off (thank you, dot-com bust), I had a little time to think about what to do next. I could go and look for another technical writing job or I could do something else. Coincidentally, one of the people from my old job also had his own consulting business on the side. He called and asked if I’d help him with some promotional materials. I did. Then he asked if I’d help him with a consulting job that he had. He had the software end under control but needed someone to write the online help files. I did. When a friend of his asked for help with his website, he referred him to me. I helped him, too. All the while I was getting paid for all this “helping,” and I was getting way more than I ever had at a “real job,” even after I accounted for taxes.
It was about six months later that the light bulb went on. Dang, I was a freelance writer. People were constantly referring me to other people. I had plenty of projects to work on. I was paying self-employment taxes and buying my own supplies. I was in business! A career was born and the rest is history. I’ve been flying solo now for about fourteen years and it’s been great. It’s still a little weird to think of myself as a freelance writer, but there aren’t any other words for what I do.
So what’s the moral of my little story? If you want to be a freelance writer it might be easier than you think. Of course, you have to have an ability with words. And you have to be disciplined and organized enough that you impress your first clients (referrals are really helpful). But you don’t really have to set out with a defined road map from the time you enter college. It’s not a career that’s closed to you if you didn’t get the right degree or the right first job. It can happen to the scientist who starts helping other scientists write up reports for journals, or it can happen to the teacher who gets asked to write curriculum guidelines for the school administration. It might happen when you’re young or when you’re retired and looking for something to do. Being a freelance writer isn’t restricted to those “in the know” or who got an MFA. Articles, manuals, reports, guidelines, brochures, etc. are needed in every field. If you can write, you can carve out a niche for yourself.
Most writers tell stories similar to mine. They were simply asked to write something in their regular job, and then something else and something else until suddenly other people were asking them to write stuff, too. And then one day they realized that they were making a living at this thing called writing. Of course, if you have a plan you might get there faster and certainly your light bulb moment will happen long before mine did. If, though, you prefer to fall into the career, just say, “Yes,” whenever someone asks you to write something and then watch what happens.
(Photo courtesy of Shawn Rossi)