How Did I Get Here?

“The freelance writer is a man who is paid per piece or per word or perhaps.” – Robert Benchley

Like many writers, I’ve been writing pretty much since I was old enough to hold a pencil, and before that, I dictated my stories, poems, and essays to my unfailingly patient grandparents to write down for me. If you’d asked me what I wanted to be in 3rd grade, I’d have told you that I wanted to be a writer. By high school, I’d realized that “novelist” might be another word for “broke” unless I was very lucky, but I still wanted to write, so I joined my high school newspaper and changed my focus to print journalism. These days, you might recognize that as yet another word for “broke”. By college, I’d more or less let the idea of professional writing go, and had my sights set on a safe job, like teaching English.

The years went by and life got away from me. I had my oldest son, got married, had two younger children. I worked in early childhood education and then ended up as a nurse’s aide in a nursing home, a vocation that I would stay in for more than half a dozen years. I returned to college to finish my degree, this time with the intention to become a nurse myself. After all, it was a job that would always have openings, I thought, and I needed the stability. And I did enjoy caregiving. So what if it wasn’t my dream job? Who cared if the office politics were brutal and my back hurt every night? It was steady work that I could count on. And I didn’t hate it, even when it was hard. By that time, the thought of writing professionally wasn’t even a thought in the back of my head.

In 2010, I lost the nurse’s aide job that I’d had for years. I was on unemployment, then severely underemployed in an “adult novelty” store, then unemployed again. By 2012, I was in big trouble. The unemployment was running out, there were no jobs in sight, and I could barely afford to go and look for work. I had no idea what my next move should be. That’s when I had what I think of as my big break — the break that reminded me of my passion for writing and got me out of the brick-and-mortar job spiral.

I was (and still am) a member of a small debate forum. I go there to debate and argue about politics, religion, parenting, and current events, mostly with other moms, a few dads, and some assorted others. I’ve been a member there for years now, and the other members are my friends. They knew how worried I was and what my situation was. And one day, one of them sent me a message that changed everything.

This particular friend is a freelance writer. She has her own site, takes on mostly private clients, and does well for herself. She was actually doing so well that she could afford to outsource her work. She said that years of reading my debate posts suggested to her that I might be up for the job, and did I want to try it? The pay was good for a small amount of work, so I accepted. Doing so let me rediscover how much I enjoyed writing and researching.

When I say that that one message changed everything, I wasn’t kidding. Of course, my friend didn’t have enough extra work to create a full time income (though, to this day, she’s my favorite client) but she was the first person to let me know that writing on the internet could pay (until that time, I honestly hadn’t known that was a possibility) and she was kind enough to point me in the right direction to find other jobs. I’ve since discovered just how very lucky I was for that, because internet writers are rarely interested in sharing their income streams (you can expect more commentary on that in another post.) Within six months, I was making the equivalent of a 40 hour a week minimum wage job, and it’s only gone up from there. Suddenly, not only did I not need a “real job” anymore, I didn’t even want one. The world where I broke my back and punched a clock every day looks miles away now, and I can’t imagine ever returning to it.

This was a long first post, and it’s after midnight in my corner of the internet. I could probably say so much more, but it will have to wait for another day. I’m shooting for at least a post a week, so I’ll return soon enough.

Diamonds in the Rough

“You have to give an editor something to change, or he gets frustrated. After he pees in it himself, he likes the flavor much better, so he buys it.”― Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land

Criticism may very well be the most difficult thing that a writer has to contend with. Some say that rejection is the worst thing, but I tend to disagree. When your work is rejected, you can tell yourself (whether it’s true or not) that the client just doesn’t recognize quality work. Or that your work, while good, simply doesn’t match the needs of that particular client. Both statements are true often enough in the writing world that these statements can insulate you against the pain of rejection.

Criticism is a whole different animal. When your work is sent back, not with a “sorry, we can’t use this,” but instead with a list of things to fix before it can be used, the message is clear and accusatory: “Your work isn’t good enough.”

The writer’s ego is a fragile thing. Even that of a lowly web content writer. The industry attracts passionate perfectionists — many of us are struggling to achieve publication in other forms — we want to be novelists, or to be published in academic journals, or to become popular snarky bloggers who can make an income from ad revenue on high traffic blogs. Some of us may even make it… eventually.

Because of our high aspirations, we take pride in our work, even when our work is a 200 word SEO article on plumbers that no one will ever actually read. Each piece of content that we generate is something that we put our hearts into. It hurts to have that work ripped to shreds by an editor, no matter how politely they do it.

Oddly, I’ve noticed that both criticism and praise seem to come in batches. One week, it will seem that I can do no wrong. I’ll end up with rave reviews for each submission, new jobs generated by word of mouth from satisfied private clients, new opportunities from content sites that are impressed with my work. As soon as I feel comfortable — as soon as I feel that I’ve hit my stride at last and it will be smooth sailing from here — I’ll get hit with a string of revision requests and critiques that make me question, once again, if I’m really good enough to do this job. This cycle from confidence and insecurity has been repeating for over a year now.

The trick to getting through it is simple, of course. At least, it sounds simple enough. Acknowledge that you’re not perfect. Make the corrections, and avoid those mistakes going forward. At the same time, remember that you wouldn’t be here doing this in the first place if you weren’t good at it. Freelance writing takes motivation and skill. Clients and content sites don’t simply hand out work to just anyone willy-nilly, so if you have the job, you’ve already proven yourself.

Even the best writers need editors and editing. Just ask Stephen King. Think of editorial criticism as a refining process, You’ve already provided the raw material, and it’s valuable — valuable enough to be worth taking the time to clean it off and shine it up. A diamond in the rough. Sure, it would be nice to produce only diamonds that are clean, shiny, and perfectly cut to boot right off the bat, but that’s a rare fluke, not the norm. It’s better to be grateful that you have the talent to produce even rough precious gems that are highly prized enough to be worth the trouble of cleaning up in the first place. That’s more than a lot of people can say.

Every Day I’m Hustling….

The life of the professional writer – like that of any freelance, whether she be a plumber or a podiatrist – is predicated on willpower. Without it there simply wouldn’t be any remuneration, period. — Will Self

My last post was a way-back post brought over from a rev share sight, concerning my first major income loss as a freelancer. The following is the follow up to that post. While it’s important to understand the downs in the freelancing life, it’s just as important to understand the ups. The work is out there — you just have to go for it.

Well, today I have been, anyway. It’s been two days since the company that was my primary income stream canceled my contract. I took a day off to mope around. Everyone needs a good mope now and then. Then I spent today sending out resumes, sending out writing samples, posting ads, answering ads, and basically begging for work.

All in all it was a pretty good day.

I now have one short term job, one longer term opportunity that looks like it could end up being pretty lucrative, and a couple of nibbles that might turn into something useful, but I’ll have to wait and see.

Pretty good for a rainy Saturday’s work.

This is one of the things I like about freelance writing work. If I’d spent my day knocking on doors in the brick-and-mortar job world, I wouldn’t have gotten a thing accomplished. (I’d have gotten really wet, though, it stormed all day). It’s a Saturday, so nobody would have given me an interview… in some places, I’d have been lucky to get an application. Certainly nobody would have looked at any applications I put in today. Probably not tomorrow, either. Heck, I wonder how many applications they look at ever? Last time I was looking for a “real” job, I could go a month or more without hearing back from anybody, even to say, “thanks but no thanks”. But in the freelance world, I can start making money again right away. Just another reason why I never want to punch a clock again.

These days, I have a lot more eggs in a lot more baskets. It makes it a lot easier to roll with the punches. I’m just as determined now as I was then to never, ever punch a clock again.

The Facts of Life for Freelancers

“Anybody who is in freelance work, especially artistically, knows that it comes with all the insecurity and the ups and downs. It’s a really frightening life.” –Alessandro Nivola

The following is an older post that I wrote a little under a year ago, shortly after losing my first major freelancing job. I’ve removed it from the rev share site that it was originally posted it at and am posting it here. Anyone who wants to understand the freelance life has to understand that income loss comes with the territory.

Well, it was bound to happen sometime.

I love writing. All my life, writing has the place I turned to to sort out my thoughts and emotions. The easiest way for me to convey my thoughts to somebody else is usually in writing – I don’t have nearly as strong a command over the spoken word. When I began to make money by writing, it felt incredibly natural to me. This is the closest thing I have to a natural, raw talent. Some people are born to play the piano or can do long complicated math problems in their heads. I do this. No, I may never write the Great American Novel, but I’m good at getting my point across in writing.

You know what else I love? Self-employment. Even though I know it’s a bit of an illusion, I love being able to work as much as I want, and I love being able to take a day off when I need to. I’m a huge control freak, and the sense of control over my finances, my schedule, and my life that comes from being my own boss is irresistible to me.

But I indulged in a bit of self-deception, too. You see, for self-employment to work, you still have to have somebody wanting to buy your services. And in the freelancing world, a strong income stream can dry up in a hot minute, with no warning at all.

And do you know, I knew that. I really did. It’s why I have more than one client, it’s why I apply for every mill and writing job that looks interesting, it’s why I made a resume – heck, it’s why I’m here, for that matter. And I’ve lost income before, when a client took a hiatus or needed to cut back. Still, I got slapped in the face by reality today. And I’m reeling. Because today? Today it was the big income stream. It was $2500+ a month. Gone. And I have no idea… what to do next. If you’re a freelancer, and you’ve ever lost the biggest egg in your basket, you know what I’m feeling. It’s not pretty.

But such is life. Tomorrow (or maybe Monday, I don’t know) I’ll get back on the horse, and regroup, and maybe I’ll find a new direction. That job was taking up all of my time anyway. Maybe in six months I’ll have several lucrative private clients and won’t need to work 100 hours a week for $2500 a month. Maybe I’ll be glad this happened. It’s possible.

But right now? Total pity party.

That was a little less than a year ago. By way of an update, I should mention that I’ve more than replaced that lost income. More on that in the next post.