On October 1st, 2013, it was exactly one year since I officially registered as a sole trader (marking my first payment for freelance work; I’d been marketing myself for about a month beforehand). I’d been freelancing on and off for a few years, but that was the point when I took the plunge and made it full time. Because I was earning money, and had to declare my decision officially. Since then, I’ve worked as something of a literary mercenary, and made money in every way that words can. I’ve worked on brochures, screenplays, websites and magazine articles, and continued teaching along the way. And here are the most important lessons I’ve learnt:
What I already know is never enough
Simply having language skills is nowhere near enough to be an effective freelancer, and my existing skills and knowledge were almost never enough to get a job done effectively. Now I’m prepared to learn something new every time I take a job (like past successes, new techniques, market trends and contextual details), because I know otherwise my writing will only ever be half complete.
This, I think, is the single most important lesson I’ve taken on board – and one I really learnt from my English teaching background, where I’m always hunting for new information to pass on. When I teach, perhaps only two thirds or so of my lessons are taken from my existing knowledge – I otherwise disseminate very specific knowledge I’ve been tasked to find out. If I wasn’t prepared to admit that there are things I don’t know, I would be an awful teacher. And in my early days freelancing, I thought I knew everything as a writer, which was a barrier to success.
Knowledge is the not the same as experience
I read a lot of books, and blogs, and, in theory, had a strong idea of how to do my job properly. How copy should be written, what works in different forms of business writing, how a freelance should conduct themselves, and all that. But in practice there are always things that blindside you – there were often things that I had read about and technically knew how to do, but, having not actually done them before, failed to accomplish in reality.
It reminds me of when I first moved to Russia. Having spent months trying to learn some basic Russian to get by, mostly through reading books, when I arrived in Moscow, the first man to speak to me left me speechless and utterly confused. As he drove me through the Moscow suburbs, I mutely looked out to the sprawling lights, dumbly confident that all my efforts to learn a language from a book were, in fact, useless. (It was very much a “What on earth am I doing here?” moment.)
This is, of course, true of any knowledge you acquire have never applied. And there was lots in running a freelance business, and copywriting in general, that I understood but was still learning to apply. Probably the greatest example I’ve got is learning how to price myself. I read a few great books starting out (Andy Maslen’s Write Copy, Make Money, in particular, was a real boost); I knew how to price myself, and what I was worth – but it took about half a year and a few dozen clients, with a bit of trial and error and rustling up of confidence, before I was able to actually properly use that knowledge in practice.
Writing about my interests is more productive for everyone
And another lesson that I felt I knew from the start, but didn’t apply, was specialising. Freelancing is easier when you specialise, and concentrate on what you know. I’m still working as a generalist (though I fully intend to specialise when I whittle down my interests to exactly what’s best for me), but I’ve gradually accepted that the subjects I specialise in make for much easier, more productive work.
I’ve tackled a massive number of topics in the past year, some more successfully than others. And the more stressful assignments have always fallen in fields that don’t fit my usual remit. Writing for audiences I don’t enjoy writing for, or about products I don’t enjoy promoting, stifles my own style and generally produces a stilted final product. Finding there’s enough work out there on my chosen subjects, with like-minded clients, has helped me to be more selective with what I do.
Some of my skills are easier to market
I don’t think any of the freelance books prepared me for the idea that when you’re freelancing, everything you do can be marketed. But not everything is worth marketing. For a man who’s wandered the world and acquired a host of seemingly unconnected skills, this flexibility often proves profitable in the freelance realm – when it’s clear which of my skills are most applicable to a client. Again this comes from experience, because the more client work I do, the more I appreciate exactly what I am being hired for. It’s never ‘good writing’. When I worked in a company setting, I simply set out to do a good job in any way I could – when I work freelance, it’s important to know which skills clients want to see employed.
The more people you know, the easier life is
Freelancing requires knowing people – not just meeting people, but actually befriending them. I’ve had a great time networking this past year, and have possibly met more new people networking here in Brighton than I did in the preceding three years or so travelling. There’s a ton to be said about the virtues of networking, and having people to discuss work with, yet I think the title there pretty much sums it up.
Now, that’s just the tip of everything that’s helped craft me into a full-time freelancer this past year. There’s plenty more I’ve learnt about networking, finances, and running a business in general which I never had much call to study before. And there’s plenty more I intend to learn, and share here – because after an exciting year with a few ups and downs, I’m a lot better prepared to make year two infinitely more successful.