Taking The Leap Into Freelance Writing? What You Need To Know Beforehand
Is Freelancing Your Cup Of Tea?
It is no underestimation that the pandemic has changed the way we work. In the west particularly, a mass number of workers are quitting their full-time jobs, in a trend which experts call the great resignation.
In a time where we are confronted with the fragility and transience of our lives, it is no surprise that many of us want to reclaim back the power from our employers and dictate the type of work that we do — the way we do it.
For many of us, that means going into freelancing. Done properly, it can be a rewarding career path.
Just ask Stephanie Augustin, a former full-time journalist with media outlets such as Malaysia SME, KiniBiz, and Malay Mail who has freelanced for publications such as e27.co, Technode Global and the South China Morning Post (she has also produced content for agencies such as MIDA, MDEC, and MAGIC).
Stephanie began dabbling in freelancing first in 2012 after her newspaper interviewees requested her to write for websites, coffee table books and other marketing materials. She took the full leap into freelancing in 2017 after leaving Malay Mail and deciding to follow her partner who was planning to pursue her postgraduate studies in the Netherlands.
“The initial plan was to try freelance writing out for a year or two before we left for Amsterdam, and keep it up in Amsterdam as a sort of income stream,” she said. “In October 2019, I decided to register with SSM after returning to Malaysia, the pandemic hit in 2020, and here I am three years later, still freelancing.”
“It’s a bit hard to consider working under someone now that I’ve given entrepreneurship a go,” Stephanie said. “I did my best when I took a pandemic job for a few months in 2021, but it wasn’t a good fit. Thus far, it’s been rewarding in that I literally decide how much I am being rewarded for my work. I get to turn down clients, and I get to walk away from dodgy jobs. You don’t get that independence and control as a full-time employee.”
Stephanie enjoys freelancing so much that she does not plan to stop anytime soon.
However, being a freelancer takes more grit than one would imagine.
Brigitte Rozario, a seasoned freelance writer and editor who formerly worked as a journalist with The Star, said one of the biggest misconceptions people have about freelancers is that they have a lot of free time.
“My hours are just as bad as before, sometimes worse because I can’t take paid leave,” she said. “I work almost every day, in fact. I’m always thinking about work because my neck is on the line. There is no upline to take responsibility and there’s no downline to blame. If anything succeeds or fails, it’s on me. That’s why my mind is constantly on work.”
Brigitte worked at The Star for 22 years and currently has 11 years of freelancing experience under her belt. She sometimes conducts workshops in the Klang Valley where she teaches participants how to make the leap into freelancing.
Both Brigitte and Stephanie offered advice to those interested to go into freelancing.
Time management becomes more important than ever
In the media industry especially, your ability to turn in quality work at great speed is essential. When freelancing, this becomes even harder as you no longer have a superior to report to. In fact, your clients are now your bosses.
“I’ve always had a problem with procrastinating, even as a journalist,” Stephanie admitted. “With freelancing, there’s the added pressure of understanding what exactly the client wants or perfecting a tone or house style. Each client is unique so it’s harder to get away with putting things off until the last minute. I have become more orderly as a result, and have better control of my calendar than before.”
Jot it down in your notepad, and your calendar, and use technology such as Trello, or Notion. Whichever way works for you! Just make sure that you stick to the agreed deadline. Timeliness is important so your clients won’t lose trust in you.
Money matters too, duh!
Brigitte said: “Another misconception is that freelancers hardly have any work, that they live like paupers and do not have to pay income tax. Not true. I have a lot of work. When I feel the work is insufficient, I find more work. I live comfortably and I make sure I pay income tax promptly every year.”
She said that before going into freelancing, make sure you have roughly five months of pay saved up; prepare a budget; make sure you have health insurance and clear your loans and taxes. Prepare your family members too as your finances will most likely take a hit.
Stephanie has this advice: “As dull as this sounds, do your cash flow projections and you will quickly figure out your slow months. For me, it’s December to February, before marketing budgets get greenlit. Continue contributing to EPF. Set aside money for long-term investment or at the bare minimum, get a rolling fixed deposit going. Get healthcare insurance if you’re freelancing full-time. As free as Malaysian public healthcare is, our insurance is pretty affordable and tax-deductible. On that note, declare your income and pay your taxes!”
Optimise your LinkedIn
Gone are the days when one simply puts their CV on LinkedIn and leaves it at that. With LinkedIn’s algorithms becoming more and more sophisticated, and due to the platform’s massive popularity – 900 million users from 200 different countries use LinkedIn – making impactful connections and curating interesting content are now more important than ever.Brigitte said: “When I initially went into freelancing from 2005 to 2007, I made sure I had a website and I had LinkedIn. But that was it. I wasn’t “working” LinkedIn the way I should have. I set it up and waited for work to come in. When it didn’t, I thought LinkedIn wasn’t effective. Largely, I asked around for work and waited for jobs to come to me.”
To avoid the mistakes that she made, Brigitte advised freelancers to share their insights, knowledge, information and experiences on their LinkedIn. Post links to interesting articles and try your hand at becoming an expert in your field by posting thought leadership articles.
“Become the subject of conversation,” Brigitte said. “Be the authority, be the leader and create a buzz.”
At the end of the day, Brigitte said LinkedIn members treasure meaningful and heartfelt content. The possibilities are endless (but don’t misuse the platform. For example, keep your personal rants to your Facebook).
Create products and hold events. Basically, add value
Go a step further by creating products and events to add value to your work and your personal brand. This is where the power of networking again plays an important role.For Brigitte, that means conducting workshops.
“I realised I had some experiences and advice to share with others who also wanted to take the path of freelancing,” she said. “I wanted the workshop to open people’s eyes and prepare them for this interesting path. The fruits are there for picking. You need to get the stepladder though. I figured I was giving them the tools to build the stepladder.”
Brigitte suggested talking, networking, hosting events and organising contests as just some of the ideas that freelancers can do, especially when they band together.
You can also write books and syllabus based on your experience in the industry.
Make full use of your networks and collaborate with each other to leverage on each person’s skills.
For the record, Brigitte also conducts writing classes for children, as well as writing and editing workshops for those involved in writing non-fiction professionally such as for editorial, public relations, corporate communications and many more.
Lastly, know that you don’t need to freelance if you are not ready
Both Brigitte and Stephanie warned of the unstable nature of freelancing work. Freelancing is not for everyone – and that is okay.Full-time work, dreary as it may be, offers a wide range of benefits: fixed monthly income, bonus, free medical expenses, paid leave, a support system, a company which everyone knows, friends and teamwork.
“For full-time work at the office, I enjoyed the teamwork and making friends in the office,” Brigitte said. “I met people from all backgrounds and we worked together in a big organisation. It also gave me an opportunity to meet people in other industries.”
That has changed now that she is a freelancer.
“I work all the time now, for long hours, and I have no support system, no technical team, no bonus, no medical and paid leave and I have to take my laptop when I’m on holiday just in case a client needs something urgent,” she said.
Stephanie said: “Unless you have a partner or spouse that has a steady income to support you during weak months, do not do freelance writing full-time. Dabble on the side, build up your clientele, and take as long as you need. Talk to senior freelancers about the potential pitfalls.”
So, are you ready to take the plunge into freelance work?