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Archive for the ‘freelancing’ Category

Writers are supposed to have a history of different jobs, and I’ve always done my best to keep that tradition alive – even before I started writing professionally. But looking back, I see that three turning points have brought me to where I am today, each of which was driven more by desperation than careful planning.

The first was my decision to return to university. I had finished my bachelor’s degree in English and Communications four years earlier, but I had done absolutely nothing with it. I was working part time in a book store, because, after five years of university, I was burned out. Just as importantly, I had no idea whatsoever how I wanted to make a living. But the two years off I had promised myself had turned to four, and I was feeling trapped, and more than a bit of a failure. Book stores, I had discovered to my surprise, were not about loving books at all, but selling them, and I might as well have been selling slabs of raw chicken breast in a butcher shop.

Not having a better idea, I listened to the common wisdom, and decided that what my double major amounted to was the first steps in the qualifications I needed to teach. That seemed plausible; I had given poetry seminars at my old high school, and they had gone over well. So I scraped up the recommendations I needed, and applied to both the faculties with which I had an association.

For a while, I considered studying parrots in the Communications Department, and even wrote to Irene Pepperberg, the recognized expert in the field. But my moment of desperation was in December, and the department only took new grad students in September.

By contrast, the English Department would let me start in January. I still wasn’t sure exactly how I would use a second degree, but I could be paid as a teaching assistant while getting it, and the pay and the responsibilities were much better than at the book store. So, for four years as a teaching assistant and seven as a lecturer, I taught, finding the job mostly satisfying, aside from the necessity of occasionally having to fail students.

Slowly, however, that became a dead end job, too. Unless I took my doctorate, the best I could hope for was a non-tenured position as Senior Lecturer, and even those jobs were rare unless my partner and I were prepared to move. We weren’t, and I realized that I was not only in another dead end, but one where my choices could be limited by the whim of the department chair.

Trying to ignore the despair and panic nibbling at the edges of my thoughts, I attended a Saturday afternoon seminar on technical writing at Simon Fraser University’s Harbour Centre campus. My partner picked me up so we could have dinner at her parents’, and, as we drove down the highway through Richmond, I summarized what I had learned about the profession to her.

A long silence fell as we considered the possibilities. Then suddenly, I turned to her and said, “You know, I can do this.”

So I did. I did it so well that I worked largely as a freelance. In four months,  I more than doubled my income, and, in nine months I was hiring sub-contractors. Unlike a surprisingly large amount of technical writers, I had realized that success required the ability to learn my subject – and if there was one thing that all those years of school had taught me, it was how to learn. I also discovered that being able to offer technical writing, marketing, and graphic design made me an all-in-one package that many employers found irresistible.

But that success made me an executive at a couple of startups. When they crashed, I found it hard to return to my base professions – I could see the mistakes that business owners were making, and I had just enough sense to realize that my opinions wouldn’t be welcome, particularly since I would have been correct more often than my employers.

I endured two particularly dreary jobs at companies that were being led into the ground. Then, one afternoon, walking along the Coal Harbour seawall in the autumn sunlight, I realized I could no longer be even conscientious about helping to prepare mediocre proprietary software.

I was already doing the occasional article for Linux.com. Now, in my desperation, I asked Robin (“roblimo”) Miller if he would take me on full-time. To my unending gratitude, he agreed to let me try. At first, I thought I would never manage the dozen stories he expected per month, but soon I was not only meeting my Linux.com quota, but writing another six to eight stories every month. Writing, I discovered, was like everything else, becoming easier with practice.

Looking back, I see that each of these turning points brought me a little closer to the work I did the best, even though I didn’t realize at the time what was happening.

More importantly, I realize that none were the rational, careful planned moves that the typical career advice suggest that you make. In fact, if I had followed that typical advice, I would probably still be at the book store. At each of these points, what motivated me was my unhappiness with my current position, and a realization that taking a leap into something new was no more chancy than staying where I was. It wasn’t ambition, or careful planning that made me move on – just a dim sense that I wasn’t where I wanted to be, and a growing awareness that I really had nothing left to lose.

This, I suspect is how most people make such decisions. These days, when someone comes to me asking for career advice (as happens two or three times a year), I don’t tell them to plan their career moves rationally. Instead, I ask them how they want to spend their lives, and what risks they are prepared to take to do it.

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If you’re a freelancer, you tend to be haunted by the thought of lacking work. Yet today, against all my freelancing instincts, I walked away from a source of income without having anything to replace it. It was not a step I took easily, but I had no choice if I wanted to keep my self-respect.

The problem wasn’t that the editor was doing their job. I’m a professional, and I have no illusions that my work is perfect or can’t be improved upon. I am incredibly inefficient at editing my own work (although a demon at editing others), and I generally welcome observations that make my wording clearer or more accurate.

Why wouldn’t I? An editor who points out problems before they see print makes me look good.

At the same time, I have worked with half a dozen editors, and I know what editing is generally required to make my work presentable. The number of revisions are roughly the same, no matter who the editor, and rarely require more than half an hours’ work – often less, and almost never more than an hour.

With this editor, though, revisions averaged three or four hours. I admit that he received a few pieces that I wrote while ill or under personal stress and that I should not have submitted in their current shape. However, regardless of the quality of each submission, the editor would almost always return a couple of pages of notes, amounting to a rewrite of the article.

Even if I didn’t have considerable experience, I could have guessed that this amount of revisions was unreasonable. The few times the senior editor looked over a submission, the changes were far fewer, and often minor enough that he made them himself rather than send them to me. But I continued to submit articles, partly because the pay was halfway decent, and partly because I told myself that things would get better once I learned the expected style.

The trouble was, the comments never lessened. Each article I wrote for the editor took twice as long to complete as anything else I wrote. If the revisions weren’t about typos, they were about content.

By my count, about one-third of the comments were legitimate improvements to the article. Another third consisted of explanations of how the editor would have written the article or shibboleths such as insisting that an article should never end in a quote, and one-third nonsense such as labeling a long but grammatical sentence a run-on sentence. I didn’t mind the legitimate improvements, but, to say the least, I felt that I was humoring the editor about the rest just to receive a pay cheque.

Asking other writers, I found that I was not entirely being singled out. Other writers told me that they also expected to waste half a day answering the editor’s notes. But the experience of others showed that the editing process was clearly being used to assert the editor’s authority.

In fact, the criticism was so unrelenting that I began to entertain serious doubts about my writing ability. Once or twice, when I was sick, I was so rattled about the thought of the revisions to follow that what I submitted was definitely below my usual standards. Why bother for quality when you know your article is going to be shredded regardless?

Even so, I might have endured the process while I waited for better times if the work had been regular. But the editor started forgetting my submissions – or so he said – and the one article per week slipped to one article every two weeks. Answers to my queries were delayed so that I had less time to research and write. I strongly suspected that the editor was pressuring me to quit so he wouldn’t have to take any action himself.

This morning, a submission of better than average quality received the same treatment as usual. Annoyed, I queried a couple of points – including one about the slant of the story, which I had based on the senior editor’s request – and received the usual ungracious reply.

Suddenly, I had enough. I was receiving less and less money from the editor anyway, so I had little to lose. Abandoning all plans of waiting until I found replacement work, I emailed saying that I was withdrawing the story and would not be submitting more. With an effort, I refrained from saying anything else.

The reply was a cheerful thanks for my work and best wishes for the future. So far as I was concerned, it was proof that my email had given him exactly what he wanted. Anyone who placed any value on my work, or didn’t want me gone would have asked for reasons.

I still feel nervous and wonder if I have done the right thing. But you know what? I feel so much better now that I’m out of a toxic situation that the challenge hardly daunts me. I’ve already been through far worse.

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For a freelancer, complacency can mean loss of income. This is a lesson that freelancers can never hear too many times – and one that I apparently need repeated more than most. A few weeks after I blogged about how I had managed to replace the income I lost with the closing of Linux.com with other assignments, I found some of those assignments failing, and suddenly found myself scrambling to replace them.

Fortunately, the job-hunting skills I’d learned as a communications and marketing consultant soon paid off.

As before, basic survival wasn’t an issue. We had income for basic survival, and, since we own our townhouse and have never lived beyond our means, we had no worries about debt. All the same, the situation was disconcerting. I thought I’d solved the income problem.

The problem arose because of two clients. In the first case, the client had at first seemed willing to commit to two stories per week from me. However, after a few weeks, they confessed what I had already concluded from their actions: That they were unable or unwilling to take more than one story per week.

In the second cases, the editor forgot that they had agreed to take two stories from me in February, and budgeted the money instead for articles from other people. Since this was a short term arrangement, it wasn’t as important as the first one, but it was still the first time that an editor had reneged on me for any reason, so it came as a shock. For one thing, I rather liked the editor, and preferred to think well of them. For another, I had counted on having a month to figure out a replacement for that income. Coming on top of the other case and some personal bad news that I choose to keep private, it felt like one damned thing after another.

For a day or so, the situation got to me. I even went so far as to consider revising my resumes and looking for straight work. Despite the recession, the work for writers, editors, and instructors of my experience were plentiful in the Vancouver area, but it all seemed dull and routine compared to what I have accustomed to in the last four years.

Then common sense took me by the scruff of the neck. There were still plenty of outlets for free and open source software articles that I hadn’t got around to trying. I spent an afternoon on the Internet learning about the potential clients (something no freelancer or job-hunter should ever neglect), and prioritizing them according to how their needs compared with my areas of knowledge, the size of their audience (which is often found on pages for advertisers), and, where possible, how much they pay per article.

The next morning, I started phoning. I could have emailed, and my queries easier on my nerves, but, for serious business conversations, there’s still nothing as direct as a phone call. Hearing a voice is personal in a way that email or even chat isn’t, which makes a phone call a way to distinguish yourself from anyone else and have yourself remembered.

To my surprise, I appear to have been lucky the first time out. Details are still being worked out, but I expect to be doing an online blog and a print column, as well as contributing other articles.

You’ll have to imagine me dancing around my living room and pumping my fist in the air (or maybe you shouldn’t; it isn’t a pretty site).
But, while I’m glad of the respite, I hope I’ve learned my lesson. I can’t say that I don’t make the same mistake twice, but I hope to say that I won’t make it three times. I still have other a prioritized list of markets (something I should have readied a long time ago), and, if any other client disappears on me, I’m ready to find replacements.

Given the current economic conditions, I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ll have a use for that list again in the next few months. But, so far, I can still repeat what I said in my earlier post: Freelancers are better equipped to survive the recession than most – and should generally survive better.

Now, though, I would add: A few job-hunting skills don’t hurt, either.

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Six weeks ago, I wrote that freelancers were better equipped than full-timers to survive a recession, because they were more accustomed to looking for work. At the time, I had only the vaguest suspicions that I would be putting my confident words to the test less than ten days later. Linux.com, which was buying most of my articles, was going along much the same as usual, and, and, because SourceForge, its parent company, is publicly traded, I knew it had money in the bank. If anyone were recession-proof, then surely I was. And, in the end, I was right, although not in the way that I had expected.

By freelancing standards, I had grown complacent. Ordinarily, I try to diversify my sources of income. But I was already writing the maximum number of stories that I could write per month without increasing my work hours, so I hadn’t done so as much as I might. Instead, I had allowed myself to become heavily dependent on a single buyer.

Imagine my surprise, then, when my main buyer suddenly stopped buying stories – just in time for Christmas.

After I picked myself up out of the bomb crater, my first reaction was relief that I had at least diversified enough that I could cover my monthly expenses. But I wouldn’t have much left over, and I didn’t feel like giving up my newly acquired art habit, even if it is a luxury.

As I exchanged a flurry of emails and IRC conversations with my fellow writers, I realized that I had to move at once. Quickly putting together a mental list of the most likely buyers for articles on free and open source software, I sent out some queries – not detailing what was happening, but simply saying that some slots in my writing schedule had opened up.

The results, to say the least, were gratifying. Five hours later, I had replaced 85% of the income I had obtained each month from my main buyer. Within three days, I had not only replaced it all, but had done so with a reduced work load. I didn’t even have to go through half my list of potential buyers, although I still might.

Of course, for the past month, I’ve been kept busy getting to know new editors and their ways of doing things. Also, there was paper work — all the more so because I’m a Canadian writing for American-based sites. But all that’s a small price to pay for self-preservation.

Am I lucky? I am painfully aware that I am, especially when I had let myself become so comfortable. But, to some extent, I made my own luck. I still had enough of a freelancer’s instinct to know what I had to do, and that I had to do it fast before anyone else did. And, apparently, despite the vocal minority that like to badmouth me, I seem to have developed a reasonably good reputation – in fact, some of that reputation seems founded on the grounds that anyone badmouthed by certain people must be all right.

Still, my escape was far too close for me to be self-congratulatory. To some extent, I’m still in panic mode.

I don’t know if Linux.com will still be a market for me when the dust clears. But, just now, I doubt that I will return to becoming so dependent on it – or any other single outlet. More than anything else, I am coming out of the last month with my belief intact: As a freelancer, I really was equipped to handle recession.

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