The Flip Side of the Freelance Coin

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

We writers are pretty good at telling anyone who’ll listen how hard things are for us. The publishing industry’s a mess, now everyone under the sun wants to be a novelist, and writing's just never been the most efficient way to make a buck. Times are tough right now. Now just the typical writing life toughness, but tough all around. Jobs are hard to come by, uncertainty prevails.

I’m starting to wonder just how hard everyone else thinks writers have it. After all, spending your day at home (in my case, gazing out over a wilderness lake), doing what you love and managing to make enough money to guarantee Christmas presents for everyone, just doesn’t sound that rough. Kind of sounds like living the dream to a lot of people. So why are writers so sure they’re stuck in some sort of singular struggle that no one else can identify with? I’m not sure. I suppose like anyone in any other pursuit in life, we feel that the road ahead of us is too tumultuous to trust, that progress is harder to come by then we first assumed, and that a lot hard work (especially when it involves writing about topics you’re not especially interested in) isn’t as much fun as they made it sound in Fame. You know: “It’s going to take hard work, hard work . . . .”  

With the fallow economy, most people feel stuck in dead end jobs and most people are too afraid of losing their jobs to make too much of fuss about it. So why are freelance writers seemingly more likely to complain about their profession while simultaneously expecting the non-writers to bend over backwards for them? Sometimes we forget that asking for an interview is a question, not a command.

This past summer at my work, I had a chance to be on the flip side of the freelance coin. At least five writers (who identified themselves as such) walked through the museum’s doors this season. Just two of them were actually working on assignments.

One blogger called up and kept a volunteer on the phone for a good 20 minutes after the volunteer repeatedly said she was too busy to talk.

Another writer who came in declared he would write an article about the site, bought a general history book on the area, and forced a business card into my hand when I gave him his receipt because “The IRS can’t question the tax write-off if you can prove you gave everyone your business card at the time of purchase.” Now I get writing off your home office and office supplies on your tax returns, but writing off the books you bought on vacation because you might write an article that uses a bit of research from the book made me uneasy. Where’s the line between freelancing and freeloading?

Late in the season, another writer came in, also with the idea of writing an article about the site. By this time in the season, most regional publications interested in the story had already run stories about it. It worried me that all these writers were going to query the story  when they hadn’t even paid attention to the most likely publications for such a piece: they had no idea that not only was their idea not unique, it had already been done multiple times.

It made me think just how important it is to remember that freelance writing is a profession. A profession that we chose. A profession that millions of other people have chosen as well. When we writers are just one in a million, we can’t afford to treat this life not as a profession: we have to do our research, be polite, and stop expecting the stars to align in our favor just because we made the choice to be a writer.  


  1. I enjoyed reading this! I graduated from college in May with an English degree, and have often wondered how people make it work as freelance writers. I agree with you that it's just as serious a profession as a teacher or banker, but I think the uncertainty of it is what sets it apart. Although, I guess with the way things are today, everyone's jobs are uncertain! Thanks for the insight though!!

  2. I tell people I am a writer they look at me like I just grew another head.
    I can't call myself a freelance writer as I've never been paid for my work.
    I am a book reviewer who gets paid in books.

    Writers, we are millions fighting for a small pie crust.


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