Things a freelance writer can be thankful for

Clients who say yes to your pitches–or at least politely say no and explain why they didn’t work for them.


Clients who offer you unexpected assignments, preferably near a dollar a word.

Clients you don’t have to invoice twice–better yet, who pay before you can get around to sending an invoice.

Contracts that don’t have work-for-hire or indemnification clauses. (How often does the latter form of legalese save any company from legal trouble?)

That moment when a crafty lede pops into your head, fully formed.

The state of flow in which words seem to fly onto the screen by themselves, and you only need to keep your fingers over the keyboard.

Having your reporting lead you in an unexpected direction, in the process reminding you that this profession should be roughly equal parts learning and teaching.

Catching a stupid error that you were thisclose to sharing with the world.

Discovering that you’ve written a phrase in a headline that Google has never seen before.

Editors who ask good questions that reveal flaws in your argument, or at a minimum don’t edit in mistakes.

Anybody on a copy desk who quickly fixes the mistake you discover after publication or posting.

Readers who appreciate what you do.

Happy Thanksgiving, all!

Thoughts on a year of self-employment

After 17 years of working for the same company, I’ve now clocked a year working for myself–by which I mean I’ve been busy writing for and then invoicing a changing selection of companies.

When I started this journey last April, I figured I’d sign on with one new employer or another after a sojourn on the bench. Freelancing found me instead. As a few full-time possibilities either evaporated or didn’t seem right for me, I signed on to write for Discovery, then CEA, then USA Today.

Separately and combined, these gigs met most of my requirements. And now it’s been a year and counting of this lifestyle.

What I like:

  • My income no longer has a single point of failure. If one client gets sick of me, I have others. If one shifts into high-maintenance mode, I can at least hope that the rest don’t require as many processor cycles. Related: I’m no longer handcuffed to the newspaper industry’s business-model problems.
  • Without getting into the numbers, I’m making a good living–even a little above my expectations.
  • The journalistic palette is wider this way: I’ve written everything from 400-word posts to 2,000-word features, depending on the client, a flexibility I did not have as a columnist.
  • I can exercise whatever entrepreneurial instincts I have to chase new business. Making an infinitesimal amount of extra money from speaking fees has been pleasant; writing for sites and publications I’ve admired as a reader and cited as a writer–Ars Technica, Boing Boing, Washingtonian, and ReadWriteWeb, to name four–has been better.
  • As long as I don’t sound like a complete jerk, I can say what I think online instead of living in fear of some pin-headed social-media policy.
  • I’ve escaped the frequently-awful software many print publications seem compelled to inflict upon themselves. Most of my clients only ask that I paste the text of a story into an e-mail or as an .rtf attachment; two use standard blogging platforms.
  • If there’s an interesting event happening out of town, the only person who needs to approve my travel is my wife. After having to grovel for permission to go somewhere for a story or a conference, I appreciate this freedom. (Airlines, Amtrak: You’re welcome.)
  • I have more time to spend with our almost two-year-old. Wait, why didn’t I list this one first?
  • If I’m tired in the afternoon and don’t have an immediate obligation, I can take a nap.

There are also less-enjoyable parts of this business model:

  • I can’t invoke an employer’s name in “do you know who I am?” mode to get access and instead have to hope that an elevator-speech listing of clients works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Since one of my bigger fears about freelancing was falling off the map entirely, this bothers me more than it should.
  • My contracts don’t have page-view clauses, but I worry about how much traffic my work gets anyway. I don’t see how I can’t: As a freelancer, I’m more expendable than an employee.
  • I can opt out of stories I find useless, but I still don’t have every pitch accepted. In particular, I’m not writing as much about tech policy as I’d like–or, at least, enough to justify the amount of speaking I do on the subject.
  • I’ve descended to a new level of tax-prep hell, in part because of my own disorganization. On the dubious upside, having to write a large check to the U.S. Treasury every quarter makes me more aware of my tax burden than the average taxpayer. (I can live with the total outlay; just simplify the math involved.)
  • Staying in touch with multiple editors and on top of multiple deadlines, then invoicing everybody somewhat on time, also taxes my weak organizational skills. I’m slowly becoming a better juggler of these things, but I still have to rank myself in the “conscious incompetence” phase.
  • The health-insurance system is no friend to the self-employed. Fortunately, my wife has good insurance through her work, and if all goes well I can shop for health care on a more equal basis in 2014.
  • I don’t sign on in the morning with the sense of collective purpose I had walking into the Post newsroom. This didn’t really hit me until I stopped by the Newseum last fall and lingered at its exhibits about how newspaper reporters battled to report about 9/11 and Katrina. That’s no longer part of my world, and I do miss it.

This last item may be a feature or a bug, but I’m not sure: Now that I’ve gotten well-accustomed to working from home on my own clock and with my own dress code, I may be rendering myself unemployable for any future day job.

Updated 6/20/2012 with a couple of issues I realized I’d out of the 1.0 version of the post–software and scheduling.