I started freelancing more than 20 years ago as a broke 20-something living in Sweden.
I pitched magazines, translated corporate marketing material and pestered a wire service to hire me for stringer work because I had to, otherwise I wasn’t going to eat.
I was driven by desperation, which puts me neatly into one of the four iconic freelance types.
At various times in my career as a journalist I’ve fit into each of the the following:
1. The Desperado
Description: Gets laid off, fired or up and quits a staff job with no back-up plan, then scrounges freelance work while figuring out what to do next. I did the latter and ended up a freelance desperado for the better part of a year, first in Sweden for a handful of U.S. and English-language Swedish publications, and then after I moved back to LA to re-establish my career.
Motivation: Freelances out of fear — of not making rent, paying the utility bills or being able to buy groceries. Takes just about any job that comes their way, no matter how small — which is why so many accept schlock work that more established freelancers won’t touch.
Best for: Someone with minimal overhead, frugal tastes and roommates.
Advice: Checks never come as quickly as you need them to, make sure you’ve got an emergency stash.
2. The Transitioner
Description: Has a little, or a lot, of work experience, enough to know where they are today isn’t where they want to be 6 months or a year from now. Could be in the news business and freelancing into screenwriting. Or in public relations and freelancing to get enough clips to get established as a feature writer.
Motivation: Upwardly mobile, wants a new challenge, or is tired of the same old, same old. After a couple of years working as a trade magazine reporter and editor, I was determined to re-cast myself as a daily newspaper reporter. But newspapers weren’t interested in my trade magazine background. I had to come up with clips that were closer to the stories newpapers ran. I started small, getting whatever work I could, and slowly learned how to write decent letters of introduction and pitches until I had a story published in the Los Angeles Times, and then got a steady freelance gig with a weekly tech news startup. That led to a full-time job with a weekly business newspaper. Eighteen months later, I landed on staff at a major daily. Transition freelance mission accomplished.
Best for: Someone OK with living in a state of flux, working outside their comfort zone, and networking to gain entree to new publishing outlets.
Advice: Consider all possibilities. Sometimes the path from point A to point B isn’t a straight line, or the series of jobs you think it’d be.
3. The Moonlighter
Description: Earns extra money by freelancing on the side.
Motivation: Has kids to put through college or is getting a late start saving for retirement and needs the cash. Or is doing the stay-at-home-mom thing and freelances part-time while the kids are at preschool or napping to help pay the bills. Or is so well-known as a writer, reporter, editor, graphic designer or graphic novelist they get freelance offers they can’t refuse.
Best for: Writers without a lot of encumbrances or other demands on their time, expert jugglers and workaholics. After working as a staff writer for eight years, I freelanced full-time for another five, then quit to have a baby. When the baby went to preschool, I thought I could freelance part-time and still be a full-time SAHM. But my moonlighting freelance days were short lived — I wasn’t as good at juggling as I thought I’d be.
Advice: Consider what you’re giving up to work more: is the money worth the stress you’d gain and the free time you’d lose?
4. The Lifer
Description: Makes a conscious decision to work for herself. Newspaper or magazine vet who’s put in the time and understands what it takes to make it on her own. Writer of a certain age. Anyone who needs a flexible work schedule or environment. Once my youngest made it to grade school and my other kids were in elementary and high school I went back to freelancing full time and never looked back. At a time when society is once again questioning whether it’s possible for women to have it all, working for myself let me have the family I always wanted and pursue a career I love.
Motivation: A desire to work for yourself, and work like a dog.
Best for: The self-disciplined, self-motivated or entrepreneurial. Published authors, New Yorker or Vanity Fair contributors, successful bloggers or journalists who can also write code, design websites or shoot photos. Anyone who couldn’t imagine being an employee again, or working regular office hours.
Advice: You’re in it for the long haul, enjoy the ride. Experiment. Just because you start out doing one thing doesn’t mean you have to keep doing it. Remember to give back: there are a lot of desperados, transitioners and moonlighters who could learn from your mistakes and successes.
Which type of freelancer are you?