The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Job Description
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
I’ve received a lot of great questions this week, most of them related to time off, vacations, and managing family commitments. A few wanted to discuss the emotions of freelancing. All of these are important topics, but they skate around the periphery of the actual job itself.
I knew, as I embarked on this project, that I’d be writing the Guide out of order. But my internal writer’s voice reminds me that we need a bit of bread and butter for a few weeks instead of dessert.
So I’m going to get down to the nitty gritty parts of freelancing for a while. If you have questions about anything, please feel free to contact me through the website, or ask in the comments section. I’ll keep all of the questions in a file and answer them before this Guide is finished. I just might not answer them within the week.
One note: Pati Nagle (http://patinagle.com/) designed the nifty logo at the top of this new Freelancer’s Guide post. In addition to her web work, Pati writes fiction. Her latest novel, The Betrayal, just appeared. Pati donated the logo to support my work on the Guide. I hope some of you donate a bit of cash to help me continue this work. Just hit the donate button at the end of this installment.
My subtitle this week, Job Description, should be impossible to write about, given the task I assigned myself. I wanted to discuss various freelancing jobs, not just freelance writing. The jobs should be so different that I shouldn’t be able to describe them in a single article.
But they’re not.
Because at its core, all freelancing is the same.
When someone else hires you to work at their business, you do a specific job for them. The radio station I worked for years ago hired me to put out one-half hour newscast per weeknight, manage hourly news updates throughout the 3-hour morning show, and make certain that someone anchored the noon to one talk show. I also had to do wall-to-wall political coverage on election day, and handle any emergency situation that came up. My duties included maintaining the newsroom, handling the volunteer staff, and training new reporters.
I also had to attend radio station staff meetings, have a monthly meeting with the program director, and justify my budget with the station’s financial manager. I had a lot of skills—from anchoring to reporting to engineering, and I used them all, sometimes within the same day. I also did a lot of writing.
I had an assigned area (the news room), an assigned budget, and assigned timeslots for my various newscasts. I took my job very seriously. If I failed, we had a half an hour of nothing (dead air in radio terminology) from 7 to 7:30 at night. I can’t tell you how many times I scrambled to fill that half an hour because someone failed to show up for work. More than once, I wrote and engineered the entire newscast myself. A few times, I wrote, anchored, and engineered it.
I worked hard. However, when the newscast ended at 7:30, I had a half an hour of clean-up and prep for the morning show, then I could go home. The radio station continued broadcasting. Other people monitored the evening schedule. Someone else paid for the lights and the heat and the extreme cost of the transmitter. If station got knocked off the air by lightning, someone else dealt with that emergency. I had no responsibilities from eight in the evening until five in the morning. If no one showed up by then for the morning shift, the daytime DJ called me, and I had to come in for the updates. But if I didn’t get the call, I got to sleep in.
The structure of that job was so absolute, I can remember it twenty years later. I still dream about it—showing up at 5 a.m. to find the DJ gone, the transmitter off, and the station broadcasting dead air. In my dreams, I scramble to put together a newscast while sitting in the booth as the disk jockey, playing the music, and rebooting the station itself. (People who’ve worked in radio know that one person can’t do all those things by herself—which is why these dreams are nightmares.)
Whenever you’re an employee, someone else provides the structure. They give you an assigned area, people to work with, tasks to finish, and, in many cases, a budget. You work within those structures, and for your time, you receive a paycheck. If you’re lucky, you also receive some benefits—health insurance and paid time off.
When you become a full-time freelancer, you lose all of this structure. So far, in these sections, I’ve discussed the loss of a time structure that occurs when you go from day job to freelancing. We danced around the physical structure in the essay about workspace.
But we never did discuss the overall structure.
This is one of the areas where first-time freelancers struggle. When they quit their day job (or in the case of this economy, got forced out and decided to go it alone), they imagined spending all day every day doing exactly what they love.
Unfortunately, that’s not how it works.
As Bob Cooper, who works as a freelance copyeditor and proofreader, wrote to me when I started this series, “Whatever someone chooses to do as a freelancer, a major component of that will be not doing the actual work that they enjoy, but rather the just-as-important work of keeping their business viable—which involves primarily self-marketing to keep the flow of new work coming in, but also the mundanities of timekeeping, bookkeeping, tax planning, etc. And if they’re not good at any or all of those things, what to do? Spend money to hire someone to do it for you? Spend time (and maybe money) learning how to do it properly yourself? Ignore it all and hope it goes away?”
Later we’ll deal with a lot of the individual items he mentions from bookkeeping to marketing to hiring employees, but for the purposes of this essay, his overall point is marvelous. A major component of the job will be things the freelancer never considered before she went full-time freelance.
Or as Lyn Worthen who runs a technical communications consulting firm, Information Designs, says, “Too many aspiring freelancers forget that they have to wear ALL the hats in their business (at least until they get to the point where they can hire additional hat-wearers).”
And once you’re at the point of hiring an additional hat-wearer, you may not want that person. Remember what you were like as an employee? Some days were good; some were bad, but the consequences of a mediocre performance were simple: If the boss didn’t like it, you got fired.
We’ll discuss employees down the road, but remember this whenever you think of hiring anyone. No one cares about your business as much as you do. No one will work as hard as you will. And no one will be as vigilante as you are about mistakes. So caution, caution, caution about hiring anyone to take the burden off of you—particularly the burden of managing your money.
What is your job description as a full-time freelancer? Jack of All Trades. The Boss and the Minion. You have become Da Man. And to throw in one more cliché, the buck really and truly does stop with you.
The day job had an invisible structure as well. If you worked in a corporation or an organization with more than two employees, you probably saw only a handful of the things it took to run that business. You had no idea how, for example, to pay employees (payroll taxes are a nightmare), how much it cost just to keep the doors open every day, and what kind of volume had to be done every month to keep the business viable.
At the radio station, I got to know my newsroom, my reporters, my news sources, and the schedule. I only worried about the budget when our long-distance phone bill got too big, usually during some big national news cycle. I had no idea what it took to maintain the station’s equipment or to monitor the seasonal ratings. I didn’t have to worry about the pledge drives (we were listener-sponsored) or the occasional problems with the FCC.
As a full-time freelancer, I have become an expert at tax law as it pertains to my business. I loathe accounting and bookkeeping because I’m dyslexic and numbers truly vex me. But Quicken has made that part of my life easier. I keep my own books, handle my own finances, and act as my own financial advisor. Do I consult others? Daily. But the final decisions are always mine.
I remain current with the news, not just the industry news, but economic trends, national stories, and—because my work sells all over the world—international events. I constantly monitor the web. I try to scan at least three newspapers per day, listen to several news sources, and look through as many industry websites as possible.
I also monitor what everyone else in my industry does. Some folks would say I’m keeping up with the competition, but I know that writers don’t compete with each other. However, I can learn from what books other writers are publishing, what deals they make, and the mistakes they make.
I’m a fervent believer in learning from other people’s mistakes. I already make too many of my own—I made a few doozies at the turn of the century that cost me dearly—and I simply don’t want to reinvent every single wheel. It’s too painful, time-consuming, and difficult.
In the mistakes area, I take a leaf from Elvis Presley’s tough business manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Parker knew he would make mistakes, but he got angry when he made the same mistake twice. Parker had a lot of bad attitudes about business, but this is a good one: It acknowledges that you will make mistakes—a lot of them—but you should always make new mistakes, not keep repeating the old ones.
I market my own products, a task that sometimes takes hours per day. I do the design, packaging, and mailing. I try to keep up on new technology that makes these tasks easier, although I’m not quite as vigilant on that as I should be.
I maintain my own equipment—and I’m realistic about what I need. I need two computers—one for my internet work and one for my writing. The internet computer has to be able to process a lot of material rapidly. The writing computer can be little more than a glorified typewriter. I need a printer, a cell phone, and an internet connection. I need to see a lot of movies, read a lot of books, and watch a lot of television. I try to keep up with the recording, gaming, and comics industries as best I can. (Comics are easier than gaming; games can be a time sink.) Why do I do this? Because I work in the entertainment industry, and I need to keep up on what’s going on within it.
I know what my actual product is. That may sound silly, but many first-time business owners often don’t realize what their business actually is. Writers, for example, are particularly bad about this. Many writers don’t know what they sell (and sales are the heart of this business). Writers don’t sell stories. They don’t sell manuscripts. They sell (or more accurately license) portions of their copyright. Most people in the entertainment industry work that way. So I monitor legal sites, reading articles on copyright, and am constantly reading about court cases and lawsuits involving copyright.
People who sell things like jewelry gain other areas of expertise. They learn about gems (how to tell real from fake) or the differences between gold and gold leaf. At our casual lunch one Sunday, two jewelry makers discussed various beads (while I snoozed) because one type was cheaper and worked better than another.
You have to become an expert in your field. Not just in the production of the material, but in all aspects of the business.
I probably spend twelve hours of my day (conservatively) doing the things I need to do to run my business. Of those twelve hours, I actually spend four to six—one third to one half—doing what I love. What I love to do is put new words on the page. (Or, as my husband says, make things up.) The rest of the time is about money management, marketing, research, and continuing education.
If your idea of fulltime freelancing means spending all your time doing exactly what you love, with a lot of time off and someone else to handle “the business” (whoever that someone else might be—from an accountant to a lawyer to an agent), then you should probably keep your day job.
Successful freelancers by necessity must understand how to run a business. They have to know how to manage money, time, and themselves. All of this can be learned, and most of us learned it while we freelanced—through a lot of trial and error.
However, if the very idea of handling everything from paying the light bill to shilling your own product gives you the willies, then don’t become a fulltime freelancer. Do what you love part time and keep your day job. You’ll be happier—much happier.
So how do I describe my job? I am my own boss—with all the ups and downs that entails. I am responsible for the good and the bad in my business, for the successes and the failures.
And, honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Freelancer Writer’s Survival Guide: Job Description” copyright 2009 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
You can now order either an e-book copy of the Guide or a trade paper copy of the Guide. It’s in slightly different format and has been organized, so that related topics are in an easily accessible place.
You can get the print version here.
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