Moving from staff to freelance

Leaving my last job was easy: I got laid off, along with 104 other Time Inc. employees. My boss called with the news on the morning of my 45th birthday. Like so many other journalists, I had finally acquired enough experience and seniority to make myself unaffordable.


Leaving my last job was easy: I got laid off, along with 104 other Time Inc. employees. My boss called with the news on the morning of my 45th birthday. Like so many other journalists, I had finally acquired enough experience and seniority to make myself unaffordable.

Getting a pink slip after nearly two decades of loyal service wasn't painless. But unlike a lot of people who find themselves unemployed, I was prepared for the change. And I embraced it.

Many journalists view freelancing as a default position: If you lose your "real" job, you'll have to freelance for a while until you find a new job. That's not how I saw things. Losing my job didn't automatically make me a freelancer; I chose freelancing after thinking carefully about other options and deciding that freelancing was what I really wanted to do.

It's fine to move back and forth between staff jobs and freelancing during your career, but if freelancing is your "Plan B," you aren't giving it your best shot. And if what you really want is another staff job, you may find it difficult to develop a successful freelance business and search for a job at the same time.

I began developing my business years ago, when I was still a junior staffer. Like many editors, I did occasional freelance work over the years; careful to accept assignments that would not conflict with my day job.

Transitioning to full-time freelancing went smoothly for me because long before I got laid off, I asked my employer to reduce my schedule (and my pay) by 30 percent. My plan was to devote my 1.5 days "off" each week to freelancing. In reality, I used a lot of that freed-up time in the kitchen and garden, but it gave me a taste of the freelance life.

When you get laid off, it's natural to feel angry and resentful toward your former employer. I told myself that the decision wasn't personal, just business. I liked and respected the people I had worked with, and I hoped to work with them again in the future.

Although my job was terminated, my former boss retained me as a consultant and kept me on the masthead. That made the transition easier for both of us. For months after my severance, I continued to participate in staff meetings and e-mail discussions. Eventually that relationship evolved into one more typical of a freelance writer and a client.

Affiliating with your former employer may not be possible, but it doesn't hurt to ask. Your departure leaves a hole, and it may work to your advantage to help fill that hole as a freelance contributor. When you lose your job, you lose part of your identity — and your access to sources. Getting a new title can help restore some of that lost identity and open doors.

If your former employer isn't game, you could try to affiliate with another publisher or outlet as a "contributing editor." Typically people with this title don't actually edit anything but are expected to bring ideas, contacts, and content to a staff. Some contributing editors get retainers in exchange for a certain amount of exclusivity.

Regardless of whether you continue working with your former employer, you should network like crazy. I contacted former colleagues who had already been through a layoff to get their advice. I joined several freelance listservs. I started using social networking tools like LinkedIn and Facebook. I spread the word that I was available for freelance work.

My early days as a full-time freelancer can be summed up by two maxims: 1) It is all about who you know, and 2) What goes around, comes around. Almost all of my assignments during that period came from people I had met earlier in my career — including people I had mentored who were now in a position to help me.

The uncertainty of freelancing calls for a conservative financial strategy. My husband (also a freelancer) and I keep a big balance in our savings account and transfer money regularly to our checking account for living expenses. Occasionally we experience delays in payment. When that happens, we dip into our savings account but pay back the "loan" as soon as the next check arrives. We make quarterly tax payments and annual retirement payments directly from our savings account. And we keep a calendar of payment dates, so that we're not blindsided by unexpected bills. For example, we know that our house and car insurance payments come due at the same time as our April federal taxes.

As a freelancer, it's important to do frequent accounting. Don't fall behind in sending out invoices — or reminders of unpaid invoices. And keep careful records of all your expenses and workrelated mileage. I successfully fought New York's tax bureau over my home-office deductions, and I figure it's only a matter of time before the IRS audits my business.

Some people can't handle the bookkeeping hassles and insecurity of working without a regular paycheck and benefits. I found it unsettling at first, but now I'm convinced that working for multiple clients actually offers more job security than working for a single employer.

I'm not making as much money freelancing as I did when I held a staff position. But time is money, and I have more of the former now. As a staffer, I was often too busy to take all of my allotted vacation days. During my first year as a freelancer, I took 12 weeks of vacation. On purpose.

Whether you enjoy working at home may depend on your home as much as your personality. When I lived in a cramped apartment in Manhattan, I lasted only a couple of months as a freelancer before beating a fast retreat to a staff job. But now that I live in a three-bedroom house on 20 acres (with one bedroom used exclusively as my office), I love freelancing.

Successful freelancers often find that it pays to set up shop somewhere other than a major metropolitan area. One great thing about freelancing is that you can live almost anywhere you want — even in a foreign country. I live in a rural area with relatively low living expenses, and that helps my bottom line. But it comes with its own set of challenges: I'm beyond the reach of DSL, cable, and cell phone signals, so I pay for a satellite service that is faster than dial-up but not truly broadband. Power outages occasionally send me and my laptop to the local WiFi spot for an over-caffeinated day's work.

Few freelancers stick to a conventional daily schedule. I often run errands while others are at work, and it's not uncommon for me to work at odd hours to finish a quick-turnaround assignment. Sometimes I step away from my desk to wash dishes or mow the lawn. This kind of flexibility is especially valuable to people raising young children.

Freelancers have to work hard to avoid distractions. One strategy that helps me is to set aside blocks of time during each day where I allow no interruptions from e-mail, Twitter, or other electronic communications. Another strategy I use is a task list with no more than three "must do today" items on it. I feel good when I cross all those items off the list, and it helps me focus on my top priorities rather than putting off the hard stuff for tomorrow.

A freelancer is first and foremost a businessperson. Running your own business isn't just about managing your finances; it's also about developing new services and skills, and having the selfconfidence to stick up for yourself on issues such as contract terms and rates.

Freelancers must think beyond narrow categories of work, such as science magazines. If you're open to working for a variety of media outlets and expanding your horizons beyond traditional "articles," you'll find no shortage of work.

You might be a gifted writer but if you aren't willing to put some effort into marketing and networking, you aren't likely to go far in freelancing. If you only want to report the news, maybe freelancing isn't for you. The freelance journalists who are succeeding in today's marketplace understand that they are entrepreneurs and community organizers as well as reporters.

I'm not a risk-taker by nature, and earlier in my career I had no ambitions of starting my own business. But I love the spirit of enterprise and adventure that infuses freelancing today, and I love working for myself.

I saw my layoff as an opportunity to evaluate and realign my priorities. My love for journalism hasn't diminished at all, but I'm happy to have left the 9-to-5 (or more like 7-to-7) world behind. Being "let go" was as liberating as it sounds. I lost my job but I got my life back.

Dawn Stover was a staffer at Popular Science and Harper's magazines before becoming a full-time freelancer in 2006.

(NASW members can read the rest of the Fall 2010 ScienceWriters by logging into the members area.)

Oct. 25, 2010

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