Working as a freelancer

Every month hundreds of people give up the security of their nine-to-five job to enter the uncertain world of freelancing. This is particularly true of the publishing industry. So what drives people to go freelance? What are the pros and cons, and what is it like on a day-to-day basis? And what advice would the seasoned freelancer give to the uninitiated?

The chief advantage is being your own boss, with the freedom to choose your working hours. Other advantages include a greater variety of work and potentially higher earnings, working from home and having greater control over the work done. Flexibility is a strong motivating factor for those juggling work and family responsibilities.

Of the disadvantages, social isolation is the major one, followed by the irregular work-flow of peaks and troughs and consequent irregular income, sometimes working unsociable hours to meet deadlines and working in a very competitive market. Other disadvantages include lack of employment benefits, such as paid holidays or sick pay, the problems of setting boundaries between work and home life, and rarely getting any feedback on your work.

Top ten tips for freelancers

1. Work in-house first if at all possible
Gillian Clarke, author of Essential Proofreading (previously Basic Proofreading by Distance Learning), advises those starting out as freelance proofreaders/editors to get some in-house experience. "This will give you an appreciation of what publishing is about, contacts and experience - very important in the eyes of prospective clients, some of whom will rely on your knowing what to do and what not to do."

2. Don’t give up the day job (at first)
Start out your freelance work in your spare time, or work part-time, until you have established some contacts and made your name known. It takes time to build up a list of clients, and freelance work – particularly proofreading and editing – is rarely full-time or consistent.

However, if you are considering doing the job entirely in your spare time, make sure that this is not confined to evenings and weekends as clients will need to get in touch with you during working hours and vice versa.

3. Enrol on Successful Editorial Freelancing
This distance learning course provides information on the business and organisational aspects of setting up as an editorial freelancer. It covers legal requirements, strategies for making contacts, organizing your work effectively, keeping to deadlines and coping with loneliness. Also discussed are cash flow, issues surrounding tax and how you can keep your work and home life separate.

At the end of the course you are encouraged to prepare a business plan for your freelance business, which will be evaluated by the tutor.

4. Continue with your training
Don’t rest on your laurels – clients will be impressed by freelancers who have kept up their training.

Look through the Occupational Standards for Publishing to see if you are lacking any of the key competences.

Freelancers are entitled to a 10% discount on any of the PTC’s short virtual courses.

5. Sell yourself effectively
You may have the best editorial skills in the world, but they need to be brought to the attention of a client.

Keep in mind that your clients will value qualities such as reliability, promptness, flexibility, good communication skills and knowledge of the latest technologies. Always honour deadlines, or re-negotiate with enough notice.

Create a positive and professional impression through the appearance not only of yourself, but of your correspondence, your work and even your invoices. Good communication skills are a must.

Inevitably, there are times when conflict will arise, but if you are able to deal with this well it can be an opportunity to strengthen your relationship with your client. Listen to what your client has to say, restate what they say in your own words, ask questions, set expectations (important in avoiding future problems) and, finally, obtain agreement.

6. Maintain contacts
Melanie McRae, previously a tutor on the PTC’s Proofreading for Editors and Copy-Editing Skills courses says, "To keep abreast of trends and anticipate the needs of the market, it is important to maintain contact with others in the publishing industry, and make the most of opportunities to establish new contacts."

7. Guard yourself financially
As the work is unlikely to come in a steady flow, even when you are established, you must budget for the lean periods and time spent job hunting.

It is important to consider your overheads – they will use up about a third of your pay. Your overheads will include:

  • stationery
  • travel (e.g. visiting a client, going to conferences)
  • communications (telephone bill, postage)
  • heat and light
  • National Insurance
  • sick pay
  • holiday pay
  • pension (an employer would pay the equivalent of 4–10 per cent of your salary)
  • equipment (computer/software/printer/fax/answerphone)
  • training
  • insurance.

You will be responsible for your own tax, so set aside a percentage of each payment, and consider hiring an accountant if you are not good with figures. It is important to keep a record of all work-related expenses as they will be deducted from the amount you will pay tax on.

The negotiation of fees for your work is a matter for individual freelancers and their clients. The CIEP recommend minimum hourly rates of pay for proofreading and copy-editing. Visit their website for more information.

8. Avoid social isolation
OK, so there won’t be any office politics, but you have to consider whether you are the kind of person who can work without interaction and people to motivate you. You have to be strongly disciplined, self-motivated, and able to manage your time effectively.

There are several ways to avoid feeling isolated. Some of them might even bring about more work, for example becoming more involved with the children's school newsletter, local council meetings or other local interest groups.

Sometimes, try to communicate with your clients by telephone rather than always using emails and fax machines. This will bring a more human dimension, help you to get to know each other better and should lead to even more accurate communication.

Although freelance work will give you more time with your family, it is important to set boundaries between work and home life. Don’t let your working hours be interspersed with household errands. It is a good idea to have a separate room to work in, a place where you do not do activities such as eating, relaxing and sleeping. As Melanie says "a place free from cats and sticky fingers, where you can shut the door at the end of the day."

9. Make use of the CIEP
Gillian advises those starting out to make good use of the CIEP. "Join the CIEP for networking and reduced rates on CIEP courses; it also has an accreditation scheme in proofreading and copy-editing. The CIEP website is good for unbiased information and advice on prospects."

10. Look after yourself
Ensure that your work environment is not bad for you – adjust your posture correctly (eyes level with the top of the computer), get a chair that will support your spine and an anti-glare screen and have regular breaks to give your eyes a rest.

In conclusion, Melanie adds; "Be kind to yourself. Know where to go for support. Don't over-extend. Don't be afraid to turn down work. Allow yourself to enjoy the weekends" and finally "Be brave!"

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