Thinking about making the jump to freelance? Here's what you need to know
Claire Carusillo left her full-time social media job last year to jump-start her writing career.
Since college, she wanted to become a staff writer at a website or magazine. But she noticed that the people producing creative work she liked were largely freelancers — very few had staff jobs.
Like many journalists, she started with social media to get her foot in the door. By going the social media route, she got to where she needed to be to make connections with the right editors — but she ran out of time to pursue writing projects.
"I was doing a job I was paid well for, but there was no way for me to become more successful if I wanted to write," she said.
She also wanted to branch out beyond food writing, which was the focus of her former publication. After these realizations, Carusillo began planning to leave her full-time job and start freelancing. She was going to apply to graduate school soon and thought she could support herself with freelancing until she got her acceptance letter.
Then, she began pitching editors at Racked (where she would later write most consistently about culture and beauty) and compiled pitch lists for features she wanted to write. On her first day as a full-time freelancer, she sent that list to the features editor at Racked and was set up with her first feature assignment.
Do Carusillo's ambitions sound familiar? For other journalists considering making the leap to freelancing, here are six recommendations from former and current full-time freelancers.
Part-time work can give your freelance schedule structure (and provide a regular paycheck)
One of the first things Khushbu Shah did after leaving her full-time writing job was seek out reliable part-time work.
“The toughest part about freelancing is that your income isn’t predictable and every publication pays out at different times,” she said.
She took a regular gig that involved working two half-days a week, which gave her weekly schedule some consistency. After scheduling her day around those consistent times, she would spend the rest of her time pitching to other places, going on location as a photographer to shoot places or events or reporting and writing different pieces.
Know — and charge — what your time is worth
Since freelancers don’t have a salary that includes annual pay and benefits, they need to charge what their time and experience is worth. Getting to your own baseline amount depends on many things. What is the estimated amount of effort, reporting and time that will go into this piece? How does that translate to your previous freelance experience, and how much is that worth (to both you and the publication)?
It’s not always clear, but it’s up to the individual journalist.
“There are some pieces I took, even if I didn’t love writing them, because the time it took to write them compared to how much money I would be paid for them was worth it,” Shah said.
She also learned to use her time and effort sparingly when it came to passion projects that didn’t pay well, deciding only to write them if she would’ve written the pieces for free anyway.
“I definitely also set a minimum amount of money that I would need from any assignment for myself, which let me give myself permission to say no,” she said. “That’s very difficult to do when you’re a freelancer and always worried you will run out of assignments, even though that isn’t true.”
Find your own feedback
In a traditional full-time job, there are (hopefully) structured ways of giving feedback, annual reviews and ways for supervisors and peers to give each other feedback to get better. As your own boss, there are several freelance editors and clients who often don’t give feedback in as predictable ways, or don’t have time to work with freelancers outside of individual assignments. However, learning and feedback are still paramount to improving your craft and continuing to get consistent work, so it’s important to take that initiative.
In the early days of his freelance photography career, Jonathan Bachman observed the work of the local wire staffers and compared it to his photos to see how he could improve. “It turned out to be an extremely humbling experience and I cannot tell you how much I learned from that exercise,” he said. “I still do it to this day.” And just like in regular work, you can reach out to different journalists and ask them about interesting pieces they worked on.
Freelancing (either full- or part-time) gives you new opportunities
The first time Carusillo traveled to report a story was to South Carolina, to interview a female Civil War re-enactor for Racked. Since then, she’s traveled for several other stories and is on her way to cover a convention in Las Vegas in the upcoming weeks.
“I love it," Carusillo said. "I could not travel to report a story if I still had a full-time job and could not do the longform stories I do now. When I have a big deadline looming, I know I have all day to work on it, instead of 7 p.m.-2 a.m. after getting home from work.”
When Shah began her new job as food editor in May, she still had a handful of freelance pieces to wrap up. She plans to continue her freelance work as a food photographer. “I like keeping my toe in the freelance pool though, even with a full-time job, because it’s important to me to constantly grow.”
Build relationships with different publications you want to contribute to
At the beginning of a freelance career, the ubiquitous advice is to write and pitch as much as you can. Bachman advises photojournalists, especially new ones, to shoot every day, no matter what.
“[Sports Illustrated photographer] Simon Bruty once told me, ‘Never waste time,’ and that left a big impact on me,” he said. “Whether I am shooting, learning or seeing my colleagues’ work on the wire after an event, I want to feel I did everything I could that day to better my craft.”
In addition to improving your skills, pitching to and working with a variety of different publications will expose you to different editorial processes, beats, pay rates and editor relationships that you can develop over time.
At the outset of her freelance career, Carusillo described the way she saw her byline on different sites as a new and interesting. But over time, as she began working full-time as a writer, “that shine lessened a little bit."
"Now the goal is more that this is a byline that I was paid well and edited well for, and that’s where I want to work,” she said. At Racked and Curbed, sister publications to her previous employer, Eater, she developed strong relationships with those editors. "I trust them and they know me as a writer, and they’re willing to work with me on any stories."
You’re your own boss, but also your own middleman
You make your own schedule, Bachman said. But that freedom has its downsides.
"You can work as much or as little as you want," he said. "However, you don’t get any of the benefits of being a staffer: insurance, salary, retirement planning, [or] job security.”
Bachman says personal finance is just as important as craft. Being a freelancer means running your own business, including managing taxes and keeping track of the relevant paperwork.
Though they benefit from the kinds of work they want to do, freelancers have to advocate for themselves as human resources and payroll departments would. They also have to continually negotiate pay rates and projects, more than a salaried worker would.
By getting used to keeping spreadsheets or systems to track what you’re owed, how much to set aside for taxes, it’ll be easier to focus on developing the editor relationships and get back to working on the stories you want to pursue.