Finding My Worth as a Freelancer
Written by Kalee Ball
When I decided to pursue a journalism degree, I imagined I’d have my own office one day, reporting on arts or music for a hip and trendy magazine. I would arrive at 9 a.m. every weekday, water the plants on my windowsill, and get to work. I’d have lunch with coworkers who would tell me about an art gallery opening that evening, and, yes, I should go with them. I’d leave at 5 p.m. with the rest of the world and listen to podcasts on my commute home.
But throughout my college career, reality creeped into my dream, pushing it into the back of my mind. The writing world isn’t a steady nine-to-five world. It’s a world where you’re all on your own, pitching and sending invoices and always pushing yourself to be better than the writer down the street from you. It’s a quiet world, run by email and thought. “Not every writer is productive between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.,” a publisher told me once. “And the pay is paltry.”
Reality bites, as they say. This was after all I’d ever done was work for free, paying my dues. I’d done two internships and worked for my college newspaper. I pitched my editing to blogs. I edited friend’s papers, just to get the experience under my belt. I was ready to have a steady job, ready to attend a weekly editorial meeting, ready to get a new email address, complete with a pre-approved signature.
But I’m all on my own. I’m staring in the face of invoices and rates and word counts, and asking somebody, anybody to give me an assignment. Movies told me “freelancer” was code for “lazy and unemployed.” It’s not a reliable source of income, they said. But here I am on my couch, typing away while my dog chews a bone into nothing.
I’ve been taught my whole life that writing is not a real job; that any artistic endeavor is not a real job; that print is dead; that I missed the boat when journalism was at its height, which means I can’t be a good journalist, obviously, because it’s pointless and there’s too much fake news anyway.
But when it came to majors, I tried everything. I tried English, then biology. I thought about environmental science or maybe psychology or statistics. I officially changed my major five times, with journalism being the one that stuck because I wanted to be creative.
I tried to be creative on the side, but that didn’t work either. I didn’t like the clutter painting created. I tried guitar, but I was embarrassed that people could hear me struggling to learn. With writing, you can just type without anyone looking over your shoulder. If you don’t like something, hold down the backspace key, and poof—it’s gone forever. If you want to keep it, you can tuck it away in a file only you have access to.
I’m not a good speaker. I’m not witty. Usually, I’m the only one who thinks I’m funny. I’m not quick. But when I write, I have days, weeks, months to organize my thoughts. It gives me time.
I’m a writer. But five times a week, I’m also a server and bartender. I’ve got one foot in both doors, but I’ve never been able to do a split. In the midst of a weird, halfway-in, halfway-out world, I’m having trouble figuring out what I’m worth. I feel guilty getting paid, because what I’m doing feels too abstract. How can I get paid for writing words into a Google Doc and sending it off into the internet? At least when I’m waiting tables, it’s tangible. I get a good tip for tending to customers. I spend five or six hours there and get paid an hourly wage accordingly. When I’m sitting at my computer, who knows how much time goes by?
So, how do I transform into a confident solopreneur? I have to tell myself every day that waiting tables is only temporary, just until I’ve got enough contacts to be a full-time freelancer. I downloaded an app called Toggl to track my writing hours. I’m also following in the footsteps of a dear friend, who mentors me every step of the way. I’m reading every blog on the internet about taxes and budgets. I’m following writers I admire on Twitter and reading their work.
The most crucial thing is telling myself that I am a powerful ladyboss. Tamping down the feelings of surprise when I get a project and replacing them with pride. Telling myself that this is my full-time job; that when I sit down at my computer on a Wednesday morning, I’m clocked in.
It’s a work in progress, but it’s one I’m happy to work on.
[Editor’s note: Pitching work? We recommend Who Pays Writers, an anonymous, crowdsourced list of the publications that pay freelance writers, how much they pay, and how quickly they do it.]
Kalee is a freelance writer based in Jacksonville, Florida. She graduated from the University of North Florida with a B.S. in multimedia journalism. In the evenings, she's curled up on the couch with her boys, Tango (dog) and Zach (human). On the weekends, she's lacing up her hiking boots and heading outside. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @kaleedotdocx.