Making a living as a freelance writer

MANILA, Philippines – I get two common reactions when people ask me what I do for a living and I answer, “I’m a writer.”

The audibles – the “ooohs” and “wows—always come first.

The looks and raised eyebrows always come next when I answer the question, “Who do you write for?” with “I freelance.”

Unless I am talking to another freelancer, that answer always brings the ego stroking to a screeching halt.

The look of admiration changes to one of bewilderment and quickly morphs into skepticism.

The swinging pendulum of reactions is something I never got when I was a banker – someone with a “real” job and a steady paycheck.

As one person candidly blurted out to me, “That’s so scary! You don’t know where your next pay check will come from.”

I’m going to mince words or wax poetic about following your passion. Being a freelance writer is scary.

But a fluctuating, sometimes unpredictable income is a reality for any entrepreneur or service professional. A doctor or lawyer in private practice does not know exactly where their next client or patient will come from, yet they are not perceived as someone who is struggling to make ends meet.

The image of a starving and struggling artist is owned – rightfully or not – by those in the creative industry.

Loud whispers say these days you have to actually afford to be a writer – meaning, you can work for passion rather than decent pay and not think of it as a trade-off.

But social connection, genetic pedigree or benefactor not withstanding, there is a way to make a sustainable career out of being a writer.

 1. Establish your expertise and your brand

The law of supply and demand is immutable – and also applies to writers.

In today’s digital age, there are a lot of writers. But the law of supply and demand is the code that dictates survival of the fittest.

So while there are a lot of writers, not many can write authoritatively about terrorism, technology, economics and my personal favorite, a safe and pleasurable sex life. Find out what you’re good at, can extensively write about and be recognized as an authority in.

2. Think of yourself as a creative entrepreneur instead of a freelancer

It was in 2007 when the British Council first noted the emerging importance of the creative sector or businesses built on a creative endeavor like art, design and writing. At the time, the creative sector was growing twice as fast as the rest of the UK economy.

It was about a year after that when I quit my corporate job and went into freelancing and realized that essential to making the freelance business model work was not to see myself as a freelancer jumping from one project to another, but as a creative entrepreneur putting together a body of work and a pool of expertise that could be used to build a creative enterprise.

When I began to view writing as a skill, that once developed and harnessed properly, I could live on, I applied the lessons I picked up in my corporate career to my writing.

The skills and training under HR meant making it a point to try and learn a new skill every year. Marketing and advertising budgets meant networking. Business development necessitated trying out new products, like self-publishing.

In 2011, I self-published Happy Even After: A Solo Mom's Journal, the first kind journal made for Filipina solo moms. 

3. Have start-up capital

When I first began freelancing, I made the obscenely naïve oversight of thinking that the only start up capital needed was my laptop and a strong Internet connection.

I overlooked the need to have start up capital for day-to-day operational expenses. I mistakenly thought I had no employees. I was my own employee and I had to figure out a way to pay myself.

Sit down and churn out those honest numbers to see how much you really need to get by every month. Then multiply that amount by six to get an idea of how much start up capital you need.

Factor in the little caprices that matter to you: a latte once a week, a movie and in my case, shoes, so you can indulge yourself once in a while. Being a writer means lots of long hours of being alone. Reward yourself once in a while so that during the belt-tightening-start-up years, you will not feel deprived and resent your writing for it.

4. Diversify your income

I have three major revenue streams: writing, teaching, and consultancy.

Bulk of my income comes from writing for various publications both locally and overseas, but like any corporation, managing cash flow means I don’t depend on just one revenue line.

My fellow freelance writer, Nikka Sarthou-Lainez and I set up Writer’s Block Philippines where we organize writing workshops for freelance writers or hobbyists.

We also occasionally get requests to write or edit corporate reports and special publications. To avoid any potential conflicts of interest, potential clients and I enter into a prior agreement that I do not write media stories or do press relations work.

5. Plan ahead

Know your business seasonality. Christmas season are peak sales months for the dining and retail industry, but are lean months for writers. Sure, that will allow you to take it easy and enjoy the holidays, but it will have a trickle effect in January. No work in December will mean nothing to collect in January.

Keep track of your monthly income and plan ahead for the coming month’s cash flow.

Bottom line: Talent will get you noticed, but an entrepreneurial spirit and work ethic are what will sustain your writing career. Connections are great, but when a deadline is looming, you will need solitude, peace and quiet more than people.

There is no shortcut to the bone-breaking, sleep-depriving hard work, or the discipline writing demands.

Is it scary to be a freelance writer? Definitely. Is it worth it? You bet your ass it is.

Every once in awhile, I still catch myself letting out my own “wow” when I think about how I am able to do what I love and love what I do.

Now, I don’t expect the ooh’s and wow’s to come after I tell people I’m a freelance writer – even after they read this piece.

My old corporate friends probably still think I’m crazy. And maybe I am.

I just know I’ve found what I want to be doing for the rest of my life and establishing myself as a creative entrepreneur is what will allow me to do it. –

Ana P. Santos left her post as Assistant Vice President of a banking institution to become a full-time freelance writer. This article is inspired by a talk she gave to communications majors in the US, entitled, Everything I Needed to Know About Being a Freelance Writer, I Learned in Banking.

She is now working on a book with the same title.

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