FOR WOMEN ONLY
At-home Moms/Writers Speak Up!
As I was writing this book, it occurred to me that as a single male, my experience of the freelance commercial writing business was, by definition, limited to only one perspective. And I have long felt – and observed – that the career direction of commercial freelancing, with its inherent freedom and flexibility, is perfect for "at-home" mothers who love to write and are looking to carve out a working life while still being there for their kids. So, I tapped my network of colleagues and clients and put together the following three interviews with mothers/writers.
Each of these writing Moms has her own unique story, circumstances and perspectives but share a common reality: juggling marriage, motherhood and the writing life. I am sincerely grateful for the time they gave me out of their busy schedules to share an integral part of their writing lives and what it has meant to them. It is my hope that, if you are a woman considering the path of lucrative freelance copywriting, their words will speak to you in ways that I could never hope to. And given that many of their reflections on the "business" of the commercial writing field have nothing to do with children, any woman - whether a mom or not - should find real value in the words of one of their own. The names have been changed.
And FYI, there is a wealth of information and support on the Internet for home-based working Moms. Check out these sites for starters:
Emily Marshall is a 26-year old "at-home" mom, who left her position as marketing communications manager at BellSouth Corporation following the birth of her daughter. Emily now works with her old company as a freelance writer on a contract basis, juggling work and motherhood. Her husband is pursuing an MBA full-time, and while they’ve taken out a loan to live on till he’s working, her freelance writing income has turned out to be a big help, in many ways…
How receptive was your old company to you working with them on commercial writing projects on a contract basis?
Very. And it was all based on past relationships. Why reinvent the wheel, especially when you’re starting out? I just went back to familiar territory and leveraged existing relationships and contacts.
What’s the story in corporate America today?
There’s so much business out there, especially in telecommunications. My old company just doesn’t have the funding to hire full-time people to handle writing projects in the communications department. They keep just a minimum number of managers. And that’s the reality in many industries these days.
Why are freelancers in demand?
They need to accomplish a lot with current (or lower) levels of permanent staffing. Consequently, it makes much more sense for them to hire outside contractors. They don’t have to pay full-time salaries or offer benefits, retirement plans, vacations, etc. And I’m speaking from experience here. I hired out so much of my workload when I was there. I know how big the workload is and hence, how high the demand is for good freelancers. If you’re a decent writer, it just isn’t that hard to get established in this business and get plenty of work.
For a corporation, isn’t the contractor relationship different than with an employee?
Absolutely. It’s another good reason why companies are going in this direction. As a writing contractor, I’m going to be much more customer-oriented than I would be as an employee. They’re my customer, not my employer and because of that, they’re going to get higher quality writing work out of me. Most employees are working so many hours and have so much going on that the quality of their work starts to decline. When I take on a project, it’s because I have the time and the inclination so I’m going to do a better job. So, there are a lot of good reasons why a company will hire you to write for them. You just have to decide why you’re doing it.
And why are you doing it?
Well, I’m not doing it for financial security. I’m not trying to do it full-time. I don’t believe you can be a full-time Mom and a full-time writer. I work to have an outlet for myself. This is what I can do to keep my brain sharp. Being a Mom is my double-full-time career and being a commercial writer is my "squeeze-in-during-nap-time-career." Most of the writing jobs I accept are ones I can do primarily at night, during off-business hours, and there’s plenty of freelance writing work out there that meets that criteria. Just like in college, you don’t do all your studying during the day. And sometimes it’s hard. You need to have realistic expectations and decide what you’re going to sacrifice because you will sacrifice something. My priority is being a parent. And this writing direction lends itself wonderfully to doing that. I don’t have to drop my child off at child-care, and in that sense, it’s very flexible.
Logistically, how easy it is it to get started in this business?
It’s a very easy-entry business. You need a computer, fax and e-mail access, which most people have anyway and that’s about it. There’s almost no overhead. And with a business out of your home, you can write off part of your house, your computer, fax, Internet access and anything else related to the business. (Author note: Please consult your tax professional for specific advice regarding legitimate deductible expenses for a home office.)
What was the biggest obstacle to getting started?
Given how much writing work there is, the market is certainly no obstacle. Honestly, it’s about having the confidence in your own writing abilities. I asked myself the question: How do I know that I’m a decent writer? And when I first asked it, the answer I came up with was: "All I’ve done is change diapers and talk baby talk for the better part of a year. What makes me think that anyone would hire me to write for them?" I call it the "mush-brain" affliction (MBA). My husband is getting his MBA and I’m getting mine! The upshot is, I’d lost my confidence in my writing skills.
So, how do you deal with that?
You just have to build it back one inch at a time. In the beginning, you’ll think they’re doing you a favor by hiring you. But remember what’s going on in corporations today. In most cases, they’re operating short-handed. They need the help. And as your confidence in your writing ability grows, you’ll realize you’re really doing them a favor. Go take a writing class if you need to, take on small writing jobs, seek familiar territory. My husband and I have a quote on our refrigerator: "It’s the journey, not the destination." It’s about what you’re learning along the way.
Is the confidence issue different for women?
I think so. As a young at-home Mom, I’ve struggled with this. When I worked with my old company, I was part of the team, a bigger entity and I could separate me from the job. If someone made a comment about what was going on, it was more about the business. But it’s more of a challenge to feel business-like when you work for yourself and you are the product. If someone is critical of your work, it’s harder to separate, you’re much more vulnerable. But it comes in time.
Unlike men, women tend to not believe in their skills. We have a tendency to forget all our past job accomplishments or at least downplay them. But, I finally got to a point where I could see what I’d achieved, realized that it was good and solid and more than enough to leverage it into this new direction. So what I’d tell women is that if you want to start something new and you doubt your skills, look back at what you’ve accomplished and know that you’re capable. Freelancing is definitely uncharted territory for many of us, but you can do it. Again, start small and work up to the bigger stuff.
Your husband is currently a full-time MBA student and while you've taken out a loan to live on, does your income from writing make a meaningful contribution to the family purse?
Any money makes a difference. The loan we have barely covers our mortgage payment and utilities, so I use the money from writing to send my daughter to preschool twice a week, for groceries, gas, trips to the burrito place down the street, unexpected costs like new tires and brakes for the car, mice in the laundry room, and the three ear infections my child had this winter. And believe it or not, my husband and I have enjoyed a trip to a B&B this past Christmas with my extra money.
It's a great feeling to know the extra money is there, but, we try not to depend on it since we can’t really forecast how much commercial writing business I’ll get in a given month. When considering writing jobs, I can only commit to about 10 hours per week and that’s after 8 p.m. each night, unless my husband can arrange to be at home. I could do more if I hired a babysitter, but we haven't gotten to that point yet. As my daughter gets older, I’ll probably consider devoting more time to my freelance writing career. For now, though, 10 hours per week is just right because I also enjoy volunteering, getting involved in my child’s preschool and our church, and doing little things like gardening with my neighbor. I like to keep a good balance.
I can count on anywhere from an extra $600 to $1500 coming in per month. That's pure gold for starving students like us! Come to think of it, I think that's more than what I made in my first job with BellSouth!
What’s a typical day for you?
Wake up, play with my child, feed her, put her down for a nap, take a shower, eat, fix my hair and start working. I usually get about 45 minutes in at that point until she wakes up. Throughout the day, I’ll work when I can, fit it in here and there. If I have to make appointments for later or chase down clients, I can use a cordless phone and follow my child around. Then during her afternoon nap and later on at night, I can squeeze more in.
Do you use babysitters to free you up more?
Because I pretty much take jobs that don’t require me to be in meetings during the day, I haven’t had to rely on baby-sitters. I was using them at one point, but clients kept changing meeting times at the last minute which got very frustrating. If you can get a baby-sitter or family member to help out from time to time, that will obviously expand the scope of writing work you can take on.
As a wife and a mother, what do you like most about commercial freelance writing?
I love the flexibility, the ability to work it in when I’ve got the time. Also, I can do something that takes brainpower and still be a full-time Mom. It makes me feel like a human again. And that’s really good for my family too. I can keep my brain together to have an intellectual conversation with my husband and be a happier Mom for my daughter. Your family is a good reason to do it all by itself.
I’ve read a lot about why women decide to stay at home. Psychologically, if a woman who decides to stay at home is miserable and depressed about her decision, she’s doing her child more harm than good. But if a Mom can choose to stay at home and has some work that will give her a sense of self and make her happier, she’ll be doing her and her child a favor. The writing business is one of the easiest avenues in which to pull that off.
Sounds like this business can give you a more well-rounded experience of life…
Definitely. There’s been a lot of press recently about how the home can be a lot less welcoming than it once was - a lot more hassles, discord, turmoil, etc. And thanks to my writing business, I don’t have to contribute to that trend. A lot of mothers talk about passing off the baby like a football to the husband the moment he walks in the door from his full and tiring day. Having this business for myself allows me to be more balanced. So now, I’m not counting the minutes till he gets home so I can hand him the baby. I’m doing things, talking to people, staying busy. I have a life.
And what are the biggest challenges?
Being able to do the writing business and all the other things I want to do, but you have to make a choice. Anyone who decides to be with their child and work is going to have to make some choices. I laugh when pregnant women talk about how, once they have their child, their company is going to let them keep their jobs and work full-time from home. As if their child is going to sleep quietly in their bassinet and let Mommy work all day. That’s just not realistic.
With this business, the biggest challenge is fitting it in your writing where you can, and delivering the level of quality that I’m committed to bringing to my work. I’ll only take on a writing project if I know I can do it well. Sometimes, it’s a challenge to say no. And the ebb and flow of work can be tough. When you don’t have much going on, it can make you a little crazy.
Is isolation a big issue?
Being at home can be very isolating and that’s tough to deal with sometimes. You have to make yourself get out and meet other people, especially other at-home Moms. Check around in your area for groups of part-time working Moms who meet and talk, preferably, of course, about more than just baby stuff! I found some on the internet: "National Association of At-Home Mothers" (www.athomemothers.com)" and "F.E.M.A.L.E."- Formerly Employed Mothers At the Leading Edge (www.femalehome.org) are ones I’m looking into now. I don't know much about them right now except that one has a magazine with great articles and good stuff on home businesses. Anything you can do to build your circle is a good thing. And besides talking with my husband, I’m committed to having at least one adult conversation every day!
Do you sometimes long for the steady paycheck and security of a 9-5 job?
No way. Especially given the flexibility of this business and the fact that I can make $60-70 an hour. Where else could I do that without going back to work full-time? I’ve made a choice to be a mother and I’m proud of that choice, despite the fact that so many people in society don’t value it. My biggest pet peeve is people who think that a mother who stays at home with their child doesn’t work. In fact, I don’t like the term "stay-at-home Mom" because it implies that I’m standing still, not moving forward. I have definitely moved forward. I have grown so much spiritually in the past year and have a much better perspective on things. I prefer to call myself an "at-home mother." And the truth is, I’m staying very busy and my writing business is an important part of the mix.
Natalie Singer, a 41 year old wife and mother of two children, 12 and 10, makes a full-time income as a freelance commercial writer. She spent four years in TV production in Atlanta with Headline News (CNN) and as an assignment desk staffer with CNN. She followed that with freelance production work and a three-year tenure as an on-staff marketing/communications writer with Digital Equipment Corporation in Boston. With her husband working out of the home as well, they enjoy being a steady presence in their childrens’ lives. The inherent flexibility and variety of corporate freelancing has been a perfect fit for Natalie, creatively, financially, professionally and spiritually. And her family would agree.
How did you get started in this business?
I began in TV news, aspiring to be the next Barbara Walters, but after a few years working in local TV and for CNN as a producer/writer, I decided I wanted something a little more flexible in terms of lifestyle, and not quite as grueling with overnight hours, etc. So, some years back, I started freelancing by cold-calling production companies. I didn’t even really know what corporate communications was, but I figured if I could produce for TV, I could do it for video production companies. I got my feet wet producing multi-image shows, mounting slides, and not actually doing much writing at the beginning. I transitioned into commercial writing later after realizing that producing was more hands-on than I really wanted. I was looking for a more flexible lifestyle.
How did you find your work?
I just sold myself, my existing skills and the credibility of CNN. As I advanced along the independent freelance path, I had several opportunities including a three-year stint as a staff writer with Digital in Boston in the marketing communications group, where I got a lot of hi-tech and corporate experience. With Digital, I was probably one of the first telecommuters. I loved the freedom and realized that writing was the way to go and that’s the path I’ve stayed on ever since.
How has it worked out?
It’s worked out fabulously well. I’ve made a lot of money and had a lot of flexibility and most importantly, I’ve been around for my two children. Of course, it’s not without its challenges but they’re far outweighed by the advantages. Almost all of my writing business at this point comes from word of mouth; I do very little marketing. It’s all about repeat business, getting to know companies, becoming a resource for them. And also being a resource for middleman clients like production companies and graphic design firms, marketing companies, and others. That’s a great situation: they always need writing services to execute their projects, so they essentially do the marketing for you and contact you when they have work.
As a wife and a mother of two, what do you like most about this business?
There are a lot of very positive things. Certainly the flexibility and being able to be home. You can set your own hours to a certain extent. If someone asks you to be available for a meeting, you can decline. And they don’t have to know whether you’re busy in another meeting or doing laundry.
I always felt I wanted to work, never thought I could just stay home without working at all, whether it was for economic reasons or just for my own self-satisfaction. If you’re happy with yourself, you’re going to be a better mother. I don’t think it would have been the best thing for my kids to be home every minute of every day. When they were young, I did use day care, putting them in a loving home environment with other kids to play with and it was fun for them. This business is an excellent option for women who have children.
Other pluses of the commercial freelance writing business?
It’s an incredibly satisfying business. Sometimes I’m in a meeting with a major corporation and I’m hearing their strategic messages for the entire year. And I’m totally responsible for getting the word out for a new product or service that can mean millions of dollars in new business. It’s so exciting to be able to say, here I am and it’s all on my shoulders to come up with a powerful way to communicate all this information. It’s really fun. And because you get to come in at the end when they’ve gotten their creative strategy together, you don’t have to sit through all the BS and the corporate politics.
How do like playing the consultant role?
In almost every industry, the consultant, the outsider, is more valued than the staffer. There’s this perception that because they’re bringing you, the writer, in from outside, you must be important. It gives you a certain elevated status which is a nice feeling. And also, when you’re working by the hour, you’re going to be more motivated on a project than if you were an employee making the same salary, regardless of the hours you put in.
What are the biggest challenges of this profession?
Because you don’t always get paid on time, it can be tough to plan on a steady income, because you may not know when the next paycheck or the next project is coming in. You might get three in one week and then nothing for three weeks. Which is also why you need to make time for marketing yourself, making phone calls, following up with people – making sure you’re continuing to prime the pump. But it’s a solid income.
Speaking of that, does your income from writing make a significant contribution to the family bottom line?
Yes, it does. You can definitely make good money in this business. Hourly rates are anywhere from $50-80 or more if you’re good, reliable and people like you. On a part-time basis, that can easily translate to $25,000 a year and on a full-time basis, $75-100K is very doable. My goal is to make $100,000 a year, which translates to a good-sized writing project or two each week.
What does it take to hit a mark like that?
You have to be willing to recognize your own value and not sell yourself short. In the earlier days, I undercharged because I didn’t feel I was experienced enough. If you know you can do the job and your clients are paying the going rate for writing or passing on a charge to their clients that those clients expect to pay, then don’t be shy about asking for a healthy rate. You can always come down in price. It’s a lot harder to go up.
What’s the reality of marriage, motherhood and freelance writing?
Could you hold on a moment while I talk to my daughter? (One minute later…) Now, there’s part of your answer right there. I’m walking around with my cell-phone. I’m on my way to middle school to pick up my son for a lesson. My daughter is home and can’t find a friend to play with. This is the biggest challenge: you think you’re flexible, because after all, I work at home. And people think you’re so lucky that you can be home with the kids. But that flexibility comes with a lot of pressure and sometimes you feel, hey, what’s the point of being home with your kids if you’re always on the phone and ignoring them?
So, do you get most of your work done while they’re in school?
That’s the goal and usually I can. Though because I’m a very early riser, I can often get a lot of my non-phone writing work done in the early morning for few hours before anyone’s even up. That’s when I think most clearly and it’s nice and peaceful and quiet. Which points to a very big advantage of this business. Once you get the work you can pretty much do it on your own time.
Do you consider this a full-time or part-time career?
I don’t actually think of it in those terms. I certainly don’t look at it as a part-time career and yet it doesn’t seem full-time, like a 9-5 job would because it is so flexible. But it can certainly be a full-time income. I can say pretty confidently that I will never go to a full-time job because I’ll never be able to get the flexibility and diversity in one single organization. Or, the hourly rate, which really makes it no comparison. And once you get established and get a regular client base, theoretically, your checks should be coming in regularly. You do have to be disciplined in paying your taxes quarterly and all that.
Are there unique challenges for women in freelance copywriting?
For a woman, at every stage, whether you’re a new mother or a mother of adolescents or facing a hormone surge that week, there are unique challenges. The biggest is over-committing, which is very common among women of our generation – trying to do too much for too many people. I think about the times I’ve had the most stress, professionally and personally, and it’s been when I’m trying to be a 100% full-time mother and 100% full-time writer. The cliché is "you can’t do it all," but it’s really true. The temptation in this business is to say, "Well, I’m home, so I can do it." But then something has to give. You end up not being able to do the kind of job you need to do on a writing project and you irritate a client. Or your kids or husband end up getting upset at you. It’s not worth it.
What would you suggest to someone starting out to build their writing confidence?
Start writing some pieces for publication in perhaps some local papers. There are also a lot of writing opportunities in newsletters or even on the Internet. They are often anonymous, have longer deadlines and you can get feedback from an editor. Seeing your writing in print can be a big confidence booster. And that’s how you need to do it – one writing project at a time. I’ve been reading the Freelance Writer’s Newsletter on about.com and they have a lot of opportunities posted. And when I was first starting out, I contacted local publications and with a one-page letter, I pitched them on writing short articles on topics that interested me. All this helps in building a writing portfolio, which your prospective clients will really want to see.
If you’re not totally confident in your abilities, get your feet wet with one type of work, whether it’s writing articles or scripts, and once you get a few credits under your belt, you’ll develop the confidence to go after more work. It would also help to mentor with someone or even assist an established writer. If someone approached me and asked to help me out in exchange for some tips, I think I’d welcome the opportunity to share the ins and outs of the business.
In a reasonably good-sized metropolitan area, how easy would it be for someone to leverage their past business experience into a freelance commercial writing career?
It’s never "easy," but I will say this: If you believe something about yourself and are able to communicate it, people will generally accept it. If you tell them that you’re the greatest thing in the world because of your experience in even a totally unrelated field, if you can justify it, people are going to give you a shot. I really feel it’s the strength of your personality and the way they feel about you more than your resume or where you got your degree.
If someone is a decent writer and reasonably aggressive about letting people know they’re out there, how hard is to find steady work?
It’s not that difficult getting the work, but it takes a certain type of person to be able to do the work. Deadlines are often tight, and often you’re thrown into a new situation with little information and you need to be able to get up to speed quickly. You have to have the kind of mind and ability to be able to rapidly assimilate information, and communicate it back. And it really helps to not get intimidated easily by people with attitudes.
Do you feel that this work is really that hard?
It’s not that the work is so hard. For me, as I mentioned, what sometimes makes it tough is my own inability to say no. I often end up with multiple projects without a comfortable amount of time to get them all done. Each individual writing project is not that difficult. I think anyone who’s a reasonably good writer can be a successful freelance corporate writer. The reality of the market is that very few companies staff full-time writers. Yet, every single business in the world needs writing. There’s a lot of opportunity out there.
Can you elaborate?
Everyone from the widget-maker to the computer maker to restaurants, healthcare organizations, banks, all need external and internal communications. In that sense, it’s almost a no-brainer. And because so few companies keep writers on staff and don’t want to pay high ad agency rates for copywriting, there are a lot of good reasons for a company to hire freelancers. It’s like having a staff writer but only when they need them and without the salary, benefits and vacation. And that’s a great way to position yourself to these companies: like an in-house resource but without the overhead. You get to know their business, become like one of their staff and over time, your value to them really grows.
What are the different ways to approach this business?
You can be a writing generalist – sort of an "all-things-to-all-people" type – which has been my path, though mostly by default. Or you can specialize. It might be a particular industry, like healthcare, hi-tech, retail, fast food. Or maybe a particular kind of work – like video scripts, speeches, PR work, what have you. I’ve become a generalist I guess because I can get up to speed quickly in a project for just about any industry, feel out the personalities and corporate culture and quickly sense what they want. And that brings up an important point that I’ve learned, which is to leave your ego outside the door. If they want something that you don’t agree with, by all means express your opinion, but be prepared to give the client what they want. They’re the boss.
Any final advice for women considering a career in this business?
If you have the ability, the talent, personality and self-discipline, go for it. The rewards of being independent and flexible are great and you’ll know quickly whether it’s something that’s a good fit for you. It’s really been perfect for me. With this field, I feel I’ve really found my niche. I feel great about it because writing is something I can excel at, something that will never go out of style, there’s an endless supply of potential copywriting clients for my service and I can make a very healthy income. Ultimately, I want to do more creative writing for myself. But once you do this kind of writing, I think you’ll find it hard to do the personal writing because you get the immediate gratification – and good pay – you get in writing for others.
Gabrielle Parra is married and a mother of four children – 11, 9, 3 and 7 months. She has been freelancing since 1994, after stints as a staff writer for software and telecommunications companies and a small PR firm. She has essentially been the primary breadwinner for her family of six for seven years, while her husband pursues his Ph.D. in nuclear engineering. During that time, she has earned a "very livable" income through freelance commercial writing, an income that has increased every year.
How did you get started in this business?
After graduating from college with an English degree, I fell into technical writing – specifically software manuals – for about 3 ½ years. I then moved to a telecommunications company, where I started doing their marketing literature: newsletters, brochures etc., something I discovered I really enjoyed.
When did you decide to go freelance?
After moving to Atlanta in 1993, I went to work for a small PR firm for 1 ½ years and got a lot of PR/marketing experience under my belt. One day, I realized my time was being billed out at about four times what I was earning per hour writing. So I decided to go on my own. I wanted more flexibility and, because writing can be done from anywhere, commuting to a job just didn’t make any sense.
What sort of preparations did you make for self-employment as a commercial freelance writer?
I went cold turkey with very little in the way of a financial safety net. I had two kids at that point and my husband was starting his Ph.D. program so there was a lot of risk involved. I just had to shut my eyes and jump, which brings up a piece of advice: If you’re waiting for the planets to line up before you do it, it’ll never happen. The first year was pretty lean and scary and I pretty much took anything that came along, including some writing documentation work. I was also inexperienced as far as what to charge and ended up losing money on some jobs. But once I got a taste of self-employment, it was hard to turn back.
Have you always worked?
Yes, through the birth of all my children. I never had a paid maternity leave. I’ve always put my family first but working was a necessity. And given that, I wanted to make sure I was doing something I enjoyed. But because family came first, I had to pass up promotion opportunities at my former companies because I wasn’t willing to work more hours. Which essentially made those jobs dead ends, because the ceiling was set. That was another reason I started freelancing.
Can you elaborate?
With freelancing, there is no dead end, no one telling you what you’re worth or what you can’t do. Commercial copywriting was a way I could continue to grow and expand my career while putting my family first. Freelancing is not without stress but it has given me the flexibility to do a lot of things with my family that I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. But, make no mistake: I’m not doing this for pocket change. This is my job and I take it very seriously. I do use child care and I keep regular hours, generally 8:30-3, which is when my older kids are at school, and sometimes after hours as well.
What’s a typical day?
Well, recently, because of his schedule, my husband has been able to do more of the child care in the morning, getting the little ones ready to go to the babysitter and the older ones to school before going on to school himself. After working till 3, I pick up the kids from school and day care, and from 3-5, it’s usually pretty crazy. I’m helping the kids get settled with snacks and homework and still fielding phone calls from clients. I feel it’s important for them to have me be there when they come home. But I think it’s beneficial to see their mother working – to learn that work is important. When they see me working, they learn that it’s something to be respected and not to interrupt me unless it’s very important. And my older kids are at the age now where they can help with the younger ones when I need to take a call.
With all the societal debate about daycare, have you wrestled with this?
I’ve definitely wrestled with it. But, I’ve always had to work and had four babies while I was working. I’ve always kept day care to no more than six hours a day and, since my husband’s schedule often permits, usually less. Day care is never ideal but working has been a necessity and writing takes concentration. It’s not something that can be done in the midst of chaos. And compared to kids who spend 10-11 hours a day in day care, 4-6 hours is a level I can live with and feel good about. Children are very adaptable and do well as long as they’re loved and cared for. And frankly, I think it’s a good thing for them because it allows them to meet and socialize with other kids. I don’t think they’re suffering as a result of it.
I also think that the time that a mother spends with her older kids can be even more important than when they’re babies. Bonding is very important with little ones, but it’s almost more important for older kids to have their parents around when they came home from school, to supervise them, tell them to clean their rooms and tell them which words are and aren’t appropriate in the home and so many other things that you can’t do if you’re not there.
As a wife and a mother of four, what do you like most about the freelance writing business?
I like the flexibility and that I can be involved in the kids’ school and visit quite often. I like the fact that I can avoid traffic and can generally set appointments outside of rush hour. I can take time off as I need it and not have to ask permission. And this type of job is such wonderful mental exercise every day. I love learning about different people and industries, and there just aren’t many jobs that can give you that. In the hi-tech marketing writing arena in which I work, I earn more than in any other kind of writing. Where else can you make $70-80/hr or more? (Author note: this was written some years back and those rates would likely be higher now) Bottom line, I’m able to bring home a very livable income in less than 40 hours a week. Not that it’s all billable time and there’s certainly some night and weekend time involved, but it’s a solid living.
What are the challenges in this business?
In the past few years, the amount of writing work has increased, which has increased the hours and the stress level. When I started, the challenge was just to find work, but now there can be too much work. And it’s tough to turn down a job because you remember the lean times. That’s the seduction of this work: you can end up taking on more writing jobs than you can really handle. Every job represents money and it’s hard to push money away. It’s all about striking a healthy balance and that comes with time. My husband has been very supportive and helps out a lot, especially on weekends. It would be a much harder job for a single Mom. Which brings up another downside of any self-employment: by definition, there’s no safety net, no time off, no paid vacation, no disability.
Another challenge is knowing what to charge. Charge too much and you’ll turn people off, too little and you don’t make enough. I did make the mistake in the beginning of not charging enough or getting talked into giving a special rate, and once you do, it’s harder to raise those rates with your regular writing clients.
Besides experience, what would you suggest to learn about fees?
I would recommend joining a writer’s group or other groups of freelancers. I’m a member of several groups (including one started by the author) that’s been very helpful to me in answering so many writing-related questions, especially pricing writing jobs. Don’t be shy about talking about money with as many of your writing peers as possible You really need to find out what writers who are doing what you’re doing are charging. The more people compare notes about writing rates, the better we’re able to get paid what we’re really worth. My resources are much better now than when I first started out.
Is it challenging to work at home?
In a traditional 9-5 job, it’s easier to leave the job at the office, though that’s becoming harder as well. When you work at home, it can be tougher to leave the work at the office because it’s always there. Your work becomes very integrated with everything else you’re doing. On Monday, I got up at 4 a.m. so I could finish a writing project by noon and take my kids to the MLK holiday parade. I didn’t like having to get up that early but I’m glad I have the freedom to set my own schedule. Another downside, at least in my experience in the marketing writing arena, is that the deadlines are always tight. People always want it fast.
Working while being a Mom is very stressful, but I don’t think I could work in a better situation than the one I have. If I’m going to have stress, these are the circumstances in which to have it.
Are you sometimes tempted by the security of a 9-5 job?
I regularly get offered jobs from my regular clients, which is tempting, especially when it comes to benefits. But even as an employee, I don’t think that the deadlines and stress would be any less. And I wouldn’t have the flexibility of my writing business. Yes, I’ve considered it, but with that security comes a lot of bondage.
What advice would you give other women in a similar position who are thinking about a career in this business?
As far as finding work: I’ve heard people talk about getting all their copywriting work through networking, and how cold-calling isn’t that effective. But when I started out, cold-calling was how I got my first good writing clients. Never turn up your nose at cold-calling. Plan on investing some serious time in the process. Fortunately, because of word of mouth, I haven’t had to do any cold-calling for several years, which is nice, but it was really important in the beginning.
Is networking effective?
As far as networking goes, your best bet is to network with your peers, other writers, creative people, not just business people in general. And make sure you ask your steady writing clients for more work in their organization and for referrals to other prospects.
If someone’s a decent writer in a good-sized metropolitan area, and are reasonably aggressive about getting their name out, how easy would it be to get steady work?
It took me two to three years to build up my clientele to the point where I stay busy all the time. Of course, even the most experienced writers can have a turn in luck. That’s why it’s important not to depend too much on any single company for your writing work. It’s also wise to constantly network and send out mailings even when you have plenty of work. I don’t do that as well as I should because when I’m busy, marketing myself goes by the wayside. I’ve paid for that in the past, when a client decided to hire an in-house writer, and I was left with a big gap in my income that I had to make up. No relationship with a client is permanent, no matter how good it is. So much depends on the individuals you’re working with. If someone leaves a company, the person who replaces them usually changes the status quo.
How good a writer do you have to be in this field?
If you’re considering a career in this field, you do have to be a good writer. I recommend getting a second opinion on whether you’re good from people who know. If people are going to pay good money for writing, they expect it to be above average. That said, I do think that you can get better with experience.
It’s important to realize you don’t have to be an expert in the field you’re writing about. You just have to know how to ask the right questions and keep asking them – without embarrassment – until you understand the answers. High tech is an important niche for me, but I am not and have never been a "techie" person. That makes me good at translating the stuffy jargon into interesting, conversational prose. I often stop and say to myself, ‘What am I REALLY trying to say here?’ Then I just say it, without any mumbo jumbo. To be a writer, you have to like the challenge of writing and for me, writing has always been very hard work. But I enjoy the writing craft. I enjoy finishing a project I can be proud of.
Any final comments?
Don’t ever belittle what you do. Especially if you’re a mother working part-time. Being a mother doesn’t make you less sharp, and you need to take yourself as seriously as if you were in a traditional job. And just like there’s no perfect time to have a baby, don’t wait till the perfect moment to start this business because it probably won’t ever come. Enlist the support of your family. You take what you’re doing seriously and expect them to do the same.
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