Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Unhelpful freelance writing tips

I can't recommend freelance writing enough as a career choice that offers extraordinary flexibility for your finances and lifestyle. That's why I still persevere in recommending that people check out freelance opportunities when they ask me how I can afford to travel indefinitely, or when they voice an interest in making money on the move.

I persevere even as every one of them loses interest immediately when I explain some of the details and they realise it does actually involve doing some work - imagine that! - and is 'a bit like school.' If you don't enjoy writing, why did you think you'd be interested in the first place? Others try it for a while, but are eventually disillusioned by having to learn a new trade themselves without fellow employees to discuss or bitch about issues with, then crawl back to more relaxing unemployment or the comfortably low ceiling of an annual salary and desk manacles.

Unfortunately, for anyone who is genuinely interested in taking control of their lives and earning a ludicrous amount of money for writing a few pages a day on subjects you previously knew nothing about but are now more familiar with than the back of your hand (I never noticed before how far those hairs go up at the side), I don't have the patience any more to help people get started. You're on your own, good luck. But having made a living exclusively from online writing for the past few years and not having died, I am in a position to share the wisdom of experience about what works for me when it comes to self-motivation, avoiding distractions and other aspects of this job for people who are already earning their fortune from home/hotel/aeroplane. You won't necessarily agree with it all. It'd be weird if you did.

This was all written in a fairly stream-of-consciousness way. I tried to organise it under relevant headings but didn't always succeed. It doesn't really matter, no one's paying me for this.

Productive distractions

I wonder what Funfun and the Bozman are up to these days

I first became aware of the potent temptation of displacement activities during a GCSE revision break. Having already wasted most of our week off throwing axes at beasties on the X-Box and watching Stargate SG-1 marathons, my friend and I prepared for some serious physics refreshment. As I tried to concentrate on memorising a page of worryingly abstract formulas, I realised Dan was nagging for me to look at something.

I looked over to check out whatever it was he was doing that was evidently more important than study. He had carefully flattened and laid out an empty crisp packet on the table, and now he had my attention he slowly lowered his head to make contact with it in a weak head-butt. Since doing that wasn't doing physics revision, it had presumably seemed worthwhile at the time. Since laughing at the idiocy of that for half an hour wasn't doing physics revision either, we didn't end up committing many formulas to memory that day. I didn't take the sciences to A-level.

Depends which way up he was when this picture was taken.
Open your minds, physicists!

This blog is fun for me to write and is often a displacement activity from getting on with pressing work, but I keep it in check with twice-weekly scheduling. Having long stretches of time where I'm not doing anything worth writing about helps too, but that's why I have my pointless TV reviews blog to tide me over - an effort to justify time-wasting viewing by making that about writing too.

You might think that any break from paid writing would ideally be as far removed from writing as possible, but I don't need to make such a severe cut. While I wouldn't write eight similar pages about offset printing for different franchise branches unless someone was paying me to do that, I do like the activity of writing in general.

If I didn't keep up any of this spiritually satisfying but financially worthless leisure writing, the corporate writing day job could start feeling more like a chore. Whereas if all I was planning to do this morning was research some biased news stories to give a cynical overview of the city I'm living in, or ponder life's big questions such as what my favourite X-Files episodes are, postponing that nonsense to earn money typing different nonsense instead isn't especially irritating.

That doesn't mean that a boring life makes for a more satisfied and productive freelancer though. Some of my most enthusiastic work sessions have been crammed into the gaps on busy travel days, when I can't be as lenient with the self-imposed time schedule as normal and have to deal with the double edged sword of no internet access (more on that later).

Separating work and pleasure

Even child sex workers have to draw the line somewhere

In apparent contrast to what I just said about not making too much distinction between work and break times, I think it's important not to focus on trying to squeeze money from your between-work activities, otherwise those just become work themselves and it ruins the point.

I like to write without pressure. Whether I'm writing a blog about a place I've been or expressing some thoughts I've had, or trying to work on a novel for the love of the project, it would kill my enthusiasm dead if I had to start worrying about whether people actually wanted to read the things I'm writing, or if I tried to lure in casual browsers by loading my pieces with keywords, covering currently trending topics or making the whole thing a promotional tease for a more in-depth ebook I was trying to sell for an unrealistic price.

Some ex-pats make their living that way, which is good for them and they seem to enjoy writing genuinely useful blogs and connecting with people, but I already have a job and it serves me well, so I don't need to monetise every other aspect of my life. It's doubtful I'd make anywhere near as much money from these independent enterprises as I would just by doing a few more unapologetically corporate pages for other people, so why spoil my personal projects for myself and anyone who wants to read them by cloaking them in an unattractive sell-out musk? That stuff reeks from a good distance.

I've thought at times about making contributions to websites I enjoy reading when I see them recruiting for fresh voices, but even if there are topics I'd like to write about - from TV, music and books to travel and other matters I can reasonably be called above-average on in terms of life experience - there's nothing that really motivates me. Unless I have some urgent revelation to impart, I don't particularly care about reaching more people, and I certainly wouldn't do it for the trifling money (I have actual work for that) or the hope of building a portfolio or establishing a presence. Networking doesn't come naturally to me, and even if it turns out I left it too late when my future income becomes dependent on a non-existent mobile phone or LinkedIn page I never created, that's a gamble I'm willing to take for the comparative peace of a primitive 20th century life.

It's a metaphor.
These ramblings haven't become quite so irredeemably chaotic that I'm moving on to food

If you're the type of person who loves fingering a smorgasbord of pies, I'm sure you can get satisfaction from using your free time in economically productive ways. Diversifying is a necessary skill for the freelancer too, but I feel I have to draw a line somewhere. And while I've never been drawn to some of the staples of the 'normal' work environment that many employees are loath to leave behind - the camaraderie of the office, designated work hours - I do prefer the simplicity of dealing with as few companies and contacts as are necessary to make ends meet, having never worked for more than two at the same time (and even then, with an uneven workload weighted in favour of the one I liked more).

It takes a crisis to motivate me to seek out new opportunities, but when I do, I commit completely - not part-time during breaks. Unless it's my actual job, I'm not going to treat it with any seriousness or exert any energy on it that doesn't come from a place of purity, whether that's pure love or pure blistering frustration.

Motivational connection problems

How much does your writing really depend on the internet? Have you ever put it to the test? When I first started freelancing in my spare time, I was paying a weekly rent to a slightly dodgy friend to stay in his spare bedroom, treading water until I decided to leave the country. It was a no-frills place with no internet connection, which meant using the office computer to gather my research materials after regular work finished and save them to offline documents to work on back at the stinky bachelor pad.

This approach quickly became habit and set me up well for saving up large stacks of work ready for long distance bus journeys and days spend transiting in airports with unreliable Wi-Fi (join the 21st century, Thailand). In fact, some of my most productive work days have been those where I was temporarily cut off from the internet and its various distractions and pushed on by a battery life deadline, triumphantly sending the work upon arrival at the next hotel.

During those times, I'm also reminded of what a privilege I have and this motivates me further, especially the self-aggrandising thought that someone sitting nearby may see or hear me typing away and think: "why is that guy bashing away at his laptop for hours? Does he have a job that lets him make use of these in-between lulls of the travel experience? What a dream that would be! All I've got to occupy me for the journey is this book I stole from the hostel and didn't notice was in German. I had to quit my job for this! Every day watching my savings dwindle while that genius manages to put the dead hours to use and watches his savings grow... nah, come to think of it, he's probably just playing some old RPG over-enthusiastically. If he was a professional writer, he'd surely have learned to type with more than two fingers at some point."

Managing treats

There are many ways to reward yourself for a job well done, or even just for getting through it and not being too distracted by YouTube. I sometimes bribe myself with food, generally preferring to have a big box of budget biscuits within reach and allocating myself a row or half-row during every scheduled break (I eat too many for individual counting of biscuits to be practical).

If you have hobbies or, you know, things you generally enjoy doing in your life when you're not selling out your adolescent dream of being a struggling fiction writer, try to find ways to give yourself a refreshing splash of pastime after a predetermined length of time or number of words/pages, as long as it isn't something that will take you away from the computer for too long or lead you down the destructive route of hyperlinks or the YouTube whirlpool. Don't be too hard on yourself if you wind down your break and head for the necessary toilet finale at 13:04 rather than bang on the hour, but try to resist feeling that you might as well leave it till half past now.

I even make myself look forward to work time by saving up podcasts and other audio things I like, which I can enjoy listening to in the preliminary part of my work that involves formatting documents and gathering source information. This is by far the best part of my work day, I wish it could all be removing double spacing and skimming through reference paragraphs to condense their content into snappy sub-headings while listening to Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver zing whichever corrupt world leader is in vogue this week. If someone's willing to negotiate a scenario of me exclusively doing those brainless bits for a modest pay cut, I'm all ears.

Background music

This is the only photo that came up when I searched my travel folders for 'music.'
Can't believe I missed out on the party boat

It took a while for me to be able to work with musical accompaniment, especially as my early experiences were having to endure the tedious tastes of the office's resident self-appointed DJ. These days I always listen to something during run-of-the-mill work (it doesn't involve running a mill) to keep my spirits up, and it helps to drown out the noise when you're working in public places or rent a flat next to an auto repair shop where that guy bangs car bonnets with a hammer all day.

Other advantages of a work soundtrack are to help you keep a steady pace - e.g. a 45-ish minute album for three 15-ish minute pages before your next well-earned break - and as motivation aids. Got a big project that's going to consume your day? Break out the discography of an erstwhile favourite band you haven't listened to for ages. Looking for something new? Devote some of your pre-work faffing time to finding out what's been going on with artists and genres you've lost touch with or try to recall what that thing was you meant to check out some time and go for it. If you don't like it, you can always go back to the nostalgic teenage nu-metal and gain a fresh understanding of why you used to hate yourself.

To be unoriginal, I'd say instrumental music works the best as a non-distracting background soundtrack (unless your tastes are self-destructively silly at times) - whether you're feeling like modern classical or classic classical, ambient or something new. If you don't really like music without words in it, I find that the less integral the lyrics are to the enjoyment of the song, the better. You won't fully enjoy Morrissey's witty wordplay or Nick Cave's melancholy perversion or be able to follow the needlessly convoluted plot of a 70s concept album if your attention is distracted by writing, but some banal stuff about feelings or killing people can sit happily in the background.


This is the only photo I have that came up for 'respect.'
We'll just have to go with it

Respect the silly work that gives you more freedom and money for your time than you really deserve. Respect the company that values your skills and credentials and could be paying more desperate writers from poorer countries a lot less. Most of all, respect the individuals who trust you with sensitive projects on a regular basis that could make or break a client contract.

Check for spelling and grammar errors before sending things, double check if there's something you're not sure about rather than winging it anyway and feeling your part of the job's done (or hoping you might be paid twice if you do it properly), and don't leave things until the deadline. I honestly think that the main reason I've been a favoured writer for some companies is because I like to get things out of the way and sent as soon as possible, rather than risking the prospect of a daunting pile.

If you're free to work right now, and you sent a needy email last month requesting any available article scraps when less work was coming your way, don't put off these pages to the weekend. There are still six hours left till closing time over in their part of the world, and this won't take you half that time - get cracking, send the email, feel inordinately pleased with yourself at their grateful reply and hope this means you're still in the good books after that time you sent them a pretty half-arsed project that they called you out on and which they definitely still remember but mercifully aren't holding against you. You won't do it again.

If nothing else, you've got your weekend back.

Subject: FF Blog Post Due Wed 2nd

Bonjour, monsieur Davidoff!

Hope you had a great weekend! Thanks for sending the Bali blogs - a tad cynical! :p But you managed to make it sound like you've actually been there and that's the important thing!

If you're not busy we need another blog for our Freelance Flaneur site on the topic 'Freelance Writing Tips.' It's 3,000 words for $
6567.50, deadline Wednesday 2nd.

If you could let me know if you're free that would be totes Brillex! I've also been asked by tptb, could you please try to make it a bit more positive and helpful to prospective readers this time round if that's ok? it makes it easier on my end!

Okay then! Bye! Love you! (as a colleague)

You'll get what you're given. I'm the talent here!

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