How To Thrive As A Freelance Writer In Uneasy Financial Times

February 5, 2018  |  

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By Kara Stevens

If you’re curious about the world, an excellent writer, and a self-starter, you might have toyed with the idea of a career in freelancing, but the idea of writing for a living may have seemed daunting—especially from a financial perspective. We figure there’s no better way to learn about the realities of freelancing full time than by hearing from someone who’s actually doing it. In this in-depth interview with Nana Brew-Hammond, the author and freelance writer, opens up about her dreams, fears, and financial life as a freelance writer.

MadameNoire: What made you decide to become a freelance writer?

Nana Brew-Hammond (NBH): I decided to go freelance because I wanted to dedicate more time to my creative writing. When my novel Powder Necklace came out in April 2010, I had a demanding job that made it a challenge to promote the book the way I discovered I needed to. After I had used up my two weeks vacation, I could only take advantage of evening and weekend opportunities.

In 2011, I was invited to be a 2012 BID Fellow — a two-week writers residency in Brazil founded by Newberry Winning author Kwame Alexander. I wanted to accept it, so I began planning from that time, a year out, to quit my job.

Transitioning from a full-time job, which I really enjoyed, to freelancing was more mentally difficult than financial, at first. After the residency in Brazil, I did a little traveling to postpone the reality of my new situation, but when my plane eventually touched down at JFK, my stomach dropped with the aircraft. I definitely had a “What did you do?” moment. But, I had saved a good amount in the year before I quit so I wasn’t desperate and had been freelancing while I worked full-time so I wasn’t starting from zero in terms of relationship-building.

I was able to increase the frequency of my pitches to the website editors I had been writing for. I also began seeking freelance work with former colleagues in branding, advertising, content, and marketing.

There have definitely been some scary moments when the work was not flowing, or the checks didn’t come when I expected them, or unforeseen situations made folly of my projected budget, but thank God I have been able to pay my bills every month doing work that I enjoy while pursuing my passion. This freelance life really takes a village – from the former colleagues that hire and refer me, to the clients that consistently work with me, to family members and friends who have supported me as sounding boards, treated me to lunches, dinners, et al, or otherwise invested in me.

MN: Do you save for retirement and other short-term and long-term financial goals?

NBH: I have an IRA retirement fund, but in general, right now, I don’t save as much as I’d like. There are times when things are flush and I can put money away, and there are times that I am waiting for checks to come through. But the best advice I got, and took, before I entered this freelance life was to save as much as I could before I quit, so I have never been at a desperate place. Thank God! As I celebrate three-plus years as a freelancer, I’m always on the look out for ways to leverage my experience and expertise to build my client base.

MN: What are the different types of ways that one could be a freelance writer? What are the most lucrative? How do you go about finding this work?

NBH: What’s worked for me, in terms of getting work, is:

A. Diversifying the types of freelance writing that I do. I do copywriting, strategy, content, and branding work for clients and individuals which is most lucrative for me. I also write articles for different websites and magazines.

B. Leveraging existing relationships and cultivating new ones. I stay in regular touch with my former colleagues who know my work and network to build new relationships with potential clients.

C. Doing the best work that I can and delivering on time. When a client works with a freelancer, they want it to be a painless process. They want someone who can handle the project with proficiency without too much time spent debriefing the freelancer. They also need the work on time. As a freelancer, the quality of my work and professionalism in terms of timely delivery is my calling card.

MN: Is freelancer burnout real?

NBH: The worst is when times are fallow and you have to take on lots of smaller jobs for less pay to make your monthly budget. At times like that, I ask myself why I’m doing this! It can also be overwhelming when work floods in all of a sudden and deadlines pile.

In many ways, the freelance lifestyle is about extremes. It’s easy to fall into unhealthy behavior like pulling all-nighters to get work in on time or forgetting to eat because you want to stay in the flow of a project.

What has helped me to center is being strict with myself about my daily work schedule. I don’t start working until I’ve prayed and eaten my breakfast. I also trade motivational messages with my family in the morning. I break for lunch as I would if I were working in an office, and I try to end my workday before it gets dark and take a long walk to decompress. I also love bikeriding to de-stress. Over dinner, I indulge in my favorite trash TV shows and Jeopardy or meet up with friends. I am also strict about my bedtime.

I remind myself that I chose to freelance because I wanted to have more head space to write fiction. I realize that it is a major blessing to even be able to do this and I really don’t want to squander it. I try to carve up my time as wisely as I can so that in between paid freelance gigs, I am working on my next novel or applying for writing fellowships and residencies or otherwise building my profile as an author.

MN: Has your freelance writing impacted your life as a writer? 

NBH: Freelancing has forced me to accept that life is full of undulations and to relinquish the idea that I can control the ups and downs. It’s given me a lot of self-confidence too. Even when I’m getting a rejection letter or experiencing a slow period, it’s affirming to list work I’ve done for yet another application or opportunity – a reminder that I do good work that I’m proud of.

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