Having freelanced on and off for more than 30 years—full time for more than a decade—here’s a few thoughts. Please comment on or add to this so we can build a useful resource:
In the world of freelancing, it’s not what you know, but what you can do—and who you know. In other words a CV listing a plethora of training courses will not cut much ice against a portfolio of what you have published.
You can present all the qualifications you like to a prospective employer, but what s/he really wants to know is that you can provide him/her with something that is readable and suits the purpose—so a folio and a whisper in the ear from someone s/he trusts is likely to be much more persuasive.
Experience is all. You need to get it anyway you can, for two reasons—to get your name known and build your contacts, and to gain the confidence that you can perform under any circumstances.
Taking that as a starting point, here’s what I would consider if I wanted to launch myself as a freelancer:
- Use any means possible to get yourself into print, preferably in an edited publication—and that often means writing for free just for the experience of being edited for publication and the reward of your name on an article;
- Put together a portfolio of the best of what you have written for publication, as well as contact details of who you wrote it for. These days that probably means an electronically accessible cache on the web;
- Learn whatever new techniques you can—editing, sub-editing, broadcasting at the local community radio station, writing a blog etc. Be prepared to do something for experience sake, or just to introduce yourself. The wider the range of skills you have at your disposal, the more useful you are—and the broader the range of work you can take on;
- Meet deadlines and write clean copy. Check on who you are writing for and their house style. Make sure you proofread carefully. Once you get a reputation for clean copy, and for being easy to work with, deadlines will relax, and people will give you more work;
- Check everything you write factually, again and again. Don’t get things wrong, and don’t be frightened to check back with people if you are unsure about something. Science writing is an area where you can easily destroy yourself if you don’t get things right—credibility is your currency;
- Interview people face to face when you can. You learn so much more about people, and make it easier for them to provide useful supplementary material;
- Find some work which is steady/ongoing, has a regular deadline which can give you income on which you can rely. It may be teaching or researching material for someone else. You’d be surprised how many other jobs can arise out of it;
- Keep good financial records and be aware of your finances. Recognise that money comes in lumps—so learn to use a credit card without bankrupting yourself.
- Recognise that freelancers rarely make a lot of money. If you can make a living, you are doing much better than most. The value of freelancing is not monetary, but control over your life in terms of when and where you work, and on what.
- Budget for and take holidays. A major drawback of freelancing is that everyone assumes you are available 24/7. It’s easy to burn out.