Michelle Lipton

Michelle Lipton

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The Path of the Freelance Writer

October 6, 2009 ,

To write for a living.

That’s the dream for most writers, isn’t it?

To sit around at home in your pyjamas all day, making stuff up for money.

Just enough money to pay the mortgage and put food in the fridge, you understand. No-one’s asking to retire to the Bahamas and live out their days polishing their BAFTAs and being fanned with palm fronds whilst drinking cocktails through curly straws.

Well, you might be. Personally, I quite like it here in my little house.

We all know that launching a career as a freelance writer is extremely difficult.

But putting aside the issue of being good enough, of learning the craft and developing the required skills to a professional standard, there are practical challenges to be faced that can sometimes be taken for granted.

In the beginning, you need the energy, motivation and discipline to be able to come home from work and sit back down to start work again. Writing scripts, or novels, that no-one’s asked for or even knows about.

Not only that, you need to invest time and energy in learning about the industry, networking, making contacts and persuading people to read the results of your hard work – whilst all the time, working on new ideas, developing new projects and writing new material.

And of course, rather than being paid to do any of these things, you have to be prepared to actually pay money – to travel to networking events and meetings, to subscribe to trade papers or online writer’s sites and, well, the volume of tea and biscuits invariably required per writing session doesn’t come cheap these days.

Christ, you have to really really want to do this job to put in the supreme effort it requires to get anywhere.

I guess that’s why so many writers hate the question “why do you want to be a writer?” Because there is no rhyme or reason to it. I can’t imagine anyone going to the lengths it takes or making the sacrifices required without that weird internal and inexpressible drive to do it.

But you do. You stay up late, sacrifice weekends and time with your friends and family, and sit at your computer until your eyes turn red.

Until, at some point, you’re rewarded. Things start taking off a bit. The ground shifts.

Maybe you get a few low paid commissions. Maybe you get a couple of bits and pieces into development.

Maybe you start having more meetings, pitching more ideas, working them up to go into commissioning rounds.

Then it gets really tough.

Suddenly, there’s so much to do – you could easily fill a 40 hour week with just your writing career – but you still can’t give up your day job because pitches and meetings are rarely paid, and even your commissioned work isn’t going to cover the mortgage.

Bearing in mind payment for writers is generally delivered half on signature of a contract and half on delivery, you might have been working on something for months by the time the contract is negotiated and finalised – and you might work on it for another six months before the final draft is delivered.

Then there are the agent’s fees, VAT on agent’s fees, income tax, national insurance contributions, pension contributions, student loan repayments, all those little things that chip away at what you get to actually keep.

John August said, in his excellent and highly recommended article Money 101 for Screenwriters, “you’re never so broke as when you first start making money”.

Never a truer word was spoken.

Because the fact of the matter is, in that awkward transition period from spec writer to commissioned writer, you may simply not have the time to spend 40 precious hours per week working for someone else.

The pressure is really on now. You’ve been paid to do something and you know you better damn well deliver the goods, on time, and to a high standard, or you might not get paid for anything else.

So what do you do?

Only you can decide. You might be the sole provider for your family. You might have large debts to consider. Your own personal circumstances will inevitably impact on the decision you make.

Maybe you reduce the hours you work at your day job. Maybe you switch jobs to something with more opportunity for shift work or flexi-time. Maybe you go the temping route so that if you need time off for a meeting or a last minute rewrite you can simply call in and say you’re not available. Either way, you’re likely to be earning less than you were in your stable full-time employment.

I’ve personally found freelance script reading work to be an enormous help. Not just because of the obvious opportunity it gives you to read lots of scripts, think about what makes them work, or not, and write endless one page synopses – but because it’s work that you can do outside of office hours as and when you can fit it in (usually late at night). Freelance script reading work meant that I could reduce my day job to three days a week, giving me four days in which to manage the rest of my workload – the reading, the writing and the meetings.

But the amount of time and effort required for a reading job is, in the beginning, fairly extreme in relation to the amount you can earn from it so you might not feel it’s the path for you.

There are other freelancing opportunities out there of course, I know several writers who have paved their way with teaching, journalism, copywriting or web design, for example. But to imagine you can step into this sort of work, which are careers in themselves, is insulting to the people who’ve worked as hard to get a foothold in those industries as you have to get a foothold into the screenwriting industry.

There’s no quick fix to ease the transition during this difficult and crucial time period. A period which might last several years.

Until one day, eventually, finally, your writing income overtakes your income from other sources and becomes the primary way you earn your living. What a feeling! What a happy, glorious day that is!

But even as the champagne cork pops, there’s no resting on any laurels to be had, because what about next year? And the year after that? There are no guarantees. Ever.

Before writing can become the only way you earn your living, you need to make sure you’ll have enough work coming in to keep you afloat for at least a year. And the only way to do that is to keep generating more work for the future.

It means that just when you think you’re working at maximum capacity, you have to find the next gear and make time and space for more. You have to chase every last opportunity like it’s the only one you’ve got, and do everything you can to deliver the best work you can in the time you have available. Because the more boomerangs you chuck out into the wilderness, the more likely it becomes that one will come back to you. And it might be the one you need to take you to that next level.

In the meantime, I guess the only answer, really, is good old fashioned graft. Screwing your courage, and your backside, to the sticking place – and bloody well getting on with it.

This is not a moan or a grumble. It’s a reality check.

As far as I’m concerned, writing is the best job in the world. Even at four in the morning when I’ve been working for eighteen hours straight, I can’t think of anything else I’d rather do. I thank my lucky stars for every single boomerang I catch on its way back.

And of course, the truth is, the more the work starts coming in, the better it gets. The more you enjoy what you’re doing and the less like graft it really feels.

But it’s not the life for everyone. If you’re not prepared to keep pushing yourself, keep moving things up a gear, you’re wasting your time.

This is the path of the freelancer. It’s the path you chose.

Roll up your sleeves.

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comments

That’ll go down in history as the one blog post that every aspiring writer should read.

laurencetimms

October 6, 2009

Michelle, this post couldn’t have come at a better time! Thanks for sharing.

DreamsGrafter

October 6, 2009

Thank God you went through the same thing. I thought I was doing something wrong!

Andy Gibb

October 6, 2009

Brilliant post, Michelle. And very very true.

May I just add two things…?

Firstly, I really recommend getting a job in a related industry – e.g. in a theatre, I’m thinking front of house, box office, marketing – not only do you get access to drama first hand but you get to hear what the audience thinks and it puts you on the frontline. I’ve met loads of people who started a relationship with a theatre as pretty junior staff and then got opportunities to build on that relationship creatively. Of course, that may only be an opportunity for younger writers with less outgoings…. In TV I guess the similar job would be assistant researcher with an eye on getting into a story department.

Which brings me round to point number two…. the most important thing to do if you want to be a writer (or work in the creative industries full stop) is reduce all your outgoings to a bare minimum and do that now. If you have kids you need to make sure you know about working family tax credits and you should research every avenue of funding (e.g. skillset, regional film development agencies) for training. I’ve long spent my life “making do”, not having holidays, not going out for the evening (unless it’s work related), drinking less and collecting EVERY single receipt possible to offset my tax and having an interest only mortgage. I’m 40 and I have no carpets – says it all really. But, bizarrely, I have this theory that if I don’t need much to live on then I can earn less and give myself the maximum of time to write.

That was all really – hope it wasn’t too much bollocks after your totally fabulous post.

Sal xx

Sally A

October 6, 2009

Hi Sally, not bollocks at all! Both great points.

Really I was talking about the point at which your career is really rolling along – you’ve got a LOT of work on, you’ve already got those contacts and they’re all flinging oppotunities at you that you just don’t want to give up for lack of time – but you’re totally right in both contexts.

A job in a related field at the start would be a good way of thinking ahead – getting those contacts AND working with people who might be a bit more understanding when your career starts taking off. And box office/front of house type jobs are generally outside of office hours so when things do get going you should still have more time available for those meetings etc. They’re generally not very well paid, but that’s down what each person can sensibly manage on I guess.

And funding, bursaries, hardship grants, career development grants and tax credits are all excellent suggestions! Thanks a lot, x

michellelipton

October 6, 2009

I’m working on my own scripts now and am grateful for my screenwriting coach whom I met through Meetup.com. We meet each Wednesday to go over our scripts. Mine is a feature film. I’ll go back and revise my television script which I began before I joined the Meetup group. I belong to a filmmakers group as well and they’re looking for writers. I would be more than happy to help out with scripts; it would be a great learning process.

Being a freelance write is great because the commute is short and you make your own hours.

Rebecca

October 6, 2009

great post – I’m already being told off by the family for the amount of hours I put in – that’s the hardest part. And I’m not even a paid writer, I’ve still got the day job. It’s a case of ‘thank god the football’s back’!

scattyjan

October 6, 2009

Thanks Michelle, this was just the reality check I needed – having slogged away in the IT industry for 13 years I’ve finally reached the point where I feel ready to start taking the plunge into the murky waters of freelance writing – apart from short script that won a comp a few years back on BBC radio, I’ve just been able to fit in review writing online in my spare time. to

I realise now that I’ve still got a way to go in getting prepared for the different stages and that I need to phase out of my current career and earnings more gradually (and build up a stock of spare cash) – at the same time I still find your advice very encouraging and I’m more determined than ever to commit properly and give it a go!

paul wilson

October 12, 2009

I’ve been in IT for 14 years :( I love spending my free time writing. I took two days off last week, and during the two mornings I just wrote. :) In the afternoon I wrote a little bit more, and in the evening I read a script.
I’ve completed a feature script and it’s being sent out to a director and producer. I’m seriously considering giving my job so I can write and write and write and read and read.

Dharmesh

October 13, 2009

It’s definitely scary making the leap from a fixed regular income to the insecurity of freelancing, but so satisfying after the years of hard work you put in to get there.

Best of luck to you all!

michellelipton

October 15, 2009

Fantastic blog Michelle, scary and encouraging at the same time. As I’m going through a bit of a low-period right now I found that such a help to remind me of the some of the struggles and joys that make up being a writer.

Congratulations on the 0110 job as well!

kaisavage

October 21, 2009

Thanks for a great post Michelle and a further reality check. I’m only at the beginning of my journey but your post and blog (like others i.e. stack, kelly, english dave, etc..) is helping to make the mental transition from uni-graduate-wanna-be-writer to looking seriously to the future about all this and from the ground up. Much appreciated.

Best regards

Rob

Robert

October 23, 2009

Michelle,

Thanks for the sharing. I did heard of the amount of effort and determination to be successful as freelancer. A lot of commitment involve.

All the best to you.

vivien

November 17, 2009

Very true, Michelle! And I agree with the John August quote as well – even though you’re working day and night, you’re still struggling financially. So, yes, it’s important not to give up because as soon as you get some other job you’ll have less time for writing and it’ll take even longer to make it.
I started out doing other stuff in the film industry and I was lucky enough not having to find any non-film jobs between projects. And now, as a full-time writer, there’s always a sort of dark abyss of the unknown looming in the distance – after the next few projects. It keeps you on your toes. Fortunately, I haven’t had any large gaps yet, but as always, I have no idea what I’ll be doing this time next year. No clue.

I think I might have seen you at the Screenwriters Festival by the way :) But we didn’t have a chance to meet (but then there were a few hundred people there).

Great blog! Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. :)

Margit

Margit

November 23, 2009

If you follow your dreams with hard work, sheer guts and determination they will come true. Never give up.

Michelle you are an inspiration to us all.

Nick

December 11, 2009

Really nice article : )

ross fox

February 3, 2010

Keep up the good work! I highly recommend http://www.realwritingjobs.com if you want to work with writing as a freelancer…

Loped

July 27, 2010

Nice to make money from home with freelancing. . . .

Snake

August 31, 2010

thanks for sharing this interesting post freelancing is a great way to make some money from home

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She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is entirely off topic
but I had to tell someone!

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March 26, 2013

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Matthias

April 3, 2013

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