What it feels like to be a freelancer
Freelancers: If you have to rewrite someone’s rubbish heap of a novel, DO NOT do it for free.
- “So people actually pay you to write?”
“They do…yeah. They actually do.”
“And so…they just tell you what to write, and you write it? What if they don’t like it?”
“Then I have to write it again. Or they just don’t pay me.”
I lasted about 9 months as a freelancer, and during those 9 months, I had this conversation, or some variation of this conversation, with every new acquaintance. “Freelancer” sounds strangely glamorous to people who work a day job, and I quickly learned that saying “I write travel guides for hotel websites” sounds absolutely titillating to the guy at the bar who just spent 9 hours in a cubicle.
An honest description of those 9 months?
I ate peanut butter with a spoon and practiced my British accent on my dog because no one was around to tell me I was acting like a crazy person.
“I wrote generic copy for hotel websites that were overrun with spammy ads. They used my uncredited work for their city guides, which were also overrun with spammy ads. I wore the same yoga pants three days in a row, and I ate peanut butter with a spoon and practiced my British accent on my dog because no one was around to tell me I was acting like a crazy person. I read sentences to the walls of my bedroom until they didn’t sound like English anymore, just sounds coming out of my mouth, but grammatically pristine sounds. Sometimes I lay down on the floor at 1:30 in the afternoon and sang “Badadabupbupbup” when a word was escaping me and I was too stubborn to click “review” and “thesaurus” in Word.”
In this alternate universe of truth telling, I imagine people would mumble, “Oh, it must be so nice not to have a routine.” And I’d say, “That is my routine,” and smile in a way that would make them uncomfortable and stop asking me questions about my work.
In reality, I did have a routine. I’m a morning person, and I could put away thousands of words between the hours of 6am and noon. After that, I’d walk my dog to break up the day, a more constructive alternative to the peanut butter and British accent afternoons. A few more thousand words between 1 and 4. And then my day was done. As it turns out, my day and the cubicle man’s day were surprisingly similar tales of sitting on our asses in front of the computer for hours on end. The only difference is that he had to wear a tie. And act like a normal person.
I recently touched base with my best friend from back home in Colorado, who’s been freelancing as a means of income during the final year of her MFA program. She was working on a freelance editing project for some random dude in Alaska who ghostwrites memoirs for old people. It’s heartwarming and also the kind of weird assignment you’d only find on Elance.
- “I got completely screwed over,” she told me.
“Ah, one of those,” I said. “Let’s hear it.”
The Alaskan ghostwriter had paid her half the money up front to edit the ghostwritten memoir, which was poorly written on his part, she claimed, probably because he knew the old woman was too old to tell the difference. He told her he didn’t want line edits, but a big-picture focus on the flow of the story. He asked her to transform the linearly written account of this woman’s life into a non-linear series of powerful vignettes. She worked full time for a week overhauling the piece from a straight birth to (almost)-death dictation into a rich and vibrant non-linear memoir. Basically, she rewrote the book for him.
- “He told me I missed a few grammar corrections in the second chapter, and was disappointed with my work,” she told me, sounding deflated. “You know…like line editing stuff.”
“You rewrote his crappy book for free.”
- “So he didn’t pay you the second half?”
“No. And he asked for the first half of the payment back.”
“Please tell me that you didn’t do that.”
- “Oh shit. Why did you do that?”
She said it was an impulse. That she’d never had anyone seem so upset about her work before, and it rattled her into thinking her work really was crap.
- “So I just sent the money back to him on Paypal.”
“You rewrote his crappy book for free.”
She patiently listened to me give one of my many speeches about how you can’t be a freelancer unless you’re willing to be your own advocate. If you’re too nice, people will take advantage of you. You have to hold your ground, every time, or you will make no money.
- “Can we stop talking about it now?” she pleaded.
“Yeah, ok,” I mumbled, feeling grumpy on her behalf.
“So, what’s your next assignment?”