Seeking creative freedom? Think twice before freelancing.

Photo: Pat Pitchaya, freedigitalphotos.net

Photo: Pat Pitchaya, freedigitalphotos.net

There’s a common narrative surrounding freelancing that goes something like this:

“I quit my job to be a freelancer in order to achieve more creative freedom.”

Sure, that’s true in some ways. But in some ways, it isn’t true. The fact is, unless you enjoy the upper echelon of commercial and critical success as a fiction writer (and maybe not even then; those guys and gals have editors, too) or you’re independently wealthy and don’t need to consider your financial resources, audience or clients when creating your passion project, you’ll have to answer to someone, somewhere, along the creative path.

When considering a freelance career, I think the real question is, ‘who do you want to answer to, and how?’ The answers will help you determine whether or not the type of creativity you want to nurture is best cultivated within a company setting or the comfort of your own home office.

Everyone’s experience with the transition to freelance writing is different, so I can only offer insight into my own foray.

In my experience, here are the ways in which freelancing helps to foster creativity.

You can diversify your subject matter.

As a freelancer, you can decide what types of things you want to write about and pitch articles according to those interests. While you might be able to write stories on one particular subject you’re interested in when you’re employed full-time by a publication, you’re not likely to pursue a diverse set of interests in that setting. As editor of a homes magazine, I wrote stories mainly about home décor and remodeling. As a freelancer, I can write on homes, but also farm equipment, kids and nutrition, plastic surgery, military lifestyles and personal finance, sometimes all in one week. That’s fun.

You can pitch stories you care about.

For example, if you read this blog regularly, you know I love to geek out on listing software and personal organization techniques. While large publications may not be devoted to these topics, as a freelancer, I can pitch the occasional story to media outlets concerned with that type of stuff and write away, blissfully, on the merits of color-coding, box-checking and getting things done using apps and programs that help readers prioritize.

Once, the designer of a listing software program I use daily and swear by, noticed me blogging my love for their product all over the place, on my own time. So they approached me and asked to try out a new version of the software and then write about it on their dime. Um, yeah, are you kidding? Of course I said I’d do it. I’m a freelancer, so I can say yes to basically whatever I want to write about.

Here’s how freelance writing does not foster creativity:

You’ll still be writing for someone else.

Be it a magazine, a newspaper, a Web site, a blog not run by you or a business looking to reach clients, each media outlet has a specific editorial voice and story angle in mind. The piece you’re hired to write will be informed by that, and you’ll be expected to write according to the outlet’s specifications.

You’ll be edited.

Some of your most creative prose, maybe the stuff you were most excited about adding to your story, may edited out. You may also be asked to add things to your story you may or may not agree with adding. But in the end, you’re being asked to write for a client, so you need to be editable. And that means compromising your own creativity from time to time in order to help achieve the publication’s goal for the article you’re producing.

You’ll be edited.

If you’re writing for multiple publications, no two editing processes will be alike, and neither will your editors, so you’ll have to be flexible. I have editors who edit heavily, editors who edit lightly, in-between editors and those who edit not at all. I have equal admiration and respect for each one, and am willing to work with them on various levels to do what needs to be done. Are you?

You’ll have to run a business.

That means you’ll have to do stuff like sales, marketing, networking and PR when you’re not being creative, in order to keep the creative work going. If you’ve never learned how to do those things, you’re likely to encounter a difficult, but not insurmountable, learning curve. I knew nothing about these parts of running a business when I began freelancing, and I had to spend a lot of time figuring it out. (True confession: I discovered I liked it.)

So, here’s the thing.

I believe there’s no “creative freedom” litmus test for freelance writers. There are no set criteria we can all use to decide if it’s the right way for each of us to explore creative expression. Instead, if you’re considering a freelance career, I suggest analyzing your own creative goals. Do you want to write on various topics, or just one? Are you interested in learning how to run a small business? Are you open to different kinds of editors and editing, and at different levels of intensity? Does all of that sound better when done independently as opposed to with a company?

It helps to gain insight from other freelancers before taking the leap, so I hope this article has helped you, even in some small way, decide if a freelance career is right for you. Sure, freelancing is a creative choice, but it deserves a measured approach.

P.S.: While we’re on this topic, I should probably tell you that some exciting change is afoot for me and my own creative work life. I’ll have more on that next week.

2 thoughts on “Seeking creative freedom? Think twice before freelancing.

  1. The timing of your post is impeccable. I was driving and thinking about how little time I’ve had for my poetry and short fiction work this year because writing for clients is the priority…and my phone beeped with your new post! I’ve been considering taking a short leave to work exclusively on creative projects. Not any time soon. Maybe later next year. Funny, a year ago I used my free time to produce a lot of poetry, but felt cheated on my reading time. Now I’ve been reading in my spare time and it is the other way around!

  2. I’m so glad this post was timely for you! It’s hard to fit it all in, I think, especially when you deal in words all day. One of the toughest challenges for me is to read for recreation. I probably shouldn’t admit that. But if I’m being honest, it’s really hard for me to pick up a book after reading and writing so intensely all day. There’s the other side of the coin, too. I didn’t mention this in my post, but it did occur to me that working full time for a company might actually foster creative thinking, simply because it can’t be done at any time. Instead, a person would have to schedule in specific time to do that work, and she might hold herself to it because it’s the only time she can devote to it. Sort of the idea that being busy actually makes you more productive. I wonder …

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