I was a freelancer and hated every moment of it. Here's what my experience was like and why I went back to a full-time job.
- Elizabeth Blackstock is an automotive writer who freelanced for 20 months after quitting her job.
- For her, full-time freelance writing was a torturous cycle of overwork and underpayment.
On October 4, 2021, I ended a 20-month freelance writing experiment in favor of a full-time job, and I couldn't have been more thankful to bring a torturous cycle of overwork and underpayment to an end.
By trade, I'm an automotive and motorsport journalist, which is about as niche as niche can get. I left a previous full-time job on February 28, 2020, right as the COVID-19 pandemic took America — and my job prospects — by surprise. My work options immediately slimmed, and the publications that did answer my pitches generally told me they couldn't pay me — a trend that persisted well in 2021.
But even as publications adjusted to a new normal, freelancing didn't get easier. Instead of just writing, I had to learn marketing, management, accounting, branding, and social media strategy while contending with chronically low pay rates. I learned a lot from it, though, and I'd hope that my experience can help a different freelancer or potential freelancer on their journey.
Right off the bat, I realized freelancing requires more administrative work than I anticipated
A majority of my day was spent crafting pitches, sending emails, making connections, or chasing payments. By the time I sat down to actually write something, it was usually time for dinner, and I was exhausted.
For every minute I spent writing, I spent around 10 minutes doing administrative work, hoping for a response.
The writing I did do was largely unfulfilling
Instead of the meaningful work I'd sought, I put together compilations of great products to buy on Amazon and reported on federal warnings about booster seats. I learned about designer handbags, curated endless gift guides, memorized hundreds of social media holidays, and learned how to master video editing and search-engine optimization.
Having those extra skills, however, didn't improve my situation much. My pay rate remained dismal.
Networking saved me
Thankfully, I was able to take part in a handful of press trips — events like new-car launches, where a lot of journalists in the same industry often end up — at a frequency I'd never done before, which taught me the importance of networking.
After one trip, I'd come home with a handful of contacts who would come to me with feature opportunities, a paying gig, or an insider who could vouch for me when I sent a press request. These opportunities proved integral to furthering my career, and it was only after I'd started making them several months into my freelance effort that I realized how badly I'd needed them from the start.
Timely payment was almost nonexistent
After all of that was said and done — after I'd successfully pitched a story, negotiated a rate, wrote the article, made edits, and saw the story posted — I still needed to be paid. I was, to put it kindly, the bottom of the food chain. I sopped up the scraps that the publication I'd written for deigned to give me.
I lost count of how many follow-up emails went unanswered when I was seeking payment. The day I started my full-time job, I had $20,000 of unpaid invoices sitting in my outbox — which was an improvement, because the week prior, two publications paid me a total of $9,000 that they'd owed me for three months.
My fastest payment, surprisingly, never came from the websites at which I had a contract. Rather, it came from small publications with very little staff. Those were also, unfortunately, the publications that paid the least.
Above all, I learned my worth
When I started freelancing, I had no idea what constituted a good rate, so a company that offered a flat rate of $35 per article sounded enticing. Unfortunately, that standard fee was deceptive: If it took me more than an hour to write the article, or if it broached over 750 words, I wasn't making anywhere enough to pay my bills.
It wasn't until I stopped freelancing that I found a formula that worked for me. I determined how much money I wanted to make in a month, calculated my average word count, and played with per-word rates that would bring me to my goal. But even the rate I came up with — between 25 and 50 cents per word — seemed ambitious, likely to be rejected at a moment's notice.
There were bright moments in my freelancing experiment. I had the freedom to work on several stories I wouldn't have had the opportunity to pursue with a steadier job that required me to stay in one place. Those stories, though, were few and far between.
I've come to think of my freelancing experiment as a failure, though I don't necessarily consider that a negative thing. It was a valuable experience that taught me a lot — but I won't miss it for a second.
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