Adam Wakefield spoke to experienced freelance writers, Danette Breitenbach and Tamsin Oxford, about the pros and cons of being a freelancer.
In January this year, the Southern Africa Freelancers’ Association released its first-ever research document on the local freelance economy, titled 2016 SA Freelance Media Industry and Rates
. According to the report, over 43% of South Africa’s media freelancers earned less than R10 000 a month. Given the costs of modern living, that figure should arguably be higher.
Breitenbach became a freelancer 14 years ago after she was retrenched, while Oxford has been in the industry for over 20 years. Both wanted to spend more time with their respective children and, in Oxford’s case, battled to find full-time employment that suited her expertise within the market at the time.
However, since they both started working for themselves, they have experienced both the good and the bad of working in the freelance environment.
Pro 1: Freelancers manage their own time
The first advantage Oxford and Breitenbach speak of when freelancing is being able to manage their own time.
Breitenbach says if a freelancer can organise their time and be disciplined, they will be able to fetch their kids from school, spend time with them, watch them play sport, and shop in off-peak times, among other life-minutia activities.
Oxford enjoys the freedom of being able to dictate her own hours, but doing so means you must be constantly mindful of how much work affects day-to-day life.
Pro 2: Freelancing leads to a variety of work and clients
The second advantage freelancers can enjoy is working with different people and in different fields, week-to-week and even day-to-day.
“I get to meet some truly amazing people and clients,” Oxford says. “As a generalist, I can learn about sustainable fishing in the morning, write about Big Data for lunch, and then explore the realm of deep learning in the afternoon.”
Breitenbach adds, “One day, you are tweeting for a PR company at a conference in Senegal, the next you are writing social media content or an article. The clients are also great. You get to meet really interesting people from all different walks of life, whether they are clients or people you are interviewing.”
Pro 3: Freelancers innovate at their own pace
Another advantage of freelancing, according to Oxford, is being able to innovate, as she is not bound by a job description.
“If I fail and I am rubbish at it, which has happened, then I can learn, pick myself up, and cross it off the list without losing my job.”
That, and being able to work in her pyjamas.
However, being a freelancer does have some downsides, ones which need to be factored in if long-term success is desired.
Con 1: Freelancing means being a financial planner
Neither Oxford nor Breitenbach were able to match their previous earnings immediately when they went the freelance route. It took Breitenbach around two years before she earned enough money on a regular basis, while it took Oxford four months before she matched her previous salary, with her husband’s earnings carrying their family.
Breitenbach says, unlike being employed, as a freelancer you need to know how to juggle your money.
“When you earn a lot of money, you need to roll over for the next month. I do a three-month forecast at the beginning of every month,” she warns.
Oxford says being a freelancer means invoicing and, inevitably, chasing payments.
“This is exhausting and frustrating as many organisations don’t realise that the invoice they are holding onto, the hoops they make you jump through, are your salary,” she says.
Con 2: Maintaining a balance between current work and new work
Freelancing, as Breitenbach and Oxford mention, means taking on work as it comes up because your income is usually not the same month to month. However, the risk exists of taking on too much work and not leaving yourself enough time to complete the work you already have.
Breitenbach says, “It is a continuous process. Freelancers will never not take on work, even if it means working 24 hours a day. We know we need to make hay while the sun shines, so to speak.”
She continues, “It is easy to get buried in work. You have to lift your head now and again to see what is on the horizon, because you must ensure that you have work when your current work is completed.”
Con 3: As a freelancer, you take on all the responsibility
While freelancing, as alluded to earlier, means that you are your own boss, it also means you are solely responsible for what happens and what does not happen. It requires discipline and, accordingly, Breitenbach works set office hours to ensure she maintains a balance between working and doing too much work.
According to Oxford, she herself “can be a fairly rubbish boss”, meaning there is a risk of work overriding life, which “isn’t necessarily a good thing”.
Additionally, with no one to bounce ideas off or get feedback from except clients, Oxford talks of the anxiety that comes with being a freelancer. You play judge, jury, and executioner on the work you do before it gets sent to the client.
“There isn’t a day that goes by without me worrying about losing a client, my work not being good enough, or my having dropped a social/networking ball,” Oxford says.
It can be exhausting, but as freelance colleagues have argued to Oxford, it is what makes them consistently good at what they do.
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If writing is not for you, ever thought about podcasting? Read more in our story, Podcasting in SA: Storytelling and brand-building in a multi-tasker’s format.