So You Want To Be A … Freelance Journalist

I’m not the only auntie who wants to share some hard-earned experience with you. Meet Clair, a freelance journalist who writes mostly about science, drinks, music, bartending and food. She’s got some great advice on how to get assignments, pay those pesky self-employment taxes and manage the stress of a feast-or-famine income.

Tell us about your career path. What did you study in school and what jobs led you to becoming a freelance journalist?

In college, I majored in physics and English literature. During my third year, I took an internship at Birmingham Magazine because writing seemed interesting. I pitched my first article idea soon after it ended, and never stopped pitching.

Two-and-a-half years ago, I quit my office job to bartend. In addition to being much, much more intellectually challenging than an intro-level office job, it was also physically demanding. After six months of memorizing hundreds of recipes and researching spirits and cocktails, I started writing about them. The rest, they say, is online.

Why freelance instead of taking a steady gig?

Full-time jobs in publishing are becoming scarcer every year. Staff writing? Fuhgeddabowdit.

At this point in time, if you want to write nonfiction for a living, you freelance.

Right now, more than a third of Americans freelance. That number continues to rise every year. With many companies farming out work to independent contractors, the debate over whether office jobs are steadier or more secure than freelancing gets more intense. In fact, Googling the subject yields more than three million hits.

How do you find clients/make money?

Corporate clients or magazine clients? The only difference in how I pitch is that emails to magazines include a summary of my qualifications and one idea. Potential corporate clients receive a summary of a project that I could complete for them, and usually entail a longer-term relationship.

From there, we agree to a fee and then sign a contract. I do the writing, and send in an invoice when it’s complete. If they’re on time, I get paid 30-45 days later.

How do you budget your money when your income fluctuates?

Before I quit my bartending job, I sat down and outlined all of my baseline expenses. If those are met, money that’s left over goes straight into savings for tight months (or emergencies like needing new tires) or my retirement account.

When the taxman cometh, do you pay or panic?

Over the course of the year, I set aside 1/3 of every check for taxes. I pay both quarterly taxes and annual taxes.

Do you have a niche or do you write a little bit of everything?

Both. I’m an accomplished spirits and cocktail writer, but I’ve also written about everything from architectural stone and agriculture to weddings and relationships.

Can you tell us what a typical day is like?

I wake up around 9 to eat breakfast. While I’m eating, I catch up on articles and social media, then make a to-do list. Depending on the day, I’ll spend the next few hours transcribing interviews, tracking down sources, invoicing publications, pitching new articles, or outlining difficult projects. That takes about half of the week. The other half is writing.

Where do you see this career taking you?

The sarcastic answer is Canada, Kentucky, France, Italy, Scotland, and anywhere else cocktails and spirits are made.

When you freelance, you’re already at the top of your own personal corporate ladder, so you’re in charge of your destiny.

How do you (and you alone) define success as a freelance journalist? How will you know you’ve “made it?”

What type of success are we measuring? Writing? Monetary? Business? Personal? There’s always another publication to pursue, a payment to track down, terms to negotiate, and personal problems to overcome.

Every time you “make it,” there’s another publication on your bucket list, another payment to track down, etc., etc.

Is there something you wish someone had told you before you signed up to be a freelance journalist?

That it is possible to make a living, but you’ll work harder than almost all of your friends. That many people don’t consider freelancing to be actual work.

What is the best thing about your job?

Setting my own hours. I’m a night owl.

What’s the suckiest part of your job?

Setting my own hours. I’m not good at stepping away from my laptop.

What stresses you out about your job and how do you deal with it?

The lack of a set income is a huge stressor. I usually cope by trying to pitch harder and set up more work in the future.

Any advice for young women interested freelancing, pursuing career in journalism or both?

Don’t ever let your health insurance coverage lapse. Treat your writing like a business. Get a good accountant. Write every day. Seek out mentors who’ve walked the path before you, and be willing to pay for their insights.

Want to connect with Clair? Check out her blog, clairmclafferty.com

Photo credit: Mary Katherine Morris Photography.

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