I think a lot of people dream of going freelance. Working for themselves, setting their own hours and workdays, running their lives from the comfort of a home office. But while there’s a load of advice articles out there which have a title along the lines of “Five Things To Know If You Go Freelance,” there aren’t many that actually talk about the experience of starting out, the ups and downs and lessons learned and the cold, hard data about how successful it was.
So I’m here to tell you my personal experience with it – from the very beginning.
When I finished uni with a degree in English and History, I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. I ended up moving home, as many graduates do, and within a few months I got a position volunteering at my local library (in a position that had been paid until recently, but that’s by the by.) My plan was to eventually move into a librarian career, but I quickly learned I hated it.
Not only did I hate that I spent a year making no money, I also hated being at someone’s beck-and-call and having to stay in one place for a certain amount of time. At uni, having that set schedule was fine because each lecture was in a new place with new people and a new subject, but having to return to the same small room and do the same thing every day was horrendous for my mental state (there’s probably a diagnosis waiting for me if I choose to pursue it, but I haven’t yet. I just couldn’t stand that structure.) I’d finish a day and buy myself a box of strawberries to eat on the way home, and I realised I’d actually lost money that day.
After a year, my girlfriend and uni friends were due to start their sponsored Master’s degrees in Portsmouth, a city basically the other side of the country away – and I agreed to move with her so we’d be together. I finished volunteering and planned to use my degree and year of volunteer experience to get a job in a proper library – where I hoped there’d be many more things to do. I got a couple of interviews, but they didn’t lead to success. Eventually I got desperate and started applying to everything I figured I could reasonably do, and the only position I could find was a temporary job overseeing students’ exams at a school over the summer. They accepted me, but I backed out when I realised I’d be hiking across the city a couple times a week for £21 a day – it wouldn’t come close to covering my expenses.
Around the time, I spoke to my girlfriend and said I wanted to try out freelance writing. At the time I was basically a nonentity on social media – which is obviously very different now – and I was running a small, unsuccessful cooking blog. With £50 left in my bank account – that’s including savings, too – I submitted a top 10 list to the website Listverse, which offered $100 if accepted – and they took it. We were both overjoyed. I’d made my first freelance sale.
In all, I wrote for Listverse for around 8 months and sold roughly 120,000 words worth of content for around £3-4,000. Nowhere near minimum wage, but it had given me enough to barely survive on, and at least I didn’t have to pay for my commute.
Freelance is not always glamour and buckets of money, haha.
My friends finished their degree after a year and my girlfriend and I moved back to our family homes again, and shortly after I arrived back, the editorial team at Listverse changed and the jobs dried up. I went from September 2019 to June 2020 without a source of income as I tried other things, started this blog, drafted two books (neither of which I’ve done anything with yet), and generally flailed and panicked as I’d drifted into the deadliest pandemic in a century stuck in my parents’ house with no job.
In June, despairing, I tweeted out a couple of map examples and asked if anybody wanted one. I’d been drawing them in Photoshop for a few years by that point, but always either for my own enjoyment, for personal projects, or for the board game business my brother and I started in 2016 (that’s a long story.) I was charging £35 for a simple black and white map, and the tweet was very successful – it got a couple of hundred likes. I got a couple of gigs, and honestly at first it was quite nerve wracking, but I soon got the hang of keeping track of multiple clients and their requests. My girlfriend very kindly put her spreadsheet making skills to use and made me a properly coded one, since I was filling mine out by hand.
I’ve been exceptionally lucky, because I’ve had constant work since. I’ve inched my rates up as I’ve gone along, mostly to reflect how my skills have improved, and I’ve added options for several different kinds of maps. At the moment I make around £450 a month and I’ve been doing this a little under a year, but that’s going up slowly as I increase my rates – and I imagine it’ll improve further when the pandemic is over and it no longer feels like everything’s on fire and I can actually focus on setting up a consistent work schedule. (That’s the thing about freelance – your income is directly tied to your productivity. You can’t have an ‘off day’ – you’ll just produce poor work, or no work, and not get paid.)
So I don’t make the most money. But it’s enough. It’ll grow as I move forward (this month will come with a couple hundred £ extra, courtesy of my precious little book, The Shield Road, being launched – which was way more successful than I expected!) and I’ll develop a couple of other ways to make money. But I’m happy here. I enjoy being my own boss, it means I can manage my mental health better, and it’s an extremely fulfilling job because I’m directly helping people’s visions of their dream stories come to life.
I hope this sheds some light on the world of beginner freelancing for you!