Shop Talk: Do You Have What It Takes To Freelance?

Few jobs descriptions are as awesome as: “play lots of video games, then get paid to write about them.” Game journalism is a fun and fulfilling career, but it’s far from easy. Unlike landing a staff position at a game magazine or website, being freelance means you’re completely on your own. The freedom of managing your workload and schedule the way you want to without someone breathing down your neck is exhilarating. However, being your own boss can quickly turn into a soul-sucking black hole of stress if you’re not careful. There’s a reason why so many freelance writers pack it in and return to the relative safety and comfort of a nine-to-five job.

As a freelancer, you’re essentially creating and running your own writing business. Playing games and churning out words is only a small portion of the many day-to-day tasks you have to juggle. From pitching editors and chasing late paychecks to managing your finances and tracking assignments, it falls on your shoulders alone to handle every important facet of your business. For some, that weight can be stifling. Not everyone can hack the rigors of the freelance life, but those who can stick it out through the rough patches will find it can be a rewarding and lucrative career. Are you sure you’ve got what it takes? Consider these important questions:

Do you have tight writing chops?

A solid command of the English language is an absolute must for this gig. Spelling, grammar, sentence structure, and creative flair are not things to be taken lightly. Spewing an abundance of unintelligible word vomit at an editor’s in-box is the fastest way to unemployment. While a college degree in journalism or creative writing certainly doesn’t hurt, having fancy writing credentials is far less important to editors than your ability to write well. The good news is you can always hone your chop with practice, but you still have to possess a certain level of requisite writing skill to get off the ground first.

Can you write well under pressure?

Deadlines can be a real bitch, but they’re an ever-present reality in the freelancer’s regular routine. Failing to meet them is not an option. Juggling rolling deadlines for different editors between multiple outlets can get hairy at times, and you need to be able to keep cool and do good work when it gets down to the wire. Sometimes inadvertent scheduling bottlenecks force you to bash out multiple assignments in a very short time-span. Other times editors want a particular piece done on a lightning quick turnaround. If you can’t deliver the goods by go-time, you’re pretty screwed.

Can you make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs?

Because you totally need to be able to do that shit if you want to freelance. Ok, trick question. Moving on.

Are you willing to sell yourself and market your work?

As lame as it sounds, one of the most important hats you’ll wear as a freelancer is that of a salesperson. Whether you’re trying to get an important editor at a hot-paying new outlet to bite on your latest article idea or are sounding the trumpet across the vast internet to get your name out there so others take notice of your work, you need to be willing to pimp your writing wares to the world. You have to spread your colorful writing plumage. If you can’t do that in an effective way, then you’re going to have a hard time getting steady work.

 Are you able to self-motivate?

Working at home means the only person who’s going to light a fire under your ass to get anything done is YOU. Freelancing lets you set a flexible schedule, but do you have the discipline to allot enough time each day to sit down and write when there are plenty of other distractions beckoning for your attention? Even if you don’t have external deadlines to meet, you must be able to set and meet your own deadlines and budget your time effectively in order to be a successful freelancer. There’s always one more level to play, one more e-mail to check, one more Facebook entry to make. If you have the willpower and motivation to carve out time to write despite these distractions, then you’ve got a shot.

Do you have tougher hide than a Koopa shell?

Taking feedback or criticism from editors can be challenging, but game journalists – particularly those of us who write reviews – need a thick skin to stave off the punches leveled at us from all directions. Pissed off fan boys love to throw virtual feces and argue the finer points of why you’re an idiot and everything you’ve written about their favorite game is totally wrong. Publishers and PR don’t always take kindly to their games getting panned. Editors can get grumpy. Some days can feel like you’re playing a round of Missile Command. You have to be able to shake off the hits and keep on rolling.

Are you ready for the challenges of self-employment?

With no salary, no health benefits, and no pension plans, the freelance writing game can be a tough one career-wise. Freelancers deal with high self-employment taxes and wildly fluctuating income. Most outlets pay monthly instead of weekly or bi-weekly, so be prepared to handle the imbalance of having some weeks where no checks come in and others where you’ll get a deluge of income. Are you savvy enough to handle the business side of freelancing?

Want to read more Shop Talk? Why not scope out the archive for past installments!

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3 thoughts on “Shop Talk: Do You Have What It Takes To Freelance?

  1. Great article, definitely a must-read for any freelancers out there! I’m glad that you presented a balanced viewpoint, mentioning both the awesome and the not-so-awesome aspects. Also, always up for a Kessel Run reference. Win!

  2. Thanks Brett!

    There’s definitely a fine line when it comes to freelancing. On one hand it’s one of the most awesomest gigs imagineable, but on the other it can be extremely challenging. Figure it’s best to let prospective freelancers know the real skinny and decide for themselves if they want to give it a go.

    Of course, there’s always moonlighting, which is a great way to test the waters. I’ll be touching on that subject down the road.

  3. Good post! I’m glad you touched on the issue of needing a thick skin. So many writers can’t take criticism — constructive or not — without either losing all hope and self esteem or getting pissed off. I have had people who can’t construct a single sentence coherently tell me I don’t have any writing sense and then demand I redo the piece. It’s frustrating.

    The good thing is, though, when I get that snotty email I can cuss and yell at it until I’ve calmed down, without repercussions beyond scaring the cat 😄

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