Shop Talk: Getting Down To Business

Dabbling in a little hobbyist video game-related writing on the side for fun and free games is all fine and good, but things start to change when you get paid for your work. Make enough money, and The Man takes notice. That opens up a Pandora’s Box of self-employment complexities to get a handle on. There’s a lot of nitty gritty that comes along with wrangling those beasties, but navigating the business end of freelancing doesn’t have to be a total nightmare.

Whether you’re writing for green on a part-time or full-time basis, freelancing is still a business venture. You have to take it seriously if you want to keep your backside from getting scorched in the bacon grease-filled frying pan of the law. By spending some time familiarizing yourself with the nuances of self-employment before you leap off the deep end, you’ll save yourself a lot of trouble down the road. Beyond the writing itself, here are some of the important considerations you’ll need to keep an eye on as a freelancer.

The Fine Print

When you first begin writing for a new paying outlet, your editor will inevitably hit you up with a contract and other related business documents to read, sign, and return before you can start getting paid. Don’t skim through the legalese and slap your John Hancock on it all willy-nilly. While you’re pretty much stuck signing it if you want the work, read everything carefully and make sure you understand the terms being laid out.

A contract is a binding legal document. Don’t sign something you don’t agree with or can’t stick to. Will the publication own all rights to your work or just first rights? Are there any no-compete clauses that prohibit you from writing anything for direct competitors? Does it force you to offer up a sacrifice of your first born to the demon god Azazael? Best to avoid any contracts that turn up on scorched parchment inked in human blood. Failing that, READ THE GODDAMN FINE PRINT. Enough said.

Money! Yes! Give It!

Let me tell you what. Invoicing sucks. The last thing you want to do when you’re feeling the writing groove and letting your word mojo spray all around the room is to have to stop and slap together an invoice to send to your editor. It can really harsh the mellow of a smooth work session. But letting them pile up is a very dangerous, very naughty habit. If you don’t keep on top of it, you won’t get paid in a timely manner, and keeping the money flowing in smoothly is of the utmost importance. Freelancers rarely get a steady paycheck. They arrive in random spurts and rarely when you expect them. You don’t want to stretch those sweet nuggets of mouth-watering income further than you have to. Fire off your invoices sooner than later to get process rolling at the very least.

Granted, even if you’re diligent about getting invoices in the hands of your editors, you may not get paid in a timely manner anyway. Outlets that pay up quickly, which in this business tends to be around 30 days from publication, are a godsend. They’re also few and far between. Quite a few accounts payable departments move at a glacial pace, and the mishmash of twisted arcane magic and hamster wheels that power them is complex – perhaps far beyond mortal comprehension. Keep updated spreadsheets to track your invoices, the dollar amount, the date you sent them, and when you received payment. That way you’ll know when your checks from outlet X, Y, or Z are super tardy. It’s also helpful in determine the grievousness of the offense and whether it’s time to release the blood hounds.

Die Taxes Die!

While normal folks only have to deal with the stabby-stabby fun of tax time once a year, freelancers have to worry about it on an ongoing basis. This is another area where keeping good records is crucial. Like other self-employed folks (in the U.S.), freelance writers have to file quarterly estimated payments with the government on their income taxes, so there’s a lot of calculating and taxificating (yes, I just made that word up) to juggle. Your clients won’t subtract taxes from your earnings like a normal employer, since you’re not technically on the payroll. You pretty much have to set aside a portion of every check as it comes in to make sure you can make your estimated payments. I call this the “F$%@ You Fund.” Technically, it’s money you’ve earned. Only it’s better to pretend you didn’t, because that green isn’t yours. No, that shit belongs to The Man. Self-employed folks pay slightly higher taxes. It’s a bummer but a worthwhile sacrifice.

The upside of being self-employed is you can write off a large number of your expenses come tax-time. As freelance game journalists, this means any games, software, work materials, hardware, and most of the other marvelous thingamajigs you’ll accumulate over the course of the year can be deducted as business expenses. What’s that you say? I’m crazy? Nope, I’m not. If your job is to write about the latest games, hardware, tech, music, or what-have-you, then any out-of-pocket expense directly related to doing that job is fair game within reason. There are limits to this, and I won’t go into them here for my own sanity’s sake, but suffice to say it’s pretty awesome being able to deduct gaming-related expenses. You just have to remember to save all your receipts and file things in an orderly fashion in the event you get audited by The Man.

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


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2 thoughts on “Shop Talk: Getting Down To Business

  1. The tax thing is a really good lesson to learn…even if it is a hard one to swallow.

    Just curious, how much do you regularly cut out of your checks. I go with 30% at the suggestion of my accountant.

  2. Hey Stew,

    To play it safe, I set aside 30 percent for taxes. Usually wind up not using all of that after deductions, so I consider the leftover as my “return”. Sometimes it ends up being quite a bit, which is cool.

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