When I got my first freelance assignment as a senior at IUPUI, I didn’t know what I was doing. I had to ask the assigning editor at Indianapolis Monthly magazine how to submit an invoice, as well as what one even looked like. And I took whatever amount anyone offered, which, for my first few stories, was around $25 for a 500-word piece — which I wouldn’t work for now, but was fine at the time, given my lack of experience.
To be honest, I felt lucky to be getting paid anything at all to write.
And two-and-a-half years into a freelance career that’s taken me from Indianapolis Monthly to Forbes Travel Guide to The New York Times, that shock still hasn’t fully worn off.
My first three-figure — and later four-figure — assignments were intimidating. How could anyone value something I write enough to pay me that much? I thought.
I couldn’t let myself dwell too much on the dollar figure attached to a story; otherwise, I’d psych myself out to the point that I was scared to even write the thing because of the pressure to make it perfect.
So I’d record the amount in my freelance story-tracking spreadsheet. Report the story. Write the story. And never look at the doc again until it was time to send the invoice.
That’s the great thing about freelance writing: It’s a performance-based profession, with potentially unlimited earning potential. But, on the flip side, if you don’t write stories, you don’t have an income. And it can be an enormous amount of pressure to manage as many as a dozen deadlines at once.
The most underrated word in freelancing?
You don’t have to take every assignment. You don’t have to write a story that equates to an hourly rate that’s less than minimum wage. And you can — and should — always ask for what you think you’re worth.
The worst that can happen is that an editor can say no. But, most of the time, you’ll get at least a partial “yes.”
Let me tell you about the first time I asked for a raise. I must’ve been a comical sight — I sent that email with eyes narrowed, breath held, fingers crossed, and the sinking feeling that I was chucking away my chance at an assignment that I really did want to write — albeit for $100 more than the editor was offering.
You know what the response was?
You never know unless you ask. It’s on you to establish a standard of what you’re worth — and hold yourself accountable to it.
Which brings me to a similar issue freelancers navigate with varying degrees of success: Self-care.
It can be tempting to answer emails or write stories at all hours, to merge life and work not only physically (my apartment is also my office), but mentally and emotionally.
So here’s my life hack on how NOT to do that.
First, some context: I’m a huge theater nerd. As in, I saw 30 shows in 10 weeks when I interned as a multiplatform editor at The New York Times last summer. I buy tickets to shows months in advance, committing to go no matter what story deadlines I may be facing that week.
This strategy serves two purposes: 1) Mandatory fun in my life and 2) It creates an additional self-imposed deadline just in case the real ones on stories aren’t threatening enough.
It gives me something to work toward — I have to finish these two stories by Friday, even though they aren’t due until Monday, so I can go to a play Friday night and a concert Saturday night — and still get this other story and three grad-school assignments done by Monday.
That isn’t to say, of course, that I need to bribe myself to enjoy my job, which is the most thrilling, rewarding, how-did-I-get-lucky-enough-to-do-this gig I could imagine.
I’m inspired by the stories people tell me every day, and try my hardest to do justice to their amazing lives. But I’ve also learned the importance of work-life boundaries.
So take yourself to that midday movie — you deserve it.
Just make sure you file the story first.
Sarah Bahr will graduate from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis in May with her MA in English. She’ll join The New York Times as a Culture reporter starting in June.
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