The shift from the safe haven of permanent employment into the murky waters of living as a freelance writer has involved some tricky navigation. There are pitfalls, naysayers and questions at every turn – but there are also tremendous advantages and opportunities that the permie life cannot offer me.
I’m not alone either. A recent survey from specialist contractor accountancy firm Nixon Williams found that a whopping 92 per cent of respondents would recommend contracting to a friend. I’d definitely agree with the majority and recommend this way of working to anyone – here’s why.
Why is freelancing such a popular option?
If we return to the Nixon Williams Contractor Survey 2015 for a moment then higher rates of pay, flexibility, freedom, a better work/life balance and the absence of any office politics were all cited by more than 50 per cent of respondents as reasons why contracting is so enjoyable.
I’m inclined to agree. Since moving into the freelance arena I have seen higher rates of pay, I can choose topics that interest me and build on my skill set as a science and technical writer, work from home and I don’t have to answer to anyone but myself. But with every silver lining there is the odd little cloud. Let’s look at what a contractor life is really like.
Most contractors are attracted to the higher rates of pay they will receive when compared to a permanent position. More than three-quarters said higher rates of pay were a key factor for contracting, according to the recent research from Nixon Williams.
Freelancing is a famine or feast existence so you must have the willpower to put aside funds for those rainy days. Also, it is important to take into account those ‘hidden’ expenses such as running your own office environment, losing any benefits that you may rely on (such as childcare vouchers) and making sure you have put enough aside to pay the tax man. A little financial planning can go a long way here.
That said, the money is good. I’m not just talking from personal experience here, of the 1,068 contractors surveyed almost one third were commanding daily rates of between £500 and £749, the research reveals.
Having a USP isn’t just the cornerstone of big businesses – it’s also the bread and butter of any contractor who wants to earn some serious cash. Freelance writers are ten-a-penny and this is reflected by the low rates offered to those churning out unimaginative copy with little to no knowledge of the topic in hand.
But a freelance writer who has worked in the science and technology industries they write about, giving them a unique insight into these specialisms – now that’s a viable commodity.
It’s the same across the board – you need to ensure there is a market out there for your skill set and develop your own brand and niche within your industry. Watch job boards to assess the state of the market and do this over a few months to counter any market fluctuations. Make sure you have a plan B too, if you’re just a one trick pony and your skill set is suddenly defunct – could you survive?
Contracting means that you must run your own business, as well as work for it. Most of this is accountancy work and I would strongly advise any freelancer to hire a specialist contractor accountant. It’s a life saver.
The standard vehicle when contracting is to set up as a limited company that you own and are employed by. It’s a minefield and one that I would not recommend wasting your time on.
I’ve always used an accountant for my freelance work on the premise that, although their time does cost me money, it’s at a rate similar to my own – they’re just a hell of a lot more efficient and knowledgeable than I am on the matter. Personally, I use the Vantage service as it’s a rather unique tool that combines an easy-to-use online portal to manage my finances and a personal accountant to handle my questions and business. It’s great to have a single point of contact at the end of the phone – or to be able to login and manage my finances at any time and from anywhere.
One of the biggest shifts when I moved to freelancing is the lack of office environment. Losing the commute and the office politics is fantastic – but you also lose the comradery of working in a team, career progression, training opportunities and working with permanent employees as a contractor can bring issues of its own.
There’s also the need to be flexible. You will need to go to where the work is and work to tighter deadlines than you are likely to experience as a permanent employee. Bear in mind though that these pressures are often reflected by the higher rates of pay you are likely to receive.
Personally, the improved work/life balance, the freedom to work to my own agenda and within my own environment is worth more than any of the perceived disadvantages of freelancing.
There’s a counter argument to every advantage and a silver lining to every cloud. Work out what’s important to you, your personality and your career. One size does not fit all within the working world.
Could it be a contractors life for you?
Patience is the best virtue before you decide to take the plunge into contracting. As with so many things, you will need to take small steps in the short term to establish yourself as an industry expert within the marketplace – before taking big strides, big chances and gaining big rewards at a later date.
Gemma Church is ‘the freelance writer who gets tech’. With more than 10 years of writing experience, she is a UK-based writer specialising in science, technology and business.