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The highs and lows of being freelance

Posted on 16th September 2010; heavily edited in June 2020

My approach to freelance life has changed since I set up my proofreading and editing business in 2010, and with Covid changing the way people work, I thought it was time to update this blog post about the highs and lows of being freelance. One of the key things to mention at this time (June 2020) is that working from home in a pandemic is nothing close to similar to working from home in whatever one considers to be normal times. In theory, as I don't have children and I don't have major underlying health conditions, my work should have carried on as usual during this lockdown and uncertain period, but my concentration has wavered, going out to shop or do everyday tasks has felt more of a burden at times, and the overall sense of worry and concern has certainly affected my focus.

I think it's therefore really important to anyone new to working from home not to take how things are now and assume it's how it will be in the future. For some, that might be a relief while for others it might not be. But anyway, enough pondering on the future (I've done enough of that during lockdown to last me a lifetime), let's get back to the general highs and lows, predominantly based on normal times.

Highs and lows of being a freelance proofreader

While writing these, I realised that for most highs, there was a potential low, which I guess is really just a reflection of the balancing act in life generally.

  • Being my own boss.
    I think this is one of the main highs for me, as it affects so much of what I do. I can choose which projects to take on, what hours I want to work, when I want to take my holiday. But on the flip side, I can also be the harshest person I have ever worked for. It's quite hard to give objective feedback to myself, and though some clients give feedback, it's not the same as the regular external validation one usually gets when working in a team. Even with holidays or taking time off, I don't get holiday pay so I try to time it with known quiet periods (not always easy to predict) and still check emails and answer calls while out of the office (which I never did when I was an employee, though I know some people do this).
  • Working alone in my own office.
    This is probably the biggest double-edged sword of freelancing, in my opinion. I prefer to edit or proofread in silence, so not being in a busy office with loads of background noise suits me perfectly. But of course it can get lonely. After more than 10 years of working for myself, I still struggle at times when some random office banter (for example about football or some TV show) would really be a welcome break. In Covid times, this lack of weak ties is particularly pertinent, because I don't get the equivalent chat or interactions when out and about either and I think this element is something that really does differ between working from home in lockdown and working from home when things are more normal.
    I have also been able to design my office space to suit my preferences, and to get a desk, monitor and chair set-up to suit me. That said, many companies pay for specialist chairs and monitors if required, while I have had to pay for mine. I am also lucky that I have a designated room to work in, which I know is a luxury. When I was a nomadic proofreader, my husband and I tried to find places to stay where we could work in separate rooms, but this didn't always work. Working in the same room, however, was less of an issue than the table/chair set-up not suiting me, leaving me in discomfort for the working day. I would definitely say to anyone thinking about setting up as a freelance proofreader and/or editor to allocate a decent budget to the work set-up as a lot of hours will be spent at the desk.
    What works for one person might not work for another though, so it's all about finding what works best for you. Co-working spaces or renting an office might be better. I enjoyed my occasional times using a co-working space but I need the quiet more than I need the interaction. As they say, horses for courses.
  • Setting my own rates.
    Of course, this doesn't mean I can just get out of bed on a morning and say, "Today, I'm going to earn £100 an hour and do eight hours' work." But what I mean by this is that I get to review each project (e.g. the scope, whether it's a complex edit or more straightforward proofread, and the schedule) and quote what I consider to be a suitable fee. If the client doesn't want to pay that amount, we might negotiate but most likely they will find someone else. Sometimes a client offers me a rate from the outset and I can look at the work and make a decision about whether I want to accept. If I want to work with a client but it has to involve weekend work, I might alter the rate accordingly – in other words, it's all on my own terms, within reason (and client agreement).
    The flip side, of course, is that my income is not stable. I have regular/repeat clients but not necessarily regular income. Most freelancers will have peaks and troughs, and freelance proofreading and editing is no exception. I do my best to save to cover any troughs, though touch wood I've not had many since getting well established, but my wages are certainly not fixed. When I first went freelance, this more fluid approach to finances was something that really worried me. Although there are low barriers to entry in becoming a freelance proofreader, I recall one piece of advice from an early networking event and try to stick with it: always have savings to cover six months of basic living costs. And again, in these Covid times, that seems more sensible than ever.
  • The variety in my job.
    Perhaps joint top high is the fact I love my job. I work for a variety of clients on different types of publication and this helps keep things interesting and different. I love learning new things, and have worked on some truly amazing topics and projects. I have also worked on some that have scarred me for life! Note to self, don't allow Google to show images when you're checking up medical issues online. Of course, sometimes a project is rather dry and dull, but that's to be expected in any line of work. I happen to also like the admin and finance side of running a freelance business, and most marketing isn't too daunting for me, but it can be hard to balance all these elements and there's nothing wrong with outsourcing certain elements.
  • The ten-second commute.
    I love the ten-second commute and the fact I don't have to get hot and sweaty on public transport or get soaked on my cycle commute. But this also means I am only ever ten seconds away from my work! It's taken a long time to build up the discipline to not log on to my work computer in the evenings and weekends (unless I have agreed to work then), and even then I sometimes answer work emails on my phone. Avoiding burn-out is crucial when self-employed, and I think the key to achieving that is ensuring a separation of work and home life. It's perhaps easier for me with a door I can close on my home office, but when I was working on a table in a living room, I'd make sure to close everything down and put the computer out of sight for the evenings and weekends.
  • The above is in no way an exhaustive list of the highs and lows of working as a freelance proofreader and editor but covers some of the main considerations for me.

    Written by Kate Haigh.