Staff Writing Job vs Freelance Writing — Which is Best?
Carol Tice | 25 Comments

The Difficult Writing ChoicesI recently got a question from MALW reader Dan Smith. He’s a cool guy (his URL used to be itsdansmith — great solution for someone with a common name!) living in the UK 300 miles from London, who’s built up a substantial freelance writing business on the side, while his full-time job is in business consulting. Here’s his story:

 

I’ve been a freelance writer for a few years now and I’m developing my career, so that the income I receive from writing can support my girlfriend and I comfortably, as well as in the future, any children we have.

Me and my girlfriend have been thinking about moving to London.  We have family in the city and every time we visit we love it and don’t want to leave. The problem is that with the cost of living substantially higher in London (for example, our mortgage on a 2 bedroom house is just short of £400 a month – the 2 bedroom apartments we’re looking at in London are around £300 a week), I need to increase my income.

I think ideally I’d like to carry on freelancing.  I’ve spent the past few years developing my career (although it has only been the last 8 months where I’ve really took a grip of it and pushed it forward) and it would seem a waste to slow this progression right down. However, doing a quick search on some job websites there’s a whole host of full time writing jobs available in London with salaries around the £30-35k mark (roughly $46-54k?), which would be a enough to live on, especially if my girlfriend got a job of around the same salary.

Yes, I could do what I do now and work during the day and freelance evenings, but the reason I’m moving to London is to enjoy the city.  I’ll probably still do some freelance work, but I don’t really want to be working from 9am to 9pm.

I’m just looking for a bit of advice really, Carol.  Should I develop my freelance writing career (I’d need to double my earnings) or should I take a full time writing role (and still freelance a little to supplement my income)?

Whew, lots of questions in there! But basically it boils down to: freelance, or full time? The answer depends a lot on your personality type and your ultimate goals for your writing career. On the freelance side:

Do you enjoy the hustle of finding clients, tracking down payments, the thrill of landing new accounts, the variety you get as a freelancer? The freedom to earn an unlimited amount and keep your own hours? Do you love working in your shorts?

Or do you hate networking, feel lonely in a home office, and feel nervous about finding enough work? Does the idea of getting out there and finding twice as many clients seem doable and exciting to you, or overwhelming? When you think about having kids around, would you like to be able to make your own schedule with them, or are you cool seeing them for dinner and on weekends while you work in town long days? Your gut reactions to these questions will give you some clues.

Also, could you maybe supplement your freelance writing with some freelance business consulting work like you do in your current full-time job? Maybe between the two you could have a full income from all freelancing?

On the full-time staff-writing side, my thoughts come from my experience having had two full-time staff gigs that lasted a total of 12 years.

First off, just because you see a bunch of full-time writer ads doesn’t mean you can get one of those jobs. Every employer I talk to who’s looking for full-timers tells me they get 200 resumes for every job. So odds are probably long on landing one of the gigs. Definitely secure a job before moving to London, rather than moving to London in hopes of lining one up! (And then your girlfriend also needs a good-paying a job in London, too, so there are a lot of ifs in that equation.)

A little insight on staff writing jobs: In my experience, they usually involve something like coming up with four story ideas, reporting them, writing them, and turning them in, each and every week, week after week, year after year. And all the articles are about one select beat. Or on the copywriting side, researching and completing a large volume of assignments each week for the company, about the same basic stuff.

I found over the years that there were a select group of people who could really hack it. Many came and went quickly, as they didn’t have that many story ideas, or lacked the work ethic and discipline needed to be that kind of reliable workhorse.

At one of my staff jobs, we were never fully staffed, and we even had one person go AWOL in the middle of a trade show the staff covered, who was never seen again. People with master’s degrees in journalism regularly threw in the towel.

Guess I’m trying to say: It can be a very intense grind…or you could love the challenge and the adrenaline of always having those deadlines looming. Your editor could be a screamer, or they could be an awesome mentor who’d take your writing to the next level. They could also be the type that thinks everybody should work 9 to 9. I had one editor who liked to begin ripping up the front page again around 6 pm and was never happier than when the whole staff stayed until 10. So a full-time writing job doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have so much time to enjoy the city!

Finally, ask yourself which sounds more secure to you — locking in one full-time writing job at a set salary (which may rise over time gradually, but generally won’t shoot up skyward)…or having a diverse portfolio of freelance jobs, no one of which represents a majority of your income, which give you unlimited earning potential, but likely fluctuating monthly revenue?

For me, in this era of outsourcing, layoffs, and economic uncertainty, I think having one employer sounds scary. They have all the power over my life. They fire me and poof! I’m losing my apartment in London. They also only pay so much.

I may be biased toward freelance in part because I earn substantially more now as a freelancer than I did as a staffer — and I was a well-paid staffer. Maybe you’re the kind of hustler who’d have a better income freelance…or maybe a staff job would pay more bills. Depends on how much energy you’d be willing to put into marketing.

If you take a staff job, I’d think of it not as losing your freelance momentum, but of that freelance work having paved the way to that point where you could land a full-time job in your new field. It built the experience and clips you needed to move ahead to the next part of your career. And as you say, you can freelance on the side, or can pick up freelance writing again later in your career if you hit the point where you want out of the staff-writing life.

For every writer, there are stages to their career, and different situations may be right at different times. You can learn a heck of a lot as a staffer, and it can reliably pay a lot of bills if you find a great situation. It might solidify your transition into writing as a career.

I had one full-time stint that was so awesome, such a great learning experience, and so much outright fun, that when they handed me my pay envelope I’d always say, “All this and a paycheck too!” (Thanks Don & Rami!)

Ultimately, Dan, trust your gut about which is the right way for you to go — and best of luck getting to London! Stay in touch and let us know what you end up doing.

What’s your thinking on which road is best for you right now — full time or freelance? Leave a comment and let us know.

If you enjoyed this post, you can subscribe to Make a Living Writing to get free tips twice weekly on how to earn more from writing. You can also send me a question about your writing career, and if I think it’s of interest to my readers, I’ll answer it here on the MALW blog.

Photo via Flickr user foundphotoslj

25 comments on “Staff Writing Job vs Freelance Writing — Which is Best?

  1. Jacob Arvin on

    I completely agree in having hesitation in letting one employer, a single individual, have complete control over my employment status and/or salary. Many people frown upon freelance writing as something inherently unstable, but in my opinion there is considerably more job security than exists for a person performing parallel duties for a single employer. As a freelancer, I never have to rely on a single client and can switch projects easily, without concern that I am locked into an uncomfortable business relationship.
    Jacob Arvin recently posted…Seven Tips for Becoming a Fulltime Freelance WriterMy Profile

  2. Lucy Smith on

    Hehe, true, Leeds isn't quite London. I decided to live there for a bit because I have family there and there are so many New Zealanders and Australians in London that it seemed hardly worth leaving the southern hemisphere 😉

    I'm also keen to hear how you go, best of luck and have fun!

  3. Carol Tice on

    That's because, as they say in Sweeney Todd, "There's no place like London…" 🙂

    I love your confidence that you're ready to move up and compete in one of the great cities of the world. I can't wait to hear how you end up making it work! I say start marketing the heck out of yourself to London companies, and the minute you even suspect you have enough reliable income lined up to make London work, pack up and go. Best of luck with it.

  4. Dan Smith on

    That's exactly what I've been thinking, Lucy – the hustle and bustle of the commute sounds great and I'd probably love it for a week or two, but after that I can imagine it could get a little frustrating!

    And like you said, I could arrange client meetings for early in the morning.

    I actually only live an hour from Leeds (i'm up in Teesside in the north east) and visit regularly because we have friends who live there.

    I don't mind Leeds and it's got some great shops and bars, but I don't know, I just don't get the same feeling as when in London (but then our friends in Leeds don't get the same feeling in London as they do in Leeds!)

  5. Lucy Smith on

    I don't blame you for wanting to be in London…I love that city, except for the ££££££££££££.

    Not sure where you are currently, but London would have lots of opportunity for freelance work. I know Britain's still struggling after the recession (I was unfortunate enough to be based in Leeds during the worst of it, and it was baaaad there, though I love the city), so I'd imagine that you'd have a better chance of picking up freelance/temp work rather than permanent full-time anyway.

    If you go the freelance route, just remember that you don't necessarily have to miss out on London commuter life (which I reckon you'd quickly tire of anyway) – you could schedule client meetings for the mornings so you still get to be a Jubilee line sardine, or heck, just get an Oyster card and hop on for a few stops at 8am, lol.

  6. Carol Tice on

    Right on, Dan!

    We can all opine all day about how great it would be for you to have a cushy, full-time gig in London…but what if none materializes? I think that shouldn't stop you from moving there. You have the freelance chops to make it work that way, too.

    I think the key here is — save up a nest egg to help you make the transition, either way. Then, get to London, and see what's shakin' there.

    I love the idea that you're going to circulate a resume that plays up your writing. Let's see where that takes you.

    Check in as your plan progresses and let us know how it's going!

  7. Dan Smith on

    @Carol – the company I work for isn't doing great financially at the moment and so whilst the department I'm based in safe due to our financial contribution, most other parts of the company aren't and so an internal transfer isn't necessarily a viable option (for me just as much as for the company).

    What's more, the company I work for is a large business consulting group, but I work in the HR training and development section (apologies if I confused you in my initial e-mail. It gets even more confusing when you realise I actually do some freelance small business consulting, too). Without sounding like I'm blowing my own trumpet, my role is pretty integral to the running of the department, but my experience wouldn't be of much use in the company elsewhere.

    As you suggested, I've actually got a large client who provides me with a lot of work on a regular basis, which is great and one of the reasons that has been swaying me to stay freelance.

    @Anne – It's not so much the fact I can't get a job working as a full time writer in London, Anne, it's more the fact that I'm not sure that's exactly what I want to do.

    But, after reading and re-reading everything that's been said here, speaking to several other writers and generally just having time to think, I believe I've come to an answer to what I'm going to do.

    I'm generally a really optimistic person and someone who is usually so laid back I could be horizontal at times – and I think that's where I'm going wrong here. I'm over thinking the whole situation.

    Usually, I tend to go with the flow and just see what happens. I usually have a plan in my mind so I can take charge and push something forward if need be, but I pretty much just like to see what happens.

    So today I went for a walk and I realised that if I was thinking as I normally do, my answer to whether I should be a full time staff writer or stay freelance would be to simply see what happens.

    And I think that's what I'm going to do.

    I've spent some time putting together a new CV tailored around my writing work which I'm going to send out to some recruiters over the next few days, targeting full time jobs that are of the salary I would need and I've also started looking at new markets I can enter as a freelance writer.

    The advice and support you've gave me, Carol (and everyone else here) has made me realise that for me at least, there's no right or wrong answer as to whether I should stay as a freelance writer or take on a full time gig.

    One thing in particular that you said really helped, which was about the opportunities and possibilities will be a lot easier to take advantage of when I'm actually in London, This was one of the points that made me realise as much as I can sit here and wonder what to do, we can only move to London if I'm doing one or the other, so why not focus on both and see which one works out first? Then, once we're down in London, I can change my mind if it turns out there are better opportunities for the other option.

    Thanks once again and I'll keep you posted.

  8. Anne Wayman on

    Dan, I echo Carol here and want to suggest if, in London, you really want a 9a.m.-2p.m. writing gig in someone's office so you can experience at least the morning commute and tube crush you can have that too… quit saying you can't and start figuring out how.

    Peter Bowerman's Well-Fed Writer book should work in London as well as it does here in the states… at least as a general how to market yourself guide.

    Go for what you want… wonderful stuff happens when you do.

  9. Carol Tice on

    Dan –

    One other thought I was having as I slept on it was that I just wanted to caution you about fantasizing about having tons of time to spent out on London town off the bat, either way you slice it. I think you’ll go through an adjustment period where you’re working frantically trying to earn enough to afford London for at least a year or two realistically…so just be ready for that.

    My husband wanted to move up here to the Northwest so he could fish more…but with three kids, he can count on one hand the number of times he’s actually gotten to go in the past decade. Affording to live in great places often comes with a cost. At this point I have a pretty good work/life balance…but it definitely can take a while to get there.

  10. parttimejobs on

    I want to quit my regular job and want to do freelance. I am doing few freelance jobs in my spare time. But i like so much to work in my convenient time and also i strongly believe i can earn handsome money. Any freelancers advice needed about my decision.

  11. Carol Tice on

    Hi Dan!

    You feel like you're not making progress, Dan, but actually you are. We've clarified a core value: WANT TO MOVE TO LONDON. And not wash out once you get there, and get to stay.

    Which would involve leaving your current steady gig… and replacing that income by getting a new, steady gig in writing, OR ramping up your freelancing.

    I'm here to help you make it happen!

    Question: Could you do your current steady gig remotely from London? Or maybe get them back as a freelance client from London? Also, can you move all your current freelance gigs to London?

    I ask because in '95, I wanted to move to an island off the coast of Seattle…and I ended up moving my staff writing job (which the company was sure needed to be done in L.A.) up here, and solved it that way. Got the location I wanted, and kept a steady job that provided a transition to the area where I knew I had the income and could make it up here. Once I got settled, I moved on to another staff job and then freelancing. This can be a great way to go because you're not having to learn a new job AND a new city all at the same time. You've got something familiar that's already rolling, which I think is a great help.

    You may be assuming your current FT gig wouldn't let you work remotely…but maybe they would. Or let you do some part-time work for them remotely. Maybe that could be your base.

    Today, it's easier than ever to move clients and jobs from place to place given all the virtual-meeting software and team-collaboration sites that exist. Maybe a possibility?

    I go into Seattle now and again to meet with clients…so if you don't need that London hustle-bustle daily, you might well carve out a stable of clients where you'd get the jammed-in-the-tube experience now and then, but keep your freedom. You could go out to network as well. If you like getting out, you can certainly volunteer to do more face-to-faces with clients…they'll probably love it. I try to organize a day so I hit 3-4 different clients or prospects and then head out.

    Another possibility: Find one BIG freelance client, as you suggest. I had one of those for several years, where they were pretty reliably good for $2,500+ a month, which provided a pretty secure base to keep freelancing.

    Final possibility: Full-time writing job. I'm sensing a nervousness about the finances in what you wrote above that says this might be the way for you right now, IF you can find one that suits. Which is a big IF. And also that the legitimacy of being a staffer might be great for you, too.

    My advice: Start planning your move. Put out in the universe that you're moving to London. Maybe even put a timeline to it — "We're moving in six months."

    Start looking for everything and anything that would support that idea. Apply for London full-time jobs. Go on interviews. Apply for London freelance gigs. Go on interviews. Maybe get a freelance client or two IN London now, that you can start while you're still out of town, and you drive in occasionally to see them.

    Then, see what the universe hands you. Just stay open to the idea that it could work out either way. My sense is you have great earning capability, hustle, and a good business-consulting background that should give you a great, lucrative writing niche. You should be able to find a workable route that suits you.

    Rent the most affordable place you can get, keep your expenses low, and make it work.

    One thing I did when I moved up here is I sold my house back in L.A., so there was no easy way back.

    One thing's for sure — once you're in London, you'll be in a far more target-rich environment for finding either staff jobs OR freelance gigs. The possibilities that will open up, you can't imagine right now. So figure out how to get there, because you've figured out it's where you belong.

    Other folks — more thoughts for Dan?

    Dan — more thoughts?

  12. Dan Smith on

    Hi Carol (Rebecca and Yo, too),

    Firstly, thanks a million for answering my e-mail personally and publicly. It really does mean a lot.

    Secondly, apologies for this delayed reply. I read the post within minutes of it going live and over the past 48 hours I’ve started a reply and then deleted it at least half a dozen times. I keep going into the comment with thoughts of exactly what I’m going to say, convinced I’ve decided I’ll stay freelance or take on an employed role and then realising something half way through that makes me think otherwise.

    So, with my head in a shed, we took off to stay with friends for a night and I now think I’ve got my thoughts a whole lot clearer.

    We want to move to London – that much is clear.

    I want to write – that much is clear, too.

    My problem is that (I think) I want to freelance full time, but I also want to enjoy the city life. I want the hustle and bustle of the busy commute. I want to be packed onto the Tube like a sardine. I want to be your stereotypical Londoner.

    Maybe it’s just a temporary feeling and I won’t want it once I’ve done it for a few weeks, but you never know, I might be part of the minority who loves every single aspect of London.

    I guess in an ideal situation, I’d come into contact with a client who wanted to hire me for 20 hours a week to work in their office. I’d go in at 9am, finish at 2pm, enjoy the city a little, do a bit of freelance work for my other clients and then have the evening to enjoy the city more with my girlfriend.

    That is an ideal situation and isn’t likely to work out, which means I’d have to freelance full time from home, meaning I’d probably get to see less of London than I do now!

    Although today I was thinking about the possibility of taking my laptop out somewhere and working, which I guess would give me the best of both worlds.

    My worry is that I want living in London to work so much, what if, for whatever reason, the work with all of my clients finishes? I know it’s unlikely and that there are other clients out there (and I do love finding new clients, I get a massive thrill from landing a new gig), but still, it’s a worry (I’m also aware that this isn’t just in respect of London, but for freelancing in general – the difference with London is that making the move down there is a big decision and I don’t want it to be spoiled because of a lack of clients).

    So then this leads me (again) to think about becoming a full time staff writer. The money will generally not be as good as if I was working full time freelance, but it’s regular. I know how much we could spend on going out and enjoying the city. I wouldn’t have to worry about if I’m going to get the same income next month.

    Plus, I could still do a bit of freelance work on the side.

    And what’s more, i’m interested to see how it would help me develop as writer. Exactly like you said, Carol, a full time gig might make me feel more of a writer, especially as I have no formal writing qualifications.

    It would also help bolster my CV.

    But then I’ve done nothing but work my ass off over the last 3 years to get to the point I am today where I could leave my corporate work if I wanted and go full time freelance. I always said when I was earning what I was in writing as I was in my corporate job, for 3 months on the go, I’d leave and focus on writing full time.

    That happened nearly 6 months ago, though and I’m still doing both. I think it’s more the fact I enjoy the freedom that the money from both gives us.

    But I don’t like the corporate side and it really is just for the money. It’s not just the work, either, but the whole atmosphere and office environment.

    Although my current office is not the norm and is stuck in the 1970s, so it could be that.

    Reading back through this comment, I’m in no better position decision wise than I was 2 days ago (and a more confused one from a few paragraphs ago). I thought I’d cracked it this time and was deciding to stay freelance, but now I’m wondering if a full time staff writer position would be best.

    Then again my ideal scenario would be the best all round – working freelance for a client on their site, so that I had the freedom of when I wanted to start and finish, but also the social aspect.

    Also rereading this, I’m aware a lot of it is just me thinking out loud. I apologise.

    I’m really grateful you took the time to reply personally, Carol and thanks a lot Rebecca and Yo.

    One last thing – I usually have really strong gut instincts about things like this and I always go with what my heart’s telling me. This time, I’m not getting anything. I’ve got that feeling inside when I think of living in London where I feel like I’m going to explode if I don’t do it, so I know that it’s something we should do, but in terms of work, I’m not getting any major thoughts either way.

    I’d like to say not feeling anything means something – but I have no idea what!

  13. Yo P on

    I think the most important lesson Carol gives here is not in her words as much as her subtext. Look at the way she talks about going after more clients, tracking down payments, and making more money. I'm fairly certain that anyone watching her type that part would have seen her eyes blazing and her typing speed increase.

    That kind of excitement must be present in order to have a truly successful and sustainable career. You might not have to be passionate about the same aspects of freelancing as Carol is, but you have to be equally passionate about others. I don't think anyone with a passing interest in being their own boss or working from home will make it over the long haul. You must be passionate about writing, or being your own boss, or controlling how much money you make, or the thrill of finding and scoring new clients or SOMETHING. For me, it's my husband. I want to spend as much time with him as I can. For that privilege, I'll do almost anything–including a bunch of stuff that I don't actually enjoy about freelancing.

    • Carol Tice on

      I think Yo has me nailed — I definitely feel I'm happier in the past 5 years freelancing full time! But it's certainly not for everyone, and you do need a real inner drive to get work in the door…or to not have a "boss" anymore…or to be able to work 5 pm-midnight, or whatever it is that makes you love freelancing!

      I really don't mean to weigh in favor of one or the other for Dan, though. My whole point is the answer to this is very individual.

      I also had a phase of my life where being a staffer was great. I learned SO much. The full-time gig also made me feel more legit, as a writer who lacks a college degree. But at some point, I had had enough of the corporate b.s. that accompanies most staff jobs.

      I'm hoping Dan will weigh in with some thoughts after he reads this…

  14. Rebecca on

    Dan, go for London! It's a beautiful and cosmopolitan city. I keep visualizing myself living part-time in London or Edinburgh. I love the UK! With that said, perhaps you could find a part-time staff writing job or like Carol suggested do some consulting work.

    Carol, I like what you said about 'going with your gut instinct.' Dan, if your jaw clenches or you receive a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach when you think about working as a full-time staff writer then you know that's not the choice for you. Go for what you want and you'll receive it. That's what I'm doing! I'm visualizing what I desire and taking inspired action to get it!

  15. Anna Bass on

    This is an interesting topic. I'm always looking for valuable resources to send to clients and the accounting community, and your article is without a doubt worth sharing!

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