Freelance ain’t free, and being independent doesn’t mean working alone.
At a bar in the West Village a couple of months ago, while sipping the world’s worst $17 cocktail, I was lamenting the state of my freelance writing career to an editor from a major publication. The last time I’d sold a big pitch I’d yet to choose a Halloween costume, the podcast I did with a friend was now on an unexpected hiatus, my merchandise from another (otherwise successful) venture had stopped selling, and I had just gone through a very expensive cancer scare. I asked if there was any advice or referrals he could provide.
“You’re in a lull,” he told me. “It happens to everyone. It’s just time to work harder than ever.” This, dear reader, is the great lie that creative industries tell you.
The freelance economy has been called “broken” by those it employs for at least a decade, but many people I know, myself included, wouldn’t be able to do the work we do without it. Savvy editors hiring young freelancers has taken huge sites like Teen Vogue or BuzzFeed from trend-chasers to places a writer can to break some of the year’s biggest political editorials. Podcasts have heralded the radio renaissance that pirate-radio enthusiasts have been trying to find for decades. Companies like Big Cartel or Etsy have made it so you can support yourself as an artist or craftsperson from your bedroom. This is a revolution, even if we’re still working out the kinks.
One of those kinks? Teamwork.
When I was younger, I lived for magazines like The Atlantic and The New Yorker - places that hired nerds and weirdos to write highly specific things. While those publications still exist, I’m still working to get my keyboard in the door there.
For now, I take the gigs where I can, which often means the kind of content-churning you’ll find littered on your Facebook feed at any time of the day. Since these stories aren’t published in magazines, where they can be packaged and presented thoughtfully to new readers, outlets chase a broader, more instant appeal. The social nature of online writing often begins to look like editors are playing the lottery, with listicles and quizzes nabbing you a much higher chance of making any money. So, armies of freelancers (me!) are now regularly employed by brands, from Condé Nast to small startups, to pump out as much of this stuff as possible. Instead of throwing out some lines of clickbait for the sea of consumers to bite one at a time, they’ve built themselves a big net made of all the freelancer’s work.
The quality of this work aside for the moment (though that can certainly fluctuate), here’s an example of how this hurts artists. One editor at an enormous company works with a few dozen individual writers across the country. I’m one of those writers. We each pitch story ideas to the editor at the beginning of the month, or whenever something particularly newsworthy happens. From this pool, they select the best stories to greenlight. It took a few months employment, and some friendships that developed by coincidence with other freelancers there, for a few of us to realize we’d all been pitching the exact same ideas to this person. We were each essentially running newsrooms of one.
In one instance, I wrote seven different takes on a recent Taylor Swift development (it was more thought-provoking than it sounds, trust me) and later found out another friend wrote over ten - with many overlapping ideas. The story eventually went to a third writer, who had also pitched a similar idea. That’s a lot of work from three people, only one of whom got paid. The other two probably could’ve helped the story’s chosen writer refine their piece had there been literally any collaboration. This would mean stronger writing gets published and everyone gets to participate. Instead, this teamwork is actively discouraged, lest the workers realize they could ask for better rates if they communicated or - gasp! - could’ve made their own blog and worked for themselves.
This new paradigm is both better for freelancers and much worse. Without a company purchasing your work, you have no support system. But when you contribute to a broken system, it’s unclear who reaps the benefits.
So yeah, I bristle when I’m told to “work harder.” Yes, success in any industry takes a fair amount of hard work, but beyond a certain amount of time spent at the task (I’d estimate the traditional American 40-hour-a-week schedule) a freelancer, especially a creative, is going to see diminishing returns. “Hard work” is not the only ingredient in success. It also takes a heaping scoop of luck.
You can have superb work, spend your free time promoting it, devote your weekends to networking, and still not succeed. Many of us are pouring blood, sweat, and tears into our life’s work and not all of us can be successful. The answer is not more work (even if you don’t believe you’ll burn out creatively, which you will), the answer is working together and working smarter.
If you’re already lucky enough to be able to pursue your own independent work, great tools and a lot of elbow grease can help you build amazing products and art - but they can’t put you in the right place at the right time. SEO can help, advertising can help, social media can help, but, as all creatives know, none of these are a silver bullet because we don’t live in a meritocracy. But if we work together and pool our knowledge, connections, and resources, we can each succeed independently. We need to strategize and collaborate. We need to build our own fishing nets.
Competition creates better products for corporations, but that capitalist impulse doesn’t always translate into creating better art or telling better stories. Usually, it takes discussion, debate, and lots of fresh eyes to know if what we’re making is really all it can be. The idea of a lonesome auteur writing or painting or building their masterpiece in solitude is an utterly romantic falsity. We need to collaborate in the new economy or the work will suffer. We will suffer.
Let the companies that build our keyboards, create our storefronts, and place our advertising do the competing that pushes them to make better tools for us. Those industries are the ones where competition produces results. On our end, we need to support the people working alongside us. A success for one podcast or independent storefront battling against a major media corporation or a big box retailer is a success for all of us carving out a place in this economy.
I recently applied for a staff job, had an interview, and found out I wasn’t going to be a good fit for that role. It sucked, but another writer I know (strictly from Twitter!) got laid off recently, and I knew they’d be perfect for the job. I recommended them, they got it, and they went on to help me score some gigs at places where they had connections. We both benefited and literally nothing was lost there. All from some direct messages and an email.
Perhaps a consumer will find your work and purchase it. When someone’s looking for work you can’t provide, refer a friend. If you’re a writer on Twitter, link to your peers’ work. Ask people to collaborate on a project, or just hang out together to bounce ideas around. It’ll only make you and your colleagues better at whatever you do, which helps the whole creative industry succeed. The fight for the independent soul of creative work is our collective fight.
Don’t tell people they’re “in a lull,” as if such stumbles resolve themselves on their own accord, or as if there’s a solution as simple as “throw more hours at the problem.” Find people doing cool things in your area and take them out to lunch. If you find a great accountant or amazing designer, tell others. If you want to rent a workspace but you can’t afford it, split the cost. In the race against major corporations, those of us just hoping to cross the finish line are not competitors with each other. Pick each other’s brains, compare notes, pool your contacts. Go out of your way to make a team, especially if you work independently.
That day at the bar I looked at the editor dismissing my problems and realized that he was not on my team. In fact, I realized that I didn’t have a team at all. So now it’s time to make one.