In so many words, it's just the perfect life

Susan Elkin explains the ups and downs of a freelance writer's career

Freelance writing is like prostitution. The more clients the better and you can't afford to be too particular about who they are.

I came in via the amateur route with no formal training and without any contacts. Perhaps, however, I had subconsciously harboured the idea since 1958 that I might one day do something with words. I was 11 and won a TV writing competition. My proud parents, declared excitedly: "You could be a writer if you wanted to." I didn't want to and became a teacher instead.

More than 30 years later, in 1991, I organised some management training for school prefects and described this for other teachers in an article I sent to the Times Educational Supplement.

They printed it. They paid me. Magic! Charged with adrenalin, I started looking for subjects to write about: first education, then cats, country walking, places, books, nature, music, food.

During 1992 I "cracked" all four broadsheets and got pieces published in the Daily Telegraph, the Times, the Guardian and, of course, the Independent. There were magazines, too. Heady stuff. Achieved, of course, by teaching all day and writing all night - and from "promiscuous" cultivation of every editor who would grant me 30 seconds. You have to work indefatigably at developing contacts when you start from nothing.

In 1993 I resigned my full-time senior management post in a girls' secondary school and accepted a part-time post in an independent school at a fraction of the salary. I had become a professional writer. Could I generate enough work to stay financially afloat?

Yes, is the simple answer. Provided that I publish about 10 pieces per month I can eat.

There's much more to it, however, than just tossing off a few mots justes. It's a business I'm running so I spend countless hours each week managing and promoting it.

There's letters and phone calls to possible new outlets, filing, sorting, keeping accounts, listing, updating files, following up leads, studying publications whose editors I might approach and so on.

The variety is exhilarating. I visit schools and education centres all over the country. I've written articles about the English wine industry, keeping pets in 19th-century Paris, travel pieces about Germany, Northumberland, South Shields, Kent and Sussex, and children's fairy tales. I've also done book reviews, fiction and biography.

I have interviewed two famous peers in their country homes, observed musicians at work, watched the making of an animated opera in a Soho studio, been shown round several nature reserves and met dozens of fascinating people.

Of course there's a downside: the frustration of dealing with editors who ignore letters and faxes, who have forgotten who you are when you ring them, who promise to phone you back but never do, who cheerfully accept your work and then six months later later deny all knowledge of it, who commission work (to be finished and faxed within the hour, of course) and then don't use it. Slow payment causes unpaid bills to pile up.

The endless need to think up new ideas is exhausting. It can all be a bit lonely, too.

And there are some editors (I'm not naming names) given to forgetting to inform the accounts department that a cheque is due.

But I have no regrets. Like a good streetwalker, I prize the freedom to climb into bed - or at least into print - with any interested party who will pay. Life is fun.

Ten tips for making it pay 1. Buy annually and study closely Writers' and Artists' Yearbook and The Writer's Handbook for outlets and other valuable information. Also consult Willing's Press Guide in the local library. Subscription to (monthly) Writers' News is good value for its regular data about markets, new magazines etc.

2. If you can keep some kind of part-time regular work going alongside freelancing then you will enjoy the security of knowing you can pay the mortgage at the end of the month. Such work, whatever it may be, will probably be a fertile source of article ideas, too.

3. Buy, beg, borrow or steal newspapers and magazines. Read them assiduously. Look for slots you can fill and for situations and stories to respond to, follow up or recycle. Be prepared to write about almost anything for anybody. The wider you cast your net the less it matters if an outlet dies on you.

4. It's an editor's world. However cross an editor makes you, you cannot afford to quarrel. Swear after you've put the phone down and not before.

5. When you ring an editor, try saying `Is this a convenient moment or would you prefer me to ring back later?' If the response is yes then you are bound to be granted long enough to explain yourself. If the answer is `later please' then the same will apply when you call back. Work out when people's busiest times in the day or week are and avoid phoning on non-urgent matters at those times.

6. Keep a careful note of every conversation with editors. It can save potential misunderstandings later.

7. Keep on a disc a continuously updated CV listing your published work - or a detailed summary of it. This, with a carefully managed system of filing your cuttings, will enable you to produce a personal promotion package toend out to new editors quicklyand easily.

8. Invest in the finest possible quality headed notepaper, business cards etc: something striking but tasteful. It represents your shop window and you never get a second chance to make a first impression.

9. If you write "opinion" pieces you might be asked to do follow-up appearances on radio or TV. Do them. Although there's usually no fee, it helps to get you better known.

10. If an editor or influential reader (MP, Peer, senior representative of a company or organisation etc ) invites you to meet for lunch, or whatever, always accept. Regard the fare to London or wherever and the time spent as a business overhead. Such meetings often lead nowhere although they're usually interesting. But you never know, and sometimes very useful offers of work, ideas, contacts etc. come from such encounters.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Mock the tweet: Ukip leader Nigel Farage and comedian Frankie Boyle
peopleIt was a polite exchange of words, as you can imagine
Life and Style
Life and Style
Britons buy more than 30 million handsets each year, keeping them for an average of 18 months
Arts and Entertainment
TV Presenters Ant McPartlin and Dec Donnelly. Winners of the 'Entertainment Programme' award for 'Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway'
musicAnt and Dec confirmed as hosts of next year's Brit Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Media

Marketing Account Manager / Client Liaison Manager

£25 - 32k DOE: Guru Careers: A digital-savvy Marketing Account Manager / Clien...

Business Development Manager / Sales Executive

£23-30k (DOE) + Bonus: Guru Careers: We are seeking bright Business Developmen...

Senior Developer/Development Lead - C# ASP.NET. SQL

Circa £55,000: Ashdown Group: Lead Developer requirement - C#, ASP.NET, SQL - ...

DFA Ad Operations Manager

38,000: Sphere Digital Recruitment: My client is an agency that handles the me...

Day In a Page

Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

"I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"
Lyricist Richard Thomas shares his 11-step recipe for creating a hit West End musical

11-step recipe for creating a West End hit

Richard Thomas, the lyricist behind the Jerry Springer and Anna Nicole Smith operas, explains how Bob Dylan, 'Breaking Bad' and even Noam Chomsky inspired his songbook for the new musical 'Made in Dagenham'
Tonke Dragt's The Letter for the King has finally been translated into English ... 50 years on

Buried treasure: The Letter for the King

The coming-of-age tale about a boy and his mission to save a mythical kingdom has sold a million copies since it was written by an eccentric Dutchwoman in 1962. Yet until last year, no one had read it in English
Can instilling a sense of entrepreneurship in pupils have a positive effect on their learning?

The school that means business

Richard Garner heads to Lancashire, where developing the 'dragons' of the future is also helping one community academy to achieve its educational goals
10 best tablets

The world in your pocket: 10 best tablets

They’re thin, they’re light, you can use them for work on the move or keeping entertained
Lutz Pfannenstiel: The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents

Lutz Pfannenstiel interview

The goalkeeper who gave up Bayern Munich for the Crazy Gang, Bradford and a whirlwind trawl across continents
Pete Jenson: Popular Jürgen Klopp can reignite Borussia Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern Munich

Pete Jenson's a Different League

Popular Klopp can reignite Dortmund’s season with visit to Bayern
John Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

Cantlie video proves that Isis expects victory in Kobani

The use of the British hostage demonstrates once again the militants' skill and originality in conducting a propaganda war, says Patrick Cockburn
The killer instinct: The man who helps students spot potential murderers

The killer instinct

Phil Chalmers travels the US warning students how to spot possible future murderers, but can his contentious methods really stop the bloodshed?
Clothing the gap: A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd

Clothing the gap

A new exhibition celebrates women who stood apart from the fashion herd
Fall of the Berlin Wall: Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain

The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Goodbye to all that - the lost world beyond the Iron Curtain