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

Susan Elkin explains the ups and downs of a freelance writer's career
  • @SusanElkinJourn
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.