I’m continuing the interview series on freelance writing today with Zach Urbina. I know you’re going to get a lot from his perspective, like his take on the “feast or famine” world that people think about when they picture freelancing. I started out working a part time job as a marketing consultant and then freelancing part time. I felt more comfortable approaching new clients knowing I had some income coming in. It made me more relaxed and confident, and as a result I was able to transition to a full time income with a couple years.
Zach’s start was similar. He said, “I was lucky enough to have a weekend job at my brother-in-law’s restaurant during my first four years of writing. For writers just starting out, I would highly recommend that approach. If I had to freelance just to survive, that might’ve been daunting. I know people who do it, but they’re either tremendously lucky or enormously stressed out. The phrase I’ve heard which seems to apply here is: “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”
Enjoy this interview.
You’ve been freelancing since 2006. How did you get started?
In 2006, most of what writers were looking to publish professionally, myself included, happened around print. I was paid fifteen cents per word to write for Pasadena Weekly, my hometown free weekly and I was thrilled to get it. I’d graduated college shortly before and this was a lovely chance to write about some friends who worked in the film business and something I was deeply passionate about at the time, movies. Kevin Uhrich, the PW editor, made the article a cover story, which was generous to my young ego.
There were a small handful of opportunities also in print within the next year that cemented my interest in placing my freelance work, which I then referred to as “narrative nonfiction.” Once you get a few confirmations like that from the world at large, the tendency is to build up a bit of confidence, founded or otherwise.
Many freelancers today work for clients and also supplement that with their own blogs and books. What’s your approach to maintaining a successful freelance career?
Diversity is key. Clients are both great and frustrating. As is a desk job. There are trade-offs everywhere. I consider myself absurdly lucky. I’ve gotten to know many of the youngish writers who also do more/less what I do. Blogging has become a big part of both developing your talent and reaching an audience, but that’s almost like practice, or athletic conditioning. In reality, you have to push, almost constantly to make connections with clients/brands/editors/etc, deliver what they want in a way that delights them, and then leverage that up to the next level.
In your opinion, what’s the best way to get new clients as a freelancer?
I depend on LinkedIn, word of mouth, and a keen interest in a handful of interesting blogs/websites. Make friends. Ask thoughtful questions. Invest in people’s lives. Call it enlightened self-interest, or genuine curiosity for the world at large, but it behooves you to know who’s out there and what they’re doing. I wear my pragmatist hat as often as possible. It helps me to see what’s working now.
Tell us what your day is like. How many hours do you work and do you have the flexibility that many freelancers crave?
I live in Topanga, so hiking is always available. I sit at a desk for a large part of the day. Digital content marketing is what people call my current job, but that’s really just a technologically-inclined writer. Like the other fortunate people out there, I love what I do, so there are no real qualms about working odd or non-traditional hours. Between November 2012 and May 2013, I had my content marketing job in Malibu, a five-day-per-week gig as a science blogger, and a blogging/outreach roll for a healthcare IT company. 60-70 hours per week. That was a bit excessive, but its helpful to know the limits of your personal bandwidth. During that time, I was able to work from home, waking at 9ish and wearing primarily pajamas. Truly lovely. These days its closer to 50 hours per week, but I do enjoy the hustle.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about freelance writers?
When I told my father about placing my first article in Pasadena Weekly, his response was “How much does it pay?” The tendency, I think, is to believe that freelancing somehow bonds you forever with poverty. While I’m not buying a yacht quite yet, seven years after getting started, I have exactly zero complaints, financial or otherwise. If friends or family don’t understand what you’re pursuing, let them politely know they may go gingerly to hell.
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is one of the most pragmatic how-to guides to living a satisfying and productive life. Read it twice.
That’s a favorite of mine as well! He’s got such wonderful insight, and you’re right in that you could apply it to freelancing as well as life.
What’s your best advice for someone who wants to start freelancing today?
Adapt if you want to thrive. Learn the culture of the web, start a blog, or pick up a bit of code. Understand which companies/publications are succeeding in the digital space and which are struggling.
Anything you’d like to add?
Oh, haven’t I rambled on long enough?
LOL! Not to me you haven’t. I’ve enjoyed every minute. Where can we find you online?