It Gets Better: Ph.D. to Freelance Writer

About a year ago, my blog went viral after I shared my story about leaving academia. It’s been a year since my inbox was flooded with “me too” emails, making me realize that exploitation and abuse of adjuncts and graduate student labor is merely a horrific symptom of a much larger disease. I think of the problems around academia as a malignant tumor—it’s impossible to remove at this point because the life blood of higher education flows through it and because of it.

What I’m saying is: I am so f*cking relieved to not be a part of that toxic mess anymore. I’m almost grateful about what happened to me, because it forced me to see the writing on the wall.

Since leaving academia, I have been steadily building up a client base for editing and writing. It started with friends and friends of friends' dissertations, and gradually grew from there. Lately I’ve been learning the ropes of business writing, web copy, and content writing.  And for the first time in a really long time, I’m happy.

Do I still live month-to-month? Yes. Am I worried about lining up new writing jobs as my current projects draw to a close? Oh, absolutely. But in a weird way, academia prepared me for that. The constant stress of applying for funding and fellowships for the next year, of not knowing where I was going to live in 9 months, and the constant anxiety of if I would even “make it” once I finished my PhD all made me both prone to chronic anxiety and weirdly resilient. Grad school makes the uncertainty of freelance life a cake-walk.

Graduate school made me particularly adept at working from home and living, fairly successfully, with uncertainty. The struggle other freelancers have with being productive while working from home doesn’t seem to have hit me as hard—after all, my most productive days in grad school were spent completely alone at my computer—either at home or in an over-air conditioned library.

For the record, I hate it when people offer advice in blog posts—I’m no expert, I mean, I had cheese and crackers (out of everything else) with my black coffee (out of milk) for breakfast this morning because, at a few days shy of 32, I’m still barely an adult. Did I mention I'm a 3 minute walk to a grocery store? So ya know, take this for what you will.

On Networking

I am not exaggerating when I say that I was meeting with people, going to weird and forced networking events, and cold-emailing people every day. It’s still a large part of my life, and now I just enjoy talking to other people and hearing about their paths. I’ve made some real friends in the process. In particular, Ladies Get Paid and LMHQ have been great starters.

I was determined to figure out what the fuck to do next, and I knew I would only figure it out by talking to people. I started spending time with app developers, seeing how they were building their company from the ground up. I immersed myself in business and marketing lingo. Learned how things were done.

Weirdly enough (at least to me), the majority of my freelance gigs have been a direct result of my blog, and, frankly, Twitter. I have a love-hate relationship with Twitter. I  still don’t really know how to do it, but one thing is for sure: the communities of alt-acs and writers are all on twitter. Through tweets back and forth with people, and then meeting up with them in person, I found friends and got my first big jobs. I follow some amazing academics, alt-acs, and writers on Twitter—so if you’re interested, poach my list of who I follow.

Business Writing aka Get Your Money

When I was hired to write a business-to-business case study (basically, a book report for a business on how their strategy helps other businesses be more successful, called B2B in that world), I was terrified. What the hell did I, a radical feminist art historian know about business?

Turns out, you have to fake it until you make it, and thanks to the world wide interwebs, you can teach yourself just about anything. I poured over Forbes, Harvard Business Review, and the Wallstreet Journal to learn the language of business writing.

When I was handed the materials to write what would end up being the first of many case studies/white papers/ business writing (whatever you want to call it), I scoured the data, audio files, and interviews.

I googled the company’s competition to see how they wrote about themselves to make sure the company would stand out and rise above the deluge of sugary jargon-filled business content.

I loved the task of digging through all the available information, figuring out the most important aspects of a company’s business strategy, and selecting the aspects that made them stand out. It was fun. I was intellectually engaged and getting paid more than I had ever made.

My friend, Jillian Powers, a rogue sociologist who I legit met on Twitter, is well compensated for her research design and analytical skills in the realm of market research. She helped me with strategy, standard practices, and even gave me an introduction to data analysis and statistics (I now know enough to know I need to know more).

What I’m saying is: I threw myself at the problem and took it as seriously as I had my grad school career. And the company that had taken a risk on me loved my work.

The things that you must learn to survive graduate school are the very same things that will assure your success in the real world.  We are thorough, we are hardworking, we approach problems from every single possible angle to ensure our take is accurate, and more often than not, we tend towards the obsessive. While that’s an issue for your personal life (just ask my therapist), in your professional life, it sets you apart. I hate to sound condescending (not really) but I think *in general* this statement is true: Former academics’ 70% is everyone else’s 95%.

I’m not saying that to mean you can slack off and be successful (I mean, you probs could, but my anxiety ridden mind won’t let me do that)—on the contrary, we need that work ethic to prove ourselves and compensate for our weirdo job history and intimidating letters after our names (stay humble folks).  So, if our 70% is everyone else’s 95%, imagine how far our 100% goes in the real world.

The other side to that is knowing your worth and treating your freelance life as a business. When I first started, I had no idea that it was common practice to have your clients sign a contract or letter outlining your services, your fees, and the client’s expectations. This legally protects both of you—but especially the freelancer. I had no idea that I needed to be setting aside 20-25% for taxes (better to over-save than under save). But I learned, because late into the night as some silly tv show ran in the background, I was on freelance writing websites, listening to podcasts, scouring twitter and obsessively reading every blog out there on how to pitch, how to write B2B case studies, and how to get my next client. Tbh, I still have no idea what I’m doing, but whatever it is, it’s starting to work.

Now, I speak with clients on the phone and immediately send them a follow up email listing everything that was discussed and the plans for the project. I send consistent and detailed updates on the project, so my clients know how it’s going and can course-correct if they don’t like an aspect (put aside your ego—this isn’t your writing, it’s for them).

I then send a contract and request a retainer of 50% of the projected cost. I have heard horror stories of freelancers never getting paid for big projects, and I can’t afford that shit, so I’m not taking any chances. Plus, when you explain to clients that this is how you conduct business, it’s not personal. I’m not saying my way of doing this is the best way, there are endless posts about how others do pricing and invoices, so there is no “right” way to do it—it’s just what works best for you.

I just landed my first ghostwriting business project a few months ago, and I love it. It’s so fun working with a client to help their ideas come to life. It’s like teaching, but you actually get paid a living wage.

Making time for your own writing:

 This summer I hit a stride where I was getting paid enough to work half the day on client material, and then the other half of the day writing what I wanted to write. I’ve written stories, articles, and am learning how to pitch those stories and articles to publications. While I’d much rather be known for writing my own stuff, what I’ve discovered is that very few writers live off their own writing.  Because I can’t afford live off an adjunct’s salary, business writing has been intellectually satisfying and financially rewarding.

I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep up the luxurious writing life that I’ve had this summer, so I’ve cherished it. But I know that my student loan re-payments will resume in February and that I will have to start saving for both rainy days and retirement—which means my income is going to have to go up, especially because I refuse to live anywhere else but Brooklyn. But for now, I’m happy. I’m pursuing my own projects and picking up traction in having more publications in that vein.

And really, isn’t that all we wanted when we aspired to be professors? Time to write?

And really, as academics, what percentage of our lives would have actually been spent researching and writing our own topics? I’m pretty sure I do more of my own writing and research than I ever would have had time to do in academia. And, once I figure it out, I’ll reach far more people with my writing than my silly theoretically dense academic writing ever would have.

Resources for Freelance Life:

 I’m sick of being competitive, I’ve never been good at keeping secrets, and I think that if we all pool resources and knowledge, alt-acs can run the goddamn world. So, in that vein, here is a list of resources that I have found particularly helpful in my freelance writing life:

Podcasts: The Creative Class and Ed Gandia’s High Income Business Writing. They’re a great place to start, and their websites are a wealth of information. I have not taken any of Ed Gandia’s writing classes, so I cannot speak to that, but this list of what to charge has been amazing to have.

I did bite the bullet and pay for the Creative Class webinars. I have just started, but so far, they have helped me start thinking about how to grow my business. I got a little overwhelmed with all the information and instructions, so if you are just starting out, there is a ton of free content that is all you need to get going initially.

I will say this: be careful of snake oil salesmen.

It seems like everyone and their dog has a webinar that assures your immediate success as a freelance writer. After obsessively digging into what that paid content really was, I’m fairly sure the majority of them offer practical and obvious advice that you either already know, can figure out on your own, or can learn for free somewhere else.  While the only class I have paid for has been Creative Class, I have been tempted by a lot. So far, Creative Class has been well worth the investment.

The book The Writer’s Market: The Most Trusted Guide to Getting Published has also been helpful, it was one of the first things I bought, and after a few months of being desk decoration, it has become something I turn to fairly often.

Mediabistro is a resource as I learn how to pitch my own writing, I paid $50 for a year of access, and I use it almost every day. They have guidelines on how to pitch to a large number of publications, and a bunch of other resources, some free and some paid.

On the note of pitching your own writing, the amazing Ann Friedman’s Medium article is amaze.

Also, I’m a die-hard fan of Call Your Girlfriend podcast, by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman—their success in doing and saying what they want is something I aspire to. They talk frankly about their career experience across many of their podcasts and in general are amazing to listen to. Their latest podcast about money is great, and this podcast episode in particular was really eye opening to me when I listened to it about a year ago. 

This blog post on how to write white papers is pretty good, it gives you a good sense how to use your academic writing and research skills if you read in-between the lines.

I’m sure I’m leaving some things out, so feel free to comment or email me with what you’ve found helpful. Let’s build each other up.

To all my international readers out there: this sounds silly, but I just figured out how to see where my readers are based (I told y'all I barely know what I'm doing), and I'm thrilled to see how diverse my readership is-- I would love to hear about your experiences!

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