Here’s a “did you know” that I bet you didn’t (unless you’re better informed on the origin of words that I am). The word “freelance” derives from the middle ages and refers to knights who, rather than jousting for one side only (King Arthur for example), hired themselves out to noblemen or feudal lords on a purely non-partisan basis (hired lances or mediaeval mercenaries if you like);
Allegedly the word didn’t appear in public discourse until Sir Walter Scott used it in Ivanhoe in 1819, in the following quote:
I offered Richard the service of my Free Lances, and he refused them—I will lead them to Hull, seize on shipping, and embark for Flanders; thanks to the bustling times, a man of action will always find employment.
This concept of “freelancer” has an upbeat, liberated feel about it, connoting as it does free of commitments, fealty, obligations and other associated hang-ups. In its colloquial sense however, it’s often used to define a writer who isn’t employed by anyone, but just plugs away in the hope he or she can flog something off to the highest bidder. While holding out the promise of independence, autonomy and self-determination, this form of activity is, in terms of profit making, tenuous at best and often boils down to slogging away for zilch most of the time.
This was verified at a workshop I attended a week or so ago at the SA Writers Centre, run by Helen Chryssides, a prolific and successful freelance writer. As well as disclosing the rather quaint origin of the word “freelance”, Helen attested to the sad fact that out of every ten submissions she sends off to publishers, she averages around two acceptances. Coming from someone who is not only a regular contributor to many popular Australian magazines and newspapers, but has also published a number of successful non-fiction books, this is not reassuring news for aspiring freelancers hoping to make even a modest living out of the trade.
All hope is not lost however, if you follow some of the very common-sense rules of the game that Helen shared with us. Interestingly, and in the sense that common sense is probably not all that common, many of these seem so glaringly obvious that they’re almost always overlooked. The first and most essential skills are rather like the fundamental rules for success in any endeavour, whether it’s charging into battle on your trusty steed, or anything else.
- The ability to meet deadlines – in other words, turn up at the battleground when you said you were going to
- The ability to work under pressure – no matter how fierce the onslaught of the opposing forces, keep astride your mount and hold on to your lance
- Seek out the best information – keep onside with the knights who matter, be nice to Kings and Ladies and they’ll be nice to you
- Shamelessly self-promote, build a profile and market yourself – burnish your suit of armour to a brilliant shine
When it comes to the dreaded market, freelancers of today are surrounded by swirling mists of uncertainty thicker than any the knights of old had to contend with, and it’s all too easy to get defeatist, despondent and throw in the towel before you’ve even wiped your hands. Thanks to technology, markets however are expanding rather than shrinking. It’s all a matter of changing one’s perspective. Writers are not restricted to local publications, or print media any more. With a multitude of local, national and international publications, both print and online that cater for every level and type of taste and interest, there are virtually no avenues closed to the enterprising freelancer. What’s out there of course tends to change on a regular basis; some publications are folding while others are starting up. It’s a matter of keeping in touch with what’s popular and what’s not, anticipating trends and planning ahead. It’s very obvious when you think about it, but many publications are geared to seasonal changes (winter, spring, etc.) special events (Christmas, Easter) anniversaries (of deaths, significant world events such as 9/11) and designated celebrations (UN international days such as International Womens Day, International weeks of, years of, decades of etc.) – start thinking about something several months before these dates and then it’s just a matter of tapping into the demand that will certainly be there.
One thing I’ve noticed as a writer is that people who don’t write often ask how I come up with ideas. Whether you write fiction, non-fiction, journalism or a blog like this one, the most fundamental requirement is to find something to say. Waffling on is always a temptation but one better resisted. Ideas for a writer should never be a problem. But although they might be thicker on the ground than sour sobs in the garden after rain, you won’t simply find them. They are there for the finding, but as Helen emphasised, you must recognise them and then generate the bud of an idea into a blossom before it will do you any good. This of course requires cultivation, fertilisation and plenty of creative imagination.
When it comes to doing this productively, untiringly and on a regular basis, there are more rules, but these thank goodness are not a hardship to follow. All you have to do is read widely and write daily.
While there were many more gems of practical advice I gleaned from the workshop, to me the most significant message was that although there won’t be any pots of gold at the end of the rainbow or anywhere else, and it’s probably wise to keep a day job or hold on to a pension or a sugar daddy or whatever other source of revenue you can muster up, there’s every reason to think that if freelancing is your goal, some time in the future something will pop up in a magazine or newspaper or online with your byline on it, if you take the right approach.
To paraphrase Sir Walter Scott, in these bustling times, a man or woman of action and industry will always find employment.