Next month it will be just about five years since I graduated from university with a ‘useless’ degree in Creative Writing. During my studies, one of my lecturers was kind enough to tell the whole class that none of us would ever write anything for the rest of our lives and we would all settle for boring jobs and become bitter old bastards like him. It was a good thing he warned me because I have been working hard ever since graduating to prove him wrong. I’ve had a lot of unexpected successes over these five years but a lot of embarrassing failures as well. The things I’m most proud of are:
- Moving abroad.
- Getting engaged.
- Becoming a published writer (ghostwritten but still).
- Editing full length manuscripts.
- Becoming a published photographer.
- Being shortlisted for a writing contest.
Things that haven’t happened to me are:
- Getting a Master’s degree.
- Becoming financially stable.
- Finishing my novel (which I spent my entire last year of university working on).
- Becoming financially ruined.
- Giving up on my dream.
When I graduated, I initially wanted to work in the media industry. When that didn’t work out and I was fed up with the endless cycle of applying for jobs I would never get, I decided to go freelance and focus on my true passion – books. While this did end up being the right decision and has made me very happy, it wasn’t easy and I do wish that I had gotten some experience at a publishing house before I went out on my own as I could have saved myself a lot of trouble.
For aspiring writers who are graduating this year, I wanted to share some of the most important things that I’ve learned in the past five years that I hope will help you too:
- Writing needs momentum.
When I graduated, I had a very clear goal that I was going to write for at least an hour a day and finish the first draft of my novel by the end of the year. Well it’s been five years now and that first draft still isn’t finished. Applying for jobs became my top priority because of course I needed to work, but the trouble was that I stopped writing even during my free time. I thought ‘when I get a job I’ll be able to write again’. Even then I knew that when I did get a job, I wouldn’t have time for writing anyway! It was a horribly depressing time with no creative outlet in my life but even after deciding to focus more on writing, it still took me forever to actually start. Only when I started to put writing time into my schedule and discipline myself to stick to it did my momentum pick up again and it became easier to write every day.
- Get mistakes out of the way early.
I’m out of the beginner stage of freelancing but I still make the occasional major goof up. Last month I sent my invoices out late and my fiancée was rightfully disappointed when I couldn’t pay my share of the rent on time. But now I know to send my invoices out early to avoid this situation, as I’ve learned from all my other blunders. It’s much better for me to make these mistakes now while I’m a relative newbie then several years down the line when I have a reputation to keep up.
- Focus on doing not learning.
As a writer, my first instinct when trying something new is to head down to the library, grab as many books on the subject as I can, and research it to death. Research is important and I did need to learn about things like income sheets and marketing techniques, but I did fall into the binge learning trap.
For a while, most of my work day was spent watching videos of rich people standing next to expensive cars and talking about how I could be as rich as them if I spent $2000 on their e-course. I still felt productive as I was learning something new, but barely any of their lessons actually applied to me. This was all time that I should have spent growing my own business. I’ve found that both writing and freelancing work best with a ‘learn by doing’ approach. I still follow some blogs, watch videos, and read books that I know will be helpful and relevant but I try not to let them take up my entire day when I have new clients to find and assignments to finish.
- Don’t apply for jobs you won’t get.
When I was unemployed, the Job Centre was so overstretched that they could only spend ten minutes with me every two weeks. In that time they had to find any job in their database that I was even remotely qualified for and if I didn’t apply for that job, plus a certain amount every week, then I would lose my benefits. Not surprisingly, this was the absolute worst method of finding a job, and is even worse for freelancing. Wasting time applying for jobs that I’m under or over qualified for isn’t going to get me anywhere. Instead I search job boards and apply only to jobs that I’m qualified for and send out speculative e-mails to companies who I know have a good chance of hiring me. This works out much better than sending out ten e-mails a day for jobs which I know I won’t get.
- Become indispensable, not disposable.
One of my lowest points of the last five years was being fired from my part time retail job. I felt that if I had failed so spectacularly at the safe option, then what chance did I have in succeeding with the risky venture? Eventually I figured out that the reason you can be fired from a minimum wage retail job for virtually any reason is because at that job, you are easy to replace. There is a whole box of CV’s belonging to people who want your job and more applications every day to replace them when they slip up.
It’s a disheartening thought so I decided that instead of being the cog in the machine that is easily replaced, I would be the essential part that can’t be replaced. I wanted to be the type of freelancer I’d read about who clients come to first because no one else can complete their project in the way they want.
I’ve already seen shades of this happen, with clients complimenting me for responding quickly, beating deadlines, and delivering great writing first time around. From what I’ve heard, these are surprisingly rare traits in a freelancer that clients are really looking for. This could already put me in the top category of all the thousands of freelance writers and editors out there, which is a comforting thought for whenever I’m feeling down.
A lot of unexpected things have happened since I made the decision to go freelance but not all of them ended up being bad. I never expected to be offered a ghostwriting job but it ended up becoming my big break into being a published writer. My interest in filmmaking developed (pun not intended) into an interest in photography, a hobby which challenges me creatively and forces me to go out and explore, which recently helped me to get over a period of depression.
To any writers who are graduating soon, you have a tough road ahead of you so start now on becoming indispensable so you can avoid some of the traps I fell into. You’ll make mistakes like I did and some days will really suck, but keep on writing and learning and discovering. In five years’ time your life might not be exactly where you wanted it to be, but you might just look at your life and say ‘this is pretty great’.