An American Editor

August 3, 2011

One Is the Loneliest Number

I have been doing a lot of thinking recently about being a freelancer. Much of my thinking has been in preparation for my delivering the keynote address at the upcoming Editorial Entrepreneurship in the 21st Century conference (sponsored by Communication Central and set for September 30-October 1, 2011 in Baltimore, MD), along with the sessions in which I am involved. When I think of my 27 years as a freelance editor, I often think of the Three Dog Night song from 1969 titled “One.” Let’s set the stage and begin with Three Dog Night:

Over the years, I have heard many reasons why someone became a solo freelancer; not once have I heard as a reason the opportunity to make more money. Invariably the reasons focused on other issues, such as hating the corporate environment, hating having to deal with inferior bosses, wanting to be able to set one’s own schedule, the ability to choose to accept or reject work, and so on. Although there is some commonality to the reasons given, there is significantly more commonality when freelancers are asked about the negatives of going solo. The most oft-given complaint is loneliness — that is, the loss of water-cooler socialization. Thus, one is the loneliest number for solo freelancers.

It is because of this social loneliness that solo freelancers jump at chances to participate in online social groups, the substitute water cooler. Yet these substitutes have their own negatives, primarily that a freelancer can spend — and often does spend — too much time socializing online, so much so that the socializing interferes with earning a living. I’m not sure that there is an easy resolution to this problem; the balancing act that is required is not an easy one to master.

Yet forced change may be what lies in the future.

I’ve noticed on several of the online lists in which I participate that the number of solo freelancers who are seeking or accepting full-time employment with corporate denizens is increasing. Whereas a few years ago it was rare to find a freelancer who was actively (as opposed to passively) seeking to change career paths, today the active seeking is much more common.

None of the active career-path-change seekers bluntly says, “These are the reasons why I am making [or want to make] the career switch,” but I suspect that the top reasons are social loneliness, inability to afford health insurance, low earnings, and inability to set aside money for retirement, perhaps even in that descending order. Being a solo freelancer places a lot of heavy burdens on one’s own shoulders, burdens that are shouldered by corporations in the usual employer-employee relationship.

As I see it, every problem that the solo freelancer faces coalesces around the singular problem of loneliness, of not having that colleague in the next cubicle with whom one can share a cup of tea and the problems of the moment. The more time one needs to devote to staving off loneliness, the less time one has to spend working and earning and thus the less money one has to purchase health insurance, to set aside for retirement, to use for vacations, to pay life’s daily bills. Which makes me wonder whether going solo is really the right choice for most freelancers.

Not much thought, and even less acceptance, is given by solo freelancers to the idea that perhaps they should combine forces with other solo freelancers — not in an online forum but in an actual business relationship. The excuses given are myriad and although usually of molehill size, made into mountains. But our editing world is changing, its needs are different today than what they were just 5 years ago, let alone a quarter-century ago when I started my solo career, and maybe greater consideration needs to be given to putting aside the imaginary wonderful world of solo freelancing and to thinking about ways to go from one to more than one.

Yes, as the song says, two can be as lonely as one, but it is much easier for two to not be lonely than it is for one. We solo freelancers are quick to dismiss anything that might suggest that what we are doing is less than ideal; this has been true for the 27 years that I have been a freelancer. Yet what was once true, correct, and sustainable, is no longer true, correct, or sustainable. Not only has time marched on, but so has the way we need to conduct business, especially if making money is a key goal. If we do not recognize these changes and begin to address them, we can expect that we will be, for better or for worse, joining the ranks of those who now say, “Once upon a time I was a solo freelancer.…” There is no reason why “One” must be our theme song in perpetuity.

6 Comments »

  1. I’m glad you phrased this essay in terms of “most” freelancers, because I feel myself to be an exception on many points. However, I totally agree with the value of working in partnership (formal or informal) with other freelancers — very few of us have all the skills and personality attributes necessary to be successful. I know that I’m missing a few important ones and yearn for counterbalance and support.

    The Internet has made it possible for me to survive, and opened the door to the possibility of thriving, as well, because of the water cooler function. I have more friends now than ever before; more colleagues with whom to discuss professional issues; an instant encyclopedia and helpdesk; and a trusted network. As well, for those of us who really want to keep the physical part of solo-ness, the Internet allows us to work with other people at one step removed. So it’s the perfect environment for forming work groups, and I hope more people will start to see it that way.

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    Comment by Carolyn — August 3, 2011 @ 5:37 am | Reply

  2. I know this isn’t solely for freelancing editors, but The Freelancers Union came to mind when you mentioned building a community. Could be a great place to get involved!

    http://WWW.freelancersunion.org

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    Comment by LauraS — August 3, 2011 @ 8:51 am | Reply

  3. Hmmm. Well, that’s one reason that I remain a solo freelancer: I get to keep all the money I make, and I can make more by going after projects on my own. I understand the value of partnerships, but the one major time I tried a project in that model, it was an awful experience, even though the other person was someone I had known for several years whose skills were well-established. I do bring in other colleagues, usually designers, as needed.

    I realize that remaining a solo practitioner might mean not taking on some of the bigger, more-profitable projects “out there,” but I can’t see how doing so would mean a major increase in my income, since the income from those projects would be shared with the other colleagues. I do see that the partnership or subcontracting model works; I just don’t see it working for me. That difference in working model is part of what makes the world go round, though. Variety is a good thing!

    Of course, as anyone who knows me can attest, loneliness and isolation have never been problems for me as a solo freelancer, even before the days of the Internet. I’ve always made of a point of being involved in professional organizations and developing routines that kept me from feeling isolated or lonely. I realized as soon as I went freelance full-time that staying visible and involved in the professional world while maintaining my independence would require conscious thought and effort. It helps that being an extrovert is built into my personality and that I’ve lived in urban neighborhoods with lots of places to get to easily for socializing, and that, even though I’m not in such a neighborhood now, I’m still in an apartment building where there’s always someone around to talk to or go out with. I’ve even had neighbors who also were freelancers, which came in very handy at times.

    I look forward to hearing how other freelancers see the solo vs. partnership concept when we’re at Communication Central’s “Editorial Entrepreneurship in the 21st Century” conference in the fall!

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    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — August 3, 2011 @ 9:18 am | Reply

  4. I’ve been at the editorial end of publishing for over forty-five years now — often on staff for long periods, but mostly — by choice — freelance. OK, I would then have a score of ‘bosses’ rather than just two or three in the big-house environment, but to a much greater extent, I called the shots, I was free to pick and choose clients and jobs and to innovate without impediment. The down-side was only that I worked a darned sight harder. Never lonely because I had almost daily face-to-face contact with clients both professionally and socially.

    My latest freelance interlude has lasted for the past twelve years. And it’s only because I’m housebound (thank ye gods I work on my butt) that the personal meeting element is no more. I’m far from lonely, though, because I head up a wee editorial team, scattered over the map, and have a large international table of authors (I detest the word ‘stable’ used in this context). Our online and telephone contact becomes warm, personal and is an excellent substitute for the bar top and the dinner table of old. I have ‘real’ friends and share great confidence with people whose hands I’ve never physically shaken.

    For me, the only true drawback to home-based freelance work — especially with contacts in all time zones — is that the ‘office’ is never closed. I cannot take a day off at the weekend or — heaven forbid — a short vacation because there’s simply nobody to cover for me and an impossible backlog of work would result.

    Fortunately, my wife is understanding because she’s freelance, too, though in a completely different field. And the climate being what it is in my neck of the woods, I can work for several months of the year with a laptop in the open air of my small terrace, which is a regular open-all-hours ‘water cooler’ for family, friends, neighbours, colleagues and authors. (I have a white, wide-brimmed panama hat that I wear during periods of intense concentration. It’s called my ‘bugger off hat’ and folks know not to attempt to speak to me when the headgear is engaged.

    So, nope, loneliness ain’t a problem. Desperation and stress that goes with keeping on top of things with no back-up? Now that’s another matter …

    Very best wishes to all. Neil.

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    Comment by Neil Marr — August 3, 2011 @ 9:46 am | Reply

  5. […] article is a response to my recent article, One Is the Loneliest Number. Needless to say, I will respond to Ruth’s article. Ruth argues for the solo freelancer […]

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    Pingback by Working Alone — Or Not? « An American Editor — August 22, 2011 @ 4:06 am | Reply

  6. […] versus group freelancing? (For discussion about solo versus non-solo, see my original article, One Is the Loneliest Number; Ruth Thaler-Carter’s response, Working Alone — Or Not?; and my response to Ruth, Is the […]

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    Pingback by Is This the Wave of the Editorial Future? « An American Editor — August 30, 2011 @ 4:07 am | Reply


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