An American Editor

June 8, 2015

Summertime & Wondering Why

It’s just clockwork — once a year, every year, summer comes (and the summer solstice brings another wedding anniversary). As I write this, my son is on a week-long vacation, one of several paid vacations he gets each year, along with all those other benefits of working for a corporation/government agency. And as he merrily enjoys his paid vacation, I think about why I chose the freelancer path 31 years ago.

Before freelancing I held a variety of positions and jobs, some in my own organizations and some in the corporate sphere. In all of those jobs, I had paid vacations, paid sick days, paid personal days, medical insurance, annual raises, excellent compensation (my last job with a publisher paid $70,000 a year plus bonuses), retirement, relative job security — all of those wonderful things that can make life easy (relatively speaking) for the employed that as a freelancer I have to provide for myself. And when I think about what I had, the most important was a structured work week. I worked a 35-hour workweek (officially; unofficially it was closer to 50), rarely holidays or weekends.

When I made the move to freelancing, I had no set workweek; jobs came and went and I worked as I needed to meet schedules. I was luckier than many colleagues in that I had enough steady work by my second year of freelancing that I was already subcontracting and still working 40+ hours 52 weeks a year myself.

But every time summer comes around I ask myself what foolishness enticed me to the world of freelancing. The answer is both simple and complex.

Starting from the money angle, I realized that if I created a business and acted like a business, I could earn much more than I was earning from corporate America. Back then, most freelance editors viewed themselves as craftspersons, members of a guild, not businesspersons. If you called editing a business, the heavens would storm daggers down on you; editing was not a business — period. No ifs, ands, or buts on that score. Colleagues thought I was foolish to think otherwise, but I did and I do.

Accepting that editing was a business with great financial potential meant that I tackled creating that business as if it were (could be) a highly successful, organized and structured business. That meant setting a workweek, buying medical insurance, establishing (and funding) a retirement account, establishing (and funding) a vacation account, and so on. I needed to make my business resemble what other businesses did, including, at that time, multiple telephone lines (including several toll-free numbers) (this was years before email took over and before the Internet; even years before the dialup modem was ubiquitous) and a bookkeeping system that was indistinguishable (except for scale) from that of corporate America.

Bottom line was that I recreated in my starting editing business the standards of the then business world. I established business protocols for answering the telephone and for signing a letter. My invoices were in the business name, not in my name. My wife would answer the telephone as if she were the company receptionist. I created the illusion of the corporate world and so I never left the corporate world.

As it happened, this was all to my benefit. Because I created a business and the attributes of a business, I still was able to take paid vacations, have medical insurance, and have paid sick days. For many years I took three or four 1-week vacations every year. Sure, I was paying myself, but I had the revenue to do so. And that was and is the key — having the revenue to give myself all the things that I gave up receiving as benefits from someone else’s hand.

Why did I make the switch from corporate employment to self-employment? Because I knew that I had the type of personality that could make a financial go of it — eventually. It turned out that my “eventually” was sooner than I had planned or expected, but I knew I had the self-discipline to recreate my corporate experience but on my own terms.

I also made the switch because the one thing I couldn’t avoid in the corporate world, which increased in number as I rose in position and salary — the meeting — became increasingly problematic for me. I found that the maxim that in corporate life one rises to one’s level of incompetence was absolutely true. Meetings became increasingly difficult for me because the bosses running them became increasingly conservative and unknowing and, more importantly, unwilling to be educated. Frustration became such a companion that I no longer looked forward to commuting to work (which was another good reason to strike out on my own). Working for myself, I could keep meetings to a minimum (how often do you meet and debate policy with yourself?) and when I did have a meeting with a client or an employee/subcontractor, the agenda was short and to the point — no one had time or energy to waste.

As the years passed, I watched colleagues struggle. They struggle with a lot of issues, not all of them easily solvable, but the fundamental reason for many of their problems was how they approached editing. The unwillingness or the inability to apply business fundamentals to editing, the desire to keep editing as a craft or to think of themselves as artisans rather than tradesmen, hampered their success. Even the greatest of editors needs to apply business fundamentals to what they do because it is those fundamentals that determine financial success and enable payment of the mortgage, the kids’ education, the medical insurance, the retirement fund.

Do not mistake my elevation of finances for a lowering of artisanship. That not only need not occur, it should not occur. Rather it is financial success that gives an editor the opportunity to say yes or no and do the artisanal things the editor wants to do. It is so much easier to volunteer to write the monthly newsletter for the local shelter pro bono when you do not have to choose between doing that and putting food on the table.

Financial success also does one other thing: It makes the looking back and asking “why” an amusement rather than a serious endeavor. When I look back, I know that I never really left that “secure and safe” corporate world; I took it with me and made it my own. Sure I had to make some compromises that if I were truly free of the corporate environment I would not ever address, such as standard business hours so that clients always know when they can speak directly with me; if I were truly free, I would come and go from my office as each day enticed me — it’s beautiful outside today, so I’ll garden — but compromise is the state of life.

So when I look back and ask “why,” I answer because I could and I knew I could succeed. There really wasn’t and isn’t a “why” in my case. How about for you?

Richard Adin, An American Editor

8 Comments »

  1. I did not leave the corporate world voluntarily, and was ill-equipped to become self-employed. At the time, however, there was only one comparable position within an hour’s drive, and it was tightly held; no other comparable positions within two hours’ drive (unviable in a harsh northern and mountainous climate in an elderly car, and no money to replace it); and no positions related to my occupation at comparable pay. As well, relocating was not an option, for reasons inappropriate to get into here.

    So my “why” was driven first by survival and second by quality of life. I could work 40-50 hours/week in some dreadful dead-end service job for peanuts and be constantly struggling and miserable, or apply my skills as a freelancer for whatever hours were obtainable, at a higher rate, from the comfort of my own home, with the chance of being successful. Financial difficulty is much easier to bear if you’re not being torn apart psychologically. So I chose my path, and a decade later am happy and successful, though there’s still a long way to go before reaching my financial goals.

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    Comment by Carolyn — June 8, 2015 @ 6:41 am | Reply

  2. Great post, Rich. I’d like to point out another reason for leaving that “safe and secure” corporate world, which is that it’s nowhere near as “safe and secure” as it seems. Businesses go *out* of business all the time; they also treat employees as just another item of expense, to be acquired or disposed of at will. Is that “safe and secure”? I don’t think so. It’s not the dinosaurs that survived; rather, it’s those nimble little creatures that scurried around them in the brush.

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    Comment by editorjack — June 8, 2015 @ 11:19 am | Reply

    • Let me second this comment! I have been laid off twice from large, once-thriving corporations, let go from contract jobs where the work petered out, and sidelined during ill-conceived reorganizations. There is no security in a corporate job. We are truly disposable parts—interchangeable and dispensable. I admire people who can make a go of working independently.

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      Comment by Christina — June 9, 2015 @ 12:42 pm | Reply

  3. For me, “why freelance” was easy: to run my own life and business. I always thought of my freelancing activity as a business and did my best to behave in a business-like manner, although I thought of some of my work – mostly my writing – as having a creative base. And I always included some vacation time in my business life, even if only a day or two here and there. Some of my clients would take me along on their national conferences to do onsite reporting or newsletters, and I’d add a couple days (sometimes even a whole week) to the ends of those events for fun and friends. Sometimes I’d just give myself a day off in the middle of the week.

    I just finished editing the manuscript of a book by an artist who works in glass, and he talks about the role of financial stability in the life of an artist. His take is similar to Rich’s. It was interesting to see the similarities between the two very different types of businesses.

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    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — June 8, 2015 @ 12:12 pm | Reply

  4. I agree with everyone who has commented so far, and I’ll reiterate what editorjack wrote about job security: For at least the past decade. I’ve felt more secure in my freelance business than many people I know, and many I don’t, who have been laid off or work under the constant fear of getting laid off. One of my friends got a job at a publisher, was laid off after a couple of years, got rehired a couple of years after that, then after a couple more years, got laid off again — this time with no warning. And this is for a well-known and well-regarded company that has been in business a long time, not a fly-by-night operation.

    OTOH, if one of my clients bails on me, I have several more, plus the new ones I pick up every year. When I’ve felt like my work life has gotten into a rut, I’ve been able to stretch and try different kinds of work in the editorial world, without turning my back on longtime clients.

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    Comment by Teresa Barensfeld — June 8, 2015 @ 2:24 pm | Reply

  5. I’ve just stumbled upon your site, and I find it both informative and inspiring. As a very recent graduate, someone who is about to enter her master’s degree studies, and a lover of the editorial world, this is a trove of knowledge that I need to keep with me along my journey. I am so utterly in the midst of the unknown, strung between possibilities and maybes, and perhaps that is why the world of freelance seems so unapproachable — its air is one of instability.

    I suppose I’m still asking my “why,” still figuring out what precisely I’m most drawn to as a graduate student, and as a delver into a still undetermined career. However, it is helpful to know that I’m not alone; even if I choose the path of the singular freelancer, there are many who tread the same path, and who may become not unfamiliar to me.

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    Comment by Jessica Myers — June 8, 2015 @ 2:44 pm | Reply

  6. As always, I enjoy your columns. This is certainly food for thought. Thank you.

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    Comment by Mary-Anne Pops — June 9, 2015 @ 10:31 pm | Reply

  7. Richard, I thoroughly enjoy your posts…thoroughly engaging and informative perspective on a business I am transitioning into after a thirty-year career in managerial disciplines for numerous successive firms and early on a Crown Corporation. Current day endeavours are miles from my past professional vocations and actually having to market myself and my business has been a considerable challenge.

    Your perspective helps me focus on the essentials of my newly chosen business endeavour. There are times when I long for those paid vacation leaves and that day will surely come once again. That I work toward my own objectives and successes remains my greatest motivation for pushing on!

    Like

    Comment by Don MacIver, RPA, Writer, Editor, Poet, Author — June 23, 2015 @ 2:28 am | Reply


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