I worked for ten years as a staff editor in a high-pressure job that required 12- to 14-hour days and a total commitment to the company. The job was excellent experience, but it was limited. I knew there was more out there to learn, and I wanted to explore it on my own terms. But as a single homeowner in Pacific Grove, California, an area that has the second-highest cost-of-living rate in the nation (San Francisco is first), striking out as a freelancer turned out not to be a financial option. When I decided to leave my staff job, I initiated lots of freelance contacts, but I was lucky to find another, much less demanding, full-time job as a technical writer for a small branch of a computer software company that is understanding about my freelance activities.
Perhaps you are in, or moving into, a similar situation. Perhaps you’re a former full-time freelancer who has succumbed to the attraction of health benefits, steady paychecks, and paid vacations, and you have taken a staff job with one of your former clients, but you want to keep several of your other freelance contracts. You may be moving in the other direction, tired of working for someone else and wanting to give freelancing a shot as a part-timer before letting go of your full-time job. Or perhaps you are a staff person who is taking on part-time freelance work to supplement your income. In any one of these cases, doing freelance work while holding down a full-time job has its own set of rules, and its own set of problems, some of which differ from those faced by full-time freelancers.
- Discuss your situation with your supervisor
- Be realistic about your schedule and your workload
- Be prepared to work in smaller doses
- Learn how to deal with taxes
- Don’t neglect the business of your own business
- Expect unusual rewards
- Just do it!
Discuss your situation with your supervisor
In my former job, the boss frowned on any outside activities—we were expected to give our all to his company. This corporate culture is ingrained in a lot of us who worked in “yuppie” jobs during the 1980s, and in my new job it was difficult for me, at first, not to feel guilty about leaving at 5:00 and going home to work for someone else.
My current boss, however, is comfortable with my freelance work. In fact, the company encourages its employees’ outside activities, and even regularly features a different employee’s interests or second job in the corporate newsletter in a column called “Up Close and Personnel.” If you are looking for a full-time job, or if you have one, let your interviewer or your supervisor know that you plan to freelance part-time. If an interviewer is not receptive to this idea, you may not want to work for that company. If your supervisor is not receptive, suggest a trial period. Or, consider flex time or job sharing if your company offers it.
Today, many companies offer a flexible work schedule, job sharing, and even the option of working only 32 hours (four days) a week. (In most companies, a 32-hour week is still considered full-time, which means you are still eligible for full benefits.) If you are a freelancer who is thinking of going back to a staff job, ask your prospective employers about these options, and take these factors into consideration in your decision on the job offers you receive.
Be honest with yourself, as well, about letting your freelance work creep into the hours you have committed to your full-time employer. I check my answering machine from work periodically during the day, and if absolutely necessary (usually with a new client), I will return calls during breaks or on lunch hours. Resist the temptation, however, to let this practice “bleed” into your workday. Most companies these days are very accepting of personal calls during business hours, and some companies even allow personal use of the fax machine within reason, but it’s easy to let it get out of hand.
Be realistic about your schedule and your workload
Just as you were honest with your supervisor, explain your part-time status to your clients, but don’t lapse into apologizing to them because you are not available during the day. “I work full time and I do my freelance work in the evening and on weekends” is my standard line. Don’t say “I can’t get to your job during the day” or “I can’t work on this except in the evenings.” Keep the explanation positive, and be honest with your estimated time frames for completion of assignments.
I allow between 12 and 20 hours a week for freelance work, depending on the kind of assignment(s) I have taken on. If I have a 12-hour-a-week job, I plan to work three weeknights for four hours each, or two weekend days of six hours each (12 hours). This gives me a great deal of flexibility and can leave my weekends completely free. For larger jobs, I plan on three weeknights of three hours each plus two four-hour stretches on the weekends (20 hours). Of course, you will have to adjust your schedule, and the amount of work you accept, to fit your lifestyle. A flexible work schedule at your full-time job, as discussed above, can give you mornings or afternoons at home to handle calls from clients who need to reach you during the day.
Be prepared to leave your house in the morning long before you are expected at work. Because you won’t be home as a rule during the day, you may have to reserve time early in the morning, or during your lunch hour, to drop off completed jobs, pick up new work, and do your business at the post office. (I am extraordinarily lucky in that our city’s post office is open at 7:30 in the morning.) If you’re freelancing for companies that are geographically distant, be prepared to spend many early-morning or late-evening hours on the telephone or fax. Being located in California makes it easy to complete phone work with East Coast clients, when I have them, before I leave for work in the morning. And email is a godsend for handling some of this work, if your clients are “wired,” but remember that this activity eats up as much time and money (if not more) than phone calls.
Enlist the help of your family with chores and scheduling. Just because you are not at the office all the time doesn’t mean you are not putting in a 50- to 60-hour work week. Even if you don’t have a spouse or children, long evening phone calls from your sister won’t do when you’ve promised a client his manuscript will be edited by a certain date. Give her a copy of your set schedule (Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday evenings and Sunday afternoon from 2 to 6, for example), especially if it is a new one for you, and then stick to it. Even though I am unmarried and without children, I have additional help from young nephews who do yard work for a very reasonable fee and a mother nearby who can often meet repairmen at my house during the day if I’m not there. If you have a family, be creative in asking them for this kind of help.
Be prepared to work in smaller doses
If you are a former full-time freelancer, you may find yourself taking on smaller jobs than you have been used to accepting. Even if as a full-time freelancer you had larger clients in the publishing industry, you may find that your revised schedule, which will not allow large jobs to be completed as quickly, is no longer acceptable to some of them. And the pressure larger jobs bring may not be acceptable to you, either. Let these clients know that when and if you return to full-time freelancing, you will contact them, but don’t keep taking their jobs if it means you will end up burning the candle at both ends and cheating both them and your full-time employer out of your best work.
In pursuit of those smaller jobs, cultivate local contacts rather than big publishing operations. Join your Chamber of Commerce. Many such organizations allow members to display business cards and brochures at their offices as well as at trade fairs and other events. Here on the Monterey Peninsula, “Chamber of Commerce” would seem to be synonymous only with “tourist information.” But the local business community here has been a surprisingly lucrative source of editing, writing, and proofreading jobs, all free of the burden of long-distance phone calls and costly overnight manuscript shipments.
Again, be honest with these clients about how long work will take you. You will not be able to complete jobs as quickly as a full-time freelancer would, but if you are good at what you do, many smaller clients will be willing to accept your schedule.
I know you’ve heard this command before, but now your situation is different. Sitting at a desk (and especially at a computer) from 8 to 5 at work and then coming home and sitting at another desk from 7 to 11 can wreak havoc with your body. As a result of two decades of work as a writer and editor, I was recently diagnosed with a cumulative trauma disorder (yes, hunching over a keyboard can “accumulate”!) in my neck and back. The doctor’s prescription, in addition to some extraordinarily expensive painkillers, was “take frequent breaks during the day and exercise at least three times a week.”
You’ll notice that neither of my suggested work schedules outlined above include working every weeknight. At least two weeknights and one weekend day are reserved for exercise—my favorite is walking at an average speed, for at least an hour and a half at a time, consciously letting my arms swing loosely to work the kinks out of my shoulders. Chiropractic and massage treatment is also good for this kind of disorder, and your health benefits at your full-time job will usually cover the massage costs if they are mandated by your doctor.
In addition to exercise, your schedule will demand vitality from you. Follow that tried and true advice to eat right and get enough sleep. You’re no good to anyone if you’re not healthy.
Learn how to deal with taxes
It’s easy to find information about tax rules for full-time freelancers, but part-time freelancing is different in some ways. If an appreciable amount of income tax is being taken out of your full-time paycheck, you may be lulled into thinking that those deductions will cover taxes on what may seem like a proportionately small amount of freelance income. It won’t. Find a good accountant and listen to what he or she tells you. Keep a careful record of all part-time freelance income, no matter how small the amounts seem. File a Schedule C if you haven’t already, and set up a quarterly estimated tax payment schedule with the IRS and with your state tax board, if necessary. Tax rules for in-home offices have changed in the past several years, and the fact that you are not using your home office full-time may change your situation if you are a former full-time freelancer moving to a full-time job.
Don’t neglect the business of your own business
In addition to your bookkeeping chores, allow time to keep yourself current on professional reading, networking, and professional association activities. You also need to remember to market yourself.
Treat professional reading material as you would reading material for your full-time job; don’t let it get set aside with your bills and personal mail just because it comes to your house. Announcements of seminars or publications that come to you through freelance sources may be appropriate for your full-time job, as well. You’re lucky if your full-time job is one in writing or editing, as mine is. Explore the possibility that your employer might pick up the tab for an editing or indexing seminar, or a magazine or journal subscription, because the results will benefit the company as well as your freelance work.
When you’re between jobs, take the time to do some marketing. A flexible schedule at your full-time job can allow you several mornings or afternoons to send out a batch of letters to former clients saying “I’m still in the business.” A simple but eye-catching brochure done on one of the many papers that are pre-printed specifically for that purpose is not expensive and takes only a few hours to put together. Solicit endorsements from clients and include them in the brochure copy.
Expect unusual rewards
In addition to the extra money you bring in, be prepared for unexpected personal rewards. I was moonlighting as a fill-in copyeditor for a local newspaper, working weekends and night shifts, when the paper ran a feature story on the library automation software company I work for. I was able to correct several glaring informational errors in the reporter’s story, including the gross misspelling of the name of the major stockholder. I mentioned this, laughingly, to a co-worker at my full-time job, and word got back to the big boss, who came to my cubicle and thanked me personally for my sharp eye.
My freelancing as a reporter for another local publication included a recent feature story on a local craft fair. When our software company’s users’ group met here in Monterey, a group of our librarian customers from Texas read the feature and, on its strength, attended the craft fair during one of the conference’s scheduled free afternoons. They returned to the conference center to tell me, delightedly, that they had met and bought items from one of the part-time crafters they had read about in the article—the local city librarian!
Just do it!
Working as a part-time freelancer in addition to holding down a full-time job can certainly have its drawbacks: telling a friend you can’t go to the movies with her this weekend because you have a deadline, or turning down a large job you would love to do because your schedule just won’t allow it. But in today’s financial climate, more and more of us are finding it a necessity, and we’re learning how to work it into our lives. It can be a way to supplement income or, for some, a way to test the freelancing waters. Whatever your reasons, the overall message is to get out there and do it. You’ll never know if you can until you try.
by Beth Penney
This article is truly timeless. It originally appeared in the Freelance Editorial Association News, Spring 1996 Volume 13, Number 4