There was a time when I thought freelancing sounded like a thrilling career prospect, because it was associated with phrases like “work from home”, “be your own boss” and “choose your own timings”. Of course, the actual definition of freelance also includes phrases like “constantly hunting for work”, “not paid nearly enough” and “sure, I can work GMT hours”. Honestly, it’s no bed of roses.
I first started freelancing after I took a break from my first full-time job as a teacher. After the first month off, I started feeling restless and unproductive, so when my cousin offered to pitch my name to the company she was freelancing with, I was more than happy to give it a go. It was a job writing buying guides for Ebay, and I spent many an afternoon researching inane things like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle costumes, DIY earrings and phone cases. I also wrote many, many articles on fashion. I’m sure someone must have realised I was talking out of my behind, because I’m the least fashionable person I know, but I guess for people who are actually looking up articles on how to accessorise sweater dresses, pretty much anything goes.
At that point, I was freelancing to keep myself busy more than anything else, and the money was a nice bonus. I had gone home to stay with my parents, so finances weren’t a huge priority. Once I got a full-time job, freelancing took a backseat, because it didn’t really serve a purpose anymore, and I had pretty much exhausted all my creative juices. The next time I thought seriously about freelancing was when my captioning job went kaput in September last year. Pretty much the next day, I had taken a bunch of online tests and applied to a whole set of companies. I wasn’t sure where my next paycheck was going to come from, or when, and I didn’t want to waste any time setting up any means possible to keep working. I was lucky. I got into a couple of places immediately, mostly for mundane work (transcription, some basic captioning), which was good for me, because I wanted to reserve any heavy-duty brain work for a full-time job.
That said, I underestimated how manually intensive this freelance work would be. I was often working more than eight hours a day, for a fraction of the pay. If I was very lucky, I would make enough in a month to cover rent. Sometimes the work was simple, but every so often, I’d have to do some hardcore financial transcription for a speaker with a heavy French accent (it’s hard enough understanding financial jargon as it is) and what would normally take me three hours would bloom into six or seven, and I had no choice but to trudge through it. The good thing is that I learnt A LOT. I transcribed interviews of people who lived through the Japanese occupation of Singapore, and got a 25-hour history lesson. I transcribed a medical conference and learnt about the symptoms and treatment of a very rare urban European disease. Also, I know SO MUCH about banking now, you guys. All transactions run in billions, EBITDA is a thing that people pronounce like a word instead of an abbreviation and the CAPEX is not so hot right now. (Sometimes I got these lessons in wonderfully exotic, hard-to-transcribe, east European accents, which was super fun.)
Apart from this, I also took up some freelance captioning work for a company that was too small to give me a full-time job, and that soothed my woes a little, even though the content was almost entirely educational. This, too, was manually intensive work, even if it was light on brain work, but it kept me occupied and prevented me from going into a full downward spiral about unemployment. From this job, I learned about such diverse topics as accounting (I captioned an entire university module on it), and the industry of palm oil sustainability.
I now have a full-time job, but I’ve still kept all my contacts with my freelancers and am continuing to work for them, simply because I actually have the time for it now (my work hours are a cool 7:15am to 3:15pm, which leaves my evenings free), and because I think it’s a good idea to keep all my balls up in the air in preparation for whatever might await me down the road. Also, I’ve realised that freelancing has added a lot of productivity and focus to my days, and helps me from feeling guilty about wasting time, especially now that I have more of it than usual. With the bonus of additional income, it’s a win-win-win all around.
I would recommend taking up something additional to work for anyone who has the luxury of time, but a word to the wise – if these past three years have taught me anything, it’s that nothing about freelance is free OR easy.