On doing work you love (or: how I quit my City job to become a full time writer and work by the beach while soaking up the sun)

We all know the script. Go to school, work hard, get good grades, get a job, work hard at the office Monday to Friday for several decades… and then you can retire and relax and do what you want. It’s so deeply ingrained in our culture and our minds that anyone who dares to make a living any other way faces a barrage of questions implying that somehow, their work is not ‘real work’ – their job is not a ‘real job’.

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The above photo is of my job – taken last summer as I was working on my laptop on a hotel terrace overlooking St Ives beach in Cornwall, UK. I work as a freelance writer, and as long as I have my laptop (well, MacBook), a good internet or Wi-Fi connection and my smartphone, then I can do my work. Even if I’m outdoors overlooking the beach and enjoying the sunshine. Does that mean my work is not ‘real work’?

The following are the things I’ve heard said to me about my work: 

  • ‘Have you ever thought about applying for a job?’
  • ‘I’d love to be able to sit and write all day, but I can’t be so self-indulgent – in reality I have to have a proper job’
  • ‘No one can pay the bills by writing for a living, unless you get lucky’
  • ‘I don’t know how you manage to work from home and get your work done – I could never do it’
  • ‘Yeah, but just because you were able to make that career change doesn’t mean it’d work for me – you’re different from me / you have special qualities that I don’t’
  • ‘It’s not necessary to do something you love for a living, and those who do love their jobs are lucky’
  • ‘I couldn’t do something I love so much for a living – the moment I start earning money for it, it’ll feel like work and I’ll stop enjoying it’
  • ‘But being self-employed / owning your own business is really risky – at least being an employee gives me job security’

Be honest. How many of you thought one of those things (or a variation of them) when I said what I do for a living? Or if someone like me told you what they did for a living?

Each of the above statements carries the unspoken implication that my work is not ‘real work’ – that my job is not a ‘real job’ – as the deeply ingrained script in the speaker’s mind defines it. Sadly, these assumptions held in the script about work and jobs are often never even questioned – even if the speaker themselves (as is often the case) is secretly very unhappy about what they do for a living.

Here’s what I think: We need to change how we think about work. We need to change what we think a job is, and what ‘counts’ as a job. Your job, your work CAN be – and frankly, should be – something you love, and you can still earn money and make a living from it. Let’s look at the above statements one by one.

‘Have you ever thought about applying for a job?’

No, because I don’t need to apply for a job. I have a job. The fact that I like it, or that I don’t have a boss to try to please or justify myself to, or the fact that I don’t have to commute to an office (or other place of work that others have told me to be at), doesn’t make it any less of a job. The words ‘job’ and ‘work’ are not defined in any dictionary anywhere as ‘something that gives you a complete lack of freedom and/or control over how you spend at least 8 hours of your day’. If I ‘apply for a job’ as most people understand it, it will be because I want to, and not because what I do isn’t a job.

‘I’d love to be able to sit and write all day, but I can’t be so self-indulgent – in reality I have to have a proper job’

In ‘reality’, my job is a ‘proper job’. If I don’t do the work, I don’t get paid. It’s as simple as that. There is nothing ‘self-indulgent’ about writing the articles my clients commissioned me for to a good standard and submitting them by the deadline they set. There is nothing ‘self-indulgent’ about writing blog posts or books for my readers that will be useful and helpful in their lives, or even keep them entertained when they read them. There is nothing ‘self-indulgent’ about meeting my responsibilities to my clients, my readers, or to myself. Trust me, it’s work.

‘No one can pay the bills by writing for a living, unless you get lucky’

People do pay the bills by writing for a living. I do. And it isn’t because I’m lucky either. I started as a journalist in 2009 with no contacts, no experience and no bloody idea how to even get started – I’d spent the previous 4 years as a tax accountant, for goodness’ sakes! I didn’t ‘get lucky’, I got persistent – persistent enough to land a fortnight’s unpaid work experience on a national newspaper (so that I would get some experience and articles published under my name to prove it), persistent enough to read every book going on how to write for a living, persistent enough to gain all my contacts from scratch, persistent enough to market myself to the publications I could write for, and persistent enough to keep going when I got turned down and rejected from so many publications… until the day that one agreed to hire me and pay me. I kept going for months until the second agreed to hire and pay me, while still working for the first one, then I got my third client, and my fourth – and it all went from there.

We also have this idea of the ‘starving artist’ in our culture when it comes to people who make their living from their own creative endeavours, yet for many people it just isn’t true. This is one of the myths I intend to go deeper into in a later blog post.

‘I don’t know how you manage to work from home and get your work done – I could never do it’

Working from home does take some time to get used to if you’ve got used to having to commute to an office and stay there from 9am to 5pm to do your work, but you do get used to it. In the early days, for me, knowing that I wouldn’t be able to pay the bills or feed myself if I didn’t work proved to be a huge motivator to actually getting stuff done – I could work from anywhere after that. Including from the beach!

‘Yeah, but just because you were able to make that career change doesn’t mean it’d work for me – you’re different from me / you have special qualities that I don’t’

I don’t have any special qualities (as people who dislike me would be the first to point out). If anything, there are likely to be ‘advantages’ you have that I don’t. Plus, how do you know changing career ‘won’t work for you’ if you haven’t even tried it? Either you’re making excuses to do and achieve nothing, or you’re allowing your fear (of failure, of change, or of anything else) to do the talking.

If it’s the latter, it’s worth remembering that everyone who has ever succeeded at anything has been scared. Being scared is OK, but you must push through and do it anyway. I was terrified when I changed career. I had no idea if I was ever going to make my new life work – but I kept going and kept doing it regardless of how scared I felt. Sometimes the fear never really goes away, but you have to keep doing things to move yourself forward in spite of it, not stop doing things because of it.

Of course, if you are using the ‘but you’re different from me’ spiel to make excuses to do or achieve nothing with your life, and you’re happy to be the type of person who is full of excuses why you haven’t done or achieved anything with your life, then nothing I or anyone else will say can help you. Good luck with that.

‘It’s not necessary to love what you do for a living, and those who do love their jobs are lucky’

Those who love their jobs are not just ‘lucky’, and as for those who believe you don’t have to do something you love for a living – doing something you don’t love until retirement is far too long to waste your life, and waste your time, hating your life. You owe it to yourself, and to the people who care about you, to lead the best life you can lead, and that includes doing something with your life that gets you fired up and excited. Plus, with talk of the UK retirement age rising to 70, do you really want to do something you hate until you’re 70? Because that’s what you’re saying here.

‘I couldn’t do something I love so much for a living – the moment I start earning money for it, it’ll feel like work and I’ll stop enjoying it’

If anything is a manifestation of the deeply ingrained cultural script that ‘your work/job is not something to be enjoyed’, it’s this one. In my experience, the moment I started earning money to do something I loved – writing – it became even more enjoyable than when I did it for free (and I LOVED writing when I was doing it just for fun, just for me, and not getting paid for it). Are you sure this isn’t just another excuse, or that it isn’t just your fear getting the upper hand again?

‘But being self-employed / owning your own business is really risky – at least being an employee gives me job security’

You have got to be kidding me. Has the fact that there’s been a recession on for the past 4 or 5 years escaped you? Did you see those images of people carrying their possessions out in boxes to the tube station on their way home when global financial giant Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008, and all their staff turned up to their offices only to be told that they no longer had jobs anymore?

(If you haven’t seen those images before, then Google is your friend. Enjoy.)

With so many businesses collapsing over the last few years, this exact scenario has happened to thousands up and down the country, if not the world. One day they had a job, the next day (or week) they were told the unexpected news that they didn’t – they weren’t even given time to work out their notice periods, or time to look for other jobs before their current one ended. Do you really think that’s job security?

Being self-employed, or owning your own business, or earning income from any other source than being an employee is actually far less risky, far less insecure, in this economy. Sure, you depend on income from your clients, and some of them may be constrained by their own budgets, but you are the one who has to get these clients and agree your prices, so really your ‘job security’ is dependent on yourself. Even if one of my clients ‘fires’ me, that doesn’t stop me getting another. In my job, I’m not relying from income from just one client anyway. Which is exactly what you’re doing as an employee.

Doing work you love for a living is possible. Your job does not have to be something that you ‘do just to pay the bills’ and nothing else.

It’s time we challenged those cultural scripts. It’s time we thought about work and jobs in a different way. The good thing is that, even with the global recession on, people have already started to think about work and jobs in a different way – and there are people making a living out of doing work they enjoy, and loving every minute. People have already started to realise there is more to life than work you hate. (Especially if you have to do it until you’re 70.) I hope that this blog helps you see that there is a different way, and that it can be done.

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4 thoughts on “On doing work you love (or: how I quit my City job to become a full time writer and work by the beach while soaking up the sun)

  1. Thank you Santhie – this is a fantastic article, very inspirational! Makes you actually get up and DO things!
    May I ask you some kind of technical questions – how many hours do a freelance writer usually works per day/week/month to make a decent living out of it? Or in other words – how many articles (or how many words) do you have to write per month?
    I understand it is different for everybody… But a rough idea? (I am an accountant at the moment and want facts and figures, hehehe:)
    And also it would be great to know what is the average commision a starting freelance journalist can expect to receive? Are there any guidelines somewhere regarding this?
    Many thanks! And well done! I really hope I will be able to join the freelance writers tribe soon :)

    • Hello Elena,
      Many thanks for your comment! I apologise for taking so long to reply to you (as per my latest post, I was away travelling for the past few months), and really hope you’re still around and that you’ll see this reply.

      The problem is, it’s really hard to put a figure on it! I don’t really know what the average commission a starting freelance journalist can expect to receive, as it really depends on the publications you write for, and how much work you manage to get when you first start – some are lucky and get lots on their first try; others struggle a bit for a few months (or even over a year) before they see their earnings take off.

      For example, if you manage to write for The Guardian (which most newbie freelancers won’t manage to break into on their first try), their rates are £310.68 per 1,000 words for an article in the newspaper, and commissioned blog posts are £90 per post (presumably it doesn’t matter about length or word count for published blog posts). Of course, none of this takes into account the amount of time you take to research for the article or interview people, so when you take a commission or pitch an idea to an editor, you want to bear that in mind. For instance, I can write for a magazine that only pays £110 per article, or another magazine that pays £550 for an article; on the face of it you’d think I’d choose the latter commission, but what if I told you that the £110 article only required a 500-word piece that will take no more than half a day to research and write, while the £550 piece demands specialist knowledge I don’t have, will therefore take a few weeks to research and interview specialists and needs 2,500 words produced at the end of those interviews and research? Should you take on the £550 commission? It depends how much time you have, and how prepared you are to do it.

      For me, I didn’t command very high rates when I started – it was more a question of taking any work I managed to get, as work didn’t come by very often and it was a full year before I started earning enough to say I was making a living from it (i.e. enough to pay the bills and mortgage and food, and the occasional treat), but I have heard of people who only took a few months before they were earning a living from freelance journalism. I lived on savings for most of that year (especially in the months near the beginning of my fledgling freelancing career where I didn’t earn anything at all), and spent most of my time getting myself known to editors, researching their publications and pitching article ideas I thought would be a good fit for their publications. Of course, none of that is paid, and I heard the word “no” more than I heard “yes”, although one of the magazines who initially said “no” on the grounds they’d never heard of me, came back a year later (after reading my articles in other publications in that industry) and commissioned me to write an article they wanted for an upcoming magazine issue, and they have been commissioning me every few months for a decent fee ever since.

      The first bit of paid work I did was two days on the newsdesk of a trade magazine at £130 a day; I understand some magazines pay as low as £90 for a day shift and some corporate/contract publications pay as much as £350. It very much depends on the publication, and what kind of things they write about – newspapers generally pay lower than specialist trade publications, but that’s not always the case. The first freelance article I wrote for a magazine was at a rate of £150 per 1,000 words; while that is not much for some, it’s a lot for other types of journalism (I can’t be entirely sure, but a friend of a friend who is a travel journalist commands lower rates than I do, so £150 per 1,000 words would be a LOT for him, even though it’s low for, say, a business publication). Now, while it’s a good idea to keep an eye on the figures – and as accountants, we naturally do this :-) – it’s worth remembering that sometimes accepting a lower-paid commission can lead to more well-paid work. I have been hired by corporates to provide marketing copy for their company brochures (and corporates pay far better than publishing rates) all because the CEO or Head of Marketing was impressed by an article I wrote in a publication which didn’t pay me as much as others.

      So in short, it’s really hard to put a figure on it. It’s also really hard to put a figure on how much you need to work – on two of my best-ever earning months, for one of them I worked pretty much every day that month (including every Saturday and Sunday that month), while another month where I earned about the same I only worked 6 days in the entire month. The reason is that in the 6-days-of-work month, I took on some very lucrative corporate work, whereas in the working-almost-every-day month I took on lots of work that was fun to do, but wasn’t as well paid as the corporate work.

      So, yeah, the only answer I can give is: it depends! I understand you’d really like me to put a definitive figure on it (and believe me, when I first started out, the lack of definite figures to measure my “progress” by really frustrated me too) but unfortunately, there is no “right” answer, as different freelancers will earn different fees, write for different publications, do different types of work, and work different hours/days to each other.

      EDIT: I should also really point out that as a freelancer, unlike being a salaried employee, you will not earn the same every month – ever heard of the “feast and famine” cycle of a freelancer’s earnings? Some months, regardless of how much you work (or how much you want to work), you will just not earn as much; while in other months you will surprise yourself with how much you’ve earned. This can be hard for a new freelancer to cope with, especially when you’re used to being an employee and getting the same amount of money at the same time every month, but there are ways to cope with and deal with it – setting money aside every month (and setting aside even more when you have a good month) will help you through leaner times as well as ensuring you have enough to pay that all-important tax bill when the time comes!

      I hope my answer has helped you though, even if just a little bit. Comment back or email me if you need any further help / have any more questions! :-)

  2. Hello Santhie, thank you so much for your reply! Really appreciate all this valuable information, thank you for taking your time to write it! I couldn’t have asked for a better reply, it is a fantastic article in itself! Such detailed and thoughtful, really warms my heart and makes me believe that the freelance writing career is very possible (if you work hard and plan it well:) Thank you again for sharing those insights, and for being such an inspiration for me!

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