Reader queries: “I want to make the switch from accountancy to writing – how difficult is it?”

The past few months have been busy ones – as well as taking a trip to Barcelona (beautiful city, by the way; I highly recommend a visit), I’ve been continuing to work on the editorial team of a weekly tax magazine (the recent UK Budget in March and the subsequent Finance Bill kept me very busy). I had my “Tax and Russia” article published, as part of a special report on tax in the BRIC countries. I’m also still writing a lot. I haven’t been so good at keeping up my daily habit of writing 500 words a day – that mini-resolution fell away in March, BUT I have still been writing almost every day (so at least several times a week) and writing about 800 words of creative writing a day, so all is not lost.

Recently, however, I received a reader query, which I will share below (as well as my answer) in the hope it’ll help those in a similar situation.

IMG_9871 (Casa Batlló in Barcelona, Spain. One of Gaudí’s architectural masterpieces.)

“Hi Santhie, I recently came across your article on careershifters.org, and found it so inspirational. I’m a newly qualified chartered accountant who hates her job and the profession. I too have always enjoyed writing and set up a blog last year to document my travels with my husband so I could at least continue my passion to some extent.

I was wondering how difficult you found it to make the switch from being an accountant to a writer, i.e. what stumbling blocks did you come across? I’d really appreciate any advice you could give me as to how I too can follow my own passion in life, as opposed to being stuck in a job I hate.” 

I would say for me, the main stumbling blocks were psychological – overcoming my fears and convincing myself that I *can* make a success of things. And learning to shut out the advice of naysayers who were well-meaning, but otherwise just as clueless about my new profession as I was at the beginning (comments such as “This can’t possibly work” and “Whoever heard of someone making a living out of writing?” and “Self-employment is too risky!” etc were common at the beginning). Sometimes the only encouragement and support I got at the beginning was from my then-boyfriend (now husband).

That’s not to say a “can-do” attitude – as well as the confidence to face and overcome your fears – are the only things you need, however, although both are important and will help you immensely. There are other potential stumbling blocks too, although there are ways of eliminating them:

  1. Financial. Career changes often cost a lot of money, and if you’re going from employed to self-employed/freelance, you need some way to cover your expenses until you start earning enough money to pay the bills. I had no debts apart from my mortgage and a small student loan (in the UK you do not need to start paying your student loan back until you earn over £15,000, so my student loan debt wasn’t anything for me to worry about). Most importantly, I had about 9-12 months worth of living expenses saved up in cash when I quit my job, which was just as well because for the first year of my freelance writing career I only earned about £3,000–£5,000.

    I spent most of that year hustling for clients, and taking on any paid work in the accountancy journalism field that I could. I also cut out all unnecessary expenses and learned to live as cheaply as possible, in case my savings needed to last me more than a year. Fortunately they didn’t need to last me more than a few months – towards the end of my first year my career started to take off, and in my second year I earned enough to cover the bills and afford some luxuries and holidays abroad too.

    So to eliminate any potential financial stumbling blocks, I recommend either having 6-12 months of living expenses saved up, or some way to finance yourself for at least a year while you change career. Cutting back on your expenses until your career gets going can help too. Having savings also helps if you feel you need to pay for any writing-related courses (say, the NCTJ) to help you – personally, I didn’t take any courses or qualifications as I didn’t need them; for me, my unpaid work experience and portfolio of published articles was enough to get me going.

  2. A new way of working. From your email and your very nice blog, I see you are a fellow accountant who wants to write for a living. When you’re employed, all you need to do is turn up and do the work the company already have for you; freelancing is not like that at all. It is all about your client, and what you can do for them; you have to think more about how you can meet their needs, rather than how they can meet yours.

    You have to find your own work, your own clients; you have to learn how to market and sell your services; you have to convince others to hire you; you have to learn how to negotiate rates and fees; you have to learn what is and what isn’t a reasonable price for your field (or learn how to justify your prices if someone says they’re too high); you may have to learn new skills and/or software packages in order to be able to do the jobs you want to be hired for; you have to meet the deadlines they set you, and regardless of how busy or not you are, you have to do the work to a consistently high standard; and in my case, I had to learn how to write the things clients wanted me to write for them – different publications/businesses want different styles or methods of communication. And you will have to come up with your own system for how to account for your income and expenditure, although as an accountant I imagine you won’t have too much problem with that!

    New ways of working can be learned: there are some good books out there about freelancing and making a living as a freelance writer. Some of the ones I recommend are given in my Careershifters article on how I changed career, under the heading “What help did you get?” For those who want to refer to the books here rather than searching through the article, they are:

    • “The Renegade Writer”, by Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell
    •  “The Greatest Freelance Writing Tips In The World” by Linda Jones
    •  “The Freelance Writer’s Handbook” by Andrew Crofts

    If you are going to freelance, I think it also helps to read books about changing careers and running a small business. The ones I found particularly helpful (and fun to read) were:

    • “Screw Work Let’s Play” by John Williams
    • “Go It Alone” by Geoff Burch

    Most of it will be learned as you go along, but those books are a good place to start and often a good source of reference.

  3. Psychological. I’ve dealt with most of this above, when I talked about staying confident and overcoming your fears (or learning to push past them anyway) to change career in the first place – but even after you’ve successfully changed career, there will still be days that you feel absolutely terrified, like you’re on a rollercoaster and you can’t get off! That’s natural, and it’ll be largely because you’re challenging yourself to do something you’ve never done before – and often that no one else you know has ever done before.

    It’s OK to be afraid, at whatever stage of your career change, but what’s important is that you keep moving forward, keep doing what you need to do, keep learning what you need to learn, in spite of how scary it is. Support from either your partner, a family member or even just a good friend can be invaluable. Sometimes it can help to remind yourself of all the things you’re proud of, and all the times you succeeded; or even the times you bounced back from failure. Just keep moving forward.

I hope this helped the asker, and I hope it helps anyone else in a similar situation. As always, let me know if there’s anything else you would like me to add.

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