This Is Freelancer Law, Or: “How Not To Suck As A Freelancer”

Oh-ho-ho. Where do you think you’re going?

Ah. I see. You thought, “Heh, Old Man Wendig over there just had an adorable baby. He’s gone soft. His heart has wilted like the spinach in a hot bacon salad. We’ve got the run of the place! This is a lawless wasteland! Fuck commas. Piss on deadlines. I’m going to pop a squat on this stack of Bibles!”

First, I am not an old man. Stop that. Stop saying that. It’s hurtful.

Second, why are you pooping on Bibles? That’s not related to anything I do here. Now you’re just acting out.

Third, my heart’s hard as tungsten, motherfuckers. My baby’s cute as shit, but I learned from my wife that the best things in life come in a flood of pain and fluids. (I may be taking this lesson too literally. For my next book release, I’m going to first pass it through my colon. Purification through pain! D.O.C.E.: Damaged Orifices Create Enlightenment!)

I’m going to be a tough-love Daddy. I’m going to be the gavel-banger. The unyielding wall.

And since I see you all as my children, it’s time for some hard truths.

It’s time to lay down the law.

Today: I’m laying down the freelancer law.

Also known as: how not to be a crap-tastic, shit-tacular, poo-glutted freelancer.

*bangs gavel*

Those Who Fuck With Deadlines Get Fucked By Deadlines

Deadlines exist for a reason. A client does not just pick a deadline out of a jaunty bowler hat. It’s not a lottery. It’s not a game. To get the project to the web designer, to get it to the printer, to kick it up the chain to the Secret Council of Squid Wizards who slap their greasy “tentacles of approval” upon it, then everybody’s got to his a series of critical deadlines. You miss a deadline, now you’re a pair of blood-caked pantyhose clogging up the pipes. Now nothing moves forward.

And that makes Freelancer Jesus smite a horse cart full of adorable lambs.

That’s why they call it a fucking deadline. That’s a hard-ass name if ever there was one. “This is the line of death. Thou shalt not cross it.” They don’t call it the “marshmallow line.” It isn’t “lemonade-and-ponies street.” It isn’t the “ehhh-if-you-wanna-line.”

Dead. Line.

Now, I get it, sometimes you know you’re not going to hit a deadline. Your goat dies. Your father goes to jail (maybe for killing your goat). You catch some kind of super-SARS.

Here’s a pro-tip: get ahead of that. Let the editor or developer know this as early as humanly possible. If you’re telling them you’re not going to hit the deadline on the day of the deadline, you are a fucker.

Punishment: dragged by a bee-stung bull through a field of stinging nettles.

You Are Horse, Not Unicorn

Creative types like to think they’re special. It makes sense. You have a “voice.” A “talent.” Your work comes pouring out of your “imagination” like the glittery perfumed vomit of Strawberry Shortcake.

You can be special in your own special little mind.

But your client does not think you’re a prancing unicorn. You’re just a horse like everyone else. Not a zebra. Not a tapir. Not a unicorn. A horse. A work horse, at that.

What does this mean?

It means, when the client hires you to do a job, do the job they hired you to do. You get an outline for a book, cleave to that outline. “Yeah, I know you wanted me to write 40,000 words on the subject of the mating habits of the Venezuelan Micturating Wombat, but instead, I thought the book could instead use an epic poem about the bowel movements of Norse gods. Cool?” No. No. Not cool. *punches your throat*

Also, go ahead and take this hot iron and brand yourself with the phrase: write to spec. This is apropos directly to freelance writers, but it means, if they ask you to write 10,000 words, write 10,000 words. Don’t write 5k. Don’t write 20k. It’s like SkeeBall: get as close as you can.

Finally, this also translates to the notes you receive. You’ll get notes. Everybody gets notes. Few freelancers nail their task in one shot (“nothing but net — swoosh!”). Take the notes, and do what they say. This is not hard. “Please rewrite with less emphasis on dolphin penis.” “Nnnyeaaah, I didn’t do that.” *kick testicles*

Like I said: do the job you’re hired to do, not the job you imagined in your head. You don’t pick and choose how much of the work you’d like to perform. Don’t be that asshole.

Punishment: rectally violated by this robot.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

Your first draft should never be “close enough for horseshoes and hand grenades.” This is true of writing, art, anything. The thing you turn in should never be the equivalent of a thumb swirled around a full diaper and pressed onto an index card. Your job isn’t to make the client’s own work harder. Do you see why that would throw a client into a paroxysm of rage? Your job is to make their life easier.

Turn in quality work. Be as awesome as you can be.

Turn in trash, get tossed out like trash.

Punishment: nibbled to death by Bubonic marmots.

The Slack In The Rope Could Take Your Head Off

One of the many joys of being a freelancer — beyond, say, brewing your own coffee and living a blessedly pantsless existence — is having no boss. Your life is your own. Your schedule is yours to create and master. Nobody’s going to come in, ask you to punch a clock, fill out this form, clean your desk, rub his shoulders, express the sebaceous cyst on his lower back. You are the architect of your destiny.

But that doesn’t mean you get to laze off, you quivering slugabed. You think you have no boss? Bzzt. The client is your boss. Better still, you are your boss. Get behind on a project, and the slack on that rope could whip out and take your head off. Life presents its own challenges. Additional emergency work piles up. You might get sick. Maybe you’re eaten by one of those tornadoes that keeps popping up all over. Shit happens.

Don’t get left behind, like those poor assholes in the Rapture. (Wait — that didn’t happen? So this… this office of mine riddled with Scotch bottles and empty Chinese food containers isn’t Heaven? What was that floating sensation I felt the other day? What’s that, you say? That was just gas? Oops!)

Message: get ahead. Don’t get steamrolled by your own workload.

Fall behind and…

Punishment: you must manually masturbate Karl Rove to sexual completion.

No Freelancer Is An Island

It’s easy to feel like you’re on your own when freelancing. You lay in a pile of Wendy’s wrappers and Funion crumbs, your laptop splayed out across your chest; it’s just you and the work.

But you’re not alone. You’re no island.

A freelancer assignment is universally a team gig. At the bare minimum, you have a team consisting of you and your client, but frequently enough you’re also part of an ecosystem featuring other writers, artists, and creators. What does that mean? It means: communicate. Communication is key in any freelancer gig. Ask questions. Offer thoughts. Make updates. Check in. You don’t need to be obsessed with it, and you certainly shouldn’t be irritating, but be a part of the ecosystem. I know, I know, you got into freelancing because you run with scissors, don’t play well with others, and aren’t allowed outside of your plexiglass enclosure. Just because you’re legally not allowed to use a fork doesn’t mean you can’t communicate with your client and with other freelancers. Even the Lone Ranger had Tonto, for Chrissakes.

Don’t act the loner.

Punishment: eternal Cop Rock marathon beamed straight into your brain by an evil psychic chimp.

Get Paid, Or Get Fucked

In the realm of “creative” work, one could argue that there exists some advantage in writing for free.

The freelancer, though, gets paid. Or, he should. (Be not fooled by the misnomer of “free” in the word “freelancer.”) What are the dangers of working for free?

First: you’re worth what you charge, and if you charge nothing, then you’re worth the same. Don’t think so? Try writing for free, then putting that on your resume. “I did some free pamphlet work for Jojo’s Hymen-Breaking Hut? You know, the one down on Acevedo and Blumpkin Ave?” Watch the client stifle laughter. This is the same as, “don’t put your blog on a resume,” too. At best, it’ll fail to provide a boost. At worst, you’ll lose respect, and when you lose respect, you lose work. Plain and simple.

Second: there exists a corrosive effect when good writers choose to work for nothing. Why wouldn’t there be? If the standard is, say, ten cents a word, and then a handful of capable writers undercut that by five cents a word, hey, fine, right? That’s the market. Problem is, now you have to write twice as much to earn the same. Well, okay. Except what happens when the next batch undercuts by another two or three cents per word? Eventually (slippery slope alert): good writers are writing for free, and that’s where the market hangs. its hat. At that point, freelance writing becomes a non-viable career for you or anybody else. The earth? Salted. Again, one can argue that in more creative pursuits, there exists advantage in building readership and gaining audience. But freelancers: don’t give your stuff away. This is supposed to be a career, not a creative pursuit. Careers are not built on hanging out free handjobs in the park.

Third: writing for free takes as much time as writing for cash. Need I say more?

By the way, it needn’t always be “cash” you’re paid in. Just don’t fall for that old saw that you can get paid with exposure. Again, in creative endeavors, that might have more meaning. In straight up freelancing, it usually means someone wants your work for free, and that’s it. Pumped, then dumped. Exposure is not a measurable metric. “I will pay you in three exposures” is not a thing people say because it doesn’t make a lick of fucking sense. Get something for your work, something that is measurable.

If you’re a capable writer, you’ll find paying work. It’s that simple.

Related: learn how to get paid. By which I mean, keep a spreadsheet. Write invoices. Track payments. Pay quarterly taxes. Manage your income. This is a business. Treat it like a business. Sure, it’s a creative-flavored business. But it’s still about earning out.

Punishment: forced to live in a piano crate for one year with a grabby drunken hobo.

Happy Client, Hired Monkey

Keep the client happy.

Really, that’s it.

I mean, you don’t have to be a whore about it.

But go the extra mile. Please them with your work. Your attitude. Your moist and hungry mouth.

…uhh, okay, maybe not so much that last part.

Your resume is who you are. Your reputation is part of your resume.

Happy clients mean they keep on hiring you. Or it means they pass around word that you’re a worthy freelancer. Clients communicate with one another. Trust me on this.

…As Always, Don’t Be A Fucking Shitbird

Related to the last but deserving of its own section:

Don’t be an asshole. Or a douche-swab. Or a fuck-basket. Or a pimply dick-burger.

I’ve seen freelancers burn out their reputations by being problematic. They’re full of excuses. They’re unpleasant. Cocky. Argumentative. Preening ponies. And they fade away, like a guttering candleflame.

Be polite. Don’t be a fucking shitbird. End of story.

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Chuck Wendig’s book about writing and the writer’s life — CONFESSIONS OF A FREELANCE PENMONKEY is available now! Buy for Kindle (US), Kindle (UK), Nook, or PDF.