No More Freelance Money Blues By James Raia

Excerpted from How To Make A Living as A Freelance Sportswriter and Publicist

I can vividly remember the green envelopes I used to receive once a week from each of my three newspaper employers. With paychecks enclosed, the tightly sealed business-size envelopes were usually distributed late in the afternoon. Sometimes, the checks were dispatched into employee mailboxes. On other occasions, the checks were dispensed in a silly ritual conducted by an administrative secretary or a middle management-type. The check distributors always seemed arrogant. They’d hand me my check and then stand there waiting for a “thank you.” They acted like they were doing me a favor — as if they actually had something to do with the newspaper’s decision to pay me.

Perhaps such dynamics and office egos are better fodder for an employer-employee relationship article. Still, the lack of a regular “green envelope” is often a traumatic obstacle for freelancers to overcome.

That said, the most important concept to grasp as a freelancer is the uncertainty of the occupation. A freelancer must understand and accept that he or she really never knows when a paycheck will arrive.

As examples, all of the following scenarios have occurred during my freelance tenure:

  • I’ve received very prompt checks from extremely professional staff that work for small circulation and unheralded publications.
  • I’ve received very slow payment from well-established national publications with editorial staffs and account payable departments so poorly run, it’s a wonder the periodical gets published.
  • I’ve worked for editors who are former freelancers and who understand. They request prompt payment from payroll departments that in turn lose invoices or have accounts payable personnel who are constantly either on sick leave or vacation.
  • The publication has folded.
  • The check really has been lost in the mail.
  • The check has been mailed to an incorrect address.
  • I’ve received two checks for the same story.
  • I’ve received the incorrect amount.
  • I’ve received someone else’s check.

The point is, until a freelancer actually has the proper check for the correct amount in hand, many things can go wrong. And, unfortunately, when things don’t go smoothly, there’s not much a freelancer can tell a landlord, mortgage company or credit card bill collector that will foster any sympathy.

While compensation hassles can prove bothersome, freelancers can overcome paycheck anxiety. Keep in mind that freelance writing is a business and, just like any business, there will be fluctuations in cash flow.

In this regard, a few years ago, Chuck Woodbury, a good friend and publisher in Edmonds, Washington, gave me some very valuable advice. Just like any businessperson, Woodbury explained, a freelance writer shouldn’t worry about a bad experience or even a bad month.

For example, for easy figuring, let’s say you’re earning an average of $3,000 a month as a freelancer and then a month comes along and you only receive $500. Don’t fret.

As Woodbury explained, and as I’ve related to many others, quarterly (three-month) income averaging is a better gauge of “true” income. Two $3,000 months and a $500 month, for example, will produce a $2,166.67 per month average for three months.

Another “must” business practice is to keep a list that includes when you’ve mailed a manuscript, its expected publication date, and the expected date of compensation. I keep two lists on my computer as well as a hand-written list on a stenographic notebook.

Each month, I have a pretty good idea what I expect to earn. When I receive a check, I don’t let it sit around or put it in my wallet and forget it. I immediately write down the amount earned and add it to my cumulative income for the month, quarter, and year. I always know what I’ve earned at any given time during each month, and I always know exactly where I stand compared to my income at the same time the previous year.

I believe it’s wise to keep two lists for two reasons. Computer disks can malfunction and a hand-written list is also an efficient way to double check arithmetic.

Of course, even established freelancers with steady and good incomes worry about paychecks. I still look in the mailbox everyday. But the nice thing is having no one but myself to thank when my “green envelopes” arrive.

Excerpted from How To Make A Living As a Freelance Sportswriter and Publicist, which features a veteran freelance writer’s tips and guidelines for anyone considering independent writing as a career. With thousands of bylines in diverse publications — The New York Times to Modern Maturity, Golf Magazine to Newsweek — James Raia details the complex yet rewarding components of a freelancer’s career — writing, editing, marketing, and bookkeeping. How To Make A Living As a Freelance Sportswriter and Publicist is a straightforward account of how James Raia has supported himself for nearly two decades and explains how you can do the same.