Full-Time or Freelance Writer? The Pros and Cons

Friday wear Here’s a great slam-dunk post for you from my respected friend and international copywriting authority, Dean Rieck of Direct Creative and Pro Copy Tips. Enjoy – it’s a good one!

If you want to make a career of writing, should you look for a full-time job in a company or strike out on your own as a freelancer?

Good question.

I’ve done both and have come to the conclusion that freelancing is what I like best. I earn good money, set my own hours, and I don’t have to deal with the stress of traffic, corporate politics, and an office full of idiots and suck-ups.

Oh, and no ties. I hate ties. I work in jeans and Hawaiian shirts. Yes, I know I’m wearing a tie in my publicity photos, but I did it just that once. And with therapy, I’ve recovered from the experience fairly well.

But that’s just me. I know plenty of people who prefer having a writing job working for one company. They like getting a regular paycheck, having a set schedule, and socializing with co-workers every day. Just because freelancing is best for me doesn’t mean it’s best for everyone.

But how do you know what’s best for you? Let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of employee and freelance writing.

Full-time “Employed” Writing – The Pros:

You get to work in an exciting, fast-paced work environment. If you work at the right company, that is. Some writing jobs are just dreary, like being a marketing writer at Shoelaces-R-Us. But if you like writing for business, most jobs require lots of writing on tight schedules, which can be challenging and fun.

You get to socialize with colleagues at least 5 days a week. I have to admit that freelancing can get a little lonely. So if you’re the social type, you’ll want all the personal contact you get from a corporate office environment. Gossip. Smoke breaks with friends. Lunch at that deli with the guy behind the counter who yells at everyone. All fun.

You get a regular paycheck and paid benefits. This is a biggie. It’s about cash flow. Knowing how much money you’ll get and when you’ll get it makes life a lot easier. And benefits, such as paid health insurance, is a huge plus. You’re going to need it someday when the smoking and fatty deli sandwiches catch up with you.

You have the possibility for rapid corporate advancement. A full-time writing job is a great starting point for advancing into management jobs where you can start earning real money. Copywriters can advance to Creative Director positions, for example. Freelancing isn’t the only way to make decent money. And honestly, not all freelancers earn big bucks. Sorry to harsh your buzz, but some freelancers lie about their income to get you to buy their e-books. (Do people still say, “Harsh your buzz”? I don’t get out much.)

Full-time “Employed” Writing – The Cons:

You can get burned out from long hours and stressful work. I know writing looks easy. It’s not like moving heavy oak furniture with your neighbor Phil (another article entirely). However, it’s taxing on the brain. Creative work can wear you out if you do it every day for years. Add the mental toll to a stressful work environment and you have a recipe for going postal.

You have to deal with big egos and fickle bosses. Some writers, like me, have a thick skin and are pretty Type-A anyway. I started out as a salesman, after all. But I think most writers are not compatible with that sort of bulldozer personality. Worse, when you have to work with people who keep changing their mind about things, work becomes highly unpleasant.

You face a high probability for layoff when work slows. So the economy gets bad, the company loses customers, and the budget tightens up. Who are they going to fire? The janitor? No way. The toilets have a high priority. They’ll come after YOU, because when things get dire, advertising, marketing, PR, and other writing-related needs shrink. And someone can always recycle your old work.

You have to fit into the corporate culture and survive groupthink. This is the nature of corporations. You have to speak the language, tow the line, go along to get along, and never rock the boat. Writers are usually pretty smart and freethinking, so keeping that smile plastered to your face all day and pretending that the boss is right is like a second job.

Freelance Writing – The Pros:

You have maximum control over your work and schedule. Let me be clear: If you want to make good money, you can’t sleep until noon and play World of Warcraft for 4 hours every day. But you don’t punch a clock either. You’re the boss. You set the schedule. And you can be as flexible as you like.

You can enjoy a quiet, stress-free work environment. Once you get over the fear of being on your own, there isn’t much stress at all. You sit at a desk. Dress in comfortable clothes (I recommend Hawaiian shirts). Think. Type. E-mail. Answer the phone now and then. It’s pretty laid back.

You have the opportunity to earn as much or as little as you want. Not everyone wants to bust their hump to earn a bazillion dollars a year. Some writers are happy with just a little extra income. I can tell you from personal experience, though, that if you work in the right specialty, you can earn $50K in your sleep. You can write for 2-3 hours a day and earn $100K. You don’t break a sweat until you get to $200K or more.

You’ll work on a wide variety of projects for lots of different clients. Variety is the spice of freelancing. Sure, you might really like the regular flow of work from that Shoelaces-R-Us client you picked up when their full-time writer quit. But the odds are, you’ll have something different to work on, and someone different to work with, every week.

Freelance Writing – The Cons:

You have to do “sales” to land clients and find work. Yep. You’re on your own. No one will hand work to you. You have to find a way to generate leads and close deals to get the paying projects. It’s not all that bad once you learn how, but it’s not a job for wall flowers. If you turn white and get all knee-wobbly at the thought of picking up the phone and introducing yourself to a prospective client, keep your day job.

You have to be okay with solitary work and minimal social interaction. You can do all the partying you want nights and weekends. But during business hours, you’ll probably be alone in your office. I’m fine with that. And it’s a plus for concentrating and getting things done without interruptions. But it drives some people bonkers.

You need to deal with irregular cash flow. There’s no paycheck. There are invoices and payments after you finish your work. You could get $20,000 one week then go weeks without a penny. You have to be disciplined with money, a skill many writers don’t have. If you’re the type who would immediately spend that $20,000 to fill your swimming pool with Jack Daniels and invite your friends over for a swim, you will not fare well financially.

You will find yourself juggling multiple projects and clients. Variety, yes. But then there’s multi-tasking and time-management. If you like to finish writing one thing before you start another thing, and you flip out when anyone rushes you or makes changes, freelancing isn’t for you. You don’t want to turn out like that angry guy at the deli, do you?

The choice is yours: be a full-time writer with a regular job or take the plunge and freelance on your own for a living. There’s no one right answer for everyone. But there IS one right answer for you.

Which one have you chosen and why?

About the Author: Dean Rieck is one of America’s top freelance copywriters and publisher of Pro Copy Tips, a blog that provides copywriting tips for smart copywriters. Discover more about writing for a living at the new Copywriting Information Center .

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  1. Michael Martine says:

    Wait, I’m still trying to picture a swimming pool filled with Jack Daniels…

    I quit my day job last year and it was the best move I ever made. And you know what? It was actually the best job I ever had. I don’t describe myself as a freelance writer, although, damn, I do an awful lot of writing. :)

    Loved the post. More, please!
    .-= Michael Martine´s last blog ..The Ultimate Guide to Blogging Income =-.

  2. I’m just about to take the plunge. After freelancing for years (as well as holding down a ‘regular’ job) my copywriting business is about to be my sole income. Like Michael said, I’m not going to be calling myself a freelancer – but a professional copywriter? Hell yeah :)

    Nice post.
    .-= Sally B´s last blog ..New Year resolutions for your content =-.

  3. I was forced to take the plunge due to an illness, but boy! am I glad? You bet I’m. Earlier it was all of what Dean has listed in the cons section and I always wished I had other options. Now I have them. I’m lovin it! I love this blog and now I love the guest bloggers too….
    .-= Laya Bajpai´s last blog ..The best free writer’s resources =-.

  4. I have a phobia of breaking a client’s trust so I’m not a full-timer.

    ‘You will find yourself juggling multiple projects and clients…If you like to finish writing one thing before you start another thing,..’

    Bull’s eye! The very reason why I suffer from digital stress and I don’t even have a paying client yet! I’m just grateful that I can still hold my temper and not lash out at anyone especially clients :-)
    .-= poch´s last blog ..Top Countries for Quality of Life: =-.

  5. Well, I’m kinda doing both. I left my corporate gig for more freedom and a better work/life balance and am now a freelancer contracting back to them and to some other corporate clients.

    This is a great list and is something people should really think about before taking the plunge. One other thing I’d add for freelancing–and it’s either a pro or a con depending how you look at it–is that you need to build your network of freelancers through professional organizations, meetups or some other way. You should do this before taking the plunge.
    .-= JB´s last blog ..Don’t Quit…yet. What to do before you give your boss the finger =-.

  6. This is a very well-written post and I think that much of it applies to being independent, period. Consultants, writers, or actors all face challenges not working for the man but for some, like me, being your own boss is just too tempting to pass up.

    You have to respect people who try to find their own way, not that there’s anything wrong with the stability of being a full-time employee.

  7. Brett Legree says:

    “…fill your swimming pool with Jack Daniels…”

    Wouldn’t that sorta burn the old nether regions?

    But if it floats your boat, carry on!
    .-= Brett Legree´s last blog ..6 weeks 2 days. =-.

  8. Excellent post, Dean. Well summarized. I’d say that above all, going solo means you have to run a business. Even if going out on your own is a lifestyle decision, don’t be fooled into thinking that you can wing it. Unless you don’t care about the income, being a freelance commercial writer/copywriter/tech writer is not a hobby. You have to plan, you have to strategize and you need to take massive action — especially when you’re starting out.

    Best advice I ever got on this was from Bob Bly. He said to first figure out how much work you’ll need to put in to reach your income and client goals. Then…double that effort. That way, you’ll make sure to get there.

  9. Here’s a pro of full-timing it – you get to walk away at the end of the day. Leave the office, hop in your car, go home… punch the clock and end it.

    BUT!

    You can do that as a freelancer as well. You just have to be concientious that you NEED to punch that clock and close your office, even if that “office” is sitting in your living room.

    Just takes more willpower ;)

  10. After six years of freelancing (full time) I accepted a full time community manager position with an online radio network. At first it was great, Only work certain hours, no deadlines, more time with my family….but it’s hard to go from being your own boss to having to work for someone else. I felt like a fish out of water. The steady pay was nice, but I’d rather have the flexibility and freedom to be me. When my full time position ceased to exist (thanks to budget cuts), I was relieved.

    It would have to be a very, very, very (3 verys) good offer for me to go back to a full time job.

  11. I left my full-time job about five months ago and am so happy I took the plunge. I can honestly say I’ve never been happier and it would take a lot of money to convince me to go back.

    That being said, one pro of full-time work is the paid vacation time. Over the holidays, my husband had paid time off and I was still typing away. My solution – I’ve started putting a little money away every month as my “vacation pay” so that next time I can take time off too without it screwing up my monthly income.

  12. “keeping that smile plastered to your face all day and pretending that the boss is right is like a second job.”

    This has got to be one of the best lines I’ve ever read. Would tweet it, but my boss follows me on there.

    Hope you don’t mind a girl hanging out on Men with Pens. Recently discovered this site and love it. Thanks!
    .-= Deb´s last blog ..Potty mouth =-.

  13. I’ve written professionally for nearly a decade, but only from the freelancing world. Even when I bylined hundreds of articles for a daily newspaper for almost two years, it was as a field correspondent and not a newsroom staffer. The money’s OK (after taxes) and there’s less socialization, but I get to be my own boss for the most part.
    .-= Ari Herzog´s last blog ..Sharing My Ego to Help You =-.

  14. Thursday Bram says:

    Right after I graduated from college, I applied to just about every full-time writing job I could find, and actually managed to land a job related to writing. I lasted almost a whole two weeks — the con of dealing with corporate culture and politics can be pretty lethal for some of us.
    .-= Thursday Bram´s last blog ..The Practicalities of Going Beyond a Kill Fee =-.

  15. Great post and so well summarized! I chose the freelance life almost two years ago and I can’t imagine going back and losing all of the freedoms. But I do agree that two very important warnings are:

    #1: You have to have a willingness/interest in running a business – not just doing the creative work.

    #2: You can’t be a worrier. You definitely have to be good with money, but even if you are, and you still tend to worry the unpredictable nature of freelance income (and variations in how quickly different clients pay), freelancing will drive you nuts!

  16. I’ve done both. I’ve won the corporate hat, worked those long stressful hours, chatted with coworkers, and reaped those guaranteed benefits. I’ve also done the freelancing thing–learning to market myself, developing my money management skills and learned to juggle.

    Perhaps surprisingly, I’ve done relatively well in both environments. But then, I’m pretty flexible and adaptable (and don’t take very much personally).

    While I think I could do either, like most commentaters I do prefer freelancing. For me, it’s all about controlling my schedule.

    Still, like Deb, I’m not totally ruling out any jobs that come by with three or four “verys” in front of them… (And who really knows what I’ll need from a job in the future, anyway?)

  17. I have to admit, I had a little advantage when I started freelancing: I was earning crap in my full-time job. So anything I did earned me more than “working.” If you have a decent, secure job, it can be terribly hard to transition to freelancing.

    I can even remember the moment I knew I was onto something. I had been writing textbooks for a “book packager” and got a freelance job to write a couple direct mail packages. The creative director took me aside to talk about my fee. I was trying to summon the courage to ask for $3,000, which I thought was HUGE at the time. Before I could open my mouth, the creative director said, “Dean, we have a budget of $9,000. Is that going to work?”

    I deserve an Oscar for my performance. With a look of disappointment, I nodded, sighed, and said, “Well, if that’s we have to work with, I’ll make it work.” Inside, I was saying, “Yeeeeeeeeeeeehhhhhaaaaaaaaa!”

    I left my full-time job and never looked back. I’ve always worked better by myself and had no trouble working independently. The extra money was a bonus.
    .-= Dean Rieck´s last blog ..Are you making this career-killing freelance mistake? =-.

  18. Michael Martine says:

    Dean, that is an awesome story! Very nice.
    .-= Michael Martine´s last blog ..Why To Blog As Yourself (Even if That’s Not What You Sell) =-.

  19. I think this could be a case of ‘the grass is always greener.’

    I’ve been writing in ad agencies for over 20 years now and have never seen the freelance side. However, starting my own agency 10 years ago was a lot like freelance: nerve wracking, gut wrenching and wondering if I’d get that next paycheck.

    Along the way I met a lot of freelance advertising and PR writers. I have to say, the happiest freelancers I met had gotten over that frantic compulsion to skip any day off or extended vacation to take every gig that called. Those who hadn’t reached a level of certitude that allowed them to walk away from the phone seemed to live in abject fear that the phone wouldn’t ring at least once a week.

    Then there’s the concern of taking some short-term gig in fear it might interfere with getting a longer term gig.

    In observing all this from the safety of my 9 to 5, I thought I’d chosen wisely. But now, in my 40s, I greatly envy those casual freelancers I know like Dean who have nothing in their wardrobe but Hawaiian shirts and an attitude to match.

    So I’d like to add a new category, somewhere between the two extremes. Freelancers who have reached the point where they can relax. Gimme that option and I’ll be there with Dean.

    Great post. Keep ‘em coming.

    Steve

  20. Great article! It applies to a lot of professionals, not just writers. I’d like to add that it’s possible to be in the middle ground — to have a part-time job which takes up a few hours of the day, and then do freelance work the rest of the time. Some people might be comfortable (and even thrive) in this situation. It’s also a good transitional stage for people who would like to go from full-time to freelance or vice versa.
    .-= Madeline Ong´s last blog ..Brands without branding =-.

  21. Great article. I work as a freelance writer, and I really like, and I think I’ll rather be a freelancer in a future. Or perhaps I’ll have normal 8-hours per day job, + work a freelance writer in the evening.
    .-= Ilija Brajkovic´s last blog ..Getting to know Hyper-V =-.

  22. I think I have the best of both worlds as I am a full time member of staff but I work at home and can set my own hours providing I complete work within deadline and am online to attend meetings. I do miss the interactiion with colleagues but with that comes office politics and working with people you may not like so I prefer to be at home enjoying my own company.

  23. Jeremy Fischer says:

    Dan,

    Excellent article. I am currently pursuing a professional job, not freelancing. Coming from a background of having been a professional actor for 17 years, I like to be around people. Sitting alone in my office, as I am currently doing, gets to be about as much fun for me as dental surgery.

    Plus, I’m a fast-paced type of guy. If things get too slow, I’ll tend to feel like I’m being sucked down the toilet bowl of life.

    And, I have a 2-year old daughter. So the “regular paycheck” is almost a priority.

  24. This list is great, but I want to add one thing. Regardless of the instability and the lack of benefits and serious need of salesperson skills, for those who desire a freelance lifestyle – at the end of the day, none of it matters. The awesomeness of working for yourself, avoiding office politics and all the other nonsense of the cubicle farms, is priceless and outweighs all the other factors…
    .-= Marian Schembari´s last blog ..5 Things College Teaches You About Work (and 5 things it doesn’t) =-.

  25. A lot to consider. I prefer freelancing since I have more freedom. I control my rate of pay. Right now, I’m working to increase my income. So I’ve been doing content writing and applying for other writing gigs. I have to chrun out more articles to get a greater income from content writing. I’ll find a way. Any suggestions?
    .-= Omar´s last blog ..Keep Following Through =-.

  26. I too think you wrote a great blog post! (And I also agree with the commenter that said one of the advantages to (some) full-time jobs is that you can just go home at the end of the day.)

    However, what I really want to know is how you add the “…’s last blog post” to the end of everyone’s comment. Is that something custom for Men with Pens or is it a plugin? I’d love to offer that on my blog.

    Thanks!
    .-= Stormy´s last blog ..Where should I be this year? =-.

  27. @Stormy – That’s the Comment Luv plugin for WordPress.

  28. James, thanks so much! (One more reason to move from TypePad to WordPress but I’ll miss the Typepad support …)
    .-= Stormy´s last blog ..Where should I be this year? =-.

  29. As a freelancer for many years, I can appreciate this article. For me, I wasn’t cut out for the corporate world, or the 9-5. Freelancing turned out to be a great thing because it gave me a tremendous amount of flexibility and time. It also gave me an unexpected benefit – location freedom. In other words, the ability to work and travel. It’s pretty hard to beat that. In a number of cases I’ve been able to use my travel to fund my writing.

  30. I have been trying to land a full-time writing gig but have had no luck in 2 years. I became a stay at home mom after i had my second baby, and have been trying for 2 years to find a way to make an income at home. I am tired of just barely getting by, and wondering how I am going to put food on the table. It’s hard, and I would love to find ways to earn more money from home. I enjoy writing, and it’s a passion of mine as well. My husband just lost his job and we are strapped even more than we were when he was working. Any tips?

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