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Five years of freelancing – looking back and looking forwards

Five years ago, on the first day back to school after the Christmas holiday, my husband and kids left the house, and I commuted to my basement office and began my freelance career as an ELT materials writer and editor. I started out with two projects: a curriculum consulting project for the University of Victoria, Canada, and a UK/US localisation project for the British Council. A lot of good things have happened since that day in 2013. I’ve achieved my goal of publishing an EAP coursebook with a major publisher, and there are more to come. I’ve built up a decent editing business – mostly in ELT, but more recently I’ve worked on other educational materials and loved it. I’ve still been able to do some teaching – two summers at the University of Warwick in my hometown, and various EAP and ESP courses at my local college. I’ve travelled to some interesting places for my work, including five times to western Canada and – most unusually – to Astana, Kazakhstan.

In the process, I have met dozens of people, I’ve more than replaced my income from my full-time university job and I’ve learned a huge amount – not just about ELT writing and editing, but also about running a business. It hasn’t all been wonderful, and there have been some doubts along the way, but overall, going it alone was a good decision. And, of course, there have been lessons learned.

I’ve learned to look beyond the big four or five publishers. Not all ELT material is produced by big-name publishers, and in the last five years, I have written materials and designed curriculum for several colleges and universities across Canada. I’m currently in the final stages of writing a coursebook for a non-publisher client, and it’s one of the best things I’ve done in 30 years of working in education. I was given time, money and very loose guidelines, and I had a vast amount of freedom in designing the content of the book. This is a dream project for me – one that doesn’t come along very often.

As someone living in Canada, where the ELT publishing industry is small, I’ve learned about the importance of thinking globally (and I’ve blogged about it here). In the last five years, I’ve worked for clients in Canada, the UK, the USA, continental Europe, the Middle East and the Far East. I’ve learned not to be shy about getting out there and letting potential clients know I exist. I go to conferences, I’ve become joint Coordinator of MaWSIG and I’ve recently started a blog. I did this last one because I like writing, but I have been amazed by how it affects the number of visits to my website. I don’t do all these things as a way of promoting myself – I do them because they are my life – but I have been told that a lot of people know who I am, so I guess it doesn’t hurt.

I’ve learned to listen to plenty of business advice, but also to think carefully about whether it applies to me. Early in my freelancing adventure, I went to a seminar where I was told that to develop credibility, I needed a business name; using my own name, according to this expert, made me look like an amateur. My husband and I spent hours going through the dictionary – and even, rather ridiculously, the garden centre catalogue – trying to find the right name. I tried a couple, but now I’m back to using my own name on my website. If I do have a somewhat recognisable name, I want to be able to use it.

I’ve had to learn – and I’m still learning – to say no to work that I know I don’t really have time for. I’ve been incredibly fortunate that in five years, I have never been short of work, and 2017 was my best year in terms of income. My impulse is to say yes to everything, then stress about how on earth I’m going to get it all done. I’m getting a bit more selective about what I take on.

I’ve learned – though I’m not very good at it – to get organised where finances are concerned. The nature of freelancing, of course, is that you don’t have a regular income. In December 2017, I received thousands of dollars in payments (I invoiced for several jobs around the same time); other months, there is zero income coming in. I’m fortunate to have a husband who gets paid every two weeks; otherwise, I would have to get a lot better at budgeting than I am now. It’s also important to find the right person to handle your taxes. I went through three different accountants before I found the one I’m staying with.

On the not-so-good side, I’ve learned to deal with the bad along with the good, and to keep negative experiences in perspective. Even though 2017 was my best year so far, there was one project that did not get off the ground, and even though several of us had already put work into it, we were never paid. It wasn’t enough money to lose sleep over, but it left a bad taste. It was upsetting at the time, but I had to learn not to dwell on the negative when so much else is positive.

Perhaps most importantly, I’ve learned the value of having a strong and supportive network. It is important not to work in isolation, and I’m fortunate to have a great network of fellow ELT writers and editors. This doesn’t happen overnight, although social media makes it easier than ever to connect with like-minded people. I’ve been surprised by how many opportunities come along through word of mouth: someone you know passes your name along to someone else and that person gets in touch. Other ELT freelancers are not my competition, they are my colleagues and increasingly, my friends. I cannot overstate the value of getting to know people in the business.

So … what comes next? What will the next five years look like? It looks as if there is going to be more writing in 2018 than in the last couple of years. The first priority is to finish the book I mentioned above, then there will be another writing project for someone else. Looking ahead, as a writer, I want to keep the focus on EAP and academic upgrading, with smaller projects to fill in the gaps. I’m planning for plenty of editing, too – I would like to do more work on methodology guides, academic books and theoretical texts. I can certainly see myself doing more work of this kind both in ELT and in other areas of education. I have thought about going back to teaching on a more regular basis. I’m not really sure that I want to do this as I like the flexibility of freelancing, but I am open to teaching the odd course here and there, particularly in the UK. I’d like to travel a bit less in the next five years; that one might be hard, as most of my business is outside Ontario.

Perhaps the biggest difference between now and five years ago is that I don’t worry about where the next project will come from. It will come from somewhere. For now, I am comfortable with the decision I made to leave full-time employment and I’m looking forward to another five years.

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