I meet many people who tell me that they want to chuck the corporate grind and become a work-at-home writer. Maybe they want to freelance for magazines, be a novelist, self-publish eBooks, or be a corporate writer who no longer has to go into the office. Before we get too far into the conversation, I can tell that most of these people have an idealized vision of what working from home will be like. They’re envisioning total creative freedom, not having to commute or pay for child care, wearing whatever they want, and working whenever they want. They’re envisioning sitting at their desk all day and coming up with beautiful prose and lots of articles. As someone who’s lived this life for over ten years now, I can tell you that it’s far from that ideal most of the time.
These people who ask me for advice have often bought in to some of the most common misconceptions about being a writer who works from home. While there is a bit more freedom and some hassles become less bothersome than in a traditional job, working from home is not as perfect as many envision it to be. If you go into it expecting nothing but fun and freedom, you’re going to be disappointed. Here are some of the common misconceptions people have about writing from home is like.
Misconception: I’ll never have to leave home because I can do all of my work from home.
If you’re a corporate, technical, or marketing writer, this is unlikely to be true. You may have clients who allow you to do all of your work virtually, but chances are that you’re going to have to go into the client’s offices for meetings at least some of the time. Even novelists have to leave home occasionally. You might have to go meet with your agent or editor, or travel to book signings. And, while Google is fabulous, there’s no getting around the fact that you’ll likely have to leave home to conduct interviews or do research. While you will likely reduce your commuting and the associated costs considerably, you probably won’t be able to stay home all the time.
Misconception: I can completely eliminate child care.
If you’re seeking to write from home so you can be with the kids, remember that you will likely need to get rid of the kids at some point. This may mean sending them to daycare, hiring a sitter, or having a spouse that can watch them. It just isn’t professional to have kids screaming and demanding your attention in the background while you’re on a call with a client. It’s distracting to have the kids playing and making a ruckus while you’re trying to write. It’s also unprofessional to bring them with you to meetings. Be prepared to find childcare at least some of the time, or to work at odd hours so that your partner can take care of them while you work.
Misconception: Writing from home will be easy.
Writing from home is still work. It’s work to get clients, bill clients, and market yourself, and that doesn’t include doing the actual writing. You’ll be responsible for managing your own finances and taxes, as well. Many people who work from home end up working more hours than people who work in offices. That’s because you’re responsible for everything when you work from home. There are no assistants or other departments to help with your workload. No marketing department is going to help you with your blog or work to build your Twitter following. No accounting department is going to do your billing. Working from home is still work, so give up the idea that you’ll only have to work an hour a day.
Misconception: I can set my own hours.
To some extent yes, you can set your own hours. If you want to work on your blog or send query emails at 2 a.m., you can do that. However, if you want to be competitive (particularly as a freelancer or corporate writer), you’ll have to work when your clients work, too. You’ll have to be available to make and take calls when your clients are at work. You’ll have to be available to send drafts and receive feedback when the business is open, or when your editors demand it. If you’re also taking/providing photographs for brochures or marketing materials, you’ll have to go when the business can accommodate you, or when the photographer is available. You can’t just say, “Well, I don’t work during that time,” and expect to last very long in the business world.
Misconception: I can stop buying expensive work clothes.
While the notion of working in your PJ’s is appealing, it’s not often the truth. You might not have to buy as many work clothes as you did when you had an office job, but you’re still going to need professional clothes to wear when you go out to meet clients, agents, editors, or your adoring public (once you become a famous novelist). Also, you might have clients who want to video-conference with you and wearing your grungy clothes isn’t going to cut it. You’ll still have to buy some decent clothes. And wear them.
Misconception. I’ll love it.
You might. Or you might hate it. People who love working from home must also love a certain degree of isolation. There’s no one else to talk to, unless it’s a client or your cat/plants/dog. There are no water cooler conversations or lunches with the gang. You also have to be disciplined enough to ignore the TV, chores, phone calls from friends, the Internet, and all the other things at home that compete for your attention and make procrastination so easy. If you can’t do that, you won’t make money. A salaried employee might be able to get by with a certain amount of slacking off and still get paid. When you work from home, you don’t get paid if you slack off.
Misconception: I’ll make a ton of money.
Don’t believe the infomercials and the spam emails. You aren’t going to get rich working an hour a day or working for a content mill. When you work at home, you have to pay your own taxes, buy your own insurance (if you don’t have a spouse’s policy that you can use), buy your own equipment, pay your utilities, pay any applicable licensing or registration fees, and pay for all of your own marketing. That is going to eat into your profits. Unless you manage to write that bestselling novel on your first try, you’re not going to become rich overnight. You’re going to have to carefully manage your expenses and work hard to attract clients who will pay your bills. Then you’re going to have to put in a lot of hours turning out fabulous articles, content, manuals, and other materials to keep those clients coming back for more.
Misconception: It’s cheap to start a home-based writing business.
There’s this idea that all you need is a computer and printer and you’re all set. While that might be true for some, others are looking at a more expensive proposition. At a minimum, you’ll need Internet access and miscellaneous supplies like paper, pens, business cards, printer ink, notebooks, etc. You’ll probably want a website to help with your promotion and if you can’t design it yourself, you’ll need to pay someone to do it for you. Regardless, you’ll also need to pay for hosting. If you’re doing much work that requires photography, such as brochures or travel writing, you’ll need a good camera (and possibly some classes in photography), and some photo processing software like Photoshop. If you’re doing much self-publishing or desktop publishing, prepare to shell out for software like InDesign or Quark Express. You’ll also need to pay any licensing or business fees required by your local jurisdiction, and you might want a decent desk and chair for your home office. It ain’t cheap.
Misconception: I can start tomorrow.
While you could maybe quit your job and start your writing business tomorrow, remember that it will be a while before you start turning a profit. Unless you have substantial savings to see you through or a large list of clients just chomping at the bit for you to go freelance, you’re better off starting slowly, while you’re still employed. Start taking side jobs and slowly acquiring the equipment and expertise you need. Work on your business plan and start building your platform. Make sure you understand exactly what you’ll need to do to handle things like taxes and legal issues. Starting slowly can make things go much more smoothly for you.
Misconception: I won’t have to do anything I don’t want to do.
On the contrary, you’ll have to do lots of things you don’t want to do. If you don’t like marketing, paying bills, managing a budget, collecting late payments, or making sales calls, tough luck. If you don’t want to fix your own computer, troubleshoot why your printer or copier isn’t working, or deal with your ISP when your service goes down, prepare for pain. Unless you have the money to hire someone, you’ll be doing all of this and more. You won’t be able to just focus on the writing. And there will be days when you won’t do any writing because you’ll be too busy sorting out other dramas. Worse, you can forget about only writing content that you actually care about. Until you reach a point where you can be highly selective in what you write and the clients you take on, you’ll find yourself writing about industries, products, and topics that you don’t care about or even like. Oh, you’ll be doing a lot that you don’t want to do.
Misconception: I won’t have to answer to anyone.
You’ll find yourself answering to a lot more people than you ever did in a regular job. In a regular job, you have to answer to maybe one or two managers or bosses. When you’re on your own, you answer to your clients, editors and agents, anyone who lends you money, government entities that expect you to comply with things like taxes and local regulations, and anyone (like a spouse or partner) who has a stake in your business and success. You’ll also answer to the general public because they will have plenty to say about your books, articles, blog posts, and anything else you put out for public consumption.
Misconception: I’ll have lots of free time.
The idea that you can go on vacation whenever you want and that you’ll have plenty of time to pursue all those hobbies you never get around to is false. Since you have to produce the writing plus do all of the other things required to run a business, you’ll likely find that you have even less free time. When you do go on vacation, you’ll likely still have to keep in touch with your clients and do some work. Unless you set out to create a specifically part-time venture, you’ll be working more hours than you probably are now.
Misconception: I’ll have more time for family and friends.
See the above misconception about having lots of free time. Plus, even if you do find yourself suddenly free on weekday afternoon, everyone else is probably at work or school, anyway.
Misconception: I won’t have to deal with criticism or petty inter-office jealousies.
Wrong. You will be criticized and rejected every single day. You and your work will be criticized by clients, agents, and editors. Not to mention the general public if you’re writing books or articles for general consumption. You’ll be told you aren’t good enough, or that you’re not doing something correctly. You will have to deal with petty jealousy from people who think you have it easy or that you don’t do any “real” work. If you work from home for a traditional company, you’ll have people who are still in the office wondering why you’re so special. There will be times where you get halfway through a project only to find that it gets cancelled because someone higher up the chain decided to stomp on someone else’s pet project. It won’t be your fault, but you’ll still be caught in the middle of the inter-office politics. You’ll query and pitch agents, editors, and potential clients only to be told “No” many times over. Most will be polite about it, but some will be harsh. Working from home does not make all the criticism and pettiness go away.
Misconception: I’ll have total creative or artistic freedom.
Many writers think that they’ll be able to turn out whatever their muse comes up with. Just let the inspiration strike, turn it in, and everyone will love it. The truth is that you will have to adhere to the vision, budget, and requirements that your client has for the project. You may be able to suggest certain things or present some different ideas, but it will be nothing close to total artistic freedom. You’re trying to make the client’s vision a reality, not your own.
Misconception: I can leave work behind at 5:00 and go straight to my home life.
It sounds so easy. Shut down the computer and you’re magically at home, ready to deal with all the home and family stuff. In reality, it doesn’t work that way. A client in a different time zone may call just as you’re sitting down to dinner. You may come up with an idea that needs to be dealt with immediately. The solution to a problem may show up just as you sit down to watch a movie with your spouse and so you go running of to deal with it before you forget. A pressing deadline may mean working odd hours and having to say “No” to family time. Some people are better than others at compartmentalizing work and home, but with work so close by, no matter how good you are at it, some work will inevitably lop over into your home life.
Writing from home can be very rewarding. I’ve enjoyed it for many years. However, you have to be realistic about what the experience will be like. Even if you are at home, work is still work and it’s not fun all the time. You’ll have to do things you don’t like and the freedom and riches you think you’ll have likely won’t materialize. You may also hate being alone. If, in spite of all of this, you can still find enjoyment in working from home, you’ll likely succeed and find it to be a rewarding and challenging experience. If not, you can always go back to the “real world” and just write at night.
(Photo courtesy of FidlerJan)