Jackie Lam is a full-time freelance writer and founder of HeyFreelancer. She has written for clients like Mental Floss, Investopedia, Forbes, Frommers, Business Insider, and more. She shares her journey and how she worked her way from being an aspiring writer to becoming a full-time freelancer.
This interview is loaded with tips for others who want to follow in her footsteps to become a professional freelance writer. I really enjoyed talking to Jackie and think that you’ll get a lot out of this interview, even if you aren’t a writer.
How did you start your freelance career?
I never thought making a living writing would be possible. While I did write fiction and did some internships in Los Angeles after I graduated from college, I just thought writing would always be just a hobby. It wasn’t until I attended my first FinCon back in 2014, a conference for money nerds who create content about, well, money, that I saw the potential in personal finance writing. I met with the VP of talent at a content platform called Contently, who later put me on my first editorial team. In the first month of being on that team, I was making about the same amount of money as my day job at a company that made calendars.
As you might imagine, I quickly saw the earning potential of freelance writing. So I moonlighted and looked for more freelance opportunities. I landed a few more clients, including The Bold Italic and Cat Fancy’s CatChannel.com. A year later, I had the opportunity of leaving my day job with benefits for a one-year contract job as a personal finance writer for a large insurance company. After much deliberation, I took the contract job. Five weeks into it, due to external forces unbeknownst to me, I was told the content team was overstaffed and let go. I was then offered another contract job. This one offered nearly twice as much as my old day job. But I ultimately decided to take the leap to fulltime freelance writing instead.
What was it like making the jump to being a fulltime freelance writer?
Scary as heck. The first year was the hardest. I just couldn’t get comfortable not knowing how much money I was earning in a given month, where my clients would come from, and how quickly my workload can expand and contract. However, having a decent emergency savings and building a tribe, a strong support network of fellow freelancer writers, has been everything. Now that I’m in my third year as a freelancer, I do feel more confident. Not so much that I will net X in income, but that I’ll be able to tap into my resourcefulness and make it work somehow.
What are your top tools for staying productive and effective?
Right now I write for about 18 different clients (note: I don’t write all of them in any given month, but am on their editorial rosters) and my workload changes every week. Google Docs is where I keep my “pitch banks,” or story ideas for different clients, and do all my writing. There are different folders for each client. I also use Toggle to keep track of the time I spend on each client.
I also rely on my Google Docs spreadsheet to keep track of my income, and FreshBooks for my invoicing. However, if you’re just starting out, you can use free invoice generator tool (i.e., https://invoice-generator.com/#/1) and stay organized with Google Docs.
What is the biggest misconception that people have about freelancing?
Oooo..there are so many. One is that you are your own boss. Freelancing is a bit of a paradox in many ways. You are indeed running your own freelance business (legally and financially), and at the end of the day, you always have the decision to say no and decline an assignment or working with a client. However, you are juggling multiple assignments and deadlines, so it can feel like you have a bunch of bosses who don’t talk to each other.
Another misconception is that you need to make a go of it alone. There’s not a single day that that goes by when I’m not talking to other freelancers, whether it’s to talk about rates, commiserate, or to make a connection. There’s no playbook for being a freelancer; we’re all kind of figuring it out as we go and creating our own blueprint, so to speak. Cultivating community and building a tribe is crucial to maintaining your sanity. I’m big on meeting more freelancers, whether it be through Freelancer Union Spark events, or through coworking meetups such as Freelance Friday.
You’ve written about optimizing, not maximizing. How has this philosophy influenced how you work?
I try to work on assignments that offer the most value. This could mean taking on assignments that help me grow as a writer, learn something new, is most rewarding, or even offer me the most monetarily so I can have more free time. Of course, this isn’t a perfect science, and at the end of the day, you may have to take on work to pay your bills. Optimizing my work has helped me be efficient, and not take on assignments nilly-willy and get burnt out just so I can hit my income goals.
“There’s not a single day that that goes by when I’m not talking to other freelancers, whether it’s to talk about rates, commiserate, or to make a connection.”
How has Buddhism and minimalism influenced your work and life in general?
I try to be grateful for the work I land. Stability is an illusion. And while you can do things to ensure a bit of stability in your life as a freelancer (i.e., have retainer clients, have a robust emergency fund, build a solid network), life is uncertain. I try to remember that being a fulltime freelancer is a gift and to be grateful for the opportunity, each and every day.
I am not about earning a six-figure salary, but having a balance of freelance work and free time to work on my personal projects, spending time with family, and to give back to the community. For instance, my freelance schedule has allowed me to take Tuesday mornings off twice a month so I can volunteer at a food pantry with my mom. Instead of juggling too many, I try to pick the one or two things that infuse the most value and joy into my life.
I try to wake up each day with a “beginner’s mind,” seeing the day through the eyes of a newborn. This helps me approach my work with a fresh set of eyes. One of my favorite passages is from the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:
With beginner’s mind, we dedicate ourselves to sincere practice, without the thought of gaining anything special. Day to day life becomes our Zen training, and we discover that ‘to study Buddhism is to study ourselves.’ And to know ourselves is to be enlightened.
What tips do you have for someone getting into meditation?
Start small, but do it daily at the same time. Focus on your breathing, and enjoy that time to yourself. I like to use the Insight Timer app. Sitting still is the hardest. I aim to meditate for at least five minutes a day. It may not seem like a lot, but it definitely is a start. And don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s not about not thinking about anything at all, but to pay attention to your thoughts and monkey mind.
What tips do you have for someone who wants to break into freelance writing?
Figure out a niche you want to write in. Tap into your resourcefulness and build out your tribe. It’s not easy, but not impossible either. Also never stop learning new things, pushing yourself to grow, and improving your craft.
Books: Cal Newport’s Deep Work, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, anything by Ottessa Moshfegh or Thich Nhat Hanh (particularly Happiness, Anger)
What’s one fun fact that most people don’t know about you?
I once wanted to be a professional hand model. I even went to an open call for body parts modeling (yes, this is a thing).
What’s next for Jackie Lam?
The last few years I’ve been a bit of a workhorse. Freelance writing can feel like a roller coaster, and it’s hard to turn down work. I’ve dealt with a bit of frustration this past year, not carving enough time for my own projects, and feeling kind of boxed in with my “grown-up identity.”
In January I participated in a digital declutter to help Cal Newport on his research for his next book on digital minimalism. That meant no optional browsing on social media, reading clickbaity articles, and keeping texting to a minimum. I’ll be devoting more time on my creative projects in 2018 (treating them less like ugly stepchildren and more like valued clients), and learning new skills.
I would like to be more self-expressive and tap into my weird, creative side. Thus I’ll be experimenting with video, working on a collection of short stories, building out new content and revamping the look for HeyFreelancer, and writing the first installment of a book series relating to my blog. I would also like to be more involved with the freelancer community, both online and locally.
This post originally appeared on Take Risks Be Happy in February, 2018.