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The Life of a Manitoban Freelancer

Every job has its own set of advantages and disadvantages with unexpected twists and turns. And despite differences, every person can find commonalities with other working professionals. But for some reason, there is one type of business person that remains shrouded in mystery — the 'freelancer'. Who are these puzzling professionals and how did they get their quirky little businesses off the ground? What are they doing all day when you pass by the coffee shop peering over at their makeshift mobile offices — with laptops set up neatly beside their phone, notepad and lukewarm drip dark roast? To the passer-by, it's as if the 'freelancer' is working in a bizarro business world.

Writer and freelancer, Duncan Morrison, explains his journey into the Manitoba freelance world and how his path changed along the way. Read on and you may realize the mysterious freelancer may not be so unfamiliar after all…

I remember facing my toughest decision after returning to Winnipeg’s Red River College as a then '33-year-old first-year-in-the-books' Creative Communications student. My first year had passed magically. With the exception of a kegger on the first day back at college, I had exceeded all my own expectations. And my decision to leave a solid and promising 12-year career at Manitoba Public Insurance was sitting well with me. (I would be absolutely remiss not to mention that MPI was incredibly supportive during this time period by providing me with a leave of absence to complete my academic aspirations. I will never forget their kindness in that regard).

I think both MPI and I always assumed I would return to their communications department. Certainly, that was the way things were positioned when I took my plans forward to them. However, the CreComm program in my first year called for a mix of advertising, public relations and journalism. The second year called for a selection of one of three disciplines as a major. Therein lay the crux. My wife and I have three children and at that time they were two, four and eight years of age. We had a car, house, mortgage, and well, you get the picture. My wife had been holding the fort as a registered nurse and I needed to roll out of my two-year diploma and into a positive financial situation. I asked a well-respected colleague for advice and she stated without any hesitation:

“Take journalism. If you can understand the story, you can apply that to anything and transfer easily into the other two areas if you want.”

So I did, and with that my ties with MPI were severed. There was no turning back now. 

In 1999, an internship at the Winnipeg Free Press for the Pan Am Games bolstered my decision. But with internships there are ups and downs, and when the Games ended that summer, so did my position. Only then did I find out what it takes to be a freelancer. It was a grind. Hustling, networking, pitching and utilizing my Free Press momentum, I kicked up enough assignments to keep us eating dinner for a couple of months (albeit Kraft Dinner). But other luxuries eluded us.

Things started perking up after a while though. I took a full-time gig at a well-respected newspaper in our surrounding area. That allowed me to grow as a writer by way of the numerous topics, issues and editorials I could write about. But my take home pay rivalled a drive-thru window worker, which is great if you are earlier on in your journey. At that point I needed to make a bigger move forward.

My career path veered very sharply and with urgency as I started targeting communications jobs that would also keep my writing chops sharp while learning the comms biz. I was soon rewarded with an amazing opportunity at Ducks Unlimited Canada and I began what would be an 11-year career there. It was a great organization to work with, and they still remain close to my heart, but the journey didn't end there. After leaving DUC, feeling the pull back to my freelance roots, I decided to start my own communications company.

I am currently in the fifth year of owning my own company. My clients are fantastic and I work with many awesome people from different walks of life and businesses. My days are happily filled with strategic communications, content generation, business plans, editing, marketing campaigns and yes – freelance writing. The journey was a long and winding road until this point, but the payoff has been so rewarding. The lesson — persevere, my friends.

And with that, I have learned many things along the way, some of which I'll share with you here. These are my tips for freelancers who may be on the CreComm or similar journey, but you can find ways to apply them no matter what route you take.

Duncan Morrison’s Top 5 Tips for Communications Freelancers

1) Under-promise & Over-deliver

This is the foundation of many successful business models, and freelancers can utilize this advice by way of trying to make a living in a service-oriented business. Treat the editor or publisher like a valued client. Fact-check your own story, write to assigned story specifications and take the step of finding that extra voice. Most of all: never be late on a deadline. Editors are often a harried, frantic lot on pressing deadlines and any help you can offer via good work will be appreciated. Follow this advice and it should lead to more contracts.

2) Pick Up the Phone

Most editors and publications have query letters to submit your story pitches. After submitting a query, follow-up via the phone as to the status of your pitch. Take rejection with class and optimism to work on the next one. Also, make it clear to the editor that you are available for any kind of story that will prove your ability. Do this with all editors in your network and follow up periodically.

3) Be Reliable and Consistent

Reliability and consistently good work are of critical importance to the editor. Help build your relationship by being there for assignments when they need them most. Imagine being in their shoes, having to deal with multiple story pitches, article submissions and publishing dates. If you are a reliable writer with limited edits needed on your work, you'll quickly be in their good books. And editors have the memory of elephants so your good work will bode well for the future.

4) Diversify

In today’s world, integrated communications via websites, social media and video channels are the norms for internal and external communications. Often companies have an excellent story to tell, but they just don’t have someone to tell it. Promote the story you pitch to them for all communications channels. This merges your writing ability with your communications planning ability. For example, once the story publishes you can then share it on your own social networks and with third party sites that could pick it up. This approach may not be for all writers, but if you do it well this will provide added value for the client and you will see a bigger personal payoff.

5) Don’t Back Up the Brinks Truck

Don’t expect to get rich as a freelancer. It's tough running your own business. However, if you follow the above four recommendations you can likely find regular work in your field. Use your network of connections and hustle to keep active. There will be times that clients pay you on time and everything goes well, and there will be other times where you wonder when that cheque is coming in. Plan at least six months in advance for any income and expenses in the hopper and keep a contingency fund ready for when the contracts are quiet. Lastly, put some money aside for your RRSPs and pension every month because nobody will look out for you quite as well as yourself.

Do you have a tip to share as a freelancer? We'd love to hear from you and will feature other freelance stories in upcoming articles. Tell us in the comments section below! 

Duncan Morrison

Duncan is a Winnipeg-based writer and communications consultant that specializes in freelance writing, strategic communications and marketing plans for clients from a wide range of organizations and businesses. His work has been featured in numerous newspapers and magazines.

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