By Sabrina Halvorson, AAEA Member
Have you ever noticed that writers are rarely dull people? Sure, many are introverted or quiet, but rarely are we dull. The world of a writer is a symphony strung together by the universe around us and our inner need to document it. This is why I love freelancing and why I encourage others to do it.
I started freelancing in the 1990’s and have sold hundreds of articles, photos, and most recently, broadcasts and podcasts. For the bulk of that time, I freelanced on the side of a full-time job. About this time last year, I decided to spend a year as a full-time freelancer to see what I could learn from that. It was a lot.
There are many things about freelancing that appeal to me. Over the last forty-some years, I’ve gotten to know myself pretty well. I enjoy having several projects going at once. When I don’t, I’m restless and a little bored. This is where freelancing has always served me well. When working a full-time job, I’m able to keep a separate task for evenings or weekends and I look forward to it. I realize this doesn’t work for everyone, but my kids are grown and I’m one of those afore mentioned introverted and quiet writers, so I have no social life.
During my freelancing experiment this year, I took on as many projects as I could. I tend to take on more than I should, and I learned that lesson this spring. I already had a big one-year podcasting contract and regular submissions to three magazines when I was asked to be a regular contributor on another project. I loved the subject matter and the organization, but after a month of truly giving it my all, I had to drop what would have been another long-term gig because I was exhausted.
This was the year that I learned that’s okay.
Work should never leave you exhausted. I think especially in agriculture communications, we tend to give so much of ourselves that we rob ourselves of the experience of life. The best advice I ever received came this spring from several people who love me and could see that I was worn out. It boiled down to this: Work is only one part of life. Don’t treat it like it’s everything.
In your freelancing work-life, you are your own boss. Don’t be a bad boss. Don’t overwork your employee. Don’t be unappreciative and keep asking for more when there’s nothing more to give. Nobody likes working for that boss. Also, take your employee out for ice cream once in a while. Or wine. Whatever makes you smile.
Diversification is something we often hear about and write about in agriculture. I’ve found it important in my freelancing career as well. In addition to ag publications, I write for a travel magazine. I love traveling and it was a natural fit. Over the years, I’ve also written for lifestyle magazines on topics such as parenting, community involvement, and various other things. I’ve written real crime features and even an internationally-published article on a discrimination lawsuit that’s been reprinted in college textbooks.
Having the opportunity to write about all these things keeps me excited about my career. Agriculture is my specialty and my passion but travel or crime or the occasional piece of fiction are the spices that give my work-life its extra flavor.
My advice to freelancers is to find the spices you like. It’s okay to look outside of your usual topic and spread your wings. In fact, it could be what keeps you afloat. You are an ag communicator, but that doesn’t mean you only get to write about farming. For those just starting out, a good first step is to look into your own interests. What do you like reading about? What can you write about in that topic? Every byline you get helps you get your next one, and they all help pay the bills. They make you a stronger writer, as well.
As I’ve come to the end of my commitment to one year of full-time freelancing, I am grateful that I did it. It was scary at first and it took having faith in myself like I’ve never had before. Thankfully, my husband’s faith in me never wavered and filled in when mine was low. I encourage you to find someone to be your cheerleader. It always stings to get a rejection letter, and it’s just part of freelancing.
This year also gave me the opportunity to hone in on exactly what I am meant to do. My passion is rekindled and I’m extremely excited for a new full-time job that I’ve accepted. So, my final piece of advice is that sometimes it’s okay to take the job with the steady paycheck and someone else dealing with the business stuff so that you can focus on doing what you love and experiencing your life.
Sabrina Halvorson is an award-winning ag journalist and farm broadcaster who splits her time between North Dakota and California. She encourages students and early-career members to reach out if she can be of service.