An Insider's View Of Freelance Writing
Salient advice from a seasoned freelance writer
"For all the difficulties I face as an entrepreneur, I’m never going back to a nine-to-five job.”
My ex-colleague Ahmad Azrai has been a successful freelance writer and entrepreneur for some years now, as CEO of Jern Jern Enterprise. I recently caught up with him over tea to discuss the realities of the freelance writing life in Malaysia and its rewards. Below are the highlights of our interview:
SG: What made you decide to become an entrepreneur?
AA: Essentially, things were not working out where I was working, and for me, for the past ten years plus I had been in the newspaper line…I was in the newspaper line from 2002 to 2013. So during that time I had basically started perfecting my writing skills, and for me, it was quite clear that my level of writing from when I was at The Malay Mail had grown and improved when I went to The Edge.
The difference in (writing) specialties was quite useful and for me, it was an organic growth. Towards the end at The Edge, I decided that I couldn’t just stick to that. I’ve always been interested in Photoshop, I’ve always done a lot of things with Photoshop, Illustrator and of course In-Design, because part of the job of subbing is also layout as well.
So, I decided that towards the end of 2011 and the whole of 2012, to start focusing more on illustration and Photoshop. I also came up with the idea of a children’s book that I would not only write, but illustrate as well. Towards the middle of 2012, things took a turn for the worse as far as work was concerned. I loved what I was doing, but my supervisor turned out to be problematic and it was very difficult to meet her halfway.
So I decided that I would start my own small company offering writing and translation services, because I had being doing translation for a few years already on the side, and I would do the best that I could.
For the first year, I got involved with a networking group with some old college friends and got some business here and there. It’s been the same for the past three years. I’ve been trying my luck going out there and trying to look for work, and surviving where I can.
So that’s how I came to leave the newspaper line, because for me, it was a case of the time felt right and I felt that I needed a change.
SG: At the beginning, what did you find was toughest about being an entrepreneur?
AA: The challenges that you prepare yourself for are the fact that you don’t work, you don’t eat. I have fixed overheads; I have a housing loan to take care of, my own food and needs, I have two cats to look after. So constantly looking for work is part of the job and essentially, it’s quite difficult. And especially these past three years, economically Malaysia has been in quite a bad state and this is not showing signs of improvement anytime soon.
Even in good times, you still have to compete for work. For me right now, the biggest challenge is not looking for work, the biggest challenge for me is to actually get the motivation to do work when I do have work.
Because when you’re an entrepreneur, you have your own free time and essentially sometimes you feel like you are tired or you want to take a break…it’s making sure that when you do have work, you discipline yourself to stay on the job and to get that done.
Unfortunately, there are times when you will get clients who are problematic in so many ways; they don’t give you the materials that you need, they harass you for time, they don’t pay you…and this is a big problem…and in so many ways.
As an entrepreneur, you can’t really be fussy and turn down any jobs you don’t want, because at the end of the day, I personally feel that it is a job. If you don’t take it, it’s just going to go to someone else. Try your best and at the end of the day if you can do the job, do it.
So, in the meantime, other than just translation and writing, I’ve also done a bit of training for basic marketing collateral courses. That was in collaboration with a friend, and for me, it all fits under the company. My company is an enterprise, so it is all me. So as far as I’m concerned right now, making sure that Jern Jern stays alive and active is why I get out of bed every day.
SG: So what is the full range of services that you offer now?
AA: Right now, I do translation, specifically in English and BM (Bahasa Melayu). I offer writing services, which cover everything, such as newsletters, annual reports, corporate writing, press releases, etc. I also do transcription services such as for interviews and speeches. I offer editorial services, which include editing, copywriting, etc. And I also do minor graphic design, which entails doing newsletter layouts.
I was doing work for a performing arts association for the entirety of last year and for them every quarter I did the association newsletter. I did the photography and graphics for that newsletter.
SG: So you do photography as well?
AA: Ever since I was a writer with The Malay Mail, unfortunately you could not rely on the photographers all of the time. So I essentially developed the habit of being a photojournalist, I would plan an article and photos for it too. It got to the point where I had this photo and I would know the layout and hence what to write. That turned out to be a good habit in the sense I could do everything. The problem is, I have to do everything and takes up a lot of time and energy.
SG: How do you handle problematic clients?
AA: The way I fixed it is when I do meet up with clients, the first thing I tell them is that I require a down payment. I just tell them it is my way of doing business. There are some clients, whom I have dealt with in the past or I am working with them in collaboration with someone else, I will let it be. But as far as I am concerned, for my business, when I do work, I actually require a down payment.
And in my contract, I also specify cancellation clauses and delay clauses, for the simple reason that they are necessary. If the client cancels for whatever reason, certain charges apply. If I decide to decline the work or not continue, there will be charges on my behalf and I’ll refund them accordingly.
For me, that seems to be the best method, for the simple reason that during the time I was with the network marketing groups, one of the biggest challenges was getting payment. You’ve already done the work, you chase the client…I have found that it is true what they say, if you at least get a down payment, they’ll be more inclined to pay you after and more importantly, even if they run away, you still have something for your efforts.
SG: Do you have any other advice for handling clients?
AA: In all honesty, it really does depend on the client. You’ve got to learn how to read people, you’ve got to learn how to deal with them and more importantly, you’ve got to learn how to deal with them in a professional manner. Even if they aren’t, you have to be the professional.
Of course, the thing with being a writer is, most of the time we tend to get quite emotional as well. But at the end of the day, you have to think of your business first.
SG: Apart from handling clients, as writer, what are the qualities one has to cultivate or nurture to be a successful entrepreneur?
AA: In all honesty, being an entrepreneur is different from being a writer. You as a company and you as a writer are two separate things. You have to learn to separate the two. When you are doing the writing, you have to do it. There are a lot of tips out there on being a good writer. Ultimately, you as a writer will be the best judge of what is useful to you.
Everybody has a different style and their own preferences. More importantly, everybody has their own strengths and weaknesses. As a writer, you’ve got to learn to find your own strengths and weaknesses and work with them. If you’ve got a strength, you do what you can to boost it; if you have a weakness you find ways and methods of ensuring that you get around it, because that is all you can do anyway.
As far as being an entrepreneur is concerned, you’ve got to think very carefully about the workflow, your bills. Even if it’s just you, you’ve got overheads, so you can’t just think “okay, I’ve got the one job, I’m done, I’m happy”.
You’ve got to think beyond just the one job. Sometimes there will be the opportunity to do two or three different things at the same time. That’s when you have to really plan, to ensure that you don’t bite off more than you can chew.
I’ve got several friends who are business partners and whom I’m very grateful to for being my business partners for the simple reason that we complement each other’s strengths and we work well together. To me, having a business partner you can work well with and who you can trust and communicate well with is really important.
Personally, I have some business partners who have managed to get me steady work, and right now, we are trying to see if we can do the same or better this year. That’s all you can do, anyway.
SG: What kind of day-to-day realities do you face as an entrepreneur that you didn’t have while in a full time job?
AA: Essentially the main thing is waking up and going out and looking for work or doing the work. When you have a nine-to-five job, you know you have to get up and you have to go. You really have no choice unless you’re ridiculously ill and you’re physically unable to go. And even then you try your best to still go anyway and get what you can done.
So for me, that is the real physical reality; the motivation to get up and go and do things. Granted, sometimes you can plan it in such a way that it is more spread out, but the danger is that if you spread it out too much you might get lazy. And that depends on the individual as well.
That’s been my biggest challenge. Sometimes that is one of the reasons I actively seek out a business partner, because if I work on something with someone, we have our respective deadlines and we can motivate each other. It’s a lot easier that way. When you have to do everything by yourself, it becomes a bit of a challenge.
I remember there was a point when I had literally no income for two months in a row. It’s happened, so what they say is quite true, you should have a backup savings of at least six months before you do anything independently. But this being Malaysia, it is not really practical unless you happen to have had a very high-paying job in the first place and were able to save. There’s no point having a high-paying job with everything gone at the end of the month anyway, you know.
SG: For you personally, did having savings as a buffer motivate you?
AA: I don’t have much in the way of savings anyway and of course at times you need to use them for whatever reason. But at the end of the day for me it’s case of if you want to eat and do this or that, you’ve got to work. And there is not a single day that goes by that you are not aware of your bank balance. Literally, you look at your bank balance and say “this is how long it’s going to last me”…you try and work within that budget and in all honesty, if you want to be frugal, it is possible, it’s just that you don’t have much of a life.
For example, nowadays with the LRT fares for example, the monthly pass has become a Touch n’ Go system. Back then, if I paid RM100, I could travel wherever I wanted and as many times as I wanted. Now it’s gotten even more expensive and is not the same system any more, it’s literally a Touch n’ Go system, whereby the more you travel, the more you have to spend.
So, not only did I cut my expenditure for that, I literally had to cut down my traveling. So, that’s a problem and especially because if I have to go out to look for work, and if I have to travel far, it really becomes an added cost.
SG: Any further words of advice for someone who is starting out as a freelance writer and entrepreneur?
AA: Personally, my advice is: know your specialty, know your strengths, know your weaknesses. You’ve got to know yourself, know what you do best and build up yourself. Because knowledge really is half of the battle. And once you do know yourself, you’ve got to take advantage of that. If you’ve got a good strength, market it.
Learn more about whatever it is you do best. If you’re a writer, read more, explore more, try various other things. For example, if you were a business writer before, try feature writing or news writing, political commentary, whatever it is. Because at the end of the day, nowadays the era of one-track specialisation is very fractional. You’ve got to show why you are special.
And of course, the danger is, if you do too much, you have too many specialties, people don’t know. But at the end of the day, it’s better to have something than nothing to show.
You’ve got to get out there and meet people, that’s it. And meeting people is not easy, especially if you’re not the marketing type of person, if you can’t do it yourself, then you’ve got to find someone who can help you get there.
So don’t be afraid to ask for help, don’t be afraid to get a partner to do that for you. Because sometimes specialisation helps, sometimes you need help. So you do what you can, because as long as it gives you some business and some money at the end of the month, you’ll be fine.
I know what it’s like to have no income for a certain amount of time, and it’s demoralising in ways that are actually very hard to describe. If you’ve not gone through it, you won’t really understand how painful it can be. You start doubting yourself and everything you are trying to do…my philosophy on that is basically something I read from Frank Herbert, the author of ‘Dune’. If you have regrets, that’s perfectly fine, because you are human. We will have regrets at the end of the day, the thing is to have your regrets, get up and do something else.
Essentially, ‘Frozen’ said it best: “let it go”. You can cry about it, you can commiserate and feel miserable about it, but at the end of the day, if it is all that you do, you’re not going to get anywhere. Everybody goes through this; you will have to learn it the hard way.
In all honesty, if you were to ask me, at one point I looked for a job; people want you to have experience, but don’t want to pay. Unless I am offered a position with discretion and power and a good paycheck, it won’t be worth it. I’m now my own boss. Why would I want to go back to become a servile employee?
For all the difficulties I am facing as an entrepreneur, I’m never going back to a nine-to-five job. I have a lot of freedom and I cherish it very much.