A while ago, I read A day in the life of a freelance teacher trainer, which got me thinking about what a typical day in my own working life looked like.
I’ve been a freelance ELT writer since 2013. As my writing workload has increased I’ve gradually reduced my teaching hours, and I now write considerably more than I teach. The bulk of it is ELT writing, but I supplement my income with reporting for the local press, facilitating local arts workshops and delivering talks and workshops at home and abroad.
Reflecting on “a day in the life”, I smiled fondly at my expectations of what the freelance writing life would be like before I embarked on it. Considering the gap between dreams and reality, I thought it might be useful for aspiring writers to see the reality of my working day. *
My eight year old son looks at me askance, as I pull my duffle coat on. “Why are you still wearing your pyjamas?” he asks. “Because I can.” I tell him. “And if you stick in and work hard at school, one day you might be able to stay at home in your pyjamas all day”. He brightens considerably at this prospect and we walk into the morning blizzard.
My son doesn’t really need to be accompanied to school (it’s a short walk through some playing fields) but he is still young enough to enjoy the company of his old Mum, and I like to start the day with a walk. The day he expresses a preference to walk alone, I will walk in a different direction: possibly around the coastal path near my house.
I may work from home, but in my opinion it’s still important to walk to work: to create the distance between the place I eat and sleep and the place I work.
This minute I get home from the “school run”, I get down to work. For me, this is the best and most productive part of the day. A million household tasks jostle for my attention, but I have become adept at blotting them out (some might say it’s my greatest talent). I do, however, put a load of washing on. The hum of the washing machine provides my background noise – I can’t work with music on, unfortunately.
This morning I’m writing tests to accompany a course I wrote for my Chinese publisher. The work is straightforward yet enjoyable, and I like the challenge of creating engaging reading and listening texts which contain the structures and language the students have learned.
I keep my most challenging work for the morning session, as I know that this is when I work most accurately and productively. This golden time increases during the light Shetland spring and summer when I can spring out of bed at 6am and storm through an hour or so of work before my family get up. These extra summer hours make up for my relative inertia during the long, dark Shetland winter (from which we are just beginning to surface as I write this).
I work for around three hours, only stopping now and then to refill an enormous mug with tea. I stop typing when I realise my fingers are numb and I can’t feel my feet anymore. Time to get dressed, do some stretches, wash some dishes (hand warming purposes) and raid the fridge.
A head clearing walk
Writing is totally different to doing any other work. I tend to work well in intensive bursts of no more than three hours. Then I am drained of all energy and need a long break, preferably outdoors.
It took me some time to realise that I was not being lazy by taking a lengthy break in the middle of the day. This is what I need to do. I also learned (the hard way) that sitting hunched over a laptop for hours on end was not going to do the quality of my work or the alignment of my spine any favours.
I go for a long walk. So I don’t feel like too much of a skiver, I make it a “thinking walk”, taking with me a mental list of things I need to consider. These vary from day to day, but could include questions like: What kind of activity would best teach this language point? How could I approach this theme in a fresh angle? What is my next blog post going to be about? What am I going to teach tonight? I walk fast and I think hard. Sometimes, I manage to come up with answers. Sometimes I get distracted by a face in a cloud or by patterns made by the wintry light shining on the sea…
Then I come home and work at my computer for another couple of hours. Depending on how imminent my deadlines are, I might continue my morning project. Ideally, I might dip into something else to give myself some variety. I will probably use this part of the day to have a quick sift through my inbox too, dealing with anything high priority as I do so.
A major feature of working as a freelance writer is the uncertainty of the future. I may be swamped by work this month, but be worrying about the thin looking month to follow. So if I have any time on my hands at all, then I like to spend it actively seeking work: contacting publishers, submitting proposals, updating my CV, and following up interesting looking opportunities.
If I have a Skype meeting with an editor, I will usually try to schedule this for the afternoon too so that it doesn’t cut into the intensive writing I do in the morning. I’ve also usually had a shower and brushed my hair by this stage in the day.
At around 3.30pm my two children burst in the door, full of chatter and energy, and so I down tools for several hours. For me, one of the best things about this work is being able to be home for the children after school. Although it can sometimes be frustrating having an enforced break in the middle of the day, it’s healthy too, having to get up and take my mind off things.
Another problem with being a freelancer is that you’re never really “off”. I am often working in the evening, whether teaching a night class, checking emails, writing a blog post or planning work for the following day. Tonight, however, my work is altogether more exciting: I’m rehearsing my talk and packing my bags for my forthcoming trip to Lithuania where I’ll be talking about Shakespeare in contemporary education.
The truly great thing about being a freelancer? There is no typical day (although this day is fairly representative of many of the days I work from home). The frowsy haired pyjama wearing blue fingered writer of today will next week be the power dressing, sleekly coiffed conference presenter.
Freelancing probably isn’t for everyone, but if you don’t mind uncertainty, working alone for long stretches of time, and if you are self motivated enough to be your own boss, then there are much worse ways to spend your working life. On balance, I’d recommend it.
* I’m fully aware that every writer will differ in their approach to work.