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The challenges of working as a freelance writer or translator

It’s tough working as a freelance writer or translator because there is often no one there to tell you how you’re doing. Without the structure of working in-house, you don’t have a manager or colleagues to bounce ideas off or ask for constructive feedback.

In this article, our founder Katie discusses some of the major challenges she faced as a freelancer before starting her own company, and how she overcame them to improve her skills and become more successful at what she does.


#1 No feedback


If clients aren’t happy with your work, you soon hear about it. But you’re much less likely to hear back from them when your work is good and meets their needs.

Why is this important? Regular feedback helps you to improve your skills and develop your career as a writer or translator.

I’ve always hated the saying, “You’re only as good as your last project”. I don’t think it’s true. Everyone has failures and one bad experience does not define you. But it’s essential to evaluate every project (good and bad) as part of your continuing professional development.


“I only try to dance better than myself.”
Mikhail Baryshnikov


The trick is to get good at reviewing and editing your own work. These are essential skills for any writer or translator but they are even more important when you’re working on your own.

Learn to be your own best critic. Go back over every piece of work you do. Take a look at what you think was successful and what you would do differently next time.

Other things you can do:
Ask for feedback: if you feel awkward, you could even send a Survey Monkey questionnaire to your clients so that they can answer anonymously!
Ask a mentor or a contact in the industry: get some honest feedback from someone who works in the same field and can give their opinion from an objective point of view.


#2 Comparing yourself to others


With no framework, it can be tempting to compare yourself to other people to see how good you are. This is, generally speaking, a bad idea.

Arianna Huffington describes comparing yourself to others as “like drinking poison”. In the age of social media, it can take just one post, award, or publication by someone else to make you doubt yourself and your abilities.
The solution? Find your focus.

It was only when I blocked out what everyone else was doing and focused on the kind of work I wanted to do that I managed to establish myself as an expert and build up regular work from clients I enjoyed working with.


#3 Writer’s block


“The problem is always in the previous scene.”
David Hare


I once read an interview with playwright David Hare in which he said that whenever he was stuck on something, the problem was always in the previous scene.

I’ve found this to be particularly true of translation (and one of the reasons I have never really liked using CAT tools and translation memories, which split the source text into segments and break up its natural flow).

If you’re wrestling with how to write or translate a particular phrase, go back and rework the sentence before. Be ruthless. Even if that phrase works really well on its own, you need to make sure the text works as a whole.

If you’re struggling to write something new or can’t work out how to approach a new translation, go back over a similar piece you did and try and get in the zone. No one ever started from a truly blank page.

Writer’s block happens when you lose the thread of what you were doing. It’s all about getting back into your rhythm.


#4 Mastering different styles


If you work in-house for a brand or at an international institution like the EU, there will usually be a specific style guide to follow. But if you’re freelance, you have to work in multiple styles and it can be tough switching between different tones of voice.

This comes more easily with experience. But if you’re just starting out, it pays off to practise in between projects.

Exercices de style by Raymond Queneau shows just how many different effects you can create as writer. The same passage is written in over 100 different ways (metaphorical, understated, exaggerated, in reverse chronological order, in the present tense, in the past, in verse, as a play, focused on colour, focused on sounds, etc.)

Try the same thing with something you’ve written. You’re guaranteed to become a more confident, versatile writer and more adventurous when it comes to taking on new clients and projects.

Another good exercise (stolen from a copywriting handbook) is to write the same news headline and story in the style of a broadsheet newspaper and then rewrite it for a tabloid.


#5 You can’t be what you can’t see


A much overused and clichéd phrase but the truth is we all need to find heroes to inspire us and give us something to aim for.

Here are some of the people who have inspired me:

  • Fay Weldon, one of my favourite writers of all time. I go back to her autobiography Auto da Fay and semi-autobiographical novel Mantrapped again and again for insight into how she honed her skills as a novelist, screenwriter, and commercial copywriter.
  • Michael Hodges, who wrote a column called ‘Slice of Life’ in Time Out London (in the days before it went fremium and died a slow death). He can write about literally nothing – the most mundane moments in a Londoner’s life – and make it original and entertaining.
  • Bernard Scudder, an Icelandic-to-English translator who used to translate the Scandi Noir crime novels by Arnaldur Indriðason. He also created the English subtitles for the arthouse film Jar City (an adaptation of one of Indriðason’s novels). The tone of his translations was always bang on. He captured the personality of each character while transferring the dialogue into fluent English. 


Finally, define what success means to you.


For some people, it might be winning industry awards or being recognised for your work. For others, it might be achieving a certain salary or just working with a certain brand.

For me, being successful meant making a living out of what I love. Then it was being able to set up a company and work with a team instead of on my own.Your goals will change over the years but never lose sight of your successes.