Monday, June 27, 2005

On the Business of Writing

I'm home sick today (thanks to my two-year-old), so I've been thinking about the business of writing and freelance writing in particular. As I write this (in between naps and while the medicine has me semi-lucid), my day job is actually still paying the bills. I don't get sick very often, nor do I get to take a vacation very often, so I've got tons of sick leave and vacation days built up -- close to six weeks worth. As such, I don't feel too guilty about taking the day off. Even if I had gone to work today, I would have gotten nothing accomplished, other than infecting most of my co-workers. Not much point in that. I'm sure my co-workers would much prefer that I just stay home!

When you freelance, however, you are effectively self-employed. Yes, you get to set your own hours, take as many sick days as you need, and take a vacation pretty much whenever you want. The big difference is those vacation/sick days are no longer paid days. Every day you don't work is a day you aren't getting paid. Given that most freelancers live somewhere right around the poverty line anyway, this is no small consideration. A successful writer writes. That's all there is too it. While a certain balance between work and the rest of your life is still required, you will likely find that you will work much, much harder and longer hours for yourself than you ever would for someone else. As I mentioned yesterday, it all comes down to enlightened self-interest. In most jobs you are expected to work a set number of hours (usually 40, but not always) each week, and when you go home in the afternoon you can leave work at the workplace. There's no real impetus to work more than the required number of hours, particularly if you are salaried and don't qualify for overtime pay. On the other hand, if every dime you make comes directly from your own fevered brain, you're going to find that you'll feel pressure to grab every spare minute you can to get just a little farther along on your latest project. After all, the sooner you finish this piece, the sooner it can start earning you money and paying the bills. Enlightened self-interest.

There are other aspects to being self-employed that you should consider as well. Most people (I hope) are aware that they must actually pay taxes four times a year. Normally this is handled by your employer, and every April 15th you just have to figure out if you overpaid or underpaid the IRS. If you are self-employed, you obviously have to make those payments yourself. What most people don't realize, however, is that your taxes are much higher as a self-employed person, even if you make the same amount of money. This may not seem fair (and frankly, I don't think it is), but remember that the government gets taxes on the revenue generated by your employer as well as the on the wages you earn yourself. If you are both employer and employee, you're going to effectively get hit twice as hard. Also, remember that "FICA" tax the government takes out for Social Security? Guess what? Your employer has been paying half the total tax due. Here again, if you are self-employed, you have to pay both halves, so your FICA tax will double. While we're considering the down side, also remember that your employer usually pays a significant portion of your health insurance expenses, so if you are self-employed, expect that monthly payment to go up by a factor of 3 to 5 (a factor of 10 in my wife's case, but we get a really good deal with her job). Most employers also match any contribution you make to a retirement fund (mandatory or not), as well. You'll lose this benefit once you strike out on your own.

It's not all bad though. You do get to deduct part of your home mortgage as a business expense, since you can show that your "home office" is being used to generate an income. (An aside here, you don't have to actually make any money to do this, you just have to be trying to make money. The IRS is usually happy if you can show that turned a profit at least once every three years.) You can only deduct the percentage of your mortgage payments equal to the percentage of the total square footage actually used exclusively for writing, however. For most of us, that's a pretty small space, but every little bit helps. There are a number of other expenses you can deduct, including some travel if it can be shown that it directly relates to the generation of income (you can't take a cruise, write an article about it, and expect to deduct your cruise costs, for example). Overall, however, the tax breaks are pretty scanty. Every freelance writer should invest in either a) a good tax preparer, or b) a good tax software package. Option (b) assumes you know how to read and understand the tax law enough to use the program, however. Being something of a tax-law junkie, I've found I can get by with software fairly well. Keep in mind that your tax preparation expenses are deductible, too.

Given all the financial disincentives to striking out on your own, why would you even consider it? First, of course, there's the simply joy of writing itself, of seeing your words come to life on the page. As we used to say in the Navy, if you aren't having fun, you aren't doing it right. There's also the self-satisfaction of supporting yourself (though not, I will admit, to the standard of living you could get elsewhere). You can't be laid off if you are self-employed, and in today's world, that kind of job security is rare. I have a yardstick of my own that I use, however. You see, I understand the reason we exist in the universe. That's right, I know the Purpose of It All. It's a Big Secret, but I'll clue you in:

I firmly believe that the purpose of intelligent life is to serve as a counteragent to the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Left to itself, the universe will always seek to increase the amount of entropy (disorder) present in any system. This amounts to the death of the universe, given enough time. There is no natural force that will decrease entropy on a large scale -- except for intelligent life. So, my yardstick is this: If you are doing something which decreases the total entropy of the universe, then you are doing something good and valuable. If you aren't, you aren't. Writing is one of the strongest entropy reducers I know of. When I write, I literally create something valuable out of nothing. There are very, very few professions which can make that claim. We writers may be poor, but we may just save the universe. How do you like them apples?

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