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journey into freelancing

Ever since going to various conferences and meet-ups and meeting new people, two of the most commonly-asked questions include ‘So, what kind of freelancing do you do?’ and ‘How did you get into freelancing?’. Even though it’s coming up to two years, occasionally I’m still unsure of how to answer the first question, and the second question is nearly always answered by ‘I kind of fell into it.’ – which I think is true for a lot of freelancers. I know I said those exact words at the ELT Freelancers’ Awayday. ‘Falling into freelancing’ is a good catch-all term for how I became to be where I am. You might have read about some of my story before, but I think it’s good to be open about how you got to where you are, so apologies if I’m covering old track or if you think it’s inappropriate – I hope the story demonstrates that out of a truly dreadful time, positives can always be found.

The story begins back in 2017. I had been teaching EFL for around 16 years, working in different countries and I had been working as a head of department for a private college in west London. It was an international college for overseas and home students studying for GCSEs, A levels and university prep. I had a busy role of co-ordinating the EAP classes for international students who needed it, preparing them for IELTS and a university English programme. On top of this, I was responsible for all the languages taught as well as English language and literature. It was a massive step up from my EFL teaching days. Rumours started floating around that the college was going to be rebranded, and in February, we were told that the college was going to be turned into a high school. I would say that around 90% of the staff were going to be made redundant and I was one of them. My first taste of redundancy wasn’t too sweet. I’d had the idea of leaving teaching and retraining for something else.

In March 2017, I decided to fly to Berlin to be with my partner who was there at a conference. It was my first time to Berlin and I was going to meet some of my partner’s friends for the first time too. After landing at the airport, I saw that I had a text from my father’s phone saying to ring him urgently. I rang from the plane while waiting for the doors to open, only to hear my mother say that my father had had a massive stroke and was not expected to make it. What made it even worse was that I had changed my flight to a day earlier to miss the airport strikes that were happening in Berlin just after I got there. It’s at times like that when you just don’t know what to do. I met my partner and we went to the hotel so I could arrange to travel back. When the taxi got to the hotel, I got another phone call to say that my father had passed away. I was too late. My sister had missed him too – she was desperately trying to travel down from Scotland. We were both too late. Of course, there were no flights leaving Berlin at all in the next two days, so I had to get home somehow. I ended up taking an all-night taxi from Berlin to Hamburg so I could fly home in the morning. I needed to write about it, so my short story Taxi to Hamburg was born, even though I have yet to get it published anywhere.

So, a redundancy and a death. I had to finish working at the college, but it was too difficult. For the next couple of months, I did nothing really. I wasn’t working, I wasn’t actively doing anything. I decided that I had to do something.

I looked into retraining to become an editor – it was working with words and I loved the English language and I felt that it was something I could do. I didn’t want to go back into the classroom. Ever since March 2017, I felt too anxious to go back. And in reality, I feel the same way now. I did some training courses with reputable companies. I went to the London Book Fair less than a month since Berlin, which was a mistake. I had planned all these companies I was going to impress and yet when I got there, I couldn’t talk to anyone. I did my training and I contacted so many publishers – not just ELT, but anything. I threw my net too widely. ELT publishers I had interviews with said my teaching experience was good, but I just didn’t have the editing experience. So I thought I should get some. I ended up volunteering for an independent publisher in Twickenham. I was typesetting and learning the skills of editing and how a small publisher works. I was drawn to this publisher because they were, and are, fundraising for a statue of Virginia Woolf in Richmond. I’d been a fan of Woolf for many years and had done my Masters dissertation on her diaries. I involved myself in the campaign and because I was a fan, I was asked to write a book about Woolf’s life in Richmond, and this is how Virginia Woolf in Richmond was made. I was then employed by the publisher as their editor and worked on many drama scripts.

During this time, I contacted various ELT publishers to see if I could do any freelance editing work for them. I had a small task with a Japanese publisher which went fairly well and then I contacted a Greek publisher. Due to my experience with ELT exams, they asked if I would be prepared to write five practice tests for an ELT exam. Of course, I said yes. I didn’t actually realise that a proper practice test book would be the result. I don’t know what I expected, but it wasn’t that. I had another four or five contracts with them, and now there are three books for sale on their website with another on the way.

Going to many conferences, I’ve heard that having a niche is useful, but can also have downsides, but it seems that writing exams is my niche. Since then, I’ve worked with a few other content creation companies and also work as a bank writer for an examinations board. And I couldn’t be happier.

At the beginning of January 2020, I had a panic that I wouldn’t have enough work, so I contacted a few publishers. As soon as I posted my Freelancers Advice blog, I was contacted by a different publisher asking if I would write for them, and a new contract was made. Developments since then include a training day in February with a huge publisher and an invitation to apply for another bank writer role with a different examinations board.

It doesn’t really matter how you get into freelancing, whether it’s the result of a positive or negative experience – what matters is how much energy and effort you put in to making freelancing a success.

My name is Peter, and I am a freelance exams writer.

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