Simon Wicks argues that freelancing is a word that describes the diversity and talent of independent professionals.
‘Hi Simon. Pleased to meet you. So, er – what do you do?’
‘Wow. Cool. What do you write?’
‘Anything anyone pays me to write.’
‘Oh, right. Ok.’
‘You were hoping I was going to say novels, weren’t you?’
‘Well. Er… These canapés are nice, aren’t they?’
My name is Simon and I am a freelance writer. I am a ‘free lance’. Think about that for a minute.
It’s evocative, isn’t it? Free. Lance.
My name is Simon and I am a writer-warrior, selling my skills to the highest bidder on the battlegrounds of corporate Europe. I wander freely as I please and draw my laptop (since I’m a modern writer-warrior) in the cause of whoever will pay me most – or even just give me enough to cover my food and lodgings. Please. I’m cold and hungry sometimes.
All is not what it seems
It’s lovely to be able to trace my lineage back to a golden age of chivalrous murder and exploitation. At least it would be if it were true. The term ‘free lance’, in fact, was by general consensus coined by Sir Walter Scott in his 1820 novel Ivanhoe (Wordsworth Classics)
Scott pretty much invented the medieval world as we know it. His romantic, picturesque vision of knights and courtiers and clans and noble causes and wotnot was far removed from the dirt, disease, exploitation, serfdom, misery and early death that was the reality for almost everyone who actually lived there.
Nineteenth-century folk loved it and read the book in their millions. In fact, they created an entire artistic and cultural movement out of Scott’s medieval imaginings. They liked the term ‘free lance’, too, and it entered common speech. By 1860, it was being used as a label for people who worked independently for others; by the 1880s, it had attached itself almost exclusively to journalism. And so it has remained, more or less. Until quite recently anyway (more on that in a bit).
Am I a free lance?
I’ve not read Ivanhoe, but I imagine Scott’s ‘free lance’ is really a noble soul who is actually fighting for an ideal of some description or perhaps doing a bit of killing for money on the side while he struggles to right some wrong that’s been committed against him.
In reality, he wouldn’t have been known as a ‘free lance’ at all. He would have been something else – a mercenary perhaps. And if he were a real medieval mercenary soldier, he would probably have been cold and hungry and ready to kill and pillage for a bread roll and a roof for the night. This is what sets the professionals apart from the enthusiastic amateurs.
So should I call myself a mercenary writer? I could, if I never wanted to work again. Mercenary is a bit – well, honest, isn’t it? Quite grubby, too. Even real mercenaries don’t admit to being mercenaries, but describe themselves as security consultants or something equally evasive.
Of course, it’s not a simple either/or – there’s a variety of names I could use to describe what I do. I could be a self-employed writer, for example, or an independent writer (not to be confused with someone who writes for The Independent). I could drop ‘writer’ altogether and be an editorial consultant, which sounds much more businessy. At a pinch, I could pass myself off as a copywriting agency, make out there’s more than one of me, that I don’t work from my bedroom (and charge more than I currently do).
But freelance is the established term for my line of work and I like the spirit it invokes of independence, self-sufficiency, and – yes, I’ll say it – liberty.
Does any of this actually matter?
You may think I’m being a bit of a pedant about this, but I think it matters. Every description carries connotations. If I called myself a consultant, I’d be saying: ‘I’m an expert. I’m going to make you more efficient and profitable, but it’ll take a bit of time. Here’s the contract.’ Freelance, on the other hand, says ‘I’m a floating resource that you can pick up and drop as you please. Just tell me what to do and I’ll do it. Then I’ll go away. Contract? What’s that?’
As it happens, I am an expert and I do consult with my clients; and my work may well make a difference to their operational efficiency and profits. But I’d no more describe myself as a consultant than I would call myself ‘Simon the happy clown’. Why? Because when a business employs someone like me for the first time, they’re not looking for a long-term relationship; they just want a single job done. If I do it well, they’ll come back at some point. And then it really doesn’t matter what I call myself.
‘Freelance’ says everything I need it to say. For my benefit, it says: ‘I’m creative, I’m footloose. I’m pretty cool, actually.’ For my potential customers’ benefit, it says: ‘Look, I’m an easy and informal purchase. Go on. Just think of it as being like buying some stationery.’
This is the crux of it, really, and may also be why more and more independents from a wider range of fields are referring to themselves as freelance nowadays. It’s not just about ‘creativity’ but pragmatism: these are days of austerity and businesses find it hard to justify expenditure on contractors and consultants. But a freelance? That’s easy – you’ve pretty much just made the decision for them. Cheers, Sir Walter.
Simon Wicks is a freelance writer and editor of Enterprise Nation, which offers tips, advice, events and opportunities to the UK’s community of ‘homegrown’ businesses.