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Home  > Article

Freelance Writing Abroad

By Lucas Laursen

There are plenty of reasons not to become a writer, but an interest in living abroad is not one of them.

Writing turns out to be one of those careers you can take just about anywhere with an internet connection and power supply. I can't say I'd want to update a website from Kyrgyzstan via satellite phone indefinitely, but I did lrn brvty.

 

There are a few financial considerations that come into play, and a few quality of life factors that matter more than I might have thought at first. Here's the run-down:

 

Residency

 

When I started working abroad, I was working as an independent contractor with an American travel guidebook company. Technically, it would be a bad idea for an American to earn money in a foreign country without first getting the relevant visas and permits. Of course, this depends on where you want to work and who you are - as a Spanish citizen, I am able to work and live indefinitely in the United Kingdom.

 

In the UK, established writers don't need a permit (http://www.ukvisas.gov.uk/servlet/Front?pagename=OpenMarket/Xcelerate/ShowPage&c=Page&cid=1018721068172#Q6). But you do need to "have built a reputation outside the UK" which might preclude those of us attempting to escape said reputation. Also, since most of us haven't already published a book or supported ourselves strictly by our writing for over a year, a transitional job and a different work permit may be necessary.

 

Temporary work (though rarely writing!) is often paid in cash, allowing recent arrivals to sidestep the issue temporarily, while living on a tourist visa and substandard pay. But the best way to pick up a legitimate work permit is to get sponsorship from a local company - which usually needs to be done before arrival. See the following site for UK details: http://www.transitionsabroad.com/publications/magazine/0501/working_in_the_uk.shtml

 

Cost of Living

 

I currently live and work in the United Kingdom, but most of my income is still in American greenbacks. Learn from my mistake. Do not do this. A pound sterling was expensive enough when I arrived, weighing in at about $1.90, but less than a year later it costs $2.05. If I had had the foresight to convert all my savings when I arrived, I'd be able to afford not to write this piece - and many others!

 

Of course, it could easily have gone the other way. I'm certainly not qualified to speculate on the currency market, but it's worth considering that unpredictable conditions like that can affect your savings and ability to make the transition abroad.

 

Plenty of websites can provide you with at least a rough estimate of the cost of living elsewhere. If you don't arrive with steady freelance work lined up and several months or more worth of savings, expect to need an interim job.

 

Taxes

 

If you're doing well enough that this is a problem, consider yourself a success! During my first year as a writer, I was a tax loss, something my father forlornly predicted not long after signing the last check for my university education. According to Uncle Sam, I spent more in tax-deductible expenses than I earned writing and didn't owe one penny.

 

One way to keep it simple is to earn money in the United States and pay taxes in the United States. But if you're like me, you may soon need to earn money in the local currency and the local authorities will expect a share. Luckily, Uncle Sam understands, and only taxes income that hasn't already been taxed elsewhere. See http://www.irs.gov/businesses/small/international/article/0,,id=97130,00.html

 

Marketing

 

Enough with the paperwork! Even if you're fool enough to try writing for a living, you probably know you'll need to approach those gatekeepers of copy and money: editors. I'll admit that most of my contact with editors has been rather faceless. I email them stories and occasionally find small sums deposited in my bank account.

 

Reaching a new market can be as straightforward as flipping through local magazines and websites and emailing the editors. In that case, it doesn't matter much where you are, but it can help to know the local conventions. Do you contact a sub-editor or a commissioning editor? Do you include a one-page resume or a long curriculum vita with electronic versions of your clips?

 

The quickest way to learn conventions and drum up work is to speak to local professionals. I got advice from editors who had listed themselves as career advisors with the local university - but I had to finagle access through a friend who was a student there. I also saw an ad in the local paper for a secretarial job at a major international publication I didn't even know had an office in my town. I suggested an informational meeting with the news editor and have since picked up a string of freelance commissions.

 

Speak loudly, and friends might get so tired of your whining that they put you in touch with relevant people. That's how I got an offer at a travel guidebook company recently, even though the editor had originally been too busy for the after-dinner drink I suggested. (The first and only time I've met a journalist too busy for a free drink.) But when they needed someone a month later, the editor remembered me.

 

Research

 

I'm still new to this, so I write whatever I can sell - travel, science, career advice. (From an unemployed freelancer? Go on.)  Anyway, your geography can influence what you research. You may need access to a major library or airports. But for the entry-level freelance writing I'm doing, I've found that most of my research is online and I can conduct my interviews using Skype. But it is serendipitous- if I'd been in another town, I doubt I would have pitched that editor I met via the newspaper ad.

 

 

Lifestyle

 

At first, I thought that being a "writer" would liberate me to roam the world at will, something like I had done during a few stints as a travel guidebook writer.

 

Two years ago, I went on an exploratory mountaineering expedition to Kyrgyzstan. If I'd had my way then, I would have gone on one expedition after another, writing in the field and filing my reports by satellite phone. Funny though, nobody offered to pay for it.

 

I spend a lot of time researching stories, marketing them, and conducting interviews, and I simply can't spend all day on the move. The cheapest thing would be to stay with my family, but I have made a lifestyle decision. I'm willing to work non-writing jobs part-time so I can afford to live in Cambridge, England while my writing career picks up. This lets me spend time with friends here and travel around Europe on the cheap - both things I want to do right now in my life. And my non-writing jobs? I give punt tours of the river Cam and I'm involved in a London internet startup. Could be worse.

 

If you're a real badass freelancer, of course, you'll spin out stories and research everything from that satphone in Kyrgyzstan. But then what would you do with all that money you'd surely be making?

    






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