Lu-Hai Liang

thoughts from a freelance foreign correspondent

Posts Tagged ‘freelancing in Beijing

The Freelancer’s Puzzle

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I want to make more money, so I can do more things. But how can I do that?

As a freelancer I have a lot of time to think.

And with that time I often think about things I could do with that time. For example: travel, both near and far, to visit friends, or just to go somewhere.

I would also like to save as I can foresee myself needing money sometime in the future, for some new adventure.

More money gives you more options. As freelance I already generate a stable income where I am not tied down to location. I can do the work I do any place — all I need is a laptop. In fact I can even do the work on my smartphone.

This makes me feel like I can go. Go where? Doesn’t matter so much.

I’ve been hustling a little bit for new work, to make more money. But something crucial about freelance and the work opportunities in Beijing is that a lot of it comes down to contacts and networks, suggestions, offers, and recommendations. Those lines of contact generate chance offers.

I’ve been waiting for a few of them to finally produce results. But it’s not certain. While other opportunities have occurred without any input from me. That’s the beauty of recommendations and professional networks — a cloud that floats around you, basically invisible, supported by people you barely know but who also have clouds barely tangible to them.

It actually makes me feel a little powerless because it isn’t always clear how to move forward. How to actively and consciously get more work for yourself.

I guess I could just get myself out there. Make inquiries. Meet more people. Send more emails and pitches. That is something I definitely don’t do enough of. And yet it seems that the more powerful way of getting work is via recommendation and personal suggestions.

In China, there is an all-encompassing word for this. It’s “guanxi”, which roughly translates as “connections”. But it’s much more than that. Much more than the western idea of “networking”.

In China people will do favours for you without an immediate expectation of a favour back, because they know doing favours for others improves their own social standing. It’s not a back-and-forth exchange, it’s about creating a social web of influence for yourself.

In China, the real movers and shakers are the ones who can create golden webs of influence which they can leverage and jostle, pulling strands and moving yourself around this web. It’s beautiful almost.

Anyway, that’s a tangent. I’m just aware that I want more income and I’m not fully sure, on a day to day basis, how to go about trying to secure that. It’s a puzzle for me to figure out.

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The Luxuries and the Poverties of the Freelance Life

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It’s just gone a year since I went completely freelance.

Last year I was made to leave my job as a scriptwriter at a Chinese TV company. It was around February or March.

For over a year now I’ve been self-employed. I’ve not had “work” to go to — an office which demands time obligation. I’ve had no schedule other than that fixed by my own internal compass (a hazy, inefficient compass). I don’t wake up to an alarm. I don’t fall asleep feeling guilty about the lateness of the time. And I’ve had a freedom both luxurious and, at times, incredibly burdensome and crushing.

I feel no desire to wax and shine the wonders of the freelance life or working for oneself. If you want one of those crass, “inspiring” articles about “quitting the office job” to go freelance, please go read one of those.

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The summer wanes — Wednesday, 26th August, in Beijing

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I’ve been busy these past weeks. I finished up my teaching job. I was hired to teach journalism and writing to Chinese employees of a multinational company. Designing the course was a full-time consideration, and delivering it was a lesson in teaching effectiveness.

I enjoyed the challenge though. And the fee from the project will help me to travel the remainder of this year.

I’ve decided to abandon my rented accommodation in Beijing. I would have had to shell out for three months’ rent money at the end of September (a lot of rents are paid in this way here), meaning the money I earned from the teaching would have simply evaporated, all for the privilege of residing in Beijing for another three months.

Instead I will take that money and travel. I have destinations in mind. One option is to make my way around the country and check in with various friends. I am also hoping to go to Taiwan, a place I first visited in 2009 and which I enjoyed. I will continue freelancing as I move. And opportunities to do so are not unencouraging.

Another milestone occurred recently too (the first is the journalism teaching which I had not done before), and that is I got my first ever lead story for a national newspaper, their website showing a story I’d written up top.

Apologies for the crowing, but in a year that’s had some troubled times for me, I think I’ll take a celebratory moment. These kind of milestones are what journalists live for.

It’s still hot, but I can feel the summer’s wane. The days now are just slightly less sultry than before. Not that I can complain, the weather now is great: blue skies and sunny; as the government issued orders to close surrounding factories, all for a parade to come the beginning of September.

Money is still very tight, as I await a whole bunch of freelancing money to come in. Bottlenecks such as these are something a freelancer has to do their best to eliminate.

But all in all, it’s a fairly satisfying end to an otherwise mediocre summer. But I’m taking the long view.

Written by Lu-Hai Liang

August 26, 2015 at 1:16 pm

Trying to cobble together a sustainable freelance writing career

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I have been somewhat busier recently. After I came back from Nepal, I was fortunate enough to be commissioned for several stories. This helped with my sanity, sense of self-worth, and, yes, my precarious finances.

I was commissioned by a couple of local magazines, both of which are English language, but companies that call Beijing home. One of those commissions was about Nepal which I was gladdened by as I was not actually expecting too much from that sojourn (it was paid for by a mysteriously well-funded monk). Otherwise that trip was an experiment in micro-reporting and micro-publishing.

There have been a few other commissions also, as well as a project to teach journalism for a corporate client, to their employees, which should be interesting. I have always liked the idea of being more involved with pedagogy and the idea of improving as an educator and teacher greatly appeals — I will have the opportunity to design the classes and deliver them.

As a freelancer, it’s only really now that it became searingly clear to me that in order to succeed, this is what it will have to come down to. Scrabbling, searching, hustling. Cobbling together a variety of income sources and maximizing the skills that I have, marketing and utilizing the full extent of what I have to offer.

But enough talk about business, enough talk about finances and money. It only corrupts free-thinking and well-being. But I do have an inkling that if one figures out how to make freelance work for themselves, then surely freedom awaits. Along with misery and joy. (One cannot have one without the other, after all).

Summer is in its full-blown heat now although the sense of summer of course is still in its infancy. There have been times recently where I have felt the tremendous weight of loneliness and isolation. Freelancing can be like this. And jadedness can result. But I had a great week last week which helpfully expunged that.

4 awesome things about being a freelance journalist and 4 terrible downsides

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The Awesome 

The freedom

Go to North Korea? Sure, why not. Write about entrepreneurs in China just because it interests you and you might learn something and get paid for it? Of course, yes! So take a 20 day trip to Thailand. Take a break. Think about things you want to do, the “bucket list” kinda stuff. Do them. Write about them. Get published; get paid.

The variety

Here are the five most recent articles I’ve had published:

The ability to live vicariously

From doing journalism, I’ve learnt that it’s possible to move abroad to a foreign country and in two years start and sell off a business. I know it’s possible to live on a farm in Wales and just make videogames for a living. I know what it’s like being a tour guide in North Korea. How tough and incredible it is being a British charity worker in Burma. What it’s like to travel southeast Asia first as a freelancer, then as a correspondent. The methods and tactics of how to catapult yourself into becoming a media brand and a TV chef in China. I know all of that simply because I have a good enough reason to search someone out and talk to them.

The ability to give it all up should you want

‘Cause maybe one day you’ll want the opportunity to work in a normal environment. Those jobs don’t come for free though, so you’ll have to be eagle-eyed and work hard at making sure you’re so good they can’t ignore you.

The downsides

The bittiness

A piece there, a feature here, a report there. Freelancing can be piecemeal work and can sometimes leave you frustrated. Where’s my opus? you wonder. Where’s the work that I’ll be known for or at least acclaimed for in the short term? Staff writers have a greater chance of becoming known, to be appreciated and perhaps find fulfillment. But to be honest, the antidote is to start writing books. That’s the ambition, always.

The small-time salaries

It is possible to make a decent salary from freelancing alone, although you’re just as likely to see a shooting star in the morning. I’ve copped out a little bit by having another job which makes me about 40% more than what I earn from freelancing. This gives me leverage in what I want to write about: the freedom. But unless you have a very diversified freelance portfolio, are very productive or a star writer then it’s quite hard to be a wealthy freelance journalist.

The seeming lack of progression

If you work at a newspaper, progression is more obvious. The editor starts you off writing short pieces, nibs, round-ups, before giving you meatier reporting gigs, and then you become better known and start writing weighty features. When you’re freelance, progression is less clear. How do you move up as a freelancer? It’s a question I’m trying to answer. I’ll let you know when I’ve found it.

The overabundance of freedom

If you’re going to be a successful freelance journalist you’d better make damn sure that you’re organized, diligent and disciplined, independent and in possession of a giant’s store of initiative. For every well-chosen break or indulgent stroll in the park you should be working on the weekend pushing out that article or making plans in your “free time” to meet up with sources and always, always trying to make new contacts and rooting out possible stories.

Freelancing in Beijing: 6 month update

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I am going to North Korea at the end of this week. I’m very excited because it’s a country not many can say they’ve been to; one of the most unusual nations on the planet.

I will be going partly for journalistic reasons. It’s a gamble  – although the travel company taking me says my safety is ensured – as the trip is expensive and I’m pretty sure I won’t earn it all back by selling off the related stories.

But hey, I’m young, without responsibilities and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime sorta thing. I’ve got several commissioned articles in the pipeline, with the potential for travel. I am fulfilling one of the aims I had for this year which was to combine freelancing and travel.

I am more or less financially stable now, with an increased salary from the TV company where I work. This month and the next I have more freelance work too. The freelance work does seem to come in batches; I’ll have periods where it’s bit of a desert, and then come sudden oases of plentiful commissions. I will resolve to try and make £300, at least, a month from freelancing. But what’s nice about having the other job is that I can do it for my own benefit rather than purely for financial survival.

As for my non-professional life, Beijing is starting to feel like my new home. I enjoy the social scene and the ease of going for lunch or dinner. It’s affordable and so very tasty. Let me emphasise again: the ability to eat out and hang out is unrivaled by what I could afford back in England.

It’s much warmer now. Winter is long and harsh here and the warming days changes drastically the atmosphere of the city. I will be soon be moving out of my tiny, tiny rented room into something bigger. Upwards!

The next three months – May, June, July – I will lay down more plans for travel. And I guess I’ll continue writing and selling. I am itching to do something big and to really venture beyond my comfort level, to tackle a large project or subject. I haven’t decided exactly what yet (I have a few ideas) but before this year is out I definitely want to try.

In my experience, taking a calculated risk in the creative field usually pays off – whether it’s professionally funded or led by personal motivation, the profit of the experience is invaluable. In my view, creativity is defined by passionate risks.