Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Should you do freelance work that's related to your day job?

Don't rock the industry boat unless you're self-employed.
I just completed an assignment for Alberta Venture on competitiveness issues in the construction industry in Alberta, with a particular focus on labour productivity and cost control strategies. This article, which will be appearing in the January 2012 issue of Venture, marked my first ever freelance assignment related to the construction industry – and industry in which I have been working as a communications specialist for about two and a half months.

I initially balked at the assignment when I was first offered it, thinking that it might be problematic vis-à-vis my day job. However, to my surprise, my employers actively encouraged me to take it on, thinking it would be good for both the company and for my own professional development. In terms of the latter, it definitely was educational for me, imparting me with a deeper understanding of the issues facing the industry than I previously had. As for the former, it remains to be seen if the article will result in any positive PR for my employers, but my boss was certainly happy with what I wrote.

Over the course of my seven years as a freelance writer, I have frequently been asked to write about topics closely related to my day-job activities. During my two and a half years at Native Counselling Services of Alberta, I produced a steady stream of articles on Aboriginal topics, most recently for the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Japan’s quarterly magazine. (See my November 1 entry.) During my years working for a Tokyo translation company there was considerable overlap between my freelance and salaried work life, although my day job at the time covered so many different domains, ranging from finance to industry to tourism, that enforcing a strict separation between nine-to-five and freelance topics would probably have meant giving up freelance writing altogether.
Nevertheless, any experienced freelancer knows full well that taking on freelance work that’s closely related to the work you do for a company or organization as a salaried employee is a delicate affair. At the best of times, taking on extracurricular work in your nine-to-five bailiwick can improve your stock significantly. However, as an employee there are invariably issues facing your company or organization that you don’t know about, and a well-meaning but uninformed treatise with your name on it can backfire disastrously. And in today’s wired world, you can be pretty much certain that whatever you write will get back to your employers.
Should you do freelance work that’s closely related to your day job? It really depends on the situation. Sometimes it’s not only fine but in fact beneficial to your employers, and they may well actively encourage it. However, it may well be that the political and business sensitivities of particular issues are such that the messaging needs to be tightly controlled – and as an employee you have no business writing about it outside your role as employee. At the very least, a policy of transparency with your employers is always the best solution. If you’re considering writing about your day-job subject matter, make sure you clear it with your employers beforehand – and be prepared for the fact that they may say no. A $500 writing gig is not worth a world of hurt at the office for months afterward.
As a freelancer, I have always made a point of being open with my employers about my extracurricular writing activities so as to avoid any unwelcome surprises on the part of the people I work for. In the era of Facebook and Twitter, everything gets around, and so will your writings. Even if what you’re writing about has nothing to do with what you do from nine to five, it can still ruffle feathers at work if you’re not careful.
Beyond this, here are my top five advantages and disadvantages of doing freelance work that’s related to your regular gig.
1. It’s easier.
You typically know more about the subject to begin with and contacts for interviews and so on are rarely hard to track down.
2. It’s faster.
Ready access to research materials and relevant contacts make it easier for you to complete assignments that require fast turnaround.
3. Clients are more likely to accept your pitches.
Writing about a topic which you also deal with in a professional capacity, with an official organizational or corporate job title to advance, is a definite selling point when pitching stories to magazines, newspapers and copywriting clients, increasing your likelihood of getting the work you’re looking for.
4. It can make you better at your job.
Especially if you’re a relative newcomer to a field (like myself in the construction industry), taking on relevant writing work is a great opportunity to get yourself educated and broaden your knowledge of a field with which you’re still becoming acquainted. And even if you’ve been working in a field for years, freelance work is a way of branching out of your regular focal points in the same way that a sabbatical allows an academic researcher to change gears in their research.
5. It can boost your professional reputation – and that of your employers.
A well-written article in a magazine or newspaper that’s consistent with your employers’ objectives but not so close as to be construed as a PR piece can do wonders for your personal relationships with your stakeholders and your overall esteem within the profession.
1. It can get boring.
If you’re singularly passionate about your field and want to do nothing but write about that specific topic, this point doesn’t apply. However, if you’re like me, you like some variety in your freelance life and being stuck writing about the same things that you write about 40 hours a week can get frustrating.
2. You run the risk of being seen as a one-trick pony.
Again, some writers market themselves as specialists in a specific field. However, if you’re marketing yourself as a diverse operator and want to be open to all manner of assignments, getting too embedded in a single field, especially if it’s also your day job, can be detrimental.
3. You may have a slanted viewpoint.
There are certain advantages that come with taking on a totally fresh topic, or at the very least something relatively new. Among other things, your viewpoint on it is likely to be relatively unbiased. Conversely, if you’ve been writing on a topic for years, it can be hard to divorce yourself from the filter through which you’ve come to see it. And even if you can see past said filter, you may not be in a position to do so for the reasons outlined in #5.
4. There is little – if any – margin for error.
While any writer worth their salt endeavours to be as informed and accurate as possible, we’re all human beings and we all make occasional mistakes. If you make a mistake in an article about a subject matter that you don’t have to deal with outside of that particular context, said mistake probably won’t follow you around like a bad cold. If it’s a topic wherein you’re expected to be an expert by virtue of your position with an organization or company, it’s a different story completely.
5. The reverse of Advantage #5 is equally true.
For all the reasons outlined in the introduction, you have to be very careful when writing about your day-job subject matter, at least when you’re writing something that will have your name on  it or will otherwise be traceable back to you. Fortunately I’ve never had to deal with a situation like this, as I’ve always been careful, but an imprudent article will at the very least cause bad blood at work – if it doesn’t actually get you fired.

Moreover, even if your employers are amenable to such extracurricular work, you may find that the sensitivities with which you are forced to contend place so many limitations on your work that you’re better off passing on it and doing something completely different. Again, it totally depends on the situation.
None of this, of course, applies if you have a bone to pick with your employers and are actively trying to undermine or sabotage them. But it goes without saying in this case that you’ll be using an assumed name and an IP address that’s not traceable to you. You may even consider a 90's-style zine that you photocopy and distribute by hand on a streetcorner. Just don't let your boss see you doing it.

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