Daniel Milroy Maher, Freelance Writer and Editor: On How to Get Going and Asking for Help

Posted by

Ana Wang

Published on

July 1st 2020

Daniel Milroy Maher (@danielmilroymaher) is a fresh departure from some of the other people we've interviewed here at SuperHi. Working primarily as a writer and editor, his bread and butter isn't the design or code work, but the spaces in between: the cultural discourse, the celebration of designers and artists, the work it takes to create a space for creatives to thrive. Join us as we dive into freelancing, from the other side.

What do you do and what kind of clients do you typically work with?

I do a few different things, but my freelance work is generally writing-based. My clients are often magazines and publishing companies such as It’s Nice That, Dazed & Confused, VICE, Freunde von Freunden etc.

Can you describe your journey into the world of freelancing? Was it accidental or did you make a conscious and proactive decision?

While I was studying journalism at Kingston University, I realised that I needed to start pitching articles to publications and building my portfolio. These were all carried out in a freelance capacity, and for many writers and journalists freelancing is commonplace. That said, it has never been my sole source of income. Woe is me, but I often feel that freelance writing is one of the tougher gigs. It’s no secret that many publications pay their writers, especially the external ones, comparatively little to other roles. That’s not always the case of course, but it is something that I have noticed and something that may be, in part, the reason that I haven’t gone full-time.

How long did the transition take for you and how did you prepare for it?

I wouldn’t say there was a clear transition into freelancing, I just kept pitching articles and slowly building a network. Nor was there any real preparation, but there was definitely a learning curve. You realise that, despite the purported freedoms of freelancing, there are still many restrictions – tight turnover times, limited budgets etc. It’s not all doom and gloom though, and there is a good feeling of being able to have more control over your schedule and day-to-day work – it’s implementing and sticking to that schedule in the first place that is the tricky bit!

What’s your day-to-day like now and how has that evolved over time?

I have three different work modes at the moment: I still spend time pitching articles to publications and contacting companies that I would like to work with; I also do quite a few short-term contracts as an editorial assistant, copywriter and editor; and finally, I have a part-time job on the side to bolster my income.

So, depending on the day, I’m either at home working at my desk, in an office or studio somewhere during one of the aforementioned contracts, or I’m not far from my house doing my part-time job. I do like the variety, but at times I definitely crave a more focused routine. It can be hard to shift from working in one capacity to another. Writing is like anything else, it takes practice to get better and it grows rusty when you stop for too long, so it can be hard to feel detached from it by other responsibilities.

What has been the most effective way that you’ve gotten clients? And what have you tried that just didn’t work for you?

I’d say the most important part of getting clients is to know each client well. Do your research, take some time to really understand the company and what it’s about before you make contact. It really helps to know what kind of work the client is looking for and make sure you can explain how you fit into that. When I contact a company and I’m able to communicate my understanding of its ethos and output, I get much better results than when I rush it and don’t really grasp the finer details.

Would you ever go back to a job? If so, what would those circumstances be?

Definitely. If I find an opportunity with a company that I truly respect and I can see room for growth there, then I would happily take a full-time job. As I said, part of me craves being able to dedicate myself to a single pursuit as opposed to juggling lots of little pieces.

I would hope to carry on freelancing on the side however. I think that’s feasible for most creatives as long as you make the time for it and it doesn’t impact your primary job. If there’s a subject I want to cover or an individual I’d like to interview, I’d still like the ability to pitch that in my own time without worrying about my other work.

What’s your biggest challenge as a freelancer and how are you or how have you worked to overcome that?

I think the biggest challenge as a freelancer is just getting going. You need to build a network, and that often takes years; and while you’re doing that you need to learn how to market yourself and interest people in what you do and how you do it. Then there’s the financial aspect to consider – how much should I charge and how do I keep myself afloat? It takes a while to figure all of that out.

In terms of overcoming these challenges, I believe the most important thing is to ask for help. Most freelancers have friends who also freelance, and I’m sure some of them will have answers to your questions. There’s no shame in acknowledging that you don’t know what you’re doing or how to get to where you want to be. Having these conversations on a frequent basis is a huge help and it will usually provide you with a sense of clarity. Just remember to pass on that advice later down the line!

Aside from client work, do you work on any other projects or work? If so, could you tell us a bit more about why and how those projects came to be?

I’m the co-founder and editor of SWIM Magazine, an annual art and photography publication. A couple of friends and I started SWIM about four years ago and since then it has grown to involve a few more. We’re a group of writers, photographers and graphic designers – a good mix of skills for making a magazine.

The initial driving force behind SWIM was quite simple: we just wanted a space to exhibit the work of friends. Over time, we began to envision a space which we could dedicate to both our friends and artists that we have always admired. This idea of our mate from down the road being on the page next to a globally-recognised figure became part of the magazine’s identity. We wanted SWIM to be a level playing field for emerging and established artists.

Freelancing is on the rise but it’s also something that can be volatile and unpredictable. Do you think the future is freelancing? What kinds of things do you think need to change in order for more people to become successful as freelancers?

From my experience it seems as though more and more companies are outsourcing work to freelancers. I guess this requires less commitment from them and they can pick and choose the right people for the job. This means that there is more work for freelancers, but there is also more competition for that work.

With so many people transitioning to freelancing these days, I think it’s crucial that we communicate with and look out for one another. As mentioned, there will naturally be more competition for jobs, but this can be offset by better resources for freelancers and a sense of camaraderie. Though it can feel like a dog–eat–dog world out there, and though some people may will this, I like to think that we’ll all be better off giving each other a helping hand.

What’s next for you?

More of the same at the moment! I’ll carry on reaching out to clients that I want to work with and continue to build my portfolio and fill it with subjects that I care about and people that I admire. And I’ll still be keeping an eye out for permanent roles with organisations that I’m interested in. The fourth issue of SWIM is on its way too, so that will take up a lot of my time. I’m also really enjoying writing about photography in particular, so I hope to develop that further.

-As told to Ana Wang, April 2020. Transcribed and edited for clarity.

Illustration by Adamastor