Even in the best of economic times, most writers are not paid much. But some professional freelancers in the UAE are finding ways to carve out careers. Companies looking to downsize their marketing staff often turn to freelancers to write brochures, website copy, press releases and other material. "As businesses scale back they may choose to start bringing projects inhouse that they used to outsource to freelancers or agencies," says Peter Bowerman, an Atlanta-based freelancer who runs wellfedwriter.com.
"If these businesses have been using more expensive ad agencies or graphic design firms to execute their projects, they may realise that hiring a freelance writer/designer team allows them to execute those same projects for a fraction of the price." Ally Pace, a professional freelancer who started her career as an advertising account handler in the UK, says she has turned it into a lucrative career in the UAE.
"I've been freelancing in the UAE for just over two years and on the whole, business has been great," Ms Pace says. "In my first year of freelancing I equalled my previous annual salary and yet only worked a three-day week." Ms Pace says the prices commanded by freelancers and quality of writing offered by them can differ greatly in the UAE. "I've seen copywriters advertise their services for as little as Dh75 (US$20) per hour," she says. At the other end of the scale, international agencies in the UAE often charge between Dh450 and Dh600 per hour for the services of middleweight copywriters.
Creating a niche market is one of the best ways to thrive, says David Grunfeld, the managing director of Prose Solutions, a specialised English and Arabic writing and translation firm that regularly employs more than 50 freelancers in the region and around the world. "To make it in this business, it helps to specialise in a particular industry, such as financial or environmental issues," Mr Grunfeld says. "Sophisticated clients want writers who understand their businesses and the most effective way to speak to their target audiences."
But Mr Grunfeld adds that the standard of writing remains quite poor, even five years after he launched his firm. "There is still a need for talented and professional writers to communicate the great stories that are coming out of large and small organisations throughout the GCC." Knowledge of a specific sector greatly improves a freelancer's chances of being hired, says SAM Husaini, the managing director of the Abu Dhabi branch of IMPACT BBDO, a regional marketing group.
"If a client of ours needs a tourist brochure about a vacation island and someone knows the hospitality industry inside and out, that person could be useful to us," Mr Husaini says. Even in the best of times, freelancers often struggle to establish themselves. "I spent years writing unaccredited before I began freelancing," Ms Pace says. "This turned out to be a great investment of my time. Provide your services for free if necessary, whatever your skill set, until you have built up a good enough portfolio to warrant charging people."
Obtaining a freelance visa is not cheap. A visa, such as one obtained at Dubai Media City, does not require an Emirati partner but costs more than Dh24,500 a year, plus fees if applicable. And while the pay for freelancing can be excellent, there is a great turnover among writers and competition for work among them is intense. Mr Husaini says he knows many writers who would like to go back to office jobs with steady pay and assured work.
"At the end of day, a good number of freelancers turn out to be like a one-night stand for firms like ours," he says. "We would rather our clients have long-time relationships with our inhouse staff than take chances on unproven writers." firstname.lastname@example.org