The Key to Surviving as a Freelance Writer

beach clouds

Just like the ocean, freelance life has its own ebb and flow.

If you’re considering life as a freelance writer, you’re probably wondering if you have what it takes to make it. You may be worried that you aren’t experienced enough, talented enough, or connected enough to build and maintain a business. Those are all valid concerns, but they aren’t nearly as important as you might think. Truth is, there are plenty of experienced, talented, connected writers out there who never manage to pull off writing full-time for a living.

Would you like to know what holds them back? It’s one, small chink in their armor: an inability to adjust to the ebb and flow of the freelance writing life.

For anyone coming from a 9-to-5 background, a transition to the comparatively freeform existence of a self-employed writer can be quite a shock to the system. Set routine, regular hours, and easily predictable responsibilities are suddenly replaced with ad hoc projects, moving deadlines, and a working schedule that is anything but regular. And that’s not even getting into the new and somewhat irregular cash flow.

Even though the “freedom” that comes with working for yourself may have been the thing that drove you to make the leap into freelancing in the first place, it’s still a tough adjustment to make.

For many would-be freelance writers, the strain proves to be too much. These talented and capable writers crumble under the weight of new expectations and flounder without the familiar structure of a traditional work environment. I’m not judging. I’ve been at this for seven years, but I still have bad days … and sometimes bad weeks. It can be very scary if you feel like you’re operating without a safety net.

Thinking about my journey over these last seven years, there are five practices to which I attribute my ability to keep my business alive and profitable. They aren’t magic bullets, but I believe they have made a difference for me and might make a difference for you as well.

Diversify

diversifyI know this goes against all the advice you hear about “specializing” and “finding your niche,” but in my Real World experiences diversification has served me well. So far in my writing career, I have handled dozens of different kinds of assignments. On the marketing side of things, I have handled brand development projects, website copy, ebooks (on a multitude of topics), case studies, award show submissions, brochures, press releases, and so on and on. I have worked with non-profits, consumer brands, business-to-business brands, high-tech, start-ups, and Fortune 500 companies. On the journalism side, I have written feature stories, done interviews, and written dozens of columns. I have covered art, equestrian events, pet care, environmental issues, and many other topics. Soon, I hope to add more creative nonfiction and some fiction to my repertoire.

Could I have kept my business afloat if I had focused on only one type of writing or only one industry? I doubt it. To play devil’s advocate, would I be a more valuable resource (and therefore able to charge more money) today if I had chosen to specialize in a particular niche? Maybe, but it’s a big maybe. And I didn’t have the financial resources to hold me over until I built up that expertise and network, so that wasn’t a viable approach for me.

I prefer to “specialize” in the kinds of general skills that I wrote about in my Secrets of a Successful Freelancer posts – Part 1 and Part 2. These are the skills that have consistently brought me repeat work and referrals from my clients.

Plan Ahead

piggy bankI’ve read that the rule of thumb for anyone wanting to make the leap into freelance is to have a nest egg set aside to cover at least three months’ worth of expenses. To save yourself from undue stress, I’d recommend putting aside more than the minimum and maybe having a transitional part-time job as well.

I took the plunge into self-employment when I was in the middle of my divorce. It was less an act of courage than one of necessity and hope. I needed to work, but I didn’t want to put my daughter into daycare. Though I knew I wanted to write, I also knew that I didn’t (yet) have the skills I needed to dive right in. So, I built my initial freelance business on skills I did have. I began doing project management for a couple of web development companies.

The transformation from project manager to writer wasn’t immediate, but it actually took less time than I’d expected. In the meantime, I was able to avoid going back to a traditional job because I was able to pay my bills with my project management income and a little money that I’d set aside from the divorce settlement. It wasn’t much, but it was enough.

Make Hay While the Sun Shines

hay sunshineThis is a cliche that you’ll often hear on the lips of seasoned freelancers. We understand that there’s an ebb and flow to the work, and we know that if we’re going to make it we need to be prepared to jump when opportunity strikes, even if it strikes at an inconvenient time.

This means that sometimes you will curse another cliche – the one about how it never rains, but it pours. It’s true. Work does tend to come (and go) in cycles. You will likely find yourself going through periods of both drought and monsoon. It takes some getting used to.

It’s important to be able to buckle down and do the work when it needs to be done. Sometimes, this might mean working nights and weekends for a while. That’s just part of the gig.

Don’t Overlook Times to Play

dog playOn the flip side, it’s equally important to make time for play. The feast and famine cycle can leave you stuck in a scarcity mindset. This fear-based way of looking at things will compel you to fill every waking moment with work, even when you don’t have any deadlines.

It’s easy to work yourself into a frenzy so that you wind up missing out on the pleasures of “The Lull.” I still sometimes find myself creating work when I don’t have a billable project. I start to work on nice-to-have, organizing, or future projects. There’s nothing wrong with tackling these kinds of projects unless they suck up all your free time. When your workflow serves you a break, take it.

You need to rest in order to protect and nurture your creativity. As a writer, you’re not just churning out widgets, you’re using your imagination and logic to craft ideas, copy, and stories. You need more playtime than the average bear. Make sure you take advantage of the opportunity when it presents itself.

Believe

believeFinally, I’m going to come at you with a little “woo.” Over the years, I’ve had several fellow writers ask me how I manage to find consistent work and make money. Though I am able to share some tactical tips, my “big” secret is this: I believe.

Even when I’m in a lull that feels like it might go on forever, I always believe that the next project is right around the corner. And, you know what? It always is. Time and time again, I’ve been just about to succumb to an all-out panic when the phone rings or an email arrives, and I’m back in the saddle.

Surviving as a freelance writer requires many skills, but as I’ve said before, they aren’t always the ones you might expect. Though an excellent grasp of good grammar will serve you well, it is not as valuable as flexibility, adaptability, and a willingness to believe that you are going to make it. It may help to think of yourself not as a “freelance writer,” but as the hero of your own story. As the hero, you will need to be quick, clever, and always undaunted. And you will need to believe that even when things look bad, they will always look up again. That’s what it takes to make it as a freelance writer.

Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

Photo Credit for Diversify Tiles: LendingMemo via Compfight cc
Photo Credit for Piggy Bank: Charlie Leu via Compfight cc
Photo Credit Hay in Sunshine: Stephen Poff via Compfight cc
Photo Credit for Dog Play: ~K~ via Compfight cc
Photo Credit for Believe: chris runoff via Compfight cc

68 thoughts on “The Key to Surviving as a Freelance Writer

  1. I use freelance writing/ proofing/ copyediting as a supplement to my University work. There are a couple of suggestions I’d make (especially for someone such as myself more in the academic market) – the importance of an already visible online presence, and the willingness to loss lead. Unfortunately the latter is the only way to get repeat business and a good reputation. Sad, but true. You also have to make sure to quarantine your own writing. It is just as important.

    • Hi, Glen.
      Thanks for stopping by and for taking the time to leave a comment.
      I agree completely on the importance of an online presence (though I think that has many definitions) and the need to quarantine your own writing. I’m not so convinced about loss leaders being a requisite tactic. Though there are some assignments I take at a lower rate, I take them not for the money, but because I just enjoy the work. Those are my “hobby” pieces. But my core work is always billed at my full rate and I have still been fortunate enough to earn plenty of repeat business and referrals. I would guess it may be different in academic circles, but – happily – in the business world, I’ve been able to avoid those kinds of shenanigans.

      • Yes. I’ve certainly noticed a difference in dealings with the academic crowd v businesses looking to create content for sites and the like. As academics, we are really picky about track records. I think that’s where it stems from. But after that, dealings are much better and easier.

      • Each industry has it’s quirks. That’s another reason I like to play different fields – when I get sick of the quirks in one area, I can switch it up and work with a different team for a while. 🙂

      • Indeed each industry does have its quirks. I would hesitate to do things for free, because that creates a precedent and expectation. But there is a balance between that and the columns you are writing for exposure and visible portfolio of work. Anywoo, next goal is to be published in the fiction arena to move into that area as well. Perhaps another thing to focus on is developing a niche, or a strong point. I know mine is as a writing coach, alongside the copywriting/ proofing side of things. But again, that’s just the background I guess, but it’s something freelancers should consider to work from.

  2. I find the most difficult thing about writing is putting yourself ‘ in the zone’ to do it. Most of my other jobs I’ve been able to do with my eyes closed. But writing only comes to you when you are in the right brain space. and this space calls at odd times – two in the morning, while you’re at your other job, as you’re going to a baby shower…

    • First of all, I love your handle! 😉

      Second, your comment may inspire another post from me soon. While I also have experienced being “in the zone,” I have also realized that if you’re writing to make a living, you can’t wait to get in the zone. You have to get to a point where you can sit down and do the work whether you’re feeling the vibe or not. It’s painful, but true.

      I absolutely hear the siren call of inspiration at all odd times as well, but have trained myself to capture my epiphanies using whatever method is available and revive the line of thought when I’m back at my desk. Not easy, but do-able.

      We writers need to make the magic happen.

      • Sounds like an interesting post! It could produce some great discussion as to what works for individual writers. For my part, I find turning off music (…sadly – I love music, but it distracts me!) and clearing out some time with as few distractions helps a lot. It certainly isn’t pleasant to begin with, but most of the time it turns into something.
        Looking forward to reading your future post.

  3. Thank you so much for this brilliant post. It’s so timely for me – I’ve just set out as a freelance writer (like you, more through necessity than design) and it’s so hard to get started and stay focused. I’m really grateful for your good advice. 🙂

    • I am so glad if you found it useful and I hope your freelance journey gets off to a good start. Necessity will find a way. 😉 Good luck!

  4. Freelance writer Kelly James Enger suggests sending out a pitch a day. How much time would you say you spend on generating new projects and how do you balance that with making time to play?

    • I actually don’t pitch at all. The bulk of my projects are part of my marcom (marketing and communications) business and are primarily generated via my network which I’ve grown through social media and real world relationships. My magazine pieces have come to me via a much smaller network and grown through repeat assignments and referrals to other editors. To go back just a smidge on what I said in response to Glen about loss leaders, I do write a bi-weekly column for my local paper. It is a pro bono assignment that I do for the love of the work, but the exposure I’ve received has helped me get invitations to write for other regional publications.

      As I start to get more intentional about expanding my creative nonfiction and fiction repertoire, I will definitely need to start pitching more. I’ll keep you updated on how that goes! 😉

  5. Oh my God! You’re my freelancer writer queen! This is exactly what I wanted to hear. I just dove into freelancing and the only thing working for me is that I believe. The rest is all blurry. I have no idea how much or enough I need to apply, how to get organized etc etc! But yes I believe

    • Ha! That made me laugh. Thanks.

      If you’re just getting started, I definitely recommend that you read my “Secrets to Successful Freelancing” posts (Part 1 and 2 – linked in the above post). Those are my favorite tips for new freelancers and will hopefully help you get your head around getting things set up for success.

      Good luck!

    • And I’m so glad you were kind enough to take a moment to leave such a nice comment. Thank you!

    • Thanks, Andrea. Whatever you can do to ease the stress of your financial burden is a good idea. It’s hard enough to do our best work under ideal conditions, but it’s extra challenging if we’re so freaked out about paying the rent that we can’t even focus on our assignments. Safety nets (as many as you can set up) will help you put your mind at ease so you can focus on being creative and responsive.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Great article, Jamie! Great advice for anyone considering freelancing for a living.

    Just yesterday, I talked to an editor that I did a spec article for and got my first agreement for repeat business. I mentioned in the conversation that freelancers need to work diverse revenue streams to make it as a writer. That’s what I’m working on right now, while keeping my day job. Thankfully, it actually works for my current position for me to transition out slowly when I can finally make that jump. I’ll be keeping your advice in mind while I work through this process.

    • Hi, Stephanie! Nice to see you. 🙂

      Congrats on the repeat assignment. That’s a testament to the quality of your work and delivery. Nicely done! And hooray for someone else who believes in diversity. It’s not always a popular stance, but I recommend it strongly because it’s been such an asset to me.

      Sounds like you have an ideal transition underway. Good luck with it and happy writing!

  7. This is excellent! I’ve been freelancing sporadically for a long time and finally making the jump (serious leap of faith) to write full time. You aren’t kidding about the ebb and flow but I always take the time to play – even if it’s taking an hour to walk the puppies and play in the woods. Glad to know I’m not alone or crazy. Thank you! Reblogging, liking, following. 🙂

    • Ahhh … puppies and woods – two of my favorite things! 🙂
      Thanks so much for the kind and supportive words. Congratulations on making the leap. It does take faith, but I bet you’ll be pleasantly surprised once you get going.
      Oh … and you’re definitely not crazy.

      TKS for being here.

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  9. Great article! I’m just starting my career as a freelancer, the points you make in this article are really inspiring and a reminder that I can do this. Thanks!

    • Congrats! I love doing things like ordering business cards (or, my personal favorite – buying domains) to help nudge me closer to making my dreams a reality. There’s something empowering about taking concrete steps.

      Here’s wishing you all the most positive and exciting changes you could ask for.

  10. Hi Jamie, Thank you so much for this. Like many of others who have commented, I am trying to start a freelance career. Your post and the comments are extremely helpful and motivational. I’m going to read the other two posts you suggested right now! I will carry on believing!!

    • That’s so nice to hear. I’m glad you found it helpful and wish you all the best in your freelance work. Here’s to believing and making your dreams real. 🙂

  11. I have never been much of a writer, though I enjoyed it a little in Middle School but didn’t really do anything with it. In late 2011 I got back into it and I really enjoy it but I can’t seen to do anything with it. I think in such a logical way it blots out my creativity (if I ever had any). I can think of a load of things to write about when I go to write them I either get too detailed or I can’t seem to write what is needed to push the story forward and make it interesting. I would love to write for a living, but just lack the confidence. and I procrastinate.

    • I think those are common frustrations. The “cure” is different, or at least nuanced, for each writer; but for the most part it comes down to finding a groove that works for you. Not easy, but worth the effort.

  12. I needed a pick me up post – and this is a great one. I did contract academic work for a long time, but got tired of that. Variety and options are good idea. (It does take courage and determination.) You’ve done well – mainly because you worked at it.
    Great info. Will be back to re read and mull it all over…and get through all the comments. Thanks for the nice read

    • Wonderful! 🙂
      Happy to know I was able to provide a little pick-me-up. That’s the best.

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  14. Thanks for writing this! I’m just starting out and I feel a bit intimidated by how much I have to learn. It’s good to hear that diversification is key to surviving the business. Yes specialization can be helpful but stretching myself to do copy writing on one project and then writing a kids story the next one can only help me in the future.

    • I agree. Being adaptable can be a huge asset, especially when you’re starting out. Eventually, you may decide – once you’ve earned your wings, so to speak – to specialize a little more; but I know of many writers who continue to take on a variety of projects because they enjoy it. I hope to grow up to be like them. 😉

  15. Jamie! This post comes at a really great time for me. I fired my “boss” last year and have been trying to become a freelance writer. I just don’t know where to start. I have been writing for years and though I am more focused on romance novel writing, I have been trying to create a freelance career that I can be proud of. When I say try though, it’s more in my head, heart and spirit instead of with a resume or presentation for the work! Ugh! What’s wrong with me? I can’t seem to put myself out there, even though I blog a few times a week and continue to write books I think the public wants to read. I often feel I won’t reach my potential. I loved reading your key elements. It let’s me know that I have work to do still.

    • It sounds like you have a wonderful foundation to work with. That’s so important and helpful. We’re all on an endless quest to fulfill our potential. The truth is, however, that as long as we’re always learning and growing, our potential is expanding, so – really – if you’re doing it right you will never reach your potential. 😉

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  17. I truly appreciate this article. Though your piece assures me that I’m not the only one out there having a hard time as a freelancer/ghostwriter, I still worry about the length of time it would take to have a more secure income. What would you recommend for a writer who has worked in freelancing and ghostwriting for almost 10 years, but can only find clients by joining other sites like freelancer.com (who don’t pay enough for the amount of work you do)? Aside from blogging and tweeting on a constant basis, and returning works within 48 hours of completing them, how is a writer supposed to keep their clients for long-term projects and have them order their works through the writer’s site (which has higher but reasonable rates)?

    • For me, creating relationships with other writers and professional peers has been instrumental in both my education and building my business.

      I also recommend Peter Bowerman’s Well-Fed Writer site and books: http://www.wellfedwriter.com/

  18. Good point! Freelance is tough, and having the tips you’ve included here helps pave the way for those who would like to be there for the long haul. Great article!

  19. Thanks, Jamie. This one is a keeper for me. I love that you believe in yourself – and the rest of us too! I’ll gratefully take the “woo!”

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