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.
I 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.
I’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
This 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
On 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.
Finally, 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