An award-winning journalist on the common ways a freelance crisis will show up in your career and tips on how to bid adieu to it quickly.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a newbie in search of your first clip or a professional writer who’s been feeding her family through her writing work for a decade. At some point (it’s an annual event for me), you’re going to have to face a freelance writing crisis and reevaluate what you do, why you do it, and what motivates you to keep going.
Here are some of the most common ways a freelance crisis shows up, that you can look forward to meeting over your career and a few tips on how to bid adieu to it quickly and easily.
Freelance Crisis #1: Feeling burnt out
It’s probably the most overused term to describe a freelance career—feast or famine—but that doesn’t mean it’s not true.
I was speaking to my mother a few weeks ago and she asked me why I sounded so stressed. I told her I was stressed and busy because I had no work and I was working like crazy to get some. Of course, a week later, when we had pretty much the same conversation, I had to tell her that I was busy and stressed because I now had too much work.
When you’re working at this pace constantly with no breaks because you’re worried that slowing down could mean the difference between paying for rent this month with your income or your savings, burning out is common.
The solution: Rest! For freelancers, it’s tempting to do more, more, more when things aren’t going exactly the way we’d like, but that’s actually entirely counterproductive. Force yourself to take those weekends off, no matter how busy you are and go to the park like you promised your kid weeks ago. It probably sounds mad, but trust my experience on this: the more you learn to balance your work and your life, the fewer freelance crises you’ll have.
Freelance Crisis #2: Feeling overwhelmed
I prefer the feasts in the feast or famine situation, which means I often end up taking far far more than I can handle. This means that I have lots of experience in this particular freelance crisis, every month or so to be precise.
Writers are idea people, which means we have notebooks upon notebooks filled with ideas, character sketches, research material, and books to read. Before we parted ways, my agent was looking at four book projects of mine, in varying degrees of completion. FOUR. And that’s only the ones he’d seen.
I’m hardly the only writer who works this way.
The solution: Be organized. I can’t tell you not to work in this way, because what are you going to do when you get struck in the middle of the night with an idea that’s completely life-changing, not write it down? Of course you are. It would be irresponsible of me to tell you not to. So write it down in that notebook that’s already overflowing with the last flashes of inspiration. But come up with a system. Come up with a maximum number of projects that you’ll work on at one time.
When I start feeling overwhelmed, the best trick I know to make it go away is to pick one project at a time and make some small progress on it. Small bite-sized pieces at a time.
Freelance Crisis #3: Isolation
There you’ll be, happily going about your hermit-like days, you and your computer, no need for another human being in your life. You get boxes checked off on that to-do list, you write four 1,000-word articles in three days, and you’re happy. You like your solitude, you can’t understand what freelancers go on about complaining about lack of social life. This is perfect.
And then, just when you’re cocky and confident enough, you crash. Suddenly, you need a friend, someone, anyone, to talk to and there isn’t anybody.
You desperately cling to the postman and he doesn’t want to have anything to do with you, and you call that colleague from that first job you held right out of high school and she doesn’t recognize your name any more, and the writer who asked you out for coffee three months ago, well, you kind of offended her when you said that you actually prefer not to meet people when you’re in the middle of writing and she’s not keen to meet up with you any more.
The solution: Don’t offend people. Keep a balance. Make a coffee date each week with someone you like and trust. You don’t have to run for socialite of the year, but keeping in touch with people (even if it’s online) helps you feel like you’re a part of the community and have someone to gripe to when you’re going through a low period.
Freelance Crisis #4: Low income
This is one of those freelance crises that, if you let it, can break you.
Trust me, I know.
I’ve survived it at least half a dozen times and I know that I’m not done with it yet. Freelancing when you’d like to make money at it is an entirely different profession from freelancing when you need to make money at it, when your family’s survival depends on it. I’ve done both, and while I’d like to do the former, for most of my life, I’ve been in the latter position.
I’m currently the primary breadwinner for my household, so when my freelancing income dips, it’s not disappointment I feel, it’s full-blown panic.
The solution: There isn’t an easy one. You have to dig deep and ask difficult questions, and tougher still, you have to answer them honestly. How much do you need the money? Is this a temporary blip or is your income consistently low? Can you make up for it with marketing? Is it time to consider getting a full-time job?
Freelance Crisis #5: Falling out of love
Just like in a relationship, sometimes you fall out of love because of the little things (too much stress, you hate marketing, you’re always on call), sometimes it’s a big issue that you can’t over (there’s no money in literary fiction and that’s the only thing you ever wanted to write) or perhaps there’s just no reason at all except that you’re not in love any more.
You get up each morning and instead of being excited about your day, you can’t wait to finish the needful and go for a long walk or get a drink or do something, anything that isn’t talking to yet another client, write yet another word.
The solution: Like with money, this one needs a good hard think about whether this is a small hurdle or a long-term problem that you need to consider. If you’re just bored of what you’re doing, you could consider changing the topics you write about or finding a new direction, such as copywriting or books.
But if you loved writing and freelancing is making you hate it, are you better off writing in a stable environment at a regular job?
Crises are a regular part of freelancing and you’re going to have them every now and again. The questions you need to ask yourself are: Is this temporary? And if so, how can I fix it?
How to Pitch: Pitching guidelines for 200+ publications
We know that finding markets to pitch your story ideas, understanding what they’re looking for, and making sure they pay an amount you’re comfortable with can be the most time-consuming and frustrating part of the job. So we’ve tried to make it easier for you.
Here’s a list of publications, organized by subject and with a note of their pay rates, each with a link to their guidelines.
Natasha Khullar Relph
Publisher, The Wordling
Natasha Khullar Relph is an award-winning journalist and author with bylines in The New York Times, TIME CNN, BBC, ABC News, Ms. Marie Claire, Vogue, and more.
She is the publisher of The Wordling, a weekly business newsletter for journalists, authors, and content creators.
Natasha has mentored over 1,000 writers, helping them break into dream publications and build six-figure careers. She is the author of Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page and several other books.
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