Things I’ve Learned from a Freelance Writing Career

What’s on the iPod: I Will Wait by Mumford & Sons

I spent the week thus far deep in researching and outlining an article assignment. Normally, I know going in where the article is going, but when the editor suggested a two-part article, I had to retrace and rethink. I  have a handle on it now, which means it’s time to get interviews scheduled. That’s today’s job.

I had an offer recently — a tempting one — where I had that familiar angst. It was for a desk job, though the desk was still here at home. It was a full-time job with an actual W2. The pay was great, and I’d have to visit the office twice a month. The rest of the time I’d be working from home, sitting in this same comfy chair and owning my own work process.

I turned it down.

While it was a great offer, it wasn’t ideal. The hours were unsavory (“certainly not 40 hours a week, but not 80 hours, either”). Plus, I’d have to lose a lot of contacts and clients and relationships I’d worked hard to get. I couldn’t work on my own projects, nor could I expect my weekends to be anything but more work.

Deal breaker. Right there.

That’s a point we get to in our writing careers — the point of discerning not what is a great offer, but what is an offer we can live with. While it may seem on the surface to be a perfect fit, there’s usually one tiny detail that grabs hold of your brain and won’t let go. Once you do this job for a while, you find it much easier to recognize the signs.

In fact, time at this writing life gives a better perspective on a lot of things. Here are a few things I’ve learned from my freelance writing career:

Intuition is best heeded. In every instance where I listened to my gut, I came out happier for it. If you have even a thread of uncertainty, tug hard on the thread and see what unravels. Talking it over with others may help, but don’t discount your instincts. Your spouse, partner, friends are all bringing their own experiences and prejudices into their advice. You are the only one who knows what your gut is telling you.

Advice should be viewed with a critical eye. I’ve had lots of people tell me how I should be doing this differently or how their way is the best way. It sure is — for them. What works for Jane doesn’t always work for Joe. If someone told you the only way to get business was through cold calling and you hated using the phone, what does that tell you about your success with that advice? If a statement starts with an absolute — must, only, etc.–chances are it’s already false.

No other business is exactly like yours. Hence the reason all advice won’t work for you. It may take time to find your sweet spot — a marketing or work process that really works for you — but it may turn out looking like nothing else you’ve seen. To me, that’s a successful fit.

You can say no. Your world won’t crumble and your wallet won’t shrivel up and die if you turn down something that doesn’t fit. Why would you take the gig paying $5 an article when there are plenty of writers making $500+ for the same work?

Rejection of your proposal/price/ideas is okay. A prospect who doesn’t mesh with you on any level isn’t your client. It’s not a reflection of your talents or your pricing necessarily, but more a reflection of someone else’s budget or incompatibility.I’ve had plenty of prospects over the years who couldn’t afford my price, didn’t like my proposals, or didn’t get my ideas. Clearly, we weren’t simpatico. And it’s okay. For every one client you don’t gain are scores more who may fit perfectly. Don’t get hung up on it.

An unprofessional client does not an unprofessional writer make. It really doesn’t matter how the client behaves or talks to you. It’s out of your control. The only thing you can control is your own response and behavior. If they’ve just called your pricing ridiculous or said you couldn’t write your way out of a paper bag, that should mean one thing to you — this isn’t someone you want to work with. Stay with the high road. Always.

A good work/life balance is essential. I may have been pushed onto this path, but it’s one I had wanted for years. I have a great balance of interesting work and down time. I’ve learned to protect it like it’s a child. A fulfilled writer is a more productive writer. Who wouldn’t want to have time off, have space in the day to work on personal projects, and create a business and career that fits just so?

What things have you learned from your freelance writing career?
What was the toughest lesson? How did you come to a point where you could do what’s best for you?

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  • Jennifer Mattern March 6, 2014 at 1:27 pm

    Congrats on making the right decision for you Lori. That freedom and flexibility we've not only built, but earned, as freelancers is pretty darn valuable. I can't even imagine what an employer would have to offer for me to be willing to give that up. While I'm sorry it didn't work out, I suppose there's always the chance they'll bring you on for freelance assignments. So win-win in the end. 🙂

  • Cathy Miller March 6, 2014 at 1:58 pm

    I may have shared this before. My Aha moment came at an industry event where I helped assemble a panel of speakers discussing freelancing.

    One panelist owned a writing business. He talked about how he reserved a year's salary when he made the leap from corporate to freelancing. He stated, "I figured, worst case scenario, if the freelancing did not work out, I could always go back to corporate."

    My heart lurched. I knew I could not do that. This is not to say corporate life is bad for everyone. I earned a great living in corporate for over 30 years. It simply was no longer the right life for me.

    You nailed it, Lori, when you talk about figuring out what is best for you. And that is going to change throughout your life.

    It is difficult to shut out the noise of every other person's opinion to hear the only voice that really matters. Your own.

    Congratulations for listening to that important voice.

  • Meryl K. Evans March 6, 2014 at 2:10 pm

    Agree with Lori, Cathy and Jen! Reminds me of the Pajama Diaries comic from Feb. Main character reflects on the fact it's been a decade since she went freelance. Her biggest fear isn't getting gired, losing an account or losing money …

    It's going back to an office. Alarms, commutes and pantsuits *shiver* 🙂

  • Yolander Prinzel March 6, 2014 at 3:41 pm

    Great post, Lori. The point about the gut is a HUGE one (hahahaha). Recently, I turned a blind eye my gut. I told myself that I was being a baby about something and ignored my fabulous paunch. As you can imagine, I'm paying for that now–big time. Someday I'll stop doing that, I'm sure of it. Right?

  • Lori Widmer March 6, 2014 at 3:45 pm

    Jenn, exactly. I'm too much in love with a balanced existence. It wouldn't work too well.

    Well said, Cathy. That voice is the one that should matter most, yet it's the last one we consider sometimes.

    Oh gawd, Meryl. The word "pantsuits" made me shiver, too! Ack! Give me jeans and t-shirts any day!

    Right, Yo. I'd love to know why we as a species ignore intuition as much as we do. But I think once we open the door to trusting our guts (big or otherwise :-)), decisions are easier to make.

  • Gabriella F March 6, 2014 at 8:20 pm

    Oh, good for you, Lori! Yes, it's all about what's best for you; others can't tell you what would work for you.

    I'd have been turned off immediately by the hours burden and the weekend work. I feel like I've earned the right to set my own schedule, and if I had to go back to working on other people's schedule–and, gasp, in an office!–I might spontaneously cumbust.

    Congrats on trusting your gut. You won't regret it.

  • Lori Widmer March 6, 2014 at 8:37 pm

    Gabriella, maybe you've unlocked the key to that spontaneous combustion theory…. 😉

  • Gabriella f March 7, 2014 at 2:22 am

    Did I really misspell combust????

  • Lori Widmer March 7, 2014 at 1:11 pm

    ROFLMAO! I never even noticed. 🙂

  • Meryl K. Evans March 7, 2014 at 1:49 pm

    Also don't get why more companies don't encourage work/life balance. Working long hours is not a badge of honor. I admit I used to do that early in my career — but it made no difference. No one was impressed. We're more efficient when we're rested.

    I was looking up to find out why an actress left a show. Apparently, the crew worked 100 hours, seven days a week. Don't blame her.

  • Lori Widmer March 7, 2014 at 2:04 pm

    That makes no sense to me either, Meryl. I remember talking with a client years ago. I'd waited for him to call for a month. At that point, you figure they're not coming back, right?

    Wrong. He showed up on a Friday afternoon via conference call with his team and told me all he needed. Then he said "Let's talk on Monday."

    I said, "Sorry, I'm not in the office next week."

    His response: "Didn't you just have a vacation?"

    Did I say that? Hmm. It's true that it was a vacation, and that I had taken time off two months prior, but where is that A) his business, and B) up for discussion?

    This was the guy who sent emails out at midnight. No thanks. Don't demand that same kind of stupidity from me, buster.

    I don't blame that actress for leaving, either. That's insane.