Living The Freelance Writing Life

Freelance Writing Life

Many people tell me they can’t be self-employed for two reasons: money and discipline. They are afraid to be without the regular, weekly paycheck. My feeling is that if you cover #2, the discipline, you’ve covered #1.

If you have any hope of surviving and thriving as a freelance writer, discipline must become your mantra. I love Donnie Deutch’s The Big Idea. In my opinion, for freelancers, DISCIPLINE is a big idea. Everything else revolves around it.

I’ve been a freelance writer for about 25 years, and the process hasn’t changed much, even if the markets and styles have changed. What you write about, and who you market it to, will always change. HOW you do it will EVOLVE. It’s a mere nuance, to be sure, but it’s a vital concept.

Every year, I go through my goals and tweak the plan. Just last week, I started a major overhaul. It’s time. I push the concept of specializing in writing. Well, when I say “what you write about will change,” this is what I mean. I’m at a different stage of my life than I was just five years ago, so it’s time to re-evaluate my specialties.

I’ve added a few and deleted a few. Some I’ve found I’ve drifted away from but long to be involved with again. This pen to paper evaluation is very tactile, and that’s an important point, too. This very act of going through this physical and mental process helps me define my wants, needs and marketing plans. So, my writing goal in the vague sense is always to expand my markets and improve my style. What has EVOLVED is the way I plan to achieve those goals. That involves getting to know me as well as the current marketplace.

Devising a Plan

Here is the boiled down, extracted version of what it takes to be successful as a freelance writer for the long haul:

LOOK IT UP. Regardless of what your writing day looks like, set aside time, even if it’s break time, to take a peek at new markets. I get free newsletters emailed to me all the time full of updated or new markets. These may or may not have listings in Writer’s Market. I copy and paste the interesting ones into my own word processing document which I print out every so often as an adjunct to Writer’s Market and my paying newsletters.

I tend to do this first thing in the morning with my coffee, or at the end of the day when I’m winding down For me, it serves to put me in the right frame of mind. I see all of the opportunities, and I want to get at it. It’s almost like putting together that “to do” list people are famous for. It gives you new information, jogs your thought process to think of markets and tactics you may have overlooked, and it functions as a motivational tool.

JUST DO IT. I’ve written an entire column on the muse and why you will FAIL if you rely on that to get the job done. I won’t repeat it all here. I’ll expand on it a bit to include specifics the how to’s if you will.

Even as I am in the process of coming up with the overall marketing plan and searching out new markets for my work, I stop the process to write. See, no magic there. Write. Each day must have time set aside to put words on paper which are either a creative endeavor for a long-term project, or an article or a query letter.

We’ve all met those people who will endlessly rearrange the furniture in their new shops or design one long-term budget after another for the new business. What they don’t do is the job at hand. All of the planning does you no good if you never get around to doing the work.

Set writing goals. Generally, I hear people give the 1,000-word mark, and that’s very do-able when you are doing other things. If you are ONLY in the writing process, strive for more. Think double. The point is: make it quantifiable. You want to be able to see something/hold something in your hands at the end of the day. It’s not only for production purposes. Even if you are not at your most creative, it forces you to keep at it. For most people, that still has to be learned. You have to produce even when you wake up thinking you are not at your best. Just seeing those words come out will reinforce the concept that you are doing this for real, that you are working this like a business. So, while you may wake up in one frame of mind, seeing the production may give you the push to keep going.

Make Some Noise

BE YOUR OWN CHEERLEADER. Network. You may not think you’d have to do this as a freelancer; moreover, perhaps part of why you got out of the day-to-day job world is because of you tired of the power lunches and happy hour parties where you had to network and make small talk. As a freelancer, you’re not part of the coffeemaker or water cooler scene, so it will be vital for you to get out there. Think of your writing interests, then find organizations that fit those interests. Then get involved. Attend meetings, dinners, etc. Odds are you will not get an article assignment from any of this, but you may get requests to do newsletter editing or public relations or news release work. After all, you’re an insider with the same interests who just happens to have a skill in writing. The real benefit is that you will be privy to breaking information in your field of expertise. You’ll be there when many great ideas are created ideas you can take to the bank.

Look beyond organizations that relate only to your specialties. Your local Chamber of Commerce is a must do, but think beyond that. Civic organizations (Moose, Kiwanis, etc.) and school organizations will always be a good way to improve your business, your community, and your spirit. I’ve written many articles aimed at teaching entrepreneurs how to market on the cheap. One main principle is to become part of the community in which you live. At one point I wrote and edited a newsletter for a local police organization. I edited and scanned work to create a literary magazine for my daughter’s elementary school class. I did it because this is how I live my life naturally. I would have done this sort of thing because writing is the best asset I can contribute to my community groups. That these efforts may help my business is a great plus.

SELL, SELL, SELL. Most writers hate the idea of becoming salesmen. If you can’t sell your work, however, how will you survive and pay the bills? This is a must-do proposition. When I first started out, I was rejected often. My record was three rejection letters in one mail delivery. I say that glibly now, but I was despondent then. Worse, rejections put me into a very unproductive funk. When I opened that all-too-thin envelope from a publisher, I would mutter to myself, walk out of my office, and put on the stereo or TV. Then a funny thing happened: I gave birth.

At some point, I realized I would have a child care bill to pay. It was a crushing weight-and a blessing. I would panic with each rejection. I didn’t have the luxury of listening to my stereo for the afternoon. Instead, I set up a mind game with myself. Each time I got a rejection, I put a tough plan into place. For every rejection I received, I had to get two more query letters out that day.

In terms of a real learning experience, I think this has been the single most effective lesson I’ve ever learned in my career. This wasn’t just a mind game after all. It was a marketing effort in disguise. In the end, I was doubling my marketing efforts. And that means sales. I started to sell a lot of ideas. I’ve played with many variations of that mind game over the years to keep myself going. Each time, I’ve had the same result.

KEEP A STEADY STREAM. As with the above, and with the advice on adding research and consistent writing into each daily work routine, learn to vary your tasks so you will always have something in the works. You may have 10 query letters on 10 different ideas circulating and you feel very confident that most of these will sell. Given that, you may not want to develop more query letters, especially ones that are time dated. Suppose you get the thumbs up on all of them at once. You may not be able to meet the deadline, so although it’s a good problem to have in theory, you don’t want to risk overbooking your work. So, change it up. Spend an hour a day writing queries, another hour on a work of fiction you want to complete in the long term and another hour towards a current article that isn’t due right this minute, but will be needed soon. If you have editing work, throw that in to break up the day. Unless you are on a tight deadline on a project, odds are you will be more productive if you take breaks throughout the day. In this case, however, your “breaks” will not be real lapses in work, just a change of scenery, in a manner of speaking.

Take Advice

LISTEN UP. When you get a rejection, and you’re lucky enough to receive a personal note or any sort of explanation. If you see a trend in why your work is turned down (not enough anecdotes, for example), take the advice. You don’t have to agree with the opinion. You don’t have to heed the advice either. In the end, however, these are the people who will sign your check, so you will have to learn to pay attention or lose out.

CONTINUE TO GROW. The fastest way to fail is to do nothing, right? In the freelancing field, that can be expanded to include doing the “same old, same old.” To start, writers are a curious lot, so unless we stretch our muscles, we’re going to wither creatively. This is where I get into more of those mind games I mentioned before. I have always been a proponent of long-term planning for my personal and professional life. Over the years I kept a 5-year, 1-year and 1-month plan. The 1-month would include current deadlines, as well as time set aside towards long-term projects and goals.

As part of the 5-year plan, I look at the markets I tend to sell to regularly and see them as the foundation for “where I want to be when I grow up”. This is the eye I use every time I look at the long-term plan. I then set attainable goals, staying away from stating very general things. For example, my 5-year won’t say anything to the effect of: “Make a six-figure income from writing by the end of 2010.” Even though I break down this sort of major goal into tiny bites in the 1-year and 1-month goals, this six-figure chant is one of those things that will weigh heavily on my mind and even hinder me on those days when I get a few rejections at once.

Does this mean I don’t think that way? No, never. In fact, that may be a single statement taped inside the binder or notebook you keep your goals in, but it’s more of an inspirational.

What I put in this 5-year plan, on the professional level, includes the way I want to expand my business. For example, I might list: “Break into the men’s magazine market.” That leaves a lot of wiggle room and allows me to narrow things down in the 1-year plan. It also moves me towards higher-paying markets.

Just as you will learn to develop items for your long-term goals that will spur you on to increase your output as you grow your business as well as your bank account. In addition, you will also devise your own productivity joggers and methods for ensuring discipline to your craft.