9 Tips To Be A Freelance Writer And Stay Zen

Freelance writing is a tough gig that, whilst #incredibly #rewarding at times, can be fraught with introspection and anxious times. To try and assuage the doubts of the scribes out there on Planet Content, I’ve compiled this rather haphazard list about how to stay happy whilst doing this job that lends itself to the odd dark night (and morning) of the soul.

To be clear: this isn’t a guide about how to be a freelance writer or journalist per se, but more a cheat sheet for staying zen when the money’s dried up, no-one’s answering your pitches, and you’re sitting in your pants staring at a blank screen and wondering where the next idea will come from. So good luck, Godspeed, and put on some proper clothes and shoes: there, that’s my first tip…

Writing is a small part of writing

I used to struggle with the concept of what actually counts as work. When I started out, I considered an hour not actually pouring words into a computer file as peripheral. Wasted even. But writing – whether it’s writing a profile for The New Yorker or a pro bono charity pamphlet – is, at most, 50% about the actual writing. Research is work. Reading is work. Preparing for interviews is work. Transcribing is work. Emailing is work. Writing pitches is work. Invoice-filing is work. Invoice-chasing is work (sadly). Get to grips with this and you’ll feel much better about a day where you feel that you’ve not moved a project on.


Don’t let Editor feedback get you down

We’ve all got tender egos that can be challenged by having an Editor you admire leaving a tirade of Google Docs comments like, “Seriously?” or “This doesn’t feel right” or “Hmm, yeah, can we please turn up the lolz?” You have to develop a thick skin. Stop being romantic about it. If you’re really struggling with their takedowns, you can always lean on Hemingway’s old adage: “The first draft of anything is shit.”

Get a niche and be proud of it

People talk about finding your voice as a writer and that’s vital. But tangled up in this is your niche and, if you find the latter, you’ll have a hill to shout from. That niche could be anything. Weird is good! It could be Brutalist architecture, or Central American politics, or clogs.

Let your niche define you and be proud of it. Other weirdos who admire the culture and complicated and sometimes painful past of the lowly clog will arise from the sewers. These are your friends now and they will give you strength and maybe – if you’re freakishly lucky – one day commission you for that clogs longread you’ve been planning since university.


Learn to say no!

Saying no to a job isn’t easy, especially when you’re starting out and desperate for names or clients on your CV. But taking on a commission or job that you’re not suited for can be fraught with freelance wildfire: you’ll stress about it loads, possibly turn in something substandard, and risk burning your bridges with that person in the future.

Find a gang

I have never been good at networking that didn’t involve cheap tequila and a sheepish “last night got a bit out of hand” text the next morning. It probably slowed down my career, so don’t follow my lead and go to all the meet-ups and networking events you can.

Whatever your approach, you need to find people to bounce ideas off and vent and maybe even cry. Over the years I’ve accrued a few freelancer pals who I email for advice, meet up with occasionally and talk about the frankly sectionable things we’d like to do to clients who are late with their payment. I would very strongly advise joining these groups on Facebook – Journo Answers and Freelance Journalists UK. Whether you’re looking for an expert quote or ideas for a pitch, they’re invaluable sources of info and there’ll be literally thousands of people on there who have been in your shoes/sliders.


You don’t have to always be working

It’s the freelancer curse to think you always have to be working but this is exhausting and, at least in my case, has led to burnout on a few occasions.

If you have an unexpected two days gap in your calendar – and there’s food in the fridge – don’t always feel like you need to be pitching on something to fill that time. Turn on the OOO. Start Infinite Jest. Read 30 pages of Infinite Jest and put it back on the shelf for “another time”. People will respect you more if you are the sort of person that takes a Tuesday off to take a really long bath than take a job you’re too mentally exhausted to do and turn in a bad job.


The whole social media thing

I gave Twitter up a couple years ago because I found myself constantly comparing myself to other seemingly more successful people in my industry. It’s a poisonous, dispiriting, habit but surprisingly easy to fall into, especially when you’re having a bad month.

I started using it again because, personally, I think you need to have a social media presence. There are writers and journalists who don’t. But very few I know. In terms of seeing what’s going on in the world, reading the latest articles, finding sources, and (God I’m so sorry for this but it’s true) amplifying your personal brand, Twitter is key. Honestly I hope this changes because I basically hate it.

My tip? Delete the app. It broke the spell and I now just check it three (okay, five) times a day.

Take your time with pitches

There are times when a pitch is urgent and it’s necessary for you to drop it in an Editor’s inbox ASAP. But nothing will eat you like the thought that you ballsed up a potential dream commission/client because of a spelling error or poorly constructed pitch.

Write a pitch. Let the idea percolate for a day. Go for a long walk or a swim or climb something. Come back to it the next morning. Send it to yourself a few times. Send it first thing – ideally not a Friday – so it’s in the Editor’s inbox when they arrive. Please don’t have spelling mistakes in your pitch.


Find some nice clients and treasure them

Clients who persistently default on payments should, in my opinion, be trialled for hate crimes. Remove a hefty wedge of freelance rage by getting a lovely regular client (or two) who pays you on time, without being prompted by a series of passive aggressive emails. (Also, in case you didn’t know, the better bucks are rarely in editorial.)

I have some people that I do copy stuff for – it would be remiss to not say that one of them is publishing this blog – and knowing there is steady money coming in makes my life better in every way. So my advice is simple: find a nice, reliable client and work hard for them. Not rocket science, tbh.

Get a dog

Yes, officially this is 10 but we needed a way to shoehorn some doggy pictures into this. So get a dog. Or a cat. Or something that is sentient and furry and will distract you when you’re stressed and won’t judge you when you get an email from a client saying you wrote “you’re” rather than “your” in a sub-head. Or when you turn up to work – the lounge, their bedroom – in just a shirt. It’s not really okay though, is it?

Photo by  Emma Croman

Photo by Emma Croman

Written by David Hillier