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Note from Lisa: Becoming a full-time writer isn’t all cupcakes and daisies. But, it absolutely can be a rewarding experience. To help you be better prepared for the transition, Melinda Irvine is here to share 11 things she wishes she knew before she started freelancing full-time.
It’s all yours Melinda!
Quitting your job and becoming a full-time writer sounds like an exciting adventure — freedom, flexibility, and doing what you love. But things rarely turn out the way you originally plan, plus whenever you take a leap of faith to follow a dream, that dream will always teach you something new about yourself.
I’m not saying I would do anything differently (because there is enormous learning in the mistakes), but these are the 11 things I didn’t know about myself before I took on freelancing full-time. They have been confronting, character building, life changing. And all totally worth it.
Here they are.
1. I Was Hopeless at Time Management
Honestly this came as a shock. I’d been a General Manager, a HR Professional, and a Management Consultant. I’d co-written an award-winning customer service program, and produced copious quantities of business copy — websites, reports, policies, procedures, grants, tenders, training manuals, and risk assessments. But — all while working for a boss. A someone who had set and monitored my deadlines.
Within a few months of going 100% freelance, I realized there is a huge difference in having someone telling me that the Employee Handbook was due next Wednesday, to telling a client when I would have their Employee Handbook ready.
And quite frankly, I sucked at it.
How I kept a lot of my clients in those early days I still don’t know, because I was forever emailing or calling up with some family/home/illness drama that prevented me from submitting their copy when they’d asked for it.
And often I’d been the one to set the deadline!
Writing friends, set realistic deadlines. If it’s gonna take 2 weeks to write that copy, take 2 weeks. Don’t tell a new client (or any client actually) you’ll have the copy in 48 hours (because you think that’s what they want to hear) and then freak out because you already have 3 other assignments going, and a sick kid.
Under promise and over deliver. Please. Better to promise that eBook in 3 weeks and deliver it in 2 — than the other way around.
2. I Would Miss the Creative Energy of the Office
When I started freelancing all I could think about was ending that horrific daily commute and the office whinings — I hadn’t actually recognized how much positive energy exists in an office space. The banter and brainstorming have a way of keeping you moving toward your deadlines, even if you’re not collaborating on a project.
As an extrovert I’m fueled by people energy, but I didn’t realize just how much until after months and months of working solo. It’s taken some time to adjust, and my work arounds have been: writing from a coffee shop or co-working space at least once a week, and engaging in online groups for writers and freelancers. It really is creatively important to be communicating with your peers.
3. I Would Have a Tough Time Setting Boundaries with Friends and Family
Maybe it was because I was missing the daily interactions that I was so terrible at setting boundaries with family and friends. By boundaries I mean tactfully letting the people you love know that just because you work from home, doesn’t mean you’re available for drop-in visits, quick babysitting jobs (ie, can you watch Simon for me while I run to the shops?) or Monday morning phone calls.
When you’re a salaried employee you have a regular routine, with regular hours. Your sister knows you’re at work and can’t drop Simon on your doorstep while she buys groceries. Your mum knows your boss doesn’t allow personal phone calls, and your friends schedule daytime meetups during your lunch break.
Don’t change any of this when you start freelancing. Write on regular hours and knock off at the end of the day. Distractions are the enemy of all freelancers and will quickly eat into your profits, your dreams, and your downtime.
4. I Would Be So Easily Distracted
When you’re hopeless at time management AND feeling isolated or lonely, anything will distract you. Anything. Even the messiest housework-hating freelancer will suddenly take an eager interest in washing up, room tidying, and laundry whenever a challenging writing assignment appears.
Then there’s Facebook and YouTube videos, the NYTimes daily crossword, text messages, dot dot dot. Add to that a million trips to the kitchen to get coffee and water, then 2 million trips to the toilet. And don’t forget every time you leave your writing chair to adjust the aircon, close the window, or get your kid from school.
Plan you day (it’s so annoying when you realize there’s nothing in the fridge for lunch) and include time blocks of uninterrupted writing. Uninterrupted time blocks are where you write continuously (on a paid assignment) for at least 30 minutes without checking email, feeding the dog, or suddenly start tinkering with the unfinished novel.
5. I Would Push My Creative Projects Aside
Of course, when you’re hopeless at time management, feeling isolated, and have been wasting your time watching YouTube videos instead of writing, I guarantee your creative projects will get pushed to the side.
I found myself always working and never playing (which kind-of makes it more lonely) — and my novel, my poems, and my songs remained untouched for months at a time. The guitars sat silent and the strings got rusty.
And then there was my son.
6. I Would Be in a Constant State of Mommy Guilt
This is when the mommy guilt set in. ‘You’re always working’ my 11yo had on repeat, lamenting that ‘You never play with me anymore or do anything fun’.
Now I don’t know about you, but as soon as you hear your son telling you you’re no fun, you drop the blog your working on like a house-brick and half-watch a Disney movie or three — faithfully promising yourself to be a better mom (and finish that blog after he’s gone to bed).
But you fall asleep exhausted and shoot off another apology email in the morning.
7. I Would Stop Exercising and Start Eating More
When you’re always working and never playing, exercise is the last thing on your mind — and junk food becomes a quick fix lunch and post-blog-post reward.
Twenty kilos didn’t pile on to me in the first year of freelancing, but by year 5 it certainly had. For someone who had been a gym junkie and exercise freak this was more shocking to me than the time management.
Now I was sluggish, irritable, and tired all the time. My 11yo began a new phrase on repeat — ‘Are you sleeping in the day AGAIN?’.
8. I Would Find it Hard to Finish a Writing Assignment
It seems crazy doesn’t it? You’ve got paid writing assignments to complete — and you won’t be paid until you finish them. Yet for some reason you come up with a pile of excuses not to start, or your just too darn tired.
I found it incredibly hard to discipline myself to write an outline then get going immediately and finish the piece. I was doing way too much research and getting side-tracked reading academic journals and articles that weren’t related to the topic.
Or I’d just let simple distractions and interruptions lure me away.
9. I Was Terrified of Failure
Did you know that when your job is your identity, professional failure hurts more? And this ultimately was the reason I couldn’t organize my time or stick to deadlines — and was taking 2 days to write one 800-word blog post and stuffing myself with Tim Tams as I checked my bank balance. Fear.
I was terrified of failure.
When you have an overwhelming fear of failure you sabotage yourself by not starting writing assignments (don’t start, can’t fail) and missing deadlines. Plus, you’re tired all the time.
Something I’ve learned only recently is that my fatigue wasn’t all related to overeating and under-exercising. Studies prove that fear and being in a perpetual loop of negative self-talk is physically tiring. Fear and negativity increase mental fatigue and depletion, while decreasing concentration and focus.
I hope I haven’t worn you out reading this.
10. I Would Develop Proper Systems and Business Processes
Identifying the problem is always a good turnaround point, and for me recognizing my fear motivated me to develop proper systems and processes for my writing business.
Systems and business processes reduce double-handling and time wasting, and they help you present a professional image to your clients. It’s amazing how much more confidence you embody as a writer when you have good systems. The following have definitely worked for me:
- Inquiries and quotes — have a pricing schedule and standardized quoting system means you can quickly respond to inquiry emails without having to rewrite everything.
- Working documents — having questionnaires and templates for clients to complete at the beginning of a job will cut down you research time.
- Invoicing and payments — having an invoicing and debtor’s system so clients are billed as soon as a job is completed, and non-payments are followed up swiftly.
- Referrals and testimonials — always asking clients for referrals and a testimonial when a writing assignment is finished.
- File and project management — using writing and file management tools to quickly collate client data, track job history, and access older projects.
These business processes were just the beginning of my turnaround, and they made me feel like a real business owner and not an imposter. All I needed now was better writing habits.
11. I Would Develop Steady Writing Habits
Habits get a bad rap. They’re touted as unsexy and boring, but developing steady writing habits is ultimately what saved my writing business.
I knew I could write, it was just taking me so long to pump out a single piece of copy. So following the advice of S.J. Scott in his bestseller Habit Stacking: 127 Small Changes to Improve Your Health, Wealth, and Happiness, I began to focus on small actions that related to my major goals. What I needed was a consistent morning routine — with uninterrupted time to free-write, visualize, and plan may day. What do you need?
These days I rise at 4:30am (Monday – Saturday) and immediately hand write 3 pages of journal notes. If you’ve ever read Julia Cameron’s amazing program The Artist’s Way, you’ll know this practice as ‘morning pages’. Writing exercises like morning pages trains you to write without stopping and articulate your thoughts into written text.
My morning habit stack also includes 30 minutes of planning my day, plus a short visualization and meditation exercise — all BEFORE I turn on my phone or start checking emails.
The One Thing I Did Know
Being a freelance writer isn’t a terrible career, it’s wonderful. And once you get over your imposter syndrome (and debilitating fear of failure), the words will really start to flow. You’ll write some good copy and you’ll glow with inner knowing.
There were 11 things I didn’t know about myself when I started my career as a freelance writer, but there was one thing I did know.
I wanted to write.
And write and write.
And that’s what keeps you going.
If you’ve read this far you know it too. You’re a writer and no matter how long it takes — and how many things you have to learn about yourself to get there — you’ll write. And write.
I just know it.
Note from Lisa: Thanks so much Melinda! You had some great advice for anyone looking to start a freelance writing business.
And if you’re looking for a course to help you get started, I highly recommend Gina Horkey’s 30 Days or Less to Freelance Writing Success
Stephen R. Covey. 2013. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. 25th Anniversary Edition. RosettaBooks LLC.
Timothy O’Brien. 2019. ‘When Your Job Is Your Identity, Professional Failure Hurts More’. Harvard Business Review (Digital Article). 18 June 2019. https://hbr.org/2019/06/how-we-confuse-our-roles-with-our-self.
S. J. Scott. 2017. Habit Stacking: 127 Small Changes to Improve Your Health, Wealth, and Happiness. 2nd Edition. Oldtown Publishing LLC.
Nicole Torres. 2015. ‘Looking for Problems Makes Us Tired’. Harvard Business Review (Digital Article). 30 March 2015. https://hbr.org/2015/03/looking-for-problems-makes-us-tired.
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