Coping with freelance writing ebb and flow

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Every freelance writer knows that workflows can (and will) shift. One day, you have a steady trickle of work. Then you’re buried in an avalanche of projects that looks like it will keep you busy until next year. And a month later, you sit around wondering where your next gig is coming from.

I’ve been a content writer and editor for several years now, and I’ve mostly been very, very lucky to find extremely steady, reliable, and reasonable clients. Still, like everyone else, I get my highs and lows. Sometimes I put my foot down and say my work-at-home-mom schedule is as full as I’d like it to be, and sometimes I apply to new job listings.

When you’re sending applications and work/money isn’t coming in as fast as you’d like it to, and the electricity bill is due this week and your kids have outgrown all their shoes, it’s easy to panic. So here are my top five tips for those slow days/weeks.

#1. Don’t panic. Remember the time when you started from scratch? It was probably more difficult than whatever you’re facing now. If now you have a portfolio of work and some experience under your belt, you’re ahead already. Jobs are out there. You just need to land the right ones.

#2. Budget. It’s tempting to splurge when you’ve made a bundle on a big project, but if you have an unstable income, the smart move is to lay aside as much money as you can every month. You can also implement two types of monthly budgets: one for lean months, and one for periods when you can allow yourself some more financial leeway.

#3. Do useful stuff. Brush up on your resume. Make or update a spreadsheet of your earnings over the past months. Set your office in order or even give your house the nice deep clean it has been desperately needing. Vacuum your car. Take care of all the little things you never have time for.

#4. Expand your knowledge. Niche writers are in high demand. If you take the time to dive deep into a specific topic (whether it’s cryptocurrency or herbal remedies), you may gain an edge over your competitors. There are free courses you can take to learn more about interesting stuff you’ve always wanted to explore.

#5. Do your thing. Enjoy some peace and quiet while you can. Go on a hike or a picnic with your kids. Dig into personal projects, like getting your garden in shape or repainting your kitchen cabinets. During my latest slower period, I was able to finish editing and (finally!) publish my new historical fiction novel, Queen of Ophir.

Finally, it may be time to sit down for a re-evaluation. If waiting for work and juggling clients is too stressful, maybe you should look into a position that is less flexible but more secure. But that’s probably a topic for another post.

Why burning bridges isn’t a good idea

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Back in the day, when I was a starry-eyed young mom, I received an email from an equally young reader, a newlywed who wrote, “My husband landed an amazing position and I will never need to work again. Please give me suggestions on ways to fill my time until we have our first child.”

As far as I recall, I came up with various ideas for charity work, gardening, crafts, and housekeeping. Today, however, I would give that sweet lady – and my own daughters, when they reach the proper age -a completely different outlook.

I would say, Congratulations on your husband’s new position. I hope he will retain it throughout many years and provide the necessary financial stability for your family.

I also hope that your marriage remains healthy and happy, and that your spouse never makes you feel like ‘less than’ for not bringing in an income.

If you plan to stay home with your children, I applaud your choice. Children thrive when there’s a parent to be with them in their early years. Families thrive when one spouse has enough flexibility to keep the common ship sailing smoothly.

But no matter what, don’t put yourself in a situation where you’ve burned your bridges and locked yourself in. Keep something you can fall back on.

Whether it’s a flexible profession, a business you can upscale if necessary, or a degree that allows you to work from home, always have something to give you financial security in tough times.

This isn’t negativity or pessimism, any more than purchasing an insurance policy is. It’s just common sense.

We live in a hugely unpredictable world. Businesses fail. Wars rage. Global pandemics flare up. Economies flounder. People lose their health and earning capacity. And, sadly, sometimes marriages fail as well.

I have lived through this. I gave up on the ability to support myself, on the security of a husband’s good job and a house purchased outright. Then, when the job was lost and the house swallowed by a black financial abyss, I found myself in an isolated outpost, with no transportation, no stable internet access, and not even secure electricity or running water supply.

Eventually, I rallied and started fighting for financial independence (a process that’s still ongoing). But it was hard, and knowing that I put the torch to my own bridges didn’t make it easier.

You aren’t a less devoted wife and mother for having a plan B. Do what you must to protect yourself and your children. If you are lucky, you may never need it.

But if you do, you will be glad you prepared for every scenario.

For Freelancers: What Happens When You Set Boundaries

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For all who have wondered what cave I’ve been hiding in all this time, 2022 started off with a bang for me and I’m dealing with an avalanche of projects, not to mention sick kids and all the ensuing schedule disruptions. And, of course, whatever else happens, laundry hampers overflow, trash cans need emptying, and grocery shopping needs doing.

As I was doing my taxes for 2021, I passingly reflected on the importance of having boundaries as a freelancer/mom/household manager and all the many hats we wear.

I know many self-employed individuals struggle with self-discipline in a very straightforward way – it starts with “I’ll just check my email”, and three hours later you’re deep in a Twitter debate about animal conservation because there’s nobody to drag you to your desk and make you start working.

I battle a different affliction, commonly known as biting off more than you can chew. I apply to lots of different gigs and find it hard to scroll by when an interesting offer appears in one of my freelancer Facebook groups. However, I am pleased to say that I made progress in 2021.

In the early half of 2021, my income ledger showed entries from many different clients. I squinted at the chart a couple of weeks ago, barely recalling some names. Then I remembered. “Oh, that didn’t work out.” “This person wanted faster turnarounds than I could commit to.” “This one had unreasonable demands.”

In the second half of the year, I consolidated my efforts to a couple of steady clients – without losing income. Yet now I have more sanity, less frenzy, fewer emails to answer, and less juggling in my schedule. I also became far more confident in my communication: “I can do this and this by date X”; “I cannot commit to any day earlier than Thursday”; “I can promise X, but not Y.”

I used to be a huge people pleaser, which didn’t give me many opportunities to see how people react when you don’t give them what they want. In the past year, I saw how it goes: some walk away, leaving the ones you get along with. I believe it’s true in the personal as well as professional sense.

Today, I sleep better, read more paperbacks, take more walks, and have more time for my kids, all while being more productive.

I hope everyone has a nice, cozy January with a mug of hot cocoa and a stack of good books (except you in the Southern hemisphere – enjoy your summer!).

Is working for free ever justified, even for your spouse?

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I came across this NY times column, which gave rise to all sorts of thoughts.

My husband is beginning to fund-raise for his new start-up. I’m a professional brand strategist. He and his co-founder want my help naming their company, crafting messaging and creating their website and pitch materials. When I asked how formal the arrangement would be and whether there would be any compensation involved, he was incredibly hurt and now believes I don’t support his business. Am I completely wrong here? Should I work for him for free on the principle of being his wife?

So let’s try to break this one down.

Many people would have a knee-jerk reaction and say, “OF COURSE spouses should share skills. Marriage is all about mutual contribution, and everyone’s the gainer. It’s called supporting each other.”

True enough. But there’s also this: if the wife is a professional and if she does any work of serious extent for her husband’s business, she almost inevitably passes over other (paid) opportunities.

Her contribution could range from a short-term consultancy to actually laying aside her own business entirely and supporting her husband’s startup. And here, if she gets no official recognition, position, or salary, is the fly in the ointment.

If the marriage stays stable, equitable and loving for the rest of these two people’s lives, that’s fine. No problem may ever arise and it may not matter in whose name the income is. But what if it’s not?

What if things go south, and 20 years down the road, the wife needs to strike out on her own after being a prop for her husband’s business for two decades? Yes, as many will point out, in case of a divorce, she gets a share of the business. He may buy out her part during property division, or he may sell the business and split the profit with her.

This, however, leads to two issues:

  1. In a family court, depending on the state in question, the wife may need to prove the extent of her contribution to the business, and this may be difficult if she never had an official role.
  2. If the husband is in sole control of company finances, he may prepare for divorce and siphon off funds to offshore funds and trusts (I’m aware of these strategies because I write a lot of web content for divorce lawyers).

Furthermore, if her role in the business was completely behind the scenes, the wife may have a 20-year blank on her resume. She may include her experience in the family business, of course, but then what happens if she applies for another position? Who will give her recommendations, the ex-husband/boss?

This gets even more problematic if she ever needs a mortgage or a car loan. Not (officially) working for 20 years doesn’t present a good picture for potential lenders.

If the split-up happens closer to retirement age, the wife may find herself in even deeper financial trenches.

But this isn’t even the worse scenario. In the worst case, the wife may actually stay stuck in an unhealthy, possibly abusive, marriage because she is so deeply mired financially. I’m not saying this will definitely happen. But it might.

So, my bottom line: if a person expects their spouse to play any long-term significant part in their business, at minimum, the contributing spouse should get an official recognition of their role and company stocks. Anything else may put their partner in a very, very precarious position down the road.

The dictionary of an overworked freelancer mom, part 1

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One of these days, I’m going to write a more serious post. Like what it’s like to live in a country that was so proud of being a vaccine pioneer and now appears to be in total shambles. Or how to save on electricity during a massive killer heat wave.

But today, it’s time for something just for laughs.

A: Advancing. Something you’re supposed to do on projects instead of browsing the biography of Elvis Presley.

B: Break. Something you should never feel guilty for taking. In fact, I guarantee that you need it.

C: Client. Someone who bombards you with emails while they need you and disappears for a month when it’s time to pay.

D: Deadline. Wait, how can it be tomorrow?! I thought I had a week.

E: Entertainment. Watching your kids chase chickens around the yard.

F: Food. Something you’re somehow supposed to come up with three times a day. You try to convince your kids leftover soup does too count.

G: Getaway. Something you daydream about nonstop.

H: Hunger. Something you feel around noon when your stomach rumbles and you recall you’ve gotten breakfast for everyone except yourself.

I: Internet. Something you rely on for your work, which tends to flop just when you’re having an important discussion over Skype.

J: Jig. Something you do when you finish a big project.

K: Kill. Something you want to do when your computer crashes.

L: Lucky. The way you feel when you open the refrigerator and see there’s still some milk left for your morning cuppa.

To be continued…

Is working from home really better for the family?

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Some days, honestly, I doubt the answer.

As a mom to a bunch of young kids, working from home gives me the benefits of no commute, a flexible schedule, and the ability to work in my pyjamas at the kitchen table.

It also means, however, that I often find myself working a whacko schedule of late nights followed by early mornings and the occasional hour in the afternoon.

Whenever someone is awake, forget about productivity: distractions can propel me into making ridiculous mistakes like using info for Orange County, NC, instead of Orange County, California (true story!).

I’m always there, but I’m also not really “there”, because my eyes are glued to my laptop screen. And when the time comes to close the laptop for the day, I find it hard to disengage.

Here’s a dirty secret: when you work from home, many people consider it not working at all, even if you make pretty good money (Covid and the lockdowns changed this cultural assumption somewhat). As such, family members expect you to be always available for a phone call or a quick errand during the day and don’t understand what you mean by “busy”.

There are days when the lure of walking out of the door for a set number of hours, then coming back home to really BE at home, is almost overwhelming. Then a kid gets sick or I make a trip somewhere and see the traffic, and think that my choice of being a home-based freelance writer makes sense after all.

The ideal solution for me would probably be a designated home office (and a whole lot of help with little ones!). Until that is in the making, I’ll make do with what I have.

How I improved my income as a freelance writer

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When I first began seriously freelancing as an editor and content writer (as opposed to an occasional gig here and there), I was earning roughly $200-300 for editing a 100K-word novel, and about 1 cent per word of original content. If this sounds like total exploitation, it was. But I had been out of the workforce for 10 years, I had no confidence and no references, and I was desperate for money.

At times, I questioned whether it wasn’t crazy to give up so much of my time and energy for such low compensation. But I earned valuable experience and was soon able to move on to better things. It’s an ongoing process, and I would like to share a few things that have helped me along the way.

I keep looking for opportunities. Even though today I have as much work as I can handle, I give job listings a quick look-through every day. When I see something interesting, I apply, even if I don’t feel 100% confident. I’d rather risk hearing “no” than missing out on a potential opportunity.

I value my time. When I started doing this, I knew I wasn’t looking for a full-time position. I wanted to keep staying home for my children. I wanted to keep home educating. I wanted some spare time for creative writing, art, backyard homesteading, reading, and just breathing.

This means that I had to pay close attention to my hourly rate. I have about 3-4 hours of work split throughout my day (1 hour early in the morning, 1 during midday downtime, 1-2 hours after the kids are in bed), and I must make them count. I was never after pocket money. I need a real income for bills and groceries, so I can’t allow my time to go down the drain.

I play to my strengths. While I’ve written about topics like insurance and cryptocurrency on occasion, these aren’t my strong points. On the other hand, I have a degree in nutrition, which gives me a big leverage in projects that focus on diets, supplements, and wellness. Having expertise also means I need to spend less time on research.

I’m not quite making a full-time income yet, but I’m getting close. I know people who are doing this without breaking a sweat. Writing (whether you write fantasy novels or service pages for roof contractors in Michigan) isn’t a get rich quick scheme, but it can provide solid income, and there’s plenty of room to grow if you’re willing to put in the effort.

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