Last week I was having dinner with a friend and she asked how my work was going. “It’s really good,” I replied. “But I’m slammed with work. I’m working flat out during the day and I’m having to do work in the evenings too.” She looked at me, put her fork down and said something that seemed so obvious, but it hadn’t occurred to me before she said it.
My biggest failing as a freelance writer
“Don’t you work for yourself?” she asked me, knowing full well that I do.
“Yes,” I said.
“So aren’t you in charge of how busy you are?”
It was time for me to put my fork down.
I realised in that moment that I’ve been so worried that this year wouldn’t work out, that I wouldn’t be able to support our family financially, that I wouldn’t have enough work and that being a freelance writer was a ridiculous way to try and earn a living, that I have said yes to pretty much every piece of work that has come my way.
Now don’t get me wrong – more than 80 per cent of the time, I am in the incredibly lucky position of having editors and clients approach me with work.
But that means I feel grateful.
I say yes.
Even if I have no idea how I’m going to fit it in. I say yes.
I get worried – if I say no, will an editor turn their back on me?
If I say no, will my work suddenly dry up in some sort of karmic revenge?
If I say no, am I being too precious? What’s a few extra hours of work in the evening? I know so many other freelancers would love to have editors approach them with work.
In the middle of the year I learnt a big lesson about saying no to jobs that were an overstretch in terms of my ability and where I knew I wasn’t suited. Since then I’ve been able to say no to opportunities like that one.
I have always known that I am responsible for the amount of work I actively go after. If it’s a quiet month I know that I have to bring in the work.
But opportunities that come to me, where it’s in my wheelhouse, where I could do it if I just worked a couple of extra hours in the evenings or that would bring in a few more hundred dollars, I’ve said yes.
You are probably much quicker than me and realise that as a freelancer we do have control over the amount of work that we accept, but what can I say? I’m a slow learner sometimes.
I also know that saying no to paying gigs is something other freelance writers struggle with.
I know too well that freelancing is fickle, that every day journalists are losing their jobs and so when an opportunity comes my way I’m not good at saying no.
When I post my monthly income update next week you’ll see that I’ve had a big month, but I’ve been too busy. And I’m not wearing that as a badge of honour – I have felt consumed by what I have to do and it’s meant that I’m not working as far in advance as I’d like to be.
So my aim for the next month (and forever after) is to take a leaf out of Megan Blandford’s book and really consider my capacity (not just my cognitive capacity but life capacity) to undertake work when it is offered to me.
That’s my goal, anyway.
What do you struggle with most as a freelance writer? Are you better than me at saying no?
I know just what you mean, Lindy. I am very careful what I take on now because I’m part-time and it’s a military operation working around my toddler if I don’t get everything done on my ‘work days’. Before I had him, I, like you, said yes to everything. Often it meant working all weekend and burning the midnight oil, then hitting the following week absolutely wiped out. So now I try to think of work like a puzzle, figuring out how much time I have and whether a commission will fit neatly into my puzzle or push the whole thing off the table 🙂 I’m sure I’ve written about this on the blog somewhere. It’s a good lesson for any freelancer to learn!
I like that puzzle analogy Rachel – I think it’d be helpful for me to think about it like that. I tend to ask "why not" when work comes my way, but perhaps I should be asking "why". Thanks for your comment – I’ll try and find your post about this topic!
I’ve definitely learned to say no to very low paid (or non-paid) work since I started. At the beginning I did a lot of things for no money. It was a good learning experience, but the time came to stop doing it. The same with things that paid very little. It simply wasn’t leaving me enough time to progress. I completely understand how hard it is to say no though, I know I would really struggle with that, I think I’m programmed to say yes to everything. And with freelancing there’s the fear of ‘What if this is it and there’s never anything else?!’ At the moment I’m pacing myself a bit more, but if I’m honest I’m a lot more productive under a bit of pressure. It’s finding the balance between optimum productivity and meltdown.
Your comment has made me realise that there are levels of saying no, Claire! The first step – saying no to unpaid work or low-paying work – is so important and a hard one to do too. It’s great that you’ve moved on from that kind of work.
That’s a good point about being productive under pressure – me too. I was talking to a freelancer friend yesterday and she was saying how much she prefers to be given a hard deadline rather than a vague ‘submit whenever you’re ready’. I’m the same!
Hi Lindy, I’m enjoying your blog so much. Thanks so much for sharing this type of information, I find it inspiring and useful. At present I don’t have the problem of being slammed with work! That sounds most desirable! But yes, saying no to the lower paid ones sounds like the right path. The biggest struggle I have as a freelance writer is writing without a commission. I have a publisher who will take my pieces without pitching them. So I write one every couple of weeks and send it in. But when I’m writing the article "alone" I second guess myself the whole time whether the piece will work/stand up on the website. It’s a painful process! Kind regards, Leah
Hi Leah, thanks so much for your comments – I’m so glad you are enjoying my posts.
With the publisher that is taking your pieces without you needing to pitch – do they accept everything you write or is it a gamble? Is this paid work? If so, would it be possible to have a conversation with them about developing a content calendar so you can flesh out your ideas and make sure what your write is going to hit the right note?