19 things to remember when your income disappears

These are strange times. Income can disappear, of course, anytime. Even regular, predictable, stable-seeming income. But that’s usually an individual or regional phenomenon. This is a strange time in that, for many people, in many places, all at once, sources of income are gone.

It is a dark and difficult thing to go through.

My income is not drastically affected right now.

But we have—as a family—lived through this situation in other times. Not too long ago. Lately enough to remember the pain and anxiety fresh and raw. (One journal entry from that time: “We have $30 in our account. We ate rice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.”) I also used to do a lot of writing work for finance companies (ironic, I know) so I’ve learned a bit about how some things work… not exactly insider/expert knowledge, but stuff that is often not common knowledge.

Continue reading “19 things to remember when your income disappears”

Is freelancing worth it?

I start my day early, with a run.

Then I proceed through my typical morning routine: meditate, read, journal, and drink the beautiful coffee. This peaceful time is punctuated by kids wandering in, asking questions about breakfast (Yes, you have to eat it, same as every day) and chores (Yes, you have to do them) and school (Yes, you have to go) and friends (No, you can’t invite five friends for a sleepover…ever).

Continue reading “Is freelancing worth it?”

How to build a content dashboard

A content dashboard is a central place for doing all the things you, or your team, need to do to work with content.

Ideally, a content dashboard is a simple as possible.

A complex interface often creates more options than you need. Simple decisions and tasks become more complicated and effort-filled than necessary. The result is inefficiency and frustration.

Of course, a content dashboard that can’t do what you need it to do is equally frustrating. That’s probably what you’re dealing with now, and why an article about building a content dashboard drew your attention. “Ah,” you think, “This is the way to solve the frustration of not having everything in one place, of feeling behind, feeling like I don’t have a big picture, feeling like I spend more time figuring out how to do the work than actually doing the work.”

A content dashboard may help solve the issues that contribute to those feelings. It’s certainly helped me.

But realize that clarity is the foundational need. You can build a stellar content dashboard and still feel overwhelmed and frustrated. Clarity first. Goals second. Action third.

What do you do with content?

Before you can picture (or build) the kind of content dashboard you need, you need to know exactly what you’re doing with content.

Here’s what I do with content, more or less.

1. Planning
2. Creating
3. Managing
4. Promoting
5. Assessing
6. Maintaining
7. Expanding

Your process may be slightly different. Before you can picture the content dashboard that will serve you well, define your content process. Name the stages of your content workflow, the big-picture moves.

You don’t have to break down all the steps you (or someone) will take in, say, the Creating stage (research, outline, draft, edit, revise, create assets, work with design, proofread, etc.). When you do that, your big-picture becomes a zoomed-in, detail-filled focal point and you lose sight of the whole process. At the right time, that’s appropriate! But now is not the right time.

When you’re trying to picture and build a content dashboard, you need the big-picture view of your content workflow.

Think of stages, rather than steps.

What you need in a content dashboard

Now that you know the stages of your content workflow, you’re ready to think about what your content dashboard can do—or should do—for you.

Here’s the important thing to remember: a content dashboard does not need to have all the features necessary to do the work of each content stage.

The content dashboard needs to be capable of three things:

Tracking: Show you (and others on your team) where each project or assignment is, which stage it’s in, and how far along it is in that particular stage. I call this tracking. It’s kind of like scheduling, but with more flexibility. The emphasis isn’t on getting a certain task done at a certain time, but on forward movement: following a natural flow, enabling autonomy, and working efficiently.

Sharing: Make it easy for you (and others on your team) to access what they need for each stage and, if possible, for each step or task within that stage. It’s resource and information sharing: what is needed to complete the next task? Here it is. What’s shared could be a link, a document, a draft, a checklist, a discussion, etc.

Logging: Hold notes or some other record that shows what’s been done (and, preferably, when and by whom). It’s the way you ensure that completed means completed. It helps you notice what isn’t working (inconsistencies, inefficiencies, frequent errors) and what is working (ideas, improvements, follow-up notes, themes).

If you’re a solo creator, it’s easy to settle for a content dashboard that works for you and you alone. I think that’s a mistake.

Here’s why.

First, we tend to tolerate our own disorganization and procrastination far more than we should. If you wouldn’t work “this way” in a team, or when a client is watching, why force yourself to work that way anytime?

Second, we tend to discount the value of systems and defined processes for solo work. That often means we end up working inefficiently, feeling frustrated, and thinking that it’s all our fault.

In a sense, it is: we are being too hard on ourselves.

We aren’t giving ourselves the tools and information we need to do the work we want to do. However, we think our failure is all our fault in a much deeper, more detrimental sense: that we’re flawed, somehow. That we’re incapable. That we’re unqualified imposters, and the only answer is to work harder, work longer, do more, suffer more, and try to keep our shit together long enough to reach some mythical productivity castle-on-a-hill in which all secrets will be revealed, efficiency enlightenment will rain upon us, our self-doubt will dry up, and we will finally know that we are good enough to do the work we want to do.

If any of that rings true for you, here is the somewhat harsh but freeing realization you might need: the only castle on a hill you’ll reach is the one you’re building, right now. Build it out of poor materials, with a haphazard plan, frustration, bad timing, and undefined standards and you’ll get a junk pile. You don’t want that. You don’t have to settle for that. In order not to end up with a junk pile, you need to see the value in doing things right, right now, even if you’re the only one who knows about it.

Doing things right does not mean delaying the real work so you can test out a hundred tools, play on fifty different platforms, and waste your time fiddling with overly complex systems. That’s why it’s important to define the work you actually do, the stages of it, before you start building a content dashboard. Define what you need so you can picture what you need. Then you’ll be able to identify the right materials and build the thing.

How to build your content dashboard

Here’s the step-by-step breakdown.

1. Identify the stages of your content workflow.

Don’t worry about naming all the steps or defining the purpose for each stage, or otherwise getting lost in details. Just name the stages. Maybe there’s only one stage. Maybe three. Maybe eleven. List them.

2. Think about the tracking, sharing, and logging that you want for each stage of your content workflow.

What kind of files do you share? How much information moves back and forth? How does it all have to work, for it to keep working? What can change? From this thinking, list the essential features that a content dashboard needs to work for you.

Here’s my list:

  • file and image uploading
  • notes with formatted text (essential for links and identifying the key information)
  • a way to discuss or share notes, ideas, comments, questions
  • labeling, tagging, or other organizational method to sort various projects/assignments, and to identify which stage each one is in
  • available and synced on my laptop and phone/ipad
  • usable offline
  • ability to back up data (automated if possible)

I have some other features on my list, too, as “preferred” but not necessary.

Now that you know precisely what you need from a content dashboard, you can find a tool that fits. There are many. You can sort through them however you want, just beware of the infinite nature of this pursuit. Give yourself a time limit, and honor it.

You could dedicate an hour to researching tools, pick your top three, and then start a trial for each one. Use one for a day or so, then the next, and so on. At the end of the week, pick the one that is easiest to use.

As far as setting up your content dashboard, don’t.

Instead, just start using it.

You’re going to change your initial configuration anyway. Skip the part where you try to guess what your ultimate setup will be and dive in.

Start using it.

Input the information you need as you need it. Put things in place, and move them around. Don’t become loyal to any element of your organization, which will happen if you’ve invested time and energy into a particular setup. Become loyal, instead, to making it easy to do good work. Follow that trail, and you’ll find a setup that may not be obvious but will actually work.

Our systems are always in flux, so there is no perfect system, ever. But smart use of systems, like a content dashboard, can make your work more efficient and easier. It’s a really nice feeling to have a system you use and can trust. It frees your brain from detail chasing and email answering, and gets you back to creative thinking and making. Have fun.

Photo by Ola Syrocka on Unsplash

5 essentials for every freelancer

You can get clients and make money as a freelancer without these five things. But having these will make it much easier.

I’m writing this both as a freelancer (18 years and counting) and as someone who frequently hires freelancers (for my own projects and for client work).

1: Your own (owned) space on the Interwebs

You need a website. Your own.


Please make one. Please have one. Please put all your freelance stuff on it and please, pretty please, stop sending me to your Linkedin profile because you don’t have a website.

I want to know more about you than Linkedin will tell me. And I don’t want to have to run around the worldwide web to find it.  Yes, I’m going to search your name and check out your online reputation. But I don’t want to have to visit five different sites to learn the basics of your expertise and how you might be able to help me.

As a freelancer, here’s why you want your own space:

  • You can decide what’s most important about you as a freelance service provider, and highlight it the way you want. Maybe you don’t your Harry Potter fan fic to be the third thing that potential clients find about you. However, if you’re depending on your Linkedin profile and some scattered clips to be your ‘professional online presence,’ you don’t get to control what people find. And trust me: they’ll look, and they will find.
  • You can filter all the potential clients and focus on the ones who are the best fit. You do this by clearly stating your core services. You weed out the people who want something you don’t offer.
  • You can keep track of all the work you’ve done, in one place. It’s quick and easy to share a webpage with a list of your best clips. It’s time-consuming and frustrating to recreate that list for every client query.
  • You can get more clients through the introductory funnel and into the part where they actually pay you. By providing clips, basic info, an easy way to learn more about you, and a contact method all in one place, potential clients are much more likely to become paying clients. They want to work with freelancers who are easy to work with; having all your important freelance info available in one place makes working with you easier for clients.
  • It also makes things easier for you! All the questions you answer for potential clients can become blog posts or pages on your website. Some clients will educate themselves. Others will still email and ask you, but now your answer is readily available: send them the link or copy-and-paste. Either way, you’ll be more consistent and you’ll be able to do this preliminary work faster and with less effort.

Here are some ways to get started:

  • WordPress. Use WordPress.com if you’re not tech savvy and want a quick, simple solution. Create a self-hosted WordPress site if you want to put a bit more effort and/or money into it. Not sure what those terms mean? Then you want to use WordPress.com, and perhaps hire someone (check Upwork or Fiverr) to help you do it. It’s a worthy investment.

WordPress is reliable and full-featured and it’s been around for a while. Yes, there are alternatives (Square, Wix, etc.) but these are babies compared to WP. Remember that many Internet-company-babies do not survive into adolescence.

  • There’s a cool upsurge of text-based website platforms, such as Blot and Small Victories. If you can create a Word document and save it in a folder, you can create a website. There also very affordable.

2: A biography, in several versions

Nobody really enjoys writing about themselves, but it’s an essential part of being a freelancer.

You’re meeting most people—potential clients, colleagues, collaborators, etc.—online, rather than in-person. You have to provide enough information to fill in the gaps that exist when we’re not physically present with someone.

The biographies you need:

  • A long version. This is the “full life history” version of your biography, but remember that the long version is still only a page or so. You’re still condensing to the most important information. Provide some personal background, then use that to lead into your professional education and development, career choices, work expertise and experience. Cap it with a summary of what you’re currently working on and offering. This is the biography that can live on your About page.
  • A short version. This is the ultra-condensed version. It’s similar to an elevator pitch — you could write it as an elevator pitch. It’s what you’ll send in when you submit a guest post. Pop it at the bottom of your newsletter or put it on your social media profiles. You’re going to drop most of your personal history. Focus on two to three important work achievements or areas of expertise. Add a briefer version of what you’re currently working on and offering.
  • Various tailored versions. When you need a bio for a specific use, you’re going to use your short version most of the time. Take 10 minutes to tailor it for every use. This is a quick and easy move, but it can make a big difference in how you appear to clients, readers, editors, etc. When tailoring your bio, consider these three things:
    • the expertise you want to emphasize,
    • the audience you want to reach,
    • the action you want to produce.

3: Your core services and rates

You don’t have to put these on your website. Many freelancers don’t publish their rates online (to my everlasting frustration).

But you should—at the least—have a list of your core services and the standard rates you charge for these services. Here’s mine, if you want to take a look.

Then, when you receive a client query—or want to pitch a new potential client—you have your services and rates ready to send.

Here are a few things to remember:

  • Your core services don’t have to be your only services. You can adapt, expand, and adjust to work with specific client needs. But your core services give you a starting point, and your rates help you to more accurately estimate what you’ll charge for specialized work.
  • Defining your core services helps you to focus and specialize. This is the fastest route to gaining a good reputation and a roster of repeating clients. If you’re a new freelancer, focus and specialize. Focus and specialize. Later, once you’ve established a reputation and have more completed work to show, you can expand in all sorts of directions.
  • Baseline rates: set a standard rate for each of your core services.
    • Generally, you need to make your baseline rates higher than you think they should be. Every now and then I come across a freelancer who has vastly overestimated the value of their services. But it’s rare. Far more common are freelancers who vastly underestimate the value of their services.
    • Avoid hourly rates. They limit your income-earning potential because they tie your income directly to your time. This is a trap. Avoid it. Per-service, per-deliverable, and per-project rates give you more flexibility. That said, I understand that some services are almost always based on hourly rates. Some freelance platforms (such as Upwork) are based on hourly rates. And maybe you’re cool with hourly rates. If hourly rates make sense for you, use them. Just understand that when you use hourly rates you are limiting your income-earning potential. If you are okay with this, cool. Personally, I am not okay with this, so I avoid hourly rates.
    • Raise your rates annually. Do it. It can be a small adjustment. It will add up to be a significant change over time, it will help you raise level of service you provide and are known for (from “average” or “new” to “expert and worth it”), and it will help you raise the quality of your clients.
    • Give discounts, but not pointlessly. Discounts are great, but don’t ever give a discount just because a client asks for one. Give a discount when there’s a good reason to give a discount:
      • When a client purchases a package rather than an individual service.
      • When a client contracts for multiple services or deliverables.
      • When a client wants to have an ongoing work agreement (an ideal situation for a freelancer, unless you really dislike the client).
      • When a client is providing extra resources or time or is contributing some other type of value.

4: Your No list

This is a simple but powerful list.

It can be known only to you. It is a list of the services you do not provide, the projects you do not take on, the work you will not do.

It will help you focus and specialize. It will raise your standing in the eyes of your clients, because saying no is something you can do only from a position of power. It’s not about being arrogant or unapproachable: it’s about knowing what you’re good at and what you want to offer. You’re the only one who has the right to make those determinations, so start making them.

If you’ve done a certain kind of project and absolutely hated every minute of it, put it on your no list. Use your brain, of course, and figure out what it was that is a No for you. Maybe it was just a needy client; in that case, it’s not the type of project you want to avoid, it’s a particular type of client.

Define what you will and will not accept. Define what you will and will not offer. Write it down, and stick to it.

If it feels aggressive or unhelpful to make your No list public, don’t. Keep it handy, where you glance at it daily and can refer to it as needed.

However, do consider that you can use a No list as a simple way to filter out the clients, jobs, and offers you don’t want. I’ve had a No list on my website for several years and a few of my favorite clients approached me specifically because of it: they liked my clarity and thought we would be a good fit. And they were right.

5: Proof of your skills

A general rule of thumb that I’m making up right now is this one:

  • For every core service you offer, have at least one proof of your ability.

If you’re providing expertise in a certain topic, prove your expertise with your writing or completed projects.

If you’re offering a specialized service, give me a way to see something similar that you’ve already completed.

The more advanced and expensive the service, the more proof you need to provide that you’re able to do the work and do it well.

You can also offer testimonials from clients as proof of your skills, but I consider those secondary. I don’t trust everybody’s judgment. Your Client X may have been super happy with your design work, but their standards may be way different than mine. Provide testimonials and positive feedback, sure! They are powerful. But also provide actual proof of the work you’ve done: links, screenshots, even written descriptions are powerful.

Of course, the best place for all this material is your website! Aren’t you glad you have one?

Photo by Richard Bagan on Unsplash

The 5 pitfalls of planning (and how to avoid them)

In the early, hopeful months of a year not too long ago, my friend Lindsey and I found the key to being the organized, calm, put-together people we knew—deep down—we could be.

We were going to get our shit together. This was the year. We could feel it.

We were going to stay on top of laundry and cleaning and chores and yard work and hobbies.

We were going to plan—and execute—enriching and educational activities for our children, without executing the actual children.

We were going to meal plan. Like, for real this time.

We were going to reach our goals, learn new stuff, make more money, be more attractive, and generally become much better people.

We were going to wear actual outfits, not just hoodies and jeans.

(Okay, maybe not on that last one. How can you improve on the hoodie-and-jeans combo? You can’t, that’s how.)

We knew we would do all this because we had found the key.

The missing ingredient.

The tool we’d always needed: a perfect, detailed, customizable, perfect-in-every-way planner.

I’ll spare you the details of what we collectively spent on the planners and the required supplies to properly use them. You know, basics like pens and markers and highlighters and stickers and washi tape and bookmarks and stencils and pouches to hold all the supplies. First, I don’t remember exactly how much we spent and second, I don’t want to remember. Let’s just say I probably could have bought several new hoodie-and-jeans combos instead.

Nice hoodies, too.

We got our planners. We filled in our planners. And we used our planners for… Well, we used them for a while. We used them long enough to realize that the magical planners were not going to magically transform us.

In retrospect, this seems obvious. But at the time, those planners seemed to hold the key to success. They were the clear path to a calmer and more fulfilling life, the instructive map we could lay gently over the roiling landscape of our lives. These planners would save us.

It was a sure thing.

Until it wasn’t. Until our beautiful planners met reality, and reality won. I’d like to say I learned from this experience, but I’m still learning. I still expect my plans to save me from myself.

I still fall, often, into the pitfalls of traditional planning.

And I still spend too much money on fine-point pens and washi tape.

The five pitfalls of traditional planning

1. I get lost in the details

Sometimes I get lost in the details of the plan itself: what are the best tactics? What’s a realistic timeline? How can I improve? How many resources do I have? How much information do I need before I can get started?

Sometimes I get lost in the details of how to plan: what tool should I use? What’s the best way to present this plan to others who are involved? How can I keep the plan front-and-center? How can I make planning a more efficient part of my workflow?

Both are ineffective uses of my time.

How do I know? Because even if I find the “right” answer for all of those questions, it won’t make a significant difference in how well the plan works. Getting lost in the details means I am spending energy on information and actions that don’t help me make progress toward the goal.

Skip the pit: require every part of the plan to be helpful.

Helpful: the information, guidelines, and resources are useful and valuable when I am executing the plan.

When I’m out there in the real world, taking action, moving in space-time, interacting with people, dealing with the unpredictable, will this part of the plan be helpful? Or will I quickly pass over it as irrelevant and find the nugget that is helpful? I can save myself from poor planning by skipping the irrelevant details and focusing entirely on those gold nuggets of helpfulness.

Questions to ask for helpfulness:

  • How is this item going to help me in the real world?
  • Why is this item important? Why is it useful? What is its value?
  • Is this item only relevant now? How will it be relevant in the future?
  • Is there something more helpful than this item that I could be working on?
  • What will happen if I don’t have this item on the plan?

2. I try to plan all the way to the finish line.

The finish line is the goal, and there are two reasons that planning all the way to the finish line is unhelpful.

First, I often try to plan for a goal that’s too big. Now I don’t mean that my goals should be small. No way! I LOVE AND ADORE BIG TERRIFYING GOALS. But planning for an enormous far-away crazy big goal means projecting myself way too far into the future. The finish line for big goals is too far away for my plans.

I don’t need to plan for the entire goal: I need to plan for a slice of the goal, the slice I’m focused on now.

Second, I often try to plan every step I’ll take to reach the finish line. This is silly. Things will change too much along the way. Reality is like that, all by itself. Plus, when I start taking action, I affect reality. I change things. I open new doors, I make new connections, I increase my skills and capacity. Trying to plan every step—when I’m at the starting line—is a limiting exercise that reduces my options rather than increases them.

Skip the pit: require every part of your plan to be flexible

Flexible: can adjust to what actually happens without losing its value or usefulness.

Building flexibility into my plans forces me to remove the rigidity and absurd overplanning I tend to do, and make sure that the plan can work in space-time reality. After all, if it can’t, what’s the point? If I think about how my plan can adjust to life as it happens, I’ll find simpler ways to accomplish things. There’s no point making things harder than they have to be.

Questions to ask for flexibility:

  • Are my standards general enough to be useful in multiple situations?
  • Are my timelines able to flex or rigidly in place?
  • Can I change the details without ruining the rest of the plan?
  • Are there many dependencies? Can I see them all? Are they apparent or hidden?
  • Can I apply this item in action, quickly and easily, or does it require perfect conditions?

3. I get lost in potentials

And thanks to my capacity to imagine 27 worst-case scenarios in less than a minute, I have plenty of potentials to think about. Mostly negative ones. There’s wisdom in anticipating likely obstacles. There’s wisdom in preparing for challenges. There’s not wisdom in anticipating all the negative potentials, all the off-the-wall obstacles, all the unlikely scenarios I could face.

The best preparation for potential obstacles and challenges are these two firm beliefs:

  • I can learn what I need to learn when I need to learn it, and
  • I can ask for and receive help when I need it.

It’s also easy to get lost in possibilities, side effects, rabbit trails, and connections or opportunities that may arise, if I’m successful in executing my amazing plan. It’s easy to focus on a piece of the bigger goal that isn’t relevant. Great big goals are inspiring and good, but when making a plan, I need to focus on the part of the goal I can achieve now, and leave the rest of later.

Skip the pit: require the plan to be focused.

Focused: has clear boundaries and a precise definition of what’s relevant to the plan, and keeps attention steadily focused on the relevant piece of the goal and how to achieve it.

Keeping a plan focused starts at the very beginning. If I’m trying to plan for a goal that’s five or ten years in the future, I’ve already failed. That’s too far away to plan for. It can be a vision, an overarching and motivational goal, but I need to plan for the slice of the goal I’m going to achieve now, not five years from now.

Questions to ask for focus:

  • Is this item more than six months in the future? If so, how is it relevant to me now?
  • Am I focused on a goal that’s too big? Can I focus on a slice that’s here-and-now instead?
  • Is there a way to make my current goal more real, present, and focused?
  • Can I picture myself achieving this goal?
  • Do I have everything needed to start working on this item right now?

4. I spend too much energy optimizing

Optimizing is trying to find the best way to do something: the most efficient and most effective approach. The highest quality tool. The method that achieves the best output most consistently.

There are a lot of superlatives, unspoken, but present in optimizing: best, most, highest, soonest.  There can also be negative superlatives—least, for example—laying on additional burdens.

The result is a set of impossible standards that I’m trying to meet in pretty much every aspect of planning. I don’t just want a good tool: I want the best tool. I don’t want to reduce risk: I want to reduce risk to the least possible amount.

Optimization can be important in certain areas, but it is not important in most areas. In most areas, good enough is good enough. It’s better to use a good-enough tool, complete the task, and keep moving forward: this is progress. Progress is what leads me from the starting line to the finish line. I need to optimize for progress, not perfection. And if I can’t tell the difference, maybe I shouldn’t try to optimize at all.

Skip the pit: require the plan to be powerful.

Powerful: makes a meaningful/positive difference when I encounter confusion, uncertainty, or unpredictable situations as I executive the plan.

Mental models are powerful. Questions are powerful. Clearly defined standards are powerful. Flexible tools are powerful. Overly specific instructions, not allowing autonomy, and needing to know everything in advance, on the other hand, are not powerful: they are limiting ways of operating. If I’m trying to micromanage every single thing, I’m not planning. I’m controlling (or trying to). It’s futile, so I might as well move on.

Questions to ask for power:

  • What’s the greatest possible impact this item could have?
  • How can I increase the positive effect of this item?
  • Can this item be used in more than one way? By more than one person? For more than one purpose?
  • What would happen if I didn’t have this item? How would I function without it?

5. I ignore my own problematic patterns

This is a biggie.

My own biases, expectations, unverified assumptions, and errors in belief—plus unproductive patterns of behavior—can destroy the best plan.

When I’m making a plan, I tend to do it in a vacuum: a theoretical personality vacuum, that is. But planning without accounting for myself as part of the plan is an incomplete and dangerous plan. It’s like I plan for a fictional, perfectly balanced version of myself. That person doesn’t exist, so any plan that depends on that version of myself executing it will fail.

Skip the pit: require the plan to be accessible.

Accessible: easy to find, understand, and use in the real-world context of action and motion, by everyone involved.

I have to take into consideration how people actually act in the real world. If it’s only me, great: I just have to think about how I operate, regularly, in less than ideal situations. If there’s a whole team involved, I need to think realistically about how my team communicates, accesses information, deals with crisis, etc. My plan needs to work with the normal patterns of behavior that I (and my team) exhibit on a daily basis. If it doesn’t, I don’t have a plan at all. I have a really boring work of fiction. I could self-pub it, I guess? Maybe a new genre: “planning novellas.”

Questions to ask for accessibility:

  • Does this plan require me (and everyone) to function at our peak mental/emotional/physical state?
  • How will I handle setbacks and errors in executing the plan?
  • Am I using language that is easy to understand, simple terms, clear terms?
  • How can I lower the demands on energy, time, and effort?
  • How can I give myself buffer?

3 Important Lessons I Wish I’d Known as a New Freelance Writer

15 years into this freelance writing thing. I think it’s working out.

I have drunk from the dregs of freelance writing work: down in the content pits, mining those shoddy $10 articles, scouring for opportunities to do more of the same. I have lived in the self-damning world of uncertain writers: filled with doubt, sure of my own failure, carried by waves of inspiration and then destroyed on the cold, slippery rocks of their absence.
We can be so cruel to ourselves.
Every thing I’ve done as a writer has taught me something important. Sometimes it’s taught me what I want to avoid. That’s important, too.
However, there’s no need for you to spend so much time on uncertainty and false starts. These three lessons have had a profound effect on my career. Maybe they can help you, too.

Lesson 1: Most people want you to do well.

Pitching, querying, and applying is often terrifying, when you’re a new freelancer. The whole process feels mysterious, as if there are rules you don’t know, a secret code you don’t have. As if everyone is waiting for you to mess up.
There may be a few people like that—every crowd has its lowest common denominator—but most people are hoping you’ll do well.
Most people want to be pleased, not disappointed. Most people want to give you a Yes. They may not be able to (new is new, and there are things to learn and skills to polish along the way), but most people are happy to help you when they can. They’re looking for a reason to do so.
This doesn’t mean that editors will respond to an ill-formed query. It does mean, if you create a well-formed query, their preference will be to accept it with delight, not scour it for errors. Put in the effort needed. Learn and meet the standards. Beyond that, don’t overthink it. Trust that most people like helping other people. Trust that when your efforts meet a certain standard, the default response will be one of welcome, not of criticism and nitpicking.

Lesson 2: Most people want things to be easy.

Yes, most people want you to do well and are happy to help you when they can, by accepting your pitch, responding to your query, giving you the gig.
However, they have multiple motivations.
Motivation 1 may be “help other writers,” or similar.
Motivations 2-11 are, most likely, a list of variations of one rule, which is to “make things as easy as possible for myself.”
It’s not that we’re selfish. It’s that we’re wired to value our own survival over all. The survival instinct plays out in weird ways, but two common themes emerge. To ensure our own survival, we are always trying 1) to conserve energy and 2) to avoid unnecessary risk.
When you pitch, query, submit, apply, email, call, market, publish (or whatever it is you’re doing), you must keep those two themes in mind.
To get better responses, reduce complexity and reduce risk.

Reducing complexity

Reducing complexity means making it as easy as possible for others to understand and respond to you.
Reducing complexity is a writing (and life) superpower. It’s not easy. You have to think long enough to gain clarity. You have to speak courageously, saying what you actually want even if you’re not sure it’s okay to want it. It can feel risky, but that’s the point: by taking the risk on yourself, you remove (some of) the risk from others. Reducing complexity means you do more of the work, and ask them to do less. Less work (and less risk) means it’s easier for them to say Yes to you.
Here are a few examples:
  • Instead of the three-paragraph bio, send a two-sentence bio that captures the most important information about you as a writer.
  • Instead of a long, chatty intro on that email, use a simple greeting and state exactly what you want and why.
  • Speaking of email, make it easier for people to process (and respond to) your emails by using a clear, specific subject line.
  • Instead of offering your potential client five pricing options, offer one. Explain why it’s the best.
  • Instead of closing interactions with a vague follow-up indicator (“Let’s come back to this soon,” or “Think about it and let me know,”), state and/or ask for definite action on a specific timeline.
    • State: “I’ll do that research and let you know what I find out by Tuesday.”
    • Ask: “Please review the outline and let me know if there are changes needed by Monday so I can stay on schedule.”

Reducing risk

Risk doesn’t have to be real to have a real effect.
The perception of risk is what influences people.
A perception of high risk will cause most people to take a giant step backwards, away from the perceived risk. No one wants to fail; risk, in this context, is about the possibility of failure.
Reducing the perception of risk means reducing the chance of failure. Not for you, but for the people you’re working with, or want to work with.
How can you reduce risk for editors, hiring managers, new clients, blog owners, etc.?
Here are a few examples:
  • Keep track of why and how you’re qualified, and offer those qualifications. (A link to a website with a CV-like list of your education, experience, clips, projects, and other relevant qualifications can go a long way.)
  • Focus on the qualifications that matter most for each situation. (This is combination of reducing complexity—don’t make them wade through all your qualifications, only the ones that matter—and reducing risk.)
  • Don’t send attachments with your email unless specifically directed to do so. Attachments are risky. Instead, send a link to a trusted platform (Google Docs or Dropbox, for example), or copy and paste the text into the body of the email.
  • Offer clips to prove that you can write. If all you have is what you’ve published on your blog, link to that. Writing is writing is writing.
  • Offer to write on spec. I don’t do this anymore, and I don’t recommend it as a long-term practice. I do recommend it as a great way to get yourself published on a bigger platform when you don’t have any other way to prove that you’re a credible writer.
    • Once you have the clips/experience to prove your credibility in other ways, quit writing on spec.
  • Offer a sample, a risk-free guarantee, a complimentary consult, or some other “no risk” way for potential clients to try out what you’re offering.

Lesson 3: Focus will get you somewhere.

Focus isn’t about defining your passion, finding the perfect niche, or highlighting your unique value proposition as a freelance writer. Focus is about keeping your energy pointed in one direction long enough to benefit from your efforts.
I wish I’d figured this out sooner. Before the 4 or 5 blogs I’ve started, put many hours into, then abandoned. Before the half-written books, unfinished projects, and hours of chasing possibilities that weren’t a good fit.
Focusing means choosing a direction, and sticking to it.
The direction could be a particular topic or area of expertise. It could be a particular format or type of writing. It could be a quality you have as a writer (such as exactness, reliability, fast turnaround, excellent research, impeccable grammar, personal storytelling).
It doesn’t matter what the focus is. It matters only that you choose one and stick with it.
We think it matters—the choice of what we focus on. It doesn’t. The direction doesn’t matter; forward movement matters. What you focus on now isn’t what you’ll focus on forever.
Don’t fear getting trapped in your focus.
Focus will get you somewhere, and once you get there, you can choose your next direction. Success in one area will open new doors. You can’t predict where those new doors will lead.
This is a lesson I’m still learning. The only move that matters is your next move. Pick a direction and stick with it, and you’ll get further, faster. You’ll establish your proficiency and credibility, which enables you to negotiate for more of what you want as you continue, expand, or move into a new direction.

Photo by Joseph Gruenthal on Unsplash

How to tell the difference between haters and critics

A critic is someone who can provide important and helpful feedback about your work. 

They can give you specific insights and suggestions. This kind of criticism is excellent. 

  • It can show you ways to improve your work.
  • It can help you understand how your work is perceived by others. 
  • It can help you understand your audience better. 
  • It can show you details that will raise the quality of your work. 
  • It can provoke ideas for expanding your work. 
  • It can point you in the right direction for increasing your own skills.

Critics are helpful for creativity

If you have genuine, helpful critics, listen to them. 

No, don’t take every word they say as the ultimate truth. 

But if they are giving you specific and thoughtful feedback, listen and be humble. No one’s work is perfect. We all tend to be blind in some areas. Think of your critics as assistants, as coaches: they give you a new set of eyes, ears, and impressions. They broaden your perspective.

Plus, learning to humbly receive criticism and pull value from it is a foundational creative skill. 

It will help you improve. It will help you figure out what to learn next. It can help you understand who you’re really talking to. Often, the audience we imagine is quite different than the audience we actually have. A thoughtful critic can help you get to know the audience you actually have.

Haters are not helpful for… anything

But then there are the other kind of critics. Let’s call them what they are: haters.

They don’t like your work. They probably don’t like you.

A hater is someone who will never be pleased with your work, no matter how many improvements or changes you make.

A hater’s negative reaction comes from their own internal issues.

A hater’s “criticism” will often include insults, personal nitpicks, generalizations, and challenges. Their criticism isn’t really criticism; it’s an attack. Their intent is not to raise your creative standards, or point out flaws and ways to improve; their intent is to belittle and provoke.

When you respond to a hater — to defend your work, to discuss their points, to debate their point of view — you’ve already lost.

How to spot a critic

Three characteristics make a helpful critic:

  • They have valid expertise in the work and/or subject.
  • They have paid careful attention to the work itself.
  • They offer specific criticism and/or suggestions.

Critics have valid expertise in the work or the subject. 

If someone meets the other two criteria for being a critic, but doesn’t have the valid expertise, then what they give you is feedback from a fan. It can be helpful; but it’s not the same as a critique from an expert. 

Critics have paid careful attention to the work they’re critiquing. 

They took some time to understand it. Otherwise, how can they offer you actual insights or specific suggestions?

Critics provide specific points of praise (yay!) or possibility (also yay, really): 

  • Praise feels good. Enjoy it. 

“I like the way she opened the chapter with immediate action.”

Keep an ongoing log of praise and positive feedback. Read it when imposter syndrome comes swooping in.

  • Specific insights and suggestions are full of possibility. 

“I didn’t like the dialogue. It felt awkward and unreal.”

Use these insights to improve your work. In this example, you can now review and improve the dialogue. You’ve learned that it reads as awkward and unreal, to a qualified expert. That’s helpful. Now you can go back and make it better.

Patterns in criticism

Patterns in criticism are helpful. For example, if you get negative responses to your dialogue multiple times, there’s an area to improve:

  • Take a class on writing dialogue. 
  • Read some novels from masters of dialogue. 
  • Listen to interviews to get the rhythm of how people talk in your head. 
  • Etc.

When a particular criticism is repeated, pay attention to it. 

It can show you how to improve your craft. It can help you gain the skills that will actually increase the quality of your work.

How to get criticism

What if you’re not getting any genuine criticism, and you’d like some?

The best way to generate more is to ask.

You can ask your audience: 

“I made this, and I’d love to get some feedback and thoughtful criticism. If you have a few minutes, please let me know your thoughts.”

Even better, include a few specific questions for your audience to answer. Or point them to a form or survey they can fill out.

You can also ask select people. 

Think of folks you know who are qualified to critique the work you do. Then ask. 

Be specific and ask for a small time commitment:

  •  “Would you critique this chapter?” rather than “Would you critique this book?” 
  • “Would you give me a few suggestions to improve my website’s home page?” rather than “What do you think of my website?”

How to respond to haters

Haters will show up.

Here’s how to handle them. 

First, distinguish between haters, critics, and fans. 

  • Critics are qualified experts who offer thoughtful and specific suggestions to improve your work. 
  • Fans are people who follow your work, but aren’t qualified experts in the subject or type of work you do; they may have negative or positive responses to your work. 
  • Haters are people who have decide they don’t like you, or your work, no matter what. They don’t give feedback or criticism; they attack and seek to provoke.

When you find haters (or they find you), starve ’em out. They feed on emotion and reaction. Give them neither. That’s the way to handle them.

Either don’t respond at all or develop a one-line response and copy-paste it as needed:

  • “Personal attacks are not helpful creative criticism.”
  • “I can’t do anything with this information. Take care.”
  • “Okay, have a nice day.”
  • “Okay.”
  • “Interesting response.”

Personally, I like the simplest example: “Okay.” 

It’s enough. 

It’s a clear message: I’m acknowledging you, but you’re not worth my time or attention. I’m not emotionally upset or provoked by you. In fact, I find you kind of sad and funny. Bye.

When you respond to creative work by others, it can help to think of the role you play. Are you a fan giving feedback? An expert providing specific and helpful criticism? Or a hater spewing negativity? 

It’s not worth your time to respond to haters, and it’s not worth your time to be one, either. 

Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash