Today's reader question comes from Christian Simmons, one of several writers to reach out to me as the current coronavirus pandemic hit their freelance writing businesses.
A common theme is freelancers wondering if they should start specializing in pandemic-related content for the time being. Now, in Christian's case, he's a health writer who might have interview contacts that would make this feasible. But that's not the case for most freelancers I've heard from.
So let me start with this: If you're not a specialist in the health or medical field, suddenly changing your specialty and marketing your services entirely around COVID-19 is not the answer. If anything, you risk disseminating more misinformation than helpful content right now. Leave it to those who understand the issue.
That said, there are ways you can tweak your existing specialties to focus on issues at the forefront because of the pandemic. And as you'll read below, I gave Christian some examples along those lines.
Let's jump into Christian's email, my response to him, and then some additional tips on what you can do with downtime if clients are cutting back (and how you can safeguard against this happening in the future).
How Can Freelance Writers Get Through the Coronavirus Pandemic?
This is the gist of the message I received from Christian:
I am a health information and awareness writer.
I write on certain health issues (heart attacks, strokes, etc.), what they are, what can be done about them, and how to prevent [them].
In the wake of the current coronavirus situation, business seems to have faltered...
Non-essential business closing [is] making it extremely difficult to get work.
How can I start my new niche in this crisis?
As time goes on, I am finding myself in financial difficulty.
What can I do to gain money as a freelance writer without clients? Job boards? Platforms? Or the like?
General Advice for Freelance Writers Suffering Due to COVID-19
Here's my original response to Christian:
Rather than starting a new niche around a temporary crisis, I’d recommend looking for ways to tie the pandemic to topics you already specialize in.
For example, you might publish about the added risks COVID-19 poses to those with existing heart conditions, how the hospital situation due to the virus might cause problems for those needing emergency care such as during a heart attack, or other things along those lines.
If you change anything, change the types of businesses you’re targeting. Focus on essential businesses right now.
For example, neighborhood restaurants or markets might need help with newsletters, blog posts, social media content, etc. to keep their customers informed about the precautions they’re taking, letting people know they’re still open (like restaurants moving more to delivery), or to encourage more online orders where physical locations are closed.
Nonprofits might also need extra help right now (think animal shelters that can’t entirely close and might desperately need fosters right now, or organizations helping those most affected by the pandemic). They need to get messages out now more than ever.
[In Christian's specific case as a specialized health writer, healthcare nonprofits would be a good group to reach out to. Doctor's offices might make sense. So would teledoc services. Even veterinary offices where medical safety precautions and limited schedules are being introduced while they need to keep customers informed. He might also think about companies supplying medical gear and equipment to healthcare workers, or even government agencies with drastically increased communication needs.]
If you start over completely with a new focus, you’re building a presence from scratch. And it’s not going to be easy to gain visibility in a news-heavy area dominated by big media, government sources, and medical professionals. So use whatever visibility and leverage you already have to your advantage as much as possible.
As for other income sources, I always recommend diversifying. But that doesn’t mean other income streams will generate significant revenue quickly. Definitely consider starting now, but with the understanding you’re building in longer-term security, not necessarily a short-term fix. When work is slow, perhaps spend some time working on a short e-book or guide you can sell.
I don’t know where most of your jobs come from right now. But you can certainly add to your marketing mix. If you don’t look at job boards usually, consider it now. Clients who don’t normally work with remote freelancers might be advertising where they usually wouldn’t.
While I don’t recommend “platforms” (such as bidding sites like Upwork), if you feel particularly stuck, I certainly couldn’t fault you with looking there short-term. But I’d still avoid anywhere that requires you to pay for access to their leads. Those sites’ income should be coming from people advertising gigs, not those searching and applying for them.
If you don’t normally do a lot of direct pitching and now leads are drying up, go ahead and pitch. You’re prepared to fill needs companies didn’t have just a few months ago. They might not realize how you can help them until you reach out and let them know.
What to do if Freelance Writing Work Slows Down?
First, let's focus on the freelance side.
If You Don't Have Paid Sick Time, You're Doing Something Wrong
One of the biggest freelance writing myths I see spread around, even from those who should know better, is that freelancers don't get paid time off.
This is only true if you choose for it to be true.
When you're self-employed, you serve in the role as both employee and employer. And if you aren't giving yourself adequate benefits like paid sick time, paid vacation time, and health insurance, you're being a pretty shitty boss to yourself.
These things shouldn't be afterthoughts. They are your responsibility. They should be factored in every single time you set or adjust your freelance writing rates. Your rates need to cover everything you would expect a traditional job to cover.
Not sure what that includes? Start here:
If you aren't earning enough to cover these things, start by asking yourself why that is. You might not be charging enough. You might not be taking on enough clients at your current rates. Or you might need to adjust the markets you're targeting if the ones you're in now aren't covering these costs.
Now is obviously not the right time to raise your rates or jump entirely into new markets if you're taking a hit because of the coronavirus pandemic. But it's the perfect time to re-work those numbers, find out where you went wrong previously, and figure out what needs to change after you get through this.
Not sure how to calculate what you really need to earn and charge? Try my freelance hourly rate calculator to point you in the right direction. (Tip: Don't assume you know how much you need to earn in a year. Click the "Advanced Freelance Rate Calculator" link at the top to switch to advanced mode and figure it out based on expenses, desired benefits, and savings goals.)
This doesn't mean you would generally account for weeks or months of time off all at once over things like COVID-19. But when you've accounted for basic benefits and savings, you put yourself in a much more stable position. You'll have money to pay yourself if you need to work a half schedule for a while. You'll have insurance if you get sick (and I hope none of you do). And things simply won't look as bleak when you've put in that planning.
For freelancers who haven't thought these things through before, this pandemic might be a harsh wake-up call. But it's a necessary one.
How to Find New Clients During the Coronavirus Pandemic
Now let's get to what you probably want to know most -- where can you find gigs with companies closing down and clients dropping freelancers because of the pandemic?
Yes, I know some freelancers hate job boards. But if your existing clients are pulling out of ongoing contracts, job boards are a good place to start looking for short-term fill-in projects. If a gig is being advertised, there's an immediate need.
That might mean using specialized job boards like the All Freelance Writing job board (where I post ads from advertisers as well as curating them from third party sources as long as pay info is disclosed).
Another good option is to check job boards specializing in remote work.
Some examples include:
- We Work Remotely - Copywriting Jobs
- RemoteOK - Marketing Jobs
- Remote.co - Writing Jobs
- Working Nomads - Writing Jobs
When searching these sites, remember to check other categories. For example, while some have writing categories you might find copywriting gigs tucked into the marketing category instead. These can turn up freelance gigs but also remote employee positions, so check carefully before applying if you want to stick to solely contract work.
Another option is to use more general job boards.
Two personal favorites are:
What makes these different from some others is that they compile listings from other sites. You can do similar by searching for a job title and adding "jobs" at the end in Google to view their own multi-site job board listings.
Don't only search for open freelance writing positions though. Also see who advertised for permanent writing staff over the past month or so if those jobs are still up.
They might have paused the hiring process for those new employees while the company's slowed down or gone remote temporarily. As a freelancer, you can help them fill those holes until they're ready to resume business as usual.
And yes, most of the gigs you'll find there are utter garbage, but try searching Craigslist too.
I check there regularly when curating listings, and believe it or not there are some gems to be found. I highly recommend you look beyond your local area though as most of these gigs are remote anyway. New York and Los Angeles listings tend to bring up the best results for me. Chicago, Seattle, and San Diego searches also turn up a fair number of gigs worth considering.
Make sure you check the relevant sections under both jobs and gigs so you don't miss anything.
Along those lines, see if your area's newspapers run online classifieds where you might find local businesses seeking remote help right now.
A Note on Freelance Writing Queries During the Pandemic
Many freelance writers prioritize pitching when they want to find new freelance writing gigs. If you're not someone who prefers this (like me), you might want to start some more direct outreach to prospects.
That said, you need to be much more cautious now in how you pitch those prospects. Don't be insensitive. Know the situation of the companies or publications you're targeting (whether or not they're operating right now, if they've just laid off a lot of their staff, etc.). And don't bombard anyone with pitches for coronavirus coverage unless you are thoroughly familiar with what they've already published.
Now is a good time to remember that what you write for clients is ultimately about serving the reader. What do their readers or customers need in this unique time? And in what way can you legitimately help? Those are the queries you'll want to send now.
Reaching Out to Prior Freelance Writing Clients
Now is also a great time to reach out to clients you've worked with in the past. Think about ones in essential industries in particular -- those under the most stress that might need an extra hand or two. Reach out. Send them an email. Pick up the phone.
Don't do this to necessarily pitch a project. Check in because you're a good person who genuinely cares about how they're doing through all of this. Listen to their feedback. Get a feel for what their needs are. If there's an opening where you think you can help, then consider suggesting a project.
For example, maybe you've written for local restaurants in the past. They haven't needed you for any campaign copy recently, but suddenly they find themselves under "stay at home" orders where they're only permitted to sell via takeout or delivery orders. How are they getting the word out to locals that their business is still open for these orders? And what can you do to help with that? They'll likely need new marketing material to get people's attention -- making customers feel safe ordering from them, introducing new delivery services, or something else along those lines.
You already know these clients' businesses. So you're in a better position than most other writers to know how to help them. Get in touch. Show them you genuinely give a damn. And be there ready to assist if and when they're ready.
Overall, the key right now is to not be shy about putting yourself out there. Ask friends and family if they have leads. Ask colleagues to refer work your way or sub-contract to you if they're in an more in-demand area and are still getting too many requests. Announce on social media accounts that you're accepting new clients (especially if you can help in niches like healthcare, food, e-learning, e-commerce, or any other area of high interest currently).
Reach out where you can, and otherwise make yourself as easy to find as possible.
Protect Your Freelance Writing Business from the Next Pandemic (or Any Crisis)
Freelancing is inherently more stable than taking a standard job because your income is spread out between multiple clients. No freelancer worth their salt relies on just one or two clients for all their income. They diversify. And so should you.
But diversifying your income doesn't have to end with taking on multiple clients at any given time. I'd argue it shouldn't. The more sources of income you have, the less it stings when a contract ends, especially unexpectedly.
Ideally, you'll want at least one income source that keeps bringing in passive income (or semi-passive income) during times you can't work or suddenly lose gigs. These are income streams where you don't have to do much, if any, ongoing work to keep that money flowing.
For example, let's say you sell an e-book on your site. If freelance work slows down, you can run a sale or more heavily promote those e-book sales to help make up some of the difference. In my case, I have several sites that continue to bring in income with almost no effort at all when I'm not able to work a normal freelance schedule.
The more of these income sources you have, the better.
For now though, just think about one.
What can you do or build related to your freelance writing work for clients that could help you expand your income opportunities and make you more secure in the future if something like COVID-19 ever hit again?
Here are some ideas:
- Write and sell short actionable guides or e-books for your target clients. (My first only took a weekend to complete, brought in thousands of dollars in direct sales, and led to tens of thousands of dollars in freelance writing work, making it a great marketing tool as well.)
- Launch a simple website tied to the niche or industry you specialize in, or a niche of interest to your target clients. It doesn't have to be a regular blog. It can be a simple static site with 10 pages or so of content focused tightly on a topic (again, actionable is better). Monetize it with ad revenue or affiliate promotions.
- Release a template of some kind (or a collection of them) that would be useful to your target clients.
- You could even add different types of services that might have different demand levels than freelance writing -- like consulting, or blog setups for businesses.
These are assuming you want those additional income streams to be directly tied to your freelance writing work. But that's not necessary. Want to finally publish that novel you've had in your head for years? Work on that. Want to launch and monetize a blog on a topic you're passionate about outside your freelance specialty? Get to work on that. It's OK for your freelance writing business to expand into a broader writing business. The key is making sure your income as a writer isn't dependent on any single source that can dry up on you.
What You Can do Today
I know how overwhelming this can feel. Hell, I've been feeling overwhelmed with all this pandemic stuff too, and I'm not in any position to panic right now. My heart goes out to those of you in tougher spots. Priority one is just getting yourselves and families through any given day. Focus on your mental and physical health first. But when you're ready to put that downtime into good use for your business again, here are some things you can start on even if you don't have contracts lined up:
- Evaluate your current situation and think about how you might want to tweak your target market, rates, or other elements of your business and marketing plans to get you through the long haul.
- Reach out to at least one previous client just to see how they and their staff are doing during this time. See if there's any way you can help them communicate changes to their customers.
- Check in with colleagues too. Make sure they're OK, commiserate a bit, and maybe help each other through this just by being there for each other.
- Plan a new income stream even if it won't lead to immediate sales. Start thinking about building a more stable long-term writing business and get started on a project that can help you get there.
- Try new marketing tactics you've been hesitant to. If you hate job boards, did a little deeper and find new ways to dig out some gems (like using job boards to find unadvertised freelance writing gigs). If you don't like pitching, try some fresh outreach anyway. Have you resisted adding a blog to drive more prospects to your professional website? Put some serious effort into one now (you don't need to update them constantly to see great results).
- Create new marketing or PR materials -- a free e-book, set up an email newsletter, a recent case study, white paper, etc.
- Refresh your professional site. Do a content audit, update outdated pages or posts, make sure every page has a call-to-action, and look for other ways to improve your copy or design.
- Test a new tool you've been considering using in your business (new invoicing tool, to-do list, editorial calendar, social media post scheduler, etc.).
I have days when I don't want to do much of anything right now. And that's OK too. If your clients are cutting back and you just want to use the time for a mental break or to spend time with the family or spring clean... or whatever... do it. Be gentle with yourself as you're navigating new territory. But when you're ready to jump back in and start looking for new work or building something to help stabilize your income in the longer-term, I hope some of the resources here will help you.
In the meantime stay safe, stay healthy, and stay home as much as possible.