Freelance Writers: Things Are Rarely as Bad as we Think They Are

Do you ever feel flustered under the pressure of your freelance work? Do you have a client who sometimes drives you crazy? Do you fear losing a gig because you don't know where the next one will come from? Do you constantly worry about money because you aren't earning as much as you'd like?

First: take a step back. Next: breathe.

Freelancing, or running any kind of business, can be hard work. With that comes the occasional stressful period. Sometimes you might even feel completely in over your head. Many freelance writers quit before they really give themselves a chance. And even more experienced professionals sometimes dream about the supposed greener pastures of steady paychecks and employer-paid benefits.

If you're going through one of these periods, you're not alone. I've been in those shoes too (and still am from time to time when I push too hard or take on too much or have to get tough with a client even though I worry about losing the contract). So have many more of your colleagues. And do you know what? For the most part, we get through it. And so can you.

You see, no matter how bad we think we have it at any given moment, things probably aren't as bad as we think they are. You have something most traditional employees do not. You have the power to make any change you want in your business to help you overcome obstacles, break through walls, and reach your goals (even if you sometimes take the longer road). If something isn't working for you today, you can stop it. You can try something else. You don't have to wait for a manager or some board to approve plans. You figure out what you need to do. You decide to do what's best for yourself. And then you do it.

Making changes isn't always easy. But as long as you understand it's in your power to improve your circumstances or overcome the things (big or small) that are stressing you out, you'll get through it. Remember. Things are rarely as bad as we think they are. And even if the walls really are falling down around us today, we have what it takes to build them back up again tomorrow.

What things stress you out the most as a freelance writer? Have you faced any of these stressful circumstances recently? Do you ever wonder if you should quit your freelance writing business? What keeps you in the game versus leaving? What motivates you to keep pursuing your goals, no matter how hard things get sometimes? Leave a comment below to share your tips and stories.

Profile image for Jennifer Mattern

Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, consultant, and indie author. She runs numerous websites & blogs including All Freelance Writing, Freelance Writing Pros, NakedPR, and Kiss My Biz.

Jenn has 25 years' experience as a professional writer and editor and over 20 years' experience in marketing and PR (working heavily in digital PR, online marketing, social media, SEO, new media, and thought leadership publication). She also has 19 years' professional blogging and web publishing experience (including web development) and around 18 years of experience as an indie author / publisher.

Jenn also writes fiction under multiple pen names and is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association.

Subscribe to the All Freelance Writing newsletter to get freelance writing updates from Jenn in your inbox.

25 thoughts on “Freelance Writers: Things Are Rarely as Bad as we Think They Are”

  1. Wow, you’ve just summarized my experience this week as if you have some CCTV cam placed over my place ( laughs ). I think that sometimes, you need to listen more to what your stress is telling you. I almost quit on a client because of incessant demands and I simply followed my gut instincts to be honest about it over our Skype call. It turns out that the client is clueless about stuff and we worked out our differences. We even came to an agreement to be more open to each other to make things work seamlessly– and I’m glad I listened to my gut instincts, or I’ll be out there in the dark looking for another freelance gig and start building relationships all over. Let’s say I’m enjoying this safety net for now.

    • Being honest about the problems really does seem to be the best solution, at least in my experience. It can still be stressful building up to that conversation, and there’s always the chance the client won’t be understanding. But more often than not I find the working relationships is much better after the blunt call or email explaining what’s wrong and what we’ll need to do to fix it if we want to keep working together. I’m glad to hear your gut pointed you in the right direction in this case. It’s nice having clients we can be open and honest with, even if not always the easiest thing to do. It sure beats not communicating effectively at all. 🙂

      • Agreed. I’ve noticed over the course of my working life that being honest yet tactful goes a long way toward gaining a person respect.

  2. The stress of freelancing evolves – at least it has for me. As you build more confidence, the fears are not so crippling. They don’t go away, but, they definitely change.

    In the beginning, it can be a kind of quiet (or not so quiet) desperation for the next gig – no matter what the price. Now, I find that by reminding myself why I started my own business, it comes down to this – freedom. You nailed it, Jenn. We have the freedom to make the change. We don’t have to wait for a committee to review it, a manager to sign off or a vote by majority.

    It has become easier to quote a fee without worrying if it’s too high. My evolution has brought me to the thought , “If they can’t afford it, that’s okay. We just aren’t the right fit.” I can actually think that without hyperventilating over “what if they say no?”

    My ah-ha moment came when I was attending an IABC seminar. A fellow freelance business owner said, “I figured if it didn’t work out, I could always go back to a corporate job.” That’s when I started hyperventilating. I realized, no, I can’t. That’s when I knew – Girl, you are in this for the long-haul. You’d better make it work.

    • That’s very true. I definitely stressed more early on. You want to hold onto every client. Eventually you get used to the fact that some clients will come and go and others will be around for quite some time. I still stress when I need to get firm with a long-term client. But ultimately I do. I stand my ground. And in most cases things work out pretty well. I have one client that causes me more stress than most. But I don’t know why. I get annoyed by something (a last minute change for example). I stress about it before talking to them about the problem (because it’s a repeated one). But as soon as I do get firm about my terms, firm about the payments, or simply let them know this isn’t okay moving forward, it’s fine. It’s never turned out badly. And sometimes I have to remind myself of that to avoid that inevitable surge in blood pressure. I’ve let go of big clients before. It’s always stressful. Not so much because I can’t replace them, but because there’s a certain level of comfort when you’ve become intimately familiar with someone’s business and market over the years. The thought of starting that all over again is stressful in itself. But hey. They come and go, and that’s just a reality of it. We can do just as well with the next one when we outgrow each other.

  3. There are weeks when I love being a freelancer (although I am now trying to think of myself as a business owner) and there are weeks that I wonder what I am doing. Most of the time, I just let myself get caught up in little things that distract me and make me feel more overwhelmed and behind than I actually am.

    Yes, it’s nice to have the freedom to be your own boss, but sometimes you need to remember to act on that. I only answer to myself (and my clients of course), but I need to hold myself accountable. By doing this, I can stop getting distracted and focus on creating some great work.

    Thanks for the post!

    • lol I think we all have those weeks sometimes, wondering what the heck we’re doing.

      I know exactly what you mean about getting overwhelmed by the little things. I make the mistake of opening Twitter or email too early more often than I should. The next thing I know, hours have gone by and I still have to start on client work. Other days I stress over blog BS (so-and-so gets upset with something I said, or a friend is mad at me for not commenting on her blog to support her during a pile-on, or someone wants me to answer their comment question right now…). The tiniest bit of stupidity or other stress can send my blood pressure soaring and my concentration plummeting. And at other times I simply commit to too much in a given day and the procrastination of stressing about it is what really puts me behind rather than an overwhelming amount of work. Over the years I’ve found that when I feel overwhelmed the best thing to do is stop working. It might sound counterintuitive but taking a couple of hours to do housework, run errands, take a nap, take a walk, etc. can do wonders for re-energizing and de-stressing. And if I don’t do that, the time is wasted anyway as I stare at the screen or jump back into distractions because my focus on things that matter is completely shot.

      Accountability is sometimes a tough transition in the freelance life. Having a to-do list staring me in the face helps. Having colleagues who can help hold me accountable for some things is nice too. Out of curiosity, what do you find works best when it comes to accountability?

    • Amy is right.

      A big problem for us, as freelance writers, is the need to decisively and consciously pull ourselves by the bootstrap.

      A lot of times, you just want to stay back and do nothing to relieve yourself of the past stress but you are actually losing money.

      I guess we, as freelance writers, should see ourselves to be losing money once we are not engaged working. Rather than think ‘I’m not making money right now’, we should think, ‘I’m losing money right now’ for not completing this project in time.

      Back to today’s issue…

      In the past, I have derived more energy for work by keeping in touch with fellow writers and following up on their progress.

      I hope this tip will help someone.

      • I have to agree. Being in touch with other successful freelancers keeps me motivated. We get to share war stories, learn from each other, get feedback, and have people who “nag” us about the new things we’re supposed to be working on. Couldn’t imagine anything better for motivation.

  4. I have had some of those “wake up in the middle of the night with the 3 am sweats” the past few weeks. I lost a client because of a bad business situation they were in and I had to take a magazine publisher to court for publishing my articles without paying me.

    What keeps me going is that I love working for myself and I definitely do not want to go back to corporate America. When I stop and take a deep breath, I realize that it’s not that bad. It all works itself out or rather I end up doing something to make it all work out.

    The magazine publisher did not show up at court and the judge issued a default judgment, so he has to pay me all of the money he owes me, plus some. I worked a little harder this week to reach out to old clients and renewed a couple of relationships, and landed some new business from it. I put in a little more than my usual marketing time and received some new opportunities. Other new possibilities are still rolling in.

    It’s true that the worries never fully go away, but it’s also true that there is always something you can do to make a change. The key to making the change is do not allow your fear or worry to cripple you. I have a friend and former colleague who loves when someone tells her that she can’t do something–that there is no way she can accomplish it. She says it makes her work harder at proving them wrong. And, I have to say, she usually does!

    • I’m 100% with your friend on that one. Nothing motivates me more than someone telling me I can’t do something. There’s this “Oh yeah?” alarm that goes off in my head and puts me in overdrive. 🙂

      Sorry to hear that you lost a client. 🙁 On the other hand, congratulations on winning your court case! 🙂 I see a lot of writers allow themselves to be pushed around by bigger clients, so it’s always nice to hear the stories of freelancers standing up for themselves.

  5. There came a point in my freelance career where I found a way over that wall. I no longer thought about chucking freelancing for a “real”job, and I committed to the job mentally. All in. What changed? Something another writer said to me. “You have to treat this job as if it’s your only option.”

    Acting on that thought has made the difference.

    So how did I do that? By learning how to market (easy) and sticking with it (hard).

    My motivation is this: I love this gig. I can’t imagine setting foot in an office as an employee again. I love having control of my own creativity and my own destiny. I’ll guard that with every ounce of energy I have. That keeps me going.

    • Excellent way of thinking about it (both you and Cathy essentially have the same philosophy it seems). 🙂 I worked for a major nonprofit before this (although I’ve been freelancing on the side for much longer). The drama and politics of that kind of work made it very clear to me I wasn’t cut out for it. I’d much prefer to do my own thing and point out insanity when I see it. I couldn’t sit by seeing how wasteful and ridiculous things could be. And I’ve never looked back. Go back to the nonprofit or corporate worlds? No thanks! If by some chance this failed in the long run, I’d just go into another business for myself — maybe re-launch my PR firm or get into another area of Web development.

      And you’re absolutely right. Sticking with it is the tough part. But ultimately it’s what separates those who succeed from those who fail. Glad you’re in the former group. 🙂

  6. Cathy Miller said: In the beginning, it can be a kind of quiet (or not so quiet) desperation for the next gig – no matter what the price.

    This is kind of the story of my life right now. After what seems like ages of marketing, I finally got contacted by a couple prospective clients this week…who can’t afford my rates (which are by no means exorbitant). It’s pretty disheartening and makes me wonder if I’m just kidding myself that I can pull this off.

    Another challenge for me is avoiding burnout while juggling getting my business started and working a day job I can’t afford to quit.

    My first instinct was to take a break and relax. Which I did for a day – then I sent out some queries and that made me feel a little better because each one gives me a little extra hope. I’ve given myself concrete monetary goals to work toward as well and that seems to help, even though I haven’t yet hit my mark.

    • I have two simple suggestions for you after looking at your site (re: the rates issue):

      1. Don’t quote hourly rates. It immediately pits you against the client, because they want to minimize the time spent on a project. Think of your target hourly rate when planning rates, but then convert that into project rates. It’s much easier to get someone to agree to $250 for a final result that has a certain value to them than to say “$50 per hour and I estimate five hours for the project.” In the first case they accept the rate and you do the work. In the second, you can find yourself pressured to work faster to keep the end rate down. In my experience it’s much easier to sell people on a per project rate than an hourly one when it comes to freelance writing.

      2. How old is your site? Unless it was brand new, you’re shooting yourself in the foot with that design. I see a lot of javascript elements there, and I see that only your home page is indexed by Google (and that only has a few words). If the SEs can’t index your whole site properly, you won’t ever rank well for your target keyword phrases to attract those higher paying clients who can afford your rates. If you don’t think the script has an effect because the site is brand new, wait it out for a little bit. But if you still aren’t indexed in a week or so (or if the site’s been around a month or more), I’d say you need to move to another design that’s more SEO-friendly.

      Just my $.02 on a place to start. 🙂

      • Jenn,

        I really appreciate your taking the time to look at my website and give me advice on it.

        Don’t quote hourly rates. It immediately pits you against the client, because they want to minimize the time spent on a project.

        It’s so funny you say that, when I was talking to the second client about her project the first thing she asked me was, “It’s not going to take more than two hours, is it?”. Uhhh, it would have probably take me that long just to do the research.

        As to the second part of your advice, I have to admit I’m not the most SEO-savvy person so I never would have figured that out without someone telling me. I built the site myself using a WYSIWIG program. Sounds like I need get a book on developing a successful business website.

        • That’s exactly the kind of thing you’ll keep hearing with hourly rates. It doesn’t always happen, but it my guess is you’d have fewer rate-related problems if you moved toward a project based model (per word can work too, although I still find project fees get the least resistance).

          As for the site, no need to get a book and develop from scratch. Do you have your own hosting account? Then set up a site with a WordPress installation —

          You can find a lot of decent free themes out there nowadays, and it makes life so much easier. WordPress is also generally SEO-friendly and you can download plugins to make it even moreso. If you don’t want the sometimes spammy credit links at the bottom of a free theme, offer to pay for the right to remove it. I’ve found that many designers are happy to grant you permission if you donate $20-25. Or you can use a premium theme. I like the ones from Elegant Themes — you pay a small yearly fee for access to all of their themes and their support forums to get help. I think switching to a more SEO-friendly setup could help dramatically. 🙂

      • Are we allowed to reply to your post to another commenter, Jennifer? I looked at the policies, but it may be part blog etiquette that I just don’t know about. If I’m not supposed to do this or if it is rude, please just don’t post this.

        Anyway, why shouldn’t someone list their hourly rates? I’ve posted hourly rates for the last year, and also let clients know this up front, and I’m more satisfied with the results, especially if you have scope creep. Is there a rationale as to why not to do this? Plus maybe it isn’t the rates that are a problem, but rather the clients that Jessica has found so far, and perhaps eventually she will find ones that can afford her rates. Just curious.

        • First, you may absolutely reply to other commenters or to any replies I or other contributors leave in a discussion with other readers. 🙂

          There are a few reasons hourly rates frequently don’t work out well in freelance writing (although they can in other areas like consulting, marketing services as add-ons, etc.). As I mentioned in the previous comment, hourly rates automatically pit the client against the freelancer because it puts them in a position where some want to “watch the clock” instead of focus on end results. And it’s the value of your end result that they’re technically paying for.

          While I think it’s important to know the hourly value of project-based rates, I’ve found it’s much easier to convince clients to pay the value of a project when they’re quoted by the project. When you focus on benefits (as you should always do in marketing), the benefits come from the end result, not the hours. So they have an easier time justifying a project price as opposed to something more open-ended and less concrete.

          For example, it’s easier to charge $3000 for a white paper than tell a client you charge $150 per hour and the project will take 20 hours to complete. You put them in a position where they’re more likely to try to rush you because they only want to pay for, say 12 hours (although in reality they want the same quality work you put into the 20 hour portfolio samples).

          Another issue I’ve noticed (and one many other freelancers have brought up in similar discussions) is the issue of pay envy. Editors and business owners you might work for could very well earn less per hour than what you charge as an hourly rate (the exception being if your rates are on the rather low end of the freelance spectrum). It’s tough to convince someone that you’re worth that $150 per hour if they only make $35 per hour in their day job. They don’t consider the facts that their rates include benefits and paid time off, that ours cover increased taxes in some cases, and that ours are based on billable hours rather than theirs being based on working hours. We’ve done the research and calculations several times before, and we’ve found that to earn the equivalent of an employee’s hourly rate as a writer, you often have to charge around 40% more than what they do. And that’s on a yearly basis. It’s even higher when you factor in the working vs billable hour issue.

          It’s psychological really. But if you have all the clients you could possibly wand and then some — as in you have your pick of projects — then stick with whatever you’re doing. If you’d like to earn more, don’t have enough clients in that you avoid dry spells, have to take each that comes along, etc., it never hurts to try something else. It depends on what you want to earn, what you specialize in, and whether or not you offer extras that mean it makes sense to bill hourly.

          Because you didn’t leave a link to your business site, I can’t see what your hourly rates are or what services you offer, so it’s tough to compare the situation to Jessica’s directly.


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