If you make your living writing then you’re probably familiar with the difficulty of making regular income as a freelancer. For two months you have nothing, and then suddenly you’re so slammed that you don’t have time to eat, sleep, or shower. Your bank account goes up and down like a yo-yo. And with every feast, you wonder if it will be your last.
I’ve been going through the feast-or-famine cycle for almost 14 years, and have learned how to smooth out the bumps.
1. Market when you’re busiest. It seems counterintuitive — why try to carve time for marketing out of a week that’s crammed with assignments? You have work. Duh.
The smart freelancer knows that the marketing she does now is what’s going to supply her income three or more months down the line. It takes time for marketing to turn into sales, so waiting for the assignments to dry up before pounding the pavement isn’t the best tactic. Even when I’m on deadline, I’ll be sending out article queries, direct mail to copywriting prospects, and letters of introduction — not to mention touching base with all my clients and following up on queries and letters of intro that are more than two or three weeks old.
2. Be the ant. Remember the fable of the ant and the grasshopper? The ant spends the warm months gathering food while the grasshopper has fun singing and hanging out with lady grasshoppers. Come winter, the grasshopper has no food and the ant, who’s rolling in goodies, tells the grasshopper to get lost.
The moral of the story for freelancers? No, it’s not that ants are jerks. It’s that you need to save money from the feast times to get you through the famines. It’s tempting, when you’ve just deposited thousands of dollars worth of writing checks, to splurge on a vacation or a new wardrobe. You feel like the good times will last forever. But take my word for it: There will be a famine period and you’ll wish you’d saved some of your cash. Try to build a cushion so you don’t have to beg an ant for money when you have no work.
3. Space out (your deadlines, that is). This is something that affects your schedule — and your sanity — more than your income. Until recently I had a problem where I’d have five articles due in one week, and then the next week (which of course had zero deadlines) I’d spend recuperating from exhaustion. Now I know to negotiate deadlines so that they’re more spread out. Just yesterday, in fact, an editor asked me to turn in an article on March 14. I already have an article due on that day, so I asked my editor for more time. She immediately agreed.
Don’t be afraid to ask for more time on a deadline when you’re offered an assignment. Editors and clients often build in extra time on projects so they’re not stuck in a crunch if the writer flakes out. And I promise, they won’t yank away an assignment just because you asked (well in advance) for a few extra days.
4. Trust. When you’re going through a famine, it seems like you’ll never have work again. This is it, you think. The end of the line. You start scouring the want ads for minimum-wage temp jobs.
I’ve felt that way myself — many times since I began freelancing full-time in 1997. But the more years that went by without my having to search for a 9-to-5, the more I began to trust that even the scariest famine would end. For example, when my husband and I adopted our son two years ago, I planned to take a month’s maternity leave and get back to work in February. But February passed with hardly any work. And March. And April. Things looked dire at the time (though we did have money thanks to tip #2 above), but when I did my taxes at the end of the year I realized that I earned the same amount as I had the year before, even with the four-month famine. The assignments did come back.
Even the best writer goes through the feast-or-famine cycle. It can be a scary ride, but if you plan right — and trust that there’s always work out there for a good freelancer — you’ll be just fine.