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Freelance Feast Time: Six Tips for Surviving the Busy Times

A guest article by Janel C. Atlas

Freelance writing is a world of extremes. We’ve all had weeks so dry we wonder if it will ever rain again! But what about the opposite problem freelancers face? The feast in the proverbial feast or famine?

As if on cue, all the editors start calling, e-mails barrage your inbox with assignments, and clients are beating down your door, begging you to let them hire you. And let’s not even mention that half-finished book manuscript gathering dust on the corner of your desk. Just like that, you’ve gone from boredom to busyness.

Don’t panic. When this happens, take a deep breath and see this busy time for what it is—a sign that you're a successful and sought-after freelancer! Read on for six tips from experienced freelance writers.

  1. Get organized

In the movies, writers’ desks are always messy, with stacks of papers, dirty dishes, and unidentifiable objects taking up every square inch of space. Some freelancers work well in those conditions, but I’ve found that a quick clearing of my desk never fails to help me feel fresh. Clutter on the desk equals clutter in my mind.

But don’t stop at straightening your desk; organize your information, as well. Work out some kind of filing and record-keeping system that enables you to get your hands on what you need—fast!

At the top of each page, I organize the details of what each project entails, so that I can focus on the writing instead of on remembering things like word count, contact names, and due dates. Just remember that whatever you write down frees up space in your brain for the writing process.

  1. Do it now

I work best in the evening, after ideas have been simmering all day as I care for my baby. Then, when she goes to bed, I settle in for a good chunk of work time. Each writer must find out what time of day is his or her most productive, and then carve out that time.

Lori Widmer suggests breaking your workload into morning and afternoon sessions. “I'm freshest in the morning, so I'll often work on the most pressing thing for a few hours in the morning,” she shares. Then, “in the afternoon, I'll return phone calls or work on smaller projects, just to get them going.”

During that prime time slot, avoid procrastinating (reading emails, surfing the Internet, or reading market listings). Procrastination only breeds more stress.

  1. Prioritize. 

If you’ve got good ideas and are ready to start, how do you prioritize your work? Often, this is a psychological question. I prefer to complete a short, simple assignment before tackling a large, complex one. That way, I get something accomplished, can check it off my list of projects, and feel good about myself. 

Other writers prefer pounding away at a larger project first to get a chunk completed before moving on to the littler ones. Whatever your preference, when you’re feeling overwhelmed, it’s wise to make a complete list of all of the projects ahead of you. 

“I work from a list of projects, and prioritize them,” shares Anne. “I assign the approximate amount of time I'm going to spend on each one each day; having a plan keeps me from going crazy!” 

Lori agrees that making lists is big help in prioritizing work: “I look first at the deadlines. I organize most of my work by deadlines. The next step is to look at things that need expert input—interviews are a high priority. I usually try to schedule those before I meet other deadlines,” she says. 

  1. Ask for an extension. 

I hesitated to include this possibility, simply because it may be viewed as a cop-out. But even the most successful freelancers sometimes have to ask an editor or client for an extension. Lori says, “I would say one of the only times a writer should ask for an extension is when a key source is unavailable until a later date. I've had that happen, and I've pushed back on the editor, who has been more than willing to wait until that source was available.” 

Another valid reason to ask for extra time, suggests Lori, is when family emergencies arise. “While I try to be there for my clients, I have to put my family first. And good clients understand and respect that,” she says. 

So while it’s certainly not the first step you should take, know that if you’re completely overwhelmed and can’t possibly get everything completed on time, asking for an extension may buy you just the time you need to get things done. 

  1. Pick up a good read. 

When you’re supposed to be writing but you’re encountering a frustrating block, lose yourself as a reader. Devon Ellington says that she “reads as much and as widely as possible.” This helps keep her ideas and style fresh. 

Someone once asked fiction writer Barbara Kingsolver whether she wasn’t worried that reading other books while she was writing would influence her. Kingsolver retorted, “When I’m writing, I read Dickens and Shakespeare and George Eliot and pray like crazy that they will rub off on me!” 

Even during the busy times, make it a priority to keep reading, preferably something similar to what you’re working on. Stuck on a narrative resolution? Read your favorite short stories. Can’t get web content to sparkle? Visit a dozen high-traffic sites to get some ideas. Chances are, you’ll come back to your work with some fresh ideas and inspiration to spare! 

  1. Leave your desk 

There’s no doubt that there’s something to be said for sitting at your desk for hours, pounding away at the keyboard, working like a maniac to get everything done. But while it may seem counter-intuitive, many freelancers share that a few minutes (or even longer) away from the desk can be just the thing they need to push through a busy time. 

You may decide to take your work with you. Devon has found that changing venue can sometimes help her find new words and perspective. “If I usually write at home, I'll write on the beach or in a coffee shop or in the park or at the library,” Devon confides. 

There’s no doubt that the busy times in your freelancing career may seem intimidating. However, as many others have found, there are many ways to push through the flood times and come out on the other side having learned a lot about what makes you tick. Learn about yourself—what pushes your buttons, when you work best, and what helps you accomplish the task ahead—and construct a plan. “Without a game plan that works for your specific personality type, it's going to be frustrating for you as a writer to get your work accomplished,” says Lori.

And whatever you do, remember that these times are the good times. They show that you are a successful writer, and inevitably, the frenzied time will pass and you’ll be left hoping that business picks up again soon.

Janel Atlas is a freelance writer and editor. You can find out more about her at her website, TheWriteAtlas 



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