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Avoiding Those Dark Clouds

Dark clouds have descended over my house as thunder rumbles off in the distance. Mother Nature has been doing that a lot lately, keeping my houseplants well watered and lush. But the same thing has happened many times during my freelance career, except the storms are at times less frequent. Freelance writing is a tough business no matter which way you look at it. I’ve had to work hard to succeed in the last 26 years and even harder to make progress. Every time I think I’m well on the way, another obstacle crosses my path. These dark clouds can be daunting and can usually be avoided—although not always.

One of the first of these headaches will be to convince those around you—family, friends, lovers, and yes, even creditors—that you’re really working. Everyone in business for themselves finds themselves in this position. But with freelance writers it’s even harder because much of time a writer spends thinking, which, let’s face it, doesn’t show any physical activity.

Another dark cloud that interferes with many writers’ work is discipline. In this business, it’s imperative to be disciplined. You’ve got to get work done no matter how you feel or how nice it is outside. When it’s a beautiful day, especially in the summer, I take my work outside. I love working on my patio. It’s the ideal place to mull over notes and get my thoughts together. Sure, you can take off whenever you want, but taking off too often doesn’t provide you with money to pay your bills.

To become successful in this business it’s important to have some business acumen. You’ll need to manage your money very carefully and market yourself and your work. Many writers see these as stumbling blocks to their creativity, but both need to work hand-in-hand with it. According to the Small Business Administration, the single biggest reason for failure is a lack of expertise in a chosen field. Second to that comes a lack of understanding of the business side—such things as managing inventory, bookkeeping, understanding what your overhead will be, and managing your cash flow. Unlike a job at which you get paid every week or two, payments will come in sporadically. It’s important to know how to manage your money to make it last.

In the beginning, it may be a struggle to keep going, but eventually you may have the problem of too much work—too many assignments or deadlines. Right when you have several short pieces to complete, your book editor sends you your final galley sheets to be read in just five days! Or right when you plan to enjoy the holidays with your family, a magazine editor calls with a rush assignment that needs to be completed before the New Year. To keep your head straight, you need to set your priorities and make to-do lists—and follow them.

Sometimes, there are even darker clouds on the horizon. During my career, I’ve lost all of my markets at least six times. This happened for a variety of reasons, most of which I can’t begin to fathom. Perhaps my favorite editor left the publication or maybe the publication folded, neither of which I could control. Perhaps the economy takes a nosedive and advertisers stop purchasing ads. Fewer ads equals a thinner magazine, in my case, which results in less editorial and, thus, fewer or no assignments.

This happened in 2001 right after 9/11. Because one of the major areas of my expertise is travel writing, I found myself adrift going into 2002 and have yet to fully recover 10 years later. That one event changed things globally, knocking out many travel markets. But I didn’t let that stop me and turned to other markets I had been cultivating.

And when times get tough, creditors get nasty. To avoid this, I try to stay on top of my bills when times are good so that I have a good record coming into bad times.

One of the most bothersome of those dark clouds are editors who cry on my shoulder that they just can’t pay very much—but want the world. I try not to give in, but sometimes I have to because I need the money. It’s important to judge how much work you’re putting into a project compared to what you’re getting paid. Too many freelance writers work for too little.

Another headache that writers have to deal with today is keeping their office equipment in good running order. Computers are great at increasing productivity until they break down. Most writers know little of the workings of their computer and have to trust other people to fix them which can often be an expensive process.

Lastly, the fast-changing world of communications and the many new outlets for it have changed publishing substantially, making it hard to adjust to competitive conditions. The secret is to evaluate those changes and cope with them. But with the speed of things today, that’s not always possible.

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