The freelancer’s world can be one of feast or famine. Simon Whaley investigates how to spread the harvest more evenly.
Traditionally, this is the time of year when farmers across the country bring in the harvest. Suddenly, there’s an abundance of food which, if carefully managed, will last through the winter.
The freelance writing world is also notorious for its feast and famine cycle. One day your books are selling well, and then suddenly they’re not. One week, every idea you pitch to an editor is snapped up, yet the following week every editor on the planet ignores you.
Modern farmers have adapted. No longer are they reliant upon the income produced by one crop to see them through the rest of the year. Instead, they diversify with several crops that are harvested at different times of the year. This spreads the cashflow more evenly across the year.
When it comes to the business of writing, we can learn something from these farmers. The feast/famine cycle can’t be avoided completely, but there are steps we can take to mitigate their extremes. A little forward planning, where we decide which crops we’re going to grow, can pay dividends in the future.
When your inbox is empty, it’s easy to feel envious of writer-friends moaning about being inundated with work. Who doesn’t love a feast? Yet, if you stop and think about it, feasts aren’t much fun. We’ve all experienced times when we’ve eaten far too much and then had to endure the stomach-pain enduring consequences afterwards. The same goes for freelance writing work. With no time to stop and draw breath, feasts can be just as detrimental as famines.
‘A feast sounds like fun, doesn’t it?’ asks publication coach Daphne Gray-Grant (www.publicationcoach.com), author of Your Happy First Draft. ‘But it’s tiring! You get less sleep when you’re feasting.’
Daphne grew up in the newspaper business and spent ten years working for a major metropolitan newspaper, so she understands what it’s like trying to be creative when you have several deadlines looming. When we’re inundated with work during times of feasts, we lose focus.
‘An even bigger problem,’ continues Daphne, ‘is that it’s way too easy to let go of anything that isn’t URGENT during times like this. Unfortunately, marketing often falls into this category. When I work with other writers I always encourage them to always be marketing — especially during feasts — when it’s really hard to find the time for it.’
Sow To Reap
It’s true. The last thing on our mind when we’re swamped with work is pitching for more. One of my regular magazine clients makes monthly requests for pitches from its regular contributors, advising us of the theme or topic they’re seeking ideas for. During times of feasts, these emails come in at the worst possible moment, but I’ve learned to stop and make time for them. That’s because something I sow now could germinate when I have less work on my plate.
Yet, as Daphne explains, marketing isn’t just about pitching ideas and trying to secure commissions. We need to sow wisely. ‘Always be marketing. And I don’t mean be a sleazy salesperson who’s always trying to do nothing more than close a sale,’ she explains.
‘Be INTERESTED in people. Be concerned about the types of problems they’re facing. Do whatever you can to help. When people email me with questions, I answer them. I don’t just try to sell things. I recommend books — written by people other than me. I pass along news stories and blog posts that I know various clients will find interesting or helpful. If I have a good supplier — like a graphic artist — I share that name with people I work with. I think an attitude of helpfulness pays off in the long run, even if it doesn’t always pay off immediately.’
So reducing the worst famines is all about sowing a variety of seeds for the future. Some will germinate quickly. Others will lay dormant for so long we’ll forget about them.
I once pitched an idea to an editor, but gave up on it after chasing a couple of times and hearing nothing back. Eight months later, that editor got in touch. Another writer had let him down at the last moment, and he suddenly had four pages to fill. Could I deliver the pitch I’d originally offered eight months ago? And could I do it within the next 48 hours?
Suddenly, my quiet week had just got busier! That seed had taken a long while to germinate, but I wouldn’t have harvested anything had I not sowed it all those months ago in the first place.
In the same way that feasts have their drawbacks, famines can have useful purposes too.
‘People often dread famines, but they can be strangely helpful,’ says Daphne. ‘For one thing, my office always looks better during hungry times. I catch up on my filing. I read more. I get my financial books to my bookkeeper and I have time for projects that otherwise would get left by the wayside. It’s also a really good time to indulge in training. I’ve been meaning to learn to use the software Scrivener for years. Unfortunately, I haven’t had a famine in a while, so I have no time for it right now!’
Therefore, a famine might just be the right time to invest in yourself in some way. Perhaps you’ve always wanted to write a non-fiction book, or a novel. A period without other urgent deadlines could make this the right time to start. Think of it as a long-term investment. If your book is published, it becomes an income-generating asset that helps stave future famines.
Learning a new skill during quieter times can be a great way to either increase your productivity or enable you to offer higher-value services to your customers. Learning how to take better photographs has enabled me to offer editors complete words-and- picture packages — often paying more than text-only submissions.
A farmer who learns how to grow a new crop can target new potential customers with their wares.
At the start of my freelance writing career, I welcomed feasts and dreaded famines. That was because I looked at it from a financial perspective. When you’re in paid employment, you get used to the regular salary payment going into your bank account every month. Tot up those twelve monthly payments and you’ll know how much you’ve earned in a year.
A freelancer’s annual income isn’t earned equally over 12 months. We have lean months and bountiful months, and so instead of fighting the feast/famine cycle, we should ride with it, doing what we can to reduce the peaks and troughs. If we don’t, it could ruin our creativity.
‘You feel whipsawed,’ says Daphne. ‘You go from having too much time and not enough money to the total reverse! Part of the solution is to expect a feast/famine cycle and to prepare for it. Then you can say to yourself, “I’m in a hungry period right now — it’s time for me to clean my office and ramp up my marketing outreach.” Or, you can say, “I’m feasting right now — I don’t have time for anything except satisfying my clients — and doing a little bit of marketing”.’
One of the reasons a feast/famine cycle can get out of hand is because we don’t properly judge the workload involved with a particular project. It isn’t always easy knowing how long a particular project will take. What might, at first, seem quite straightforward could suddenly need twice as much research. Having a good idea of how quickly you can write will make calculating the time needed to tackle the job much easier.
In her capacity as a publication coach, Daphne believes that a freelancer who knows how productive they are is better placed at managing their workload.
‘I’m always shocked by how few writers — even highly successful ones — have any idea about how many words they can write in 30 minutes. Even though every writing job is slightly different, if you don’t have a rough idea of how long it’s going to take you, it will be very difficult to plan your day. Learn to estimate your writing speed. Use an Excel spreadsheet to chart it for two weeks, so you can accept the RIGHT amount of work — neither too little nor too much — and you’ll go a long way to reducing the impact of famines and feasts.’
As any farmer will tell you, it’s not possible to eradicate feasts and famines. There will always be external factors over which we have no control that influence our workload.
But what you can do is take steps to lessen their impact. Understand that famines will occur. Plan to use that time to develop larger projects or learn a new skill. View famines as opportunities, rather than periods of failure.
Understanding your productivity rates will help you better manage the feasts. As a freelancer, it’s tempting to say Yes to everything we’re offered when, from a creative and productivity perspective, it may not be the right decision.
It doesn’t matter whether you write full time, or part-time, a freelance writer’s life and income will always ebb and flow. But the peaks and troughs needn’t be fierce, stormy seas. Sow regular marketing and investment seeds, and you’ll reap a less-stressful, more financially-rewarding freelancing life.
Business Directory — Sowing Successful Seeds
- Stop thinking of Feast as Success and Famine as Failure.
- Make marketing yourself a habit. If you only market yourselfduring famines, you may come across as desperate.
- Use famines to recharge, or an opportunity to learn new skills.
- Diversify, so you’re not reliant upon one or two clients.
- Network. Keep in touch with people. Freelancing is about business relationships.