I should be on top of the world with freelancing right now. I am having my best year income-wise by far, new clients are approaching me for work, and I have more work than I can handle. But instead, the last few weeks have been really rough. Here’s why:
- I have had more drafts returned for revisions than usual.
- Requested revisions have been more extensive than usual.
- For only the second time in 10 years, I ran across an editor whose style and exceptions and were a complete mismatch with mine.
- My email inbox has been more out of control than normal.
- I had to ask for two extensions, which I rarely do.
- I woke up at 3 a.m. feeling worried about work.
- I spent one night writing an e-book about hotel networks in my dreams, which was exhausting, since I had to do the same thing after I woke up.
I’ve been feeling like I’m the only one who ever has drafts heavily edited or feels like they don’t know what a client wants. Yes, I’ve been wondering if all my previous success has been a fluke and maybe I’m really a fraud. So I confided in a writer friend or two and they shared about times when they hit the type of stretch I’m in now. I felt a little better. I told a few more people, and every single one of them shared a frustrating experience that had recently happened to them. I began feeling a lot better.
When we talk about a ‘rough patch’ in freelancing, we are usually referring to the challenge of not finding high paying clients. So today, I want to write more about the type of rough patch I’ve hit, in case it makes someone feel less alone. If I am going to share my successes publicly, then I think its only fair to be honest about the not so fun times as well. According to my informal survey, every writer who has been freelancing for more than a day has their own tales of frustrating experiences to share. While sharing client leads is the top benefit most of us think of coming from freelance friends, I have to say that having someone to celebrate or commiserate with who truly understands is the most important reasons of them all.
Taking a Step Back to See the Whole Picture
During a recent trip to a content marketing conference in Boston, I took advantage of the space away from my family and worked to really figure out what was going on.
- I was burned out. I had taken only 8 days off in the past 6 months, counting the weekends. I didn’t usually work all weekend, but at least a few hours. This meant that I had worked several weeks straight without break. I was simply burned out. And yes, that’s why some of the revisions were happening. To be fair, I typically don’t work very much between 2 and 8 pm on school days because of carpool and soccer practice. And wanting to be available to hang out with my teenagers for the random 7 minute window when they momentarily forget I am the least cool person on the planet and want to hang out. So, I expect to work a little on the weekends to make up for that, but I realized I need to have at least one complete day each weekend with no work. Thank goodness, I have a two week vacation coming up soon. I decided to take a few days off at the beginning and end of my trip as well to help give myself some breathing room. And I realized that keeping my load light the rest of the summer would probably be a smart move for my sanity.
- I had overbooked myself. I turn down a lot of work and refer projects to other writers whenever possible, but even then I had taken on about two too many projects, especially considering my kids were out of school. I simply had to take on less work or I was going to risk losing the clients I already had.
- I had six new clients at the same time. Ah! This was the lightbulb moment and the biggest reason for my burnout. All of these projects were either brand new to me clients or new clients for an agency that I’ve worked with previously. New clients are hard. You have to figure out their expectations. You have to figure the tone. And often you have to learn new subject matter. No matter how long you have been freelancing or writing professionally, it always takes a bit to get the hang of a new client. There is a learning curve and there is no way around it except through it. And six new clients is about four too many at the same time.
Taking a Look at Each Client
After a glass of wine or two, I sat down and thought carefully about each client. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing anything that I could fix by just sweeping everything with a wide brush. I realized that three of the six projects were likely just new client blues – figuring out what they want and getting used to each other. Look for a post on how to work through issues that often come up with new clients in an upcoming post.
However, I realized that there were three lessons for me in the other three projects:
- Only take projects that use my strengths. One project was described as rewriting web pages, but I didn’t stop to think that this meant it was more copywriting than content writing. I am an OK copywriter, but it’s not my super power. This meant that this project was taking longer for me to complete than longer and I was exhausted because it was outside my natural skill set. And yes, more revisions because I was outside of my strengths.
- Make sure I understand what a project actually entails before saying yes. Another project ended up being much more administrative than writing. I am not an overly detailed person so keeping track of all of the details involved in this project was time consuming and draining. I also was getting more revision requests because it was not something I enjoyed or was good at.
- Realize that not every editor is going to me a match for my style. The project where the editor and I were not a match really upset me. And I realized that this one project was probably causing a lot of my burnout and unhappiness as well, more than all of the other issues put together. Because I couldn’t figure out what exactly went wrong (my work for her project was similar in quality and style as work that other similar clients had loved), it really had shaken my confidence. The other time this happened to me a few years ago, it was in large part due to my work not being my best effort, but this time I honestly felt that wasn’t the case (and even got several very honest freelance friends to give me their thoughts). I came to terms that, as much as I tried, I was not able to produce what she wanted and it wasn’t for lack of effort. And no matter how much I dwelled on it and worried about it, I couldn’t figure out why. I was creating the same quality and style for that project that I do for similar clients and audiences, but it still wasn’t working out. The project was over and I knew I would not get to do more work with the client. The only thing left for me to do was to let it go and realize that this type situation was simply going to happen in freelancing from time to time.
The next morning I had two emails waiting in my email inbox from two of my new clients that I had been struggling with and really working hard to figure out how to deliver what they wanted. Both emails were filled with praise of my most recent work on their projects. I let out a huge sigh and decided that I might not be a fraud after all. OK, I might have also shed a few happy tears, yelled “Whoo Hooo” and danced in my kitchen.
I then sent an email to the last of the six new clients asking for feedback. I quickly got a response back that the both the agency and the client were thrilled with my work – the client was just the type that didn’t know what they wanted until they saw the first draft and they were more than happy to rewrite the parts that they didn’t like. She asked me to just keep doing what I was doing. It was a good reminder that sometimes a client just likes to make revisions.
So all of that is to say that my vacation can’t come soon enough. And I’m going to take these lessons, which I’ve learned the hard way, to heart once I return. The more I freelance, the more I am convinced that the most important decisions you make are the clients that you turn down. When I take projects that use my strengths and are a match for the things that I am good at, I make more money, am less stressed, and have happy clients. Yes, there is something to be said for trying something new and stretching yourself. But next time, I’m going to do that with a single new client (or two) at a time, not six clients.
Have you hit a rough patch? What caused your rough patch? What did you learn? How did you get through it?