Theoretically I’m supposed to use this space to help other freelancer writers figure out how to do what I do, or at least what I aspire to do. Surely there’s some magic formula or fool-proof set of directions which will allow the aspiring freelance writer to land gigs, find fulfillment, make tons of money (haaaaaa!), and still balance home/family life while doing it. Right? Wrong! There’s no one way to do it because people are different, and that’s part of what’s so great about freelancing—you can call a lot of your own shots, which increases the odds of your work life actually being, you know, a good fit for your particular life.
This is a good thing. The only drawback is that it can make it kind of hard to say, “Here! Here’s a thing that will help everyone make this life more successful for themselves!” The best I can manage, most times, is a “this is what works for me” or maybe a “most freelancers I know find that….” No magic formulas, here.
But today I got to thinking that surely there are some pieces of advice which are universal in this field. I think there are. The only question, really, is whether these will make you a better freelancer or just a better human in general.
1) Get enough sleep. Freelancers tend to fall squarely into one of two factions, either the “work regular business hours without fail” or “work whenever you feel like it, stay up all night if you dig it” camp. I don’t really care which method works for you—I try to stick to regular business hours, but sometimes schedules change—but whichever path you choose, make sure you’re getting enough sleep. Being well-rested makes you a more pleasant human, as well as more attentive and mentally acute. It also means you’re less susceptible to viruses and a host of stress-related ailments. If you feel like you work better at night, great! Just make sure you’re also sleeping (at some other point). Those people who insist they’re “perfectly fine” on four hours of sleep a night are lying liars who lie. Most people require 6-8 hours/night to maintain optimal health. [Note: And before you ask, no, I love coffee as much as the next freelancer, but coffee is not a substitute for sleep.]
2) Read books. I happen to think everyone should read, for all sorts of reasons, but if you intend to make your living as a writer and you tell me you don’t read (usually masked as “I don’t have time to read”), I am judging you. Reading makes you a better writer. And the Internet is full of many words, but there is simply no substitute for the mental exercise of working your way through a hefty book every so often.
3) Put down the book (or computer) and go outside. The temptation to succumb to the writer-in-the-cave stereotype can be very strong, particularly on busy days when the weather outside is abysmal. I’m a homebody by nature and I often don’t waaaaaant to get dressed and go out and deal with the world. Some days, it’s true, I just don’t; I stay in my office and I work and the world doesn’t end or anything. But I try very hard not to let that become a habit. In order to write about the world, one usually has to participate in it to some degree. Take daily breaks for your sanity, of course, but go out and live so that you have a life beyond your desk and chauffeuring your kids around.
4) Remember that everything is important, it just can’t all be important at once. Whenever we talk about the myth of balance, it seems to end up with everyone bemoaning how there’s never enough of us to go around, and something is always getting short shrift. (Where I come from, that’s called… life.) Don’t be afraid to either devote yourself fully to a task to the exclusion of other things (chase the kids out of the office while you finish an assignment, or turn your phone off while attending an event with the kids) or to multitask (answer emails while sitting at soccer practice) when needed. See what works. And if it didn’t work—or did work once, but doesn’t anymore—don’t be afraid to reevaluate and try a different approach. There is no moment where it all clicks and you shout, “Eureka! Life is in balance!” There are moments of balance, yes. But life is inherently unbalanced and it’s easy to get caught up in trying to change that. Whatever you’re focusing on is important, right now. Do the best you can and then move to the next important thing. Don’t try to “do it all,” just do the best you can.
5) Take risks. I am a cautious person by nature and risks do not excite me as much as they terrify me. Freelancing has taught me that what doesn’t kill you either makes you stronger or makes you grow as a person or gives you a good story for your blog. So. Pitch yourself to that client you thought you’d never have the nerve to approach. Put your heart on your sleeve sometimes, even though you know it might get broken. Go join a local group or club even though you’re not sure it’s for you. Let your kids fail—I don’t know about you, but for me that’s one of the hardest risks of all—and then while you pick up the pieces together, remind them that you love them, anyway. When you fail, have a brief wallow, think about what it taught you, and move on to the next thing.
See? All of these are good for life in general. But if you want to apply them to freelancing writing, they’re good for that, too.