How I Became a Productive Freelance Writer — After Failing in Year One

plan b strategy option alternative planning business symbol black board isolatedBy Kim Jansen

When I graduated from college, I knew a 9-to-5 position was not for me.

I had dreams of becoming a happy, productive freelance writer — working at my own pace, toting my laptop to my favorite coffee shop, paying my bills with my ideas…

But it turned out that I knew nothing about freelancing.

See, in college, I landed some pretty impressive internships. I thought “My luck will transfer over to post-grad life. I’ll never hurt for work.”

But I was wrong. The only places I knew to look for work were content mills.

Several months and $20 later, I realized the work was painstaking. And frankly not worth it. I had to pick up other jobs. A stint at Macy’s. Teaching music classes. A restaurant position.

All the while, I still tried to freelance, but time kept running away from me. A year flew by, and I’d earned basically nothing from writing.

Getting organized

This year, I gave myself one more chance to get my freelance writing business off the ground before I officially called it quits. And I’ve been succeeding.

How? All it took was a new way of approaching my freelance writing business. Here’s what I do differently now:

  • Schedule each working hour. Before I would slack on my to-do list and only complete one task. Now I have an old class schedule sheet I found; I make copies and can fill out every hour from 8am to 9pm during the week, but I only plan one day at a time. This way, I prevent some of that pressure a full week schedule gives me, but I actually complete most of my tasks by being specific.
  • Spend time improving my craft. I want to continue delivering impeccable content to my clients, so every morning I spend 30 minutes on free writing, vocabulary and grammar, and sentence structure exercises. I also find that doing this every day clears my brain for the heavier client assignments and makes writing easier overall.
  • Avoid content mills and bad websites. It’s easy to get wrapped up in Google searches of “freelance writing jobs” and hunting for opportunities on Craigslist. It never worked for me, so I just started avoiding it altogether. It opened up hours to market myself to jobs that would actually pay well.
  • Invest in professional development. Not only am I a member of Freelance Writer’s Den, but I also subscribe to several top-notch experts in the writing industry, and I carve out an hour every day to learn from these experts.
  • Stop researching magazines and companies — and start pitching them. Maybe it was fear of rejection, but I used to waste a lot of time trying to find magazines I could pitch. But I never pitched them. Research is still important, but now, armed with the know-how on writing queries, I actually pitch. Sometimes I get nothing, but I wouldn’t ever get anything if I didn’t pitch.

Now that I’ve learned to become a more productive freelancer, I’m seeing growth in my business. I’ve made money through my own blog, had several posts published to use as clips, and done paid projects for a couple of clients, all within weeks of starting these methods.

How do you stay productive? Tell us in the comments below.

Kim Jansen is a freelance writer who loves working with clients in the retail, wedding, small business, and music industries. She blogs about friendship over at Savvywifey.com.

Freelance Business Bootcamp

Tagged with: , , , , ,
30 comments on “How I Became a Productive Freelance Writer — After Failing in Year One
  1. John says:

    It is not easy to make your profession as a article Writer in this time. But If you work hard it is possible and some time you need a long time to success.

  2. Cassandra says:

    Thank you for sharing this! I graduated in June and am starting to get into freelancing as well, and it’s very slow (and I’m doing more collecting of places to submit than actually creating material to submit). I really liked the idea of using exercises to improve your writing. I’ll have to try it. 🙂

  3. Sabita Saleem says:

    I can definitely relate well to what your just mentioned Emelia. I literally get devoured by reading blogs of the experts to seek actionable advice. Its really enticing but I mostly get off track and it hurts my schedule badly.

    Timing my day on an hourly basis is what pay off and its a tried and tested method as far as I am concerned.

    I am learning to draft query letters and as soon as I make one presentable, I have already decided not to think more and just shoot it there. I have high hopes.

    Sabita

    • Carol Tice says:

      I meet too many writers who never press ‘send’ — so that’s a good way to go. It’s a numbers game — send more queries rather than second-guessing yourself.

  4. Great post! Working on our craft is essential as is approaching every endeavor as any business person would (marketing, professional development, the need to take action and avoid procrastination through unending research and so forth). Happy writing~* 🙂
    H. Raven Rose recently posted…5 Reasons to Hire a Freelance WriterMy Profile

  5. Ivy Shelden says:

    Hi Kim!

    Great read. This is a good reminder to me that I need to start scheduling my time better. I still have a full-time job and am trying to get ready to transition to free-lance writing when I have my second child in October.

    I usually do a lot of my writing and learning in longer bursts, with periods of nothing (besides day job, parenting etc) in between! I realize I could probably get a lot accomplished if I schedule a couple of hours each day.

    I get a bit of a sinking feeling when I think about resigning from my FT job in a couple of months, and reading about your success gives me hope that I will still be able to pull in some income fairly quickly if I get organized! Thanks again!
    Ivy Shelden recently posted…Creative Blocks Part I: Real World Anxiety and StressMy Profile

  6. Awesome tips, Kim. I’ve definitely found scheduling to be an effective way to get more done. I also tend to fall into the researching markets forever trap, so I appreciate the reminder to just pitch already. That’s been my motto this week.

    Also, nice site redesign, Carol! Loving the new look.
    Peggy Carouthers recently posted…5 Strategies to Make Writing Blog Posts PainlessMy Profile

  7. Kim says:

    For those of you asking for writing exercises: once again I’m pretty old fashioned about the way I do it. I like to make sure I’m spending writing time away from my screen; it helps my eyes and my brain. If you’re wanting online exercises, I’ve always appreciated the Purdue OWl site. I’ve used it since high school for bibliographies and all sorts of things. Here’s the link:

    https://owl.english.purdue.edu/exercises/

    It has grammar, punctuation, sentence structure – everything technical. Granted its target audience is college students, but it’s still helpful.

    I also recommend creative writing exercise sites. If you have strong creative writing skills, it transfers into strong business writing and magazine writing – even if your content has to be cut-and-dry, it’s still valuable to know how to weave stories into your content.

    Like I mentioned earlier, though, I like the old exercises from books. You don’t have to spend a lot of money; I went to Half Price Books and found writing exercise books for less than $10.

    Below is my list. A couple of these I collected from college courses, and I still use them.

    Steering the Craft by Ursula K. Le Guin. This is a creative writing book, but I love pulling it out and doing the exercises from time to time.
    Random House Webster’s Pocket Power Vocabulary. Not that our goal is to transcend a reader’s intelligence. But a 10 minute exercise that grows my vocabulary and helps me find the perfect word for a sentence.
    The Art of Styling Sentences by Ann Longknife, Ph.D., and K.D. Sullivan. If you can only buy one book, this is the one.

    I use some others, like What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers, and The Oxford Essential Guide to Writing.

    I also spend around 10 minutes every day freewriting, meaning I open a journal and I just start writing whatever comes to mind. Sometimes it makes no sense, but that’s okay. I just want to get my creative juices going; this daily practice also ensures I’m doing writing for myself. Every writer needs that.
    Kim recently posted…My Friend Thought for the Day: Bucking UpMy Profile

  8. Karen J says:

    Great post, Kim ~ thank you for the detailed information on your “day”.
    I (and my mental “But I don’t know how to do it” blocker-monster) would really appreciate seeing a screen shot of a planner page or two (yours, too, Tara Lynne and Tricia, and anybody else who uses this “granular” planning technique 🙂 ) Driving time and prep time are both major “Damn, I forgot to allow for that!” issues for me.

    Hmmm… writing this just inspired a new blog post, and a major Life Ahah! Thanks for the noodge, in all directions, friends!

  9. Linda H says:

    Hi Kim,

    Thanks for these tips. They really encapsulate what I want to do and your timelines for daily writing, development and work tasks is perfect for my dedicated writing days. I’m going to copy these and start using them to keep me aligned.

    Every freelancer needs to know the value to organized days and prioritized time. Your productivity goes so much higher when you prioritize and organize then stick to it. And your list of tips is a perfect outline for a very productive day.

    Love the idea about the exercises too. Those are
    critical for great writing.
    Linda H recently posted…What Do You Say When an Interviewer Asks — Why Should I Hire You?My Profile

  10. Nate says:

    Hi Kim! Thanks for this awesome post. Just checked out your website too! I’m also wondering about those exercises. Do you do anything in particular? I’ve got a few, but I just Googled them:-). Thanks!
    Nate recently posted…Don’t Forget Value Added… Unless You Don’t Want Paying ClientsMy Profile

  11. Kim, I love this – especially about how you do freewriting exercises. Do you use any particular prompts or sites for the sentence structuring? This is an area I have been struggling with. Thanks!
    Williesha Morris recently posted…How To Lose 50 Email Subscribers in One DayMy Profile

  12. Tricia Mool says:

    I loved waking up to this post this morning-so perfect to start my day reading. I, too, break things down hourly-and I focus on one subject/client/big to do and break it down into those hourly “chunks.” Sometimes, I break it into 10 minute chunks–it’s just what I need to do somedays. I also know that transitions are a tough spot for me. So I’m mindful of building in that transition time into a new task. That’s a learning curve area for me. But, I was a former teacher,and it’s amazing how much you can accomplish in an hour in class. I love applying your approach to my freelance writing career, too. Thanks!

  13. Meera says:

    Great post Kim! I love your take on hourly scheduling and agree with Carol on the to do lists. Although am a compulsive listmaker(it calms me down) I’m getting realistic abt it.

    Kim, it would be grt if you could also share in detail what specific exercises you take to improve writing…
    As for the experts I have Carol 😉

    P.S: Carol, love the new look … Perfecto!

  14. Amy says:

    Hi Kim,

    I love your story.

    It seems like when you made the decision to succeed, you did.

    Thanks for the active productivity tips.
    Amy recently posted…How to Drive Results with a Content Writer BriefMy Profile

  15. Mai Bantog says:

    I can totally relate with this, Kim. I’ve been freelance writing for years, but it was only this year that I discovered this site, and little by little, I’m inching my way out of bid sites and content mills. I say there’s no use getting depressed about all those wasted years of not really knowing my full potential in freelance writing. There’s no way to go but up.

    I schedule my work on a weekly basis, though I only list down the things I need to accomplish. I’m going to try scheduling by the hour and see if I become more productive. Thanks for the tips, Kim!

  16. Kim says:

    I’m glad this is helpful for all of you! When you work for yourself it’s vital you’re disciplined, because there’s no one looking over your shoulder. There are a lot of productivity apps and software out there like some of you have already mentioned. I prefer the old pen and paper, but it’s best to find what works for you, what ACTUALLY works.

    • Carol Tice says:

      I’m old school as well…though now I *have* migrated my to-do list to my Mac calendar. I like how after about 4-5 items then it says “more” and doesn’t show them on the month view…which is my reminder to cut down my to-do list. 😉 And be realistic about what I can get done.

  17. Emelia says:

    Oh, I love this Kim! I also found that I am more productive when I schedule my days, hour by hour. But I actually started doing it because I wanted to silence the inner critic that kept putting pressure on me by making me feel like I am not doing enough. Since I started scheduling my days I see progress and I don’t have to work under stress. This has also taught me to appreciate every little success I make with regards to my plans. I feel better about my work than I used to when I worked haphazardly. And I am so sold out to the idea of practicing to improve our crafts. I also take some time to read and work on my craft. But I think I should stop researching and start pitching.

    P.S. I love the new Make A Living Writing look. It’s awesome, Carol!
    Emelia recently posted…Three Things Writers Must Know About PassionMy Profile

  18. Thank you for this reminder! Let’s me know I’m on the right track. Regarding improving your craft through certain exercises, what exercises do you use exactly? I’m interested in incorporating more of that aspect into my craft to stay sharp as sometimes I experience a little writer’s block.

  19. Yes, I cannot see how one can be successful in the long-term without planning their day out hour-by-hour. When my non-writing friends see my calendar (with scheduled time for daily obligations like dog walks and showers) they think it is overkill. They don’t understand how necessary it is to meet deadlines. It helps me to forecast days when I need to work late, or start the day at 5AM. Funny, but I have my old planners from high school and college and I was using a similar format then!

  20. Taylor says:

    Hi Kim! I LOVE when posts pop up that are something I need at that very moment. Thank goodness for this post. Because I’ve been starting to second guess myself – forgetting that this business takes time to ramped up.

    I think where I’m falling short is productivity. I list out all the things I have to do and then get overwhelmed. I don’t know if I’m doing to much or to little throughout the day. I’ll take your idea on scheduling the day out. That will help me a lot!!!!! Thanks 🙂
    Taylor recently posted…Do You Take Your Own Advice?My Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Too-long to-do lists are demoralizing, I think. In the Den, when folks give us 12-point monthly to-dos, we want them to put them into “A” and “B” lists. I usually try to not have more than about 4 for a daily list.

  21. Elke Feuer says:

    Great post, Kim! I check my task list in the morning, afternoon, and evening. It’s easy to forget what’s on my list when I’m focused on other things.

    Loved what you said about taking time to work on your craft. It’s so important.
    Elke Feuer recently posted…Why I love using funky dialectMy Profile

  22. Jodie says:

    Great post. I have time tracking software (TimeTrax) that I punch in and out of as I work. That way, if Friday afternoon comes around and I feel like slacking off, I look at my report for the week. If I’ve put in 30-40 hours, I let myself have some fun. I also use the scheduling technique. I have a weekly to-list and I created an hourly schedule on a spreadsheet that hangs in front of me with broad to-do categories (like book marketing) so I know I’ll have the time to do my to-do list items.

  23. Razwana says:

    I plan my month out in advance – and only plan for a month! And I’ll experiment with a new marketing tactic every 2 months. This month it’s Facebook ads !
    Razwana recently posted…Why ‘emotions sell’ is incomplete marketing adviceMy Profile

  24. Amrita Das says:

    Thank you for these tips, Kim. I have just started out as a travel blogger and freelance writer myself and these tips will be very useful in disciplining myself and working in this field 🙂