How to Ruin Your Freelance Writing Career

When I asked readers recently what’s holding you back from breaking in and earning big as a freelance writer, I got many different answers. But one I heard a lot:

Fear.

Melissa: “I am terrified. Of succeeding, of failing, of just simply doing!”

Kifayat: “Fear of getting things wrong and also selling myself short.”

Cindy: “I fear looking like a fool.”

DeAnn: “I just don’t want to start out on the wrong foot and jeopardize my career before it really gets going.”

Jane: “The idea of succeeding (or even testing myself) too quickly just scares the living hell out of me. Without faithful cheerleaders freelancing success is just too scary (because the bigger success the bigger the failure that might follow).”

To sum up: Many of you are afraid of doing something so awful that it will ruin your freelance writing career.

So today, we will confront these fears. I’m going to tell you something shattering:

Everything you’re afraid of will happen.

I know because I’ve been writing for a living for a long time. I’ve experienced each and every one of the things you are afraid of! Let’s review:

Looking like a fool: I can’t even pick my favorite example of embarrassing gaffes I’ve made. Maybe the time I misspelled “Requiem” in a 48-point, front-page obituary of a prominent citizen.

Getting it wrong: How about the time I said flat-out inaccurate things after a PR person misled me about whether a company would comment for my story? And that company was actually also a prominent advertiser in the publication and the CEO was a personal friend of the publisher?

Failing: I better not look over at my teetering pile of rejection queries — from Parade, Parents, Inc., and on and on. Or over at the article I wrote recently for a Fortune 500 client that was so far off the mark they never used it, and I had to start over from scratch.

Putting the wrong foot forward: Maybe I should mention the time I was interviewing a freakin’ movie star, and made a little jokey reference to schmooze him up…that turned out to be about a different actor’s movie! Or perhaps we might revisit the second article I ever wrote — which I spent weeks on, and it got killed, and I never wrote for that publication again.

Feeling scared: Hello, I am a college dropout! I walked around with a massive insecurity complex for years. I kept waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and tell me I wasn’t qualified to be a freelance writer, and that I had been officially placed on the Top-Secret List of Bad Writers whom no one would ever hire.

Succeeding too fast: About nine months after I switched from songwriting to reporting, I was writing cover features for a section of the Los Angeles Times! I was so petrified that it took me about two months to write each article. I felt in way, way over my head.

Why am I telling you all this?

The good news: You cannot fail.

So, now you know. I am a major screwup. I’ve made a massive pile of mistakes. I’ve failed to get a lot of freelance gigs I really wanted.

But I still feed my family of five with my little brain and my little stories. Full time. Freelancing for five years now, making more money each and every year. I have the sense I’m a pretty successful freelance writer.

How is that possible? Because if you persist — if you make up your mind that you are going to make your living from writing, no matter what — you will succeed. You will make mistakes, but they will not ruin your chances. You will still have a freelance writing career.

Every editor in America does not know every other editor. Same with marketing departments at companies. There is always a new market to try, always green fields to explore.

I could cite example after example of writers who have failed their way up to prominent editorial positions. Or look at Henry Blodget, who became known originally as a high-flying, dot-com-era stock trader — who turned out, famously, to be a complete liar who was banned from the securities industry. Now he is a successful, popular blogger for Business Insider.

The lesson: People have short memories. They forgive, and they forget. They wrap fish in yesterday’s paper, the world moves on, and you get a fresh chance. You build a mountain of articles, and if they’re mostly good, you’ll have a good reputation.

The fact is, every writer makes mistakes. If you write in any volume, you will screw up. It’s unavoidable. The odds will simply catch up with you.

After one factoid debacle in a story I wrote years back, I was just morose. My editor noticed me moping around the newsroom, and said this: “You know, you’ve published about 500 articles here. One of them had a serious error. I think that’s a pretty good track record.”

And he’s right. No one will expect perfection from you.

One way to ruin your writing career.

There is really only one way to ruin your freelance writing career. I believe it will not be a problem for any of you who expressed such fear of failure.

Here’s what it is:

Write a factual, reported story in which you simply make things up.

There have been a few cases of reporters who did this over the years. One of the most notorious is Janet Cooke, who won a Pulitzer for a story she made up about a gradeschool-age heroin addict. Another is Jayson Blair, the former New York Times reporter who, it was discovered, fabricated many of his stories.

These people’s writing careers are over. They ruined their careers with their lies. Blair appears to be a life coach now.

So that’s it. Now you know what you have to do to keep the doors of success open for you. Just be honest, and don’t make stuff up. Keep writing, learning, and trying your best.

Know that every successful writer has felt your fears. We just kept going.

What mistakes have you made as a freelance writer? Share how you overcame in the comments.

Photo via stock.xchng user c-louise

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43 comments on “How to Ruin Your Freelance Writing Career
  1. Joanna says:

    I loved this post. Thank you. SO what I needed to hear right now!

  2. Fear can ruin your freelance career before it’s begun. I know from experience how scary it is, sending out your first proposal. The only way to succeed, is to overcome that fear.

    Inspiring post!

    • Carol Tice says:

      I’ve found the more you up and do it — send queries, pitch your services — the less scary it gets. There’s really no other way out of it. If you just start doing it and make a commitment to keep doing it, no matter what, it does get easier. But mostly you learn to get comfortable with your discomfort. That old ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ thing.

  3. I think so many people will be comforted and encouraged by your honesty – excellent post! I’m still some steps away from ‘making it’ but I know that I will because I must. The only way for me to really ruin my writing career is to never try it!
    Leah Whitehorse recently posted..Tuesday Tarot – Message in a Bottle 3

  4. Freelance Laura says:

    Carol, thanks so much for this refreshingly candid piece! I really needed this encouragement right now.

    • Carol Tice says:

      My pleasure — it was kind of fun and funny revisiting all my fails.

      Once, after I got fired from a staff-writing job, I had an editor congratulate me. I was surprised, but he said, “If you’re not fighting for what you believe hard enough to get fired now and again, you’re probably not a good reporter.”

      I think people standing outside the freelance-writing world see it as a tightrope you walk, and one slip and you fall off and that’s the end. But it’s just not like that. More like you’re building a mountain out of bricks. Sometimes a brick or two is broken or falls out…but you can still keep building.

  5. Anita Cooper says:

    Thanks so much Carol, for your very timely post! Very encouraging! I’m tweeting it right now!

  6. Ahlam Yassin says:

    I love this! Thank you. (off point but quirky: I think it’s a bit disturbing that someone who killed their career for fabricating lies is a lifecoach!!).
    Ahlam Yassin recently posted..The American Dream- A 21st Century Illusion

    • Carol Tice says:

      I know! But I think there’s a theory that he’s screwed up as much as anybody can and found a way to right his life, so now he can help you. It mentions struggles with bipolar disorder…which might explain why he was such a fraud as a reporter, that there were mental-health issues involved.

  7. This is such a compelling post, Carol. It really cuts to the core of what holds people back from succeeding in almost any field, especially freelance writing. I think every single reader will relate to what you’ve said, even if they have gone on to be a success. Great job!

  8. Laurie Boris says:

    Thank you for the reassurance, Carol. I needed this today!
    Laurie Boris recently posted..One Man’s Freedom Fighter Is Another Man’s Antisecrecy Group

  9. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post. I’m going to bookmark it and reference it often.
    Kristin Alexander recently posted..Moments That Melt My Heart

  10. Joseph says:

    Hi Carol,
    This article is awesome. Thank you so much. It’s amazing to me that you can be afraid of succeeding. How crazy is that? You haven’t done anything, and you’re afraid of being successful. Fear of looking like a fool is probably second on my list. A quote from John Wooden helps me with this: “I’m convinced that a doer makes mistakes.” Thanks again for your great post. I look forward to reading more.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Hi Joseph —

      Thanks for your comment. I think fear of success is more common than people think — the feeling that you wouldn’t know what to do next, or that maybe you don’t deserve it. Right up with fear we hear a lot of self-confidence issues…which we’ll also be tackling in the Webinar.

      Love your Wooden quote!

      • Karen J says:

        Hi Carol! Just jumped back here from 2013 ~
        My “fear of success” looks like: “They’ll expect me to Keep On Doing It!” – which feeds on the self-confidence issues, of course!

        Thanks for the link-back from http://www.makealivingwriting.com/irrational-fear-crippling-freelance-writing-progress/#comment-207760. This is a good addition to that post.

        Blessings ~
        Karen J recently posted..“Make Good Art!” – Neil Gaiman

        • Carol Tice says:

          Yes, it was interesting how many people feared success and the raised expectations it brings. As it happens, I’m sitting here writing this on deadline day for a 2500-word feature for a major airline magazine. I can tell you, the bar does just keep getting raised.

          But you know, sometimes you screw up. After my first published piece I got assigned something by that publication that I whiffed, and they killed it. And yet I lived to write another day.

          I think what writers miss is that you CAN screw up. Every editor does not know every other editor in the universe. There are a million markets in the sea. You can survive mistakes.

  11. Ann Wilds says:

    Thank you for being transparent and open with your experiences. Your article is very encouraging. So often we try to hide our failings instead of acknowledging them when they are often the very things that helped us achieve success. Now to go face my fear.

  12. Kelly Tracy says:

    Thanks for this – I’m another one who needed to hear it!

  13. True; the liberty to make it all up lies only with the fiction-writing people. But I also hear that non-fiction books, which are supposed to be factual, do have those made-up bits too. A biographer’s story may be modified to suit the audience or create a better effect and a self-help book might quote several case studies which never happened. Where do we draw a line, anyway?

    It is exceptional of you to share your personal mishaps with the world, Carol. Way to go!

    -BrownEyed
    Brown Eyed Mystic recently posted..The Free-flow Method of Writing

  14. I needed this post so much right now. Thank you, Carol. What is it about writing that feels so ridiculously isolating and scary that we believe we’re the first ones to ever try it and make mistakes? I really value your blog because you are wonderful at telling it like it is. I needed to hear that everyone is fearful of doing this and that everyone will make mistakes, but that even when I’m scared and I’ve screwed up, I can do it.

  15. Junelle says:

    I used to think that all writers were good writers right from the start, that when I decided to join the ranks I got so intimidated I thought of giving up. Still trying to overcome the fears you mentioned, and finally came upon this post. Thanks for putting things in perspective for me!

    • Carol Tice says:

      I seems like each writer thinks they’re the only one who’s scared, and that everyone else is swaggering along cranking out articles in 10 minutes or something. We’re all sweating here! You should see me the day I’m trying to deliver one of my major feature stories…not pretty!

  16. Melissa says:

    Thank you for such a sincere, inspirational blog!! Not only that, but also quoting me! :)

    I’m glad to see that persistence really does make a huge difference. Most people don’t want to take the time to go through with it, but if you stick it out, it’s totally worth it.

  17. Debra says:

    I really needed to hear this when it came out Carol – and again – and again. The worst failure is to be afraid and not try. Thanks so much.
    And thank you for sharing your failures – Sometimes I fall into the trap of thinking I’m the only one who stumbles.
    Debra recently posted..Writing Practice – Is Sheer Volume Enough

  18. Dave says:

    Had to laugh at myself when I read this: “Every editor in America does not know every other editor.”

    Whenever I send a submission out I get a picture of a roomful of editors gathered together in some imaginary Editor’s Club chomping on cigars and guffawing as they pass my work around. It’s amazing what a good dose of fear does to the mind.

    Thanks for the post, I enjoyed reading along and seeing all those familiar fears laid to rest, one by one.
    Dave recently posted..Love Poem For A Moon

    • Carol Tice says:

      Being creative types, our imaginations do run wild, don’t they?

      I think when we get a bunch of ‘no’s’ we start thinking it’s a conspiracy. But it isn’t — it’s simply a numbers game. Keep spinning that wheel, trying different publications and different approaches, and learning how to query better, and one day your number comes up.

      Over the years, I moved up from rarely hearing, “We’d like you to write this story” to more often hearing ” We like this idea — and we’d like you to write for us regularly” to even “we don’t like this idea — but we definitely want you to write for us. Could you write THIS topic?”

      It sounds like you may be sending prewritten submissions, which I don’t find has a great success rate, unless you’re talking personal essays in which case you don’t have a choice. Mastering the query form is really a door-opener.

  19. Hajra says:

    This is such a great post and at the right time….I am “restarting” my freelance work and my biggest fear is running out of ideas! Thanks for the wonderful post!! It’s been a great motivation!
    Hajra recently posted..THE TOONS AND ME!

  20. Julie says:

    I’m so glad I came upon this post today! I’m just trying to get started as a writer and this hit on every fear I have! Thanks for the inspiration!
    Julie recently posted..My Spoiled Cat

  21. GE Anderson says:

    I just spent most of today polishing a one page LOI aimed at some well-paying trade pubs. Your article was just what I needed to pick myself up after a supposedly wasted day and send it out to some editors.

    Thanks for posting this!

  22. Most of the fears described are aspects of the idea “one slip and you’re dead,” which is itself an aspect of the idea that someday life reaches a point of being exactly the way it’s always going to stay–for good or ill. “If I get fired from this job, I’ll be unemployed the rest of my life; if I win two million dollars in the lottery, I’ll never have any money problems again.” The truth is, until the day you die there’s always the possibility of a drastic change in your life one way or the other; all you can do is make the best of each day as it comes.

    My own “Apologizing in Writing” blog post (link below), though it doesn’t specifically relate to writing as a career, might be interesting to anyone wanting to recover from a serious gaffe.
    Katherine Swarts recently posted..Apologizing in Writing

  23. Good article.

    Fear is the biggest thing to hold people back in all areas of life.

    In the past years my motto is try, the worst that can happen is someone says no. Big deal.

    I have friends who are really talented writers. I am okay, not what I would refer to as talented. (And no, I am not selling myself short. I know I have what to offer, yet for me it is not a gift that flows as freely as some of my friends.) And yet, i am the only one who has been writing and blogging and even got a job doing the writing and managing the website for a company from the blog.

    I just started and took things as they came, (and haven’t yet quit my nursing job) lol.
    susie@newdaynewlesson recently posted..It’s Okay To Feel Like A Doofus Once In A While

  24. Jodi Hughey says:

    Wonderful post, Carol!

    It is nice to hear from others who have felt the same. I try to avoid FEAR but it seems to find me anyway! Reading your post and comments from others gives me a warm fuzzy feeling. I feel like the Little Engine that could – I think I can . . . I think I can . . . I know I can overcome my fears!!

  25. Mike Biscoe says:

    Carol, thanks for this one. You just plain old made me laugh. I seem to always believe I’m the only one who has ever stuck their foot in their mouth. It’s always good to be reminded that is not the case. Somewhere online there needs to be a depository for writer screw ups that we can all reference for inspiration. “Imarighter.com” anyone?

  26. Ffion says:

    Wow – thank you. I needed, really needed to read that. It just makes so much sense to me.
    Thank you, very much.

  27. David says:

    Freelance writing is a very lucrative way to earn a living. When I first started a lot of apprehension kept me from doing it although I knew my writing ability were excellent.
    David recently posted..Nothing but the Facts on the Physician Assistant Profession

  28. Luna says:

    Self confidence and a honest attitude are the basic steps to succeed in writting and not ruin your career. You are absolutely right

  29. *Sigh* now at least I can say I’m doing one thing right… not making up stories haha! Thank you for sharing this. As always I’m able to come to your site and get a sudden burst of mojo.

4 Pings/Trackbacks for "How to Ruin Your Freelance Writing Career"
  1. [...] on the Make a Living Writing blog, we’re tackling your fears of failing as a freelance writer. Also making a special offer — register to learn how to conquer your fears at my next Webinar [...]

  2. [...] job of giving you the flavor of the comments and give some darn good answers in her post called How To Ruin Your Writing Career. // < ![CDATA[ google_ad_client = "pub-6141481689436007"; /* 468×15, created 4/4/10 */ [...]

  3. [...] (hopefully!). You will often be forgiven. And in any case, no one mistake is likely to spell the end of your freelance writing career.I actually had a situation recently where the first article I wrote for one Fortune 500 client was [...]

  4. […] worried you’ll make a misstep and then your career will be ruined. Or that you’ll waste time going in the wrong direction. Or that you’ll come off as a […]

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