How Two Freelance Writing Pros Deal With Failure Fears

Nervous businessman biting nailsToday, I’d like to bust a myth about writing fears.

Many new writers seem to think they’re the only ones who’re petrified.

We’re each the only writer who gets butterflies in the stomach when we sit down to write an article, or turn in a blog post for a client.

You feel like a freak that you’re scared, and imagine everyone else is bursting with self-confidence.

But that’s not true. Not even among writers with long, successful careers.

How fears destroy your career

Newbie fears can be deadly to your budding freelance career, too, as demonstrated by this tale of woe from a writer who emailed me. She had a lot of early success writing, but is currently wasting her talents on low-paid Elance projects and content-mill work:

I have been writing since 2007.  My first piece was a personal essay that I sent without any expectations of it being published.  It was.

I was soon published in several magazines, three story anthologies, won a few contests, and the first publisher I sent my first book to had signed a publishing deal. Not only that, but they wanted more.

Then, I completely panicked.  What if I wasn’t a writer?  What if I was just faking it really well?

I pulled back, kept a few magazines that I was writing for occasionally and went the route of the content mill. It was safer, I didn’t have to put myself out there.

Fast forward two or three years and all my outside clients are gone, my second novel is stagnating and I find it harder and harder to produce. At one point, I could write for my clients and then go off and pound out a 50,000-word novel.  Even up to six months ago, I could write 10,000 words a day. Now I am lucky if I can reach 2,000.

I know why I started ghostwriting on the content mills.  Fast cash, yes, but it was the safety of not having to put my name out there, not having to put my soul into a project and have it rejected.  The early success made me very worried for the time when someone finally stood up and said, “You know, you really aren’t that good.”–Sirena

Oh, the toxic ways we let our fears rule the day.

So this is one way to deal with your fears — run and hide. Aspire to less. Earn less.

Have regrets.

If you’re a writer imagining that somehow, as you build a portfolio and land better clients and find success, one day those fears will just all melt away…you’re kidding yourself.

As Sirena’s story shows.

But here’s what probably a lot of writers don’t know: I’m still dealing with this, too.

The bigger the assignment, the greater the fear

When I write my first project for a new client, I am absolutely petrified. Massive, massive complex about how great this writing has to be so that I impress the client and they send me more work! It can easily take me an 8-hour day to write a short article for a new client.

The fear of failure doesn’t go away for writers. Not any of the ones I know.

As your writing career advances, you get more challenging assignments. Your audience grows, and more eyes are reading you.

The bar keeps moving up.

And so does the intensity of the fear that you’re going to smack your head on that bar trying to jump over.

Just to share a couple of my recent experiments in terror — last year I was asked to write a business book, by myself, in about three months flat. My first solo byline. I did it, and it’s due out this summer.

In the past couple months, I took on a new client — a top mergers-and-acquisitions advisor with extensive connections to more possible great clients for me. He’s given me initial projects including a $1,500 case study that’s essentially a tryout for whether I should ghostwrite his next print book.

It needed to be done on a short deadline too.

No pressure there!

I don’t feel inadequate at all or worried about blowing it, little old college dropout me. Yeah, sure.

All of which is to say: Stop kidding yourself that your writing fears are unique or special, or that you can get rid of them as you progress in your writing career.

That’s probably not going to happen.

The trick is to learn to live with and manage your fears. To push through them.

To get them a chair, sit them in the corner, and tell them to shut up, sit still, and face the wall while you do the writing you were put on this earth to produce.

How to write despite the fear

So, how do I get it done even though I, like Sirena, am still waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and tell me I’m busted, and now I’ve been kicked out of the freelance writer club?

Here are my tips:

  • Break it down. Writing assignments often have multiple parts — interviewing, researching, reading, reviewing notes, organizing materials, creating source lists for editors, writing, rewriting. Don’t think about all the steps at once. Peel off one you feel confident on today and tackle it. Then, the next. Look up, and it’s done. That’s how I did the business book — by thinking about only one chapter topic at a time, and thinking of it like a series of 2,000-word articles.
  • Leave enough time. If you know fear makes you slow, be sure to start early and leave at least one extra day before deadline for reviewing and polishing up a final draft.
  • Trust your client. They chose you for this work. That probably means you can do it.
  • Go with your flow. When you’re scared, try to get into a comfort zone. Wear your favorite warm sweater, write at your best time of day, turn on that warm pink light by your desk, and do whatever else you can to make it feel comfortable.
  • Take care of yourself. When you’re underslept and eating nothing but junk food, it’s easy to worry that you’re going to blow this assignment. You know you’re not able to give it your best in this condition. Don’t sabotage your chances — eat right, exercise, and get enough sleep.
  • Read your clips. I used to do this routinely when I started to write a long feature — take out your previous pieces and look through them. Read your blog. You wrote that! And you can write this, too.
  • Believe in your talent. There’s a reason you feel compelled to write. Know that most people hate writing and few can earn a living from it. To sum up, you’re exceptional, and have something valuable you offer the marketplace.
  • Keep learning. Sometimes, our fear stems from not knowing enough. I’ve continued to invest in professional education throughout my writing career, and trust me, it pays off.’
  • Rewrite. Great writing is made in the polishing phase. Don’t worry about your first draft — come back and make it great tomorrow.
  • Accept that you will screw up. That fear you have of blowing it? You can get over that one…and instead be confident that somewhere along the line, you will make a mistake. So relax. I’ve misspelled 80-point headlines, misquoted sources, you name it. You will live to write another day.

How do you cope with writing fears? Tell us in the comments.

 

 

 

 

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52 comments on “How Two Freelance Writing Pros Deal With Failure Fears
  1. Lora says:

    Great post for me to be reading today. I’m still battling the fear of this new world, one in which I’m not so brave. I’ve been trying to gather all the information I can to keep from making a mistake. The more information I get, the more fearful I become. It’s comforting on one hand (and not at all on the other) to see that this is something professionals deal with but learn to work through. Thanks for the encouraging honesty.
    Lora recently posted…How Do You Use Your Influence?My Profile

  2. Creative. Thanks for doing such a good job. I will come back to find out more and inform my neighbors about this site.

  3. Dawn Copeman says:

    This post resonated so much with me. Like the author I enjoyed almost immediate success when I first started freelance writing – my first query to a print magazine became an article, my first query to a newly launching site landed me with not only several clips but a regular column. In short, in my first year of writing I achieved a good level of success and then I panicked. I have too gone down the Elance/content mill route and now make a living writing blog posts and web content and newsletters for clients who (with the odd exception) pay me just above content mill rates. I know I’m taking the least path of resistance but still fear I will be found out to be a fraud. I need to re-read my earlier pieces and get back to the level I should be at. Thanks for such a timely and inspiring piece.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Glad I could help, Dawn! And if it helps, I know you’re not alone in self-selecting for low-paying clients out of fears about your skills.

      Just remember…I don’t have a degree! And I’ve written for the Fortune 500 and currently am a paid blogger for Forbes, write features for Entrepreneur…really, no one cares where you learned it, if you can write and report.

    • Please tell me you’re not the Dawn Copeman who is a newsletter editor at writing-world.com!
      Katherine Swarts recently posted…How to Use “Use”My Profile

  4. John says:

    Hi Carol, This is a great article about the fear of failure which touches everyone at some time. I believe that asking yourself the question “what is the very worst that can happen?” is a good approach as it provides you with a base. The fear can then be a source of energy. I know some who suffer from anxiety use meditation when they get overwhelmed. Thanks for this article.

    Regards

    John Cosstick
    John recently posted…Useful Social Media Sites for NetworkingMy Profile

  5. Corinna says:

    With regards to this subject, I try and keep ‘Trust Your Client’ at the top of my list. My clients, for the most part, came to me via Facebook and gave me work because they liked what they saw on Facebook, had followed me and liked my style of writing and so on. So, I knew they chose me, which gives one much more confidence,

  6. anne grant says:

    I can’t hear this enough. It’s not something I tell myself once and then it’s “fixed”–more like I need a daily dose of it. Thanks for this!

  7. Gary Schenkel says:

    I recommend reading inspirational books on conquering or, at least, facing fear. I highly recommend Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art. I use its tough-love message to power through times of doubt and resistance.

    Another important message I took away from The War of Art is how to cast yourself as a professional. Looking upon yourself as anything less will prevent you from becoming the person you were created to be — and will keep you mired in self-doubt and places like content mills.

    As you say, even the most experienced professionals encounter fear. Pressfield uses actor Henry Fonda as a classic example; at age 75 he was still throwing up before he went on stage.

    The bottom line of The War of Art: face up to the resistance and fear, and do the work.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Thanks for sharing that great Henry Fonda example, Gary! I think the more we puncture the myth that others are breezing through life and we’re the only one dogged by fears, the better.

  8. Rehmat says:

    Hey Carol, thank you so much for this great post. Sirena’s story is so sad. Although I am not a native English speaker, still I can write well. “Leave enough time”, I already do it but I need to act upon all other tips which you have shared with us. My fear is that I am not a native English speaker, so I can’t write good. The problem is that almost all clients hire native English speakers 🙁 But I am satisfied, at least I can write well for my blog and hopefully it will attract more visitors in future.
    Rehmat recently posted…Stop Spam Registration / Log-in Guess on Your WordPress BlogMy Profile

  9. I strongly believe in my own motto: “Believe in yourself, because sometimes you’re the only cheerleader you have.” It’s so applicable to me. Years ago I wrote a piece and sent it in to the lofty National Geographic Traveler. The editor actually wrote me, telling me how to get through to him and to “be persistent.” I followed his advice, but he told me he wasn’t going to use the piece I sent (damn!) but wanted me to send him more…Told me not to be concerned about the person I was writing for (him.) Well, that didn’t work. I got totally flustered, could see only him in the headlights, sent a couple of other pieces and never heard. I was convinced: “He responded to a fluke of my writing; the rest is terrible.” Another ten years passed, when I did other things, but I never gave up on writing…In past three years I’ve begun my own blog, and written two children’s books.This year I will put out a book about my experiences with doctors and hospitals and hope my work finds an audience, but I will continue to write. Because at the end of the day, I need to be my own audience (now, where’ve you heard that before?)….
    Colleen Kelly Mellor recently posted…In My Next Life I Want to Be ItalianMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      I just hate hearing these stories, of how one flub derails writers for a decade.

      Writers need to learn to be less influenced by outside feedback and to listen to their gut when it says writing is the thing they were meant to do.

      Glad you’re back at it!

      • Oh, not to worry, Carol…All the years in between–at a whole second career as realtor, following my 30 year teaching career, gave me many more experiences I stored up, fodder for eventual writing…It is my belief that one either writes on paper or writes in one’s head (if he or she is of that persuasion.) If I had a different timeline, I’m fine with that. But I needed to believe in myself wholeheartedly…That process took longer.
        Colleen Kelly Mellor recently posted…In My Next Life I Want to Be ItalianMy Profile

  10. Terri H says:

    Lately, i’ve been trying live by the motto “If it scares you, it’s probably something you should do.” Since committing to it I think I have grown so much professional and personally. I routinely try to do one thing everyday that scares. Professionally, that my be calling an editor to ask about a pitch. Sometimes, it goes well and I get the answer I hoped for and others I don’t. But it has certainly helped me open my horizons and reach heights I never thought possible.
    Terri H recently posted…5 Words Only You Can DefineMy Profile

  11. I wish my career had taken off one-tenth as easily in the early days as Sirena’s did! Maybe now I can let go of the delusion that *everything* would be perfect now if I’d had more “breaks” early on. And I’ve definitely been in the “someday I’ll get to the point where stress is a thing of the past” mindset; I’m only just beginning to face up to how ludicrous it really is.

    My favorite tip on your list is “take care of yourself.” Talking sense to a nervous brain is hard enough without having to simultaneously battle the arsenal of fatigue, sore muscles, and nothing-but-coffee-for-breakfast-that-morning!
    Katherine Swarts recently posted…How to Use “Use”My Profile

  12. Katherine says:

    I want to thank you for revealing your own insecurity. I thought it was ‘just me’, too. Wow, what a releif to know that working through the fear can be part of the process!

    • Carol Tice says:

      Yep…everybody does. I’m glad I did this post, seeing all the reactions!

      Once I went to a conference where an experienced novelist spoke. What she said really stuck with me — that people are always coming up to her saying, “Oh, I too one day want to write a book! If I could only get around to it…” And she nods and smiles, but inside she’s thinking, “Baloney.”

      It is never easier to write than before you have that first hit novel. Then you have to write the second one and top the first one! While also proofing 2nd editions, answering fan mail, building your online author platform, etc etc…it’s always harder from there. Might as well figure out your ways to slay the fear dragon now.

  13. Heiddi says:

    Hiya Carol,

    THANK YOU! THANK YOU! THANK YOU! So much for writing this post. My biggest fear is connected to taking the steps I need to take to succeed. I’ve done well with blogging and I’m not afraid (anymore) of pitching to blogs with my experience and my ideas. One of my writing goals for the last five six years has been to break into magazines. I’ve had ideas, but no follow through. Why? Fear. Fear that I can’t perform the task I’d been given. That’s why I haven’t gone beyond market research and idea writing. But, with this post you’ve reminded me of my method of madness. Doing anything for the first time is scary for me, but once I get a routine down, I can do anything. You broke down the steps for me (something I should’ve done for myself a long time ago) and now I’m much closer to getting there. 🙂 I usually do think about the steps, but avoid putting them on paper. In the past, if I do write my fears down, they’re not so scary. Another thing I’ve been doing lately is doing my scary writing tasks during my lunch. I work full-time as a therapist (yeah, I know) and am a single mom. So, tackling writing over lunch helps me feel accomplished because I get things done without having to think about them.
    Thanks so much for this post. I’ll be printing it out to keep it in my line of sight regularly. lol 🙂
    Heiddi recently posted…Single’s Awareness Day (February 14)My Profile

  14. Cat Lugo says:

    I like to think about my writing project for a long time-maybe too long, before I start writing. I have to learn to dive in sooner. Breaking the project down into parts has helped me in the past, as well as just starting to write. When I begin to write, even if I’m not on subject, it helps me get to the subject-hope that makes sense.

  15. Thank you for posting this today. It was a sign from the universe for me. My fear of not making a good living freelancing inspired me to make a decision out of desperation and I now regret it. Today, I rectify that and I needed the strength to do so. I will face my fears and move forward 🙂

  16. Kelly says:

    Thank you for capturing the fear all writers continue to face. There is such comfort knowing my fear is being experienced by very successful writers. I gain strength knowing I am not alone. The only way I have ever been able to get over the fear is to make a deal with myself: you only have to write one sentence. Usually after the first sentence, momentum kicks in for a little while. Then I write as if I am talking to my dear friend and telling her all the cool information I have learned. I also have a mantra: be fearless in the face of failure.

    • Carol Tice says:

      That’s actually a fear-busting technique I’ve used for outlining, Kelly, when I feel boggled by a big stack of interviews and research — phone a friend and tell them about the story you’re writing. Usually organizes itself quite naturally that way.

  17. Bonnie says:

    Wonderful post. Thank you for sharing! You are so right about reading clips. I’ve done that throughout the years and I always react the same way: I wrote that? Dang, I’m pretty good. Fear is holding me back, but I have to do the Jim Morrison thing: break on through to the other side.
    Bonnie recently posted…Quiz: Obama’s Connection to South ParkMy Profile

  18. Erica says:

    I give myself 15 minutes – will even set a timer – to freak out. It’s like hitting “flush” – sometimes I just have to get the junk out. Then, when my fears have made their case for the worst possible outcomes, I can calmly respond, “How likely is that? Not likely. Okay then, let’s get crackin’.”

    Otherwise, I spend more time trying to deal with the fear than I do actually being productive.

    I also periodically look over my resume and samples to remind myself of just how far I’ve come. I did all that: I can do this.
    Erica recently posted…Simplicity: Your Antidote for First-Project FearMy Profile

  19. Amandah says:

    Hello,

    I feel the fear and do it anyway. I also have an Encouragement File filled with emails from clients, colleagues, readers, etc. who have complimented me and my writing. It helps to know that current and former clients were please with my writing.

    If you have a solid writing portfolio on your writer website, it shows potential clients that you know what you’re doing. You know how to write. Even if you don’t have a writer portfolio, yet, you can use your blog. After all, you are writing your blog.

    Sometimes, it helps to speak with someone about your fears. Hire a writing coach or mentor. Join a writer’s groups. Get the support you need and deserve. 🙂 Most importantly, you MUST believe in your writing ability. If you don’t believe in you, no one else will.
    Amandah recently posted…Stop Wasting Time! Go from Ideas to Blog PostsMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      Ding-ding-ding-ding! SO right on.

      And I used to have — and regular look at — a brag file as well. Writers should save every scrap of positive response they get, to review as needed.

      Humans are wired to remember the bad stuff — where the scary lions are that we need to avoid! — and don’t imprint as much on the good. So we have to take active steps to remember and recall the good stuff.

      In our family, at dinner on Friday nights we review each of our highlight of the week…a practice I highly recommend.

  20. Even though I *know* I’m not the only writer who gets the fear, it’s still reassuring every time someone I respect admits to feeling it too.

    My favourite tactic is to tell myself I’m just gonna do 15 minutes of the work, then stop if I feel like it. That usually gets me started, and then I decide not to stop so soon after all!
    Sophie Lizard recently posted…7 Ways to Take Charge of Your Freelance Blogging CareerMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      People do always love it when I talk about how bad I suck at things. 😉

      But I think it’s important to burst the bubble that there’s a magical land awaiting successful writers. There’s just more pressure, and higher stakes! So might as well train your fear to behave NOW.

      I’m with you — breaking down frightening writing assignments into small bits is a big strategy I use. I feel OK about making this one interview call…so I do it. OK. Now, I think I could write some of the bullet points that go in the middle of this story. Check. Ooh — now I have an idea what the final quote should be. Great.

      And at some point you look up and go “Oh — it’s done! Hooray!”

  21. I love this post. I talk about fear and courage a lot. In fact, I’ve decided to make that my blogging niche, after much trial and error.

    Fear is like a fly that you swat away, but it comes back to bother you the next time you write.

    Fear is the reason I went into full-time k-12 teaching after getting my MFA. I’m in the process of blogging about how I convinced myself to turn away from my dreams, and how I eventually got back on track.

    That’s why my theme this year is COURAGE!
    Sarah L. Webb recently posted…Re-Routing: Are You on the Right Path?My Profile

  22. Glad to see that even the pros have to deal with fear.

    Like Andrew, I hold my breath and hit send. I focus on the fact that my fear of not succeeding (because I was playing it safe) is far greater than my fear of rejection and criticism.

    Plus, as someone who has faced rejection several times, I’ve become pretty good at not taking things personally, and this allows me to brush myself off quickly and try again.

    • It’s funny, but I’ve noticed that trying something new now freaks me out more than rejection! A couple weeks back, I sent in a query and a sub in one day. The query was to a new venue, the sub was a big project I’d spent years on. After sending the second off, I thought I was going to throw up, I was so nervous.

      Flash forward to this week. The book sub got rejected. I hardly batted an eye before I subbed it somewhere else. This time, I didn’t feel like puking.

      Oh the peculiarities of my brain.
      Rebecca Klempner recently posted…Fans, friends, and trolls–publishing my first piece on TabletMy Profile

  23. Lorrie B says:

    I really enjoyed this post, Carol. You covered a lot of area and stayed on focus, made me feel as if I were part of the “tribe” of writers who are honest enough to admit their fear. Yes, taking on new challenges is both frightening and exhilerating, but what is life without growth? I talk back to my fear, reminding “it” that we will both be gone from the planet soon enough. When I find myself cornered by insecurity, I remember that the planet has been here for 14 billion years, and humanity a mere 12,000. We are just a blip on the radar screen. Nothing we do is that important, including (and especially!) my tiny fears about success or failure. Ha ha. What silly beings we are. So perspective and a good sense of humour – two tools that belong in any writer’s toolbox. 🙂

    • Carol Tice says:

      Exactly — no matter how bad I screw up my next article, 1 billion Chinese could care less. Keep a perspective!

      No lives are at risk when you turn in an article — so take a flier and go for it. Pitch that big magazine. Write that essay.

      I always loved when people used to write to Dear Abby and say their big dream was to become a doctor, but they were 45 or something and they thought they’d be too old to have much of a career of it when they got out of med school 7 years later.

      And she’d say, “And how old will you be in 7 years if you don’t do it?”

      If you want to write and you let these fears stop you, you’ll look back on it later with sadness. Get your writing out there!

  24. Nida Sea says:

    I’m recently learning how fear has held me back for so long. I was a member of your Freelance Writer’s Den, Carol, for about six months before I decided to try it. I was afraid to follow your instructions on prospecting and getting a client. Isn’t that sad? When I decided to jump in headfirst earlier this year, I realized how stupid I was before. My way of dealing with fear is to realize it’s there and it’s just going to be there. Thanks for posting this!

  25. I hold my breath, turn my head to the side, then click “send”. 90% done is better than never done at all.

    Or if I’m particularly down, it helps tremendously to talk it out with my wife or a friend.
    Andrew Gilmore recently posted…Why We Often Take God’s Love for GrantedMy Profile

    • I also think the hard part is hitting “Send” or “Publish.” I have to just do it, and then I’m like, Oh well, Can’t take it back now!
      Sarah L. Webb recently posted…Re-Routing: How I Got off Track from My GoalsMy Profile

    • Carol Tice says:

      So true! Perfection is the enemy of so many writers. I’m always hearing from writers who tell me they can’t figure out how to earn from blogging because it takes them four hours to write a 400-word blog post. And I’m like, “Just push ‘publish!'”

      • Carol,

        I think that a huge problem for me when it comes to actually submittnig my work is that fear that whoever I’m sending it to won’t think that it’s perfect enough. I know that the reality is that no one expects anyone to be perfect and after all that is what they make editors for, but somewhere deep inside my mind I’ve always tried to make my work as perfect as it can be. I start thinking that if I misspell a word or miss a punctuation mark somewhere that they person receiving the work will automatically think “she’s a writer and she spelled that wrong or didn’t put a period here”. Perfect is something I know my work will never be and yet I still keep trying to make it that way.
        Jimmetta Carpenter recently posted…Feeling GratefulMy Profile

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