Growing Your Freelance Career

When you first begin freelancing, it’s like being parachuted, blindfolded, into a ten-acre field you’ve never seen before and your job is to grow a crop. You have no idea where you are or what the soil is like or what the seasons will bring or what grows here. You’ve got a plow, or maybe a shovel, depending on your skill level, and you don’t even know where to get seeds to plant.

At this point, some people give up and go work on someone else’s farm.

But if you stick with it, you start to get a better idea of where you are: Minnesota or Arizona. And you have a clearer idea of what grows here: cactus or corn. But other people around you seem to be doing better planting soybeans or apple trees and maybe you should, too. And still other people are selling up and trying again in Oklahoma, where the soil is better for wheat. Or so everyone says.

Now you have alternatives: you could go to work on someone else’s farm, or you could change your crop, or you could move. Or you could stick with what you’re doing.

Later, you get to the point where you’re growing cucumbers, amazing cucumbers, you’re good at cucumbers but now no one is buying cucumbers. Should you keep growing them? Maybe the cucumber market will bounce back and you just need to be patient. Who doesn’t like cucumbers? Surely there will be buyers again soon. Maybe you just need to remind everyone of how delicious Greek salad is, with all those tasty cucumbers. Maybe you should partner with someone who produces feta cheese!

Now you have many more alternatives: you could go to work on someone else’s farm, or change your crop, or move, or change your marketing plan, or form a strategic partnership, or just stick with what you’re doing.

In other words, you thought you had challenges when you started? The one thing you can count on in freelancing is change. There is never a point where you have it all figured out. If you think you do, you don’t.

Which, conveniently, brings me to my main point: Be firm in purpose but flexible in your means.

As the market has changed, as I have changed, my career has gone through countless iterations and corrections. Through it all, I have maintained my core purpose in freelancing: to be able to raise my daughter, with all of her challenges, in the least restrictive and most supportive way. This has always meant earning a reasonable income and having almost total control over my schedule.

Secondarily, I wanted to grow my craft as a writer and an editor. So I try to choose projects and approaches that keep me challenged. It’s why I’m not doing the same work I was doing ten years ago.

Through the years, I’ve been a nonfiction book author, a magazine writer (then a magazine editor), a book development editor, a literary agent, an acquisitions editor, a novelist, and a teacher. These are all related but they are by no means the same thing. At each turn, I had to find ways to learn new skills and to “empty the cup” of what I knew so that I could find out news ways of doing things.

Change makes it easy to doubt yourself. It can make it difficult for you to find clarity about next steps. At those times, I go back to my core principle. Is it still meaningful to me, the most important priority? If it’s not, then I reflect on what my new principle is, and see how that affects my next steps. For example, as my daughter has gotten older, my need for total control over my schedule has lessened. That makes it possible for me to consider new paths that weren’t available before.