How to: ride out the freelancing rollercoaster
Tips on ways to avoid the 'too much/too little work' panic
But you don't have to leave your workload, your finances and your emotional well being in the hands of the editors who may or may not give you a commission. There are plenty of ways to even out the highs and lows, and create a more settled working life.
1. Create a savings buffer
Conventional wisdom says you shouldn't go full-time freelance until you have a decent savings buffer (three to six months is ideal) to protect you from periods of tricky cash flow. This is also a vital asset for those times when you lose a regular client, take a holiday or are forced to take time off through illness. If you've already made the move to self-employment, it's not too late - use your busy period to start saving.
2. Pay yourself a wage
One way to help even out your cash flow is to open two separate accounts - one into which all your income is deposited, and one into which that original account pays a weekly or monthly wage. That way, during your glut months you'll build up a surplus, which will help you during those leaner months. On this subject, it's worth setting up a third account in which to put aside your tax after each payment, so you don't get lumbered with an impossible bill when you do your self-assessment return.
3. Pace your pitches
It can be difficult to dedicate time to pitching when you've got deadlines looming, so think of any quiet periods as a chance to drum up more work. However, be sensible about who and what you're pitching. "Try and and pace your pitches so that the work comes in at a more manageable rate," says Faith Eckersall, a lifestyle feature writer. "For example, try a long, research-lead feature and a couple of blog pieces on the same day. If they're all commissioned it won't be like having three giant pieces that are all required for a week on Thursday!"
4. Vary your deadlines
Likewise, pitching publications with different lead times will help spread the work out. Feature writer Linda Harrison, whose clients range from the Independent and the Guardian to Good Housekeeping and Women's Own, says, "one magazine I write for usually gives me a two month deadline, while some newspapers and magazines want stuff within a few days or a week. By pitching publications with a range of deadlines, even if everything you pitch is commissioned, you have time to prioritise the work."
5. Don't forget admin
Writing is just one aspect of your business as a freelance journalist. There is also the admin side - filing, invoicing, doing your ALCS submission or your tax return. Use those times when you have not got many commissions to catch up on these day-to-day tasks so that, next time you are racing against the clock to make your word count, you can rest assured that the business side of the job is sorted.
If the income you are bringing in through your writing is not regular enough for your liking, try adding another, more stable source of income to your portfolio. This could be complementary, such as copywriting, PR or teaching, or even simple admin work. Try to find something that is flexible, so that when you have a busy writing period, you do not find yourself over-burdened.
7. Take time off
With no paid holiday, it feels wrong taking time out when there is work to be done. So make the most of a lack of deadlines to take a breather. "Something will always turn up," says feature writer Kelly Rose Bradford. "It always does. Relish lean periods - don't get caught up in fretting and panicking, just enjoy a bit of downtime ready for the next onslaught when you're sobbing into your pillow over the 'too-much-on' situation!"
If you really have taken on too much work, it might be worth outsourcing something, such as transcribing interviews or admin. It may even be that you get help at home, for example by employing a cleaner, even just temporarily, to enable you to focus on your deadline. It may go against the grain to pay someone to do something that you could do yourself, but work out how much money you can be making in the time you free up for yourself - it could well be worth it.
9. Get it off your chest
Finally, whether you are too busy or too quiet, there is nothing like sharing the burden with someone who understands, so make sure you have a good community of writers around you, even if it is only online through a forum like Journobiz. Sometimes just talking a problem through can help you adjust your attitude towards it, giving you the energy you need to face either the mountain of work or the mountain of pitching to come!
Journalism.co.uk editor's note: We can also recommend our freelance discussion email list and our online forum for a buzzing community of freelancers.
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