Freelancing writing can prove to be deeply rewarding and seriously challenging in perhaps equal measure. Every career path has its trade-offs. Accompanying the undeniable benefits of freelance writing are various pitfalls that any would-be freelance writer should be aware of, and which any budding or established writer should be equipped to handle. Here are six of the most common problems that freelance writers have to grapple with.
1. Working for Free (in the Hope of Getting Paid Later On)
Freelance writing is a highly competitive world. It is a dream for many people to write for a living, and just like the other creative industries, the level of competition involved often pressures hopeful writers to work for free. This could be in the form of an unpaid internship or it could involve blogging for a website or charity on a voluntary basis.
What many freelance writers do, especially when they start out, is write for free while in full-time work in order to gain relevant experience and hone their skill; then, eventually gain regular paying clients, and perhaps start doing a part-time job in order to sustain themselves.
A giant pet peeve of freelance writers is the expectation to write ‘test articles’ for free as part of a job application. Many clients and companies will (rightly so) compensate a writer for writing an original article, yet far too many employers assume that writing an article is something requiring little effort and that doesn’t deserve payment. You wouldn’t ask a plumber to do plumbing for free before hiring them, so why does the same not apply to writing? You hire a plumber because they are advertising what they can offer, just as a writer does.
Companies can also be a quite sneaky and exploitative when it comes to requesting test articles. I submitted a test article for a job once, for free, and after rejecting my application, the company decided to publish my article on their website without even giving me credit. I subsequently pointed out to them that they were breaking copyright law by doing this and had to pay me a fair rate for my work, otherwise legal action would be taken. After some initial resistance from them, they soon agreed. I have heard from other freelance writers how this is a common occurrence. What’s worrying is that this kind of shameful and shady behaviour will go unnoticed or unchallenged by many writers, and so these unscrupulous companies will continue as they were.
One of the deep-seated issues with the expectation or necessity to work for free, however, is that it can be implicitly discriminatory against those from poor socioeconomic backgrounds. Some people can afford to do an unpaid internship full-time or work voluntarily part-time, but others cannot. The culture of free work leads to the exclusion of highly talented and passionate writers, simply on the basis of their background. This presents a significant barrier to social mobility. Writers can, of course, categorically refuse to work for free on principle. But in the name of fairness, as well as attracting as much talent as possible, companies should take a strong stance on the issue and compensate a writer for their work whenever possible (and, of course, when required by the law to do so).
2. Low Pay (at Least for a Beginner Freelance Writer)
When you set out to become a freelance writer, finding paid work can be a joyous and motivating experience. It means someone out there is willing to pay you for your creative talent and passion. The only issue is, at the beginning of your freelance career, you’re likely to receive low pay for your work. In fact – if you factor in the time it takes to write an article – it’s very common to be paid below the minimum wage for your work. For example, it may take you two hours to research and write a 700-word article to a high standard; but you may only be paid £10 to write it.
When you’re receiving such low pay for work that can be mentally taxing, you may end up becoming exhausted and burnt out trying to stay on top of things and anxious about making ends meet. The crucial thing to remember is that persistence pays off in the long-term. The initial difficult stages of a freelance writing career, which – to be honest – can last a couple years, will be worth it. In hindsight, the struggle can make this career path far more rewarding than it would have been if it was easy, secure, and comfortable from the start.
3. Badly Behaving Clients
Perhaps the most stressful aspect of freelance writing is having a client who consistently fails to pay you on time or who forgets to pay you altogether. I can sympathise with the fact that many clients – especially startups – may have a hectic schedule and a heavy workload to contend with, but this still shouldn’t excuse giving a lack of priority to a freelancer’s invoice. Freelancer writers have bills to be paid, and the stress of late payment only serves to compound other stresses. Worst of all is a client who never ends up paying you. It’s certainly a challenge to contain your boiling irritation and resentment during situations like this.
Other poor behaviours from clients include being unresponsive or inadequately responsive. In terms of the former, it can be stressful to receive the silent treatment. At least for someone who overthinks and overanalyses as much as I do, unresponsiveness can make me conclude the very worst, such as how I’ve made a monumental mistake which will result in me losing a client. Regarding the latter, sending an email with a question and getting a reply without an answer or solution means you have to keep chasing the issue. This can certainly be frustrating, especially when it’s to do with payment, a lack of proper credit given to your work, or submissions of work that have been completely forgotten about.
4. Writer’s Block
Every writer will experience writer’s block at some point; the feeling of being stuck, blank, and uninspired. When the creative juices stop flowing, it happens unexpectedly, and sometimes at the very worst times. When you fall victim to writer’s block with an impending deadline, it can induce a feeling of restless panic, intense frustration, and unhelpful self-blame.
If writer’s block strikes, continuing to sit at your desk clutching your head in distress may not be the best solution. While your mental block may soon dissipate, giving way to a natural flow state of writing again, it is usually far more beneficial to step away from the desk and go for a walk. Studies have demonstrated that taking a stroll through natural surroundings can boost creative thinking. And I can definitely attest to this effect. When I’m out walking, especially in nature, it is far easier to generate the influx of ideas that I wanted so desperately as I sat inactive and hopeless at my desk.
5. A Lack of Energy and Motivation
Another inner struggle that befalls freelance writers is a lack of energy and motivation. Writing can take up a lot of mental energy, and if you’re spending the whole day writing, then there will be a point where your energy reserves are depleted and you need to recharge. However, it can be kind of inconvenient to feel a lack of energy when you have a busy schedule, multiple clients to attend to, and various deadlines to meet. This is why, for the sake of one’s own mental health, a necessary balance has to be struck between work and rest.
Working in a committed, disciplined, and rigorous fashion is, of course, conducive to success. But so is maintaining a certain level of self-care and, in turn, well-being. If you overwork and overstrain yourself to a point where you are overwhelmed, high-strung, and exhausted, then you will suffer, and so will your work.
Any writer should set their schedule and workload in such a way that accommodates those inevitable periods where the energy to write is lacking. Since writing can also be a mentally taxing endeavour, it may help to mix up one’s schedule with learning other skills that complement one’s freelance writing (e.g. WordPress, SEO, social media, email marketing, etc.) or perhaps other kinds of work that an individual finds less demanding (e.g. research, editing, admin or social media management).
It can also be very unsettling to find yourself lacking motivation. You may feel fed up with low pay, mundane content creation, or generally a bit lost in what it is you’re actually trying to achieve. A lack of motivation can arise when there is no longer a clearly identified goal or objective that you feel driven to achieve. If you are losing the desire and inspiration to write, don’t beat yourself up about it. Often, the loss of motivation has nothing to do with any character flaw you might have, which is especially true when it comes to a mental health condition like depression (plummeting of energy and motivation is a common symptom).
Whatever the underlying cause of the problem, motivation can be re-energised in the appropriate way. If poor mental health is affecting your freelance writing career – or vice versa, or both are interacting in a cyclical manner – then the immediate priority should be to look after your mental health. On the other hand, the necessary solution may be a re-evaluation of your career goals.
6. Self-Doubt and Low Self-Esteem
As a freelance writer, the inner challenges that you encounter can trip you up and impede your progress far more than anything externally that is going on, be it low pay or even the loss of a client (whether we react or respond to these tough situations is of paramount importance). When freelance writers make mistakes or face serious setbacks and failures, there is a temptation to engage in self-doubt. It is easy to shoulder a heavy burden of blame and wallow in self-directed finger pointing for how things didn’t go as intended or desired.
Self-doubt is fuelled by the inner critic that we all carry in our heads: it’s the judging, harsh, and critical voice that often goes unchallenged. It is ultimately destructive and antithetical to the full realisation of our potential and authentic wishes. Freelance writers may also doubt their abilities, talents, and skills by comparing their career to others’, a tendency that is heightened by social media, and which can result in other negative feelings, including jealousy, bitterness, and low self-esteem.
Overcoming low self-esteem as a freelance writer requires recognising the true nature of your capacities, values, passion, and goals. If the fulfilment you derive from writing becomes invariably linked to the success of other writers, then both your self-esteem and your writing career will suffer. Believing that you aren’t good enough as a writer can end up impacting your mood, motivation, and consequently, your career development.
The key to being a successful freelance writer is harnessing the resources, tools, and techniques at your disposal to effectively tackle the inner scourges of self-doubt and low self-esteem. Every freelance writer should also be willing to embrace the possibility of new and unique struggles. For example, this could include learning how to network, even if this induces feelings of anxiety, dread, and awkwardness. Stressful situations, rough patches, and uncertainty about one’s career path are struggles that many freelance writers go through. But learning how to stay determined amidst these struggles, and growing as a result of them, is truly invaluable.