The Freelancer Balancing Act Between Committed and Stressed

I’m so extra.

One of my bookmarks is an article on the six natural resources that’ll run out. I do mental exercises so my mind is prepared for the pain if ever I’m a victim of anaesthesia awareness.

I don’t plagiarize, but I’ll take an article I wrote my damn self and run it through Copyscape just to be sure.

So it’s no surprise that I make content writing way more stressful than it needs to be.

The job I’ve created for myself since graduating is straightforward. A startup says, “We’re a startup that makes buttons. Can you write an article about fall fashion trends?”

Cool. I bang out an article. They’re happy. They pay me.

This is the part of the story where I’m supposed to move on with my life.

But I get overcome with guilt and intense pride, even if it was ghostwritten. How did the blog post do? Did it do what you wanted it to do? What are your content goals?

I get that a blog article is high up on the marketing and sales funnel and won’t have a high conversion rate.

I know I did the job I was paid for, and thank you very much for paying me on time.

But I’m still curious:

Was it good for you?

So I follow-up. I make suggestions. I get fidgety. Like someone who got attached after one date, I have to keep checking their social media channels, their blog, to see what they’re up to content-wise.

How are you doing? How are you DOING? HOW ARE YOU DOING?

Give away too much and you’ll have a nervous breakdown

It’s a delicate balancing act though.

When you write for a larger company, they have a very clear role carved out for you as their freelancer.

“You write this, you submit it on this date, we pay you. We literally do not need your opinion about anything else we’re doing. There is someone whose job title is that specific sliver of advice you think you’re blessing us with.”

But with startups it’s different. In most instances, so long as you aren’t obnoxious about it, they welcome your suggestions. Not because they aren’t capable of figuring things out for themselves, but because they have no time to think about it. They’re trying to keep the lights on and convince people to give them money so they can stop stressing about keeping the lights on.

They can barely breathe, let alone think about a data-driven content strategy.

But here’s where the balancing act comes in. You end up giving away more than you should, and if you aren’t careful it leads to exhaustion, resentment, or even irritation on the part of the client who never asked for all this extra effort and now feels burdened by your overcommitment.

New freelancers walk a fine line between adding value and stressing for no pay when no one asked them to.

I think I’ve struck a balance, but it took some time.

Add value but demonstrate your worth with informational invoices

I’m not entirely opposed to free work, so long as it’s work that’s building value on top of a piece of paid work and the person you’re providing it for respects your time. But you have to communicate that it’s a complimentary offer very clearly.

The best way to do this is by sending informational invoices. If you throw in a brief summary they can use when they share the article on Facebook, include how much it would have cost and just apply a discount on the subtotal. Another option is to simply point out how much this would have been worth when you send it along.

No matter what, make your worth crystal clear, baby. And a pox on anyone who belittles you for doing that.

Above all, if it gets exhausting, remind yourself that this extra thought is not paid thought and you can take a break guilt-free. This is easier said than done: Freelancers have autonomy and control over their schedule, but most find it difficult to “turn off”.

For me, I think the easy answer is that I should be working full-time for one company. I take a lot of pride in my work, and I don’t like a set-it-and-forget-it approach even if it’s just a teensy, tiny project.

But then I’d have to work on someone else’s terms. I’d have to “be the brand”. I’d have to look presentable every day, and I’m quite comfortable with my ragamuffin freelancer look, thank you very much.

Also: Fuck office politics.

3 Big Content Writing Myths Spread By Other Writers

Myths have many purposes. They tell us how things came to be, and why they are the way they are. Myths give people a sense of belonging, and you better believe they’re entertaining.

It’s why I’m not surprised that there are so many myths about content writing spread by other writers.

Content marketing has been around for years, but it’s still the new kid on the block. So writers have to create stories about the purpose (or lack of purpose) of content writing and what it means to be a content writer versus a “real” writer.

If you’re considering a career in content writing, or you’re currently building one, let me tell you why you should totally dismiss these myths.

Myth #1: Content Writing Means Pumping Out a Lot of Trash Blog Posts

We don’t set fire to the romance genre just because of a few published pieces of fanfic, do we? No. So why drag content writing just because some people don’t understand the difference between frequency and consistency?

What do I mean by the difference between frequency and consistency? Consider the cases of these two made-up business owners, Bill and Sakina.

Bill hears that putting out regular blog posts increases your number of site visitors and raises your SEO ranking. So he hastily publishes a blog post every single day. These blog posts are poorly edited, redundant, and not very enjoyable to read. And chances are, he’s going to burn out after a week and give up. Bill prioritized frequency.

Sakina hears that producing regular blog posts increases your number of site visitors and raises your search engine ranking. Unlike Bill, Sakina takes her time. She thinks about what her customers often ask and writes quality blog posts that address those questions. She commits time to writing two articles each week. Because she didn’t overwhelm herself she can stick to this schedule and make sure they are well-written and relevant. Sakina prioritized consistency.

So what’s my point? Well, people can execute content marketing poorly, but that doesn’t mean there’s something inherently inferior about content marketing.

Myth #2: Content Writing is Hack Work

Literary, artistic, or professional work done on order usually according to formula and in conformity with commercial standards. (via Merriam-Webster)

The supposedly shameful parts of this definition are “on order” and “according to formula and in conformity”.

For starters, something done on order doesn’t reduce its status as “art”. Very few people would deny that the Sistine Chapel ceiling is a marvellous piece of art. Yet Pope Julius II commissioned it from Michelangelo.

It may not have been through Upwork, but he still ordered it.

How about the literary side of things? If someone works a day job, writes their book in the evening, and then after a limited print run receives glowing reviews by literary critics, you better believe their publisher is going to “order” another book.

Now, a blog post isn’t equivalent to the Sistine Chapel ceiling, but you get my point. Just because someone requests a piece of work, doesn’t mean your work isn’t valuable.

And what about this issue of conformity? Rather than launch into how even iconoclastic artists or writers have to respect certain norms (so their work can be relatively understood) let’s just leave it at this: Writing on a topic and including a call to action doesn’t mean you can’t be creative.

In fact, I’d argue that someone who can find a compelling way to tell stories about HVAC equipment is just as – if not more – creative than someone who can write about anything they please.

If you can keep people glued to articles about furnace repairs, you are doing more than hack work, my friend.

Myth #3: Content Writing is Fake Journalism

Right off the bat, I should say that content writing is not journalism for several reasons, so if you think this I do agree. But the people who lob this criticism aren’t looking for a debate on the philosophy of journalism. What they usually mean by this is: Content writing is unhelpful and untrustworthy.

To which I say this: Content writers write for potential customers and current customers. That is an audience of some very, very, very judgemental people. People who will not hesitate to leave comment like, “This article is irresponsible. You’ve lost my business” or “I was ready to make a purchase until I saw this” or “Why do you keep posting bullshit like this? Unfollowing”.

To avoid comments like this you have to produce stuff that’s useful, enjoyable, and trustworthy. The stats better be legit, that infographic better have something useful, and that article better not put someone to sleep. While a blog post may not go through the same layers of approval that a news article does, a content writer is still thinking about audience, angle, relevance, and readability.

Above all, branded content can still tell a good story. If you understand your brand, you know what sorts of stories your audience will enjoy. Allstate partnered with The Atlantic to launch The Renewal Project, a two-year editorial and marketing project publishing stories on social innovation in the U.S. Technically, this is content writing, but it reads more like journalism or storytelling.

Don’t Shy Away From a Career in Content Writing

Perhaps the biggest problem is the name: content writing. “Content” feels like a lazy word. Once you say content writing enough it starts to sound like you’re saying “stuff writing” or “thing writing”.

Over time, you’ll learn how to position yourself. For example, I call myself a “storyteller for startups” while networking because it rolls off the tongue and starts a conversation.

The important message here is that you can absolutely do relevant, useful, and creative work as a CONTENT writer.  

Featured image via Pexels

How Upwork Success Porn Fuels My Work Ethic

About once a month, I’ll have a day where I feel completely unexcited about my work.

Does the world really need another blog post about digital marketing? Am I undercharging? Will I get carpal tunnel before freelancing even makes a dent in my student loans?

Being in a funk is a waste of time. So when I have money, I’ll go to Caffé Demetre and get a waffle. When I’m broke (or feeling frugal) I’ll find some candy, put on a random TV show in the background, and spend an hour looking at what I call “Upwork Success Porn”.

What is Upwork Success Porn?

Top-rated profiles. High earning profiles. Profiles that say the freelancer worked a thousand hours. I love that shit. It gets me so motivated to work and sometimes, it gives me pointers on how to improve my own profile.

Upwork Success Porn-min
This is where the journey starts. Right on Upwork’s home page. (Source)

I go down a rabbit hole of profiles. I’ll click on a freelancer’s past clients and then see what other freelancers that client worked with and then see what other clients those freelancers worked with. It gets out of hand.

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Danielle bringing in that money and kicking out those typos. (Source)

But doing this helps me in two ways.

One, I’m eager to get back to work, so I can get on their level.

Two, I’m motivated to find jobs on the platform. Upwork is no longer my primary source of work. I do like the platform and you can find great clients, but there are so many posts with asks like, “10,000 words for $20” that separating the wheat from the chaff is irritating and inefficient.

The few times I go on an Upwork pitching spree is when I’ve done some serious “Top Rated” profile creeping.

I’ve linked to everyone’s Upwork profiles underneath the screenshots. I’d be over the moon if you hired ME, but I’m a firm believer in giving credit where credit is due so may the best freelancer win.

I promise I don’t know any of these people. Hustle just recognizes hustle.

 

Upwork Success Porn Profile-min
Go on with your bad self, Philip! Get that money. (Source)
Enviable Upwork Profiles-min
Ashley hitting the $100K mark like it’s nothing. (Source)
Good Upwork Profiles-min
Fellow Canadian Ryan writing copy that converts. (Source)
Great Upwork Profiles-min
NICK C. MEANS BUSINESS! (Source)
Successful Profiles on Upwork-min
“God damn copy genius” Stefan. (Source)

It is officially time for me to get back to work.

I Often Tell Myself My Writing Sucks

I often tell myself my writing sucks.

Hear me out.

I regularly call myself out on my own bullshit whether it’s how I act towards my family or how much I’ve been slacking on a project.

Now, I can’t say for certain whether this habit has made me a better person. What it has done is made me a better writer and freelancer.

Not the best. Just better.

Before I’ve hit send on a blog post, I’ve already thought of half a dozen criticisms the client will have and you can bet your typing fingers that that list of six was whittled down from a list of sixty before I decided to shut the critical voices up and just hit “send”.

“This is boring.”

“There are a hundred other blog posts like this out there.”

“This entire article is too simple.”

“These sentences are too wordy.”

There is usually much more cursing involved.

With the exception of minor revisions, most clients have been happy, but this doesn’t make me any less critical. In fact, it makes me convinced that since I dodged the bullet this time I’m that much closer to the day I get verbally assassinated.

So what do I do?

I read. I read as much as possible about how to write better and how to come up with better ideas and what other content writers do.

Last night, I spent an hour reading about how to write better sentences. My most recent source of self-consciousness has been how basic my sentences seem. Or, on the other end of the spectrum – but just as cringe-worthy – is the fear that they sound too pretentious.

(Related, but unrelated: Last night, Douglas Preston of the Pendergast series writing duo Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child followed me back on Instagram while I was reading that article about writing better sentences. I wish I had been quick enough to get a screenshot of the banner notification, but I was too stunned.)

I am always improving and learning new skills because of this tendency to pick my work apart. It also helps me confirm when I’m doing things right. 

This habit does have its downsides. I spend much longer than I should on a project with a scope and budget that simply doesn’t justify it. I’ve even put off sending a simple email because I obsess over the tone.

Constructive criticism that mutates into analysis paralysis will do you absolutely no favours.

One thing that proved helpful over the last year is blogging. Committing to a certain number of blog posts pushes you to hit “publish”. It also serves as writing cardio that forces you to practice in a low-stakes environment where you don’t have to maniacally edit and proofread.

Another helpful habit has been remembering the purpose of a piece of writing:

  • Does the email respectfully and clearly get your message across? Yes? Stop wasting time and hit send. 
  • Does the 500 word article meet the project requirements? Yes? Proofread and hit send. 
  • Is your friend really going to screenshot this boring conversation about what time to meet up and share your typo with the world? No? Stop being a paranoid narcissist and hit send.

Here are a couple things I read and watched this weekend about improving your writing:

5 Ways to Write a Damn Good Sentence via Copyblogger

Declaring War on Bland: Copywriting as Fresh Literature via TEDx Talks

Do you have any recommendations for educational books, blogs, or videos? I’m always learning and I’d love to hear what’s helped you become a better writer, marketer, or business owner. Comment below 🙂

P.S. Don’t worry. I spend way more time gassing myself up, but that’s a blog post for another time.

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Featured image via Pexels

5 Ways I Improved My Freelance Writing Career (That Didn’t Involve Writing)

The best thing you can do to improve yourself as a writer is to write. Like Nike says, “Just do it!”

But over the last year of working from home, there have been a few non-writing related activities that have helped me become a better freelancer and grow my business.

Regularly Stretching

I suffer from intense pain in my right shoulder that, when left untreated, makes working at my computer for longer than 20 minutes unbearable.

Buying a new desk and chair simply wasn’t an option, so I obsessively started following stretching videos on YouTube and eating turmeric to reduce the inflammation.

By taking preventative measures like stretching, exercising, and sitting properly in your chair, you can reduce your chances of damaging your muscles.

Pain will get in the way of a lot of things and growing your business is one of them.

Doing Chores

Writers don’t just deal with writer’s block. Anxiety, self-doubt, stress, and more are all regular houseguests.

When these became a constant thorn in my productivity, I started breaking up my workday with manual chores. I’d work for fifteen minutes, fold a pile of clothes, work for another fifteen minutes, and then wash dishes.

It may sound like an unproductive, interrupted day of work, but it actually makes me more focused.

When my thoughts are racing and I can’t focus on the task at hand because I’m obsessing over something unrelated to the work, I can focus on what I’m doing knowing that at the end of the fifteen minutes I have some time for guilt-free stressing.

What makes it guilt-free? Two things.

One: the fact that it is scheduled time.

Two: the fact that I’m doing manual labour, which makes me feel productive. Since it’s impossible for me to do client work when my mind is elsewhere, I can wash a stack of dishes while stressing. (So long as I snap back to attention while washing the knives.)

Flipping Through a PHYSICAL Thesaurus

Before I started writing professionally, I thought I was one wordy motherfucker. Once I had to produce blog post after blog post I started rolling my eyes at the words I kept repeating.

Clients obviously wouldn’t notice this meta-pattern, but I saw the repetition between pieces.

If I find a word boring while writing I’ll quickly click over to an online thesaurus and look for alternatives. But as part of my general professional development, I’ll take the time to flip through my paperback thesaurus in the morning or before bed.

Pursuing a Specialization

Pursue designations or certifications if you can. Carving out a niche for your writing makes you extra valuable to clients who are desperate for a writer who can make their dense, uninviting topic enticing to readers.

I stumbled into writing content for tech start-ups, but I haven’t taken that fortunate entry point for granted. I’m aggressively reading as much as I can about the industry as well as looking for affordable coding for beginners resources to make myself more knowledgable.

Surrounding Myself With Other Writers

Go to networking events. Talk to friends who are also writers. And if you’re not a fan of networking or you don’t have a lot of friends who are going down the same career path, read the blogs and watch the videos of other freelancers.

I’m sociable, but I find networking exhausting and I always leave those events feeling low, so I’ve started to avoid them. My substitute has been using social media to create a digital network of people who inspire and influence me.

Writing and reading are both vital ways to improve your freelance writing career, but if you’re in the industry, you already knew that. Sometimes, activities totally unrelated to creating can help unlock your potential and boost your motivation.

Happy hustling!

Featured image via Pexels