A Long, Strange Day in the Life of a Freelance Writer

By Nicole Dieker June 17th, 2014

8:30 a.m. Zero words.

Like many of us, I start the day by turning off my alarm and checking email while still under the covers.

I do not hit snooze.

The majority of my emails are crap, even after filters and unsubscribes, but I usually find one or two useful messages from editors or clients. I’m looking for anything to add to my to-do list, which is currently sitting in a green notebook next to my laptop, waiting to be opened, so I can get to get to work.

Although, since I’m checking email, work has already started.

9:30 a.m. Zero words (I’ve written about 200 “email words,” but they don’t count since I don’t get paid to answer emails).

I am a woman of routine who believes no home is complete without a bright red electric kettle, and I use that kettle to heat up water for my breakfast. It’s the same breakfast every morning: one large cup of drip coffee (Starbucks, Verona) in an enormous mug shaped like an owl and one bowl of quick-cook oatmeal with a handful of plain almonds and a squirt of honey.

Once the emails are taken care of, the next hour is devoted to reading online. I hit the New York Times, the Atlantic, Slate, the Gawker network, and the Awl network—in addition to Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr. Reading everyone’s outsized opinions on world events can be fun, but it’s also an important part of my process. I need to know what’s going on in the world to write effectively about the current landscape and incorporate important events into my pieces. I need to know about Wil Wheaton’s new show and Shonda Rhimes’ commencement address and the writer who went a month without sitting down.

After reading, I make my to-do list for the day. The first item on the list is always “PROCESS.” I pull out my master “Getting Things Done” list and my enormous spreadsheet that tracks deadlines, word counts, and the pay for each job.

10:30 a.m. 800 words.

On an average day, I’ll have to complete six pieces. I try to finish the first two before 10:30. I tend to pick out the shortest, easiest pieces first, because they serve as a warm-up for the rest of the day. If a client wants 450 words about how to dress for an interview, or a 400-word email campaign announcing a new product, that gets done in the morning.

It takes me about 30 minutes to write 400 words, and I don’t write with the intention of revising a first draft. I don’t outline, either. I read over each piece once or twice, make any necessary tweaks, and turn it in. Even the article you’re reading right now was written in one sitting before going to the editor.

I do, however, like to let pieces marinate in my mind before I start writing, which is why I try to complete the easiest jobs first. At this point, the more complex afternoon jobs are still busy sorting themselves out in my brain.

I am still in my pajamas. My headphones are playing some form of happy techno: Daft Punk, Freezepop, Neil Cicierega’s Mouth Sounds. If clients try to set up Skype calls with me and I cite “conflicts” until the afternoon, this is why.

11:00 a.m. Still 800 words (plus close to 600 “social media words,” which still don’t count, since I’m not getting paid).

Between 10:30 and 11:00 I scan my go-to sites for new news, and I also check in with social media. I tweet quips at my friends, or I post an interesting link to Tumblr (yesterday, I shared Ann Eleven’s amazing short story “Robot Family”), and I also read whatever my friends are posting and like, like, reblog, like, favorite, and share.

Now, social media is so crucial to maintaining friendships and professional relationships. Staying active is part of my job as a writer, but also part of my job as a human.

And yes, I’m still in my pajamas. But don’t worry—I brush my teeth as soon as I finish my coffee.

12:00 p.m. Holding on 800 words.

I’ve practiced yoga daily since 2006. I used to do the full 90-minute Ashtanga primary series (or at least the primary series through supta kurmasana, which was as far as I got), but now I do a 20-minute practice of the fundamental asanas, because I don’t have 90 minutes to spend on yoga anymore.

After yoga, I shower, dress, and eat a quick lunch. It is almost always a ham or turkey sandwich with mayo and pickles, a piece of fruit, some chips, and a small square of what I call “otter chocolate” since there is a picture of an otter on the bar.

When I make tea, I inevitably start humming to The Sound of Music: “Tea! With ham and bread! With ham and bread, with ham, with ham and bread!”

I’m a huge dork. And clearly, routines are important, even when they’re not related to writing.

2:30 p.m. 1,600 words.

The first part of the afternoon is best for longer pieces, though I’m usually still putting off my “hardest” piece while it rumbles around like a Katamari in the back of my brain. I used to think it would be easier to write long-form personal essays—like “What it’s Like to Take a 36-hour Sleeper Train from Los Angeles to Seattle”—than to trudge through “How to Dress for an Interview” or “7 Ways to Save Money on Your Summer Vacation.” I was completely wrong.

Daft Punk is still whispering in my ears that I’m going to get lucky, and I’ve switched my desk from “sitting” to “standing” mode. (In my case, “standing” nearly always means “dancing.” I do shake my booty while I write. Training to type and dance at the same time didn’t happen overnight.)

At 2:30 p.m., I usually hit a wall, which means it’s time to answer outstanding emails and do the dishes. My apartment is a converted 1920s hotel, and the rooms did not come with kitchens, so I have to wash my dishes by hand in a tub of water in the bathroom. Fortunately, there aren’t too many.

This time of day is also when I crave a change of pace and walk over to the Seattle Central Library with my MacBook. I love working in the 10th floor Reading Room with its gorgeous beamed skylights, but even more than that, I love the chance to step away from my laptop and solve my writing problems on the walk from my apartment.

6:00 p.m. 3,000 words.

I try to finish up work between 6:00 and 7:00 p.m. (There is usually one night per week when I work until 10:00.)

After I finish this particular article, I’m going to make dinner—tilapia, coated in Italian dressing and baked in my toaster oven, with a side salad. Then I’m going to watch an episode of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and scream at the characters, because everyone in that show acts like an Aaron Sorkin robot with a gifted vocabulary but no idea of what it means to be human.

After yelling at Sorkin, I’m either going to play Dungeons & Dragons with friends, go for a three-mile walk, or just hang out. The thing I don’t want to do is sit in the apartment and write all night, think about upcoming jobs, or try to get ahead on my work, even though I sometimes do all of those things. But based on experience, if I work too late, I’ll spend the next morning staring blankly at my laptop, feeling like I drained all my energy the night before.

Eventually, I’ll come home for the night and do whatever my Gorilla Workout app tells me to do, which is usually 250 lunges and 250 squats. In case you haven’t noticed with the yoga, dancing, walking, and lunges, I don’t like sitting still. It may be one of the secret reasons why I became a freelancer. It may also be one of the secret reasons I’m able to write more than 3,000 words every weekday.

When the exercise ends, I wind down by reading on my Kindle, and spend the very end of the night chatting with my boyfriend, who lives in Vancouver. Around 12:30 a.m., I go to bed.

The alarm is set, and I’ve already written “PROCESS” in my green notebook, preparing for the next day workday to begin.

Image by Drew Coffman
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