There have been a few times in my career when I lost work and found myself struggling to stay afloat no matter how good my work was or how hard I tried to diversify my client list. Since it seems inevitable that I’ll have to deal with another dry spell, what do you think I can do to turn things around as quickly as possible?
-Stuck in a Rut
You’re a talented freelancer with bylines and paychecks to your name, but you wake up one morning and realize you have no new assignments on your schedule and no idea where your next gig is coming from. Or, maybe you’ve been writing a steady 20 pieces per week but one of your clients stopped offering you work and now you’re only down to 15. Either way, one thing is clear: You’re in a lull, you’re not making the money you need to survive, and you need to get out fast.
What should you do? First you want to reach out to both current and previous clients, and ask those clients if there are any work opportunities for you. If possible, structure these messages as pitches. Sending an email that begins “I have three ideas that I think would be great for you” is a lot stronger than “Got anything you might want me to write?”
Keeping in touch with all of your past clients is something you can do as a pre-emptive measure against freelance lulls, by the way. This week, for example, I’m planning to reach out to three clients I haven’t written for in a few months and pitch them new ideas.
The more often you connect with clients and pitch new ideas, the more likely you are to gain the coveted position of regular contributor. Becoming a regular contributor for a publication helps insure yourself against freelance lulls since it means a steady byline and a steady paycheck.
Your clients also like it when their talented writers stick around and complete work consistently. Pitching a single idea to a new client is both time-consuming for the editor and time-consuming for you because of the necessary on-boarding process the leads to paperwork and introductory questions. Obviously, writers all have to go through that process at some point, but those who become consistent contributors can bypass all of the extra time spent on background info and just focus on the work.
So let’s say you’ve hit your lull and you’ve started connecting with old clients. What else should you do? Pitch new clients, of course. I’m pitching Hello Giggles this week because I think I’ve made my way up the freelance ladder to the point where the editors there might be interested in me. If you aren’t already keeping a list of “to pitch someday” clients, get started. Then, once you have your list, start pitching them before your back is against the wall.
There’s a fine line you need to walk to minimize the impact if you suddenly lose a gig. As you mention in your question, you’ve made an effort to get work with multiple clients, which is exactly what you should do. It just goes back to the whole quality versus quantity debate; ideally, you want a half-dozen go-to clients who know your work well and a rotating group of clients you’ve worked with fewer than, say, three times. If your go-to clients haven’t known you for long enough, then odds are they won’t be able to direct you to work when you need help.
It’s also worth checking in with your writing friends and colleagues to see if they know of any open jobs. It should be no surprise that many writing jobs are filled through word of mouth—I just got one of those word-of-mouth gigs a few weeks ago—so let other writers know that you’re ready to commit to some new work.
Sometimes, regardless of how proactive you are, you’re going to get stuck in a lull. December, for example, is often a slow month since a lot of clients close up shop around the holiday season. Protect yourself financially by saving enough money to carry you through a down month or two. I know that it is easier said than done, but having even one month of living expenses saved up can make the difference between riding out a lull and spending the entire lull worried about racking up credit card debt.
The best thing you can do for yourself as a freelancer, whether you are currently in the middle of a lull or whether you want to prevent lulls in the future, is to think of yourself as a shark. Sharks keep moving or they die, right? (I know that’s a simplified version of shark biology, but it’s a metaphor.) You also want to keep moving—keep reaching out to clients, keep pitching, keep looking for new clients, keep saving money—no matter where you are in your freelance career or how well things are going at the moment.
Because if you stop moving, you’ll hit a lull. Guaranteed.
Nicole Dieker wants everyone who reads this to pitch one new client and one current client this week, as a first step towards preventing freelance lulls. If you have Ask a Freelancer questions, send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.