Career Advice

10 Ways Freelancers Psych Themselves Out From Getting Good Work—And How to Avoid Them

By Suzannah Weiss June 3rd, 2015

Since you’re a freelancer, Bill Lumbergh is never going to force you to do work on a Sunday—which is good, because nobody likes Lumbergh anyway—but the counterpoint to that is nobody tells you what work you have to do. It’s up to you to figure out what projects you can take on. And when you have that decision-making responsibility, it’s really easy to convince yourself not to pursue certain jobs. They’re too tough, too time-consuming, too personal. As we internalize these warnings, we get in our own way when we sit down to work.

Here are 10 excuses freelancers use too often—and some encouraging words to overcome them:

1. “This has been written before.”

This is most likely true. In the age of the Internet, just about everything has already been written. And yet that doesn’t prevent people from publishing it again. Do you know how many reviews are out there trashing 50 Shades of Grey? Me neither. Because there are too many to count. So get out there and add your perspective to the mix. You don’t necessarily need an original topic as long as you have an original thought to add to the conversation.

2. “Nobody cares about [the radical politics of clowning / my Marxist interlocution in the study of consciousness / why getting fired is like roasting marshmallows].”

Then let someone else reject the piece. Nobody has the chance to accept it if you reject it yourself. And if they do reject it, send it to more people. If worst comes to worst and everyone rejects it, publish it on your blog. Or, you know, just relish in the self-knowledge and emotional healing you gained from writing it. It doesn’t have to be a net loss, especially if marshmallows are involved.

3. “I could be working on project with more guaranteed return on investment.”

Investors sometimes split their money between low-risk, low-reward projects and high-risk, high-reward ones. You can do the same with your time. Writing is a venture that consists of a lot of failure, but getting published can be highly rewarding. So if you’re concerned about how you invest your time, you can spend most of it on paid work and other high-ROI activities, but allot, say, an hour a day to work on something that is a bit riskier.

4. “This was already rejected, so it must not be good.”

It’s a numbers game. Even top-notch pieces get rejected by popular publications before they find the right home, so if your writing takes weeks or months to get published, that doesn’t mean it’s permanently homeless. Just as all these beautiful celebrities have been dumped, the “it’s not you, it’s me” line also applies to relationships between freelancers and clients. Your rejection may have more to do with timing than the quality of your work. Editors aren’t just judging the merit of each piece; they’re curating a mixture of written work and videos and images that all need to fit together. So cast a wide net to find out where your story fits best.

5. “This just doesn’t seem quite right yet.”

Heed the conventional wisdom that “the best writing is rewriting,” but stop reworking every small detail once you’ve reached a point of diminishing returns. A telltale sign that you’re at this juncture is when you catch yourself changing sentences back to the way they were before. And then back to the way you revised them. And then back to the way they started off. At this point, your changes make very little difference and you’re only going to drive yourself crazy.

6. “This was trashed in workshop.”

You know what else was trashed? 50 Shades of Grey. And now it’s sold more than 100 million copies worldwide. (One writer even took the success of the 50 Shades franchise as “proof that there’s hope for you and your pitiful literary dreams.”) But that’s beside the point because even quality writing can get trashed.

Just read the comments on any article online (unless you have any lingering faith in humanity you’d like to retain). Or think back to a workshop you took in college. Most likely, someone brought up a criticism that you didn’t agree with. Knowing when to take feedback is an art, but one method that helps is asking yourself whether the suggested change makes the piece sound more like you. If not, don’t let it get in the way of your career.

7. “People are going to disagree with my opinion.”

There’s no obstacle quite like the paralysis that ensues when you picture your opponents coming at you with pitchforks after reading your articles. While your physical well-being is most likely secure, Internet trolls and nasty commenters are real concerns. The trick is to not take them seriously or personally. You can’t please everyone, and even if people disagree with your take on a subject, that doesn’t mean your work lacked skill or creativity.

A word to the wise, though: If you say something controversial (especially something that shouldn’t be controversial—for instance, that sexism and racism exist), don’t read the comments, don’t check your “other” inbox on Facebook, and don’t feed the trolls.

8. “I don’t want to bother the editor.”

They’ve seen worse. Much worse. Look, as long as you heed the submission guidelines, proofread your pitch, and have some idea of what the publication wants—for example, maybe don’t send your anti-feminist rants to The Toast—you’re not going to offend anyone. They might decide your idea is “not a fit” for the publication, but you won’t burn any bridges, and you’ll still be welcome to send them another idea in the future.

9. “This piece reveals too many details about my life.”

Publications love personal essays, and these days, it seems like the more personal, the better. Even BuzzFeed, known for its GIF-filled listicles, is hungry for personal stories. And Modern Love, where writers air intimate details of their love lives in The New York Times, is one of the most popular columns anywhere.

It’s a common defense mechanism to protect yourself from ridicule, but people will probably relate to your past mistakes if you write about them with honesty and self-awareness. And if you’re afraid you’ll offend the other people in your story, well, you can always ask for their opinion before squashing the idea on your own.

10. “I am never going to finish this.”

Scope is the great equalizer. When brainstorming ideas, it’s easy to look at a big story and scare yourself from taking on the work because of all the interviews and research and writing that will need to be completed. If you limit yourself to small projects, you’ll probably never progress beyond being a small-time freelancer. And that goes for just about any creative field, whether it’s branded content, travel photographer, website design, or longform journalism.

Just do whatever you can to get out of your own way—there are enough obstacles there to begin with.

Image by iko/Shutterstock
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