Career Advice

5 Ways Freelancers Can Hit the Ground Running After a Hiatus

By Susan Johnston Taylor November 24th, 2015

San Francisco-based writer Molly Blake was ramping up her full-time freelance business last September when her mother suffered a traumatic brain injury. In less than 24 hours, she was en route to Minnesota to be with her. For the next six months, she spent her time flying back and forth as her mother underwent a craniotomy. Gradually, her mother recovered.

“I had a bunch of projects going on,” Blake said. “I had just gotten a monthly column for a magazine and had a big financial story due. I had to bail on everything, but my perspective is that family comes first.”

Fortunately, Blake’s editors were understanding when she emailed them about her situation. Once she was ready for new projects, Blake emailed them again. Both emailed her back right away asking about her mother. They also offered new assignments.

“I had enough confidence in my abilities that I could get back into it,” Blake said.

Maternity leave can be a challenge for freelancers, but as Blake’s story demonstrates, it’s not the only reason we may need to take time off. Unlike employees who are protected by the Family and Medical Leave Act, we don’t necessarily have work waiting for us upon return.

Of course, it’s not always a medical emergency that prompts freelancers to take time off. Earlier this year, I took five weeks vacation—the most time I’d ever taken off—for my wedding and honeymoon. Also this year, Seattle-based travel and lifestyle writer Charyn Pfeuffer took off two and a half months between apartment leases to travel across Alberta and British Columbia with her roommate.

No matter the reason, there are strategies that freelancers can use to ramp back up after returning from a hiatus.

1. Build strong relationships in advance

Rather than writing one-off stories for a number of different publications, Blake focuses on building a stronger rapport with a core group of editors. She credits these strong relationships with helping her transition back into freelancing.

“I had a good relationship with these editors to begin with,” she said. “I never missed a deadline and turned in clean copy. I always give suggested tweets and Facebook posts to my editors, so I feel like that casts me in a different light.”

Freelancers should be taking this approach anyway, but medical emergencies and other extended leaves are a good reminder of just how important it is to build real bonds with clients.

2. Schedule pitches for your return

If you’re taking a planned hiatus with a predetermined return date, like Pfeuffer and I did, you can give editors advanced notice and stop pitching a few weeks before your departure.

I had a little more time to work before I signed off (but not enough time to pitch, report, and write stories), so I prepared pitches before I left and scheduled emails to editors the week I returned using Boomerang for Gmail. That way, I didn’t have to restart my entire operation from square one.

3. Stay minimally connected (if possible)

Even if you’re not filing daily stories or taking on new assignments, stay in touch with editors if you can—especially if your return date is uncertain.

Eight years ago, Baltimore-based writer Carol Sorgen spent over a month in the ICU after complications from breast cancer treatment. While she was recovering, Sorgen said, “I tried to keep in touch with regular contacts to let them know how I was progressing and make sure they didn’t forget me.” Fortunately, her clients had others fill in and assured her the work would still be there once she was ready.

Nancy Dunham, an entertainment writer based in Washington D.C., also kept in contact when she had to take six weeks off early in her career to help her husband recover from spinal cord surgery.

“A few times a day I’d check email and phone messages,” she said. “I even attended a few casual work-related get-togethers when family and friends were with [my husband] for extended periods of time.”

Dunham also found that staying involved in one small project—helping compile and edit a newspaper’s weekly entertainment section, for example—brought in a little money and helped keep her sane.

“I could do that work anytime, so I took the assignment and did it whenever possible,” she said. “That kept me on the editor’s radar.”

4. Use time off to brainstorm

Getting away from your computer and out of your daily routine can give you a different perspective and help you uncover new ideas. My hiatus from freelancing also allowed me to reevaluate my clients and decide which projects I wanted to resume and which ones I didn’t.

Pfeuffer returned from her trip with a notebook full of detailed notes and ideas. And instead of sending those ideas to her regulars, “I just started taking some of the story ideas and blind pitching some outlets,” she said. One blind pitch landed her an assignment with Afar, which she’d been trying to break into for years.

Though Blake’s hiatus didn’t involve rock-climbing or exploring national parks as Pfeufer’s did, she still used downtime to brainstorm. “During that time in the ICU or staring off into space on an airline, I came up with a lot of story ideas in my head,” Blake said. Several of those ideas later resulted in assignments.

5. Pace yourself when you return

If you’re returning from your own medical issue or from caring for someone else, be careful not to over-commit.

“Once I was home from the hospital I slowly started working after a few weeks, but didn’t accept as many assignments and didn’t take on any unreasonable deadlines,” Sorgen said. “I’d work for a few hours a day, rest when I needed to, sub out some work if I needed to, and, in general, just slowly dipped my toes back in.”

Two years passed before Sorgen took her first plane trip (her personal benchmark for being “back to normal”) and she’s still careful to make her health a priority and not to over-work herself. When it comes to returning from a hiatus, sometimes it’s better to walk before you run.

Image by lzf
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