The Freelance Creative

10 (Serious) Tips for Surviving the Freelance Holiday Slump

While editors and accounts-payable staff start heading off on vacation (whatever that is) starting in mid-December, freelancers tend to get anxious by the time the holidays hit. Assignments slow down, the checks stop rolling in, and there’s no paid vacation to make up the difference.

The slowdown doesn’t need to be unproductive, however. The holiday slump season can be one of the most fruitful times of the year—if you do it right.

Earlier, Nicole Dieker went over 10 (joke) tips for getting work done when you’re home for the holidays. But don’t worry, we have serious tips as well; here, you’ll find 10 of our favorite methods for maximizing the holiday slump season.

1. Take time to give thanks

Sure, you’ve had moments of frustration with your editors this year, but the best editors you’ve worked with have polished your words and made them shine, helped you negotiate a higher fee, sought you out for a recurring gig, or battled with accounting. That deserves some thanks.

Send an email or, even better, a handwritten note. You’ll feel good for brightening their day, and your gesture will ensure you’re remembered in the new year. And don’t forget colleagues who have referred you for assignments, stand-out sources, or particularly generous corporate clients. After all, these are the relationships that are so crucial to a freelance career; make the effort to nurture them.

2. Get ready for tax time

December is the perfect time to organize receipts and begin getting ready for tax season. Double-check to make sure you’ve been keeping track of all the deductions you can claim, including these lesser-known ones, and that you have the corresponding receipts to maximize your savings.

If you don’t do your taxes yourself, go ahead and prepare categorical breakdowns for your accountant. As a full-time freelancer, my categories include: books and magazines (the ones used for research); conferences and professional membership fees; postage; electronics purchases; utilities; and travel expenses, among others. If you have questions about what you can deduct, consult your accountant.

3. Evaluate your invoicing system

If you’re still drawing up invoices in a word processing program, it’s time to consider using one of the many online invoicing tools or apps that will streamline your invoicing.

A number of freelance colleagues recommend Harvest and FreshBooks, but I’m a fan of Wave, a free service online that features a high level of customization, invoicing in a number of different currencies, payment by credit card (for a fee), and a number of income tracking tools. Take the time to figure this out now, before the invoices start flooding in again.

4. Organize your portfolio

I stay on top of the task of importing clips into my portfolio as soon as pieces are published, but I’m not as good at reviewing my portfolio regularly to make sure links are still working or that I’ve archived work from publications that have gone under.

The slow weeks of December are a good time to take a close look at your portfolio and make sure it’s up to date. You may also want to consider moving your clips over to a portfolio service [Editor’s note: We have a free one!], or to build a personal website for your clips.

5. Make a list of your 2016 publication goals

Before you start planing for 2016, it’s important to take a close look at the work you did in 2015. It will help you identify gaps between your ambitions and your daily work, which can serve as the starting point for setting some goals for 2016.

Where would you like to see your byline in the coming year? What’s the dream publication that’s eluded you so far? How can you move from the front-of-book to features, or from online to print?

Brainstorm your goals, and your pitches and writing will be much more focused next year.

6. Make a list of your 2016 financial goals

After you’ve laid out your publication goals, it’s even more critical that you do the same with your financial goals. Ask yourself whether you’re satisfied with your income and the variety of assignments you took on, and then identify your financial goals for 2016.

Do you want to make more money, and do you have the bandwidth to do so when you take your publication goals into account? What do you have to do to achieve it? Do you want to work smarter, not harder? What changes do you need to make in your day-to-day schedule for that to happen?

Once you’ve decided on the annual figure you want to achieve, divide it by 12 to calculate what you need to make each month; divide further for a weekly income goal. If you’d like to take vacation, figure that downtime into the equation as well. Ditto for savings and investments.

Again, write your goal and post it in a place where you can see it. Along with your publication list, these two should combine forces to keep you honest throughout the year.

7. Think about your award and honor opportunities

Good work may be its own reward, but recognition is nice, too. December is a good time to research the awards and honors you’d like to be considered for.

There are many prize programs, but for starters, take a look at Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma if you write about crime, violence, or trauma; The Society for American Travel Writers Foundation if you write about travel; and the International Association of Culinary Professionals if you write about food. There’s an award for pretty much every topic and medium, so do your homework. You’ll probably be surprised by what you’ve missed.

Once you’ve identified the awards programs you’d like to submit to, make a calendar of submission dates and prepare a folder on your desktop with the kinds of paperwork that will likely be required: a resume or CV, work samples, a statement of purpose, and so on.

While you’ll probably need to modify some of these documents to fit the specific requirements of each prize, having the basics ready will put you a few steps ahead of the pack.

8. Update all your social media profiles

A lot can happen in a year, so it’s worth devoting a slow December day to taking a close look at your social media profiles and making sure your bios and the like are up-to-date.

What new bylines would you like to include? What new-to-you niche did you break into? How can an editor or publisher get in touch with you? How can you use the specific features of each platform (pinned tweets, for example) to your advantage?

Social media is key for networking, and it’s likely the first place your future client goes after they evaluate your pitch. Making sure it’s is up to your standards will pay off in the long run.

9. Commit to continued education

There’s a wealth of free and low-cost resources online where you can expand your knowledge and skill set as a writer or journalist, while also making yourself more competitive in a dense freelance market.

edX has free online courses in a wide variety of subjects—from data visualization to “Journalism for Social Change”—taught by professors from world-class universities. Poynter has seminars and go-at-your-own-pace courses on ethics and legal matters, math for journalists, and others. Dart offers trauma training for journalists, both online and in person. Electronic Freedom Foundation has teach-yourself resources about encryption keys and reporting in protest situations. Storybench is a go-to resource for information about data visualization and multimedia storytelling.

The Internet is a big place, and these are only a small sample of the kind of courses available. Take the time to find the right one, at the right price.

10. Plan to branch out

Successful freelancers know that diversifying your work is crucial to maintaining a healthy income stream. Diversification—of types of writing, outlets, and kinds of platforms—has other benefits as well, such as keeping you excited about your work while expanding your reach to new audiences.

Teaching, speaking, radio reporting, and being called upon as a subject matter expert are just a few of the ways to diversify your work in subjects you’re already versed in and build your clout. But don’t be afraid to also pick one or two topics that have always interested you, and start developing a strategy to break into them in the new year. By next December, you should be a more well-rounded, financially stable freelancer.

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