It’s been a good year for my burgeoning freelance writing and editing career. I worked with a dozen clients, had solid anchor jobs, and made more money than I expected.
So when I decided to take a few weeks off to travel this past August, I wasn’t worried—I figured I’d come home and quickly pick up where I left off. I finished some assignments early, and I let other clients know I’d be unavailable until September. I was so committed to taking real time off that I even left my laptop at home.
But when I returned from my trip refreshed and ready to get back into the swing of things, there was no work to be found. The bad news rolled in one devastating email at a time: An anchor gig cut my work (and pay) in half. An editing client got laid off, so my assignments for that publication disappeared. And, of course, the economy took a turn for the worse. So for the first time, I found myself in every freelancer’s nightmare scenario—with no work on my plate.
I was facing my first freelance drought, and I wasn’t sure how to dig myself out—but I knew I had to act fast, as I was dipping into savings to pay the bills. Luckily, I made some moves to get the freelance assignments flowing again. Here’s how I managed to build back up a healthy pipeline.
I turned to the experts
First, I looked to more seasoned freelancers to help me chart a path forward. When it comes to the dreaded “ebb” part of the freelance cycle, there’s plenty of advice out there. Freelance writer Jennifer Gregory, who runs the blog The Content Marketing Writer, wrote recently about her experience with such a scenario: When faced with zero work, she emailed all her past clients and contacts to see if she could drum something up.
Another writer, Marijana Kay, wrote in the Freelance Bold newsletter about how social media can be a great place to share that you’re open to new work. She also suggested that freelancers looking for new assignments seek out freelance roles on job boards.
With all this in mind, I began a networking frenzy. To date, around 60 percent of my freelance work—and best-paid clients—have come from direct recommendations from former colleagues and bosses. My first step was to reach out to them. It took about six weeks, but I ultimately landed an article assignment and a six-week content management gig just from emailing a handful of people I’d previously worked with.
I landed two assignments just from emailing a handful of people I’d previously worked with.
The fact that these former colleagues know I’m someone they can count on helped me drum up work quickly. During this process, I realized how handy it is to keep a list or spreadsheet of contacts I’ve developed over the years—a practice I highly recommend to other freelancers.
I put the word out
Next, per Kay’s advice, I made sure everyone on social media knew I was open to new projects. I also began exploring resources for beefing up my social presence, such as attending a free webinar with social media strategist Portia Obeng through Creative Mornings’ virtual field trips. Here, I learned how to insert keywords into my social profiles so more people could find me. Now, my LinkedIn headline contains eight titles to encompass the many types of work I do.
I also blasted my availability on Twitter and made sure my Linktree was up to date. (I still need to update my ancient website, but hey, one step at a time.) I also signed up for a free trial of LinkedIn Premium so I could see which potential clients were checking me out. I learned there’s a lot of untapped potential for jobs on LinkedIn that one can access simply by searching phrases like “writer needed” and #freelancejobs.
I started actively scanning job boards
Next, I started paying close attention to job listings. (I’m a member of the media collective Study Hall and would recommend it to any media freelancer—their weekly “Opportunities” edition has some great gems. )
Some other job newsletters I subscribe to include Opportunities of the Week, Journalism Jobs and a Photo of My Dog, West Coast Media Jobs, Kaitlyn Arford, and Kat Boogaard. After perusing all of these on a regular basis, my best advice is to trawl them when they’re first published and apply to roles you’re interested in (or send pitches) right away, as these listings can draw hundreds of applicants. The goal is to be at the top of editors’ inboxes.
Finally, I faced one of my greatest freelancer fears and started to pitch my own ideas. I looked at the list of running themes I’ve kept in a spreadsheet for years and tried to find a fit with the calls for pitches I saw. I also mined ideas from things I’d been thinking about lately, talking about with friends, or personally experiencing.
I’ve learned just how important it is to have a plan in place for when freelance work inevitably stalls.
Once I had a pitch in mind, I either pitched the editor who had put out a call for pitches via email, or I searched for the right outlet to take on my idea and submitted it through their website form. Soon, I landed two stories with editors I hadn’t previously worked with: A piece for Cosmopolitan about millennial women who vape in secret, this very story you’re reading on Contently. As of November, I’m back to working almost 40 hours a week and have an excellent part-time editing gig that’ll last through next April.
As for surviving my first freelance famine? It wasn’t all bad. The lack of work forced me to get creative and push myself toward pitching and being the kind of writer I ultimately hope to be. But I’ve also learned just how important it is to have a plan in place for when freelance work inevitably stalls. Silver linings feel good, but feeling secure about my pipeline feels even better.
If you’re a skilled freelance creative staring down an empty pipeline, get the word out and land work with top brands by creating a portfolio on Contently.