As a professional writer and freelancer, my biggest problem was saying no.
Would you like to write a book on Madagascan botany?
Yes, even though I have no interest in botany. Just give me the cheque.
I like your book idea. Do you think you could complete the manuscript in two months?
Yes, even though I promised the same to three other publishers. And I’m getting three hours sleep a night, because I also freelance and life in general is just crazy. But all that doesn’t matter; just give me the cheque.
Lovely meeting you the other day, Abidemi. Do you think you could email me a book proposal on that idea we talked about?
No idea what we talked about. But, I’ll email you the book proposal anyway. Just.give.me.the.cheque.
The freelancer’s dilemma: your bills or your health?
You see a trend here? As a freelancer, commissions were my bread and butter, so I didn’t turn down jobs, because I thought that I would lose clients. So, I carried on accepting (it seemed like) every copywriting or book project going, with all the deadlines, stress and pressure they came with.
As a result, I struggled. And I mean, really struggled. I spun so many wheels I made myself dizzy. I worked long, interminable hours, seven days a week and rushed from one deadline to the next with nary a breath in between.
I knew something had to give, but I was terrified of the consequences. If I said no to these book writing and other freelance opportunities, will the work dry up? Would the clients take me seriously as a professional writer?
Then, things started getting messy. Seriously messy.
I missed the deadline for a book (well, several).
The insomnia went stratospheric.
The quality of my work – as did my productivity – started plummeting. It turns out that when you do everything, you get nothing done.
Things came to a head when I got an email from one of the editors asking me if we ‘needed to talk’ about a ghostwritten book that I’d been commissioned to write (and been paid for), and I was really struggling with.
That email literally saved my life. I read it and thought: ‘I can’t do this anymore. I can’t write the book. I literally cannot write the book. I am tired and burnt out.’
I scheduled a meeting between the editor and my literary agent and explained my situation. There were lots of tears (mine), but I knew I had to come clean. I was struggling.
My editor and agent listened, gave me some welcomed advice and I was released from the contract.
When you say no, other opportunities open up
After that, I made some changes to my professional life, chief was which was extricating myself from unreasonable writing commitments I’d made (my fault entirely), that placed such awful pressure on me that I could barely function (again, my fault. I had no business saying yes in the first place).
By and large, clients were understanding. The condemnation I feared: ‘I thought you were a professional?! How could you let us down?’ did not materialise. Mostly because I recommended other writers that could do the projects I’d been commissioned for.
Also, I started valuing my time and peace of mind more. If I don’t want to work on a project, I say ‘no thanks’ and move on – there will always be other opportunities. And because I’m so particular about the projects I take on and who I want to work with (essentially, it has to be worth my time), I started charging a lot more.
- higher-quality clients
- my stress levels have gone down
- I am more productive
- The quality of my work has improved, because I’m focussed on getting the best results for the tiny pool of clients I’ve chosen to work with, instead of spreading myself thin.
I believe that’s called a win-win.
Perhaps you’re at the start of your freelance career and you think you haven’t got the luxury of paring back, because you’re too busy trying to keep a roof over your head, so you have to say yes to everything. I get it – I did that myself.
But for how long and at what cost?
Contrary to what you think, there will always be another job that you can pick and choose at your will.
The freelance life is great, and contrary to popular perception, it can be really quite stressful (the lack of a regular pay cheque will do that to you, not to mention some bullying clients), but I would encourage you to be bold and to choose life. Make the changes to your freelance business that you need to make (whether it’s sacking some clients or increasing your rates) so that you can live the life that you wanted to live when you decided to be freelancer.
You can do it.
Over to you: what is your biggest challenge as a freelancer and what steps have you taken to overcome those challenges?
Also published on Medium.