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2016: Lessons in Freelancing

This blog has been neglected for nearly all of 2016: 51 weeks of it, to be precise. That wasn’t unintentional, entirely. One of my specific goals for 2016 was to find and place my writing and editing advice—the kinds of posts I used to publish here—with paying outlets. I did that, publishing four industry-focused articles with Contently’s The Freelancer, and I parlayed the rest of what I’d normally write about here into two new classes I designed and started teaching at Pitch Like a Honey Badger (credit for the class name goes to its originator, Amanda Castleman) and Nuts & Bolts of the Freelance Lifestyle. There, I enjoyed working with smart, motivated students whose successes I enjoy celebrating.

In addition to writing for The Freelancer and teaching, I’ve been plenty busy. I wrote for lots of outlets, including three big print features (one of which still hasn’t been published) that pushed me in terms of my research and reporting skills. I did a lot of behind-the-scenes editing work for custom and branded content clients, including AFAR, Eater, Avocados from Mexico, and Microsoft. I did much more translation and fact-checking work than ever, completing highly technical translations (English-Spanish and Spanish-English) for international NGOs and private institutions and digging deep into fascinating features written by other folks, where my language skills and cultural competence were useful beyond measure. Fact-checking clients included Audubon Magazine, California Sunday Magazine, journalists writing for The New York Times, and private book clients, as well as guidebook publishers, DK Eyewitness and Michelin.

2016 was the most lucrative year of my decade-plus freelancing career to date, and I don’t mean that solely in the financial sense. I worked harder than ever (something that, frankly, I didn’t think was possible), and in the process, I learned more than ever, too. Some of those lessons were assignment specific, picking up a new term or concept in a translation or fact-check project that I hadn’t been familiar with previously, or learning about a complex medical issue after hours of interviews and research. But some of those lessons—the most valuable, enduring ones, I suspect—were more universal, and I want to share them here as I wait for the ball to drop on 2017.

1. Social media is not a waste of time…

A considerable amount of my work this year—more than 50% of it, and probably closer to 70%–came from editors and clients who follow me on social media. By consistently sharing who I am, what I care about, what I’m reading, what I’m thinking, and what I’m working on—and being authentic about all of those—I’ve had an incredible amount of work referred to me, and most of that work has been both big dollar work and personally or professionally significant to me in some major way, either because it was a new client, a particularly prestigious client, or a project that was perfectly suited for me and stretched my skills and knowledge to new limits. Interestingly, a lot of the referrals came from colleagues and editors who don’t necessarily “like” or comment on any of my posts. But when a job that was perfect for me presented itself to them, they thought of me and shared my name with the powers that be. In short: social media is not a waste of time. AT ALL.

2. … BUT my bandwidth for online drama is increasingly limited.
The above notwithstanding, it was only late in the year, after a November trip to Havana when Internet access was especially poor, that I realized my mental, emotional, and social bandwidth for online debates and arguments is increasingly limited. I’m a big believer in the importance of supporting colleagues (more on that momentarily) and sharing knowledge, contacts, and leads with other writers—especially those who have traditionally been pushed to the margins of this profession, or neglected by it altogether. But in a number of online spaces where this kind of support occurs, there are endless debates about nearly every aspect of the profession of freelance writing. I always tried to participate respectfully and thoughtfully, but it became clearer to me over time that the energy I was investing into many of these conversations could be better spent in other ways. A number of people live for online debates and seek validation/confirmation of their opinions or beliefs—especially (paradoxically, perhaps) the ones that limit them the most. I’m here if and when they’re ready to delimit. Until then, I’m choosing to direct my energy and time in ways that will be of greater, more powerful, and more immediate benefit to others.

3. The rising tide will always lift more boats…
I have ALWAYS believed that the rising tide lifts all boats: that conditions or circumstances improving for one person can be of benefit to many more people. My experiences this year continued to prove this clichéd phrase to be true.

4. … BUT there are plenty of colleagues and collaborators who don’t understand that.

For some folks, it doesn’t matter how many times the rising tide lifts their boat… they still believe they’re the only ones who deserve to be lifted. I had more experiences than I cared for this year where my success could have been someone else’s success, but my performance or competence threatened their sense of self and, by extension, threatened our collaboration. I continue to be baffled by this approach to life and work, but it reminds me that…

5. I have to know when to walk away AND be prepared to do it.
In the most vexing example of a collaboration where a partner felt threatened by my work rather than viewing my contributions as leading to a win-win for both of us, I started to get really frustrated. My husband became my job counselor on more than one occasion, as I complained about the fact that I feared one of my most important anchor gigs would vaporize because this other person only wanted their boat to rise. He reminded me, as he always does, that it’s possible she’ll sink my boat, and that would suck, but I’d be okay. He held out the mirror to remind me of my skills and abilities, as well as my history: When a door closes, another opens. And he reminded me, too, never to get too attached to or dependent upon a single project or client.

6. It’s really never too late to reach out.

I’m pretty good about staying on top of notifications of gigs and assignments, and I tend to jump on those right away. But there came a point in this year where I had so much work that I just let those notifications go to their own gmail folders, piling up for the last quarter. When I finally started to catch up on them, I saw there were a couple of gigs that were perfect for me. I hovered over “Reply”: It was a week or a month later: Should I throw my hat in the ring? “What do I have to lose?” I asked, typing to the editors, “It may be that you’ve already found someone for this assignment, but if that’s not the case, please feel free to get in touch,” adding, of course my name and bona fides. In both cases where I did this, I landed major assignments at new-to-me publications AND for one of them, an offer of a recurring contributing writer role. Unless you really have something to lose, you have nothing to lose.

7. Relationships really ARE everything.

Sometimes, I’ll agree to go to a deskside or event for which I have no assignment (and, if I’m honest, I might not even have a particular specific interest), just so I can keep an ear to the ground on certain subjects or groups. I know lots of writers who think these things are a waste of time, but this year was recurring proof for me that they often yield fruit, even if it’s far in the future. Cultivating relationships at these types of encounters and activities may not have immediate benefit, but they often will at some point down the road. And even when they don’t, they can be a good “Let’s have human contact time” for a writer who spends too much time at her computer. In fact, I’m scheduling Friday morning coffee into every week in 2017. I need more time with other writers, and if I make an obligatory appointment in my calendar, I’ll keep it.

I’m sure there are other lessons I learned this year (“Always follow up” and “There’s no shame in getting your money” are two that I learned—again—in 2016), but these are the ones that are top of mind as my kids buzz around the living room (STILL AWAKE) as we wait for the ball to drop on 2017. I’d love to hear what you learned in 2017 – share your lessons in the comments below.


8 responses »

  1. Good to have you back. 🙂

  2. Great post! I agree with everything you’ve said; the part about online drama especially hit home for me, as I left several groups that were supposed to be about support, but turned out to be just a lot of noise and narcissism. Congratulations on your best year ever–hope 2017 is a banner year too!

  3. Congratulations on a great year and what a fantastic post Julie! Was nodding throughout. This year will be very different for me in terms of freelancing and time management. Wishing you a fabulous 2017 as well!

    • Julie Schwietert Collazo

      Thanks, Lola! I’d love to have a virtual coffee hour with you via Skype or FB soon! Let’s make it a priority!

  4. This is a beautiful reflection, and a helpful one to boot! Rising tides do float all boats. Thank you for being inspiring, J. Hope we cross paths this year.


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