Last week, I thought it would be fun if we did something as a family. I was thinking that we’d go see a movie or have lunch in a restaurant.
One thing led to another, though, as they do, and in the end, five of us piled into the car at 2:30 in the morning and drove two hours south of our home to hike a mountain and watch the sunrise.
We parked in the dark and found the entrance to the path we wanted to hike, and we started off.
The beginning wasn’t bad — we were all excited. The adrenaline pushed us forward. My kids raced on ahead, ignoring my admonitions not to run, to stay with us. They didn’t look down at their feet, but rather craned their necks to peer at the top of the mountain above.
“We get to go all the way up there?” one of them asked.
About halfway up the mountain, my kids paused briefly to wait for their elderly parents to catch up. We all had a drink of water, and the kids took off again. I needed another moment to catch my breath.
I looked down at the ground we had covered. I looked up, noting with something akin to dismay that there was still a LOT of mountain left to climb.
“I just wanted to go to a movie,” I thought.
I rested. I felt my heart rate return to normal. I felt my lungs stop screaming for air. I started walking again, and I felt the excitement returning. It carried me through for another little while.
I was most of the way up the mountain when I felt like there was no way I could go on.
I was high enough up to get a decent view. So why not just stop?
I’m too old for this.
I’m not in shape for this climb.
I can’t do this.
My legs hurt. My heart was pounding.
The First Hurdle
Early on in Writing for Money, my students have to choose a niche. They have to decide what the want to write. And they have to stop THINKING about writing and start DOING the work.
It's hard. It really is. But the beauty of the course is that my students have a community in place to support them. They can share their fears, and then move past them.
Oh, those voices!! They make my students crazy!
As I stood on the mountain path, struggling to catch my breath, I heard those voices in my own head.
No one would know if my sunrise pictures weren’t taken from the very top of the mountain, right? And really, sunrise is kind of overrated, isn’t it?
I could just stay put and wait for my family to come back down the mountain. I didn’t have to keep going.
On the other hand… I’d come so far. There really wasn’t that much left. I could just keep going, one step at a time.
It would be hard.
My legs would hurt.
My heart would pound.
I’d want to quit a few more times.
But I could do this. One step. Then another. And another.
My students do the same thing. They get to a point where they feel like they can't go on. My job, when they reach that point, is to talk them through. To show them how much they've already accomplished. And to provide them with the encouragement they need to keep going.
I believe in EVERY SINGLE ONE of my students. They ALL matter to me. And I see them do amazing, amazing, AMAZING things.
Student Spotlight: Ariela Schwartz
Ariela enrolled in Writing for Money about 8 months ago with a background in massage therapy — which is quite a bit different from freelance writing! But today — just seven months after getting started in freelance writing — she writes articles and listicles for health, nutrition, and medical websites and blogs.
One of her favorite recent assignments was writing the FAQs for a brand-new nutrition app. She reviewed videos showing the app's functionality, met with the developer to review the app in detail, and then wrote up the FAQs, all before the app had been officially released. Playing with new technology is a lot of fun.
These days, Ariela turns down work when clients don't provide enough information or when the money they're offering doesn't justify the work involved. And lately, she's completely booked with work, so she's able to be super-choosy with the projects she takes on.
Most days, Ariela works around 5-6 hours. She hardly every has to put time in to looking for work, because clients are coming directly to her with projects and offers. “I have far surpassed the income goals I set for myself in Abbi’s course!” she says.
Back on the mountain, I moved slowly. A short rest. Then another few steps.
And then, I was there. At the top. AT THE TOP OF A MOUNTAIN.
The view was amazing. The colors of the sunrise were fabulous. My kids. Their excitement. My own happiness.
I could have missed all of that. I could have given up too soon.
After the Adrenaline: The Work
When you decide to start freelance writing, you’re excited. You’ve got the adrenaline to push you through the beginning. It’s fun. It’s new. You wake up and you can’t wait to get started on your work.
But after some time, the adrenaline wears off. You realize that this is actually kind of tough. There’s a lot of work to do.
You had envisioned less work, perhaps. More sitting in coffee shops. Less of the tedious administrative work. Less of the research.
That’s okay, you reason with yourself. I can do this.
You find some motivational quotes and post them on your wall. You read some great writing to get you in the mood. You go back to work.
And then, after a time, you hit a wall. I mean, you run SMACK into the wall. You can actually feel physical pain when you start to work. This isn’t what I wanted to do,” you think. I wanted something different.”
The work, the day to day work, takes effort. You’re building a business. You’re connecting with clients. You have moment where you can glimpse the future you envisioned, but you’re not there yet, and it’s insanely frustrating.
I can’t do this.
I don’t have the skills.
This is too hard.
Remember Ariela, the student I profiled above? Here's a conversation I had with her a few weeks into the course. (This is FB messenger, so there are typos. I'M HUMAN.)
This is the point where a lot of people give up. This is the point where a lot of people simply decide that the work is too hard.
But here’s the thing: the people who keep going? They’re so close to what they want. They’re so close to the top of the mountain. They’re so close to this view.
Student Spotlight: Nicolle Brokaw
When you push through all the hard stuff, you get to see the amazing view. You get to do amazing things.
If you give up, you miss out on all of that.
When Nicolle enrolled in Writing for Money in May 2017, she had no freelance writing experience. Today, she gets paid to write blog posts for parenting websites.
Nicolle can work anywhere from 15 minutes to 6 or 7 hours a day, depending on her assignments, her energy level (she's pregnant with baby number 2!) and how active her toddler is.
And how's the money? “I am very content with how much I am making,” says Nicolle. “It’s enough for my family to live comfortably, and I am able to continue to stay at home and raise my beautiful daughter.”
Remember, those results are after just five months. And Nicolle is pregnant. Imagine where she'll be a year from now!
Her favorite assignment so far? An article on exercising with a baby carrier. “Babywearing and exercise are two huge passions of mine!” she says.
Parenting is full of weird stuff, so clients ask for all kinds of work, including pieces on cleaning diaper pails (YUK) and homemade pregnancy tests. “I didn’t even know there was such a thing, until I was assigned the article,” says Nicole.
And now that she's pushed past the hard part, Nicolle has the freedom to turn down work she's not passionate about. “Freelance writing is something I got into so I can actually enjoy my work, not be bored out of my mind,” she says.
The Story of You
So many of you have written to me about your dreams of freelance writing.
“My kids need me at home.”
“I want to show my kids that I can be a parent and contribute financially.”
“I want to do work that helps others and gives me a personal sense of satisfaction.”
“I want to support my children in their studies, because they both have special needs, and build a home built on our religious values.”
We’ve all tried a lot of things that didn’t work. So it’s time to STOP doing those things and START doing the things that will let you build the business — and the life — you really want.
There’s a lot that goes into building a successful freelance writing business from scratch, and unfortunately, a lot of people don’t succeed.
A lot of people get stuck in those early mistakes and never get their business off the ground.
It’s easy to understand why that happens — but it doesn’t have to happen to you.
If you’ve been kicking around the Interwebs trying to figure out how to make money from writing, you might have come across some information on freelance writing. And you wouldn’t be the first person to ask, What the heck IS a freelance writer, anyway?
A freelance writer is someone who writes for others — companies or individuals — on a per-project basis, for money.
That money bit is super-important, because money is a good thing. With money, you can buy food and shelter and iPads and other things.
Freelance writing is a job — but it’s not a J-O-B where you go to an office and have a boss. A freelance writer isn’t an employee of a company, but rather an an independent contractor. This is a fancy way of saying, “You’re on your own, baby!”
As in, you have to find your own work, find the place to do that work, and get the equipment you need to do that work.
Yep, this is my actual, messy desk. #keepingitreal
Freelancers also have to handle all the administrative work that goes along with being in business — for example, sending invoices to clients, and then following up to be sure the client actually sends the check.
If this is starting to sound like a raw deal, don’t panic. Because the flip side? Well, the flip side is that when you are a freelance writer, you are in control of your own income.
What Does It Mean to Be In Control of Your Own Income?
When you’re an employee at a company, you most likely don’t have access to the whole picture. You don’t know the ins and outs of the company’s finances.
You don’t always know if layoffs are being discussed. You don’t get to decide which projects to take, and which to pass on.
When you’re a freelancer, it’s your business, and you know what the situation is at any given moment. You know if there’s enough work and money.
You know if you need to get out there and hustle, and how much you’re going to see at the end of the month.
To me, that feels a lot more stable than counting on someone else to come through for you.
It’s really, really important to note that not everyone feels the way I do. My husband, for example, loves having a job with a regular paycheck. You need to carefully consider how YOU feel before you make the decision to be a freelance writer.
If I’m a Freelance Writer, What Exactly Will I Do?
Freelance writers do a lot of different things, depending on their interest and abilities. Some freelance writers write blog posts — for their own blogs, and for other blogs. Some freelance writers specialize in blog posts for businesses.
Some writers focus on articles for print and online magazines, and others write technical manuals and software user guides.
You can find writers in almost any area you can imagine: corporate marketing materials, ebooks, white papers, press releases, and so on.
What’s not on this list? Novels, short stories, poetry, and similar kinds of writing. That’s typically not the kind of writing we’re talking about when we talk about freelance writing.
Basically, you would have to write this many books to make a living as a novelist. #notreallykidding
BUT! You can combine those types of writing with freelance writing so that you can make money and write what you love.
Do I Have to Pick Just One Thing To Write?
Here’s a cool secret: you don’t have to do anything! When you’re a freelance writer, you are in charge of your own business, and you get to make all the decisions!
Many years ago, when I started out as a freelance writer, I wrote all kinds of things. This was partly because I placed a really high value on materialistic things like heat and food, and also because it’s really hard to turn down work when you don’t have any.
In the span of a single year, I wrote dozens of articles on parenting toddlers, along with press releases for a semiconductor company, test questions for standardized exams for elementary and high school students, and a brochure for a company selling home delivery of medication for Hepatitis.
Basically, if someone was offering money, I was there, laptop at the ready.
(Except one time. One time, a big formula manufacturer wanted me to write a guide to formula feeding. I turned down the assignment, which very nearly caused my husband to leave me.)
You get to make your own choices, is the point, which means that if the formula company comes to you, you can take the assignment and donate the money to La Leche League. Or you can buy a caseful of formula, and hand it out in the maternity wing of your local hospital – and that’s fine.
But when I started out as a freelance writer, I didn’t have a niche.
I had never heard of “choosing a niche” — so I didn’t botherto pick one.
Stop letting your niche hangups get in the way of starting your freelance writing career. If you can’t pick a niche, get started anyway.
Are there advantages to choosing a niche? Of course. Just check out all those links above. But if choosing a niche is preventing you from getting started in freelance writing, that’s just silly.
You can start TODAY, right where you are, with nothing more than the knowledge you have in your head, right now. You don’t have to quit your day job yet. You don’t have to invest money in building a web site. You can just start, and figure out your niche after your first few assignments. You're already ahead of where I was, because I didn't even understand that choosing a niche was a thing.
My instinct was to say YES! to everyone.
I wrote press releases about semiconductors, articles about breastfeeding, and courses about the laws concerning insider trading.
Doing all of those different things meant that I was constantly learning new things. I was always a beginner.
If you're always a beginner, you're never a pro.
It took me several years to realize that by always having a learning curve, I was significantly limiting my income. When I started turning down work that didn’t interest me, I took a big step in the right direction, but it was a long time before I finally wised up and niched down.
By turning down the work that didn’t interest me, I opened up time in my schedule — in my life — to find the work that I did like. The work that made me feel excited. The work that earned me real money.
If you want to get work on Upwork, you need to create a profile. If you want to get high-paying freelance writing work, you need to create an AMAZING Upwork profile — and that starts with writing a killer Upwork profile overview.
Most people write things like, “I’m awesome, and I wrote for these 15 awesome sites and companies, and I did awesome work and I have awesome talents.”
Actually, I recently saw an Upwork profile that made me laugh out loud. It started off, “Almost everyone gives me a 5-star review.” It included headings such as “Who am I?” and “A bit more about me,” and “The reason I’m here.”
This is NOT an awesome Upwork profile.
By the way, the reason? So that his mind will expand. Because, it’s all about him. OF COURSE.
Here’s the thing: this is NOT how you write an awesome Upwork profile overview.
If you want your profile to attract the right clients and get you freelance writing jobs that pay well, you need to completely remove the word “I” from your vocabulary.
You’re just not that important.
I mean that in the nicest possible way, really.
Look, you know that I love you. I think you are AMAZING. If you came over right now, we would totally hang out and eat sushi and it would be AWESOME.
But when you write your Upwork profile, there is only one person who matters, and that person is your potential client.
An Amazing Upwork Profile Starts With What the Client Needs
You start your Upwork profile overview by articulating what your potential client needs.
If your ideal client is someone in the health field who is looking for solid health content based on facts, he needs everything to be grounded in research and science and heavy with facts, sources, and footnotes.
This client also needs to present this information in a way that anyone can understand — even without a background in science or medicine or another specialized field.
Open your profile overview with something like: You need science-based content that your readers can trust.
Yes. Exactly that like. Articulate your ideal client’s needs so that he reads this information and says, “YES! OH MY GOSH! IT’S LIKE SHE’S IN MY HEAD. THAT IS EXACTLY WHAT I NEED.”
This is the reaction you are going for.
And you can give this client even more. For example:
You need to know that the articles you publish are properly researched, accurately sourced, and contain factual information that you can stand behind.
You also need content that your readers can understand, even if they haven’t put in the years of study that you have in your field.
Notice that these sentences are all about the client and NOT AT ALL about the writer. YOU NEED, not I can.
That’s by design. At this point, you want the potential client to be BLOWN AWAY by how in touch with his needs you are.
You want him thinking, “THIS IS AMAZING. THIS IS EXACTLY WHAT I NEED AND I NEED IT RIGHT NOW.”
This is how it feels when you connect with your ideal client.
If you put in the time — and it does take time — to figure out what YOUR ideal client needs and you articulate that need, you will make it very easy for the client to find you and want to hire you.
Present an Irresistible Solution
Once you’ve identified your ideal client’s needs, it’s time to step up and offer the solution.
For a flat fee of [your price], you can get fact-based articles with input from expert sources, such as [someone big in this industry] and [someone else in this industry], research from [recognized online source] and [another recognized online source], and additional interviews with the subject matter experts you provide.
See? You’re STILL not in there, because we’re still focused heavily on our favorite person in the world, THE CLIENT.
Here are a few more examples of how you can present a solution. These aren’t polished or perfect — I’m making them up on the spot. They’re here to spark your thinking and give you ideas.
You can get up to 8 400-word posts on [specific topic] each week, for a flat fee of [whatever], including Upwork fees. Imagine the relief of knowing that your blog content needs are completely handled, week after week.
In just three weeks, you can have a Kindle-ready ebook of up to 20,000 words that establishes you as an expert in your field and gives you the credibility you need with your clients.
By this time next week, you could have a complete outline for your new course, ready to go.
You can rest easy knowing that your user manual will keep your customers happy and eliminate countless service requests.
Give your potential client a solution to his problem, and he’ll race to hire you (and possibly do a happy dance).
Show, Don’t Tell
If you’ve ever written fiction, you’ve heard the mantra “show, don’t tell.” In fiction writing, people say this to mean that you should write, “She stomped down the stairs and hurled the plate at the mirror,” rather than, “She was angry.”
In this case, your job is to really show the client what you can do, not just tell him about it.
You’ll do this in part through your portfolio samples, but it’s a good idea to show your ability in your overview as well.
For example, from the recommendation above, I'd probably go with something like this:
“One of the most reliable writers whom I have ever worked with.” — Charles Freericks, Ethics & Compliance Executive, LRN
Once you start doing work for clients on Upwork, they’ll leave you reviews. Pull the best information from those reviews and add it directly into your overview so that it’s front and center.
For example, I once worked on a project that never went anywhere, because there were a lot of people involved and most of them failed to show up. The client recognized that I did show up, and he wrote this review:
Even failed projects can produce great reviews.
If I wanted to highlight this review in my overview, I'd say:
“Abbi is a fantastic freelance copywriter.” — Joe Client
An article I wrote for Joe Client on [his site] (with his byline) generated 47 comments in the first two hours after it went live.
I wrote a new homepage for Janice Client’s website, and she says business has increased 20 percent thanks to the new copy.
A Facebook post I wrote for [this person] generated over 150 shares in three days.
Providing people with proof that you’re awesome makes it easier for them to hire you — so don’t hold back!
Add a Call to Action
You might think your profile is good to go now, and at this point it’s definitely better than the majority of Upwork profiles.. But if you stop now, you’re leaving money on the table, because your overview is missing a critical element: a call to action.
Do you have any idea how many people followed that instruction? A LOT of people. I get email EVERY DAY from people who are taking my free email course who hit reply to ask me or tell me or whatever. That’s a call to action.
Here's the thing: people need guidance. Your job is to give it to them. I can’t tell you how often I read an awesome pitch, but there’s no ASK at the end. The writer just expects people to make the leap all on their own.
People don’t leap on their own. You have to lead them alllllll the way there, and then give them a gentle shove.
Your overview NEEDS a call to action if you want it to be effective and work to get you leads while you sleep.
Upwork has rules in place, so you can’t invite potential clients to email you or call you or visit your web site. But you can encourage them to contact you through Upwork.
This can be a simple sentence at the end of your overview, such as:
Feel free to contact me using the buttons at the top of the page, and I'll get back to you ASAP.
But you can also make your ask a little better — for example:
Let’s talk about your project in more detail. Invite me to your job, and I’ll get in touch with you right away to hear more about what you need.
Far too often, freelancers put in the time to craft a great profile, but then don't bother asking clients to get in touch. Seriously, people really don't make those leaps on their own. Make it easy for them.
With a stellar Upwork profile, you can expect the jobs to come to you. In fact, one of the best ways to gauge how well your profile connects with potential clients is by how often you're invited to jobs. How many invitations have you had lately? Maybe it's time to tweak your profile.
It's hard to write consistently. You have to show up EVERY DAY and put in the time. You have to make the choice to sit down and start writing instead of watching television, reading a book, sitting with a cup of coffee, or chatting with a friend.
And when you’re at home with kids, and you spend all day giving, sometimes it’s hard to find the motivation to write consistently.
What’s worse is that when you’re a mom at home with kids, no one seems to realize just how crammed your days are. When people think about hard jobs, they think, the President. They think, CEO of a Big Company. You know what I think? Those guys have staffs. They have people who handle the details and provide support.
I would very much like to have a staff of Lego people.
Moms at home with kids don’t have staffs. We don’t have support. We have kids. Who need help to wipe their tushies. Who don’t sleep. Like, ever. And they only want to eat fish sticks, right up until you buy the jumbo size box of fish sticks, and then THEY DON’T LIKE FISH STICKS.
When you’re a mom with young kids, it’s really hard to know where you time is going, because it feels like you spent all day changing diapers and washing dishes. Where does the time go? How can I find the time to write in the middle of all this chaos?
Start Tracking Your Time To Figure Out Where It’s Going
The first thing you need to do, if you want to find time to write, is to track your time for a full week.
You need to know exactly where your time is really going. When you track your time, you learn all kinds of amazing (and potentially horrifying) things.
Like, you might find out — and this is totally hypothetical, mind you — that you are spending over four hours every day playing Words With Friends on your phone.
You know exactly what I'm talking about.
You might think, That’s impossible! I don’t HAVE four hours a day. But here’s the thing: when that game is on your phone, and your thumb automatically clicks it and you play your turn and then you keep playing, sometimes half an hour goes by. And if you do that a couple of times a day, it starts to add up.
Or — and again, this is totally hypothetical — you might discover that you go to CVS three times a week, and every one of those trips takes at least 90 minutes. NO WAY, you say to yourself. I am IN AND OUT. Takes me 20 minutes, TOPS.
But then you look at the time you have tracked and you say, oh, in a very small voice with lowercase letters. oh. yes. ok. ninety minutes.
Sometimes there is good news to be found. For example, you might think that you spend hours upon hours washing dishes and cleaning up your kitchen, but when you track your time, you might learn that you are actually only in your kitchen for a total of five hours every week. In other words, you are spending less than an hour a day in your kitchen.
Who even invented eggshells?
That can’t be right, you say to yourself, but it IS right, because you’ve tracked your time and you know it’s right.
When you track your time for a full week, you will learn where your time is really going and then you can make smart decisions about how you want to use your time, and where you can find that time that you want to use for writing.
You won’t be making incorrect assumptions and cutting out the wrong things, the things you might THINK are taking up your time. You’ll find those hidden time wasters that you think are totally innocent, but are actually EATING UP your time.
Create Tiny Habits to Write Consistently
When you want to establish a writing routine, it’s tempting to just plunge right in. I AM GOING TO WRITE 1000 WORDS EVERY DAY, you announce, and then the first day, you whip out your sharpened pencils and your shiny laptop and your lovely notebook with the pristine pages that are far too nice for just regular writing.
You clear off the space on your desk and you sit there and you wait for inspiration…
… and then somehow, some weird fissure in the universe has happened and you are watching Friends reruns and eating those damn fish sticks because the kids won’t touch them.
This is not the way to establish a writing habit.
Instead, you create a tiny habit. You say to yourself, After I make my coffee, I will set out my notebook on the table.
This is all you have to do to win.
And that’s all you have to do.
The beauty of the tiny habit is that it doesn’t require motivation or energy. You can do it no matter what. And then the notebook is out on the table, and you can cross that off your list, because you DID what you said you would do, and that is a WIN.
After a few days, setting out that notebook is automatic. You don’t even remember going to get it from its spot on the bookshelf, but there it is, out on the table.
Then you tell yourself, After I put my notebook on the table, I will write one sentence.
All you have to do is write that one sentence to win. It doesn’t have to be a good sentence. It just has to be one sentence. And you can do that. You don’t need motivation to write one sentence.
It takes time — not a specific amount of time, not 7 days or 21 days, or whatever the Internet says now — but time. A few days, sometimes. Longer, sometimes.
But eventually, you realize that writing that sentence every day is a habit. And you notice that sometimes you write more. Sometimes you even write for 15 minutes. Sometimes you write 1000 words.
It starts with a tiny habit that you link to something else — that cup of coffee in the morning, for example.
When you have kids, it’s a good idea to link your tiny habit to some different activities over the course of your day so that you have more than one chance to make it work. Life with small children is unpredictable at best, so you want to give yourself plenty of opportunities.
So you might say, After I drink my coffee, I will set out my notebook. After we come back from the park, I will set out my notebook. After I put the baby down for a nap, I will set out my notebook. After we eat lunch, I will set out my notebook.
You give yourself lots of times throughout the day when the notebook is there, on the table, waiting. You have plenty of activities that you link to the notebook, so you’re reminded, again and again.
And little by little, you start to write every day.
Be Honest About Your Priorities
Here is a hard truth: you will never be able to write consistently until you get really honest with yourself about your priorities and your time.
A little mess never killed anyone. Cleaning up toys doesn't have to be your priority.
For the next week, every time you want to say, “I don’t have time to write,” instead say, “Writing is not a priority for me.”
Think about how that feels in your mouth. Does it hurt to say those words? Or is it kind of a relief?
We all have priorities, and they shift and change with the seasons of our lives. When my children were very small, when they were babies and toddlers, cleaning the playroom was not a priority for me. I saw no point in organizing a space that would just be tossed moments later.
I did spend hours lovingly making homemade baby food for my beautiful snowflakes when they were tiny. This was, at one time, a huge priority for me. If you told my children that today, they would probably not believe you, because in this current season, I am a BIG FAN of ordering pizza for dinner.
I will never, ever be this kind of mom.
Priorities shift and change.
I don’t mean to imply that you have to choose between your children and your writing. I truly believe that you can have it all. But you have to decide what “all” means to you.
For me, having it all means that I can:
spend time doing things I enjoy with my kids and husband
spend time with friends
do work I care about and earn good money from writing
give generously to causes I care about
read A LOT for pleasure
take daily walks
sleep enough to feel good every day
learn new things and explore random interests
For you, having it all might look very different. That’s completely okay, but you need to decide what your all is, and then live your life consistently with that.
This is how you want to feel all the time.
When you say, “Writing is a priority for me,” but you reach for the remote whenever you have a free block of time and you never write a word, you are not living consistently with your priorities.
Those things that I listed as having it all? Those are priorities for me, and I do all of them almost every day.
Yes, there are times when I have a lot of work and I don’t read as much for pleasure, but it is a rare day when I don’t read at least a few pages of something just for fun. I almost always go to bed before 10pm. I make time to learn new skills — playing the guitar, drawing, cooking Indian food, and more.
And I write. Every day, I write.
But if I have the choice between sitting down and washing dishes, sitting down will win EVERY SINGLE TIME.
Playing Monopoly makes me want to be in jail.
When I spend time with my kids, I spend it doing things I like to do. For example I love to read with my kids. I am happy to read to them, to read with them, to sit next to them and read separately, but next to each other, their limbs tangled up in my lap. But I would rather stab myself in the eye with a fork than play Monopoly with my kids. Monopoly is DEFINITELY not a priority for me, and owning that has made an enormous difference in my life.
If you have the time to be reading this, then you have the time to write. But it has to be a priority for you.
Sometimes, it’s the idea of writing that’s appealing, and you might find that really, you love READING, but writing isn’t your priority. And that’s okay, even though it can be hard to accept.
If writing really is your priority, then you have to acknowledge that writing matters, and you have to figure out what else is not a priority.
What’s the biggest challenge you find with writing consistently? Let me know in the comments!
I really recommend against keeping to-do lists on your hand.
Hi, I’m Abbi, and I’m kind of obsessed with habits. I love reading about habits and theories of habits, and I really enjoy the process of making new habits.
There are a LOT of blog posts out there with titles along the lines of “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Writers.” I read easily 20 different posts with that title or a variation of it when I was researching this post, and I decided that I didn’t like ANY of those posts, because they said things like:
Or: Tap into the power of metaphor.
Sorry, but neither of those are habits.
Look, my goal here isn’t to talk to you about the art of writing. There’s absolutely a place for that, and that place may even be elsewhere on this site, but right here, in this post, I want to talk you about building and growing your freelance writing business, and how habits can help.
What’s a Habit?
When I talk about habits, I’m talking about the things you do without thinking of them. For example, when I get in my car, I have to punch a 4-digit code into a keypad before I can start the car. (It’s stupid. It’s an Israeli thing. Don’t ask.) Anyway, I often realize, after I have started the car and pulled out of my street, that I cannot actually recall having punched in the numbers, but I obviously did, because otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to start the car. Putting in my code is something I do without having to think, “I’m going to punch in the code now.”
No matter how tired I am when I head upstairs for bed, I brush my teeth. Sometimes, when I get in bed, I can’t remember having brushed, but I know that I did, because I can taste the toothpaste and feel my clean teeth.
So, how do you get from here to there? Well, I definitely recommend taking BJ Fogg’s Tiny Habits course — but if you’re looking for a quick and dirty explanation, I’ll give it to you.
Tiny Habits: Quick and Dirty
Tiny Habits are built on anchors. An anchor is something you know you do every day, at a set time or in a specific place. For example, most people brush their teeth after waking up in the morning, in the bathroom, in front of a mirror. So brushing your teeth is a good anchor.
A Tiny Habit would be, “After I brush my teeth, I will floss one tooth.” When you carry out the Tiny Habit, you celebrate the win. You can celebrate with a movement or an action — for example, pumping your fist in the air, blowing a kiss to your reflection, doing a little victory dance, or something else.
This is one of the hardest parts of the Tiny Habit process for a lot of people, but it’s also really important in establishing that habit — we like rewards! We like to feel good! The trick is to find something that’s almost natural for you. For example, I have a tendency to whisper-shout “Ha!” a lot when I do something particularly awesome, like play a great word in Words with Friends or get a new Twitter follower or pluck a particularly stubborn hair from my chin. So that “Ha!” works for me — it doesn’t feel forced, it’s not weird for me, and I don’t feel like I’m faking it.
The awesome thing about Tiny Habits is that you can use them in many different areas of your life, and they are extremely effective. Last summer I took a great class with Maria Brilaki of Fitness Reloaded that was heavily grounded in the concept of building on Tiny Habits for healthy eating.
What Does this Have to Do With Freelance Writing?
Yes, yes, I'm getting there. If I were going to make a list of, oh, say, seven habits of highly effective successful freelance writers, I would strive for these:
Daily admin tasks
None of the cafes I visit ever look like this.
Now, when I say “daily,” think “workday.” I work Sunday through Thursday, with occasional mornings off for important research (breakfast dates with my girlfriends. We are researching the cafes in Israel. It is critical work, and it won’t get done by itself.) Anyway, on days when I am working, I want these actions to be so automatic that I have to say to myself afterwards, Wait, did I?… Oh, yeah, yeah, I did.
Let’s take an example. A lot of writers have a tendency to procrastinate on marketing and admin tasks, so let’s figure out how to handle those. When I say “marketing,” here, I’m talking about pitching yourself; for me, admin tasks means clearing out my email, sending invoices, and updating my spreadsheets.
In order to make these things part of my automatic daily routine, I created some Tiny Habits. First, I looked for my anchors. I wanted one morning anchor — so I could get my marketing done early in the day — and one afternoon anchor, so that I could do my administrative tasks as I was winding down for the day.
An easy, natural morning anchor for me is checking my calendar on my computer. This is different from checking the calendar on my phone, which I mostly do to figure out what my kids and husband have going on during the day. When I sit down and my computer and check my calendar, I’m already in work mode. The kitchen has been tidied, a load of laundry is running, and I’m ready to start my day. So my Tiny Habit started off like this:
After I check the calendar on my computer, I will open my pitch template. Then I will whisper-shout “Ha!”
Over time, this Tiny Habit grew into something larger, and now, I can almost sleepwalk my way through sending out 3 copies of that pitch immediately after checking my calendar on the computer.
Get Creative With Your Anchors
This is Amit, dancing in the rain. He is awesome.
When I looked for an afternoon anchor, I found my kids. My youngest walks in the door at around 1:45 each afternoon. He became my anchor: After I smother Amit with kisses, I will open my spreadsheet file. Then I will do a little finger dance. (I mostly do this finger dance because it REALLY annoys my 17-year-old daughter.) I don’t even try to get the task done immediately — I just open the file, close my laptop, and go back to bugging my kid. But the very next time I open my computer — usually about an hour later — the spreadsheet is right there, and I think, “Oh, right. Admin stuff.” I log everything that needs to be logged, file my email, and I’m good to go.
On days when I feel overwhelmed and unable to get anything done, I find it incredibly useful to take a moment and think about the tiny habits I have or want to have — whether or not they’re related to work.
After I open my computer in the morning, I will write three sentences of my work in progress. Then I will do a little finger dance.)
(Look, I KNOW I'm not cool. I don't even pretend anymore.)
After I drink my second cup of coffee, I will unload the dishwasher. Then I will do a dance move. (A truly tiny habit would be to open the dishwasher, and that was how I started, but I’ve progressed.)
For the most part, I can do these things without thinking, which is the point. When you unload the dishwasher without noticing that you’ve unloaded the dishwasher, it’s a habit, and you will never, ever have to think about it again. This is awesome, unless you are my dad and you really enjoy unloading the dishwasher. (I’ve never known anyone else who gets such joy from unloading a dishwasher. Certainly none of my children find it remotely enjoyable.)
You want your habits to be automatic. It is super-automatic for me to get down my 3 sentences each day after opening my computer, and I would say that 96 days out of 100, I continue writing for a good 15 minutes — which can often be as much as 750 words — before I even notice that I’ve done so. (I delay my water-glass-toasting until I finish writing and look up.) This is how I fit in my personal writing projects, which vary from month to month.
When I started working on the habit of Engagement, I chose to go with Twitter. I have dedicated Twitter time while I drink coffee. (After I make a cup of coffee, I will open Twitter. Then I will raise a glass to myself.) I go through my feed and mark articles I want to read and possibly share later, I like and respond to tweets that catch my fancy, clap my hands in glee if I have a new follower, and so on. Fortunately, I am a writer and therefore required by law to drink a fair amount of coffee each day, so I have triggers during the day to go back to Twitter, too.
Reading — as in reading for work — is also a daily habit for me. I don’t have to work very hard at this one, but I do have to remind myself to stop and move on to other things. I love the stuff I read for work, and I would spend my whole day doing that if I could. So can you guess what I did? I made reading an anchor and linked another tiny habit to it. After I finish reading my saved articles, I will open Notes and brainstorm three post ideas. Then I will whisper-shout “Ha!” I really love this one, because reading the brilliant things other people have to say is a natural trigger for coming up with my own brilliant ideas.
How Can Habits Help You?
Think about the habits you need to establish to be successful as a freelance writer. Do you need to spend more time writing query letter? Making cold calls? Working on your web site? What are the things you need to do every day in order for your business to be successful? Figure out how you can establish tiny habits — the very first step to doing those tasks. For query letters, your tiny habit could be opening Word or Google Docs. For making cold calls, it could be opening your spreadsheet. Find the anchor, and don't forget to celebrate your win.