6 Things Freelance Writers Can Do When They’re Desperate for Work

Carol Tice

6 Things Freelance Writers Can Do When They're Desperate for Work. Makealivingwriting.comI spend a lot of my time encouraging freelance writers to strive for better pay. But what about when you don’t have that luxury?

I had one woman in my mentoring program ask me recently:

What if I’m desperate for work? What do you do when you just need money so bad — right now?

In today’s market of low-paying mills and bidding-site gigs, it’s easy to get trapped in a cycle of taking low-paying gigs that never seem to quite cover the bills, no matter how many hours you work.

You’re stuck. It’s hard to ever move up and earn more. You’re spending a decent amount of your time worrying about whether you can keep a roof over your head and food in the fridge.

Here are five strategies to think about when you feel the panic rising and you’re starting to feel desperate:

1. Cut your expenses. If you haven’t lately, track every dime you spend for a month. See if you can’t find places to cut back your spending. Less spending can buy you breathing room and the freedom to say no to low-paying gigs and to hold out for better ones.

2. Start saving money. Freelancers need an emergency account — or at least access to credit — that can help tide them over if they hit a bad month. Then, when you’re slow, you can market harder instead of biting your nails about whether you’ll be able to pay your bills.

3. Cold call some local businesses. If you have even one spare hour, you can pick up the phone, call local businesses, and ask them if they need a copywriter. I have yet to meet anyone who’s done a serious round of cold calls and not found at least one client.

4. Work your accounts receivable. Do clients owe you money? Send a few polite emails or make a few calls and see if you can get them to send that check already. Or better yet, negotiate better terms for the future — net 15 instead of  net 45, or direct deposit today instead of a check in the mail in 10 days. Often, what broke freelance writers have really isn’t an income problem but more of a cash-flow problem. Don’t fall into what I call the “bank of Carol” trap, and let clients run their businesses on what they owe you.

5. Take a side job. It may be that you’ve fallen so far behind financially that the only way out is to get an hourly wage job you can count on to add some income, so you can rebuild your finances. I know writers who’ve done medical transcribing or stocked grocery shelves at night to pay bills while they got established as freelance writers. Personally, I typed movie scripts. Ideally, the job doesn’t take too many hours and still leaves some time to pursue freelance writing.

6. Learn more. If you haven’t been able to move up as a freelance writer, consider taking a class and learning more about how to succeed in the business of freelance writing. I know — you feel broke. But the problem is, you may always feel broke if you don’t acquire more knowledge of  how to move up to good-paying markets.

I’ve talked to a lot of freelance writers who seem to think this is a “no overhead” business, where you don’t have to spend any money to operate successfully. But it’s a myth. Freelance writing is like any other line of work — investing in your professional development can pay huge dividends in increased earnings.

What have you done when you’re hard-up for cash? Leave a comment and tell your story of freelance survival.

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  1. Debbie Kane

    Informative post, Carol. I can’t make today’s Webinar but look forward to your next one. Good luck!

    One question that maybe you’ve written about before: it sounds like you have kids. How do you work your schedule around their needs? Do you have childcare? I find that I have to stop working around 3 to meet their (shuttle) needs. That means working nights. I’m trying to settle into a routine where I work only certain times at night (say 7-9), certain days of the week. Would appreciate knowing how you handle this.

    • Carol Tice

      Well, how I handled it probably isn’t for everyone. I was in your boat for four years, where my work day ended at 2:45, and I worked nights and weekends.

      Then I finally talked my husband into quitting his job because I saw so much opportunity for me that was being left on the table because my work hours were so limited. My gamble paid off, as I’ve been able to replace his income, and now my kids have a dad — he was working 80 hrs a week selling cars before and they didn’t see him sometimes 3 days running.

      On the dark side, to make all the income I’m still working nights…working on resolving THAT problem next! Also hubby is working on getting his web video business going, so hopefully soon the workload will balance out.

      • Debbie Kane

        Wow, good for you! Don’t think I’ll be talking my husband out of his quitting his job (yet — I’d be sorely pressed to replicate his income right now). But that’s great that your husband is starting his own business, too. Creativity begets creativity.

      • Stephanie Mojica


        Great post as always. I’m sorry I didn’t make the webinar; hopefully next time!


        • Carol Tice

          Bet you would love the next one…it’s about blogging! More details next week…

  2. John Soares

    Great advice Carol. I know it’s not feasible for a lot of people, but it’s very good to have 3-6 months of living expenses stashed in an easily accessible place like a savings account or money market account, or even a bond fund. This means that in good times writers need to keep expenses down and sock away the extra cash.

    • Carol Tice

      Or at the very least, a credit card with a fat limit on it, that sends you those credit checks?

      Back when I lived in L.A., I had a friend who routinely charged her groceries between big writing projects, then paid it off. She just accepted it as part of life, kept on writing, and never felt panicked about it. To me the key thing is to not feel desperate — because when you feel desperate, you start making bad choices.

      On Twitter, the Urban Muse (Susan Johnston) was noting that the list above doesn’t include “just work for a content mill”…which never crossed my mind to include! Though I know it’s a strategy for many, for too many it seems to be a trap that’s hard to escape.

  3. Hajra

    Your posts always fills me with a sense of hope and loads of encouragement. At the moment I am “desperately” looking around for freelance work and these tips are going to come real handy!

    Thanks a ton! 🙂

  4. Rebecca

    Getting a part-time job isn’t a bad idea because you never know who you’ll meet. If you’re good at sales and marketing, you could find clients while you work.

    No matter where I’m at I always tell people I’m a writer. When I tried out to be a contestant on Survivor a few weeks ago, I met a woman who works for a travel agency. We chatted, and I told her I was a writer. We exchanged business cards, and she told me she’d like me to speak to the owner. Unfortunately, the owner has been out of town. When she comes back, I’m chatting with her about ‘how I can improve their website.’ I love travel and travel writing is one of my specialties!

    • Carol Tice

      You tried out for “Survivor”? Well I’m impressed with that! No surprise that you also made some writer connections while you were at it, with that kind of bold attitude going on.

  5. Howard Baldwin

    Boy, your post brought back some memories, Carol. When I was first out of college, I worked for a startup magazine that struggled so much, almost all of us had second jobs at nights and weekends. I got some of these through a temp agency. They were weird and sporadic, but they brought in extra money.

    The best “second” job I had was doing word-processing at a law firm at night. My shift was from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m., and if we went through our entire in-box and there were no lawyers roaming the halls late at night, we could leave early. That left my days free to freelance. Of course, that was in the 80s. Do companies still have word-processing departments anymore?

    • Carol Tice

      I think they do, but they’re all virtual departments!

  6. max

    Good question, HowardB. By coincidence, I saw an ad several months ago…..a law firm advertising for a full-time, night shift word processor…I kid you not. I was totally surprised by the ad. I know of those in other cities who speak of law firm gigs at night, but they’re on the east coast (a few in the midwest). Though the ad stated the ideal applicant had several years of legal word processing experience.


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