How to Know When You’ve Made it as a Freelance Writer

Carol Tice

I got this question on one of my live events recently:

I think the hardest part of freelancing for me is knowing when I’ve “made” it. I know it’s a learning process and understand that it’s a lot of work, but I think fear and doubt are two problems that plague me the most.

So there it is.

When will we “get there”?

When will we arrive?

When will that nasty feeling in your gut that your writing doesn’t cut it go away?

When will you be able to earn a full-time living from writing?

Will someone tap you on the shoulder and let you know they’ve discovered you’re trying this writing thing, but that the Universal Editors Association have voted you out of the club and banned you from ever getting another gig?

I’ve got some news — only you can make that feeling go away. Because there is no red tape you will break, no party that will celebrate. There is no “made it” in writing.

My swimming pool dream

When I think about “making it,” I always think of this one dream I’ve been having since I was little.

I call it The Swimming Pool Dream.

In it, I’m at the bottom of a swimming pool. It’s my aunt’s swimming pool actually, where we spent many a happy summer day.

We didn’t own a pool, and in southern California, you need a pool. So we’d go to Aunt Bea’s.

The pool is familiar in my dream, and I’m a good swimmer.

I love to swim. I swim happily right up to the top.

But something’s wrong. I can’t see the sky or Bea’s orchard of fruit trees and grapevines and green lawn. I can’t break the surface.

I feel around, and I figure out there is a dark-blue, thick plastic cover on the pool.

Somehow, I’ve been left in the pool and someone came and put the cover on it. Odd.

I’m not panicked — yet.

There’s a small airspace between the cover and the surface of the pool, so it’s OK. I tread water and take a few breaths.

Then, I rip open the pool cover.

But instead of the sky, water rushes in.

On top of the pool, there is another pool, it seems.

I’m at the bottom again. I swim up to the top. Another pool cover. I rip. Water. I swim. I stop and breathe.

Again. Again.

I start to get tired. I wonder how long I can do this. But what else is there to do?

I rip. The gushing water again. I swim.

It goes on, until I wake.

I’m never able to get out of the pool.

The truth about your writing

This writer’s question, and my swimming pool dream, both came to mind again this week because a writer I really like, Jeff Goins, has written a book about making it as a writer.

It’s called You Are a Writer (So Start Acting Like One). (And no, I’m not affiliate selling it — just think you should check it out.)

Jeff recognizes a truth.

It isn’t the outside world that decides if you are a writer. It’s you.

Being a writer is something you are, in your soul. It’s who you are.

You aren’t going to make it. Like my endless swimming pool, you are in it, all the while.

You keep writing because You Are a Writer.

It’s a passion you have, a drive that won’t leave you alone.

You need to write.

When you aren’t writing, it’s painful, like a limb has fallen asleep.

Once you know this about yourself — that you’re a writer — the question is whether you will encourage that gift, or let it wither.

Whether you will act like a writer, or hide that talent under a rock.

What makes a writer?

The big problem is, too many writers are waiting for the outside world to give them the stamp of approval.

They want a big magazine article assignment, or to be the next J.K. Rowling.

You think there is some arrival point where you know you’ve got a career as a freelance writer.

Other people will tell you it happened — “You’re a writer now!”

But that’s not how it works.

Consider the life of Emily Brontë. She wrote poetry, and just one novel in her life — but it was Wuthering Heights. It was not published until shortly before she died, and didn’t win wide acclaim until after her death.

Was she not a writer?

Of course she was. No outside force ever said so. But do you doubt that she was?

A writer is something you know you are inside. No matter what. You can tell, because writing is what you do.

Once you own that truth — and start writing, and putting your writing out there — good things can start to happen in your writing career.

When you will “make it”

As someone who has a freelance writing career many people admire, I bet you think I can tell you what it’s like to make it as a freelance writer.

But I can’t. Because I think my career has just started.

After all, I just published my first print book. This is the path I always wanted to be on, writing great nonfiction books. Maybe fiction ones too, someday.

I’m at an airspace. There’s a little breathing room. I’ve swum to the top of one pool.

And ripped open the next pool and begun to swim into that new world of writing challenges.

But I’ve arrived nowhere. I immediately started writing on my next book contract. Deadlines loom. Pressure abounds.

Now that I’ve set a new high watermark of writing books, everything I write has to be at that level of quality.

I think our writers’ journey is more like that pool dream than like a race you run and then you cross the tape, and you finish, and you’ve made it.

There are stages, and you get to the top, and take a breath. Then, it’s just time to take your writing to the next level. Time to swim in the next pool.

Our journey as a writer only really ends at the end of our lives. That’s when we’ve made it, to the only place you can make it in this life — the grave.

When we die, people will assess our body of work. Hopefully, it will live on and continue to inspire and uplift and help people, and bring them joy.

The rest is our path. Our journey. Our story. Our swim.

That writer was right — it’s a learning process and a lot of work. The part she missed is that it never ends.

For as long as our fingers can move. Upward we go.

Are you a writer? Leave a comment and tell us how you’re acting like one.

Swimmer: Morguefile

34 Comments

  1. Philip Mboya

    Very inspiring! I have to admit, i struggle myself with the ” i have reached” mentality. For me it has always been a 4 figure monthly income and now i realise that stopping because of reaching one goal can be likened to suicide. Just like in your dream, had you stopped when you got the first cover out who knows what would have happened. I guess the most important thing is to keep on going.

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. John McDuffie

    I love this blog. The approach to writing and freelancing is not as stale as most blogs I read. I pretend to be a freelance writer daily. So far my clients are buying into my disguise. I think I have made a career as a writer, but I don’t think I have “made it.” I have 3 goals that i wrote down the day I sold my first piece. I have not achieved any of those goals. One goal is crazy, but we all need someplace to reach right? I think if I can accomplish 2 of the 3 I will call it a win. Until then, I’m just faking it and hoping no one finds out.

    • Carol Tice

      I want you to read the post again, John — you’re a writer already.

      That feeling of being a fraud is just in your head. Everyone else thinks you’re writing for clients! It took me Y E A R S to figure that out. Save yourself the stress and just look in the mirror and say it now: I’m a writer. You don’t have to check off any goals, create world peace, or nothing. You write, therefore…you’re a writer.

  3. Ken

    I’ve always wanted to be a writer. But I only started to be serious when I started a blog a year and a half ago. I still feel that I’m not worthy to be called one until, you’re right, the time that I get accepted to write for a magazine, newspaper or a book deal. Or I get a thousand readers in my blog everyday. For now, I use my blog to express my thoughts and my faith. I’ll continue to write whenever I feel like it; writer or not.

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