Is This Insidious Affliction Shrinking Your Freelance Writing Income?

Carol Tice

Multitasking freelance writerWhen you start out as a freelance writer, there’s a lot to learn. I know when I got back into freelance writing in 2005, I subscribed to dozens of email newsletters and spent hours every day, reading, watching videos, and attending live events.

But learning how to be a successful freelance writer is a bottomless pit. There’s always more you *could* know that *might* help your freelance writing career.

And often, new writers fall into this pit, and forget to get any clients. They get a creeping learning addiction that eats up all their time and prevents them from moving forward.

It’s devilish because it’s easy to rationalize that you’re doing something productive with all this studying. But if you never take action, it’s just another form of procrastination.

I see these writers leaving loads of comments on the Freelance Writers Den forums, or on LinkedIn’s writer forums, or commenting on every single blog post on popular blogs.

They ask arcane questions like these:

Should I create a mirror site to protect my writer website in case it’s hacked?

What’s the best SEO keyword tool?

Should I do marketing on autopilot with email autoresponders?

What are the best apps for coordinating writing projects with clients?

A year later, these writers sometimes quietly confide to me that they’re flat broke and had to take a day job. They were so busy learning everything about how to be a succcessful, 21st Century freelance writer, they fell victim to analysis-paralysis — and forgot that the top priority is getting clients and generating freelance writing income!

How can you focus, learn what’s essential, and move forward to earn as a freelance writer? Here are my tips:


1. Find clients first

Job One is marketing. Yes, I know, your writer website isn’t up yet. Or you don’t have any clips. Or they’re all 7 years old.

Doesn’t matter. You have to be marketing, this week and every week, if you’re going to make a living at this.

Stop studying every marketing technique under the sun and feeling that you can’t pick up the phone until you’ve mastered all the fine points. Instead, pick something that seems doable for you that you have at least a basic grasp of, and start doing it.

See what happens. Then, refine. As you learn more, your marketing will get better. But in the meanwhile…do some, anyway.

Block out some time each week for marketing, right now. As much time as you can possibly spare. Pitch with whatever you’ve got — your life experience, your knowledge from past jobs.

Next, prioritize doing any current client work you have.

Whatever time is left is the time you have for learning. Don’t let the learning time swamp your more important tasks and stick to your allotted learning time per week.

2. Prioritize your learning

There are many things you could learn about freelance writing that might help you. But what are the most important things? The list is different for each writer, but there are some basics you probably want.

If you haven’t written a lot, you probably need to learn about writing in the style you plan to earn in. You need some online tools that present you well to clients searching online, such as a strong writer website and LinkedIn profile. You should learn how to qualify prospects and avoid scams. You might need to know how to do networking or write query letters, depending on the type of writing you want to do.

Take your list of what you think you need to learn, and prioritize it by asking yourself: How much would learning this improve my ability to earn more freelance writing income? What’s the potential increase in income I could see?

This process will help you put aside questions like which app might be super-best for some aspect of freelancing. For instance, use the apps or online tools you already know for now, because using one over the other is unlikely to get you more income — it’s just a convenience issue. Pick any popular SEO tool, and it’ll probably serve your needs just fine, rather than worrying about testing out ten more tools in case one is slightly better. Also, consider outsourcing technical things you might need, since they’re not core to being a freelance writer.

Instead of wandering from topic to topic, order your list with the highest-value learning first that’s most likely to pay off in more income.

3. One thing at a time

Now, take your learning wish list one item at a time. Delete or avoid everything else. Your brain can only absorb so much! Don’t fall into the time-wasting trap of reading and reading…and retaining none of it.

I’ve used this rule a lot in recent years, and it’s eliminated my information overload. I just learn one topic at a time, then implement what I’ve learned, then move on. For a long time, I only learned about how to build a successful blog. I recently went through a phase where my focus was self-publishing best practices, as I was putting out more e-books.

Right now, I’m learning how to make email marketing campaigns and live events more effective. I scan my newsletters and if they aren’t touching on my top-priority topic, I move on. No going down side trails to learn about the fine points of case-study writing or exploring new social-media platforms like Ello right now, thanks!

4. Cull your subscriptions

To help bring your learning urge under control, review how many subscriptions you’ve got to email newsletters. Also, note how many relevant physical publications you’re getting.

Now, unsubscribe to any that you haven’t opened or read in the last few months. Get rid of them.

When those emails crowd your inbox or that stack of publications mocks you from the nightstand, it’s too easy to get pulled away from essential tasks.

5. Accept that mistakes will be made

Many writers keep learning and learning rather than taking action, because they’re afraid they’ll make a mistake if they don’t “know enough.” At some point, they tell themselves, they’ll know how freelancing works, and then they’ll confidently move forward and do everything right. And on they go, reading and reading.

But there’s always more to know. Also, you can stop worrying that you might make a mistake, because no matter how many newsletters you read, it’s guaranteed that sometime, you will screw up.

The good news is, you’ll survive, and live to write another day.

So stop hiding behind that stack of books about freelance writing and get out there. That on-the-ground experience trying to get gigs is the only way you’ll find clients and learn where you fit into that big ol’ freelance marketplace.

How do you balance learning with earning as a freelance writer? Leave a comment and add your tips.



  1. Rob

    Yep. It’s one of my pet peeves. Some sites actually seem to be set up to make you feel dependent on them. You have to subscribe to our newsletter if you don’t want to be a loser! Our ebook is essential reading for any aspiring writer! Yours is only only of three writing-related newsletters I still subscribe to and yours are the only courses I recommend simply because your advice is practical and you try to get writers to take positive action now rather than later, when they have paid for everything you have to sell.

    • Carol Tice

      Well, thanks Rob! Glad to hear my basic drift is getting across: *take action.*

      I did realize while writing this that it could mean writers will unsubscribe to me — and you know what? If that’s what they need to get out there and start pitching, they should do it. Come back later when you’ve got the bandwidth to earn more.

  2. Linda Kay Price

    Carol, were you invading my brain this past week? I was just despairing to a friend that learning the freelance trade and staying up-to-date on profiling myself on social media was taking so much time I was unable to submit spec assignments to try to get clients/paid work. I have confidence in my writing ability but need time to write well and prove my worth.

    Thank you so much for putting this all into perspective in a doable, step-by-step format!

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Linda — no brain invasion, but maybe now you know you’re not alone in having this problem. I’ll bet your re-ordered priority list will have different actions at the top than “update my social media profiles.” Proactive marketing always comes first.

  3. Ann

    Great insight and one that every aspiring freelance should read. You are correct, this is an overwhelmingly bad habit for newbies and a money pit drain. It’s because the training appeals to people’s desires to make money fast so they get caught up (and it’s easy to do) until they realize it’s easy but you still have to do the hard work. I’m just beginning my freelance writing career and I recognized after the past six months of learning how this internet marketing stuff works that you still have to put the time into marketing your business because no work means no money, no matter how much training you put in. The clients will not magically appear. I had already begun to do some of the things you suggested, like unsubscribing from unnecessary and redundant newsletters. I got all of that and how it works; I just need real work. So I took action and just put myself out there. For instance, just last night, I learned that a former high school classmate was coming into town to perform for a small local event. I went to his website to see if he was still marketing some products that I was interested in purchasing and his bio page caught my attention. It wasn’t good or representative of all his talent. As a matter of fact, it just kind of downplayed him. So…I spent two hours rewriting and perfecting it until I was satisfied. It was great and I thought I did a fabulous job but of course in fear I didn’t want to send it to him. So I called a friend who knew him and asked her what she thought because I didn’t want to offend him. Well, she told me what I already knew and that’s not his personality and he would probably be flattered. So I sent the email to him telling him I would be at the event and added in what I had done and hoped he liked it and would consider using it. He replied back twice within two hours and was very impressed. I went to the event and he told me he has some work for me and whatever I wanted to charge to write bios for his eight employees and help him with a documentary script. He says he has tons of writing projects. He’s a very laid back unassuming guy but has a ton of influence within his niche. Now that was just last night but just taking some action and stepping out of my fear gave me the courage to 1) take the initiative to rewrite his bio, and 2) send the email. So, I will continue to find opportunities to just put myself out there because no work means no money, lol, and people are just not going to flock to you. So here’s hoping to the start of a great project and my freelance writing career.

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Ann — congrats to you for busting a move and connecting with a client! When you’re a newbie, sometimes writing a little on spec (for a real prospect, not some Craigslist ad that asks for samples) can open doors.

  4. Nifty Jacob

    Carol, you nearly read my mind. I work as full-time feature writer for a new magazine and I’ve been considering freelancing for a while. For nearly 4 months now, I’ve been reading up on every blog and website that I can find to ‘learn more’. When you work for a publication, there is no pressure of sending pitches, hunting for work avenues or even being rejected, and so the prospect of facing it all is so intimidating that I haven’t sent out a single pitch till date.
    Your post seemed to shake me up and realize that I’m actually doing nothing. I guess it’s time I started. Thank you for your constant advice and inspiration. It is much appreciated.

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Nifty — love your branding!

      I wouldn’t say you’re doing *nothing* — but what you’re doing in learning will be a waste of time if you never implement it. Most freelance writers I know need more implementation and less reading and studying in their schedule.

  5. Misti

    So true. I admittedly don’t market myself much. Most of my clients come by word of mouth. But I do consider discoverability and marketing potential in things I do…and generally worry more about rolling up my sleeves and *attempting* even before I’m completely comfortable with something.

    I’m also into natural remedies and such, and one thing I’ve had to hammer into others’ heads is: START. Just pick something to study—whether it’s a condition or the properties of a particular herb—and start there. Once you have a good handle on that, move to something else…

    Even as a line editor and copyeditor, I hand my clients pages’ worth of “These things are problems and here’s why and what to do about it”—BUT I also say thing like, “On your next book, only worry about X. Fixing it will hide or mitigate the other things, or at least make them easier for your editor to fix.”

    I’ve lately found myself eyeing cover songs on YouTube, wishing I could do the same. Well, I *can* sing—I was just out of practice and had gained some bad habits and have no instrument training and minimal voice training. (My bad habits were gained from my family ridiculing me and insisting I was doing things incorrectly when I was, in fact, doing them properly.) I can poke at a soprano recorder and know what it’s supposed to sound like, but that’s essentially it.

    I realized that a capella was a possibility—and if I wanted to record myself singing, I had to work on my voice first. Then I could later learn an instrument. I don’t want to be a genius, just passable, and I’m not too old for that. So I started working on my voice.

    I’ve seen so much improvement, just in the past few months, that it isn’t funny. My breathing is better, I can hold notes longer, and I *sound* better—just from practicing for a few minutes here and there, recording myself every so often as a break from everything else I have going on.

  6. Angela Booth

    Brilliant advice, Carol: “get clients.” Nothing else matters… Until money changes hands, you don’t have a business.

    Writers spend so much time preparing for their business that they never get around to actually doing business. Business cards and a LLC are all very well, but who cares, until you have clients?

    Re learning; totally essential. You can never know enough, of course. However, writing is weird in that everything you learn ties into everything else.

    Writers need to be autodidacts, and take courses too. Nothing replaces educating yourself, and you’ll never be done with it.

    Writing for money is SCARY, above all. But it’s normal to be scared. Every writer is scared. Write anyway. Approach clients anyway. Look at it this way. Your clients are scared too. Everyone thinks they’ll mess up, get fired…

    What’s the worst that can happen? Basically, it’s that someone will say: “you made a mistake here. Can you fix it?” Surely you can. 🙂

    Re balancing learning. I give myself 30 minutes a day of study time, and I schedule it. Every day. Usually, I spend more than 30 minutes, but I never spend less. No writer can afford to. On the other hand, you still have to make money… 🙂

    • Carol Tice

      Great thoughts there, Angela. I like how you schedule your learning time!

      But whatever new writers do, they need to not look up and find a year or two has flown by and they’re only studying, and never implementing anything…never going out and marketing and finding clients. Until you do that, this is a hobby, not something you’re serious about doing for a living.

  7. Bonnie Nicholls

    I can relate to this post. Earlier this year, I spent a lot of time reading blogs about freelancing, attending webinars, and signing up for this and that. I was constantly chasing the latest shiny object. Each post had new advice, and I thought I should try that advice. The problem was, I had trouble completing anything. I am definitely of the mind that you have to learn as much as possible. I like to be prepared. But eventually, you just have to jump in and see if you can swim.

    I’ve made lots of mistakes, but each mistake has taught me something valuable. Reading about freelancing was great; learning the business by doing was more important. And I’ve been so busy lately that I don’t have time to read every blog post. Just the ones that speak to me at the moment.

    By the way, Carol, I’m glad I took the time to learn about sales pages, because one just dropped in my lap. That’s an example of when prepping for a job can give you great confidence.

    • Carol Tice

      Glad that Den bootcamp helped you, Bonnie!

      I personally try to follow the habit of learn an interesting new thing — and then go implement it. Then, go back and learn something else. I learned this the hard way, after coming back from too many conferences with mile-long to-do lists that I only got one or two things done on, ever.

      Now, I try to zero in on a topic I need to learn NOW, learn one new thing about it, and go do that. Then, I’m ready to learn more.

  8. Kevin Casey

    You’ve hit the nail on the head here, Carol. A writer can spend so much time reading every eBook about freelance writing and checking out all the writing blogs in cyberspace, but isn’t that time better put to use hunting down clients? Learning is essential for all of us, but it should be done while you’re putting money in the bank at the same time.

    I’m sure you’ve seen lots of newer writers who have ‘learned’ all the steps that it takes to get clients, market themselves, etc., but never seem to get around to actually doing any of those things (or doing them once, getting disappointed there wasn’t instant success), and giving up before anything has had a chance to work. The best way to answer most writer questions is to ‘learn by doing’. Trial and error is pretty much how we all start. Just a few months ago, I had no clients. Now I’m making over $6000 this month alone! If I’m not writing, I’m marketing – and vice versa. It’s the fastest way forward.

    Kevin Casey

    • Carol Tice

      That’s awesome to hear, Kevin!

      You know, recently, to prep my Self-Publishing 101 Den bootcamp, I read about a dozen books about how to self-publish, to see what else was out there, and make sure I wasn’t overlooking anything obvious. And it was the same stuff, over and over! I’d say it was 80% the same information, from book to book. Though most of it was what we put in session 1 of our bootcamp…I was surprised how little of it was like our session 4 on marketing.

      If you’ve read about a topic, move on! You don’t need to read every book there is on the topic.

  9. Anne Pushkal

    Wow, exactly what I needed to hear. Because writers *write.* Editors edit. Translators translate. They don’t sit around all day reading about how to do those things, however much it feels like working.
    Thanks for laying it out and reminding me of my priorities. The comments were inspiring, too. I’m done with the rabbit holes. My new motto: No day without an essay and a pitch!
    Love your site and your emails – what a great community! Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go pitch something.

    • Carol Tice

      Great to hear, Anne!

      I think learning and reading doesn’t “feel” like working…it feels like progress.

      It reminds me of the saying about worrying. It’s like you’re rocking in a rocking chair and you “feel” like you’re doing something…but you’re not really getting anywhere.

  10. Katherine Swarts

    Well said! I think most of what’s on this list has finally become reality with me in the past year, but it was a long slow “I’ll get around to it” road. I think that most writers naturally love learning to a fault, and are easily distractible because their minds easily generate new ideas. Have to learn to make those traits work for us and not against us!

  11. Shahrukh

    Hi carol,

    I also have a fear. Please help me counter it so that i can become a better writer.
    I am about to start my website but i fear that clients would reject me since english is not my first language.
    Is this fear valid?

    • Carol Tice

      Not necessarily…it depends on how fluent you are. Some of the top writing coaches such as Ed Gandia learned English as a second language!

      You do need to be fluent to blog successfully in any language, I think. For perfecting your English grammar, I can recommend the book How to Not Write Bad by Ben Yagoda.

  12. Misti

    I’m not Carol (obviously), but…

    That fear’s only valid if you can’t write on a professional level. Just judging from your comment, I suspect you can piece a sentence together as well or better than a lot of native English speakers.

    (Tip: Watch the capitalization and commas before conjunctions.)

  13. Sharon Brodin

    Carol, this is one of the most valuable posts I’ve read (anywhere) in a long time! I’ll definitely be saving it so I can refer back to it regularly.

    Thank you.

    • Carol Tice

      I almost feel conflicted to hear that people are reading this…unless they’re taking action on it! Feel free to weigh back in and tell us what your action plan is for this week.

      And…you’re welcome!

  14. Victoria Terrinoni

    This is so me. So today I just took the plunge and sent out some LOIs even though I still feel like I have no clue. But I know I can just read and read and still not feel sure of myself. Fingers crossed I get some gigs.

    • Carol Tice

      Exactly, Victoria — because reading does not build confidence. DOING builds confidence.

  15. Katherine Swarts

    And my favorite example of learning-at-the-cost-of-marketing: if you want to write for a magazine or e-zine, you’re supposed to read several back issues, right? If you want to publish an e-book, you’re supposed to read lots of other e-books first, right? So, I’ll get around to my query/proposal/book outline just as soon as I finish the 1,000 other articles in the archives/300 free e-books on Amazon; I know they aren’t all EXACTLY in the area I’m planning on focusing on, but they’re all so interesting, and who knows, I MIGHT pick up something useful in the last paragraph of the fiftieth item. …

    • Carol Tice

      I’m sort of guilty of that but for “read” substitute “skim” — I’m a big skimmer. So that saves a ton of time. You don’t really need to read every word of these things. You just need to see what headlines are like. Who advertises. How they lead stories off. Types of sources they quote. I usually read one article, skim the rest. Same with those self-publishing e-books I read…lotsa skimming subheads to just get the gist.

  16. Williesha Morris

    Still going through all of the comments, but they do echo my sentiments. Lately, I feel like I have the opposite problem: not catching up with educational opportunities!

    This is exactly why next year, I’m going to work on a way to help people sift through all of the guru freebies, especailly.

  17. Shahrukh

    I have good grammar, i am also fluent. I was just thinking that clients might prefer to hire someone who is a native english speaker over others. I also have years of experience in writing.

    Anyway thanks for the reply, appreciate it 🙂

    • Carol Tice

      Some will…and some will be more flexible if you’re truly fluent. It’s English, for instance.

  18. Carol J. Alexander

    Thanks for a great kick, Carol. I just deleted over 1000 emails that I hadn’t even had time to read yet, and now each day will unsubscribe. I also unfollowed a great deal of the stuff coming into my Facebook feed so that I won’t get distracted by all the “great” stuff out there.

    • Carol Tice

      Good for you, Carol!

      I did the exact same thing at one point…deleted over 1000 emails. I had this cache of newsletters I could never get to, and finally I thought I would read them while I was on vacation. And then I thought…that’s crazy! I’m on vacation! And just got rid of them all.

      We can only learn so much at a time with any usefulness. I bet you’ll be getting a lot more done now.

      I probably unsubbed from about 5 things today alone.

  19. Erica

    The bare minimum is often a writer’s friend. We so desperately want to be perfect and polished, that we spend way too much on things that don’t matter. It’s like we’re trying to win an Olympic race before we can walk.

    Start with the bare minimum and build on that as you go along. It’s always a work in progress; make peace with that.

    • Carol Tice

      So true — I was the worst offender in the over-researching department when I started out, always doing a book’s worth of research for a 1500-word article! I’ve finally learned to stop when I have all that will fit in the piece.

  20. Craig Baker

    Great stuff! With respect to #5, yes, mistakes will be made but often those are your best learning opportunities. Fail to land an interview? Simply alter your approach next time. Screw up a name or date in print? Make a brightly colored note in your office to double check these things next time. And with respect to procrastination learning, reach out to people (Like Carol and Linda) who know what they are talking about. You’d be surprised how much you can learn during a 30 minute convo once you learn how to listen and ask the right questions-a skill which inevitably comes with experience. That “one-whoops-at-a-time” approach has helped me to land some rather big interviews and make some amazing contacts (see my blog) even though I’m still really just getting warmed up! Fear not and press on, always onwards and upwards!

  21. Katherine Swarts

    You know, I just re-read the “marketing e-books” transcript from MALW’s Self-Publishing 101 Bootcamp, and it underlined (for me at least) the futility of trying to cover all possible ground at once. Top on my own learning wish list at the moment is effective self-promotion/relationship building through e-communications (social media, blog, and mailing list): anyone who’s interested in the same thing and doesn’t know where to get started, there ARE a couple of resources I can recommend: and

    (I disclaim liability for any consequences in regard to the e-subscriptions required to access the primary resources!) 🙂

  22. Shahrukh

    Thanks for the info…..

    btw i am looking to do pro bono work but so far haven’t found anyone who is reliable. Can you recommend any links or references who are hiring writers for pro bono work?

    I would really appreciate your assistance Carol.

    • Carol Tice

      Most of that type of work happens at the local level, so start reaching out to businesses in your town — ideally, ones you patronize, where you know their products or services and are a fan.

  23. Katharine Paljug


    I’ve been thinking about this a ton lately, and how you really can’t start getting anything done until you simplify things and focus on the work you *need* to do.

    I was so guilty of exactly what you’re describing a year ago. The number of blogs I tried to read in a single day was absurd — but they all had information! Important information! And without it I would never be successful ever! My reader has close to 40 posts a day, and I would try to get through them all.

    I know have *maybe* five blogs on writing and freelancing that I read regularly, and a few others that I stop by occasionally. I get so much more done on a weekly basis now!

    As you said, continuing to educate yourself is so important. But you need to be selective about the resources and topics that will actually be helpful to you, and not just read for the sake of hiding.

    • Carol Tice

      Exactly. I was in the same boat.

      They all DO have information you could maybe use…but the problem is, as the Talmud says, “Too much and the mind cannot absorb.” So we have to focus on particular learning goals at any given time.

      Also, if we never implement, all that reading is for naught. I’m doing a lot better myself now that I take one learning focus at a time, and ignore anything else. I tell myself it’s just for now, and some other week I’ll be all about writing craft, or how to write autoresponders, or how to make my opt-in page better. Can’t learn it all at once!

  24. Judith Docken

    Carol, thanks so much for these articles. I read them, even though I am not galloping off into the sunset quite yet. I feel so overwhelmed about everything that one needs to do in order to become a successful freelance writer, sometimes I despair at ever making this work. However, I know that sometimes the best strategy is to just start walking, and the path will appear beneath your feet. Ten years ago I suddenly found myself on my own, having to support three kids and numerous pets on nothing. I had never lived alone or paid my own bills and at the time, I didn’t have a job. I was 40. A friend pushed me into the corporate world and I took the chance and learned all I could. In ten years I went from being completely terrified and bewildered to being able to confidently answer “yes I can” when I am asked to do anything (even if I don’t know how, I’ll find out). Now I am facing that same journey in becoming a freelance writer (with only one kid and two cats left at home) and I feel just as bewildered. But you are absolutely correct – just get out there and do it. Finding paying gigs seems insurmountable to me at times, but I took a chance and fired off an email to the editor of my local community newsletter, saying I was a freelance writer. She jumped on the chance to add to her writers and I am working on an article for the upcoming edition. It is a volunteer job, but I am learning a great deal about taking that chance, meeting people, saying “yes” when I can (and learning later if I have to) and thinking of myself as a writer. She asked, “How are you with a camera?” I immediately said, “I can do photography for you.” I am hoping that the experience and exposure will add some good pieces to my portfolio, or put me in front of people who will pay for my writing. At any rate, it is a good learning strategy, and it keeps me moving forward.

  25. Angela

    So what I needed to read this morning. I’ve found myself in this trap the last few months, with Writer’s Den in particular, I’ve found there are so many things to learn about it can actually be paralyzing. I’ve just decided to focus on finding the right clients and marketing to them the right way. It’s been a huge relief. The information is always there when I need it. For now, I just listen/read what I need to know now and save the rest for later.

    I started marketing more this week instead of stressing about everything I don’t know and landed my best client yet. I’m still a little in shock about it. Good information and learning helps a lot, but getting overwhelmed with what to learn… does not! 🙂

    • Carol Tice

      That’s awesome, Angela — sounds like an idea for a guest post to me, like, “How I Stopped Freaking Out and Landed My Best Freelance Writing Client Ever” 😉 Email me if interested!


  1. Carnival of Creativity 12/14/14 - […] Tice presents Is This Insidious Affliction Shrinking Your Freelance Writing Income? posted at Make a Living […]

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