Is Being a Freelance Writer Really Hard?

Carol Tice

Does trying to make it as a freelance writer
seem overwhelming sometimes?

I hear that a lot.

But today, I’m going to be real straight with you.

Sometimes, I think it’s b.s.

I think some writers make it a lot harder journey than it really has to be.

Take this question I recently saw:

I can usually find writer’s guidelines and editor contacts for the pubs I want to query… but am having a tough time finding anything for [X major company magazine].

If anyone has that info to pass along – I’d appreciate it!

As it happened, I had a business card from the editor of this publication, so I dug it up. But then I got curious, and started searching online.

I learned he was gone, and there was a new managing editor (often the best bet for who to pitch).

I also got the new guy’s name and email. And it took me a big three minutes to find it all.

In fact, in this case, it was right on the masthead of the online version of the publication.

So I have to ask: How tough was this to do, finding this contact?

Where-all did you look, if it was “tough” to find this? Do you just not know where to look? Never seen a masthead before?

This sort of market research is only hard if you make it hard, by refusing to lift a finger to help yourself.

I’ve got a name for this kind of thing:

Hands-to-shoulders syndrome

Imagine that you’ve just thrown up your hands and gone, “Oh my gosh! I can’t handle this another minute.”

Then your hands get stuck to your shoulders there. And you can’t move them anymore.

That’s hands-to-shoulders syndrome. You can’t do much in this position, can you?

It’s a symbol of how some people act helpless when they could take action instead.

So I have a few hard questions of my own to ask today about the root causes of hands-to-shoulders syndrome:

What’s up here? Do you not have the research skills to find the contacts you want?

Or are you procrastinating on that research because you are secretly afraid of putting yourself out there?

Are you using excuses for hanging back, like “I don’t have a journalism degree”?

Do you feel nervous that you don’t have enough training to get the good assignments?

My guess is it’s not really laziness behind most of these “I can’t find the editor” questions.

It’s something else that slows down many writers’ marketing plans: fear.

As long as you don’t have the name, you don’t have to send a query — and find out you don’t cut it.

How to overcome the fears

Here’s something a lot of writers don’t want to hear: This is a business.

When you’re in business, you have to do marketing. If you’re not willing to commit to that, you have a hobby.

You also have to do professional development, just like teachers and doctors and every other type of professional. You need to keep adding to your skills and knowledge.

How do I know so much about those fears? I was once a brand-new freelance writer, too — without a college degree of any kind, much less one in journalism.

I was constantly worried somebody would figure out I didn’t know what I was doing.

So you know what I did?

I went back to school

I took a year’s worth of journalism classes through UCLA Extension. (This was before the Internet and online Webinars, or I’m sure I’d have gone for that.)

It cost me nearly $1,000 to do it.

I learned how to write a magazine article. How to do an interview. The basics of copywriting.

It gave me enough confidence to start plugging myself and getting gigs.

Pursuing freelance writing suddenly seemed a lot easier and less scary. I felt more legit.

I find there are basically two types of freelance writers: the ones who understand they need to invest in their career and keep learning, and the ones who don’t. You can probably guess which ones end up earning more.

If freelance writing is hard for you, consider ways you could make it easier.

What’s the hardest part of being a freelance writer for you? Leave a comment and let us know.

P.S. If you think a quick shot of training could make your road easier, check out the new course Linda Formichelli and I have created — 4-Week J-School. We’ve designed it specially to eliminate hands-to-shoulders syndrome.


  1. Samar

    This reminds me of something new freelancers and content mill writers tell me all the time:

    I think I’ll wait a little longer to guest post till I have my website or blog set up (this was after I issued an invitation to guest blog on my and a couple other freelancer’s blog). Or I’ll cold call when I have a bit more experience.

    How are you going to get experience if you shy away from the very things that will give you experience? Interestingly, their response to the question is a strong indicator of who’s serious about succeeding and who’s not.

    • Carol Tice

      Right on, Samar. As I like to say, be a writer, not a waiter.

      I’m always having people asking me how long it was until my writer website or blog was “done.” To which my response is, “What makes you think I’m happy with how it is NOW?”

      We could always improve our site, or have more or better clips. But I learned a lesson from my grandma Dorothy (z”l), who used to love to take the grandkids clothes shopping.

      We’d always say, “I want to buy this in a size 7, because I’m going to lose weight and it’ll fit in a while.”

      And she’d say, “No. I shop for the body you have now.”

      That’s the watchword — market your writing with the site and the portfolio you have now. As you note, that’ll get you more clips so you can improve it!

    • Elana

      In defense of newbies – I am a one – there is a whole mentality rife with at the ready obstacles when facing a dream, a passion, a well-worn desire, it is daunting to just DO THE WORK…So, I do have compassion for us and all folk who go through this, but it is not an excuse. We must DO the work to diminish the obstacles and gain confidence. For some of us, that takes time, energy, and maybe some whinging which, understandably, causes exasperation for the more experienced and bootstrappers.

      • Carol Tice

        I totally understand that it takes a while to figure it all out — that’s why there are more than 300 posts full of tips on how to do it on this blog. And I’m totally supportive …ordinarily.

        It’s just that when a writer is that incurious about how to find what they need, it makes me feel it’s really a self-induced problem.

        Also, if you can’t figure out how to do the research necessary to find an editor’s email, how are you going to do the research you need to write a feature story for them? I think most editors make their info a bit difficult to find on purpose — it’s a personality test to see if you have the drive, and the sleuthing chops, to write for them. Probably a lot of writers don’t realize they need these research skills to write reported stories…which is why we’ll be covering this area in-depth in 4-Week J-School, how to find credible information sources.

  2. Debra Stang

    I would say there are two hardest parts for me. The first is my tendency to write up “to do” lists that are about as long as the peace treaty at Versailles. Of course, I can never finish them, and then I get discouraged and down on myself.

    The second hardest part of the job for me is sending out queries and letters of introduction, not because I can’t find the information–I’m a good researcher–but because there’s still a little part of me that worries that I’m “bothering” the editor. If I’m invited to pitch to a publication, I have no problem doing that, but approaching them cold still gives me the creeps.

    I’m still making myself send out LOIs, though, like it or not. And each time I hit the send key it does get a *little* easier.

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Debra — that was one of the big fears we identified in our fear-busting Webinar — fear you’re bugging someone!

      It’s just really unfounded. You are not ‘bothering’ the editor any more than the 100 other people who will pitch her that week…so go for it!

      If you wait for an engraved invitation in this biz, you are not going to earn a good living 😉

  3. Christopher

    For me, it’s definitely the raging “imposter syndrome”. I actually have several degrees – none of them are in journalism or writing.

    How do you convine a potential client that skills can transfer?

    My background is in science research – which means I know how to pursue solid evidence-based sources and synthesize them in an understandable manner. I appear to be pretty good at translating jargon-laden technical writing into more palatable prose for a general audience. But I’m worried that people see my background as “astrophysicist” and just nod and move on.

    • anne

      If it makes you feel any better, I don’t think that anyone has ever asked about my education when I query about work or respond to an ad. I send a link to my portfolio and to relevant samples.

    • Carol Tice

      You convince them with your writing. A background in science research! What an awesome expertise area — lots of great writing opportunities in the sciences.

  4. anne

    Using the phone to cold call potential clients and in-person networking is tough for me. I am shy and those situations really do stress me out!

  5. Karen

    I actually can’t answer this question today because I’m having a day where I feel incredibly fortunate and privileged to be a writer. I get to work from my cozy home office, take breaks when I want to, be creative, ‘play’ with my blog layout and actually earn money (as you can probably tell I’m having a day where everything is flowing well on the writing front and I’ve just received a couple of big payments I was waiting on). Come back on a day when I’m having a creative block and all my payments are overdue and I’ll give you a list of why it’s ‘hard’ to be a writer. Writing is like everything else. Good days and bad days. As with everything else, rolling with the punches is a valuable skill.

  6. Tom Bentley

    Ugh, as someone who has said to himself “This is such a hassle now—I’ll do it later,” only to have later stretch into eternity, I appreciate what you’re saying. The funny thing about delaying or diverting your attention when there’s some minor hurdle to overcome is that most of them are indeed minor hurdles: sometimes you’re (I’m) just 5 minutes away from getting the thing done, and I spend the 5 minutes complaining about the doing, rather than doing it.

    And then, after you do accomplish the task (send out a query, write a synopsis, change a page on your site), you get that little tingle of satisfaction that comes from getting things done. Humans, we are an odd lot…

  7. Arisa

    I totally understand about fear holding someone back from becoming a freelance writer.
    It’s my problem too, only my fear is in a different area: I’m not sure it’s what I want to do.
    I’m not just scared of failure, I’m also afraid that it isn’t what I want to do and all my investment would be thrown away.
    I mean I like writing, but I don’t have this whole writing motivation down. I’m unbelievably proud I’ve managed to keep up with my 1 post a week schedule on my blog!
    Because I generally don’t have ideas, and simply don’t know what to write. And if I do have ideas, I often lack the motivation to do the effort of writing them out, or doing research for them.
    So I feel very much that I’m not cut out for this, and that it isn’t something I’ll like doing.
    On the flip side writing is my biggest hobby and I find myself frustrated that I’m at my day job and can’t spend time writing.
    It’s a nice conflict/dilemma in that way I guess.

    • Carol Tice

      Interesting…you wish you were writing while you’re at your job. But then when you can write, you have no motivation or ideas.

      Maybe you want to do something else beside your day job, but it’s not writing?

      Also, there’s a thing about being a creative as a living. Some people feel dirty doing it, or they can’t take the pressure of doing it on deadline. They just have fun doing it when it’s a hobby. You might be one of those.

      Personally, I am so driven to do this it’s insane. I literally can hardly sleep at night because I can’t wait to get up and see what happens in my business tomorrow, and what I’ll be getting to write. Ideas are exploding out of my brain — I’ll never get to them all. People ask me how I keep the drive going…for me, it’s more a question of I’ve no idea how you get it to stop!

      The fact that you don’t find yourself coming up with ideas and wanting to sit down and write, to me is a warning that this may not be for you as a profession, where story ideas are the coin of the realm.

      • Colleen Kelly Mellor

        Carol–I absolutely agree with the meeting of each day with a feeling of excitement, as in “What’ll I learn today?” A friend once asked “Do you ever fear a dry-spell where you have no ideas for topics?” I easily said “No way…Every day and in every way I find a ton of topics. Now, that’s because I’m open to people and situations. Even in daily conversations, I get out from others how they read any given situation. They don’t know it, but they’re provide me my inspiration (sort of the way Carrie Bradshaw factored in her friends’ and her experiences in life and reflected on these.).

        • Carol Tice

          I have lists and lists and lists of ideas. You should see what the calendar for this blog looks like! I have so many ideas, I recently started writing 4 of them a month for Freelance Switch just to get them out of my head… 😉

  8. Carrie Schmeck

    Slap. Slap. Thanks Carol. Needed a dose today.

  9. Ronald Sieber

    I find that my biggest hurdle is finding the time to get all of “it” done.

    If I take time to network, then I rob time from creating. If I am writing my blog, then I am robbing time from writing a mag article. If i am writing a mag article, then why am I not spending time on my book? And eating? And personal life?

    You can see how it snowballs. So, each day I take a deep breath, look at my list, and get what I can do done.

    • Carol Tice

      Freelance writing is what I like to call a “bottomless pit” job. There’s always more we could be doing — one more networking event we could attend, one more blog post we should have written.

      But ultimately, we have to prioritize, and get a balance that works for us between doing client work and making time for marketing.

  10. chris

    I think the hardest part is submitting countless queries to magazines and getting countless nice “nos”, or we’ll take it to the editorial pitch meeting and it still doesn’t make it in. So you come close but never really sell enough stories to live on, yet are working all the time.

    • Carol Tice

      If you’re sending ‘countless’ queries to magazines and never getting a ‘yes,’ something’s wrong, either in the idea development or in the query letters not being compellingly written. In reviewing literally hundreds of writers’ queries, Linda F and I find most are not very strong.

      Also…there are other ways to market your writing. Query letters aren’t the answer for every writer. I know one who gets all his assignments schmoozing editors on the phone. Others get referrals from existing clients. That’s why my report is called 40 Ways to Market Your Writing. Everyone has to find the approach that works for them, and that they will stick with.

  11. allena

    The hardest part for me, of late, is the myriad little to-do things that want to take me away from my precious 6 hours of child-free writing time: appointments, client meetings, volunteer work. I’ve trimmed and trimmed down to only the most important commitments, but I still find THOSE annoying.

    • Carol Tice

      No kidding! If you think you’ve got distractions from writing time, try running a 400-member writer community in your ‘free’ time! There’s always more I should be doing to serve members. And yet there’s this print book I agreed to write by June 30 that I really should be getting to…

  12. Sherri

    I think some people may truly not know what a masthead is and where to locate it. The only reason I know is because of my graphic design background.
    In graphic design, clients don’t care that much about your education, they want to “see your stuff”…your portfolio- that’s how they judge your talent. If they like your work, they like you. I think it’s exactly the same in writing.
    *smile* Sherri

    • Carol Tice

      They don’t have to know what it’s called…but hopefully they’re observant enough to know that often, the editorial staff is listed somewhere, either online or in the magazine.

  13. MeganWrites Media

    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. However, I muscle through and make fear and doubt work for me. If I have trouble finding a contact for a query, I just look harder the next day and worry about other things that I can control, like emailing clients back, getting other work done, working on my site, etc. Like you said previously, Carol, freelancing always requires us to work (the “bottomless pit” you mentioned), so I just move forward, forget about the doubts and take on tasks that I know I can accomplish.

    • Carol Tice

      There is no “made it,” Megan. It’s all a journey. Or as one editor said to me after I wrote a particularly brilliant feature piece, “Yes, very nice, but what have you written for me THIS week?”

      At Jewish funerals, we have a passage we read that begins “Birth is a beginning, and death a destination.”

      That’s the only place we’re all headed. All the rest is our story, our journey. There is no true arrival, except at the grave. Until then, there’s still time to write more, reach more people, communicate more of what we want to say, do it better, for better clients, get paid more…and on and on.

  14. John McDuffie

    I never seem to have time anymore. Facebook and twitter eat a lot of my time. They are like an addiction and I am a junkie that can quit anytime I want. Social media has value, but there needs to be a limit of how much time we spend socializing. That way we have time to get some writing done. I try to keep a schedule and stick to it. I fail for about thirty percent of most days, but I am getting better.

    The part about “How to overcome fears” hit home with me. I always worry that my clients will discover my true identity. 🙂

    • Carol Tice

      Have you tried getting the software that blocks the Internet or all the social media sites, a la MacFreedom? Sounds like it could be a lifesaver for you…

      I just don’t waste time on social media. Period. If I want to good off and play Bejeweled, I do it at night after hours, so it’s separate from my work day. I go on, share stuff, forward stuff, and back to work.

  15. Elana

    Right! And on a related note: In the learned helplessness experiment an animal is repeatedly hurt by an adverse stimulus which it cannot escape.

    Eventually the animal will stop trying to avoid the pain and behave as if it is utterly helpless to change the situation.

    Learned Helplessness — it’s an epidemic!

  16. Howard Baldwin

    Without a doubt, the hardest part of my freelancing life is getting paid on time. For one client, it’s not the accounting department, but rather the project managers forgetting to submit my invoices. The process is always the same: I wait the requisite four weeks, politely check in, and get a response that they either forgot (at least they’re honest) or they didn’t see it (not honest).

    One of my other clients is a Fortune 500 company that’s gone to NET 60 in paying invoices because they know they can. Extremely annoying, but at least it’s an ongoing gig so it’s easy not to notice after a while.

    My favorite clients are the ones that pay net 15. They have a special place in my heart.

    • Carol Tice

      Mine are the ones that pay 50% up front before I get started… love getting paid for not having done anything yet. 😉

  17. Lauri meyers

    When I ask that question, I secretly mean “can you tell me something amazing about this editor, so I can put a cute quip in my query letter about that time we met at a conference even though I havent yet gone to a conference and I don’t know said editor.”. It’s 1 part wishful thinking and 2 parts naïveté.

  18. Jessica Benavides Canepa

    Great Post Carol!

    The hardest part for me is deciding what story to pitch to which editor. As a travel and lifestyle writer I am fortunate enough to be invited to plenty of events and press trips to keep me motivated to write. This said, when marketing my writing services for an exclusive story angle, I often need to decide if I will be using the research gathered to approach a new client, to write on my own blog or to keep up the relationship with an editor that I am already working with.

    Truth be told it’s a balancing act that I rather enjoy having 😉

  19. Theresa Cahill

    Hi Carol, you hit so many points – and the comments really fluffed out all sides to making a living writing online – that you were the inspiration for my latest post.

    Thank you!

    So many opportunities to write. I love the fact that you’ve got a following willing to take the plunge and do it!

    When someone says there are no opportunities to make money online, well they just aren’t looking hard enough (or perhaps looking in all the wrong places).

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