This Will Help You Solve the Freelance Writing Puzzle

Carol Tice

puzzleThe freelance writing game is a bit of a puzzle, isn’t it? One of those big, 1000-piece jigsaw puzzles that are half solid blue sky, I think.

There are a lot of different things to know — the lingo, the scams, who’s a good client. It’s hard to know your best way to break in. Or, if you’re already started, the best way to grow your income.

There are so many things you need to figure out to create a thriving freelance writing business. What niche should I be in? Why aren’t my query or pitch letters getting any response? How can I overcome my fears of rejection and move forward?

I’ve been doing a lot of jigsaw puzzles over the winter with my husband and kids, and as I sat pondering those frustrating little pieces, I started to think the puzzle-solving process is very similar to the process of putting together your freelance career.

Here are ten similarities I’ve found:


  1. Get organized. Who doesn’t find the edge pieces of the puzzle and assemble them first? It just makes sense. It gives you the outline of what you need to do. In writing, the equivalent could be organizing your workspace, putting up a writer website, or reading a few key resources to give you the lay of the land.
  2. Do it your way. Realize that there is no one best, right, most efficient way to complete the puzzle. Everyone has their own approach. Your way of approaching freelance writing is fine, as long as you’re making progress.
  3. Go for the easy stuff first. In a puzzle, how do you get going? You find stuff that’s going to be easy to put together, like that multicolored balloon, the road sign with lettering that’s easy to spot, or the pink house in all those dark green woods. This is like figuring out your low-hanging fruit markets as a writer. What do you already know about and could claim some expertise in? Pitch that first.
  4. Take breaks. If you try to do the puzzle without sleeping, drinking, or eating, eventually you won’t be able to put in any pieces. Likewise, slaving away on your blog or writing around the clock for low-paying clients will burn you out. Remember to take walks, sleep, bathe. Come back to it fresh, and suddenly, a new group of pieces you’d about given up on will fall together easily.
  5. Try a different perspective. Have you ever been stumped on a section of puzzle, and then quickly put it together when you switched your seat to the other side of the table? That works in freelancing, too. Instead of sitting home trying to figure it all out in a vacuum, consider going to a conference. Hit an in-person networking meeting. Suddenly, you may get a flash of insight about what your missing pieces look like, and how they fit into the big picture.
  6. Go by feel. Sometimes, you can’t see how the puzzle fits together by looking at the colors on the pieces. The colors and patterns visible on the two adjacent pieces are completely different, so there’s no visual clue. Instead, you have to feel your way by the outlines of the piece shapes to see where they fit together. Similarly, in freelancing, sometimes you just have to go with your gut. Do you think you can do this project? Does that seem like a fair rate? If it feels right, you can probably make this work.
  7. Look at the picture. You can waste a lot of time on a puzzle if you don’t refer to the picture they provide on the box that shows the completed puzzle. As a freelance writer, you need a business plan that has your goals and gives you priorities and direction, or your career isn’t going to come together quickly, or in the way you want.
  8. Work away from the puzzle. Sometimes, you can get more done if you take a few clearly related pieces off in a corner and work with them until you see how they fit. You don’t have to look at the big picture all the time. As a writer, sometimes you might spend a whole day tweaking and rewriting your headlines. You might work on a single client account. Or you could take a walk while you think about how to lead a story. Don’t look at the big picture, if that’s overwhelming.
  9. Get experienced people to help you. The puzzle will be solved much more quickly if you learn and collaborate with others. You wouldn’t do a 1000-piece puzzle alone, right? As a writer, you need a mentor who can save you time, and other freelance writers to bounce ideas and potential bid rates off of, for a reality check.
  10. Don’t forget to have fun. Don’t get too intense here — this is supposed to be a good time! We do puzzles as an enjoyable way to pass time, and we got into freelance writing because we love to write. If you’re not having a pleasant experience, it’s time to examine what you’re doing and choose a new approach.

What’s helped you figure out the freelance writing world? Leave a comment and share your tip.

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  1. Steph Simpson

    I love this!

    I never really thought about my freelancing business in this way before – it’s a nice metaphor.

    I totally agree with point 7. I’m actually in the process of completing a (very rough) business plan at the moment, and I’m finding that it’s definitely changing the way I look at things and helping me gain a better view of the big picture. It’s important to make the mental transition from simply ‘writer’ to ‘professional (paid) writer’, and having a business plan with goals is an effective way to do this in my opinion.

    Some really useful insights here, thanks for sharing!

  2. Amel

    Cool analogy! If I wanted to add to it, I’d say:

    Move to the next level as quickly as possible. If you’ve mastered “baby” puzzles, challenge yourself with something more complex. Don’t be afraid to try something outside your comfort zone.

    • Carol Tice

      Oh, great addition to this list! It’s true. We used to do 500-piece puzzles around here, and now we do 1000. 😉

  3. Rohi Shetty

    Thanks for this, Carol. I love it.
    I read a great line by Jon Morrow recently – the best way to focus is to eliminate distractions.
    Writers are especially prone to distractions and ‘shiny object syndrome.’ So we need to schedule the time to write and protect our writing time from all internal and external challenges.

    • Katherine Swarts

      I can relate. I find that the most dangerous “shiny object” can be a great-sounding business development/resource idea–the writer who can’t bear to (or doesn’t dare) leave anything untried is the writer who neglects developing her individual path and traces an erratic career path of false starts, dead ends, and low earnings. Using the jigsaw analogy, imagine the chaos and frustration that would result if you dumped another puzzle on the table every time you got a dozen edge pieces linked up!

  4. Goldie Ector

    Number 4 and 10 hit home for me because I have a tendency to be an intense, over-focused person. And since I’m still doing the 40-hour grind on top of my freelancing, I often burn the candle on both ends. I don’t like doing anything just for the money. If that were the case, I would’ve picked an income-centered major in college. So, I have to take a step back and remember why I’m a writer–which is often to have fun being impressed with myself, and hoping others are impressed, too (haha). I also have to remember that just because I take a couple of hours (read: a couple of days) off, doesn’t mean the world is going to end.

  5. Elizabeth Manneh

    What a brilliant way to look at a freelancing career! I can relate to all these points, but especially #7.

    I’ve been working very hard this year to kick-start my independent freelancing career, but I was beginning to feel like a headless chicken with so much information and wanting to do so many things. The other night I couldn’t sleep because it was all spinning round my head, so I found myself scribbling a draft plan at three in the morning to try and clarify where I’m going. It’s made things much clearer for me!

    Thanks so much for this great post.

  6. Jireh

    The tips are awesome, i must say i never condidered writing a business plan for my writing and i belive that will help me sift through all the “clutter” and get down to the business of writing.
    Question, how does one go about developing samples as a new freelance writer?

  7. Jake Mcspirit

    Carol, I like this approach.
    I’ve always been inclined to approach things critically and logically, so seeing freelancing broke down into a puzzle to solve really resonates with me.
    I loved the points made here. Definitely helped put some things into perspective.

  8. Cherese Cobb

    I love this post! Freelance writing is exactly like putting together a puzzle. I’ll hit a year this July.

    When I started last year, I knew absolutely nothing about the business, so I Googled “freelance writing” and found Sophie Lizard, Linda Formichelli, and your blog (I also recently found Mriduk Hullar). I began absorbing information (the four corners of the puzzle), and landed three blogging clients. I’m still with one of them and on the prowl for others. (I also won 3rd place in the International Polish Haiku Competition).

    I’m still trying to get accepted into a literary magazine, and I want to eventually write for consumer/trade magazines. I am in the process of learning photography and revamping my art skills (I took drawing and ceramics in college).

    It looks like I am going to earn 50% more this quarter than I did all of last year! That’s thanks to you and the wonderful writing community here!

    Cherese R. Cobb

    • Carol Tice

      That’s awesome, Cherese. And…Polish poetry — wow! Who knew. 😉

      • Cherese Cobb

        Thank you. BTW I bought your new book 40 Freelance Writers Share How They Find Clients, Stay Motivated, and Earn Well Today! I can’t wait to read it 🙂

        • Carol Tice

          Good job getting the 50% off deal, Cherese! We’re hoping to have files out Thursday.

  9. Kyle W. Weckerly

    Yes, getting it done is hard. I’m of the mind to just charge through and figure it out as I go along, bruises and all.
    Just have to remember to step back and take a breath.
    Thanks for all your hard work Carol

  10. Andrea Hensher

    This was just spooky. I was thinking about this same thing as I was doing a jigsaw last week for the first time in years. I love these things because, as I realised, they give me a lot of mental space where things start to come together and new ideas flow. I have had so many false starts with my relaunch into freelancing that I was beginning to think it was a bad joke. I had the thought that like the puzzle, the thing simply won’t all come together at once but in sections at a time, and that I need help and balance and a lot of those things you mentioned. This is like divine confirmation that I was thinking along the right lines. Thanks so much for sharing your insights and relating my vague thoughts into useable, practical advice to get me off my self-pitying behind…. I hope you get the encouragement you give all of us because since I joined FWD I have had nothing but the most down-to-earth, genuinely useful advice I’ve ever had anywhere. Thank you so much. Okay. I’ll stop gushing now. And go write a business plan. 🙂

    • Carol Tice

      Hi Andrea — I think doing puzzles is kind of Zen, where you relax and ideas come.

      So glad you’re finding the Den a useful place to hang out! 😉

  11. Matt

    I never met a jigsaw puzzle that I didn’t hate. I’ve sat at the dining table with the four women in my life on a Saturday afternoon–they’re having a blast working together on a billion piece puzzle of thirty kittens in a yarn-filled basket and I’m secretly wishing it was summer already so I could mow the grass or pull weeds or something.

    I just read your piece in the 2014 Writer’s Market and remembered how much I liked reading your blog and how inspiring it is. It probably won’t get me out of Saturday afternoon puzzle time, but I’m glad I came across your name and found your blog again.

    • Carol Tice

      Matt, you don’t have to do jigsaw puzzles to use the analogy to help your freelance writing career!

  12. Gina Horkey

    I love this illustration to connect freelance writing and doing a jigsaw puzzle – very clever & helpful:-) Makes me want to start one.

  13. Ladonna

    Hi Carol,

    Great post. I wasn’t going to do a business plan, but I think it will definitely help. I like your idea about asking for help-there are so many success stories in my field of medical writing, that it would be silly not to find out what worked for them.

    Do you know when the Den is opening again? I’m on the list.

    • Carol Tice

      An opening *is* coming up…no firm date yet, but within the next 30 days. Stay on that waiting list to hear about it — often, I only tell that list we’re open.

  14. Sara

    I’ve done pretty much all of these. I have to step away often. I’ve done work for pretty ridiculous pay telling myself it will help my resume but eventually that gets old and you’re just wasting your time and preventing growth.

    The one thing that helps me most is bouncing things off of other writers and those who have been at this longer than I have. (those who have more guts and self-assurance)

  15. Lorna

    Thanks Carol, for the great metaphor and list… number 8 always works well for me when I’m stumped. I’ll work the problem, agitate it and shake it around then leave it for a bit by focusing on something else. An answer usually pops in for one of those great Voila! moments.

  16. Matt Eastwood

    Love this one, Carol! It’s a beautiful metaphor and makes a whole lot of sense. I think you saved an essential one for last, so we remember it – have fun. Sometimes, we lose sight of that. And sometimes, we might have to find ways to ditch people in our lives that stand in the way of it being fun. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  17. Danielle

    I can see using a “puzzle” as an example to embark on a freelance career. In life we all have those games, the ups and downs, but yet we all have to play in order to win the journey we want to have.


  18. tanya

    Great list! Love the last tip, Who wants to work someplace that they don’t find fun. Thanks!

  19. Adeline

    I’m definitely guilty of #4!

    I have NOT been sleeping, eating well or taking any breaks and I’ve noticed ideas aren’t coming, frustrations levels are high and my burnout shows in my work.

    Taking care of 4 young daughters, working, taking care of the home and doing the work of making an income from freelance writing has tiied me out! (and yes, I meant to spell it tiied lol)

    • Carol Tice

      Adeline, I find so many moms of young kids are *not realistic* about how much help they need, if they’re going to ramp a freelance writing business. Find a babysitting co-op, a relative, do swaps with another mom, get hubby to step up more on weekends, find a mother’s helper…there are some low-cost options that could help.

  20. Yolanda Joy

    I love puzzles and I love figuring out my freelance career… so it’s a no brainer that I love this post.

    I think the big theme here is that we all ought to take a leaf out of Carol’s book and take a break from writing for clients to do puzzles, then we’ll come back refreshed and ready to write great posts like this one!

    • Carol Tice


      Or something else you enjoy. But definitely — take a break!


  1. Carnival of Creativity 7/5/15 - […] Tice presents This Will Help You Solve the Freelance Writing Puzzle posted at Make a Living […]

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