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How Two Freelance Writing Pros Deal With Failure Fears

Carol Tice

Nervous businessman biting nailsToday, I’d like to bust a myth about writing fears.

Many new writers seem to think they’re the only ones who’re petrified.

We’re each the only writer who gets butterflies in the stomach when we sit down to write an article, or turn in a blog post for a client.

You feel like a freak that you’re scared, and imagine everyone else is bursting with self-confidence.

But that’s not true. Not even among writers with long, successful careers.

How fears destroy your career

Newbie fears can be deadly to your budding freelance career, too, as demonstrated by this tale of woe from a writer who emailed me. She had a lot of early success writing, but is currently wasting her talents on low-paid Elance projects and content-mill work:

I have been writing since 2007.  My first piece was a personal essay that I sent without any expectations of it being published.  It was.

I was soon published in several magazines, three story anthologies, won a few contests, and the first publisher I sent my first book to had signed a publishing deal. Not only that, but they wanted more.

Then, I completely panicked.  What if I wasn’t a writer?  What if I was just faking it really well?

I pulled back, kept a few magazines that I was writing for occasionally and went the route of the content mill. It was safer, I didn’t have to put myself out there.

Fast forward two or three years and all my outside clients are gone, my second novel is stagnating and I find it harder and harder to produce. At one point, I could write for my clients and then go off and pound out a 50,000-word novel.  Even up to six months ago, I could write 10,000 words a day. Now I am lucky if I can reach 2,000.

I know why I started ghostwriting on the content mills.  Fast cash, yes, but it was the safety of not having to put my name out there, not having to put my soul into a project and have it rejected.  The early success made me very worried for the time when someone finally stood up and said, “You know, you really aren’t that good.”–Sirena

Oh, the toxic ways we let our fears rule the day.

So this is one way to deal with your fears — run and hide. Aspire to less. Earn less.

Have regrets.

If you’re a writer imagining that somehow, as you build a portfolio and land better clients and find success, one day those fears will just all melt away…you’re kidding yourself.

As Sirena’s story shows.

But here’s what probably a lot of writers don’t know: I’m still dealing with this, too.

The bigger the assignment, the greater the fear

When I write my first project for a new client, I am absolutely petrified. Massive, massive complex about how great this writing has to be so that I impress the client and they send me more work! It can easily take me an 8-hour day to write a short article for a new client.

The fear of failure doesn’t go away for writers. Not any of the ones I know.

As your writing career advances, you get more challenging assignments. Your audience grows, and more eyes are reading you.

The bar keeps moving up.

And so does the intensity of the fear that you’re going to smack your head on that bar trying to jump over.

Just to share a couple of my recent experiments in terror — last year I was asked to write a business book, by myself, in about three months flat. My first solo byline. I did it, and it’s due out this summer.

In the past couple months, I took on a new client — a top mergers-and-acquisitions advisor with extensive connections to more possible great clients for me. He’s given me initial projects including a $1,500 case study that’s essentially a tryout for whether I should ghostwrite his next print book.

It needed to be done on a short deadline too.

No pressure there!

I don’t feel inadequate at all or worried about blowing it, little old college dropout me. Yeah, sure.

All of which is to say: Stop kidding yourself that your writing fears are unique or special, or that you can get rid of them as you progress in your writing career.

That’s probably not going to happen.

The trick is to learn to live with and manage your fears. To push through them.

To get them a chair, sit them in the corner, and tell them to shut up, sit still, and face the wall while you do the writing you were put on this earth to produce.

How to write despite the fear

So, how do I get it done even though I, like Sirena, am still waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and tell me I’m busted, and now I’ve been kicked out of the freelance writer club?

Here are my tips:

  • Break it down. Writing assignments often have multiple parts — interviewing, researching, reading, reviewing notes, organizing materials, creating source lists for editors, writing, rewriting. Don’t think about all the steps at once. Peel off one you feel confident on today and tackle it. Then, the next. Look up, and it’s done. That’s how I did the business book — by thinking about only one chapter topic at a time, and thinking of it like a series of 2,000-word articles.
  • Leave enough time. If you know fear makes you slow, be sure to start early and leave at least one extra day before deadline for reviewing and polishing up a final draft.
  • Trust your client. They chose you for this work. That probably means you can do it.
  • Go with your flow. When you’re scared, try to get into a comfort zone. Wear your favorite warm sweater, write at your best time of day, turn on that warm pink light by your desk, and do whatever else you can to make it feel comfortable.
  • Take care of yourself. When you’re underslept and eating nothing but junk food, it’s easy to worry that you’re going to blow this assignment. You know you’re not able to give it your best in this condition. Don’t sabotage your chances — eat right, exercise, and get enough sleep.
  • Read your clips. I used to do this routinely when I started to write a long feature — take out your previous pieces and look through them. Read your blog. You wrote that! And you can write this, too.
  • Believe in your talent. There’s a reason you feel compelled to write. Know that most people hate writing and few can earn a living from it. To sum up, you’re exceptional, and have something valuable you offer the marketplace.
  • Keep learning. Sometimes, our fear stems from not knowing enough. I’ve continued to invest in professional education throughout my writing career, and trust me, it pays off.’
  • Rewrite. Great writing is made in the polishing phase. Don’t worry about your first draft — come back and make it great tomorrow.
  • Accept that you will screw up. That fear you have of blowing it? You can get over that one…and instead be confident that somewhere along the line, you will make a mistake. So relax. I’ve misspelled 80-point headlines, misquoted sources, you name it. You will live to write another day.

How do you cope with writing fears? Tell us in the comments.