Freelance Writers are used to selling their souls to the highest bidder. Here’s how to make a deal with the devil and walk away unscathed.
It’s a cool, crisp afternoon in the golden days of fall. Vermilion leaves are cascading down outside your window, contrasting dreamily with the clear blue sky. As you bask in the gentle rays of the November sun, you’re overcome by a creative force older than time itself—but suddenly, you snap back to reality. Instead of working on your own projects today, you have two 1,000-word articles to dredge through for clients. November suddenly seems far less enchanting, and your dreams of getting lost in your own head, rattling away at the keyboard while sipping pumpkin spice tea all afternoon are as distant as the first day of Spring.
This is the price of the so-called freedom that comes with being a self-employed writer. What you gain in flexibility, you pay back tenfold in missed opportunity. And although the ability to start the workday at your kitchen table in your pajamas at 2 in the afternoon is nothing to sneeze at, you have to admit . . . It really is soul-sucking to spend most of your creative energy on client work instead of your own.
In fact, if you have a victim complex like me, you may even wonder if you’re wasting your priceless creativity on clients while your own ideas collect dust in the back of your head.
Are you betraying your own sacred muse by selling your creative genius to strangers for a quick buck? Let’s take a long, weird look at something most people never talk about: The dark, soul-sucking, paranoid side of being a freelance writer.
It’s time to tackle the fear once and for all and steal your creativity back . . . From yourself, of course.
Is Being a Successful Freelance Writer a Blessing or a Curse?
If you’re a writer-for-hire, or as I like to say, a “literary mercenary”, you’ve undoubtedly wondered if every client is inadvertently wasting your true potential as a writer. And really, it’s kind of hard to argue that your creativity isn’t being wasted when you shirk your first sci-fi novel day after day to write blog posts about underwear for some guy in Florida (yes, I’ve actually done this).
But next time you find yourself worrying that every client is sucking away your creativity like some ravenous brain slug, remember that a day job is a fate worse than death, and that’s why you became a freelancer to begin with. There’s no doubt that working on your own projects 24/7 would be far more fulfilling use of your time than slaving over bios for an accounting firm all day. But if you spent the best years of your life working at a gas station or a grocery store, you’d probably be just as tired and incapable of writing, if not more so.
Are Your Clients Sapping Your Creativity?
Now I’m not saying that it’s alright to resign yourself to writing buyer’s guides for dog Halloween costumes for all eternity. No matter how many clients you’re balancing, it’s always important to make time for your own projects on the side so you don’t burn out. But what if you feel like you have nothing left after you finish the last piece of client work for the day? What if you’ve invested so much creativity, effort, and energy into writing for other people that you have no good ideas left for yourself?
It’s up to you to budget your time so you can prevent this travesty from happening. Never, ever let your own stories collect dust in favor of client work. But believe it or not, there’s an even greater sin than this: letting your own unique ideas bleed out into client work, out of fear of losing them. Letting a client take credit for an idea that you’ve incubated since you were a kid is like beating your muse over the head with a brick until it goes limp. Be sure to publish all your best ideas, the true paragons of your inspiration, under your name and yours alone.
Your most intimate creative visions are your only chance of reaching the stars. Never sell them out for a quick buck.
Keep Your Own Dreams Separate from Your Clients’ Visions
When I first started offering my sci-fi writing services to clients on Reddit, I committed this aforementioned “greater sin” more times than I’d like to admit. A client would give me a prompt for a basic story, and I’d pour my soul into it. They gave me an idea that would take them to the moon, and I would bring it to Andromeda with ideas that I should have reserved for my own stories. I’d inject their lame sci-fi tropes with all the most intimate dreams of my soul, and shower them with far more attention than I’d give my personal writing.
And I was a naïve, starry-eyed little moron. I should have been reserving that sacred well of creativity for my story and mine alone.
Now that’s not implying that you shouldn’t do an awesome job for your clients. That’s not saying that you shouldn’t cry, and bleed, and move mountains for them. But you should never, ever give them your best ideas. Otherwise, you’re just creating competition for yourself and sacrificing your own long-term success for short-term (and usually not very impressive) financial gain.
Now, I know it’s probably starting to sound like I’m telling you to hoard all your best ideas and leave the scraps for your clients—but this isn’t the case at all. All I’m saying is that you should keep your own visions completely separate from client projects. Your goal should be to take all your client’s best ideas and go wild with them, but from an entirely new headspace. Never, ever let the “client headspace” contaminate the “personal headspace,” and vice-versa. By effectively separating your own dreams from theirs, you’ll be ready to create new ideas from an entirely new “energy well.”
And that’s when awesome stuff starts to happen.
Take Your Clients’ Ideas and Enhance Them
After dredging through enough soul-crushing business copy for ten lifetimes, when a client approaches me with an idea for a sci-fi story, it’s hard not to get excited. It’s even harder to make sure I don’t get carried away. I would define “getting carried away” as “letting ideas that have been stewing in my own mind for years bleed over into their story.” Sorry, but none of my clients have paid me enough to claim credit for my dreams: These are the one and only thing in my life that might someday put me on the map, and they aren’t for sale.
So what’s the point of all this, then? What do I even have to offer as a writer if I don’t slice off pieces of my own brain and sell them to my clients at a once-in-a-lifetime discount?
It’s easy: I’ll take my client’s ideas, plant them in my own head, and let them blossom into a sci-fi horror story of epic proportions. If they planted the seed themselves, in their own head, they’d get nothing but a sad little sapling that would have wilted at the first sign of winter. But when the seed is planted in my brain, however . . . they get a bloodthirsty man-eating plant that will relentlessly hook readers in its jaws of death, making them powerless to click away from the article until the last word is absorbed into their brain.
Rare photo of my stories connecting with a reader in the wild.
The day I finally learned to plant my clients’ seeds in a separate mental garden, everything was different. Suddenly, I’m no longer plagued by worries of clients sapping my creativity. The fear of creating competition for myself has dissolved completely, and the angst about strangers claiming my best ideas for themselves has gone up in smoke like all my other paranoid daydreams.
And against all odds, allowing my clients’ stories to blossom inside my head is suddenly helping my creativity instead of beating it with a nail-covered baseball bat like it once was.
Do You Fancy Yourself an Incubator of Dreams?
It was a strange-but-awesome day when I realized that suddenly, pouring my time into creative ventures for my sci-fi clients wasn’t weighing me down anymore. Instead of longing hopelessly to work on my own novel, I was looking forward to working on theirs—and taking notes for the next chapter of mine on the side, of course. Conquering the spite was a total game-changer, and I slowly began to realize that I was helping people who otherwise would never get a chance to bring their story to life: and that was awesome. Instead of mourning the loss of my own ideas, I discovered an unlikely source of inspiration in theirs.
When I write for my clients, I’m no longer “stealing” my old ideas, but nurturing new ones. I realized that without their disjointed emails and scattered writing prompts, I never would have written these pieces at all. And since I realized that there’s infinite creativity in the universe, they weren’t taking anything from me anymore.
If you want to learn to let your clients’ original ideas blossom, it helps to think of yourself as an “incubator of dreams.” It really isn’t that different from being a surrogate parent, when you think about it. A surrogate never would have given birth to the child they’re carrying without direction from the intended parents, and I never would have written this mountain of short stories if my paths didn’t cross with my clients. That child never would have been born if someone else didn’t long for it desperately, just like my stories—and this is why the surrogate mother hands the screaming, blood-drenched baby back to the intended parents at the end. Because it doesn’t belong to her, but the ones who dreamed it up before they’d ever met her. And my clients’ stories don’t belong to me. All I did was incubate them.
But hey, the whole experience undoubtedly changes the surrogate and helps her grow as a person: just as writing for my clients has helped me grow as a writer.
In a boundless, unforgiving universe, the only one watching out for your muse is you.
Client Work is Paid Practice
I bet you never expected this article to wind up here, did you? You thought the entire thing was going to be a self-suffering rant about how my clients nailed me to a cross made of 500-word SEO blogs and left me to die. But the truth is, writing for other people has helped me more than I ever thought possible. And I’m sure it will help you too, even if you don’t know it yet.
Think about it: Not only does your soul-sucking client work put food on the table—it also gives you priceless, real-world practice at sharpening your art. Every single stroke of the keys is an opportunity to improve, and every mind-numbingly boring revision request is a chance to iron out your weak points. No matter how annoying your clients are, they’re helping you grow and evolve as a writer every single day. They’re exposing you to new ideas you never would have thought of otherwise, and they’re exercising your creativity in challenging new ways that you never would have faced without them.
In fact, when you’re an aspiring novelist, you really aren’t that different than an athlete that’s always dreamed of winning a marathon. The hopeful marathon runner gets up at 6 AM every single day to sweat and grunt his way around the neighborhood, all for a shot of glory on the day of the big race. Day after day, he grits his teeth and pushes through it, just like you suffer through endless piles of client work in preparation for your “moment of glory”—the day your novel finally gets published, of course. When you think of client work as paid practice, it makes it that much easier to push towards the finish line.
“Every single stroke of the keys is an opportunity to improve, and every mind-numbingly boring revision request is a chance to iron out your weak points.”
Slicing off Pieces of Your Brain Doesn’t Have to Hurt
A character of mine once said that slaving away at a job for someone else while you could be weaving your own masterpiece is the greatest sin of all. Well, he phrased it as “What a pity it is, to slice off pieces of your brain and sell it to those who would never taste the glory otherwise,”—but the meaning is exactly the same. And although these sentiments once resonated with me deeply, I think it’s finally time for me to acknowledge how lucky I am to be able to make a living doing something I love.
Until your novel makes it big, freelancing is a great way put food on the table while sharpening your writing skills. And although it’s easy to begrudge your clients on a bad day, remember that they aren’t smothering your creativity, but strengthening it. Now thank the writing gods that you can make a living in your pajamas with a dog on your lap and get back to work.