What to do when the freelance work dries up

How to handle the dreaded lull as a self-employed writer

I often write about the challenges freelancers face, but probably the worst of them all is not having any work coming in. Losing a regular client, a temporary contract coming to an end, or just going through a dry spell is just the pits. And depending on how bad it gets, it can have very serious consequences.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have so far only really experienced this once briefly, right after I was ill last summer. With no time to no pitch for new work, I prioritised finishing all my outstanding deadlines that had stacked up against each. I was then left twiddling my thumbs for a bit, not helped by the fact this all happened during summer. It was just awful and since then I’ve tried to plan things differently to be better prepared for when bad stuff happens.

But what about when you’re in the middle of a dry spell? Here are a few things you can do if you’re experiencing a lull.

Look at your bank balance

I'm a broken record about this, but always look at your finances before melting down. There's a huge difference between having a quiet spell and being in a dire financial situation. 

More often than not, the situation is never as bad as you imagined it to be. In fact, a quiet couple of weeks in the grand scheme of an otherwise profitable freelance writing business is really nothing to stress about. Looking at your finances will remind you of that. And remember to look not just in bank account, but at whatever you use to track your invoices to see what’s also coming in.

Taking that first step, as awful as it might feel, will give you the information you need to figure out what to do next. For example, some of the tips that follow here are for the people who really are up shit creek, whereas others are applicable for those who just hit a small bump in the road. 

Is the situation real or imagined? 

Bear with me on this one. I haven't really experienced having absolutely no work, but I have had periods of having less of the work that I like. There's a marked difference. I've also had times in which I feel like I'm not really getting anything done, even though I am. I've written before about how I find it hard to feel productive on days when I'm not filing a story; I still struggle with that. I now try to make a consistent effort to break down mammoth tasks and to celebrate small wins along the way. What I'm trying to say is, put things in perspective before spiralling. 

Pitch, pitch, pitch

If you've assessed the situation and it turns out that the problem is indeed a lack of work, the obvious solution is to pitch for more of it. I say that in the full knowledge that when you feel downtrodden or low in confidence, coming up with ideas and pitching them feels unbearable. 

My best advice is to make sure you're being even more thorough in pitching when you're doing it from a place of scarcity. Don't fire off incomprehensible emails to random editors, pick your best ideas, flesh them out into proper pitches and send to them to the places that would be an actual fit. Editors can see straight through a rushed pitch and definitely, do not send the same pitch to three different editors at the same time in a blind panic. If you need a refresher on what editors want from a pitch, read this

Use this time to plan rather than panic

If you’re in a position where a quiet week won't damage your overall financial health, then use it to think about planning for the future. It may be unexpected downtime, but there's another way to look at this situation: as an opportunity to plan for it to not happen again.

What are the opportunities you're missing? Do you need to reassess how you schedule your week in order to incorporate more time for developing and sending pitches? You can also use this time to research high-yield savings accounts so that your money can start working a bit harder for you. 

Whatever it is, just make as best use of this time as possible. If you've spent a day firing off pitches, accept that editors aren't going to reply to you immediately and do something else. Do your files need backing up? Are there other projects you can work on? You definitely have expenses that need filing. 

Apply for part-time, temporary or regular work

Friend of TPF, Sian Meades, always says you need some kind of regular, part-time work to sustain your freelancing. She is wise! Her weekly newsletter is full of these kinds of opportunities and she's always tweeting about them, too. Take this time to apply for as many of these as possible so you can hopefully secure some regular income in the future. Block out a whole day and dedicate it to doing the applications. And like the pitches, do those applications properly.  

Look after yourself

This always applies, but don't neglect your mental and physical health. Don't chain yourself to your desk. Eat, sleep and exercise properly. If working from home alone is making the situation worse, ask a freelance friend to co-work with you. Talk to people; ask for help.  

What other work can you do? 

If you've assessed your finances and your workload and it turns out that yes, you are actually in a dire position, then take some emergency action.

Alice Tapper, the personal finance guru behind @Go_Fund_Yourself, has a guide on how to make money when you really need it. One of the points she makes is using Fiverr or People Per Hour to sell your skills online. Journalists have lots of skills beyond writing they can offer: transcribing, researching, voice-overs, blogging, public speaking, note-taking. The list goes on. 

Accept the ebb and flow of freelancing

It's so easy to forget this in the midst of lull, but it's very normal for freelance work to go up and down. When I first started out, it happened a lot more because I hadn't figured out a good pitching rhythm yet so would find myself filing something and then not having something else to work on. The work hadn't actually dried up, I just didn't have the hang of riding the freelancing wave just yet.