How to Avoid the 5 Biggest Time-Wasters in Freelance Writing

How to Avoid the 5 Biggest Time-Wasters in Freelance Writing

Ever gotten to the end of your day and realized you didn’t get a single useful thing done for your writing career?

It’s so easy to do.

But if you’re going to earn well as a freelancer — and not end up clocking 100-hour weeks — it’s important that you use your time productively and wisely.

You’ve got to learn to say “no” to the activities that don’t really move your writing career forward. (Click to tweet this idea!)

You need to spend the bulk of your time on the stuff that matters. Writing. Marketing. Building your network of friends and colleagues who might know somebody who needs a writer.

How can you cut through the distractions and concentrate on what’s important?

Here are the five biggest time-wasters writers complain to me about, and tips for getting rid of each:

1. Social media

You could spend all day on Facebook or YouTube or whatever you frequent, watching funny videos and supporting your friend’s charitable campaigns… but you need to climb out of this time sinkhole to get some writing done.

The fix: Consider writing on your desktop instead of in the cloud on a dashboard — I use MarsEdit for blog posts, for instance — and then turning the browsers off. If you don’t have the discipline to do that on your own, use a tool such as Freedom to make them shut off for a period of time. If need be, lock your computer in a safe and write first drafts on a pad of paper and use the telephone to call prospects.

2. Overthinking

Many new writers end up frozen and not moving forward because of two super-unproductive head trips: worry and overthinking.

You’re worried you’ll make a misstep and then your career will be ruined. Or that you’ll waste time going in the wrong direction. Or that you’ll come off as a noob to that editor. So you do nothing.

You keep reading and reading about freelancing until your head is spinning and you can’t decide on anything. There are so many options! Paralysis sets in.

I often hear from new writers:

“I’m still figuring out my niche. Once I do, I’ll start marketing my writing.”

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

The fix: Realize that everything you write builds your career, because it gives you experience writing and dealing with clients. I’m hard-pressed to look back and think of a gig I did that proved to be a total waste of time. Also, as you gain writing experience, you’ll learn where your best-paying opportunities are. The marketplace will point the way — some types of writing gigs will pay better than others, and you’ll go in that direction.

So pick a path that interests you, get out there and start writing, even if it’s on your own blog to start. You can improve and course-correct as you go. The only mistake you can make is not writing and marketing.

3. Waiting

Writers love to wait for things to happen. Wish I had a dime for every time a writer told me:

“I sent a query letter, and it said to allow 6-8 weeks for a response, so I’m waiting to see what happens.”


“I have a conference coming up I plan to do some marketing at, so I’m waiting for that to come. Then maybe I’ll be able to get some gigs.”

The fix: Be a writer, not a waiter. Don’t wait-and-see about anything, ever. It is just a waste of your precious time.

writer, not waiter, carol, TWL

Instead, move forward immediately, as if that thing you’re waiting on is never going to happen. Send that same query letter to three more places right now — yes, even though it said not to do simultaneous queries. Or write the next query letter.

Do some quick online or local in-person marketing while you wait for that big conference date to arrive. Your career will move forward faster, guaranteed.

4. Battered-wife syndrome

It’s easy to get all excited about new-prospect nibbles and spend lots of time on them. Then, when they drop the bomb that they’d like to pay $5 an article, it’s too late to turn back. You want to take the gig just to justify the time investment.

It’s all too common for freelancers to latch onto the first client who comes their way, and then never let go. Even if they’re obnoxious, or it isn’t the type of writing you really want to do, or they don’t pay well.

It’s easier to take the abuse from the devil you know than face the scary-scary unknown of finding that next client. Meanwhile, precious time is being wasted that could be spent finding better clients and making more money.

The fix: Realize that there are lots of users out there, and that it’s up to you to set healthy boundaries. Qualify prospects carefully when you first meet, so you don’t waste time and end up feeling you ‘have’ to work for a client you know won’t be a good fit.

If you’ve got a loser client, start laying your escape plan. Start with the low-hanging fruit of marketing — tell your existing network you’d appreciate client referrals (LinkedIn’s InMails are great for this), ask former and current clients for referrals, or go to live events to broaden your circle. As soon as you can replace them, give notice and say goodbye.

5. Ignorance

While I’m a strong proponent of just putting it out there, sometimes you really don’t have the knowledge you need to pursue some aspect of freelance writing.

Maybe you want to be a direct response copywriter, or do technical writing for software companies. But you have no samples, need to up your writing skills for that particular writing type, or don’t know how to find clients.

The fix: You can take forever trying to figure out these kind of things on your own — or you can take a shortcut and get some help. Find a book, a Webinar, or a mentor you trust and learn what you need to know. It’ll really pay off in the long run.

If you’re frittering the days away and can’t figure out where all the time goes, consider logging your activities for a week. Get some hard data on how you spend your time. That will give you a starting point for identifying and eliminating your biggest time-wasters.

What do you waste time on? Leave a comment and share your top time-waster — bet you’re not alone!

Filed Under: Freelancing


  • Atmosphere says:

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  • Ms Hanson says:

    My time waster? Scanning all the comments for gems!

    Seriously, I’ve learned as much from commenters as I have from the original articles. The articles are the prompt, and several of my own comments have outgrown the bounds of brief replies to become passionate blog posts.

    Thanks to the article authors and to their commenters.

  • And to add to the mix, note that about 50% of the time you spend, should be spent on marketing, and anticipating your next project. I found this applies to not only freelance writing, but graphic design as well. So figure out your costs, your time spent, and do a realistic account of how much you need to bring in every single month.
    Then decide whether to take the paltry sum or not. Ego is seldom equal to coin of the realm.

  • C. M. McCurdy says:

    What this brief, sketchy article states makes sense, however, the reality is that freelance writing is NEVER going to pay you all that much. And while it might be fun to see your name in print, trust me, the thrill wears off in no time flat, especially when the pay is fairly scant. Oh sure, you hear people who claim to be making a full time living at freelance writing. Well, anyone can claim anything, especially on the Web. I’m not saying there isn’t SOME money to be had, but the work you will need to go through to get it, will never be fairly recompensed. Many freelancers think they’re the greatest writers in the world when in reality, they’re not even on the same planet as those who are capable, interesting, and know the game backwards and forwards. In reality, even those people are not making tons of money and there are a great many lean times. Very lean. Furthermore, most people want something for nothing, i.e., those who will pay $5, $10, $20, for an article. Look on most freelance websites and you’ll discover this is true. Again, anyone who tells you they’re making a living freelance writing is lying. Seriously. It simply doesn’t pay that much money, even if you’re netting say, $150 for your article of 750 words; remember, you have to pay taxes on that money. You used a lot of time and sweat researching that article (more than actually writing it, in all probability). Does the game look so alluring now?

    These types of articles (like the one on which I am commenting) abound on the Web. Advice about EVERYTHING under the sun, what you should and shouldn’t do, etc., but the plain truth is that writing (unless you happen to write a best-selling novel, an that falls into the Lottery odds category), is not lucrative. Remember, you can only research and write one article at a time (unless you’re a wunderkind and can do 3 or 4 at one time, but that’s doubtful, as doubtful as actually having been hired to write 3-4 articles at one time).

    I used to write for newspapers and magazines. The pay was not great. In fact, it was paltry to say the least. For a while it was fun, but I put in at least twice the amount of work as I was getting paid for. Writing is not the road to riches, or even decent pocket money. I’m not trying to discourage anyone, but today it seems, EVERYONE is a writer. Think about that for a moment. Everyone isn’t, of course, but there is not nearly enough work to go around for all the people who seriously believe they’ve got what it takes. It takes talent, command of language and grammar, hard work, more hard work, luck, and so much perseverance that most would-be freelance writers finally end up asking themselves the most proverbial of all questions: Is this really worth it? In the end, it probably isn’t, and even if you follow all of the “good advice” out there, you may find yourself wishing you had not wasted ANY time in this game. You can pretend what I say isn’t true of course, but many people tend to pretend reality is but a dream. Choose wisely. Ask yourself how much you REALLY need to write? If your honest, your perception may change and you may find yourself moving in another direction.

  • Susan says:

    Great post, Carol! These sound all too familiar…

  • Tiffany says:

    Thanks Carol! I am so guilty of “noobie” syndrome. I’m just getting started finding paying clients but I just don’t have the portfolio that most clients tend to look for. I’m going to take your advice and just charge forward. The worst they can say is “no” and I’m confident something will work out!

  • I like the idea of logging my time. It sure would tell me where all of those hours go. But (gulp) do I really want to know? It’s kind of like keeping a food journal. I would probably be ‘good’ just so my journaling wouldn’t make me look so bad! But seriously, I think this would be an excellent tool to help me schedule my days to get more done, at the times I am most efficient! Thanks, Carol.

  • Elke Feuer says:

    Great article, Carol! I’m guilty of overthinking and spending more time planning than executing. A habit I’m slowly breaking by sticking to my daily tasks (and not veering off to do other stuff that’s not really necessary) and reviewing my monthly/annual goals every week instead of once a month.

    Although I’m not a freelance writer, I love the your blog ‘Make a living writing’ and recommend it to friends who are interesting in become freelance writers.

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