How does a freelance writer handle all the demands of the job without reaching a breaking point?

My father says I was born worried. I hate to admit it, but it’s probably true. Once you know that about me, you might wonder how I’ve coped for the past 14 years as a freelance writer/editor – in fact, you might wonder WHY I would want to be a freelancer. And then, when you find out I had a stroke less than two years ago, you might chuckle and say, “No wonder.” Anxiety is a normal part of every freelance day. If you don’t feel anxiety as a freelance writer, there might be something wrong with you. I have forged some pretty good tools for handling this, and today is the day to share!

Why Would an Anxious Person Freelance?

The nature of freelancing is such that there are more than the usual number of things to worry about. Obviously, where the next dollar is going to come from is the number one worry. But then there are these:

  • Will my client be mad about that?
  • Will my client fire me or decide they want to try another writer?
  • What did I promise that fell off of my list of things to do?
  • When will I get a couple of hours to spend with my family?
  • How do I even start understanding this accounting thing?
  • What if they hate this piece and edit the heck out of it?
  • What did I miss in that manuscript?
  • Why do my back, neck and hands hurt so much?
  • What are my friends doing while I’m working on a Friday night?

And about a million other freelance worries.

I think there are multiple reasons I’ve persevered and even excelled at freelancing in spite of all of these worries. For one thing, I’m used to it. I’d be worrying even if I had an employer holding my hand through every day! As a lifelong worrier, I have many skills for handling worries – probably better-developed skills than most, so bring it on!

Second, I am stubborn. I want to be what I want to be, and I’m passionate about my writing and editing. I’ve been writing professionally since I was in 10th grade when I wrote a column about events at my high school for the neighborhood newspaper. When I’m writing, I’m almost blind to the worries, because I love the writing so much – and I become so completely engrossed in it. I’ve intentionally cultivated this frame of mind, maybe exactly for the purpose of blinding myself to the worries associated with writing. I seem to have subconsciously figured out early on in my writing life that I could trick myself into ignoring the worry. When I was a single mom with teens at home, I had great motivation to keep after it so I could be there to nag them in the mornings and after school (and thereby make sure they were safe, healthy and relatively happy). That upped my stubbornness to make writing work by about 100,000 points.

Finally, and maybe most importantly of all, I love my freedom. As a freelancer, I can set my own hours and take time off when I really don’t feel I can cope with the world. I’m a wanderer, and freelancing allows me to wander to my heart’s content – as long as my clients are kept happy when I’m on the road or wherever. In some ways, freelancers are tied down more than employees (the clock never stops and the work is always there).  But in many, many ways, freelance writers and editors (thanks to the Internet) have an agility that others are envious of. I want to protect that, and I allow myself time to wallow in it so I won’t forget it.

Tips for Overcoming the Stress of Freelance Writing and Editing

Once I realized I was entrenched in this life and felt committed to never working for someone else again, I started thinking of ways to cope with the worry so I wouldn’t sabotage myself out of this awesome career. In some cases, the realization and skill of overcoming a specific worry came by accident. In other cases, it was like pulling teeth to overcome certain stresses and it took hours of consulting my cheerleaders, crying and moaning through sleepless nights to come up with solutions.

The upshot is that I’ve gotten very good at handling the stress of freelancing and the anxiety of being “on my own” at work every day. I actually didn’t realize I’d created this toolbox of skills until fairly recently, when some of my colleagues began asking for my advice, not only about writing, but about how to run a business. It shocked me at first, then I realized I really had gained some skills and I really do have something valuable to share in this area.

So, here you go – some of my best tips for overcoming stress and anxiety and nervousness as a freelance writer and/or editor:

  1. Slow down. Anxiety grows when you push yourself to think too fast and get too many things done in too short a time. If you’re feeling anxious, take a step back from your desk or even leave the office. Allow your brain to be empty and breathe. If you can’t do this well currently, a little study of meditation might help. It’s about becoming one with your mind – sometimes allowing it to romp and play on its own and sometimes pulling it back into a comfortable and healthy place. Once your brain is empty, then slowly come back to the problem you’re facing and at first just sit and think about it. Keep your fingers off the keyboard for a minute! Open your mind and allow the universe to bring you some stellar ideas. You’ll know when the anxiety leaves and the thoughts begin flowing. THAT’s when you dive in. And then …
  1. Focus on nothing but the problem at hand. After you’ve slowed down to speed up, then cultivate an ability to push everything out of your mind except the piece you’re working on. For me, this means allowing the joy of writing words on a screen to flow over me like the satisfaction you feel when you work on and then complete a jigsaw puzzle. Pay attention to all the little pieces, categorize your thoughts and pull the pieces together. Take it as a beloved challenge and allow yourself to be pulled through the task by the magnetic lure of words and ideas. Celebrate your skill and the pure joy of being human.
  1. Express yourself. Anxiety is emotional, and sometimes you just need to let some steam off. These days I don’t seem to actually cry much, but I do allow myself to feel the emotions that hit me during the day. Sometimes I feel anger. I always keep it manageable, but sometimes I make sure the phone is off, then scream at a client or at no one in particular. (Make sure no one nearby will think you are being attacked! My screams are relatively demure for that reason.) Every person has his or her special way to express emotion. Look at it as a necessary tool for handling stress. Let it out. Express it. The word express means articulating a feeling, but it also means ejecting something, and feelings often need just that – ejection right out of you, so they no longer tie you up in knots. Exercise can help. Or throwing a few dishes against the garage wall. Then you can get on with your day.
  1. Ask for help. Not long ago, I found myself worrying about and feeling the pain of ALL the people in the world! Writers tend to be empathetic, deep-feeling people who can’t help but care about not only the people around them, but everyone else. Some of us are especially tender about this. I was having a hard time sleeping because of it, so I reached out to my parents. They know me almost better than anyone, and they had some great advice ranging from “Let it roll off!” to “There’s a reason for the pain in the world – it’s the only way we can grow” to “It’s okay to be softhearted. Don’t let anyone tell you different.” The point is that just talking with them and getting some ideas outside of my own beady little brain really helped. I slept like a baby that very night.
  1. Do your favorite things. This one is a slippery slope, because if you’re not careful you’ll find yourself using this as an excuse to indulge in things that aren’t good for you (food, sex, booze/drugs, cigarettes, retail therapy). If anxiety is keeping you from getting your work done, block off even a little bit of time to do what inspires you or impresses you about yourself. I like to play music, watch movies, get outside, go for drives and sometimes swim. I’m also at the moment really in love with the elliptical machine in my new apartment’s workout room! Helping other people counts here, too. When you focus on someone else, your problems seem to melt away. Create some good endorphins and then use them to sweep that stress into the dust bin.

The best general advice about anxiety and stress is to keep things in perspective. Do whatever you have to do to accomplish that. (Food, sex, booze/drugs, cigarettes, retail therapy and other crutches can work for a short time, but don’t let them steal your real, lasting peace. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. You will.)

When I think about it, it really is pretty amazing that I’ve survived 14 years of freelance anxiety. So, now I’ll take a moment to accomplish another step toward handling anxiety: being grateful for what I HAVE done and what I HAVE accomplished, even if all I can think about right now are the little things. I’ll do it because on principle I believe I’m worth it – even if I WAS born worried. And sometimes believing in yourself even a little is all it takes.