Creative projects

How 3 Freelance Writers Make Time for Creative Projects

by Susan Johnston Taylor

Juggling creative projects such as fiction, a podcast, a newsletter, or YouTube channel alongside paid assignments isn’t always easy for freelancers.

Several years into full-time freelancing, I started feeling burnt out on covering personal finance. My husband suggested I try writing about something — anything! — else, and I blurted out the first thing that popped into my head: “Maybe I’ll try writing picture books!” It seemed ridiculous, a complete departure from articles about mortgages and credit cards, but it was just the creative challenge I needed. 

While continuing to write for clients, I started reading kidlit and taking classes. I joined critique groups and revised my manuscripts a zillion and one times. I had no idea so much time went into a 400-word children’s book. But several years of hard work paid off. In Spring 2021, I signed a contract with a publisher who will release my debut picture book in 2023 (glacially slow for online publishing, but normal for children’s books). I also landed projects with several educational publishers who liked my journalistic background. 

Creative projects like these can allow freelancers to flex different muscles and learn new skills. Read on for tips and strategies from other freelance writers on how they balance creative projects with client work. 

Schedule the time

Writing a novel can be daunting. Many people sign up for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in November but don’t finish a draft in a month. That’s OK! Break down your big, audacious goal into more manageable micro goals so you won’t get discouraged — and so you can allocate time for it.  

Freelance writer and content strategist Deborah Lynn Blumberg has been working on a historical fiction novel for about eight years. “Paying my mortgage has to come first,” she said. However, she’s still making progress. Her manuscript won an award from the Writers’ League of Texas, and she’s getting it ready for querying literary agents. 

Before COVID and virtual school upended her schedule, Blumberg tried to focus on client work Monday through Thursday and spend at least part of Friday working on her novel, often in a café or other spot. 

“That would be my reward on Friday,” she said. “If I finished all my work to go there and work on the novel for like three or four hours.” 

Setting aside time on your calendar, whether it’s a few hours on a weekend or before you start your workday, improves the likelihood that it’ll actually happen. 

Embrace batching

Some creative people work well in small pockets of time. 

For many of us, it’s more efficient to batch tasks to reduce the disruption of task switching. That’s why Kate Hanley, a freelance ghostwriter and host of the How to Be a Better Person podcast (inspired by her book of the same name) batches her five episodes per week.

“I write them all at once,” Hanley said. “I record them all at once. It boils down to, all told, a little less than one full workday a week.” 

Connect with your “why”

Lots of creative projects require more effort than we anticipate, especially if we want our work to get noticed. After writing a book comes the submission process and later the marketing process. Starting a podcast or a YouTube channel requires developing new skills and conducting outreach with other creators. 

If you feel overwhelmed, reflect on your reasons for doing the project. 

“If you have a deeper connection to wanting to do it that’s personal or professional, that’s really helpful,” Hanley said. “Don’t do it just because it’s the thing to do.” 

She had always loved the audio format and wanted a new challenge, so that’s kept her engaged in podcasting for the past two years. But when ghostwriting clients mention podcasting, she’s realistic with them about the work required to build up a following. 

For Erica Manfred, inspiration came from frustration at trying to get essays about aging published. So, she created a SubStack newsletter called Snarky Senior where she can share her essays without having to pitch them first. Manfred recently landed a new gig writing for a newsletter about aging, and she thinks her newsletter helped seal the deal. 

“They wanted something voicey,” she said. 

Give yourself grace

Remember that done is better than perfect. Hanley says that while putting out five podcast episodes a week might sound like a lot, it has actually allowed her to accept “good enough.” She added, “If it were one episode a week, I think I would be futzing with it a lot more and probably not be saving all that much time.” 

Sometimes accepting “good enough” still doesn’t allow enough wiggle room. At times, you might need to reduce the frequency of your output or move a personal project to the back burner. As Manfred’s newsletter gig gets busier, she’s hoping to continue Snarky Senior by publishing every two weeks instead of every week. Recalibrating as you go is all part of the creative process.

Susan Johnston Taylor writes for kids and adults. Her articles have appeared in The Boston Globe, Highlights for Children, Entrepreneur, and Fast Company, among other places. Her STEM poetry collection for kids, Colorful Creatures: Poems About Animals in Surprising Shades, comes out in 2023. 

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