How My Number 1 Rule as a Freelancer Has Changed

For the past several years, I've had one main rule as a freelance writer: never say no.

I've said yes to work that I had absolutely no interest in doing. I've said yes to work that I really didn't have time to do, but made time for anyway. I've said yes to work that I wasn't actually qualified to do. I've said yes to work that I was probably pretty overqualified to do. And I've said yes to work when the client couldn't pay me what I thought I deserved to be paid. 

In general, following this rule has served me well. I've developed great relationships with valuable clients who know they can always reach out to me for an assignment, even if the turnaround time is really tight. Building these relationships over the past four years has allowed me to also grow my rates alongside my level of experience. For the most part, I've been lucky enough to work with great people who value my work. 

But lately I've started thinking about that "no" word and what it means to me professionally. When you never know for sure where your next assignment (or paycheck) is coming from, turning down work can feel completely counterintuitive - especially if taking work that may not be ideal could lead to a new client relationship and better work down the line. However, I've also learned one very important lesson about working for myself: if you don't value your own work, no one else ever will. 

Recently, I was approached by a potential new client who sent me an assignment for a 2,000 word blog post that needed X amount of links and X amount of images...and, oh yeah, it needed to be finished ASAP. Even though I was a little put off by the approach, I decided to bite. I wrote back with a few questions and included a quote for what I would need to complete that amount of work in that amount of time. (It's important to note here that a year or so ago, I would have written back and asked what the client was willing to pay. Naming my own prices has been a difficult, but necessary part of my development as a freelancer.)

When I heard back, this potential new client was flabbergasted by what, in my opinion, was a completely reasonable rate. He (very graciously) told me that he couldn't afford to pay even a third of what I was asking and admitted we probably weren't a great fit to work together. There was a big part of me that wanted to write back, "But wait! Please don't walk away! I'll do it!" Instead I just thanked him for thinking of me and wished him well. 

It was only the second time in my nearly four years as a freelancer that I turned down work. And while I am still likely to say yes far more than I say no, I've learned that my number one rule now comes with a caveat. As long as there is work available, I'm still going to take on more than I have time for and I still won't bat an eye when a client asks for a tight turnaround. But I'm seeking work that values me as a writer and as a professional - and I won't hesitate to say no if that isn't the case. 

 

 

What It Was Like Being Back at My Alma Mater for a Career Conference

Just over a week ago, I spent a day surrounded by the electric energy of smart, confident women at my favorite place in the entire world. And I haven't been able to stop thinking about the experience ever since. 

You see, I went to college in a magical place. And you could tell me you feel the same way about your college, but I wouldn't believe you. I'm convinced Hollins University is special in a way that is wholly unique and - yes - magical. I'm not entirely sure how to describe it to outsiders except to say that this place is my exhale. It is where I am not only most myself, but where I'm also my best self. The second I drive onto campus, I begin thinking clearer. When I am there, I am simultaneously more energized and relaxed. Tension leaves my shoulders. Everything I haven't done or wished I could do suddenly seems completely possible. 

So, when I was asked to return to campus as a featured alum for a career conference, I think it took me all of 30 seconds to accept. A day talking to successful career women and driven, doe-eyed students? Sign me up.  

Of course, there's nothing like being back at one of the most formative locations of your younger days to bring about a little reflection. 

When I graduated college in 2009, I didn't even know that my current profession existed. Well, obviously I knew being a freelance writer existed, but content marketing? Nope. It wasn't even remotely on my radar. I had spent most of my life telling people that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, but really had no concept of what that would look like. But now I'm doing it. I'm making a living as a writer. Box checked. 

And yet. During one of the "speed connection" sessions (think speed dating, but with alums and students networking instead), I found myself feeling incredibly...small? These young women, these students, these dreamers - they kept coming up to my table and sitting across from me and telling me all of the big things they hoped to do with their life. They had pie-in-the-sky dreams. They had make-a-difference dreams. Didn't I used to be just like that? So hopeful, so inspired, so sure I would be who I wanted to be?

Because yes: I am making a living writing. But 2009 Cortney wanted to be a writer with a capital Creative. She wanted to write novels and short stories and essays that people would read and think, "Yes, I feel this exact same way sometimes. Thank you." And it's not that I've given up on those goals, because I haven't. I'm still taking small steps to pursue them, but they are just that: small. Somehow, bafflingly, six and a half years have passed. I can do more. 

I went back to Hollins expecting to inspire current students to pursue their goals. I didn't quite expect that they would instead have the same effect on me. That I would feel more inspired than I have in months. That I would want to act, want to do, want to be...better. 

And really, I should have known. If there's any place that can reconnect me with who I am and who I want to be, it's Hollins. It's a good reminder to my fellow sisters: if you're feeling lost, if you aren't quite sure you're on track, or if you just need to remember how it felt - go back. Step on to campus. Take a deep breath. Exhale. 

 

My 13 Favorite Ways to Avoid a Deadline

First, let me say that I live and die by my deadlines. This isn't about missing deadlines. This is about taking entirely too long to meet them along the way. 

If I could write straight through without getting blocked and without procrastinating, I could probably manage to work about 10 hours a week. However, that would also mean I was a wizard. So instead, I work many more hours and break up the struggle to get words on the page in a number of creative ways. Here are my 13 favorite. 

  1. Social media. Obviously, right? Really, just the Internet in general. There's just so much there. It's an ever ending supply of entertainment. 
     
  2. Podcasts. Man, I love podcasts. I know that is a completely unoriginal thing to say these days, but I really do. And, in case you were wondering, no matter how much you convince yourself that you can write an article while listening to a podcast in the background, you absolutely cannot. (Current obsession: The Black Tapes Podcast)
     
  3. Looking for more work. This is completely counterintuitive - why am I looking for more work while avoiding the work I already have? - but it is also one of my main methods of procrastination, probably because I still feel productive when I do it. 
     
  4. Calling my best friend. My best friend and I talk on the phone every day around 2:30. She has a much more adult schedule than I do, so I usually wait for her to call me, but I get impatient if she doesn't and then I call her. I count on this interruption to break up my work day, no matter how busy I may be. 
     
  5. Doing the dishes. One thing no one told me about working from home was how many more dishes it would create. You wouldn't think eating just one more meal in my house would make such a difference, but it really does. Rare is the time of day when I don't have at least a few dishes I could do and it's often a good reason to get up from my desk. 
     
  6. Budgeting. I probably do and redo our budget at least twice a week. Or I go over my freelance taxes spreadsheet or check the due dates on our bills or plan out the next month of spending. Sometimes it calms me. Sometimes it does the opposite. 
     
  7. Reading. I like to tell myself that this doesn't count as avoiding work because reading makes me a better writer, so really it's just like taking a training course. 
     
  8. Walking my dog. Some days, when I'm really feeling stuck, he gets a walk every hour on the hour.  It makes us both happy. 
     
  9. Meal planning/Grocery list making. I am someone who LOVES grocery shopping. I like looking at recipes, planning out what ingredients I need, and then organizing my shopping list by the aisles in the grocery store. 
     
  10. Online window shopping. My wardrobe has become considerably minimized since I started working from home. I just can't justify buying many clothes, but I still like to look.
     
  11. Journaling. I keep a couple different types of journals for various purposes. Taking a break to do some stream of conscious writing that only I will ever see often does the trick to get my head back in the game.
     
  12. Eating. If I'm already trying to take my lunch break at 11:00, I know it's going to be a long day. 
     
  13. Blogging. Can you tell? 

Next time a client ask why I prefer not to bill hourly for specific article assignments, I think I'll just refer them to this list. It's in both of our best interests, trust me. 

Gone Walkin'

"Writing is one way of making the world our own...and walking is another." - Geoff Nicholson

Our new town is very accessible on foot. Yesterday, I walked to the post office and a coffee shop. Today I walked to my husband's office. Soon, I'll get to walk to a dentist appointment, a hair salon, and my dog's vet.  

In addition to this intentional walking, I've also been taking walks just for the sake of taking walks. There's a river trail that goes through the town with a great path, lovely views, benches, swings, and even a Little Free Library. These walks don't take me too long - the loop that starts and ends at our home clocks in around two miles, according to my iPhone. Sometimes I listen to an audiobook or podcast. Sometimes I listen to music. Sometimes I just walk. 

As someone who sits and stares at a computer screen for a living, these walks have already become a necessary and desired little ritual. I've found that simply getting up, heading outside, and moving my legs for 30 minutes has made my writing and thought process much more even-keeled and clearheaded. In the past few days, I've done some of my best work with my sneakers on and without a computer or pen in sight. But, of course, this probably shouldn't surprise me as much as it does. 

Plenty has been written and discussed about writers who walk. It helps us think, according to The New YorkerI've known this. I've heard about many famous writers who started their work day with a long walk. I just haven't tried it until now. And I can already feel it changing my process. 

So, here's to savoring the first few crisp days of fall, to writing in my head, and to getting out from behind the computer screen. 

 

 

On Routines

When I first transitioned to being a full-time freelance writer, I had this ideal routine in my mind. It went a little something like this: 

- Wake up around 5:30, feeling refreshed and well-rested from a peaceful night of uninterrupted sleep. 
- Get in a quick hour of some form of exercise that makes me feel invigorated and not at all exhausted. 
- Shower and put on the kind of outfit that won't make the UPS man think I'm home sick from a "real" job when he inevitably comes to the door needing a signature. 
- Fill a mug of coffee and enjoy a few minutes journaling or reading a book while I eat a healthy and balanced breakfast.
- Spend the first few hours of my work day on my creative writing pursuits. (In the daydream of this ideal routine, I'm definitely not still revising my novel nearly four years after finishing it, so I assume I'm working on a draft of my second or third book, while simultaneously responding to acceptance letters from all the literary journals that want to publish my stories.) 
- Break for lunch and a long, leisurely walk with my dog. Again, this exercise is invigorating and not exhausting, while my lunch is healthy, balanced, and leaves me fully satisfied. 
- Spend the second half of my work day completing my client work for the day. Since I am never distracted by social media or online shopping, I meet my deadlines well ahead of schedule. 
- I finish up work with plenty of energy and motivation to cook an elaborate dinner and spend quality time with my husband.

Of course, this is not quite how my days usually go. In fact, I'm pretty sure I've never had a day like that. 

More often than not, I go un-showered until late into the afternoon and am almost always wearing something that would embarrass me in front of the UPS man. I routinely get too distracted by the state of my house or the happenings of the Internet during the day and end up working well into the evening. My balance of creative work and work-work isn't nearly as motivated or well-established as it needs to be. (Because yes, I am still revising that novel four years after finishing the first draft.) 

And yet. I know how important a writing routine is to the success of my business, to my credibility as a freelancer, and to pursuing all of the writing goals - both big and small, both professional and creative - that I have for myself. I know I'm a happier person when I keep normal adult hours, instead of working from 9pm to 3am like a college kid who just discovered Red Bull for the first time. I know that having a good routine is about more than just getting my work done on time (and don't get it twisted: I live and die by my deadlines) - it's about getting my work done in a way that allows me to also have the life I want to have. 

Perhaps it's because I'm living in a new house, in a new town, but I feel more inspired than ever to build a livable, sustainable routine that transcends deadlines and leaves me feeling accomplished and fulfilled by the end of the day. Of course, I'm not looking to completely reinvent the wheel. I love my flexibility. I don't think I will ever be someone who enjoys doing the same thing, in the same order, day in and day out. And I don't think I'll ever live up to that ideal routine I thought I would just magically fall into once I started freelancing full-time. However, i do think I can hold myself to a more consistent standard as a creator, as a professional...and as someone who only has to answer to herself. 

So, we'll see. I'm going to experiment with different routines to see what makes me the most productive. To see what makes me the happiest. But for now? Well, for now, it's Friday. It's after 10am and I'm still wearing my pajamas. Time to meet some deadlines. 

 

 

My 8 Favorite Things About Being a Freelance Writer

There are a lot of great things about being a freelance writer, but these are the eight things I'm most grateful for - even on those few-and-far-between tough days: 

1. The Uniform. As you may have gathered from my website heading, I am a big fan of sweatpants. Really, I'm a big fan of any pants of the elastic waistband variety. While I do sometimes miss picking out an outfit every day, most days I am eternally grateful to go to work in my pajamas. 

2. The Commute. You really can't beat rolling out of bed and taking 12 steps down the hallway. I try my best to do the majority of my work actually in my office sitting at my desk, but there's also something to be said about working from the couch every now and then. 

3. The Schedule. The grocery store is significantly less crowded at 2:00 on a Tuesday afternoon and it's much easier to get a dentist appointment when you can tell the receptionist that you can be available "whenever." While managing deadlines isn't always easy, my hours are whatever I want them to be and I love the flexibility. 

4. The Portability. As long as I have my computer and an Internet connection, I can work anywhere. This is an especially big benefit for my family - we've moved three times in the last four years for my husband's job and, aside from updating my address on my invoices, my work stays the same. 

5. The Co-Worker. Yes, working at home can get pretty lonely at times, but my anxiety-riddled dog loves the all-day company. All I have to say is, "Samson, it's time for work!" and he runs into my office to curl up in the dog bed next to my desk. 

6. The Fancy Lunches. Not having to worry about packing a lunch every day means I have my entire kitchen at my disposal. If I want to cook something fancy for lunch, I can cook something fancy for lunch. 

7. The People. While I haven't met the majority of my clients in person, I feel so lucky to get to work with such smart, flexible, and encouraging editors and account managers. There are countless freelance horror stories out there, but I've been lucky to work with some really great agencies and organizations. 

8. The Work. Even though content marketing wasn't something I ever planned on doing, I love being able to write for a living. 

And with that, this writer is going to shuffle into the kitchen in her slippers and make some fancy lunch. Happy Thursday! 

How I Became a Freelance Content Writer

Here's a secret: I never really meant to be a content writer. 

I actually sort of fell into it by accident. In fact, just over three years ago, I didn't even know what content marketing was, much less how I would go on to make it my career. I knew more and more businesses were beginning to write blogs and publish informative content, but I never really stopped to think just who was writing it all. 

Enter: my fairy godmother. I met Stephanie Kapera Hawkins while we were both grad students at N.C. State. We took a memoir class together (with the lovely Dr. Elaine Neil Orr) and, while we both enjoyed the other's work, we didn't really get to know each other very well. It wasn't until after graduation that Stephanie sent me a message asking if I would be interested in doing some writing for a content marketing agency she was starting. I believe my response was something along the lines of, "...sure, why not?" 

I couldn't have possibly known at the time that what Stephanie was actually giving me was the opportunity to make a living doing something I loved. From there, my journey into content marketing just kind of snowballed. As Stephanie moved on to a larger marketing firm, she brought me on as a writer. I acquired a few more clients through her contacts and even snagged a few accounts all on my own. I said "yes" to everything that came my way and built relationships with marketing agencies in four different states. By May 2014 - two years after Stephanie sent that fateful message - I was ready to make freelancing my full-time job. 

Now it's over a year later and I couldn't be happier to do what I do. It hasn't always been easy (Exhibit A: health insurance. Exhibit B: taxes), but it is, without a doubt, worth it. So, this one goes out to my fairy godmother, who, quite literally, pointed me in the direction of my dream job. Steph, thank you for your guidance, support and, most of all, your friendship. Thanks to you, whenever someone asks what I do, I get to answer in the best possible way: "I'm a writer." 

Want to chat more with Cortney about her life as a content writer? Email her at cortney@upallnightcreative.com. 

New Look

Well, this new site has been a long time coming. Sometime last year, I deleted all of the content on my old website/blog in a fit of shame over realizing that I wasn't practicing what I preach. I spend most of the hours in my days helping other companies utilize effective content marketing techniques and build their brands, but wasn't following my own advice. My blog was a disjointed space that didn't really represent me as a professional, as a writer, or as a person in general. However, rather than deleting in a fit of shame and then recreating a site that better suited me...I let a solid eight months go by before doing anything. 

But here I am: back and with an online space that feels much more me as I currently am in my writing life. I'm still struggling to figure out my writing routine and still fighting to get my creative work published, but I'm also making a living doing what I love. I still have a novel draft that seems constantly in need of revisions and a bunch of short stories that keep racking up rejection letters, but I'm supporting myself with my words and my words alone - which is pretty awesome. 

As for this blog-space? Well, I'm not quite sure what it will end up being. I'm interested in writing about my changing relationship with writing now that it isn't just a creative outlet. I'd like to be more candid and open as to how I make my living as a working writer, because I know firsthand (and am still learning) just how difficult the freelance life can be. And, as always, I'm looking for that camaraderie that comes from belonging to a writing community, so don't hesitate to reach out if you're a writer who is looking for the same. 

Regardless of why you found me, I'm glad you're here.