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Today’s post is by SaaS copywriter Alexander Lewis (@alexander-j-lewis).
On New Year’s Eve 2022, I stood in my backyard surrounded by friends, finishing the last drags of a cigar. In the dark, we took turns sharing our hopes for 2023. I knew my goal. It was clear and succinct in my mind because I’d been noodling on it for weeks. But as others shared one by one in a circle, I second-guessed my goal. All the resolutions before mine were about family and health and finding balance in the new year. Would my resolution about business and money seem crass? Could I jinx myself? Too late. It was my turn. I stuck with my original answer, “I’m going to double my writing business in 2023.”
Crass or not, my goal wasn’t outlandish. In past years I’ve grown the business by almost 90%. But 2023 wasn’t like the previous seven years. Not even close. I didn’t merely undershoot a lofty target. 2023 was the first time my writing earnings were lower than the year before. Revenue tipped backward. Jinx!
A lot happened last year. It was a difficult and strange time to be a working writer. There were fears around AI. My sector, tech, suffered an effective bear market which resulted in a slowdown in hiring. Interest rates rose and marketing budgets were reduced. and exactly midway through the year, I endured the biggest health crisis of my life.
There’s just one problem: None of these factors were within my control. I’d be lying or lazy (or both) to say that last year’s under-performance was purely circumstantial. I made a mistake and effectively tied my hands behind my back. What do I mean? In 2023, for the first time in my writing career, I stopped writing for myself.
The best way to write for others is to write for yourself
Freelance writers have the ultimate edge when it comes to sourcing new leads. Every time you publish an article or new social post, no matter the subject, you’re marketing your services as a writer for hire. Words are your product. Writers often meet their first client by accident. You publish a blog, someone reads it, loves it, and asks you to write something similar for them—for a fee.
Call it the “flywheel” of freelance writing. Call it, “building your writer brand.” It all translates the same: The best way to write for others is to write for yourself.
I began freelancing full-time in 2016. From then until 2022, no matter how busy I was with client work, I always made time to write for myself. Blogging. Social media writing. Guest posting. Half the fun of growing a freelance business was writing the stories that no one asked for, but that I wanted to tell.
It worked. The more I wrote for myself, the more others wanted to work with me. The more publications I wrote for, the easier it became to pitch the next one. All I had to do was keep writing…
That’s where the problem originated. If the best way to write for others is to write for yourself, then the opposite is also true. The surest way to slow your writing career is to stop writing for yourself. and damn it! that’s exactly what I did.
The first rule
The first rule of freelance writing is that writer’s block does not exist.
To write consistently for yourself, you must believe as a fundamental principle that writing is a matter of discipline. As soon as you believe (even partially) that writer’s block exists, you set yourself up for failure. writer’s block is an excuse, based on fear, that a writer stores in their back pocket. The excuse gives you permission to quit as soon as writing gets hard.
Writing was hard for me in 2023. I think the difficulty started because I was bummed about AI. For me, writing is pleasurable because it is difficult. Now, something that was difficult in nature was made simpler by a machine. It stole some of the fun of writing. So, I stopped writing for a week. One week became a month. One month became a few. and by the end of 2023, I had almost no new personal writing to show for a full year.
I believe writer’s block starts in fear. Most often, I think it’s the fear of perfection. Writers put too much pressure on their first draft. They fear the flashing cursor and never type the first sentence. This has seldom been a problem for me.
writer’s block arrived for me in the form of a different fear. It was the fear that my work was made meaningless by a machine. It’s silly when I say it out loud. Finding meaning in one’s work is a matter of choice. Besides, if the process of writing is what makes it meaningful to me, then I can continue to write however I please.
Still, I never rationalized my way out of fear. The result was I ignored the blank page. The worst part is that I missed it.
It takes guts to write
The best writing is scary to publish because it is vulnerable. It takes guts to share your stories and ideas. People can misunderstand. They can object. Clicking publish makes you an easy target to be picked on. Maybe you’re wrong and are called out publicly. Or maybe you’re right and called out anyway.
Every writer must decide for themselves if the vulnerability is worth it. For me, there’s almost no activity I love more than clicking publish on an idea I’ve wrestled with in silence for hours.
A few weeks ago, my wife Sarabeth and I took a walk around Lady Bird Lake in Austin. We let our aussiedoodle Oliver off-leash to sniff around for lost tennis balls at Zilker Park. That’s when I had a new idea for setting resolutions. “What if we set resolutions for one another, based on what we think would make the other happiest?”
We each mulled over possible resolutions in silence for several minutes. I leashed Oliver again as we reached the end of the park. We continued down the sidewalk and then the dirt path. I shared some resolutions for Sarabeth and she gave me a few in turn. One of them was clearly the most important.
“I think you’re happiest when you’re writing,” Sarabeth said.
I still have lofty financial goals for my writing business this year. But my primary goal for 2024 will not be a revenue target, but a writerly one. I am returning to the foundations of a good writing life. My resolution is to rediscover my writing routines and start publishing my work once again.
If the past eight years of freelancing have taught me anything, it’s this: When I write for myself, the revenue takes care of itself.
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