Every struggling newbie freelance dreams of the day they’re turning work down. When I hear someone say they have so much on they’ve had to decline a job I salivate, Pavlovian style, at the thought of living in such blessed times. There’s no such thing as too much work, right?
Well, maybe so, but for every freelance there comes a day when you find yourself juggling three deadlines; each with their own set of experts, reports, statistics, interviews, case studies and quotes. It’s easy to lose sight of the target and panic.
You don’t want to let people down, but you’re worried you can’t deliver the goods. But wait: before you reach for the telephone to call an editor and request an extension, make yourself a cup of tea, sit down, take a deep breath, and focus. There’s still time to sort yourself out.
First thing to remember is a week may be a long time in politics, but a day can be a long time in journalism. If you find yourself endlessly chasing interviews that never seem to materialise, you do begin to wonder if you can pull it all together in time for that deadline. The reality is often things will suddenly begin to happen. A call to an editor can lose you your slot if you panic too soon and worry someone who has space to fill.
Next, you need to prioritise. Louise Bolotin is a freelance journalist, copywriter and editor. ‘I write a schedule of each deadline, plus who I need to interview, how many words and so on. Then I break it down into manageable chunks,’she says. ‘The main thing for me is keeping track and listing everything I need to do and by when.”
Freelance Julie Ferry agrees: ‘When I have loads of work I give myself goals, like write 1000 words in two hours, so I don’t feel overwhelmed. Knowing that I have a plan and enough time to do everything helps me calm down and just get it done. And I let all calls go to answer phone.’
Procrastination is a problem for lots of freelances, and sitting at your PC it’s all too easy to become distracted by emails or online forums. If necessary log out of your internet and email programs to avoid hearing that ‘ping’that’s likely to distract you from the task in hand.
Catherine Cooper is a freelance who often writes features that call for several case studies. ‘I also write lists,’she says. ‘It looks less daunting written down. And where possible I give myself a deadline the day before the actual deadline, to allow for unforeseen stuff. I make all my calls for case studies as early as possible to allow plenty of time for people to come back, and I give them a deadline earlier than I need as well.”
Some people like to set aside a day to do all their interviews at once. In this scenario it can help to group interviews, where possible, for the same feature, rather than having to jump from one subject to another and risk confusing yourself, your interviewee, and your notes.
‘You need flexibility if you get really busy and don’t want to turn work down,’says freelance Johanna Payton, who isn’t averse to working a few late nights if the schedule demands it. ‘It helps to be honest with editors when you take on the commissions,’she says. ‘Particularly if they come back with adds, which happens frequently with real life. It’s better to be honest and explain you’re on deadline, than to pretend you can do it immediately then have to make excuses
‘If you know you’re going to struggle with a deadline but really want to take the work on, negotiate the possibility of extending it when you take the commission on, not further down the line when you’re sweating over it.”
Lots of writers work best under pressure, but when it switches to anxiety it’s impossible to get anything done. Learning to juggle multiple deadlines is a key skill for any freelance – prioritise not panic will see you reach each one on target.
Siobhan O’Neill is a freelance journalist