by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter
It’s been said that adversity is good for us, and failure teaches us important lessons. I’m sure most of us would just as soon do without either one, but there are times when something bad can turn into something good.
I have a history of making lemonade out of lemons. When I was turned down for my high school’s literary magazine many years ago, I started my own. When I ended up in an “I quit/You’re fired” situation at a job I mostly enjoyed, it pushed me to do more freelancing and eventually freed me to relocate from St. Louis to D.C., where my career and collegial network really took off. When a toxic colleague bumped me from a speaking engagement, I wrote up the topic and have made money ever since from selling the result as a booklet. When I chaired a national conference for one of my professional associations and the board decided not to do another one for reasons that made no sense, I started my own conference for colleagues, which just had its 10th annual event and promises to keep bringing colleagues together as long as I have the energy to keep it going.
Freelancing in any niche or field is an ongoing challenge, and there are likely to be opportunities to turn lemons into lemonade for all of us. Those lemons can range from unfair treatment to unpleasant clients to our own failures — we’re human, and we’re probably all going to make a few mistakes, blow a deadline once or twice, encounter problem clients and painful projects, miss errors we should have caught in a project, or get stiffed on a payment. Here are some ideas for making your own version of lemonade from such lemons.
Losing a client or project
This is probably the most common “lemon” experience for any freelancer — writer, editor, proofreader, graphic artist, website designer, indexer; whoever. It can be devastating, both personally and financially. But look at it carefully: What can you learn? Where can it take you?
One flavor of lemonade in such a situation is having colleagues to fall back on. Describe what happened as objectively and rationally as you can, and ask for input about whether you really did screw up. Be prepared to be told that yes, it’s you, not them, and to learn from the experience. Even if you were in the wrong, you are likely to get sympathy and encouragement from your colleagues.
If you lost the client because of something you did do wrong, accept the responsibility and find ways to improve your skills or process so you don’t make the same mistakes again. Apologize to the client, try to offer something to make up for the problem (a discount, perhaps), and move on. Learn the appropriate style guide, improve your organizational systems, develop a checklist to refer to, refresh your basic skills — take a course, read a book; become better for the experience.
If you did nothing wrong but simply encountered an unpleasant client who turned out to be impossible to work with, or one who refused to raise your rate of pay, the lemonade is that you are free of a difficult client, or one who doesn’t pay very much. You now have the time and freedom to replace that one with a client who’s more pleasant and easier to work with, and who pays more. Make the most of that opportunity.
Sometimes we have to be pushed or even kicked into stretching ourselves to walk away from negative work experiences and find better ones, because even a low-paying or unpleasant client seems to be better — and more secure — than no client. You may find that you’ve been holding onto a client you didn’t really need because it was easier to do that than to make the effort to find a better client. Get your networking and cold-querying into gear, and see what you can find.
Losing a client also could push you into new directions. It might give you the impetus to try offering a different editorial service or skill — one that you’re better at or more comfortable with doing. Losing the income from that client also could motivate you to try being more independent of clients for a living. This might be the moment to try coming up with something you can sell on your own — a book or booklet, a webinar about something you’re good at, speeches, and workshops. You may have skills you never thought of profiting from; now is the time to explore the market for those skills. Create something and take control outside the traditional client–service provider relationship.
If the disruption is major, it might mean that it’s time to think about your career direction. Maybe editorial work is simply not for you. You might need to take a different fork in the road. The “lemon” might push you into looking at something other than editorial work to make money — crafts, for instance. Maybe that artsy, creative hobby could earn you a living.
Sometimes a difficult — rude, uncommunicative, unpredictable — client can be fixed. Try to pin down what the problem is. Maybe you can do more to keep the client informed about the status of the project. Maybe the client’s personality or style is different enough from yours to seem worse than it really is. You might be able to educate the client about aspects of the project that are unclear, or ask a few questions that would clarify the process and reassure the client that you can handle it after all. Perhaps you could suggest a better, more straightforward process or a formal schedule of not only when the project is due but when you and the client will communicate about it.
Then again, some people are simply impossible to work with. Another flavor of lemonade in this situation is to walk away and remove yourself from that situation.
We all want to be paid what we think we’re worth, but sometimes a project comes along that is below that amount at a time when we really need the work, or when the project is genuinely interesting. There are a couple of ways to make lemonade out of such a lemon.
With a writing assignment at a low per-word rate, for instance, you might be able to rethink it in terms of an hourly rate. That is, if you can do the research and actual writing fast enough and easily enough — that low per-word rate might actually look pretty good. A 1,000-word assignment at 15 cents/word is only $150, which isn’t much — but if you pull that piece together in three hours, you’re making a respectable $50/hour. If the story means something to you, gets you experience with a new topic, supports a cause you believe in, or otherwise seems important enough to write even at a low per-word rate, and you can justify it in terms of an hourly fee, there’s your lemonade.
For editing and proofreading work, you might not be able to get a higher fee from some clients, but you can work better, faster, and smarter so that fee works in your favor. Try to get paid by the page rather than by the hour, for instance, and use macros and other shortcuts to speed up the number of pages you can get through in an hour.
Take some time to look through the An American Editor essays. Many of them discuss rates and productivity, and could help you rethink either how you work or how you charge for your work.
Getting sick or being injured — or caring for someone in such situations — can throw a huge monkey wrench into your freelance business. One area where this could have the greatest negative impact is in your ability to travel to do presentations or lead workshops. In this situation, technology is your lemonade. Figure out how to do presentations via Skype or webinar. Turn your presentation or workshop material into a book you can self- or copublish and sell. If your health is OK but you’re caring for someone who needs you to stay put, look for local sites where you can do programs and invite people from out of town, as well as nearby, to attend.
Isolation and loneliness
We’re constantly being told about how important it is to network and socialize, but many of us live alone and some of us live in rural areas where we might the be only editorial professional for miles. Again, technology can be your lemonade — but you also can be your own. If you don’t live near any other people to network with, look to the Internet for places to interact online, from e-mail discussion lists to Facebook and LinkedIn groups to forums of national professional organizations.
If you live in a town or city, there may be dozens of potential colleagues (and clients!) nearby whom you’ve never met. Set a few dollars aside so you can join a national organization that has a chapter in your area — or start a new chapter, or even a new organization, yourself. It’s easy nowadays to get the word out about such groups. Ask at your local writers’ center, bookstore, library, college, art gallery, or coffee shop about holding occasional get-togethers on the premises. Get the word out through social media and a standard press release to local media, and go from there. It doesn’t have to be anything especially structured or fancy; it just has to be an opportunity to get out of the house, meet colleagues, and expand your horizons. It might even turn into connections that lead to work.
Have you encountered any lemons in your freelance life that turned into lemonade? What did you do to sweeten the situation and turn it to your favor?
Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, proofreader, desktop publisher, and speaker whose motto is “I can write about anything!”® She is also the owner of Communication Central, author of the Freelance Basics blog for the Society for Technical Communication, and a regular contributor to An American Editor.