After trying out the 9-5 life—and quickly realizing it wasn’t for her—Sarah Johnson decided to leverage her passion for writing into a career. She kicked off her career by working with friends who turned into her first clients, and then she branched out to various kinds of writing work. Now her niche encompasses entrepreneurship, health, and sustainability.
While she still battles imposter syndrome on occasion, Sarah has developed an inspiring mindset for handling client criticism and has plenty of actionable advice for other writers. We’re also obsessed with her go-to mantra, and you’ll love it too…
Freelance Writing Cafe: What was the #1 reason you decided to start freelancing?
Sarah Johnson: I always say if you’re doing something in your spare time, that means you truly love it. For me, that has always been writing.
After graduating from university and working a few “real life” jobs (you know, those 9 to 5, living for the weekend situations), I realized I would never be happy working for someone else. As a travel lover who feels stifled by a strict schedule, I knew I wanted to do something I was passionate about that gave me the freedom to move around. I quit my job and started taking freelancing seriously as a full-time gig.
How did your freelance journey begin?
My freelancing journey began in university. I met friends who were working on cool projects outside of school and they wanted me to write for them. These were my first “client” experiences and taught me a ton about what types of writing services people actually needed. I started writing blog posts for industries I knew absolutely nothing about. But I did my research and learned along the way.
This gave me the confidence to look outside of my uni friends for freelance work. I started my own blog as a school project that landed me a gig with a small vegan catering business. I ended up working with them for 3 years. I sent samples to local music review sites and became a regular contributor (including free concert tickets, of course). I applied to become a blog commissioner for my school’s Planetary Health Commission.
Simply put, I created my own content and pitched it to anywhere that interested me. Soon I was able to build up a portfolio of work across several fields.
What is the most important lesson you’ve learned so far?
Criticism provides clarity. Every client you work with is unique and their communication styles are unique, too. Sometimes, what you think is a harsh critique of your work is actually a tool for better execution.
We writers tend to be a bit sensitive. But I have learned several times over that criticism is not a reflection of your skills as a writer. It’s simply a way to clarify exactly what the client wants. In some cases, it can even clarify that the client doesn’t know what they want.
My most important lesson has been to take the personal out of it and use revisions to add even more value to your client relationship.
What is something you still struggle with as a freelance writer?
No matter how many clients are happy with my work, I still struggle with imposter syndrome. If you know, you know. That little voice in your head that tries to convince you that you have no business charging people for your writing.
This struggle hits me hardest when I’m about to contact a potential client. When I’m putting myself out there, right in the face of possible rejection. What I like to do is take a few deep breaths and read positive testimonials from past clients. It’s a small reminder that I am capable and I do provide value with my work. Then I hit send and I never look back.
What advice would you give to freelancers who are just starting out?
If you’re just starting out, my biggest piece of advice would be to write about things you’re interested in. Don’t feel like you need to dive headfirst into a niche right away. If you like to dance but you also like AI, write about both and see where your natural skills and intuition take you.
And if you don’t have a portfolio yet, create your own! Start a blog. Write for a friend’s blog. Submit samples to publications. Become a contributor on Medium or Thrive. Post original pieces to social media. These are small steps you can take without ever having to find a paying client.
Lastly, participate in online communities. Join Facebook groups. Follow relevant IG accounts. Subscribe to newsletters. These digital squads could be a direct source of tips, mentorship, or even paid work.
What is your favorite thing about freelancing?
The “free” part. I love the freedom that working for myself provides. I can create my own schedule and timelines. I don’t have to answer to someone 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. I can work from anywhere I want – the park, my bed, the other side of the world.
And best of all, I am free to work with many different people of my choice. People who inspire me and make me passionate about their projects.
What is your favorite app, tool, or tip for productivity?
One of the best tools for productivity is the Grammarly Chrome extension. Even though I consider myself a spelling and grammar nerd, I can’t count how many times Grammarly has caught me on something I might have missed before sending it off to the client. It also gives you the safety net to free write without putting too much focus on correct grammar.
Do you have a go-to mantra or quote that keeps you inspired?
It’s not exactly a quote. But as a natural worrier, I gain a ton of perspective and inspo from asking myself “why the f*ck not?” on a daily basis. Subtle, I know.
If I’m nervous to jump on a client call or reach out to a new collaborator, I ask myself, “Why not? What’s the worst thing that could happen?” If the worst thing is that I get rejected, I know I can deal with that.
When I was considering quitting my stable job where I felt restless and unhappy, I thought, “Why not? Is staying going to make you any happier?” Once I knew the answer was a hard no, I took that leap confidently.
As freelancers and entrepreneurs, we are in charge of all the decision-making. For me, It’s not about saying “why the f*ck not” to every opportunity. It’s about having a killer sense of intuition that guides you toward what feels right. From there, it’s having the courage to go for it, even if it feels scary or uncomfortable.
What’s your favorite hot beverage to sip while working?
I’m a sucker for oat milk lattes or double shot americanos. If I’m trying to ease up on the caffeine train, I love a hot cup of Bengal Spice tea (it’ll change your life, it’s that good).
As a remote freelancer, how do you find balance between work and leisure?
When I started freelancing, I used to check my phone and email as soon as I woke up. This started my day with anxious energy that spiraled into 10 hours of being glued to my laptop. For me, creating a morning routine was key in establishing a work-life balance.
Before diving into my work for the day, I start fresh with whatever I feel will put me in the right mood. Exercise, journaling, meditation, listening to music or a podcast. I take care of myself first thing so that I can take care of my clients later in the day. This has been a game changer for me. Not only am I less stressed and anxious, but I’m more efficient with my days and have an all-around more positive attitude. Plus it has taught me how to listen to my body and slow down or take a break when I really need it.
What is your favorite place to travel to?
How can you choose just one?! If I must, I’d have to say Crema, Italy. My favorite movie was filmed there and a few summers back, my best friend and I toured through the Italian countryside to see all the filming locations in person. I love any chance to leave the big cities and explore the road less traveled.
What’s one interesting thing about you that people might not know?
I can rap the entirety of Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady”.
How has the recent global pandemic shaped your freelance career?
The COVID-19 pandemic was a huge tipping point for me. It forced me to really build up my freelancing business and step outside of my comfort zone. If anyone reading this is feeling discouraged by the current reality, my hope is that they can turn it into something good.
Use the time and perspective you have now to do what you love and maybe even create something brand new. I promise you, the world needs it just as much as you do.
Want more inspiration? Read more from our Drinking Coffee With Writers series.
☕️ Drinking Coffee With Writers is here to give you a dose of inspiration and actionable tips for the week ahead. We’re showcasing freelance writers who are designing their careers and living life on their own terms. Want to be our next featured writer? Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org
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