Surviving The Midnight Oil: 6 Practical Tips for Freelance Writers

By Colin

Freelance writers often suffer from a condition known as ‘workaholism’, or an inability to know when to quit for the day. I’ve often found myself at the computer and thought I would call it a night after the next draft of an article, or completed the next chapter of a novel. Then before you know it, 2am has been and gone, your back is stiff and your neck aches; all precursors for a bad start to the next day.

Regular sleep patterns for the creative mind are imperative if the brain is to remain fresh and running at optimum, so here are a few tips to make sure you remain top of your game without losing out on the freedom of being self-employed.

1. Take Regular Breaks

US and European health and safety bodies both advise regular short breaks for all workers, whether blue or white-collars are worn. And for freelance writers the need for regular breaks is as much to do with the body as it is the mind. Sitting at a computer screen for too long can result in muscle strain and severe discomfort through lack of circulation. The body’s healing process is impeded when blood flow is restricted, and this is why it is important to keep a good posture while working, and get your blood circulating as often as possible.

A regular break of 10 minutes every hour will mean you benefit physically and your work will not suffer. These breaks don’t have to be 3-mile jogs around the park; a short walk around the garden or a quick stretch while making a cup of tea is enough. But it’s these small things that keep the mind alert and help prevent the build up of aches and pains throughout the working day.

Micro breaks should also be taken (every half an hour or so) during prolonged periods of work. Micro breaks involve shifting the focus of your eyes form the screen to a distant object e.g. a clock on the wall. This helps to prevent your eye muscles becoming fatigued and strained, which in turn helps to prevent focussing difficulties and headaches.

2. Vary Your Work

As much as we all love writing, working on the same project for hours on end can be as exhausting as it can be boring. No matter how motivated we might be about a particular project, the quality of our work will suffer if we don’t engage our mind in different tasks and projects during the day. By doing this we can ensure our minds stay alert and engaged in the job at hand.

Planning ahead is essential to ensuring you stick to your work plans and keep a rich and varied working day. There are several ways to do this but how you divide up your time will depend on the type of person you are.

For instance, I like to write fiction early in the morning while my mind is fresh. Early afternoons are when I stick to business writing, and later on I’ll move to editing and proofing. If I work late into the evening I tend to take care of promotion, marketing or anything else that has come up during the day.

3. Network With Other Writers

Unlike many other professions the world of the freelance writer can often be a lonely one. Solitude is something that affects us all since we can’t always be out interviewing people or meeting clients every day. Some writers thrive on this distance from the human race, while others find themselves drifting slowly towards insanity.

Keeping in touch with our peers is a vital part of successful freelancing, because not only does it help to banish paranoia (that we are the only ones!), but it can be a great way of making contacts and new job leads.

The internet is full of online writer’s forums – some good; some not so good – where freelance writers discuss the trials and joys of the freelancing life. So join one – join a few – and suddenly, as you begin to network with other writers ploughing through their inboxes in small lonely offices around the world, you will see that you are not alone, and there are networks out there to help you expand your business and even make new friends.

4. Move Around

Speaking of small lonely offices, what’s to stop you getting up and moving to another room of the house for the day? Having a laptop is obviously of massive benefit here, as is a wireless home network, but who said a freelance writer only has to work in their office to do business?

Try writing your ideas or a couple of articles long hand on a fresh notebook, and while you’re at it, sit at the dining table for a few hours or in the garden. Sound tempting? Why stop there? More and more coffee houses are coming round to the idea that technology is a pretty good idea and are installing wireless networks in their premises. So grab your laptop and head down to your favourite coffee house for the afternoon. Not only will you be varying your outlook while you write, but you may find it a useful source of inspiration.

If you’re lucky to live somewhere warm and picturesque, then head out for the day to somewhere new. I often find myself sitting in Leith Links or Princes Street Gardens, enjoying the view of Edinburgh Castle while scribbling down ideas for new articles or stories.

There are no rules to say where a freelance writer must write, so take advantage of the fact that you chose a career where you are the boss, and the Rat Race is far, far away.

5. Remember to Socialise

Burning the midnight oil is not only unhealthy but can lead to the break-up of your social life. Working freelance means you run a business top to bottom, which means you are in charge of every department from the boardroom to the mail room and everything in between. It’s part and parcel of the life we have chosen, but it also means you should not forget to have a life of your own.

One of the benefits of freelancing is being able to set your own hours, so take advantage! Create slots in your diary to meet friends, go for a meal, see a show, or anything else that doesn’t involve work. Spend time with the people that matter in your life before you drift apart and regret it.

Socialising also means knowing when to take a holiday. Nobody would expect an office worker to be available 52 weeks of the year, and the same applies to the freelance writer. You might have to plan it earlier than in other professions, but make sure you take your two weeks in the sun; it’s your right and your life, so enjoy it.

6. What Not To Do!

If sitting in a small lonely office does lead you to start doing stupid things and burning too much midnight oil, make sure you DO NOT do any of these:

  • Swallow Pro-Plus tablets like Smarties
  • Drink copious amounts of Red Bull
  • Overdose on coffee
  • Attach a head smacking hat to your head
  • Insert matchsticks into your eyes

None of these will work and your copy will suffer.

Above all the key thing to remember is that burning the midnight oil gets you nowhere. You’ll burn yourself out and your business reputation will suffer. Freelancing writing is a great way of life but it requires a careful balance be kept between your working life and your personal one.

Remember: He who hoots with the owls, can’t soar with the eagles!

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5 Responses to “Surviving The Midnight Oil: 6 Practical Tips for Freelance Writers”

  • cat

    Freelance designers suffer from the same. I often look up after hours have gone by, only to find lunch was two hours ago and my neck is killing me.

    I like your idea of taking ten minutes per hour to stretch. And with clocks right on our computers, it’s as easy as clicking a mouse to make it so.

  • Mari

    These also apply to novelists. 😉

  • Daniel Scocco

    Yeah I guess it applies to many people indeed, from writers to freelancers and perhaps even managers.

  • Mari

    Cat, I use Firefox, and one of the add-ons I use is FoxyTunes, which comes with both an alarm clock and a sleep timer. Very handy!

  • Devon Ellington

    Those are good points, but one of the reasons we freelance is so we can set our own schedules. Some people write best all night and sleeping all day — if they can get the rest of the world to leave them alone, good for them.

    Also, once you’re in the “zone” on a piece, you can lose track of time. I know if I force myself to get up every thirty minutes, there are times when I risk losing flow.

    There’s a natural rhythm to most writing — you can reach a natural stopping point and then get up and walk around or shift focus. Regimenting yourself too strictly can be as counterproductive as not taking any breaks at all;’ also, again, regimentation (which is different from commitment and self-discipline) is one of the things we, as freelancers, want to get away from; that’s why most of us freelance.

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