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What to do when the freelance work dries up

Most freelancers go through a dry patch occasionally. Don’t panic. Do this instead

By Sheryl GarrattPublished 2 years ago 9 min read
Photo by Ann Shvets on Pexels

As freelancers, we all have dry patches. Times when the work isn’t coming in and the cash isn’t flowing, the phone isn’t ringing and you’re starting to feel invisible and forgotten. In tough times like these, it’s easy to panic, to feel hopeless or afraid.

Don’t do that. Here’s what to do instead, when the work dries up.

Start with your existing clients

List all of the services you currently offer — or that you could offer. Now see how many of them you’re already providing to your existing clients.

Are there gaps? Are there things they might love you to do for them, services that would be of benefit to them?

If so, get in touch and make a proposal. It’s much easier to sell additional services to people who already know like and trust you than to attract new clients.

Now consider your past clients

Get in touch with anyone you’ve enjoying working with in the past. Venues you’ve performed in. Spaces that have shown or sold you work. Check what they’re up to, what their challenges and needs are right now.

Does the work you did for them before need a refresh or an update? Has their business moved into an area where they could use any of your services more? Do they have problems you could help solve? Would they like to book a new show from you, or stock more of what you make?

If so, again make some offers. And if they’re not in able to hire you at the moment, but were happy with your work, ask if they would be willing to recommend you to others.

Who do you know already?

Go through anyone else in your extended network who might need what you do — or know someone who does. Have a sale, or send out a time-limited special offer. Create a reason to get in touch with everyone, and ask them to spread the word.

You’re not begging here, or being needy. You’re offering something of real value to someone who might need it — at a great introductory price.

Don’t forget your friends

If you have friends in the same field who seem to be busy, reach out. Do they need help in any way? What are they doing differently to you? Do they have any advice? Can they refer any work to you?

This involves swallowing a certain amount of pride. But that’s better than going hungry. And real friendship shouldn’t be about putting on a front, pretending things are going well when they are not. Making yourself vulnerable can be risky, of course. But it can also turn everything around.

As a freelance writer, whenever I was brave enough to admit that work was slow, a fellow writer would recommend me for a job they were too busy to take on, or an editor would step in with a last-minute story that needed turning round quickly. And of course I did the same in return, when I was in a position to help them.

This is often enough to get the work coming in.

But if it isn’t, it’s time to roll up your sleeves and get to work. Put aside some serious time for this. If you’re not getting the income you need, there’s no point dipping a cautious toe in, and dithering round the edges of what needs to be done.

Dive right in and treat it as the main part of your job for now. Put in the hours as if you were working full-out to hit a deadline, or get a big project done. (Because you are; you’re saving your career.)

Identify exactly who you’d like to be working with, and what you have to offer them. Then start researching, making contacts, and methodically making pitches or proposals.

  • If you’re an artist or maker who hasn’t sold work in a while, search for small galleries or retail outlets that feel aligned with what you do, and offer them your prints, your products to sell. Don’t know how to do this? There are lots of free resources for beginners at Indie Retail Academy.
  • If you’re a musician (or indeed any kind of live performer) who needs more gigs, contact likely venues, festivals, booking agents, and connect with local bands or artists who might need a support act.
  • If you’re a photographer, create an enticing special offer for the first three clients to book you. Introduce yourself to new ad agencies or publications. Network in places where your ideal clients hang out.
  • If you offer any kind of service, identify the problem you solve, then contact people or companies that might have that challenge, and offer to help.

None of this is easy.

Cold-calling is hard. Sending out proposals or letters of introduction can feel pointless, when most of them don’t even get a reply. Networking can be way out of some people’s comfort zone.

People can be busy, rude or indifferent. You’ll be ignored. You’ll get rejected, a lot. You’ll hear the word no, much more often than you’d like. But remember that you only need one yes to get going again, and a few new jobs or sales to regain your momentum.

And weirdly, marketing gets easier when you do lots of it. If you contact one gatekeeper with a carefully constructed pitch and then just keep refreshing your email, hoping for a reply, it’s devastating when you get knocked back. If you contact 20 or more people a day with pitches, and do that every day for weeks, it matters far less.

It becomes a numbers game. In fact it can help to turn it into a game, keeping count of how many calls you make, how many people you approach, how many pitches you send out or offers you make.

You can’t control how people respond to your offers, but you can control how many you send out. If you send out 100 ideas, pitches, offers or proposals, you’re bound to get at least one yes. If you don’t, get some help or feedback, refine what you’re offering — and start again.

You might have to do some work for free.

Or at least with no definite promise of a sale or booking at the end of it. I’m not an advocate of working unpaid for “exposure”. We deserve to be paid for our creative work, and I don’t think any of us should be consistently working for free.

But sometimes, when the work dries up, you just need some new, finished work to show in order to get things moving again. Perhaps you have to write a spec script or finish the damn book even though you don’t have an agent or a publishing deal waiting.

You have to write the songs, prove you can win over a crowd, get some glowing testimonials or some new work to freshen up your portfolio. Or you do a personal project to extend your skills, explore new ideas and show what you can do as a photographer, artist or maker.

For most of us, just getting on with it and doing our verbs — doing the writing, the painting, the making, the designing, the playing, the performing, the building, the creating — feels better than endlessly waiting for permission, or a commission to be able to do the thing we most love to do.

Check your digital presence

  • Is your LinkedIn profile up-to-date? Does it make it clear exactly what you do, who you do it for, and what is unique and special about you? Have you made links to the brands/companies/leaders and influencers in your field?
  • Does your website work, and are you making it clear what you’re offering and who it’s for, and making it easy to book you, hire you, buy what you make? (If you’ve had the site for a while, you might not be able to see it; ask a friend or colleague for feedback.)
  • Are you doing all you can to drive traffic to your site? While you’re trying to generate work, post or tweak regularly then share what you’ve added all over social media and anywhere else you can think of.
  • If you have any kind of portfolio online, does it feel stale and neglected? (If you haven’t added anything in years, at least take the dates off, if you can.)
  • If you use social media, does your profile make it obvious what you do? Are you posting lots of beautiful examples of your work to attract likes, without making it clear that you’re available for work, or that people can buy what you make? Make a clear call to action, at least one post in four.

Think laterally

Explore other income streams. Can you teach your skills? If you’re making beautiful, hand-decorated cakes for special occasions, for instance, you can only really sell in your local area. But what if you do some video tutorials on making sugar flowers, or creating a birthday cake that looks like a Marvel superhero? Suddenly your potential customer base becomes anyone with an internet connection who is interested in baking.

Are there other ways to sell your work? If you’re a musician, can you create beats, or some library music for people to buy as background music on TV or films, or as theme music for their podcasts? A writer might package past work into an ebook or re-purpose it into a paid blog. A graphic designer could make some print-on-demand T-shirts to sell, or upload work to digital platforms that sell patterns and clip art?

You’re unlikely to make significant sums on any of this overnight, but you might as well explore it while you’re less busy, and see if you can build it into at least a steady trickle of new income.

Consider a companion job for a while. I was introduced to this lovely phrase by an artist who also worked part-time as a gardener. He loved being outdoors, with his hands in the soil. It gave him time to think about his art. And the additional income took some of the financial pressure off, and gave him the freedom to explore and experiment more in his creative work. Would getting some sort of regular, paid job — full-time or part-time — help you for a while?

Get help and support

You’re not alone in this. If you know other self-employed creatives, you’ll find all of them have been through a period when the work just isn’t coming. If you don’t know other freelancers, find a Facebook group or online forum. Maybe some of them are going through a bad patch now, and you could buddy up and support each other while you get momentum again. Or maybe they’ll have help and advice.

Coaching can also help you see the disempowering stories you might be telling yourself, and get out of your own way and back into action. (Here’s how to work with me, for instance.) If you’re part of any kind of union or professional organisation, get help and advice there, too.

Make sure the work keeps coming

As a freelance writer I’ve been through this more times than I can count, over the years. A couple of times the work dried up to such a degree that it became less of a dry patch, more like a yawning, endless desert. But it passed, once I stopped sitting and waiting for the phone to ring or the email to ping, and motivated myself to send out ideas, introduce myself to new editors and outlets, and just start writing.

The cure to freelance feast and famine cycles is to make marketing a habit. Once the work does start coming in again, don’t stop pitching, proposing, networking, approaching new outlets/venues/galleries. Find out what works and feels right and authentic to you, then just make it a routine and regular part of your week.

***

Looking for more support on this? My 10-week group coaching programme starts on Oct 4 at 10am UK time. We meet online to discuss a different aspect of growing your creative business every week, with coaching from me and the support of a small mixed group of other creatives. Interested? More details here.

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About the Creator

Sheryl Garratt

Sheryl Garratt is a former editor of The Face and Observer magazines, and has written professionally for more than 30 years. She is also a coach working with creatives of all kinds. Find her at thecreativelife.net

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    Sheryl GarrattWritten by Sheryl Garratt

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