Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Are These Habits Sabotaging Your Freelance Career?

(Photo credit: Michal Marcol;

The last time I was at “home” (in the U.S.), a book at Barnes & Noble caught my eye. It was called “Why Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office: 101 Unconscious Mistakes Women make that Sabotage Their Careers,” by Lois P. Frankel, PhD.

Even though I do have a corner office, a nice little one in the corner of my dining room, I couldn’t help but pick up the book. After flipping through it for a few minutes, I knew I had to buy it. Because even though my corporate days are long behind me, I saw some terribly, familiar habits listed in that book – habits that could be dragging down my freelance career.

Ladies (and maybe some gents), I ask you: are you guilty of any of the following five career mistakes? 

Mistake # 1 – Pretending it isn’t a Game.

Lois Frankel writes: “The workplace is exactly that – a game. It has rules, boundaries, winners and losers. Women tend to approach work more like an event (picnic, concert, fundraiser) where everyone comes together for the day to play nicely...Playing the game of business doesn’t mean you’re out to cause others to fail, but it is competitive. It means you are aware of the rules and develop strategies for making them work to your advantage.

Does this “game” mentality apply to freelancing? It should. The game is different than in a corporate environment, but still it exists. Just because our workplace is our home and we’re working alone doesn’t mean that we’re not in the midst a giant, invisible chessboard.  All those organizations and people who want us to work for free or a pittance while they're pulling down cash from our words...believe me, they know it's a game. (Let's just say that homegirl Ariana Huffington has not made this mistake.)  Magazines, small businesses, corporations, newspapers: they're all in the game.  And when you freelance for any of them, so are you.  Better make sure you're not just a pawn.

And let's not forget our competitors.  They're out there, sending queries to the same editor, bidding on the same projects. If we want to get the freelancing equivalent of the corner office (whatever that may be), we have to keep an eye on what our competitors/peers are doing, spot what we can do better or differently, and then do it, moving as quickly and skillfully as we can.

The great thing about freelancing is that pretty much all of us can get a "corner office."  As freelancers, a corner office can be whatever we want it to be. But that doesn't mean there's no game involved.  Play it, ladies.

Mistake #2 – Playing the Game Safely and Within Bounds.

Frankel writes: “Even when a woman knows the workplace is a game, she has the tendency to play safe rather than play smart. She obeys all the rules to the letter and expects others to as well.” As an analogy, she refers to her style of tennis play, how she always feared the ball going out of bounds, and so artificially narrowed her field of play. But once she started hitting the ball outside of her comfort zone, she says, she started to win more games.

I love this “mistake” and analogy. In the corporate world, I was forever seeing men play fast and loose with the rules…and moving swiftly ahead. Meanwhile, I only dared to follow the rules and hope that someone would appreciate it. (Ha! Why would they? It was the least I could do). In my freelance career, I try not to be such a “good little girl,” though it’s a struggle.

My role model is Linda Formichelli, co-author of the fabulous and inspirational book, “The Renegade Writer.” She, along with co-author Diana Burrell offer scores of valuable tips on how you can be a rule-breaker and still have a successful freelancing career. If playing the freelancing game too safely is a mistake you think you're making, definitely read this book.

Mistake # 13 – Failing to Capitalize on Relationships.

In this section, Frankel tells the story of a woman who was having trouble selling her idea for a new book to a publisher. It turns out that the woman’s father has a good relationship with an editor who could play an instrumental role in getting her idea before the right publisher. When Frankel asked the woman why in the world she didn’t ask her father for an introduction, she responded that she didn’t want to capitalize on her father’s name.

How many of you ladies out there see yourselves here? I know I do. I have an acquaintance who is an editor of a highly prestigious newspaper. I have another friend who used to be the deputy editor of a well-known women’s glossy. Have I ever tried to pitch an idea to either them? Nope. Why? Because I was afraid of being perceived as a “user” or complicating our relationship. Dumb, right?

Men use relationships to advance their interests and careers all. the. time. Frankel advises women to be unafraid to ask for introduction, referrals, or permission to use a colleague’s name when trying to get the attention of someone. Amen, sister.

(** Note- As a pat on the back to myself, let me just say that I recently asked my acquaintance at the newspaper to be a source for me on a buzz piece I’m writing. She answered my questions cheerfully and promptly. No sweat. And now I’m working on a pitch to throw her way. Yay me.)

Mistake #50 Being Modest.

Frankel writes: “Both boys and girls are taught in childhood to be modest – but women take the lesson way too far….When people fail to notice major accomplishments, it’s your job to illuminate them…Completely, totally and permanently erase the words, “Oh, it was nothing” from your vocabulary.

Sigh. Right again, Dr. Frankel. Ladies: are you downplaying your accomplishments? When you’ve done amazing back-flips for an editor or client, are you letting him or her know? Are you asking for testimonials? Are you displaying these testimonials in a prominent way? You don’t have to become a braggart or start boring people by endlessly recounting your successes, but when you have accomplished something brilliant, don’t be afraid to take credit for it – and let others know what you’ve done.

Mistake #59- Asking Permission.

Frankel writes: “Have you ever noticed that men don’t ask for permission? They ask for forgiveness. My hunch is that women ask permission more out of habit than from really needing someone to give them the green light….by seeking permission before acting, we are less likely to be accused of making a mistake – but we’re also less likely to be viewed as confident risk-takers.”

This is a variation or natural consequence of mistake #2 – playing the rules safely and within bounds. We women, I think, are particularly afraid of making a mistake. We often worry that any error we make could be attributed to our gender and reflect badly on others in that group.  Time to get over this fear.

When you have the urge to ask permission of a client or editor, take a look at your motivations. Are you playing it safe? Or would you be genuinely acting out of bounds? Frankel advises women to inform others of your intentions, not ask. In other words, say, “I just wanted to let you know that….” instead of  “Would it be all right with you if….” -- an important distinction.


I could just keep going here. Mistakes #36 “Ignoring Quid Pro Quo,” #39 “Letting People Waste Your Time,” and #55 “Being Invisible,” are other important mistakes I'd like to draw attention to.  But I'll stop now.  If this post speaks to you, I highly recommend buying the book. After all, with 101 tips, there’s bound to be several that will make you squirm uncomfortably, even if these don’t.

Readers: what mistakes/habits might be hindering your freelance career? 


  1. yes yes yes! i love formichelli, also ... let's be writing rebels! i send queries to up to SIX national mags at once. why wait weeks for rejection after rejection when you can get a bunch at once?! loved your story in chicken soup for the new mom's soul, by the way!

  2. ooh, and letting people waste my time ... i did that all the time at the office ... until i got snotty and turned my back to them literally and said i have a lot of work to do. people hate that, but i had WORK TO DO! same for writing. i don't consider my kids to be interruptions, obviously, esp. since i am homeschooling them ... but i know certain phone callers who want to talk forever and do not respect "i'm writing" or even something as obvious as "i'm bleeding out, gotta go".

  3. Great blog post with many, many, many home truths! I stumbled across your blog when looking for freelance writing career advice and have to say, I've enjoyed reading all your posts. (btw... I'm having trouble with the subscribe button; any other way for me to keep updated with your posts?)
    I'd have to say a crippling lack of self-belief is my own personal albatross. If the 'Who am I fooling, I don't really have the talent or skill to be a freelance copy writer!' was a permanent feeling, I guess it wouldn't be a problem - I would never have tried to write a thing in the first place. But it's the moments of 'I can do this!' followed by doubt that really result in long mournful periods of self-flagellation and despair.
    That's when I trawl the internet looking for advice and inspiration and - thank heavens! - come across blogs like this one. Thanks for the advice!

  4. @Kerrie - Absolutely, letting people waste your time is a HUGE issue, particularly for freelance writers. So many people don't actually get what we do, I think, and don't understand how hard it is to pull away from writing - or dive back into it. It takes practice to politely cut people off and say - sorry, can't talk now...working. Thanks for your comments!

  5. @sinead - Thank you! I'm glad you're finding the blog helpful. Yep, lacking confidence is a big one too, and it affects so many of us writers - women and men. I once read that Gabriel Garcia Marquez hated reading his own writing because he always saw things that made him wince. Whenever I start getting down on myself, I think of that. Can you imagine?!

    Good to know about the subscribe button - will look into it and let you know!

  6. @Kerrie - by the way, thanks for reading my Chicken Soup New Mother essay! Glad you liked it. True, no?

  7. Okay - Subscribe button should be working now!

  8. I've recently started being less shy about expressing confidence in myself to potential clients. As long as don't overdue it, it makes them want you more!

  9. Sarah - That's something I'm working on too. It's a fine balance, isn't it? Good luck!


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