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Ep. 167: Bonus: How to create steady income as a freelance writer Joni Sweet

In this week’s episode, I speak with Joni who is a freelance writer. Joni shares how she has been able to continue thriving during the pandemic due to her ability to become more flexible with her writing niches.

Listen on to find out how Joni has been able to create steady income as a freelance writer.

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Transcription:

Debbie:

Hey everyone! Thank you so much for joining us. I’m really excited to be back talking to Joni. Hey Johnny, how are you? 

Joni:

Hey Debbie! I’m good. How are you? 

Debbie:

I don’t know if I could say “great” but I’m okay. I’m surviving. 

Joni:

Yeah, that’s good considering the circumstances. When I email people. I’m like, “I hope you’re as well as can be expected right now.”

Debbie:

I know. I’m like, “I hope you’re healthy and safe and sane.” 

Joni:

Yeah, that’s all we can really ask for right now. 

Debbie:

It’s like our sanity is the main thing that we’re trying to keep together otherwise, oh my goodness, it’s kind of crazy. And you’re in the hubbub of everything, you’re in New York City.

Joni:

I’m on the upper east side too where all the hospitals are.

Debbie:

So, this must be pretty insane for you. What has it been like since this whole thing started? And pretty much New York City has been shut down and you’re in the middle of all of this. 

Joni:

Yeah. So, I was doing a lot of traveling at the beginning of the year and I got back from my last trip, which was to Charleston, South Carolina. I got back on Friday, March 13th, and by then things are already starting to get pretty weird. 

You definitely saw toilet paper shortages like a lot of tension if you went out to stores and stuff. That weekend was kind of normal, kind of a quiet weekend. And then, by Monday, everything was shut down. So, no more gyms, no more restaurants or bars – nothing. 

And the other thing that’s got me into staying is I always work from home if I’m not on the road. But my partner works the traditional nine-to-five for the city government and he is now working from home as well. 

So we only have like a very tiny one-bedroom apartment on the upper east side and our desks are like back to back. I can physically touch him when I’m working. So that has definitely required a little bit of adjustment but we’re doing pretty well. 

And it’s suddenly a quieter, stranger time to be in New York but I don’t think it’s quite as scary as people outside the city expected it to be. It’s a lot of just stay at home because we’re trying to avoid going grocery shopping too much – that kind of thing. 

Debbie:

It’s pretty insane that, now, everybody is working remotely and they know exactly what we have to go through. Because I think for most people they think that what we do when we work from home, which is like, “Easy! Oh, you can do anything you want.”

Joni:

Yeah.

Debbie:

And then, you realize that it takes a lot of discipline to be able to do this and you really need to set a routine for yourself. Otherwise, you don’t get anything done. 

Joni:

That’s so true. 

Debbie:

Right? So what has it been like for your boyfriend and for you? Have you set a new routine together? I mean, you’re used to it but for him, he’s not.

Joni:

Yeah. Well, just stepping back a minute. I think one thing that’s really been interesting, when I talk to my friends who are now working remotely, is they find out they are working more than ever. 

And I think that’s been a big surprise for people; is that when you are working from home you have access to your work all the time and if you allow it to, it will dominate your life. Like the emails are not gonna stop. You just need to make the choice to stop looking at them at a certain point of the day. 

So I think that’s been interesting. But yeah, as for, like, our schedule: he’s supposed to be on a nine-to-five. But he’s working with tons of overtime right now ‘cause he is responsible for bringing in donations from corporations to help with the city. 

So, that’s just been non-stop but generally were both at our desks by 8:30 or 9. My work has been a little bit slower than usual. So I’ve been wrapping things up sometimes by 4, sometimes by 6. It kind of depends on the day and he’ll generally keep working until a bit later depending on what’s going on.

Yeah, that’s kind of our routine. 

Debbie:

You’re doing the best that you can and I think that’s the main thing here. It’s whatever works for you at this time as what you can do with yourself and hopefully, you can concentrate. 

And I know a lot of people have children at home. So I can’t even imagine what that’s like because it’s hard for us who don’t have kids, who don’t have that extra distraction.

And going back to what you’re saying. Yes, this can take over your entire life. Like working from home, it’s really hard to stop yourself from doing that because it’s constantly within your reach and you don’t know how to stop yourself. 

That’s why having a start time and a stop time is so crucial to all of this.

Joni:

Yeah. And, like, if work is coming in, if I have a lot going on – I’ll stop a lot later. But I really don’t want to be, like, answering random emails at 9 at night just because they exist. Like, for me and my work, I’m not saving lives here. Like if I answer the email at 9 at night vs 9 the next morning – nothing has changed.

And I totally got it for people in other fields, especially professionals who are, like, helping with the crisis. They definitely need to be more available. 

But if your job is more creative and you’re not involved with health care, non- profits, or other sort of emergency resources, yeah, I agree with you, I think setting a stop time is really important.

Debbie:

Otherwise, you’re going to go crazy.

Joni:

Yeah, or it’s just gets non-stop. And I hear it from my friends when I call them to catch up and they’re used to going into the office nine-to-five. They’re like, “Im working till 8, 9 o’clock now,” I’m like, “You don’t have to do that.”

If you’re not saving lives or solving major world problems, you probably can give it a break by 7. 

Debbie:

And that’s really hard to do and it’s a good reminder to be able to do that. 

Joni:

Yeah. 

Debbie:

Going towards what you do for a living. So, Joni is a writer. She’s a freelance writer and she writes for a lot of publications. What has it been like for you as a writer right now? Has work been going well for you? Has it kind of dwindled down a little bit? And how do you maintain an income? 

Especially living in New York City, it’s expensive there. Even though the world has stopped you still have to pay for food and rent. And it’s really expensive living there. 

Joni

Yeah. It is a very expensive place to be self-employed for sure. So far, the finances have been going okay. Work has only slowed a bit. It is a lot harder to sell travel stories right now and cover trips that I’ve taken. 

So all of my travel writing has taken a back seat for now unless it’s kind of tangentially related. Like I have a story in the works about travel brands doing cool stuff on Instagram. I can do stuff like virtual travel and  covering the travel industry. But in terms of covering travel experiences that has definitely been put on hold for now.

But, luckily, I’ve been able to lean into some of my other beats specifically health and finance. There are endless stories about health to be told right now. And then, with finance, I have some clients who, like, regularly give me assignments. And I think a lot of people are concerned about money right now, so I’m able to write a lot in those areas.

I like writing about that stuff. There’s a different side of my brain than travel but I certainly miss travel. And then, the other thing that’s going on is the economy has gone really crazy and a lot of publications are cutting back on how much they are assigning to freelancers right now. Because they don’t have ad dollars coming in to support it. 

So yeah, things have gotten a little slow. I’m certainly not hurting for work. Like I still have plenty to do during the week but maybe, in a typical month, I might have, like, I don’t know, 15-20 stories lined up for the next four to six weeks. Now, it’s more like six stories and there are other Works coming in a little bit closer to the deadline. Those, “I need this story by Friday.”

Whereas before I could get a bunch of assignments lined up way ahead of time. Now, they’re coming in, like, they’re trickling in closer to when they actually want them done. So, I have to just keep myself available and keep poking editors like, “Hey, you want to work together? 

So, yeah, I think that kind of groundwork I laid over the past couple years of being a really reliable strong writer is paying off now. When they have very limited assignments to give out they’re going to give it to their strongest writers first. 

Debbie:

For a writer, obviously, you have been able to create this niche for yourself. That’s not just travel because obviously the travel industry, anyone that’s working and not are really hurting right now, and you have created this great thing for yourself. A system that you’re not only relying on one source of income and one source of niche. 

For somebody who’s also a freelancer or a writer, how can they diversify their own income to make money even through a crisis like this? 

Joni:

There are two strategies when it comes to freelance writing. The first strategy people recommend is that you should carve out with a very specific niche and be that person for that niche. 

So maybe it’s sustainable travel and you’re the writer all the editors go to when they want an eco-friendly travel story. That has not been the way I’ve had success. I’ve had success becoming more general and being like, “I’m your writer if you want.” Something really well researched, great quotes from sources, and thoughtful language.

And that has worked really well for me. So you will, as you’re researching, like, how to be a freelance writer, hear those two strategies put out there. I definitely think it’s like if you are a person who has a lot of different interests like me, I think it’s worth exploring those in your writing.

And sometimes it requires starting small like writing for websites and publications no one’s heard of, don’t pay very well. Just get your foot in the door and start getting some clips. And once you start getting clips you can kind of abandon the clients that don’t make sense for you anymore and pursue more lucrative projects and start working your way up. 

And, eventually, you will become known in multiple niches as a person to go to for that kind of content. So, for me, that’s been travel, health, wellness, and finance. I covered stuff outside those beats. I covered everything from, like, home repairs, fashion, restaurants, dining, all sorts of things. 

But the ones that I kind of found the most working and the ones I found the most interesting are travel, health, wellness, and finance. 

Debbie:

It’s really great that you say that. Because, obviously, in the beginning, when you’re starting out, you don’t know the niche that you want to go into yet. And even though sometimes you are interested in it, it may not be the right thing for you as well. 

So dabbling in a few things and then narrowing it down along the way can also really help. And I think we struggle with that a lot because we think, “Oh my goodness, I need to have a niche right now. Like this is what everybody is telling me.” 

But what Joni has been able to do, and it’s actually been helping you now because if you had just niche down into one thing specifically, like, with travel, it would be harder for you to find work right now because then you wouldn’t have any experience with finance and with health and wellness. 

So that’s a really great idea right there. Obviously, you don’t want to be all over the place either because then, people don’t know where to put you in. But if you have two or three things that you’re really good at, I mean, If you’re a good writer, they’re going to expect that from whatever niche that you’re in. But having that experience is also really crucial to it. 

Joni:

Yeah, I think if you only have one thing you’re right about, you leave yourself vulnerable to the whims of that industry. Like if you’re a travel writer, you can’t control what else is going on in the entire travel space. And you know, there’s a lot that can affect travel. 

There’s obviously environmental issues. Like if there is an environmental disaster or something like that.And then, the long-term problem of global warming and how that might impact how we travel.

There’s political stuff like \ borders get shut down and things like that, airlines closed. There’s all kinds of things that can happen that are outside of your control but can that can vastly impact your income. 

So I think the more places that you dabble in and do it well. Like you said, you don’t want to spread yourself too thin, you want to pick a few things, but not 20 things. But do a few things really well, you leave yourself less vulnerable to everything external and you have a little bit more control from your own business standpoint. 

Debbie:

When you are trying to find work right now as a writer and you’re pitching, have there been any changes that you’ve been doing to that strategy? 

Any new tips and tricks that you can share with us that have been working well for you that you may have thought of because of the current situation that we have right now?

Joni:

So, with editors I already work with, I’ve tried to find new COVID-19 related angles to the things I already covered. For my health editor that’s really easy. But even for finance, there are so many things to talk about with COVID-19 and your finances.

So, I try to give a newsworthy spin and I guess that’s not necessarily new but its something I’ve been doing more of lately. 

Also knowing your editors personalities. Everybodys really overwhelmed right now and I think we all need to show a lot more compassion and patience than usual. So I’ve been trying to do that and like not to follow up too frequently. I don’t want to put pressure on people at a time when they’re already feeling all kinds of pressure.

So, just like really trying to be more human. And then, I’ve also been leaning to, I think they’re calling them, whisper networks, which I think I’ve mentioned but not using that word. Basically, groups of people in your industry who are doing the same thing as you and really sharing very good candid thoughts, information, advice, and even warnings on things like what’s going on in the industry. 

So there are few out there that I’ve recently started getting more invested in. One is called Study Hall and you can sign up on their Patreon to be part of their opportunities list and their newsletter and their network. It’s a network of hundreds, if not thousands, of writers around the world who talk about what’s going on. 

And you can ask questions like, “What is this publication pay? What editors are seeking pictures right now?” They also put out like a big Google doc Where people could add information about which publications have stopped accepting pictures for the time being.

I think they open that up to the public so anybody can look and say, “Oh, okay, these 30 publications are no longer accepting pictures. It kind of helps you know where to pick your efforts and where to just skip for now.

 So I think like those whisper networks are really, really, really helpful right now when, like, there are so many rumors flying around.

Debbie:

And that’s the thing. I think I’ve scrolled through so much fake news everywhere especially on social media that you don’t really know what’s true and what’s wrong. And having networks like this and people that you can actually trust giving you legit information is what we all need. Otherwise, we’re just going to be panicking all over the place. 

Joni:

Yeah. I mean, I think particularly for listeners to The Offbeat Life podcast, people in the US should be aware that  they now have financial assistance for self-employed people from the federal government.

This is unprecedented. The first time this has ever been done and there are a lot more questions than answers at this point about how to get that money and it has been so So hard to navigate that in NC. Like all the crazy news stories coming out about it and the different comments on Facebook groups. People trying to figure it out. 

So, yeah. It’s nice to have one or two networks you can tap into that you know hove trustworthy information.

Debbie:

Talking about that, Joni, can you give us a little bit more insight on that? Especially for people who have freelance jobs that are really hurting right now, how can they get the best information or if you have information right now? And how they can get the money that everybody wants.

Joni:

I am probably not the best person to go to for that information ‘cause I’m still very much trying to figure it out myself, right?

Here is my understanding of it: the federal government is giving self-employed people who have been financially impacted by the pandemic, assistance of up to $600 a week for the next few months. I think it runs through the end of July.

But the way that they have structured it is that it is not going to come directly from the federal government. The federal government’s going to give state unemployment offices the money and then, the state unemployment offices are supposed to give it out to self-employed people.

Unemployment insurance is historically not for people who are self-employed. It’s for your regular, like, full-time and part-time workers. So, these state unemployment offices are all scrambling to try and figure out how to do this ‘cause they’re really just not set up for it. 

They’re set up to process people who get their W-2 forms from their employer. They’re set up to process those. So, at this point, at least in New York City, and this will vary by state, you have to apply for unemployment insurance through the state. Then, get denied, ’cause you will get denied, but you still have to go through the process. 

And then, they give you another form to fill out for pandemic unemployment assistance. I think that’s what its called. And then, they start processing that in a different way, but I don’t personally know anybody who’s got this money yet. I think that is still very much a work in progress. And I’ve been following the New York State Department of Labor on Twitter and they really are working so hard to try and get this done. 

They have hired a lot of extra staff and have opened it up to weekend phone calls. So many extra hours, but it’s just a really, really, really big project and it’s coming at the worst possible time for the government because so many people have to work from home. 

Debbie:

And it’s not just that, right? There are so many things that the government has to worry about right now like unemployment and then, health. It’s just so many different things that it’s overwhelming. I mean, obviously, every single person is overwhelmed but it’s just one thing on top of the next.

And since, Joni, you do a lot of writing when it comes to health and mental wellness and health wellness, obviously. What has been the best thing that you have come across for, I guess, all of us to just get through this? Because it’s really hard and everyone is either just like, “Okay, we got to just get through this,” and then there’s people who just can’t even get out of bed. 

So there’s so many things happening and it’s different for everybody. How do you actually write articles and make sure that you are helping a lot of different groups of people during this time?

Joni:

Yeah, I think that’s a big challenge. I try to make sure all of my writing is sensitive to what people are going through right now. I don’t ever want to be accused of being tone-deaf. 

I wrote a couple of Mother’s Day gift guides for Forbes. One was about at-home yoga gear and one was about at-home workout gear like cardio workout gear. I had a mix of price points, but I wanted some luxurious products for the typical Forbes reader.

So I put, like, a $1,500 treadmill and the gift guide. But then I wanted stuff, like, normal people could afford even if they aren’t hurting for work. So, I put like $9 hair ties in there to try and just be really sensitive and make the article feel like it could have something for everybody. 

But, I think, social media is a tough one right now. You see people on social media posting the ten thousand different ways they’re working on self-improvement during quarantine, they’re baking bread, making all kinds of yummy food, working out like crazy, writing their novel and all this stuff. 

And really, for most of us, I think you look at that and you’re like, “Oh my God, I’m not doing it right. I feel bad about myself.” And I’ve had days where I do all sorts of things for self-improvement and filling my day with things. And then, I had a lot of these where I’ve done nothing but kind of lay on the couch and watch TV and feel bad. 

And I think you just need to take it day-by-day and not feel pressured to, like, baked ten loaves of salad or bread this week. Unless something is really going to make you happy and feel good,  don’t do it. You don’t need to feel that kind of pressure. But I do think like some sort of self-care is Important and that can be anything from binging reality TV to doing a really intense workout. It could be anything.

But, for me, it has been a lot of home workouts and I’ve never been a home workout person but I got this app called Alo Moves and it’s great. They have all kinds of home workout classes primarily yoga, but they also have hits, bars, and tons of other stuff. And their yoga classes have been really like a lifesaver for me during this time. Like giving me both exercise and some sort of, like, spiritual element. 

And, yeah, that’s the one thing I have been trying to do everyday even on days when I’m feeling, like, really bad. After watching TV I’ll try and do, at least, half an hour of yoga and it helps me. 

Debbie:

I definitely agree with that. I have found that when Aaron and I don’t work out for even just two days, we start going crazy. We start arguing with each other, like, things just start going into a spiral. And you get in a really bad mood and it turns into a really low mood. 

So, we figured that out and now we tried to do our workouts and set a routine. It’s like we wake up, we go do a workout, and then eat breakfast. It really helps with your mood especially during this time when we can’t really do much.

And just a few things like that:home workouts, a quick walk, or run if you can’t do. It helps with your mood for sure. 

Joni:

It really does. Honestly, I don’t like to exercise. I’m never going to be one of those people who’s like, “Yes, can’t wait to get to the gym. Gonna get my workout on,” I’m not, I don’t like it. But I feel good afterward and I try to remember that feeling as I’m going through the discomfort of squatting and getting your heart rate up.

I don’t enjoy it but after it I feel good. And I definitely noticed a difference.  think the 2-day mark, if I don’t do it for two days that’s when things start to really feel downhill. 

Debbie:

I definitely agree with that and I don’t enjoy it either. I mean I run because I love cardio and its the easiest right now because of where I am like there’s nobody here, but we actually just ordered a punching bag and I love kickboxing.

Joni:

Debbie, you’re going to be a fighter after this. 

Debbie:

We actually love kickboxing. We’ve done it for a really long time. Like, I think, I stopped a few months ago and then, I’m like, “I need this. I need this so bad just to get aggression out ’cause they’re so much smoother.” Like even if we’re fighting, instead of getting at each other, we have the punching bag to do it. 

Joni:

Yes. I love it. I’ve even started jogging outside. I said my whole life I am not a runner, I hate it so much. And, in the past, I’ve tried and even said like, “Okay, I’m gonna run everyday for a month and then I’ll like it,” and I never do. But I started doing it again and I don’t hate it right now. 

And I think maybe it’s because it’s like the very few times a week that I got outside and I get to go see buildings and trees and things like that. But yeah, this period of time has definitely reminded me to make exercise a priority. 

And that’s something I really want to carry through even when life gets back to normal and my schedule gets busier. I really want to keep prioritizing my workout.

Debbie:

I also found that when I do work out, when we take that into our schedule and we prioritize it, I become so much more productive and I wanted you so much more. And I realized that, we both agree, it’s like a two-day mark. When I don’t work out for two days and I just get up and usually I go work out and, if I don’t do that, I just want to sit on my couch all day doing nothing and I just feel so horrible about myself.

And, I think, if we just do those little things, and obviously, we can’t work out all the time, those little things really matter right now. It’s all we have.

Joni:

They really do. That’s so true.

The other thing that really changed for me during quarantine is I’ve stopped sending an alarm to wake up. Like unless I have something very important early in the morning to do, I don’t set an alarm and I just wake up when I’m not fully going to wake up. And it gives me such a difference in my mood. 

I still wake up around the same time, like,  some days it’s 6:30, some days it’s 8:30. It really depends on how I slept and I have insomnia problems so I try and just let myself sleep. Prior to this, I would always set an alarm, depending on the day, maybe 7 or 8 o’clock, and I wake up so groggy. And now that I’m not putting an alarm on, I’m still getting up with plenty of time to start the day and feeling so much better in the morning.

Debbie:

I haven’t really done that either. We usually don’t set an alarm. Like when Aaron used to work at his day job, we would do that because he has to wake up. And now that he doesn’t, we, like you, wake up around the same time every single day without even an alarm clock. 

I mean, your body gets used to it. And I think we have an internal alarm clock unless you didn’t sleep well the night before and you just can’t get up but it’s awesome

Joni:

I’m not going back to an alarm. From now on, the only time I’m going to set an alarm is if I have a morning interview to do, a flight to catch, or something like that. Like I’m not doing it. I can start work at 7:30 or 9:30, like, it doesn’t matter, it’s gonna be okay.

Debbie:

Thank God for the little things.

So. Joni, are there any other tips that you can share with us as a freelancer, as a writer that we can take away from this? Obviously, there’s a lot of days we’re not productive.

Joni:

Yeah. Well, I think, there are going to be days when you’re not productive. Sometimes by choice, sometimes not. Some days are just nothing else to do ‘cause the work is slow. Finding other things that make you feel good during that day can help make the time go by. 

Yeah, I think, also have some sort of personal projects that you have in your mind to do if things get slow, that might be able to make you income later on. It’s a good time to pursue that kind of thing. 

So right now May looks really slow for me. I think and I hope that that will change over the next couple of weeks. But right now it’s a pretty slow looking month and I’ve been toying around with the idea of writing an ebook on how to be a freelance writer. 

So that might be a good time for me to start that project. It’s a good way to balance it out. If you have not a lot of money coming in but a lot of time and energy to work on something that could end up bringing in some more money down the road. 

So, I think, it’s a good time to really invest in yourself, invest in your business, and invest in those side projects that you’ve been wanting to do that you haven’t had time because you’ve been working on your business.

If things are slow, now is the time to do it. There’s nothing to lose by doing it now.

Debbie:

Absolutely.  we have a lot of time. Well, some of us do. I guess just swallowing our own self-pity.

Joni:

Yeah. And not to get discouraged if things are slow. It has nothing to do with you, you’re not a failure, it’s just a really unprecedented time and I think the worlds going to be a very different place when this is all over. But I think that you just need to keep working on it and also knowing when to stop. 

Have you done a few hours of good work today and nothing’s coming out of it? It’s okay to call it a day and come back to it tomorrow. It’s okay. 

Debbie:

Honestly, I don’t even know what day it is anymore. Sometimes I’m like, “Okay…”

Joni:

Yeah. Everyday I’m like, “What day it is again?”

Even the weekend’s feel the same in a way ’cause I’ll sometimes push work off till then and my boyfriend is still working on the weekends. So, Saturdays and Sundays sometimes still feel like a workday.

It’s a weird time but I think we all need to just be really, really gentle, and patient with ourselves and with others. 

Debbie:

Yeah, ’cause we got nowhere to go during the weekend either. So what are you going to do? 

Joni:

Yeah. Last weekend I made a lasagna for the first time. Like this was my activity for the weekend. 

Debbie:

That’s so awesome. 

All I do is do calls with my friends or family. Especially with my family, they’re cooking all of this food and I just watched them eat. It’s like my family’s mukbang and I’m like, “Why aren’t you here to cook this for me? This is not right.” 

Joni:

Do you know what we started doing? We found this company that makes, they call it, an Indian Tiffin and they basically will deliver, like, six different curries to my apartment once a week with all these nice Indian breads to go with it. And that has been such a pleasure during the week to just be eating Indian food all week long.

Debbie:

Oh my God. You’re making me crave Indian food now. Thanks a lot, Joni!

Joni:

I love it. You should definitely order.

Debbie:

We are  definitely, like, hang out when this is all over and I’m going to give you a big hug ’cause I’m just going to be hugging everybody. I don’t care if you’re a stranger, I know you.

Joni:

Your arms are gonna be so buff from kickboxing too.

Debbie:

It may hurt a little bit but you’re going to take it. 

Joni:

With that big and strong muscle you have.

Debbie:

Well, thank you so much, Joni, for sharing all of this was as. I really appreciate it. 

If our listeners want to know more about you or can they find you?

Joni:

You can go to my website JoniMSweet.com or check me out on Instagram” @jonisweet.

Debbie:

Perfect. Thank you so much, Joni. I am really looking forward to seeing you in person. Hopefully, sooner rather than later. 

Joni:

I hope so too and stay safe in Florida, I can’t wait to see you soon. 

Debbie:

Thank you, Joni. You too. 

Joni:

Okay.


Show Credits:

Audio Engineer: Ben Smith

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