Freelance Writing Tips for Parents

by Loolwa Khazzoom • November 28, 2010 • Writing and Editing Tips

Freelance writing has many advantages for parents. Most significantly, you can set your own hours and stay at home with your kids (or, you know, take them out for a spontaneous romp in the woods). A few years ago, I interviewed Meagan Francis — mother of four boys, author of two books, and writer of many mainstream articles. She not only knows how to pay the bills, but also how to turn her family life into writing material. In this conversation, she shows us how it’s done:

How old are your four sons?
9, 7, 3, and 1

How many years have you been a freelance writer?
I’ve been freelancing since 2002, seriously since 2003, and full-time since 2004.

How and why did you get into freelancing?
I’d always loved writing, and always thought it would be cool to see my own byline in a magazine. But I didn’t realize that a woman with kids — without a journalism degree, living in the middle of Michigan — could do that. In the late ‘90s I started taking a closer look at those bylines and trying to figure out how the names I saw again and again had gotten to that point.

In 2002 I sold my first story to Child magazine, and knew that writing was what I wanted to do. The trouble was that I was working a full-time job, so it was hard to do all the pitching and followup. Then in 2003, I became pregnant with baby #3. Eager to stay home with him, I worked my tail off on getting queries out — late at night, whenever I could make it fit.

After my son was born, I returned to work half-time, then gradually reduced my hours. I never went back to working full-time in an office. By the time baby #4 was crawling around, I was supporting my entire family on freelancing alone.

How doable is a freelance career for parents?
Once I started consistently landing assignments with well-paying magazines, I realized that I could make far better money working fewer, more flexible hours as a freelancer than I could working in an office. I just had to be smart and diligent about it.

There is this image out there that all freelancers are starving, and that’s just not true. It may be hard to get rich unless you’re writing bestselling books or working your rear off at top-notch, high-paying publications, but plenty of freelancers I know — many with kids — are making a nice, respectable living working flexible hours. That’s not to say it’s always a family-friendly gig! There are times I don’t plan my workload well, or I’m am hit with a last-minute deadline — and end up working through dinner or staying up too late to finish a story. But it’s far, far more often that I can put work aside for the afternoon so I can bake cookies with my kids or take them to the park.

Now that I’ve been doing this for a few years, I’m not sure I would go back to an office where I’d be required to be there 9-5 day-in and day-out. At least not until my kids are older and need me less during the day.

What are some advantages to being a freelance writer and a mom?
Advantages: flexibility and availability. I do use some child-care, but there are also times I just write on my laptop in bed late at night or early in the morning before everyone gets up, or while snuggling with my little ones during Blue’s Clues.

The challenges, of course, are writing around your kids’ needs and schedules. It really takes some time before you can anticipate how their needs and routines will either allow or not allow you to write. I have gotten really good at seizing opportunity when it arises: I know that at some point while my big three kids are at school, my littlest is going to take a nap. So I try to be ready. I very rarely use nap time for housework. I can vacuum with the baby on my hip if I have to, but it’s a lot harder to write an article while the kids are awake.

So I do the dishes, fold laundry, or whatever, until my one-year-old starts to look sleepy. Then I get my laptop and notes together and put him to sleep. Whether that takes five minutes or thirty minutes, I’m already thinking ahead to “work mode” and planning what I’ll do when he zonks. When he finally falls asleep, I jump to the computer and write for the duration of the nap. Voila! I’ve just scored ninety minutes to two hours of quiet work time.

How do you combine your passion for writing with your passion for being a mom?
That’s one of the best things about being a writer! I’ve learned so much and met so many other interesting parents and experts. For example, recently my seven-year-old son got a big bump on his head, and my husband was freaking out a little and wanted to bring him to the ER. But I recalled an article I’d written for American Baby about emergency first aid, and what the experts said to look out for in case of a head injury (nausea, eyes not dilating, sleepiness…) My son wasn’t experiencing any of those symptoms, so I knew it would be OK to keep an eye on him instead of rushing him to the hospital. I’m sure I saved us many miserable hours sitting in an ER that evening.

As an experienced mom who worked in a birth center for five years, I’ve often found myself in the position of mentoring new parents as they make the transition to motherhood; and I have always found it very rewarding. Writing about parenting/motherhood issues has allowed me to tap into that passion. It’s nice to think I might be helping a larger group of moms than I could reach face-to-face. And, of course, being a mom provides excellent fodder for articles. I try to pay attention to what my kids are doing and thinking about, and what moms around me are talking about, thinking about, and worrying about. That’s where the best story ideas come from.

Even when I’ve worked for non-parenting publications, having kids has given me ideas and insights I wouldn’t otherwise have had. For instance, I recently published a story on a communication technique called non-violent communication (NVC) in the workplace, for Yoga Journal. I originally learned about NVC from a mother in an internet parenting community — which led me to look into it more closely and gave me the idea for presenting it as a workplace topic. 

What role does your husband have in all this?
My husband is very helpful and supportive, but I have had to assert my needs along the way. I think at first he wasn’t sure whether he should look at my writing as a real career path or a time-consuming hobby. But it’s very important for writing parents to get their partners on board. They really need to take your career as seriously as you do, or you’ll be forever feeling guilty about asking them to take the kids so you can work. 

Think of it this way: Would you feel guilty if your partner asked you to watch the kids so he/she could go to a business meeting? Chances are they wouldn’t even ask. They’d just assume you’d be available, since they had to go to a work function. Freelancing is the same: Everybody in the family has to give your career respect, or making it work will be way more stressful and difficult.

After my fourth son was born, we decided my husband would stay home for a while, so that I could kick freelancing up a notch. It was great in some ways: I attended two writer’s conferences (with husband and baby in tow), landed two book deals, and broke into a bunch of magazines. I had by far my best year financially, and we did all right. But I won’t underestimate the stress we were under when a magazine lost my invoice and didn’t pay me on time, or when the stream of assignments slowed to a trickle. We did make it work for over a year, but if I had it to do over again I would have been more careful about budgeting and saving during the gravy times, in preparation for the lean times.

Of course, I’d been freelancing for a few years by that point, and had established some good relationships at magazines. If you’re starting from scratch, it’ll take a while to start getting a reasonable number of “yes” replies in response to those submissions and queries. And it will take even longer to actually get paid for those replies: You could pitch a story in April, get a response in May with a July deadline, hear back in August with edits, get the story accepted in September and not receive a check until October or November. You have to be prepared for that kind of delay.

How much is your success as a freelancer attributed to having a partner to help out?
Having a partner helps, definitely. But I do know single parents who are also successful freelancers, so it can be done. I imagine some of the biggest issues are the same as for any working, single parent: burnout due to not having a partner to help shoulder the physical and emotional load of day-to-day parenting. But then there’s that other layer, which is that freelancing income often is sporadic. If you don’t have a second income, you’ll have to plan really carefully for lean times.

On the other hand, single moms who share custody might actually have a bit of an advantage, in that they’ll have a block of time every week that they are guaranteed to be able to work. And when there’s only one adult in the house, it makes it easier to budget/control where money is going. That’s really important in those first few years freelancing — to build up that aforementioned cushion to ride you through the lean times!

I also think that single moms can be especially determined, especially if they are trying to pull themselves and their children up out of a tight financial spot. That can give them a bit of an edge that a married person whose partner makes lots of money might not have. When it comes to freelancing persistence and success, hunger counts for a lot.

You have published in top magazines that pay well. How did you build yourself up to that level?
I started off pitching national magazines, but also paid lots of dues at the regional level. I think if you have a great idea and can execute it well, why not try your dream publication? Just keep in mind that when you don’t have a lot of clips, you might have a much harder time attracting an editor’s attention, so it also makes sense to work with local magazines and smaller publications that are more eager to work with new writers.

Before you pitch a national magazine, make sure you’re really ready. There can be a steep learning curve when you’re just getting a feel for how to put a magazine story together, or how to interact with your editor, or how the editing process goes. If you don’t know how to find experts or attribute quotes to sources, or how to work with a fact-checker, you aren’t doing yourself any favors by pitching a feature to Ladies Home Journal. Even if you do land the story, it could very well end up being an incredibly stressful experience! 

How did you put together your column on parenting?
I had been reading my local lifestyle weekly and noticed that there was not much content that appealed directly to the 20-30-something parent. I had an idea for a weekly column where I could spout off my opinions on everything having to do with modern parenthood, so I sent a catchy and funny note to the editor. He was intrigued and asked me to come into his office with a list of ideas and three or four samples. I brought in six samples and a list of 26 ideas. He agreed to run the column for six weeks on a trial basis. Following “overwhelming support,” he decided to keep it going. That was three years ago. The column runs in my local weekly lifestyle paper. 

What advice do you have for parents who are aspiring freelancers?
If you can’t find time, make it! So many new and aspiring writers say they don’t have time to write, but watch hours of TV every day, or waste lots of time on message boards or checking e-mail. (I know from experience!) Especially at the beginning, you may have to lower your standards –fewer home-cooked meals, for example — and use every second you can. Set your laptop up on the kitchen counter and take five minutes here and there to work on a query. Target six to eight publications you want to establish relationships with, instead of scattershot querying all over the place. The more diluted your efforts, the longer it might take to see results. 

Decide early on what your personal and career goals are, and make sure that whatever you’re doing during the day feeds either a personal or career goal.  If you have another job, or very little free time, you’ll either have to let something go or hire or otherwise enlist help (child care, cleaning). Instead of listening to people who talk about how difficult/impossible freelancing is, pay attention to what other successful writers are doing. Before you listen to somebody’s opinion about freelancing or take their advice, make sure it’s somebody whose career you’d like to emulate!

Most importantly don’t under-value your work or talent just because you’re juggling writing and parenthood. Believe that you are a professional and other people–editors, sources, and other writers–will believe it too.

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About Loolwa

Loolwa KhazzoomLoolwa Khazzoom has worked with leading media outlets, including The New York Times, CNN, Rolling Stone, and ABC News. In addition, she has published two books and has lectured at prestigious venues including Barnard Center for Research on Women, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Harvard University. Loolwa is passionate about health, music, dance, multiculturalism, and Judaism.

Holistic Media, Marketing, PR

Loolwa Khazzoom is a a public relations manager specializing in holistic media, holistic marketing, holistic public relations, and holistic promotions. Her services include branding and messaging development, image and communications management, website content development and optimization, social media management, traditional media campaign management, book development, and in-house writing and editing.

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