Author: Sheila Ashdown

Freelancing and the Cult of Consistency

(This article on freelancing and the cult of consistency is part of our commitment to promote the works of the Copywriter Conclave of Portland’s writers and editors. It’s a timely topic by founding member Sheila Ashdown.)

I have a confession. I, Sheila Ashdown, have committed a grave sin.

What, you might ask. Did I steal a Snickers bar? Mug a Girl Scout? Murder someone?*


I’ve been—gasp—an inconsistent blogger.

**Law & Order music starts playing**

Cuff me. I’ve been bad.

Everything you read about writing—especially when it comes to blogging—shouts to the heavens about consistency. All the cool kids are publishing new content daily, or at least weekly, so they say.

And for years, I bought into it. I set myself ambitious blogging goals, which I literally never achieved one single time. I followed up these “failures” by feeling bad about myself and vowing to be and do better next time. Rinse and repeat a thousand times over.

Does this experience resonate with anyone else out there? I’m not crazy, am I?

The Trouble with Consistency

Now, I’m not calling for a blanket disavowal of consistency. I’m still going to floss my teeth every day and I hope you do too. What I’m calling for is a disavowal of the way that consistency is used to artificially force creative processes and create a false sense of urgency that results in sloppy work and psychic pain.

Problem #1: Consistency is usually defined in a painfully narrow way.

When business gurus tell us to be consistent, what they mean is to publish consistently. I’m all for showing up every day and working to achieve your writing goals, but there’s a heck of a lot more to the writing process than just hitting that publish button. And as far as I can tell, most people hit “publish” way too soon.

A while ago, I signed up to receive the daily blog feed of a Famous Business Guru (who I shall not name). He’s a bestselling author several times over, and he has a huge following. But when his blogs started rolling into my inbox, I was shocked by how dreadful they were.

Each blog was very short (a couple hundred words, max), and they were basically half-baked ideas and platitudes, delivered in cliched, uninspired language. They left me feeling like the author didn’t genuinely care about delivering a valuable piece of content; rather, he was just ticking the checkbox next to “Send out blog today” on the his to-do list.

Famous Business Guru may very well have some incredible ideas and insights. But maybe he’s a mere mortal, like the rest of us, who needs time to develop them. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather receive a well-developed, thoughtfully crafted post whenever he’s able to put one out, rather than a daily dose of “meh.”

Problem #2: Creativity is an inconsistent process.

Writing is not a linear process. We loop around between aha! moments, incubation, and active engagement with the writing.

We create in short bursts, and then we walk away for a few hours, days, or weeks to get some distance on it. Sometimes we’re not writing at all—we’re researching and taking notes instead. Or we’re out rolling in a field of clover or whatever, since, as much as we malign “laziness,” down time is an indispensable component of the creative process.

If we try to force an unruly process into a rigid timeline, we end up publishing something because it’s Wednesday, not because the piece is genuinely finished.

Problem #3: Consistency can be a mental trap. Just like “having it all” or achieving six-pack abs or flawless work-life balance, relentless consistency is a never-achievable ideal. What else in life is consistent? Everything in nature has cycles and fluctuations, and we as humans are part of nature. We’re not machines.

And so, even if you want to try for consistency—by all means, give it a whirl! Set up a reasonable publication schedule (emphasis on “reasonable”) and go for it. But I beg you to give yourself ample credit for the times you achieve it, and to please go easy on yourself when you fall short.

Otherwise, if consistency is held up as the most important metric for success, you’re going to feel like a failure next time you’re down with the flu for a week or you take a well-deserved vacation.

Let’s Redefine What It Means to Be Consistent  

Now, let me be clear—you’re not off the hook with your writing. 🙂 Giving up membership in the Cult of Consistency doesn’t mean we give ourselves a free pass for procrastination or perfectionism.

But here’s what I see: Writers who feel they “should” post daily or weekly are the ones who give up on their work. They’re demoralized by their inability to stick to a rigid and rigorous publishing schedule; this takes the joy out of writing, and they don’t want to do it anymore. That’s what happens when we set goals that are not realistic, and that are driven by outside values instead of inner values.

The solution? Ask yourself what a sustainable publication schedule looks like for you

Does it allow you ample time to research, incubate your ideas, draft, edit, roll in the clover, proofread, and then hit “publish”? Does it honor the priorities in your life and the natural rhythms and cycles of your personal creative process? Do you have a plan for how you’ll get back on track when you need to take a break?

Get clear on this, and you’ll create a writing schedule that supports your agenda, not the agenda of the leaders of the Cult of Consistency. After all, as Oscar Wilde said, “Consistency is the last refuge of the unimaginative.” Let go of those outside constructs and instead self-direct a sustainable and flexible way to create and share the work you’re so passionate about.


*For the record, I would absolutely not do any of those things.

Writers, Don’t Worry about Creative Theft

(This blog post is part of our occasional series highlighting the websites of CC:PDX‘s members. If you’d like to see the original version of this article, please click here.)

Some writers live in fear of plagiarism. They worry they’ll put heart and soul into developing a book concept, and then some thief will come along and run away with it. For some writers, this fear is so powerful, they won’t even tell you what their book is about, much less let you actually read it.

I was listening to my favorite podcast the other day (from Seanwes, hosted by creative entrepreneurs Sean McCabe and Ben Toalson). It was titled “Nailing Your Product Launch the First Time,” and they address this very topic. Sean recommends marketing your product (in our case, books) six months to a year ahead of release. Some authors would balk at this, thinking, “But if I tell people what I’m doing BEFORE the book is launched, someone could steal my idea and get the book out ahead of me!”

Yes, this would be terrible. Creative theft is real. Plagiarists are definitely out there.

But as Sean says in his podcast (and I paraphrase here): You shouldn’t worry about people stealing your work. You should worry about getting them to care at all.

I know. It’s harsh.

But the truth is, early on in your career as an author, no one cares about your book as much as you do. No matter how great your idea is, your prospective readers are overwhelmed and overstimulated; it takes consistent effort to be heard above the racket. That’s why your prospective readers need multiple marketing “touches.” It takes time to get people to even notice what you’re doing, and even more time to get them to understand it, be excited about it, and then be willing to lay down money for it. This has nothing to do with the quality of your book. It’s just the natural progression of the sales funnel:

creative theft

[Adorable illustration provided by Ryan M. Weisgerber]

So, the way this plays out in the mind of your prospective reader:

Awareness: “Oh, so-and-so published a book.”

Interest: “Huh, that actually looks kinda interesting.”

Desire: “Man, I really want to read that!”

Action: “Okay, I just bought it.” (And then, of course, they read it cover-to-cover.)

Advocacy: “Oh my God, I need to tell everyone how awesome this book is!”

This funneling can take minutes, or it can take years. Think about yourself—I’m sure you’ve made a spontaneous purchase of something the moment you discovered it; and I’m sure you’ve circled around a purchase for months or even years before you bit the bullet and did it. It has little to do with the quality of the product and more to do with the buyer’s perceptions and decision-making process.

However, if you’re so fearful of having your idea stolen that you refuse to engage in any marketing or audience-building prior to publication, you’ll find yourself in the disappointing position of having your gorgeous book ready to go on publication day—aaaand . . . your prospective readers are totally unaware of it, or are just barely aware. Maybe they’ll eventually be ready to commit to buying and reading it, but . . . just not yet. This creates a disappointing mismatch: you’re excited (and probably exhausted) because it’s FINALLY publication day, and then your announcements are met with the sound of crickets. Nothing sinks an author’s motivation quicker than feeling like nobody cares about their work.

You’re in a Catch-22, my friends. If you keep your ideas close to your chest, they won’t be stolen. But at the same time, by keeping your ideas “safe,” you rob your readers of the opportunity to enjoy them.

Also, while you likely already know this, I think it bears repeating: an idea is not a book. You, me, and ten other people could write a book about the same idea, and yet the results would be wildly different. Your book isn’t just an idea. It’s the execution—the finished product that expresses your wholly unique, un-stealable perspective and voice.


[Check out Sean & Ben’s podcast: “Nailing Your Product Launch the First Time”]

How to Find Your Niche as a Freelance Writer

Three years ago, I thought becoming a freelancer was the most terrifying and gutsy career choice I’d likely ever make. I’d just been laid off from the marketing department at Powell’s Books, and my severance and unemployment benefits gave me a six-month window to either get a business off the ground or become…I don’t know, homeless? I tried not to get too hung up on the many things that could go wrong.

So, I went for it. I put myself out there as a writer and editor and took any gig that came my way. I was all over the place, writing and editing any type of marketing material or book manuscript for any client in any industry. I was not choosy—I was like a raccoon in a dumpster. If raccoons rootled around in dumpsters full of writing projects…?

Anyway, I was making it! Mostly. I was paying my bills at least, which seemed like a feat.

But There Were Two Problems.

Problem #1:
Holy shit, was I spread thin. Because I was taking on “any” writing project for “any” type of client, I felt like I was constantly back at square one—learning new industries, figuring out scope and cost for radically different types of projects; juggling the varying levels of intensity inherent in different projects and clients. My tasks were so different and varied that I could find no way to templatize or replicate any of my business processes or services.

Plus, it was hard to be constantly switching gears—here I’m copyediting a self-help book. Now I’m out schmoozing at a networking event. Next I’m consulting, or writing web content. People wanted me to write their resumes. Or tutor their kids in English. And as a result, my brain was fried, my thinking fragmented. After two years, I felt like I was becoming a “Jill of all trades and a master of none”—which then led to me guiltily asking myself, “Do I have any business putting myself out there as a specialist when really I feel like…a dabbler?”

Problem #2:
I was doing too much work I didn’t love. Being a freelancer is challenging on a lot of levels, but one of the big selling points is that you get to choose your gigs. Yay, choice! But by saying yes to everything, I found myself working on projects that I wasn’t passionate about. Why?? If I was just going to take a bunch of marketing projects I didn’t love, then why not just get a full-time job and take home a sweet salary? Yes, I’d made some major lifestyle gains as a freelancer—no alarm clock! No boss! No pants! But those gains paled in comparison to the dread and boredom I felt working on…well, dreadful and boring projects.

ENOUGH. Time to Find a Niche.

So, what is a niche, anyway? I think you can break it out in at least three different ways:
1) a particular industry,
2) a particular type of writing project, or
3) a particular type of client.

For example, “I only work on projects for the sportswear industry,” or “I only write white papers,” or “I only work with creative agencies.” (And if the word “only” sounds limiting, I invite you to shift your perspective; while it does mean that you’ve narrowed the breadth of your work, there’s no limit to the depth you can achieve.)

So, How to Find Your Niche? Read on, yo.

Step 1:
Identify your strengths and passions. If you’ve been freelancing for a while, think back to the standout projects that really felt good. Why did they feel good? Ideally, these are the projects that fulfill an emotional need—whether that’s to be creative or challenged, or to work for a cause that’s close to your heart. But they must also be the projects that fulfill your bank account. If you’re to successfully find your niche, you must walk the fine line between following your heart and accepting the fact that you’re still bitch to the almighty dollar.

For me, my niche is books, specifically personal development and fiction titles. I’ve been a lifelong bookworm, so this is a natural fit for me. When I’m writing or editing a book or coaching an author, I feel like I’m in my power zone: I’m confident that I know what I’m doing, that I’m charging high enough rates to support myself, and that there’s honest-to-God true value for my client. Frequently when I’m working with an author or a manuscript, I have a surreal moment where I think, “Wow, I get paid to do this. This is my job.” Mind blown. If you have moments like that, pay attention to them—they’ll help you hone in on your niche.

Step 2:
Tell people about your new niche. Seriously, tell everyone—friends, family, fellow writers, networking partners. Shout it from the rooftops of Facebook! Rewrite your own marketing content. The more specific you are, and the more widely you spread the news, the more quickly people will think of YOU for that particular type of project.

Step 3:
Identify referral partners to whom you can pass along the non-niche work. When you find your niche, you find yourself saying “no” more frequently. This can be a bummer. But, honestly, this is a great opportunity to be giving. Luckily for me, I have a great community of writers who all have their areas of strength. So when someone approaches me with a project outside of my niche, I have a simple script: “I mainly work on book projects these days, but you should totally talk to so-and-so. They do fantastic work.” This is an all-around win. I don’t have to say “no,” I help my writer buddies find work, and I’ve told the client what types of work I DO want, so hopefully they’ll think of me when it comes up.

Step 4:
Stay strong! Transitions suck. My first year in my niche was…rough. It was both terrifying and exhilarating to refer away potential clients to my writer buddies. And there were definitely times when I felt like I’d exhausted my network and was wracking my brain to figure out where to find my next book client. Sometimes I despaired over my decision and regretted rewriting all my marketing copy. But I had some major wins, too—I contracted with Timber Press to co-write Mosaic Garden Projects, and a local business consultant hired me to co-write her book, Project Sponsorship. It took a little over a year before I felt really solid in my niche, but I’m glad I stayed strong.

Step 5: Rake in the millions. Admittedly, I’m still waiting for this part. I’ll update this post when it happens. Stay tuned. 🙂