No Work? No Worries. 8 Ways to Use Downtime to Boost Your Freelance Writing Business

By Lisa Evans

It happens to all of us: The ebb and flow of freelance work means there are times when we have lots of assignments on our plates and times when our inbox is empty. Sometimes it can seem as though your email is broken. Refresh, refresh … still nothing?

For me, those slow times usually occur around the Christmas holidays. With editors on vacation, there’s no one to pitch to and it takes three times as long to get a response.

While slow periods may seem like your worst nightmare — a detriment to your business success — there are many ways to use them to your advantage. Here are some of my favourite strategies for turning downtime into cashtime.

1. Research Editorial Calendars and Plan Ahead

Most publications have editorial calendars outlining the themes that each month’s issue will cover. Matching your query to a theme on the magazine’s calendar will not only show the editor you’ve done your research but will make it that much easier for them to accept your idea. Most publications include their editorial calendars in media kits — packages given to potential advertisers. Use your downtime to research editorial calendars and plan your pitches for the upcoming months.

2. Start a Blog or Website

If you’ve always wanted to start a blog or set up a website, but haven’t had the time, this is your chance. Use your downtime to plan your website’s content or write a month or two worth of blog posts and save them for busy times when you aren’t able to update on a regular basis. Blogging is also a great way to keep up your writing skills.

3. Create a Marketing Plan

We all know how important marketing is to our freelance success, right? Use downtime to plan your marketing strategy. Decide which publications you will target each month, which conferences or writing events you will attend during the year, and set a monthly or yearly sales goal for yourself.

Now is the time to design and print business cards or to make a template letter of introduction. If you don’t already have a system for keeping track of queries, consider setting one up. Mine is a simple excel spreadsheet where I record the date I send each query, follow up dates and notes from editors.

4. Sign Up for Online Courses

Use your downtime to learn the tricks of the trade and improve your skill set. Online courses provide a channel for you to meet other writers, learn from experienced professionals, stimulate your brain and add to your writing repertoire. Linda Formichelli’s Write for Magazines course is a great place to start. (Subscribe to Linda’s email list to get an announcement when the next session is set.)

Is there a type of writing you’d like to break into? Whether it’s medical writing, corporate writing or personal essay writing, there’s a course on it. Seek training in an area that will allow you to add a new revenue stream to your business. If you’re a lifestyle freelance writer, like me, try taking a course in writing white papers, for example — an area where you can land better-paying clients and expand your services and expertise.

5. Research New Markets

Hit the magazine stands and research new markets. I like to take my downtime to read through and analyze magazines I’ve never heard of or never written for. Make a list of the type of articles that appear in the publication and brainstorm ideas.

Have a query letter lying around without a home? Check to see if it fits in any of these publications. I had an idea on how to get flawless wedding day skin that I’d been pitching for nearly a year to various wedding publications before stumbling upon a bridal magazine I’d never heard of. I pitched the idea and within a week had a response. They liked it. Sold — thanks to downtime.

6. Plan Informational Interviews

Informational interviews are a great way for you to pick the brains of writers whose work you admire. Most people are more than happy to be treated to a coffee and have an opportunity to talk about themselves for a half hour. Introduce yourself, say you’re a freelance writer starting out in the business and you’d like to talk shop with them. Joining a writing association can be a great gateway to meeting experienced writers.

7. Write for Online Markets

Need some fast cash during your slow days? Online markets are often in need of copy, as they update on a daily or weekly basis and can be a great way to keep yourself busy writing and keep your pocketbook full.

8. Get Out!

Don’t let the slow times drag you down. There’s no sense chaining yourself to a desk grovelling for work that just isn’t there. Get off your butt and have experiences you can write about later.

Is there a new restaurant you’ve been dying to try? A dog-sledding adventure you’ve been waiting to take? A new exercise class that intrigues you? Now’s the time. You never know what ideas might pop into your head while savouring a local delicacy, freezing your butt off or wiping the sweat from your brow.

Lisa Evans is a health, lifestyle and travel freelance writer. Her work has appeared in Alive, Canadian Living,, Experience Life, The Globe and Mail, Longevity, The Toronto Star, The Sun and What’s Up Families. Visit her at her website.

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11 comments… add one
  • Some great tips, Lisa! Definitely a great place to start when it comes to productively filling those “famine” times in this feast or famine freelance writing career.

    Learning and marketing are the two best things writers can do in their downtime, hands down. In all reality, we should spend about 25% of our time learning, 25% of it marketing and only 50% of it actually writing. It’s the only way to move forward as a writer, especially in an online environment.

    By learning, I mean, reading blogs and ebooks, taking courses, listening to podcasts and watching videos. All of these things work together to keep you educated and current in an ever-changing online society.

    Marketing encompasses a slew of things, too. It’s social media, PPC ads, blogging, writing for outlets, creating YouTube videos, and so much more. You’ve gotta get your name out there and in front of the right people. As a freelancer, this means finding niche communities that your market frequents, not your peers.

    x. Chels

  • Hi Chels,

    Thanks for the tips. Someone once told me, you should spend 75 percent of your time planning and 25 percent of your time executing. While you may not agree with the percentages (if I only spent 25 percent of my time writing, I would find it hard to pay the bills!), but I agree with the general concept.

  • Hi Lisa,
    Thank you for these helpul suggestions. It’s good to have a list like this to refer back too, and to keep busy. I’ll work on some of these things this week.

  • Excellent list! Especially #8 (which I tend to struggle with).

    I also find it helpful to do an audit of my website, blog and overall marketing efforts. Find out what’s working, what need improvement and what’s a waste of my time. It makes it easier to outline next steps and come up with marketing plans.

  • Some great ideas in this article.

    I have relatives staying with me at the moment so full-on work is a bit difficult. I deliberately gave myself a bit of a slow time for paying work as I knew I wouldn’t have a lot of free time, but I am using this as a bit of down time but also to plan out my editorial calendar for my blogs. This is the first time I’ve tried using a calendar so I’m interested to see how it will make a difference.

    • Arwen – editorial calendars are my saving grace. I got so frustrated when I kept receiving “we just assigned a story on this to someone” or “we’ve got something about this topic in the works” – and when I looked at the editorial calendar I realized if I had only sent that query a month prior, the assignment could have been mine. Now, editorial calendars are the first place I look.

  • Great information. I like to keep a journal detailing who I have sent LOI’s to. It helps me to stay more accountable when I can see on paper how hard I am going after assignments.

    • I used to do the same thing, but it was to remember to do follow-ups…it never occurred to me to use the list to boost my morale! Nice one!

  • Lisa

    I do the same thing – I keep an excel spreadsheet of all queries and LOIs and colour code it. Red for rejections, green for acceptances, orange for completed and waiting for payment and yellow for paid. The more green, orange and yellow I see in my spreadsheet, the better I feel. Sometimes if I’m feeling down, I’ll go to a really bright section of the spreadsheet (hopefully one that doesn’t have any red) to get a bit of a self-confidence boost.

  • Hi Lisa

    Thank you very much for the list of ideas – found them at the right time (meaning the beginning of my ‘down time’). Excellent collection! One more thing I add to my list is reflecting on the work done (in a more systematic way than during or right after the project) To me this gives a sense of perspective and shows a bigger picture (sometimes prompting a new line of work)
    Have a good pre-holiday season.

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