Laura Poole—Breaking the feast-or-famine cycle (Beyond the Red Pencil, 2015)

Laura Poole, owner of Archer Editorial Services, co-owner of, and author of Juggling on a High Wire: The Art of Work-Life Balance When You’re Self-Employed, offered some tips at Beyond the Red Pencil on how to break the unsustainable cycle of feast and famine that many freelancers fall into. The adrenaline and cortisol from the stress of stacked deadlines and too much work isn’t healthy, nor is the panic of not knowing where and when you’ll get your next paycheque. Poole suggested not only strategies to cope with feast and famine but also some changes in your thinking and your business practices.


Sometimes feasts are seasonal, and you can plan for them if you start paying attention to patterns in your work. If you know you’ll be busy at particular times of the month or year, plan ahead. Keep your schedule open during those times and arrange for support (subcontractors, referrals, childcare, etc.) if you think you’ll need it.

When a feast is unexpected—whether it’s because deadlines slipped and piled up or your projects ended up being more work than you’d planned—triage your schedule: what can you delete, defer, or delegate?

When you just have to buckle down and get to work, make sure to support your body to stay strong and healthy.

After the feast, take time to learn from the experience. As yourself:

  • How did I get so overworked? (Don’t ask why—you’re not trying to shame or blame.)
  • What happened that was beyond my control?
  • What did it cost me to finish this work?
  • What choices did I make that affected the workload?


Seasonal patterns may also help you predict periods of famine, and you can take advantage of the quiet stretches to go on vacation or stock the freezer with meals. Downtime, said Poole, can be a good opportunity to

  • rest and recharge,
  • build your professional presence,
  • network, and
  • build your business for the long term.

Use the lull to tackle those tasks you’d pushed to the back burner, like updating your website and online profile. Could be doing something to give your business a passive source of income, like developing a course or writing a book? Use these quiet times to make your business more sustainable.

Mindset changes

Poole suggests always thinking two weeks ahead: figure out which projects are ending, and start drumming up work before you need it. But resist the temptation during periods of famine to email all of your clients for work!

Start thinking bigger: what do you want to be doing? Start doing the groundwork now to get yourself there, go after better-paying work, and diversify your client base. Poole warns against relying on only one or two clients for your income: “If you have one client, you aren’t an independent contractor. You’re a dependent contractor,” she said. “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”

Start saying no. “You don’t have to accept everything,” said Poole. “Freelancers say yes because yes means a paycheque. It’s really hard to say no.” But ask yourself, “If I say yes to this, what else am I saying yes to? What am I saying no to?” If you can’t say hell yes, do you really want the job?

“If you can learn to say no,” said Poole, “it will make your yeses more meaningful.” You don’t have to give an excuse for turning down work. “No is a complete sentence.”

That said, clients appreciate referrals to skilled colleagues—a good reason to build your network. And don’t be afraid to be bold: if you ask clients for what you want and need, whether it’s flexibility in the schedule or more money, you can turn some of those noes into yeses.”

Business practices

Some key changes to your business can ease the cycle:

  • Be proactive about communicating your schedule with your clients. “Your business is only open if your mouth is open.” said Poole. Contacting your clients keeps you top of mind.
  • Review your schedule and look for trends in cyclical work that you can plan for.
  • Find new clients—those who can offer you steadier work, more pay, or more projects that interest you. Weed out the clients who aren’t serving you.
  • Get to know your colleagues in your network. Can you work together and help each other build your businesses? Be willing to refer, and you’ll get the same in return.
  • Raise your rates—a good way to get rid of low-paying clients and to make more money in less time. “Your work is valuable!” said Poole. “You should be paid what you’re worth! And you shouldn’t apologize for your rate.”
  • Develop streams of passive income, where you do the work once but continue to get paid. Speaking, teaching, and writing and are some ways to use your skills and expertise for a steadier source of income while building your professional network.

Steven Pinker—The thinking person’s approach to writing in the 21st century (Beyond the Red Pencil, 2015)

Experimental psycholinguist and author Steven Pinker gave the opening keynote at Beyond the Red Pencil, the Northwest Independent Editors Guild’s fifth biennial conference. His talk covered the same territory as his book The Sense of Style (which I reviewed earlier), but I still very much enjoyed hearing him speak in person.

Why is so much writing so bad, he asked, and how can we make it better?

One common theory is that bad writing is a deliberate choice by bureaucrats who use gibberish to evade responsibility or by pseudo-intellectuals who want to hide the fact that they have nothing to say. But good people can write bad prose, said Pinker. Another theory suggests that digital media are ruining the language, because we can all recall that in the 1980s, Pinker quipped, “teenagers spoke in coherent paragraphs.”

A better theory is that whereas speaking comes naturally to us, writing doesn’t. “Writing is and always has been hard,” said Pinker. “Readers are unknown, invisible, inscrutable—and exist only in our imagination.”

What can we do to improve writing, then? Some would suggest reading books like The Elements of Style, but among some good advice—such as using definite, concrete language and omitting needless words—is advice that is obsolete or downright baffling. “The problem with traditional style advice,” said Pinker, is that it’s an arbitrary list of do’s and don’ts based on the tastes and peeves of the authors.”

Instead, we should base our writing advice on the science and scholarship of modern grammatical theory, evidence-based dictionaries, cognitive science, and usage. Pinker made a case for classic style, which uses “prose as a window onto the world.” Reader and writer are equals, and the goal of the writer is to help the reader see objective realities. “The focus is on the thing being shown, not the activity of studying it,” said Pinker. The latter is a feature of self-conscious style that contributes to the verbosity and turgidity of academic and bureaucratic writing.

“Classic prose is about the world, not about the conceptual tools with which we understand the world,” said Pinker, who suggested avoiding metaconcepts and nominalizations. But he urges caution on the common advice to avoid the passive voice—especially since the advice itself often uses passive voice while condemning it. “The passive could not have survived in the English language for 1500 years if it did not serve a purpose,” said Pinker. English sentences rely on word order to convey both grammatical information and content. We expect material early in the sentence to name the topic (what the reader is looking at) and later in the sentence to show the focal point (what the reader should notice). “Prose that violates these principles feels choppy and incoherent.”

So “avoid the passive” is bad advice. But why is it so common in bad writing? “Good writers narrate a story, advanced by protagonists who make things happen,” said Pinker, whereas “bad writers work backwards from their own knowledge.

Too much knowledge can be a curse: “When you know something, it’s hard to imagine what it is like for someone else not to know it.” It’s this curse of knowledge that leads to opaque writing. The traditional advice to solve this problem is to assume a reader is looking over your shoulder at what you write. “The problem with the traditional solution is that we’re not very good at guessing what’s in people’s heads just by trying hard,” said Pinker. A better approach is to show your draft to a representative reader, or “show a draft to yourself after some time has passed and it’s no longer familiar.” Rewrite several times with the single goal of making prose more accessible to the reader.

Another battleground in writing are rules of usage, but Pinker said that the “prescriptivist versus descriptivist” paradigm is a false dichotomy. Rules of usage aren’t logical truths and are not officially regulated by dictionaries, he said. They are tacit, evolving conventions. “Many supposed rules of usage violate the grammatical logic of English, are routinely flouted by the best writers, and have always been flouted by the best writers. Obeying bogus rules can make prose worse.”

How does the writer or editor distinguish real usage from those bogus rules? “Look them up!” said Pinker. “Modern dictionaries and usage manuals do not ratify pet peeves,” he said. “Their usage advice is based on evidence.”

In any case, Pinker said, “correct usage is the least important part of good writing,” compared with a conversational classical style, a coherent ordering of ideas, factual accuracy, and sound argumentation.