How to Create a Lean, Focused Writing Business

More is more – that’s often the philosophy when you first start freelancing. You want more money so you want more clients and more work. That might work well in the short term, but in the medium to long term it’s a recipe for burnout. Even worse, you might fall out of love with the same business that you were excited to start. The only way to avoid that fate is to turn your business into a lean, mean writing machine – and that means trimming the fat to focus on doing what you love best.

How to Create a Lean, Focused Writing Business

Trim Your Service Offerings

Let’s start with your list of services. There’s a weird kind of accordion thing that happens when you own an online business. I’m talking about the gradual expansion of your service offerings. I speak from my own experience here. Although I have a background in journalism which has recently come into its own again, when I started freelancing online, I wrote search engine optimized articles for websites. Then I added ebooks, then I added press releases, then I added … you see where this is going. I love being a generalist, but sometimes offering too many services and trying to do them all will drain your energy.

For example, I discovered when working with a client that I love interacting on social media on my own account but don’t like doing it for others, especially if they refuse to get involved. The answer was to take that service off the list of available offerings and gradually phase it out. The way I did it was to find an alternative service provider – someone who really got a kick out of providing that service.

Another example: I sometimes write resumes, and I’m pretty good at it too, but after spending about 9 months honing my skills, I realized I didn’t want that to be a full time job. I still do them occasionally just to keep my hand in, but it’s not a major part of my business.

Trimming your services list is the lean bit but on the flip side of that, I love to blog so every chance I get I tell people I’m a professional blogger, explain what well written content can do for them and showcase some of my work. That’s the focused bit.

Trim Your Client List

It’s also a good idea to trim your client list, but not too far. You don’t want to be a one-client wonder – that’s really not good for business, but you don’t want so many clients that you can’t keep them all straight. Although I haven’t quite achieved it yet, I’d like to divide my time like this: 80% for clients and 20% for me, with that 80% split among 4-6 big clients but with enough room for interesting one-off projects from time to time.

So how do you decide which clients go and which ones stay? Obviously, you have to take a hard headed business decision based on income but that’s only part of it. It’s worth thinking about how you feel about working with that client. A client that is easy to work with who pays a little less might be a better fit than the big bucks client who is very particular.

You can also trim your client list by gradually withdrawing from offering a particular service. Again, it’s a good idea to help your client out by finding your own replacement. That keeps your client happy and also lets you help someone else.

And finally, there are the clients you get rid of because they don’t pay up on time or have caused other issues you can’t live with.

Trim Your Marketing

Focusing your business is not just about your services and clients; it’s also about marketing and promotion. Trust me, if you try to be everywhere you will start to feel frazzled. We need to market, but we need to focus. Figure out where your potential clients are and go there. I’m going to repeat that (as much for myself as anyone). Figure out where your potential clients are and go there.

Now don’t get me wrong: I love hanging out with other writers (especially on the Five Buck Forum). And sometimes those writers send work my way (thanks; you know who you are 🙂 ). But most of my writing work comes from other sources. That means that as well as building your writing community and network, you also need to build your potential client community.

I’m currently experimenting with this on LinkedIn. Since I want businesses to hire me to write about the topics that interest me (social media, web tools, blogging, some techie stuff), I am in a couple of business groups and occasionally share my best stuff there. Identify where your prospects are and go and be social – naturally! (Have I mentioned Slow Marketing recently?)

Trim Your Working Hours

Finally, my ultimate goal is to achieve more in less time. In theory with the right mix of clients and services I should have more time to do some of the other things I want to do with my life. As I was writing this, I thought about the fact that even when the day doesn’t go according to plan and I have less time than I thought, I meet my deadlines. That means it must be possible to be even more efficient. I’m certainly going to try.

This post is part of the November Word Carnival. The topic is Letting go: How and What to Trim to Keep Your Business Lean and Focused. This month’s carnival will make the juggler want to go stand out in the cold; multitaskers – you’re on report!

Image: Thomas Hawk

About Sharon Hurley Hall

Sharon Hurley Hall has been mentoring writers here at Get Paid To Write Online since 2005 to help them improve and build sustainable and successful writing careers. Check me out on Feel free to connect with me online on Google+.


  1. I just read another article about what I would be doing in five years. If I currently write, would I be happy to do that five years down the line? This question resonates well with what you are saying. The answer to this, determines what part of my business I concentrate on, and what I will dump to the waste bin. Keep up the inspirational work.

  2. Although I run a travel biz, some of the stuff about choosing clients and specializing in certain services make sense for me too. and I LOVED the Slow Marketing link. Good post and good work 🙂

  3. I’m not sure who said this, but there’s a quote that goes something like this: “Focusing isn’t about saying yes to something. It’s about saying no to all the other things.” And saying no can be hard when you have SO many wonderful ideas (or you just want to pay your bills). But I have seen the power of focusing over and over and over again — and you’re right! We must trim away a few things if we want to enjoy success.

    • So true, Tea. We multipotentialites often have trouble saying no but we’ve got to learn to do it sometimes. We can still be creative; we just can’t follow every single idea to its conclusion.

  4. In Web Design, you can pretty safely ignore other platforms in favor of WordPress. But Joomla and Drupal contracts tend to be more complex and therefore, more lucrative – because they’re not that easy to learn. So when faced with that exact decision, I decided to go full-press on WordPress. And then clients started asking about social media…

    Three years later and I’m *still* doing web design, but 90% of my business comes from either technical training or creating marketing plans. Focused addition is the key to growth, but knowing what to say no to is the more important part!

    Excellent advice Sharon!!

    • Once you do one thing well for clients, they usually want you to do more, Nick. It takes strength (not to mention a few months of overwhelm sometimes) to say no to the projects that don’t work for you. (Speaking of which, I persuaded one of my clients to switch from Joomla to WordPress because of that complexity. It makes it easier for me to do a great job for him.)

  5. Great advice and all quite familiar since I’ve pretty much been through it all. I second what Nick said about choosing a platform. Early on, we were strictly Microsoft-based. After a few headaches with some of those projects we went full-on WordPress. When people ask if we do Drupal, we very happily just say no.

    I love your reference to trimming working hours! Alas that is not going to happen anytime soon 🙂 Although I do sometimes take a hard line on which hours I will work – and none of them fall on a Saturday evening!

  6. I love the idea of trimming my business, which is what I’ve unknowingly been doing for a couple of months. Bringing some focus and intentionality to it will shift things yet again, and I’m ready for that as 2012 comes to an end!

    • Intentionality is a good word, Sandi. It’s all about attracting the business you want and releasing what you would rather avoid. I can see more tweaking ahead in 2013.

  7. Great advice on trimming your client list to focus on the businesses and people you really want to work with. Once you do, you will attract more of them. I love combining that with changing your services so your best clients will get more value and others will naturally fade away.

  8. Trim the fat, eh? Great approach. The better the writer, the more clients will be willing to pay. Its like going from being an everyone Honda to an exclusive Bugatti Veyron.

    • That’s true, Paul, but it’s also a matter of educating clients as to the value of good writing. On Facebook the other day, someone posted an image that said: “If you think hiring a professional is expensive, try hiring an amateur!” Hmm, I can feel another post coming on. 🙂

      • Great motto, I couldn’t agree more! An amateur could destroy a business’s reputation in a day. Reminds me of the newer days of FB when people were getting fired left and right and costing companies lots of money for posting amateur content.

  9. Thanks for these great tips on trimming to get down to our success. I’m new to your site and see I need to return for more great content and sources.

  10. We’re all happy with a good haircut, aren’t we, Sharon? It looks and feels GREAT. 😉
    My biggest takeaway from your fabulous post is to “Pick & Choose” clients and projects wisely. I’m a gal who tends to bite off more than she can chew sometimes. I’m working to put “No” back into my vocabulary. It’s a word that doesn’t taste good but the bitter aftertaste of getting burned out tastes a whole lot worse.
    Wonderful post!

  11. evan austin says:

    GREAT post, Sharon! Love the accordion metaphor…so true with freelancing. I hadn’t even thought of the client list as something to trim, but I definitely see the wisdom there. Thanks!

    • As always, I’m speaking from bitter experience, Evan. I got on the multiple client roundabout in my second year of freelancing and juggled well for a while; by the time I was into my fourth year, I knew something had to give. Since I didn’t want that something to be me, I had to retrench and be honest about what wasn’t working for me. I now make this a part of my annual evaluation.

  12. Great post, Sharon. I call this approach working smarter. Each year, I’ve adjusted what I take on. For me, I found that I really don’t like editing another person’s writing. With rare exception, I no longer offer that service.

    I am still very much a work in progress, but I like to think I am getting more efficient. 🙂

  13. More isn’t more? I too am an accordion-aholic. That visual is perfect for me because I actually don’t like accordions (except in polkas) and I need to remind myself that I don’t need or want to offer every service under the sun. I already *try* to ask myself the question, Yes you can, but SHOULD you?. Now I’m going to add an accordion into the mix. Thanks Sharon!

    • Happy to help, Nicole. It’s better to focus so you can really give your all to the projects you take on – I have to rein in my natural impulse to say yes to anything new.

  14. Sharon what really resonated about this well crafted post, was trimming your marketing. It is a problem I see everywhere online today. People have literally scattered their precious time and energy across so many diverse activities online, they are spending hours of their working days achieving very little while increasing frustration and overwhelm. If they first did their research well and found the best pool of their best clients and concentrated all their energy swimming laps in that pool, they would see far better results. Thanks for painting the whole picture of trimming the fat so well. Great post.

  15. Just super, Sharon. As writers, we’re so darned afraid of dropping a client that we don’t see it makes room for our ideal clients.

    I did the same — I lost the resume work. I’ll do one on occasion, but I’d really rather do something I love instead. 🙂

  16. Thanks, Sharon! This really sounds like our small biz. There’s just the two of us leading a small group of creatives. Trimming any aspect of the business, especially, a small biz, drives our team to focus.