Feast or Famine – that old chestnut


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This post first appeared on the ITI’s Pillar Box blog back in July 2014, after I was asked to contribute by the then editor, Rachel Malcolm. I wanted to refer a colleague to it recently and couldn’t find it readily, so thought it might be time to file it here too, along with the rest of my musings.

I don’t think much has changed in the two years since this was published; being self-employed is inevitably associated with periods of more work than you can shake a stick at and the occasional quiet time when you wonder what on earth you’ve done wrong. It’s how you handle it that counts…

I would perhaps now add the option of sub-contracting to the solutions to dealing with “feast” scenarios. I wrote about this recently, but it basically comes down to how comfortable you feel with going down that route, having a network of reliable colleagues and having clients who pay you enough to make it worth your while.


Here’s my original post:

One of the hardest things about being self-employed is trying to strike a balance between too much work and not enough.

I’ve been freelancing for 25 years now and those dreaded quiet times still have the power to unnerve me, even though I’m normally turning down requests for work. So how can we avoid such situations? And if, despite our best efforts, we still end up with too much or too little work, what can we do about it?


I think the key to avoiding the ‘famine’ aspect is to make sure you have enough clients, preferably in a variety of fields. I probably have about 50, with 10 or so sending work on a regular basis. Admittedly, that means you may often find yourself saying no, but far better that than having only a select few clients and having one of them go out of business, or stop working in your language pair, leaving you without a significant proportion of your income. Easier said than done, I know, but if you constantly maintain a marketing presence via your professional association/s, translators’ websites and client contacts, it should be possible to build up a wider client base, leaving you well covered in terms of workflow. I also make sure I don’t commit more than 50% of my optimum capacity to long jobs, thus leaving myself with scope to accept smaller infill jobs from regular clients and accommodate the unforeseen.

If, despite a broad range of clients, you still end up facing a quiet few days, don’t panic. It’s taken me a long time to get to the stage where professional insecurity doesn’t rear its ugly head after just a day or so without new work offers, but I am getting there! It all comes down to self-esteem and a belief in your own abilities. Don’t assume you’ve offended all your clients, made some dreadful mistake or priced yourself out of the market… far better to seize the opportunity to relax, first and foremost – take some well-earned time off and see friends, go out for the day or even do those long-overdue household chores. If you’re anything like me, it only takes arranging to meet friends for lunch or coffee for the work to start flooding in again. But if it doesn’t, stay calm and enjoy yourself for a couple of days. Like most freelancers, you probably work ridiculous hours the rest of the time and if you don’t make the most of the freedom now, you’ll soon be knee-deep in work again and wonder what you were worried about!

If the quiet spell continues, there’s certainly no harm in e-mailing regular clients, telling them that you’re unexpectedly quiet. Most agencies/direct clients of my acquaintance are delighted to know that you’re free for once and it saves them ringing round if they have an urgent job to place. If they prove quiet too, as is often the case, think about those marketing tasks you’ve been promising yourself you’ll get round to: create that website, have new business cards designed, contact your local Chamber of Commerce, or go and meet clients at local events or talks. Then again, what about updating your technological armoury? Both times I’ve invested in CAT tools or new software in the past have coincided with initial quiet periods when I’ve actually had time to devote to learning a new skill: you certainly don’t want to undertake that steep learning curve when you’re up to your eyes in pressing deadlines.

As for the ‘feast’ aspect, managing an overload has to come down to judicious client management: good client relations (saying no nicely so that they still come back!) and gauging your price accurately too. The first time I realised how effective the concept of supply and demand can be was when I had a huge volume of work and was approached by a couple of new clients in my specialist field. I really couldn’t fit them in, so quoted very long deadlines and higher rates, only to have both accepted. A salutary lesson indeed. (Conversely, slow times are definitely not the moment to accept lower rates that you’ll find it hard to extricate yourself from in future – far wiser to remind clients of your existence by writing with a modest rate rise, and put your quiet spell to better use than a low-paid assignment. Just don’t write to them all at once, or you might end up in an even worse predicament…)

Above all, believe in yourself, accept that getting the flow of work just right is tricky and will take time to adjust, and regard the inevitable quiet spells en route as your just reward for all the hard work you’ve put in.


Thanks as ever to Mox for this very appropriate cartoon dating back to 2012 – plus ça change…