Joanna Tidball


1 September 2015

Freelance career breaks: how to plan for a successful comeback

'Closed gone fishing' signMany people are drawn to the freelance lifestyle because of the flexibility it offers – but does that flexibility stretch to maternity leave and other types of career break?

Being able to pick your own working days and hours, having the choice to take on a heavy workload or slow the pace down a bit for a while – these are things that attracted me and plenty of other copywriters to freelancing.

Like many freelance copywriters, I’m a lone ranger, finding and managing my own clients, rather than taking on contract work at agencies. And since going freelance in 2006, I’ve taken two career breaks for maternity leave – the first in 2010 and the second in 2014.

While maternity leave must be the most common reason for taking an extended break from freelancing, new dads might want to get in on the career break act too. Freelancers may also decide to take a break for health reasons, to go travelling or to pursue other interests for a while.

‘Please take me back…’

Assuming you have strong relationships with your clients, it’s reasonable to hope they’ll be keen to work with you again following a career break. But if you’ve been freelancing for a few years, you’ve probably learnt that even faithful clients can suddenly exit stage left. Your favourite contact might leave their job and be replaced with someone who has their own preferred copywriter, or the powers-that-be might introduce new procurement policies which put you out of contention.

I’m speaking from experience – one organisation I worked with regularly decided they would no longer work with sole traders, only limited companies. And I had a bit of a shock during my first career break, when several faithful clients became casualties of the ‘bonfire of the quangoes‘.

So, for any freelance copywriters who are about to embark on maternity or extended paternity leave, or another type of career break, here are some pointers on how to plan for a seamless transition out of work and back in again.

When to let your clients know

Most career breaks are planned, so you’ll have time to give your clients notice that you won’t be around for a while. A couple of months’ notice feels about right, but judge it on a case by case basis. Think about how far ahead your clients plan and how easy it will be for someone else to step into your shoes. If the client starts talking about a project that you know you won’t be able to work on, then you need to spill the beans. Of course, if your break is for maternity leave and you see your clients regularly, then it’s likely to come up sooner rather than later.

If you’re going to offer cover from another copywriter, let your client know this at the same time as telling them about your planned absence – you don’t need to have all the details worked out at this stage, but it’ll show that you’re not going to leave them in the lurch.

Arranging cover for regular clients

Hopefully you have a good bunch of regular clients. Clients that you definitely want to work with again. So what you can you do to stop out of sight from becoming out of mind?

One way to try to keep those clients warm is to arrange cover for your break. There might be regular tasks that your clients are willing for you to find someone to fill in for, like writing weekly blog posts or producing an email newsletter, or you might just want to nominate someone as the first port of call for your clients as and when they need freelance support. Either way, you’ll need to have complete confidence in the quality of your stand-in’s work, their reliability and integrity.

You might already know someone suitable in your network but if not, allow plenty of time to try to find the right person. Start with an informal chat and then – if possible – spend time with them face-to-face, to really understand their working style and how compatible you are.

It’s a good idea to draw up a simple agreement for both of you to sign. The agreement should cover information such as:

  • what they agree to do – it could be fixed tasks for named clients, or it could be a looser agreement that they’ll take on whatever work they can as and when it arises
  • what they will do if they can’t take on a project that comes up with one of your clients – should they refer it on to a specified contact?
  • when the arrangement starts and ends
  • who is responsible for paying them – usually the client, but if you’re outsourcing specific tasks to them you might prefer for payment to go through you
  • any updates you’d like to get from them
  • what happens when you’re ready to return to work (this is the bit that covers them handing your clients back over).

Once all of the details are sorted out and you’ve introduced your clients to their new contact, it’s time to leave them to it. If you’ve outsourced work to the other copywriter and are paying them for it directly, you’ll want to stay in touch often enough to know things are going smoothly and that your client is happy. If it’s a more general cover arrangement, a couple of casual check-ins should suffice. Hopefully whatever you’ve taken time out to do will be keeping your mind busy enough not to dwell on work stuff anyway.

I didn’t arrange cover for my first maternity leave, but a couple of years later I did provide cover for a copywriter colleague. Here’s what she said about the approach she took to maternity cover:

“As a freelance copywriter, it felt important to arrange some maternity cover for my clients, just as I would have done if I were an employee. One or two clients were very happy to use that cover, and grateful that I’d organised it. Others seemed happy to make their own alternative arrangements. Overall, I was happy with how many clients resumed contact and started approaching me again, when I returned from maternity leave.”

Staying valuable

You’ve worked hard to get to a position where you have a decent stream of email and phone enquiries about new projects from regular clients as well as approaches from new ones. Even though you won’t be able to pick up any of this work for a while, you should still do what you can to keep that stream from drying up completely. A helpful out of office email message and voicemail to let people know you’re not currently available and when you’ll be back is a good starting point. If another copywriter is covering your work, then include their details.

If you have the inclination and your circumstances allow, you might prefer to check your emails regularly and send a short personal message to people who’ve approached you about a project, offering to introduce them to a suitable contact. If you take this approach, your out of office message could just indicate it may be a few days before you’re able to reply.

Picking up where you left off

When you’re nearing the end of your career break, make a date for a debrief chat with any copywriter who’s covered for you, and then reconnect with each of your clients. You’ll be keen to let them know when you’ll be available for new projects, but they’ll appreciate it if you’ve taken the time to find out about projects and any changes that have taken place in your absence. So have that debrief chat first.

Try not to panic if work is slow to pick up again. Plug away with your networking and marketing, check in with old clients and find good reasons to remind your regulars of your presence from time to time.

Your career break experiences

Have you taken a freelance copywriting career break after having a baby or for any other reason? I’d love to hear about how it went and any advice you would give to other freelancers about to embark on a career break. Leave a comment below to share your experiences with others.

What do you think?

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Kate Griffin

September 1, 2015 at 9:49am

After I took an unplanned career break for health reasons, getting more actively involved with my trade union helped me get back into work. But at the time I thought I might never work again. Maybe I should blog about it to reassure others in that situation!


Joanna Tidball

September 1, 2015 at 10:34am

Thanks for your comment Kate. We’d love to hear more in a blog post if you’d like to write something!

Helen Gräwert (Baker)

September 8, 2015 at 11:08am

Thanks for your helpful tips, Jo. I’m just thinking about getting back to work after a long break for maternity and am thinking about where to start (or even if I want to take a new direction).


Joanna Tidball

September 8, 2015 at 6:49pm

Thanks for your comment Helen. Good luck with the thinking.