2009: My Power Freelancing Year, In Spite of the Economic Disaster

I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions, which usually just end up being rather disappointing.

But like many people, I do tend to get reflective at the end of the year. Doesn’t it seem like a perfect time to pull one’s thoughts together and plan for a fresh new year coming up? While our bodies are relaxed and full of hot cider and snowball cookies, the new year always seems full of delicious possibilities.

This year, in my reflections, I knew that I’m ready to have a Power Year in terms of my work as a freelance writer.

Does that surprise you, in these times of economic disaster? Though I will undoubtedly have to market myself harder, companies that need to increase their own marketing in this tough market are still hiring writers. And I do several different kinds of writing, which gives me options.

More than ever, I still maintain that working for oneself, for many different clients who work in many different industries — clients that you can add to or replace as needed — is a more secure way to make a living than counting on one employer that could let you go at any time.

I have many specific ideas about what “Power Year” means to me — in terms of income goals, increasing my base of steady clients and doing some different, new-to-me types of writing. I have broken down my goals into categories that I want to further, or work toward, or start on. And I’ve written down the specific, strategic steps I want to take in each area. 

I put it all in writing. And at the end of each month, I will check that document and see how I’m doing and if anything seems to be falling off the radar. I will start a section with the month’s name and note what I accomplished.

I know that I achieve so much more this way than if I merely slogged through my year a day at a time. Maybe some people can do that. But I need to have a plan laid out in front of me if I want to move forward and achieve more than just the same old thing.

The other thing I did before the New Year was to clear off my desk, which has a tendency to get a little chaotic at times (and then, consequently, so does my brain). Both were like that — messy and needing tending — at the end of 2008.

It feels wonderful to sit here at a neat and tidy desk, everything I am actively working on in a short, reasonable pile to the left of my computer. 

You might think what your writing (or other) goals are this year. Then break them down into “actionable” steps (don’t you hate that word? I do). 

(I hate it so much that if I think of a better word while lying in bed tonight, I will get up and change it.)

If you’d like to propose a newspaper column this year, maybe your first steps are to read a couple books about how to write newspaper columns, and scour the web for everything that’s been written about it. Write down those steps.

Maybe your next steps would go something like this:

• Call XX, a local newpaper columnist, and ask to buy her lunch and have an informational interview about column-writing and writing for her newspaper.

• Pinpoint your column’s focus, title and approach.

• Write six sample columns.

• Get feedback from trusted writer mentor or friend.

• Revise.

• Approach newspaper editor at XX with your proposal.

• If no, approach second choice newspaper editor.

Write down your goals and the steps you’ll need to take to reach each one. Then look at that list every work day and move down it. One thing at a time. Knock ’em off.

Even if you don’t fully achieve your end goal — and you might — having a plan will get you much, much closer to it than just muddling along.

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Procrastination and the Freelance Writer

Procrastination is not the freelance writer’s friend. 

Of all the suggestions I’ve heard over the years regarding being an efficient freelance writer, one of the best has been to start on an assignment as soon as you get it.

I try to do this and it really works. Sometimes it’s just getting started that’s the hardest part of writing something. So even if I just jot down some notes regarding how I plan to approach the story, gather up background research and set it aside in a folder, or make a list of possible interview subjects and find their contact information, it means I’ve already plowed in. When I’m ready to devote my attention to that assignment, it’s all downhill.

In related news, I was amused when I came across this Procrastinator’s Clock.

If your procrastination problems mean you have difficulty getting out the door, or to appointments on time, check it out. It’s guaranteed to be up to 15 minutes fast. However, it also speeds up and slows down in an unpredictable manner so you can’t be sure how fast it really is

Good grief. It would drive me nuts. But it is amusing.

And it makes me glad I work at home, in my comfortable office, where I work hard and put in a lot of hours, but where 15 minutes one way or the other usually just isn’t that critical.

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Books on Writing

I guess it’s no surprise there are so many books about writing. We writers need something to write about, and some of us write about writing. And then the rest of us read about it.

Writing is a craft that I continually work at. In college I majored in journalism, and since then I have continued to take writing classes (both in person and online), participate in professional writers’ groups and online forums, and sometimes in local writers groups.

And I also read how other people have succeeded as writers. How they do it. Their tips.

They’re just like us, most of those other writers. We’re all just people sitting in front of a yellow pad of paper or a laptop, starting with a blank screen and a head full of ideas. Reading about how some people have accomplished what they’ve done has, over the years, helped me set goals for my own writing, and reach high.

I could read about writing, instead of sitting down and actually writing, until the cows come home. (“What cows?” asked my four-year-old with a puzzled look when I used that expression the other day.) It’s a terrific means of procrastination.

Here are just some of the books on my shelves, which I’ve loosely grouped into categories. Some of these books are better than others. Many I’ve reread, and learned from or been inspired by.

BUSINESS

You are only a hobbyist, and will get nowhere as a freelance writer, until you accept that it’s a business and you need to be businesslike (in setting goals, where you focus your efforts, calculating your overhead and knowing how much to charge, protecting your copyrights, handling accounting, paying taxes and much more). Some creative sorts have to really force themselves to buckle down and learn the business aspect of being a self-employed writer. Here are some books that can help: 

  • The ASJA Guide to Freelance Writing, ed. by Timothy Harper
  • This Business of Writing, by Gregg Levoy
  • Make a Real Living as a Freelance Writer, by Jenna Glazer
  • Six-Figure Freelancing, by Kelly James-Enger

 

BY WRITERS ABOUT WRITING

I don’t know how to group these books, some of which inspired and convinced me I could quit the day job and live happily as a writer.

  • Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott
  • The Writing Life, by Annie Dillard
  • If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland
  • Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande
  • Writing Down the Bones, by Natalie Goldberg
  • Living the Writer’s Life, by Natalie Goldberg
  • Thunder and Lightning, Cracking Open the Writer’s Craft, by Natalie Goldberg
  • Zen in the Art of Writing, by Ray Bradbury
  • Making a Literary Life, by Carolyn See
  • On Writing, by Stephen King
  • No Mentor But Myself: Jack London on Writing and Writers, ed. by Dale L. Walker and Jeanne Campbell Reesman

 

FICTION/NOVEL WRITING

What pondering these titles from my bookshelf tells me is that I have long wanted to delve more into fiction and novel-writing. But I knew that already. Maybe I’ll reread some of these and get started soon.

  • On Becoming a Novelist, by John Gardner
  • On Teaching and Writing Fiction, by Wallace Stegner
  • The Art of Fiction, by John Gardner
  • Writing the Novel, by Lawrence Block
  • Writing Fiction, by Janet Burroway
  • How to Write a Book Proposal, by Michael Larsen
  • The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, ed. by Meg Leder, Jack Heffron and the editors of Writer’s Digest

 

MAGAZINE/NEWSPAPER WRITING

I have done an awful lot of this. I started out writing an occasional freelance piece for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, and then got a regular freelance gig working for Hilo’s Hawaii Tribune-Herald, where I wrote features and entertainment articles every week. Like most newspapers it paid poorly but, in retrospect, it was terrific in teaching me how to just sit down and do it. I also got over my reluctance to call people when I had several articles due each week. That was worth it all right there. 

After that I started writing for magazines. More interesting, more in-depth, more time for craft. Yet it still doesn’t pay enough to pay the bills. I know there are a few people who only write for national magazines and make a good living, but that’s not the norm. If magazine freelancing is your plan, you’d better have some other income, too.

  • The Art and Craft of Feature Writing, by William E. Blundell
  • Writing for Story, by Jon Franklin
  • Creative Nonfiction, by Philip Gerard
  • Story, by Robert McKee
  • Handbook of Magazine Article Writing, ed. by Jean Fredette
  • You Can Write a Column, by Monica McCabe Cordoza
  • The Renegade Writer, by Linda Formichelli and Diana Burrell
  • Travel Writing, See the World, Sell the Story, by L. Peat O’Neil
  • Literary Journalism, ed. by Norman Sims and Mark Kramer

 

MEMOIR

  • Living to Tell the Tale, A Guide to Writing Memoir, by Jane Taylor McDonnell
  • Inventing the Truth, the Art and Craft of Memoir, ed. by William Zinsser

 

ON WRITERS

It’s aways fun to read how other writers do it. Computer? Typewriter? Pencil and pen? These books are much more than just that, though.

  • Writers on Writing, Collected Essays from the New York Times
  • The Writer on Her Work, by Janet Sternberg
  • The New New Journalism, ed. by Robert S. Boynton

 

COPYWRITING 

A lot of my work these days falls under the category of copywriting. These books were somewhat interesting as I started out writing for businesses, but I’ve found that I figured out a lot of it by myself, along the way. The Well-Fed Writer is currently a bible to some copywriters.

  • The $100,000 Writer, by Nancy Flynn
  • The Well-Fed Writer, by Peter Bowerman
  • Secrets of a Freelance Writer, by Bob Bly
  • The Copywriter’s Handbook, by Bob Bly

 

RADIO

This is one of the few books from my long-ago college journalism days that I’ve kept. I have worked in public (and commercial) radio a little bit, and really enjoyed it. I keep the book in case I get back into it one day. Cool book.

  • Telling the Story, the National Public Radio Guide to Radio Journalism

 

LASTLY

And, my favorite title of all though (to be honest) I don’t remember a thing about the book itself:

  • Too Lazy To Work, Too Nervous to Steal, How to have a great life as a freelance writer, by John Clausen
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Advanced Freelance Writer Organizational System

How do you keep papers organized when you’re working on 10 or 15 freelance jobs at the same time, or more, all at various stages?

I do it with file folders. That title above is tongue-in-cheek, of course. My system is pretty basic, but it truly helps me keep my head well above water.

Whether it’s a client I’ve just met with once, and the file merely holds some handwritten notes and a fee quote, or it’s someone I’ve worked for years and a specific folder holds their October newsletter notes and copy, or a specific press release, it’s all about the file folders.

I have a big box of 100 of them sitting on the bookshelf near my desk. I make myself take the time to write the name of a project on the front and on the tab, even when I’m busy and overwhelmed with papers — especially then — and then stash all papers relating to a certain web copy job/ad/newsletter issue/blog series/business profile in its appropriate file. Otherwise I am always hunting for things instead of working.

Making myself slow down and store papers in their folder keeps my sanity. 

I have a standing, upright file box on my desk, where I keep active folders. When I finish a project it gets filed away.

Sometimes it feels wasteful to go through as many file folders as I do. I label them in pencil, so I can reuse them later, but first most get filed under the company’s name and year in my file cabinet for awhile. Every so often, I go through and purge folders I’ll probably never need to find again. Old jobs I might need to look at again get purged from my active file cabinet and moved into a reserve file (box) for awhile, and then eventually that too is moved on.

Some people do the same thing but they keep their “folders” on the computer. They have paperless offices. Are they truly paper-free? I imagine their desks must look tidy and lovely, but I can’t imagine it.

Going without paper is not a goal of mine. I need to hold things in my hands when I’m working on them — move them around, mark on them, consider them while standing them on end and neatening them into a tidy pile.

We writers, we like paper and I can’t imagine working without it. I’ll just continue on, making my little stacks of tidy file folders, watching the papers escape and comingle and try to hide under other papers, and then putting them back in place — which keeps my head in order, too.

It sounds like such a simple thing, but having a simple file folder system makes all the difference to my productivity.

How do YOU do it?

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Freelancing in a Poor Economy

Someone told me recently about her son, a graphic designer who works full time for an agency and does freelance jobs on the side. She said he has considered leaving his full time job to freelance full-time, but worries about doing that in this poor economy.

Here’s my response to that:

Especially in this poor economy, I feel much more secure working for myself — my pay flowing in from many different clients — than being at the whim of only one employer. 

In these uncertain economic times, a full-time job can disappear at any moment. But if you’re good at what you do, work hard, and especially if you already have a stable of jobs going on, leaving the uncertainty of a full-time job for the freelance life seems like a no-brainer to me.

Spreading your work (and income) around to many clients is the smartest kind of diversification. You’re not relying on one employer, one company, one industry. Not putting all your eggs in one basket and all that.

I’m not suggesting anyone quit a steady job with some vague dreams about freelancing. It’s serious business. Learn what you’re doing first, and work up to it. Make sure you have what it takes.

But if you know what you’re doing, have clients lined up, and work hard, it’s very doable. Even in this economy. Especially in this economy.

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Freelance Writing & Kukui Nut Trees

For lunch today, I had a picnic with my husband and little girl in the shade of our big old kukui nut tree. We brought along my daughter’s Bob (learning to read) books, and decided we will call it “The Reading Tree” and sit there sometimes to practice reading. She loved that.

After we ate and read and played some little kid horseshoes, I lay back on the green- and blue-striped picnic blanket and watched a white, cottony cloud barrel across the perfect blue sky. After awhile, my daughter and husband wandered off and I actually napped briefly. When I woke up, it was to the feeling of warm sun on my face when the kukui leaves momentarily parted. It was excellent.

It was a work day.

Oh, the freelance life is definitely not all sitting around in pajamas and watching Oprah, let me tell you. 

If you’re good at what you do, and busy, it’s really an awful lot of work. I can remember, years ago when I started freelancing, being surprised at how hard I was working. (Maybe I had been expecting pajamas and Oprah.)

It is, of course, a real business with real work that needs to get done, well and on time. In addition to the interviewing, writing and revising, there’s always marketing that needs to be done, to keep the work coming in, and then invoicing and estimated taxes and lot of other paperwork, and keeping up with supplies, because nobody’s filling the supply cabinet but you. And a whole lot more.

Generally I keep regular work hours, which is what works best for me. I don’t sleep in on a work day (unless I’m sick, and then the flexibility is lovely), and I don’t chat on the phone during work hours. There is work to be done.

Once in awhile my regular work hours just aren’t enough, and there have certainly been times when I’ve worked into the wee hours, or pried myself out of bed much, much earlier than my body appreciates to squeeze in a couple extra hours.

But then again. Then again — occasionally I take the time to do something like have a lovely, relaxing picnic with my family in the middle of the day.

And then I am reminded of how much I appreciate the freelance lifestyle. The work is interesting, I have total control over how my career progresses, and I can sometimes take a little time off to do what’s important to me and my family — like picnicking and then napping under a kukui nut tree. I can’t imagine living any other way.

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