Take a morning to revel in the free part. Linger over a second cup of coffee and the morning paper. And when you’ve read all the editorials, most of the comics and jeered at the want ads, put your mind to the lance.
Unlike the tool of a mercenary soldier of the Middle Ages, the lance for us isn’t so much our equipment, but our writing and organizational skills. As with itinerant soldiers of old, most of our job is keeping the lance and ourselves in condition to hit our targets.
Setting Up Shop
Begin with arranging your office to suit your particular needs. Build it around your desk, paying special attention to both accessibility of items you need at arm’s length and to healthy working conditions. Make sure your computer keyboard is at a comfortable height and your lighting is excellent. Invest in a completely adjustable chair that fully supports your back, even if you must cut costs elsewhere and make do with board-and-brick bookcases.
Beyond a basic computer and printer, bookcases, file cabinets, and a desk topped with a phone/answering machine, carefully assess the need you will have for additional equipment or services. Hold off on purchases if you aren’t sure. I don’t send or receive enough faxes to warrant installing a machine, and owning a copy machine would be as expensive and less versatile than using a nearby copy shop’s service.
Other possible additions you may need include a tape recorder, camera and lenses, database access, and an electronic mail service.
To be tax deductible, a home office must be a separate room or section of a room that you use solely for your work. Keep work in mind as you paint and decorate. Include functional wall items such as bulletin boards, but also make room for art and other objects that help your work attitude. My own walls are covered with favorite posters, small watercolors I do for fun, and the work of photographer colleagues. On my desk, a clear jar of beach glass reminds me of my last assignment in Hawaii, and a three-inch statue reminds me to be persistent – it’s my hero, Wile E. Coyote. I tack food for philosophical thought to the bulletin board fronting my desk. One is a quote from a Hawaiian celestial navigator I interviewed: “Knowledge is nothing if you don’t share it.”
Lay in supplies. Basics include letterhead, printer paper, extra printer ribbon or cartridges, computer disks and storage cases, file folders and labels. Experiment with how much of your material you will want to keep in paper files. Provide space for expansion of reference materials, and a big surface for an unabridged dictionary.
Create a system of administration. And plan into your days time for “administration” – planning, keeping track of loose ends, running errands, making miscellaneous phone calls.
Into this category falls “project management.” At first – and this stage may come before you jump to full-time status – all of your projects will be simultaneously in the idea stage. But as weeks go by, some plans will bloom sooner than others. It makes sense to have several projects at various stages going at once. It allows you to space due dates, to alternate big projects with smaller ones, to take advantage of researching more than one story on a trip away from home, and to let your brain rest from one project without having to stop working entirely. In choosing projects, consider that a few small ones with small paychecks may actually make you more money per hour than a large project with a big fee.
The biggest management challenge is time. Assess what time of day you have peak energy. Do your hardest office tasks then. For me, that’s writing articles. Save other tasks for later, such as making appointments, reading documents, studying markets, outlining queries.
Consider how long you can work intensely without serious fatigue. For me, that optimum work block is 90 minutes; up to two hours if I’m on a roll. Before another stint take a break.
Perhaps the most important piece of time management is learning to allow enough time to meet a deadline. Getting a second assignment depends on meeting your first due date with the best possible material written and presented to exact specifications. My best work is never the result of an 11th-hour blitz, but of planning to finish the first good, complete draft of a project about two weeks ahead of the deadline. This allows time for the manuscript to cool off in my mind before I self-edit. With some pieces, I also build in time for a source or a colleague to review the draft.
“Efficiency” is an important part of time management, too. Do several errands in a single trip, to save both time and gasoline. Recycle old story ideas. If you’re going to travel, try to piggyback assignments, even if a publisher is picking up expenses. For instance, I often write on native Hawaiian topics, but I don’t make the trip to Honolulu without at least three firm assignments. A recent combination there included two health-focused profiles for a Honolulu health maintenance organization magazine, a hula festival story for Hawaii magazine, and historical pieces on the former leprosy settlement on Molokai for National Parks and Aloha magazines. The last two stories, on the same subject, suggest another efficiency: Find ways to write differently focused articles from the same body of research.
Last efficiency point: Recycle stories as well as ideas. This works particularly well with newspapers, which don’t fuss about second rights if you offer them exclusive rights within a given circulation area. Freelancer Mieke H. Bomann regularly uses the technique, such as with her recent sale of a Montana travel story to Washington state’s Spokane Spokesman-Review and Everett Herald.
Another management element is record keeping. You’ll need those scraps of paper come tax time. Record keeping is almost painless if you do it daily. Over several years I developed my “brain book,” a large three-ring binder in which I include weekly calendar sheets, a planning section, a mailing log, and records of both general and project expenses. For the expenses sections I use accounting worksheets, keeping general expense receipts chronologically in a large plastic envelope and project receipts in smaller envelopes attached to the matching accounting forms. If I’m expecting reimbursement, I photocopy the receipts immediately and clip the copies to my contract so they’re ready when I submit my manuscript and invoice.
In addition, the brain book has a section to record income, and a section call “time accounting” in which I have devised categories suited to my particular work, such as marketing, interviews, article research, queries, writing articles and administration. At the end of each work day I make my time accounting entries and expense entries, turn off the computer and go “home” to the downstairs of my house.
The Job Hunt
Getting your name “out there” occupies proportionately more time in the beginning of your freelance-writing venture. If you’re aiming article ideas at magazines and newspapers, write lots of carefully aimed queries. When you get a bite, follow through in every detail. After the piece is accepted, come up with another story idea for the same magazine. If you get an encouraging rejection, query the market with another idea. Photocopies of your best work help you sell your service.
Even in the magazine world, don’t discount word-of-mouth among editors, clients and even sources as potential marketing helpers. A couple of years ago I’d written for Pacific Northwest magazine a travel story about a lodge on Oregon’s Rogue River. The place had previously been covered in other media. I studied those reports and went beyond their content. I double-checked both my facts and tone with the lodge owners, and made sure they received an original copy of my piece in print. Some months later, Country Inns magazine called the lodge, wanting to feature the place but not wanting to send a staffer from the East Coast and not knowing any Oregon freelancers. Because of my Pacific Northwest story, the lodge owners recommended me – and I got another assignment.
For the same reason, cultivate other writers. Several in my town refer clients and editors to me when they can’t accept an assignment – and vice-versa. By putting in an editorial word for me, one of them opened the door at Sunset, a magazine for which I’ve written regularly now for five years.
If you’re interested in in-house magazines or public relations material, contacts are the secret. As with magazine work, proposing specific projects works better than simply announcing your availability.
Freelancer Joli Sandoz, who contracts frequently with government agencies for publications writing, established her first contacts by working as a receptionist in a state government office that touched other departments.
“I talked to people on breaks and at lunch, and then looked for programs that needed brochures or other printed materials,” she says. “I did my homework so I could make a proposal that showed that office I understood a specific problem and could offer possible solutions. I spend a lot of time on proposals, especially if I haven’t worked with the group before – it’s my only chance to show my insight and skill.”
She advises looking for organizations – such as hospitals, school districts, nonprofit groups and small colleges, as well as government offices – that may have a periodic need for publications but don’t employ a writer.
Taking Care of Yourself
A factor writers often ignore that bears directly on the quality of work we produce is self-care. It’s important not only to help us produce top-quality products, but also to prevent illness – we don’t have any paid sick leave.
Our work is energy-intensive. And it’s solitary. Both factors produce special stress.
Consider building a variety of physical exercise into your daily routine. Joli Sandoz runs. Mieke Bomann takes long walks with her dog. I do aerobics in the morning before work and hatha-yoga at the end of the day. Learn some quickie desk exercises to ward off eyestrain and computer-related woes of the fingers and wrists and to alleviate the shoulder and neck knots that plague desk workers. (Three such exercises appear in Tip Sheet, on page 51.) Don’t short-change yourself on a lunch hour. If you only go to the kitchen for a ten-minute sandwich, take another half-hour for mind-clearing meditation or siesta.
Like anyone else, we benefit ourselves by eating healthfully and sleeping sufficiently. Don’t write tired – in fact, don’t even interview tired. It will show in the finished product, the product on which hangs your future.
To combat too much solitude, consider joining or forming a writers’ group with colleagues whose aspirations and work parallel yours. In addition, Mieke Bomann rents a small office away from home, to be close to other professionals sharing her building. Try making a weekly lunch date with a friend. It can be a picnic, if restaurant money isn’t in the budget.
Taking care of yourself also includes getting comfortable with publicly referring to yourself as a writer. Freelance writer. Say it. “I am a freelance writer.”
Prepare for twisted reactions from family and friends. A few months after I began full-time freelancing, my nextdoor neighbor said, “It must be great. I want to come over and hear all about being retired.”
Freelancer Sherry Beaver has faced her share of relatives, including her own mother, “You have to put up with them wondering when you’re going to grow up. Or they think you’re a housewife with a hobby,” she says. “You must reach a point where it doesn’t matter.”
If you can let it slide off your back, fine. Or work out your responses on whomever gives you the first challenge. I told my neighbor that although it might be nice to be retired, I had only changed employers – and was now working for a real slave-driver who assigned me six projects at once. Later I took her a copy of the most interesting story I had produced. She never mentioned “retirement” again.
Have an annual “board meeting” with yourself to set goals and devise a plan to meet them. For tax purposes, use the calendar year. Because that year begins Jan. 1, goals and plans are well considered in September or October, to give yourself sufficient lead time to line up some contracts to begin early the following year.
Write down both financial and writing goals, perhaps even dovetailing them with personal goals. For example, my brain book’s planning section shows that my goals in my first year of part-time freelancing were to gross $2,000, to market articles with Northwest and Pacific Northwest magazines and the Christian Science Monitor newspaper, to place an essay or opinion piece, and to purchase a computer and learn a new word-processing program. That year I made $2,800, bought and fought with a computer, sold pieces to the three publications I’d targeted, and blanked on the essay.
By 1992, my first full-time freelance year, my planning included some public relations writing for a local hospital and ideas for 50 magazine and newspaper articles, of which 23 panned out.
Keeping the Lance Sharp
Your actual writing itself is no doubt the cutting edge of your particular freelance. It’s why you decided to leave your day job; it’s why editors and clients hire you. But laying out goals, planning how to reach them, taking care of yourself, and paying regular attention to administration temper the steel and keep the grip perfect.
All the freelance writers I know once worked for someone else, though not necessarily as writers. Every one of them now say, in some way, “I couldn’t do it again.”
Mieke Bomann carne close to packing it in recently because of the financial struggle of freelancing. She came so close that she’d been accepted in a graduate teacher training program and given up her downtown office. But then I showed up just after Thanksgiving to talk about this article. We exchanged writing adventures, and I pressed her for her thoughts about freelancing. Two weeks later I received her Christmas card wishing me “lots of good writing in the new year.” And then she added, “Since we spoke, I have come to my senses and deferred admission to the education program … back to the trenches.