The Fine Art of Following Through

From the writing blog archives:

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Originally Written October 1, 2006 by Leslie Poston about working as a freelance writer.

As a freelancer, I find myself spending a lot of time handling quality control, doing accounting and following up on things. It does eat into my writing time a little, but it is absolutely essential to a successful writing career.

Too many writers (and non-writers) are out there who think freelancing is “easy” or that “anyone can do it, you just have to write”. I’ve even had people call my job “cute”, or tell me writing “isn’t real work.” I’m here to say that is very much not true.

I don’t want to discourage those of you who want to freelance, but to think that a writing career will allow you plenty of time for your soaps and vacations is nothing more than a daydream. You have to treat your writing like any other business endeavor.

One of the biggest ways freelancers kill their budding careers is lack of follow through. You have to track every submission you send, every story or article you write (published or waiting to be published), every client you land, and every job you do.

Following through is a “whole business” approach. It can mean different things at different points in the process. For example, you will occasionally get a client who seems to never be available for feedback, or who disappears when it is time for the product review, only to crop up later wondering why the project was delivered without his input. Being able to follow up on this client without turning into a nag is key to a successful relationship.

Following through is sometimes about knowing when to quit while you’re ahead. The tendency to send your query letter and clips then start emailing once a week to “make sure they got there” or “see if you have any questions about the clips I sent” can be strong. Knowing how to ignore that tendency will make you a writer editors are pleased to work with.

What about the financial side of freelancing? You are your own collections agency and accounting firm. If you have trouble balancing a checkbook and no budget to hire help, you might want to look into staff writing instead, or stick with your day job and write for pleasure. If you think you can balance your books, keep track of your invoices, handle your quarterly taxes, follow up on clients who haven’t paid and have the guts and knowledge to collect past due invoices, then you should be fine.

In the world of freelancers, you are your own lawyer as well. Sure, there are organizations like the National Writers Union and the Science Fiction Writers Association that offer boilerplate contracts and dispute mediation for members, but what if you can’t afford to join? You’ll need to know a few contract writing basics to get started in your career. You’ll also need to make it a habit to send a customized contract for every client job, and learn not to start the job until the contract is signed and returned to you.

Not only does the business end of writing as a career get in the way of working, you have to learn to overcome writer’s block. Writer’s block can knock a project dead in the water and leave you days behind deadline. You have to go into your freelance jobs with a solid plan for jump starting your way out of a writer’s block situation.

Another freelance career killer is the internet, that double edged sword. At once research bonanza and time sink, the internet can sometimes make it difficult to get a job completed. You’ll find that you may be spending too much time at your favorite internet sites, or talking on instant messaging programs and answering emails. Or perhaps the amount of research you can do on a project overwhelms you, and you can’t seem to see the focus of the piece anymore.

You’ll have to figure out for yourself when to turn the internet off and how to stem the tide of too much information. You have to – your freelance career won’t survive too much distraction, and your clients won’t stand for pieces delayed or bogged down by information overload.

The other thing that kills freelancers is getting on a schedule. If you go to your home office in your pajamas every day, starting your day off at different times, you’ll never be able to budget time wisely. You’ll be limiting yourself, and limiting your success.

Figure out early on when you write best, and stick to a schedule. It doesn’t really matter if you are night writer or a day writer, just know what works. Get dressed to write, just like you are going to an office. Treat your writing career with respect. Figure out how long it takes you to write different kinds of projects, to do research. Soon you’ll find you can schedule twice as many clients as you though you could handle, all because you are managing your time wisely.

If all of this sounds a little daunting, it should. You should go into freelancing with the same attitude you’d have starting a business. By taking yourself and your writing seriously, you are increasing your chances of success in this dog eat dog freelancing world.

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