Friday, June 29, 2012

Maximizing Your Productivity

As your freelance career progresses, you may find that you have too many small projects that are interesting but just don't pay their way. Worse yet, you may on occasion work for a publication that doesn't keep its promise to pay. At year's end, even though you've been writing constantly, you find yourself in the hole.

Be realistic about what you can do. Remember, you can only do so much in the time you have. Spending too much time on poorly paying projects will eventually take its toll. So what can you do about it? The answer lies in creating a production schedule for maximizing your productivity.

If you want to improve your productivity for the next year or even the next quarter, you’ll need to take a hard look at what you’ve accomplished and what you haven’t in the last one. After analyzing the data, you need to come up with a production schedule that meets your needs and your lifestyle. Devise a detailed production schedule for the coming year with a built-in review time each month. You should also mark specific billing dates in red, since you’ll want to be reminded to do bookkeeping chores. Doing this will definitely increase your productivity.

Ease into systematic production planning by starting with a desk diary. You should look for one that allots a page to each day, perhaps subdivided into segments, with plenty of space for notations on your production and billing schedules and which will also allow you to note expenses and a list of important contact numbers and email addresses. If you’re somewhat computer savvy, you can use a project scheduling program and while this will work, you may find that being able to write notes and adjustments on a paper one is more thorough.

Begin by writing in the listing for each project the deadline and what you need to prepare for it—basic text, sidebars, photos, graphs, or charts. Include for each a schedule for initial research and library or fieldwork to be completed by a fixed date.

Next note the dates and times for interviews and contact numbers and/or email addresses. Will your interviewees be available when you need them? Also, don't forget to note time differences if they live outside of your area.

Make a note of the date to contact your editor for a progress report. It’s important to let him or her know if you’ve discovered some new material in your research or if the project isn't going in the direction expected. Discussing this with your editor will let you know if it’s salvageable.

Lastly, make a note of dates when you need to obtain permissions or supplementary material, as well as the dates they're due in your hands, ready to be assembled with your text.

Set up a tentative production schedule before you have assignments—a sort of sketch to see how you can fit in trips, interviews, writing time, research time, and such at the beginning of each month or quarter. Some writers prefer to send queries out in groups at the beginning of each month rather than one at a time. Scheduling several interviews in a certain area, for example, not only saves time and effort but also money.

And while editors will always give you a deadline, it’s smart to schedule your own a bit ahead of the ones they'll give you. If you seem to be running to too many places each month, perhaps you could organize your research into three or four trips, instead..

Along with research and deadline dates, make a note of when you expect to be paid and how much. Even if you send a bill with your manuscript, many publications are slow in paying. Ask each new editor you work with when his or her publication pays for work and record that information on your productivity page for that project, then match that against the schedule of foreseeable expenses.

Doing all of the above may sound like extra work but in the end, it will make you a more productive writer.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Take a Writing Vacation

The summer solstice has just past. The folks at Stonehenge got soaking wet as they gathered to celebrate it and watch the sunrise. For the rest of us, the solstice means thinking about taking some time off.  For writers, that’s not always easy to do. So as the old saying goes, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” In other words, don’t try to get away from your writing but maybe do something different that will improve it.

If money is tight, you can always take a staycation—that is, stay at home and do things you wouldn’t normally do. Instead of writing, you might want to create a reading program for yourself. Study the works of a particular writer you admire or find several with different writing styles and compare them. See how their techniques can help you in your writing. Work on your style.

An alternative to this is while on your staycation, write something opposite to what you normally write. Try something different. Have fun with writing for a change—no deadlines, no editors, just you and your words.

If you can afford it in both time and money, you might consider enrolling in a writer’s colony. Writers' colonies are good, especially if you've come to a point in your career when what you need most is to complete a long project with time off from the hectic realities of everyday writing and family responsibilities. Some writers find these communities of writers in tranquil surroundings the perfect solution to what they've been searching for.

Some colonies offer lots of time to socialize, at least around the dinner table. There’s nothing better than conversing with other writers. It expands your outlook and may give you ideas on improving your work. At other colonies, everyone pretty much keeps to themselves. Some take beginning writers, others do not. It’s important to check before you apply and to speak with other writers who have spent time at the one you're contemplating before you make the leap. If you don't know anyone who's been to one, write to a writer listed in the colony brochure for advice.

You may have to send samples of your work along with your application form. Most colonies require that you get a recommendation from a former visitor. And some require you to send along a work plan or explanation of what you hope to accomplish at the colony.

If you don’t have the time to enroll in an established writers’ colony, perhaps you may be lucky enough to find another writer who has a vacation cabin or beach house that will invite you and a couple of others to stay for a week of writing. One writer gets together with several writer friends at a bungalow in New Jersey once a year. They write during the day, but get together to cook dinner and discuss their progress in the evening. Chipping in for food is a lot less expensive than a writers’ colony.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Mining for Gold

Unless you can afford to fill a huge house with files containing research for your books, articles and the like, you’ll have to tame the paper tiger before it eats you alive. So mine other sources for research information, resources like libraries that may contain what you need and have it on hand when you need it.

Begin with your local public library. Ask for a list of its periodical holdings. Keep in your personal library only those magazines the library doesn't subscribe to. Many writers subscribe to a number of periodicals, clip and file the material they want, then discard the magazines. Before you discard yours, though, take the time to remove the tables of contents, which you can easily store in a three-ring binder. And while at the library, make copies of the tables of contents of magazines they have that you may want to use in the future. Then, before you head to your library to research a project, you can look through your binder for the precise publication and date you need. The only downside to using some smaller libraries is their lack of space for expansion. Many sell off books and magazines that have poor circulation to make room for newer ones.

Also, find out where secondhand sources for periodicals and books are in your area. Make a note of the above library book sales and plan to spend some time there perusing the items that you may want to add to your personal library. Secondhand book shops, thrift shops, and flea markets are other good sources, especially if you have a specialty. And remember to ask at your doctor's and dentist’s offices and barber’s shop or hairdresser’s salon for periodicals they no longer want. Most will be happy to give them to you.

Digital recorders are great for noting ideas you get on the go or to record information and ideas you may get from listening to your car radio. This holds true during library research, a visit to a museum, or whatever. You can then transfer your audio notes to your computer or transcribe them into your word processing program.

All writers have books in their personal libraries—lots of them. But few take the time to catalog their own library. The more books you acquire, the more difficult it is to retrieve the information they contain. With a catalog of your personal library, you have immediate access to this information in capsule form, saving you lots of time rummaging through your own bookshelves.  Your personal book catalog also shows what you have for insurance and tax purposes. You’ll find free book cataloging programs on such sites as or just do a search on Google for them.

So much for the printed material. But don’t forget that you can build a network of fellow writers and other specialists easily using today’s social media. With such a reliable network you become more valuable to your clients and more efficient at finding information for all of your writing. A freelancer in another city, for instance, may be willing, for a reasonable fee or exchange of services, to do local telephone research for you, thus saving you the cost of travel. Also, don’t forget to ask public relations(PR) representatives if they know of any sources of information or experts for quotes in their field of expertise.

One of the best social networks for useful professional contacts is LinkedIn. While it’s geared mostly to professionals seeking to upgrade their positions or seek new jobs. It’s also good for making contacts with PR people and experts in specialized fields.  Remember, a social network is only as good as the people in it. Besides building regulars contacts, LinkedIn also offers discussion groups of professionals in specialized fields. Join those appropriate to your work and chime in on the discussions. You may be able to develop some great working relationships this way.

The other social media network that may be useful to building a network of contacts is Facebook. While its personal pages are more for friends connecting with friends, it’s professional pages—fan, author, and book pages—are aimed at helping writers showcase their businesses or promote themselves or their books. Work at building a good “fan” page—the equivalent of a corporate page for writers. This is an umbrella page that showcases your business. Too many writers create only author or book pages. These last two limit the type of contacts you can make.

Once you've consciously built your network of research helpers—fellow journalists, librarians, magazine editors and writers, novelists, and public relations executives—keep them informed of your needs and offer to reciprocate whenever possible.

Friday, June 8, 2012

A Step in Time Saves Nine

Busy managers have a lot in common with busy freelancers, so it’s only natural that time-saving tips for managers would also work for you.

During an average workday, a manager’s work load consists of numerous important as well as  unimportant items. Much of a manager’s time involves sending and receiving information, mostly through speaking with workers under his or her charge. During the long hours managers work, they’re busy doing a lot of mostly fragmented things with a variety of people. So important for a manager to manage their time wisely so they don’t go mad. Does this sound like your typical work day. If so, here are some time-saving tips that will increase your productivity and help you to retain your sanity.

    1. Work at as clean a desk as possible. There’s nothing worse than trying to find that one paper that you need to complete a project. Move projects, important correspondence, and such off your desk each week on schedule.

    2. Handle routine paperwork, such as correspondence, only once.  While this is difficult to achieve without help, make an effort.
    3. Create a To Do List. Depending on how busy you are, you might create one for the week or perhaps one every few days. Cross off items you complete as soon as you finish them.

    4. Employ the A-B-C priority system. Once you have made your To Do List, place an “A” next to items of top importance, a “B” next to those less important but that still need to be done, and a “C” next to those with the least importance.  You may find that the ones with a “C” next to them may complete themselves automatically or may not need doing at all.

    5. Also ask yourself, “Am I making the best use of my time right now?” If the answer is no, then take immediate steps to remedy the situation.

    6. Give yourself a reward upon completion of a job. Go for a walk or stop at your local coffee shop for a cup of joe and a sweet treat.

    7. Plan five minutes of review time into your daily schedule. Look at what happened yesterday, what will happen today, and what you need to do tomorrow. The more you plan out your day or week, the more you’ll accomplish.

    8. If you’re especially busy, delegate low-priority jobs to others.  Perhaps hire a high school or college student to do preliminary research, set up interviews, order supplies, or filing.

    9. Force yourself to make decisions. Always take some sort of action on an important job to keep it moving forward. Delays result from simply avoiding decisions.

    10. At the end of each day, take 15 minutes to plan tomorrow. Knowing what you need to do helps to keep things organized should an unexpected emergency develop.

Remember, as your freelance business increases, so do the stresses of everyday work and life. Staying organized will help you to better cope with the ups and downs of this business.

Friday, June 1, 2012

If the Idea Fits...

Every beginning freelance writer, whether of non-fiction or fiction, thinks that their ideas are great and everyone, including editors, should gobble them up. This is no accident. In fact, your teachers from the first day you entered school encouraged you to think of only original ideas and that everyone would like them. That may be the way academics think, but it certainly isn’t what life’s about in the real world.

So when you began freelancing, you reached inside yourself for ideas and doggedly forged ahead developing them without any concern for who would read and like them. You had no concern for your readers. Instead, you were more concerned about yourself. And that’s only natural since for at least 12 years, and for some people more, you learned that the writer and the writer’s ideas are the center of writing. But in the type of writing you’re attempting to do now, it’s the reader who’s at the center. To be successful, you have to write what readers and editors want to read.

Let's examine your ideas file. When you first began to consider freelancing, you probably clipped articles from the all sorts of major publications, as well as your local newspapers and printed out those you found on the Internet. You clipped information that interested you specifically, plus material about broad general trends. Then you filed these clippings in categorized folders to use later. Soon you realized you had been collecting loads of clippings but not acting on the ideas they inspired.

Or perhaps the opposite was true. You insisted on sticking to a few of your favorite story ideas even though they got rejected by editor after editor. You even tried some twice, hoping that they’d change their minds.

Let’s face it, organizing your ideas into marketable form isn't easy when you're starting out. The best way to get yourself on track is to get some feedback—ideally from other writers, but perhaps from an editor who looks kindly at beginners. Ask them why your ideas aren’t hitting the mark. In fact, ask readers—friends, colleagues, family members—if they would read a piece based on a certain idea. Talk about your work and listen to what’s said in return.

If you do happen to find an editor who will give you feedback, ask him or her why you haven't been able to interest them in any ideas you’ve sent. Also ask how you should rearrange your proposals and if and when he or she is most likely to be interested in some of your favorite ideas. Whatever advice you can get, act on it immediately.

Perhaps it's time to sit back and take a good, thorough look at the ideas you've been percolating, to check them against what editors say they want and need, rather than what you want to give them. At the same time reexamine your markets to see if any you once thought held promise still do, especially if you present them with ideas they want and need.

Before you send an idea to any publication or publisher, be sure to check out what they have already produced. Read several issues of a magazine or send for the current catalog from a book publisher. Keeping your ideas in mind, peruse either carefully to see if your ideas match the ones already done. If so, you know you’ve got a good chance at success with that publication or publisher. If you send out your favorite ideas blindly, you’re doomed to failure.

If you already have been published by magazine or book publisher but your current ideas have been rejected, reexamine that market to see if it has changed direction. Have they lost ad revenue or are taking different types advertising than before? Are they publishing pieces that they wouldn’t have before?  Have they cut back on freelance pieces or are they only publishing well-known writers? And most importantly, has the editor changed since you last wrote for them?

If you’re intent on publishing a book, you’ll find the book publishing industry in a state of flux. Recently, a major New York publishing house filed for bankruptcy protection. More are sure to follow.

Take a good hard look at your ideas. Will they be interesting to readers? If so, which group? Focus your ideas on what readers want to read, and you’ll come out a winner just about every time.