Friday, February 17, 2012

Controlling What Comes In vs. What Goes Out

Let’s face it, unless you’ve just written a best seller and have sold the movie rights to it, you won’t make a whole lot freelancing. That’s the truth and there’s no getting away from it. So to maximize your profits, you have to control your expenses—and not just your business expenses.

To set up a good system to control your overhead, you should take a look at how other small business do it. The first, and most important, thing to do is to keep careful records of what you spend on every item and review the figures regularly. Keep an eye out for bargains and buy in bulk at a discount when you can. Use credit wisely—but don’t become dependent on it. Create a budget and stick to it. And lastly, update your equipment when you can afford to. In other words, put some money back into your business.

You'll want to measure your success against the cost of it to see where you can cut corners and still maintain your needed writing routine. While the latest and greatest computer and phone equipment might be nice and will impress your friends, neither is necessary to conduct your freelance business. In fact, you may not want to buy the latest computer with the latest operating system.

For example, let’s say you have some programs that you know how to use well. It’s likely that if you upgrade to the latest Windows, for instance, those programs will no longer work on your system. You’ll have to go out and buy new ones or new versions of the old ones and that takes money. Plus, you’ll have to take the time to learn the new programs and that takes time and time is money. The same applies to your phone. If you have to have a cell phone, then consider a prepay plan like Tracfone that will enable to you to keep your costs in line and not give you another bill to pay every month.

How you handle the basic, materials of your trade is a matter too important to ignore. However the thought process may begin, you’ll soon find yourself composing and refining your thoughts on paper. Perhaps you’ll begin in longhand on a legal pad. Or maybe you’ll go directly to your computer and compose on the screen. Keep an eye on how you use paper. Do you really have to use fresh sheets for your notes? Why not print out your notes on the used pieces of paper? Likewise, do you need to buy special note pads or can you employ the backs of used envelopes to jot down memos or to-do lists? This may sound frugal, but it does save money. And while you’re at it, why not reuse those large envelopes in which you get other mail. Of course, in all cases, the envelopes shouldn’t have more than an address and return address on them, both of which you can cover over with labels and new addresses. To reseal them, buy some clear shipping tape.

You'll be dollars ahead if you study religiously every tip that comes your way regarding items you can get for less or, better still, for free. Know what you need and be on the lookout for sales. For example, you know you’ll need to buy additional print cartridges for your printer, so why not buy them from a discount house like LD Products and take advantage of their occasional sales and free shipping on weekends.

When you need office supplies, don’t make a beeline for your nearest Staples or Office Max. Instead, check online first and keep an eye peeled for sales of printing paper at your local supermarket when school begins in September and at drug retailers like Walgreens.

Today, you don’t even have to buy books new. There are plenty of places to buy used copies, both online and at book sales. And don’t forget that you can still borrow them from your local library, and they won’t cost you a dime unless you return them late.

Look at each item on your budget, including food and utilities, and examine alternatives. Can you use another service, such as UPS, in place of the U.S. Mail and save money? You don’t have to spend hours clipping coupons to get bargains.

Also, consider how you do your research. Technology in general has enabled people to spend far less for communications. Not so long ago, you would have had to pay hefty long-distance charges to interview someone across country—and even worse, within your state. Today, most phone companies, both cell and land line services, offer package plans that include long distance—one amount for all services per month. While before you would have had to keep a phone log of each call, today you needn’t worry about it. Instead, you can deduct a portion of your phone bill for your business.

You can even conduct interviews or get the information you need by E-mail. An advantage to using E-mail is it enables you to send the questions you want to ask ahead, so that your interviewee can prepare, resulting in a more productive interview. It also enables those who speak English as a second language to get an assistant to send you the answers to your questions in clear English, so there will be no misunderstandings.

Finally, you’ll need to record your expenses so you can interpret them as you go. There are a number of programs that allow you to do this. Try to find one that will let you record each expense right after you pay for it, then will let you compile all your expenses for tax purposes.  Splash Money from is one such program that works with smartphones, tablets, laptop and desktop computers.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Building Confidence

Nothing builds confidence in a freelance writer like money in the bank and words in print. Until these accumulate in sufficient amounts, you’ll be forced to rely on words of hope and encouragement from friends and colleagues.

Whatever kind of writing you do, you won't feel confident all the time. Some days you'll be very positive, able to take on any challenge. On other days, you'll feel like pulling the covers over your head and staying in bed. What you need, no matter whether you're a beginner or an experienced freelancer, are some steadying influences—things you can count on.

Establish a writing routine. One of these steadying influences is routine. Establish a good writing routine early on. If you feel like you know what you’re doing, you’ll have the confidence to continue. Too many beginning writers constantly have doubts about their abilities. Write something every day. And remember to look over pieces you’ve written a while back to see if you can improve them. On the other hand, read one or more of your published clips. Nothing builds confidence more than reading our published work and saying to yourself, “Wow! I wrote that.”

Take a writing course. In the very earliest phases of your career, you can build confidence by taking a writing course or two. Perhaps you need to start with a good foundation course like creative writing, then branch out to more specific courses like article, short story, or novel writing. The feedback you'll get from your instructors and fellow students will go a long way to building your confidence as a writer. But don’t’ go into a course with the idea of just getting patted on the back. That’s secondary. Take a course for what you can learn from it.

Publish some short articles. Once you've made it into print, you'll need to keep moving farther out on a limb, so to speak—but without falling. Perhaps you’ve published several short articles in your local paper. Your next step might be to query a regional magazine, suggesting to them that you write on a subject you know well. But don’t try to move up the publishing ladder too fast. The more pieces you write and publish on a particular subject, the more you’ll know about that subject and the more confident you’ll feel.

Take a survey. Talk about what you do with friends and colleagues. Try your ideas on them for their reactions. Discuss your ideas. The more feedback you can get at this stage, the more confident you’ll feel as you progress into the writing stage.

Do your homework. You’ll gain confidence by conscientiously doing your homework—studying the publications in which you hope to appear, perusing publisher’s book catalogs, scouting  possible clients among the businesses and ad agencies in your immediate vicinity.

Make a positive use of rejection. If the letters, notes, or E-mail messages you receive from editors contain any expressions that you can interpret as praise, study them. But be careful. You may put more stock in an editor’s words than he or she intended which will lead to even bigger disappointment. It's more professional to quickly submit the rejected manuscript to another possible market, or to revise and resubmit it. But if an editor's words indicate some interest in your topic, immediately send more ideas or manuscripts his or her way.

Compare your work to that of other writers in print. A big confidence builder is to compare your work to that of other writers in print. But be honest. Look at the stories and articles in your targeted periodicals. Is your writing superior in research, wording, organization, timeliness, and clarity? If you can give yourself good marks on all of these counts, you deserve to be confident. In fact, it may be just a short time before you join or replace your competitors in those magazines’ pages. If you discover that your work is deficient on two or more counts, then you should correct those problems. That, alone, will increase your confidence.

Take credit for your successes—no matter how small. Lastly, it's important to see that you get credit for whatever successes you have achieved, from good feedback in a writing class to rave reviews or an award for a first book. Nothing raises the confidence of a writer more than being recognized for writing excellence by his colleagues in the form of an award.

Friday, February 3, 2012

A Room of Your Own

Technology today allows you to write just about anywhere. However, running a successful business requires you to be organized. And as much as the techies keep telling us that computers allow us to have paperless offices, the more paper we seem to accumulate.

You’ll find that you’ll be better equipped to compete in the freelance marketplace if you have your own office. Sure, laptops and tablets allow you to write allow you to write wherever you happen to be and cell phones allow you to conduct interviews and do online research. But being totally mobile doesn’t help you stay organized, especially if like me you focus on non-fiction.

A home office has its advantages. First, there’s no rent to pay. You also don't have to worry about commuting, especially in bad weather. When you're not feeling up to par, you can do filing or paying bills, while still taking it easy. Also, if you’re working at home you may be less likely to catch those nasty viruses. You can also keep up with the news by radio or television if you want. You'll find you can work in whatever degree of casual attire you like. And finally, there's less wear and tear on your car or transportation budget.

Start with your own office, no matter how small it might be—a space entirely yours that’s available to you at any and all times where you do nothing but business tasks. It’s not impossible to freelance without an office, but it’s harder. In fact, you’ll soon realize that having your own office will increase your productivity. Here is the place you can steal away to when the creative urge hits or when you need to concentrate on a particularly difficult project.

You can create an office almost anywhere in your home or apartment. It can be in the corner of a room to start, but soon you’ll find that there’s no way to keep the interruptions from happening. It should be located in a room with a door, preferably one that you can lock from both sides. It’s not a good idea to take over your whole basement, for example, because no one else will be able to use it at the same time. Take a corner and put up two simple walls of framing and plasterboard with a door. Make sure the area has electrical connections and perhaps phone connections. You can do the same in any room in your house. Or take over a small bedroom.

While many homes have more than one computer, some have only one, shared by all the members of the family. This won’t do to freelance. Sure, you might be able to work when children are in school and your spouse is at work, but what if you have a sudden deadline, and someone else is using the computer? It’s best to plan on buying a desktop or laptop of your own, dedicated to your business—one that no one else should use. Remember, computer viruses brought home from school or work can infect your computer as easily as those that infect humans. And you need to protect your work at all times.

Some people need more creature comforts to work effectively than others. How fancy you make your office is up to you. Essentially, you’ll need a desk—not necessarily an actual desk—file cabinets or shelves with file boxes, a comfortable chair besides your desk chair in which you can sit and read over your drafts, and whatever other creature comforts you’d like.

And as mentioned above, using a computer doesn’t eliminate the need for paper files. Over time, these will multiply, and you’ll have to deal with them. As a freelancer, it’s important to keep at least one file folder for each piece you write. If you write books, then you’ll need at least one file folder for each chapter.  Over the years, you’ll discover that boxes of files seem to accumulate faster than you can find a place to store them. So start planning on a storage area for your files from the start.

It’s a lot easier to convince people that you’re a legitimate business today than it was a few years ago. Home offices are quite common since modern technology has enabled many people to work out of their homes. But you’ll probably have to set some ground rules, unless you live and work alone. Make sure your family understands that when you’re in your office, you’re working and should not be disturbed. With a proper office, you’ll also be able to apply for credit, etc., as a bonafide business. And don’t forget to fill out the form for deducting business expenses in your home with your federal and state income tax.

NOTE: If your office looks like the one pictured above, then you're probably not writing. You're only dreaming about being a writer.