Exercise care, and plan well, before freelancing

If you haven’t browsed the market for freelance writers and editors lately, take a look around. Even a glance on Google shows the horizon to be virtually limitless, with the scope of jobs available out there capable of keeping a person busy through this lifetime and perhaps another.

But how many of us want to dive that deep? A pool of bottomless opportunity, while inviting, may be difficult for some independent journalists to navigate for its potential to consume one’s life. So, before taking the plunge, weigh a few facts.

Time management is essential — The first thing newcomers to this line of work want to know is how much money they’ll make, and the answer is rather simple: as much as they want. If they throw themselves into their jobs, chances are the wages will satisfy. But we all have lives away from our careers, and those lives also must come into account. Therefore, set firm working hours and stick to them — avoid distractions during these hours such as Netflix and that new book just downloaded from Amazon.

It should go without saying that a good diet and plenty of rest are essential work tools as well, though even the most-committed among us need reminders of this from time to time. This usually happens when …

Sickness happens — There will be a day or two, probably more, when a scratchy throat in the morning devolves to low-grade fever by mid-afternoon, or a family member becomes ill, and working becomes impossible. Better to admit defeat and come back stronger the next day.

This means making allowances for sick time. Many businesses allow for up to 10 days of paid sick time per calendar year; use that amount as a guideline when drafting a work calendar. And by all means be honest and forward with clients when illness arises and threatens a deadline, so they can adjust their schedules, too.

Clients accept that sickness happens. Freelancers should be honest with themselves and accept it, too.

Bad clients are everywhere — Of course, for every five or 10 understanding clients, there’s one who’s impossible to please, or who’s lax giving instructions, or who’s shameless about taking freelancers’ ideas as their own. Like illness, these people require freelancers to make contingencies, but the key is to avoid them before they pose problems.

Prior to taking on a project, conduct plenty of homework. Find out some background about clients: scrutinize their websites to see who receives credit for content and how, and mine the freelance marketplace for feedback from other writers and editors for indications of trouble.

Then, when the time comes to discuss potential projects, insist that clients provide specifics instead of generalities. And listen carefully not just to what clients say, but also how they say it: rudeness or curt behavior may allude to larger problems later.

Self-promotion bolsters success — Freelancers can write or edit stories all day and still feel as though their careers are stuck in neutral. Thus, a measure of innovation may be required to move things forward.

To start, it helps to master social media — Facebook, Twitter, Quora, etc. — the fastest form of communication growing. Story sources and editing clients may prefer one of these venues to share basic information, pass along content changes and, in general, stay in touch. (Having said this, I must stress that phone calls are still the most meaningful form of direct communication apart from face-to-face meetings.)

Social media also is essential for self-promotion, though it takes considerable time and care to develop it for that purpose. For example, in the publishing world, the informal time-management rule nowadays for book authors is “80/20” — spending 80 percent of their time promoting themselves and 20 percent actually writing their books. This large percentage devoted to promotion includes such things as teaching workshops, speaking at engagements, and working with other authors and editors to develop their craft.

Granted, an 80/20 split may not suit most freelancers, given that their success depends largely on volume. Nevertheless, a nod toward innovation can boost potential and expand one’s reach in the marketplace.

Freelancers are their own bosses — the greatest perk of the business. They’re also entirely responsible for their own failures. Extensive care and planning, and the willingness to innovate, will go a long way toward keeping those failures to a minimum.

David Sheets is a sports editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and STLtoday.com, and president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at dsheets@post-dispatch.com, on Twitter at @DKSheets, or on Facebook and LinkedIn.

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