Saturday, September 15, 2012

Three Lessons for a Freelance Writer and Editor

by Zinta Aistars

Learning curve! One and a half months into my experience as sole proprietor of my own business, Z Word, LLC, offering writing and editing services, I am learning new things daily. It's always a good idea to take a moment to look back and note what I have learned.

So. How am I wiser?

Of all newness floating around and soaking into my brain, I have come away with three most prominent lessons about being a full-time freelance writer and editor:

1. Boy howdy, is this a different lifestyle! No surprise here, but it is one thing to know, another to live it. Life as a free agent is different from the moment I wake to the moment I sleep, and I'm pretty sure it affects my dreams, too. It most certainly affects the quality of my sleep ... very deep. No alarm clocks in the mornings (one of my most favorite changes). I sleep better than I ever have, and I'm sure the fact that my "office" is deep in the country doesn't hurt one bit.

On the other hand, after beating down some weird guilt at no longer having to do an early morning commute up and down the Interstate and through city jams, not attending endless drone-on corporate meetings, not dealing with office politics, not doing as I'm told rather than doing what makes sense, I got over it. Time is now as I choose to manage it. That transition of fully absorbing that I am now the boss of my own time took longer than I expected, but it was a fun lesson to absorb. At the same time, this lesson soon led to lesson #2.

2. I have to be a better steward of my time. I am crazy busy, and my calendar has no white space left on it. That's okay. It means I am working. But am I working efficiently? Dollars don't necessarily align with hours, and at first month's end, I began to realize I have to find ways to translate all that busyness into dollars more productively. How? Only area in which I can see my way to that is by cutting back on in-person interviews. 

Oh no! I love doing in-person interviews! And surely, it contributes to the quality of my work. I can't speak for the reader of my work, but when I meet someone in person for an interview, I not only hear the answers to my nosy questions, I also see his or her expressions, body language, environment. I learn a thousand things about that person by sheer observation, far beyond the words that come out of my interviewee's mouth. No less important, it is easier to build trust with the person I am interviewing if he or she can see my expressions and body language as well. I'm certain I come away with better results, more interesting detail, and I can paint a scene for my article that is more than just the words coming out of someone's mouth.

And it is a heck of a lot more fun.

But now I look at my calendar, and I think ... something's got to give. If I travel to talk to someone in person, it can take half a day, sometimes even as much as a full day if I am traveling to a far-flung location, considering that I am coming from a location pretty far from anywhere myself. If I do a phone interview instead, I can complete my interview in, more or less, an hour. I also save gas.

I'm not going to give up in-person interviews. See reasons of quality above. But a compromise is in order. I will have to be choosier about which ones I do face to face, which ones I do over the phone. No point in doing an excellent interview if I can't find the time on my calendar to actually sit down and write about it.

3. Even peanuts add up. I don't shoot my nose up in the air in response to any offer. I consider it carefully. Is it a good networking move? Can it lead to something bigger? Is it a steady account that pays timely? If there is one thing I understood quickly about working for myself, it is that the steady and predictable paycheck is a thing of the past. Of course, I knew that. Thus the need to build up a sizable financial cushion before trying to go into business of ANY kind. You can count on dry periods here and there, and most any business takes time to establish. Dipping into savings now and then is a given. Especially at tax time, which comes around four times a year for the self-employed.

I have been freelancing on the side for most of my adult life, and that has been crucial. I never let my network go dead. Always something on my wire, even when I was busy at my regular job, which paid well enough that I didn't need to freelance ... I just wanted to. I knew it was a smart move for the future, a building block. I knew I wanted to work full time as a freelance writer and editor since ... forever. Keep my eye on the goal.

Now, those past efforts are coming to fruition and giving me a healthy boost as a new business, because, in truth, it isn't really new at all. Since I'm not usually a bridge burner when it comes to work, I am also now able to write freelance for many of my previous employers. They are some of my best clients today.

Back to peanuts. The big, juicy assignments give me a shot of adrenalin every time. Of course they do! But the electric bill might come between those juicy assignments, and what if one of them gets stalled, as one such assignment just did, because the person I need to interview fell quite seriously ill? I probably won't see the paycheck for that assignment for a month, even two months, farther out than expected. Stuff happens. Count on it. And when stuff happens, it is awfully nice to have a peanut or three to keep me going.

It can often be those smaller assignments that add up to bigger checks, too. Not the stuff of lottery dreams, no, but I am currently giving serious consideration to an offer to write four stories a week, with an occasional feature here and there, for a newspaper covering parts of greater Grand Rapids. The news editor and I are meeting next week to discuss the details of the assignment. Per news article, it won't pay much. Add up four such news articles per week, however, and that many over a month, and it can help to get me through the occasional drought. I'm pretty sure I am going to sign on that dotted line and be counted among their crew of reporters. Could be fun. Could be great networking, too. And there is something to be said for a steady paycheck, arriving regular as clockwork.

So that's my life one and a half months in. I am loving every moment of it. Every day brings wonder. I work hard, as hard as ever, and some days harder than most, but I am working for myself, making my own decisions, deciding what I want to take on and what I want to leave off. I am following my bliss. I am spending my days writing, and I love nothing better. This kind of work I could do, oh, forever. It nurtures me, and not just with cash. 

Sitting in the morning sunshine with work associate Guinnez at Z Acres
Some Monday mornings when I get up, not by alarm but when I am rested enough, I go outside to walk the beautiful grounds of Z Acres, contemplating the work day ahead, and I hear singing. Then I realize ... it's me breaking out in song. That's something I can't remember ever doing on a Monday.


  1. A lot of people turning to full-time freelance have trouble with self-discipline. In part, this comes from going from structured to unstructured days. And, if there's family at home, it can also come from others who don't respect the fact that the freelancer is WORKING at home, rather than to start doing errands and chores as though every day is Saturday.

    You seem to be in control of the discipline issue even though Z Acres seems to lend itself to a bit of floating through the days and seasons.


  2. True, Malcolm, although I find in very many ways, Z Acres also inspires. It is the setting, for instance, for a longer prose piece I am currently working on. It is my oasis.