When I decided to freelance full-time roughly a year ago, it felt not merely like walking a tightrope without a net, but improvising a full-scale trapeze act without any training in acrobatics. Advice for freelancers (some of it useful and some hackneyed) litters the internet, but it doesn’t always speak to the most important elements of working independently. To go it alone as a journalist you need—in addition to reporting and writing skills—a mix of bravery and business-savvy, persistence, and some balance between decisive pragmatism and a little quixotic optimism.
This August—at 9,000 feet in the Colorado mountains and nearly 1,500 miles away from my work desk in Seattle—I finally found a group of instructors offering balancing lessons for freelance journalists. Washington Post health columnist and longtime freelancer Christie Aschwanden organized a four-day summer camp for writers at the University of Colorado’s Mountain Research Station called “The Courage to Live It: A Master Class on the Business of Freelancing.” With the help of a career development grant from the Northwest Science Writers Association, I joined twenty-some “Courage Campers” to gather ideas on business planning, pitching, and time-management from Aschwanden and co-instructors Bruce Barcott (author of The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw), Laura Helmuth (science and health editor at Slate), and Julia Galef (co-founder of the Center for Applied Rationality). The group shared big-picture dreams and ideas—and beer and hand-made pizza—and agreed to provide longer-term support to one another as we each strived to meet our particular career goals.\
Here—distilled into five items—are a handful of the many tips I learned about business planning from the workshop organizers and my fellow “Courage Campers.”
- Prioritize both what is delicious and what pays the bills. Food is also a good metaphor for many things, including writing and money. I long thought a business plan was almost entirely about managing money, but as a writer (driven foremost by curiosity and creativity), if you focus on income only, it’s like living on a diet of empty calories. You need to consider what kind of work nourishes you on multiple levels, keeping you well-paid, happy, motivated, curious and impassioned. You can give clients and work projects a score (say, from zero to five) on the qualities that matter to you—such as how much they pay, whether the work is easy and quick or time-consuming and painful, how passionate you are about it, and how much it contributes to your career advancement. Do this, and it becomes much easier to prioritize your time and drop projects that are unrewarding both personally and financially. (Christie suggests that you make a list of the factors make your work “yummy” and enticing: she refers to this as filling your “tasty buckets.” Consider whether the things that occupy your time are satisfying your desires for, say, creative freedom, an engaged audience, or prestige. For more ideas on this, see Lesley Evans Ogden’s blog on the subject.)
- Make time for “passion projects.” Not all work that is meaningful is lucrative and vice versa. Bruce Barcott suggests setting aside some amount of time (such as two days per month) for the work that feeds your soul—such as a memoir or a literary manuscript—even if it doesn’t line your wallet.
- Seek out “bread and butter” work.As a freelancer, it’s helpful both financially and psychologically to find a regular, ongoing gig—such as blogging, research or editing—that offers both steady pay and structure.
- Chart your course. As writers, many of us have long-term ambitions and big dreams about the type of work we want to publish and the impact we want it to have. But it’s easy for those ambitions to be continually waylaid by projects that are smaller and more urgent. It’s helpful to plot out not just where you want to be in five years, but in two years, one year, six months, next week. Are the tasks you’ve planned over the next year helping you reach your long-term goals?
- Just say “no.” I have many times noticed my own tendency to become enticed by too many projects at once. I also struggle to say “no” to requests from others, even for projects that are sometimes poorly compensated. Each time I do this, it eats away time I might spend seeking out better-paid or more rewarding work. Budgeting both money and time can help avoid this problem. Christie recommended considering both how much money you would like to earn and how much minimally you need to earn to cover the household expenses. In creating my own business plan, I have also begun to add up the number of work hours available to me in the coming three-month period. This makes it clearer not just what I need to do but what projects and requests I should consider turning down. (For more ideas, see Courtney Martin’s evocative essay at On Being on “The Spiritual Art of Saying No.”)
Helpful apps and tools include mint.com (for budgets), toggl.com (for tracking hours), and TeuxDeux (for keeping to-do lists). Scrivener and Evernote are favorite project management tools for writers.