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Friday, February 08, 2013

Ten Commandments of the Overworked Freelancer

What's on the iPod: Last Time by Taylor Swift

writing, freelance writing
Ever have one of those days where everything goes nuts, usually after a number of days where not much at all is going on? Welcome to my Thursday. If you looked up nuts in the dictionary, I'd swear there would be a picture of my schedule from yesterday.

I've been sending out LOIs to conference attendees in hopes of scheduling some work or picking up some projects. Twenty letters in, I had to cool my jets. The phone and email is full of inquiries, and I have been asked by a few regular clients to give a call for some project discussions. February is going to be busier than expected.

As always, I started sweating the timing of it all. I don't want to disappoint anyone, but I have projects in my hands now that have immediate deadlines. Time-wise, I just can't do one more fast turnaround. It's physically impossible.

So I took a deep breath. Relaxed my shoulders. Then I opened a Word document and prioritized. Okay, this one had to be first -- without a doubt. This other one has a deadline of Monday, but I can get it done by today. That leaves next week for the regular client and for the new stuff coming in. I have one new client call scheduled for next week. The other has been one of those hit-and-miss voice mail dances.

If you're brand new or still squeaky clean to freelancing, you'll be hard pressed to turn down or even postpone work as it comes in. Sometimes no matter how far along in your career you are, you just can't postpone it due to client scheduling issues. Still, sometimes you have to preserve your own sanity and give yourself ample time to get the project done correctly. Trust me. I had an instance of screwing a project up because I had six others going at the same time. You won't get a second chance if you muck it up big time. Give yourself ample breathing room and space to work.

Here are my commandments for keeping the workflow running smoothly:

Honor thy client's deadline. Even if that means you have to turn down the work or refer it to someone else, understand that clients have deadlines, too. However, if you get the sense that the deadline is arbitrary, it's okay to give a little resistance - "I don't have time right now, but I have Tuesday open. Can I get it to you by then?"

Thou shalt not overbook. I really did schedule seven projects at once. How dumb was that? One was a long (and getting longer) course I was creating from scratch. It overlapped with three articles, two client projects, and then that now infamous seventh project that came in without warning and with an insanely tight deadline. Instead of pushing back on any deadline, I worked 12-hour days. The result - one client (now former) who was unhappy with the results and didn't mention it until I asked for feedback a month later (when the dust had finally settled). What could have been a lucrative partnership went up in flame thanks to my need to please. Don't do it. Know your limits and respect them. Better to lose the gig than to screw it up.

Thou shalt not skip steps. One of the reasons I got into trouble with this project was I'd assumed it was an easy one. It was, but I skipped over the research a little and settled on one of the first statistics I found. Turned out that's what ignited the fire - the client's client was upset that the statistic was from a local group and not a national one. A small thing, but it was a deal breaker. If you take on the project, budget the time to include every step needed to do the job right.

Thou shalt say no thank you. Yes, you can turn down a project, especially if you have no time for it. It may not be the death knell of your client relationship, either. They may learn to come to you sooner, and your busy schedule may make them realize what a commodity you are.

Thou shalt not compromise thine own standards. You know when you have more work than you can do, yet you took on that new project, too. Why? Because you're a codependent do-gooder who wants the check and the client approval. I know because that was me a few years ago. If the projects you're turning out are not to your personal standards, don't turn it over to the client. Request more time to get it right. Don't expect them to be okay with you fixing it in revisions. You may not be given the chance to get to that point.

Honor thy need to charge for rush jobs. True, they need it now now NOW. That doesn't mean you shouldn't be compensated for their lack of planning. When they call Friday afternoon saying they HAVE to have it Monday morning, your response should be something like "Sure thing. My fee for rush weekend work is double my usual fee. Do you want to pay the deposit via Paypal?" In other words, get compensated for pushing other projects aside or giving up your free time.

Thou shalt refer. I used a writer friend as a subcontractor this past fall when my workload exceeded my time. I acted as project manager. The result - he was able to score some much-needed work (and cash) and I was able to get the job done without killing myself. Figure out now who among your writer friends would be good subcontractors should you find yourself with too much work to handle.

Thou shalt adjust the client's view of what's possible. It was a long project that would not end. They expected 400 pages of a brand-new course (plus a 100-question test) in four months. When I fretted to the husband, he said, "Then tell them it's not happening." He nailed it. I was sweating an arbitrary deadline that had too many unrealistic expectations. I told the client I couldn't meet the deadline. They were fine with it, too. If it's not possible and you know it, speak up.

Keep sacred the weekend. Or whatever day you normally take off. While it's super to have a ton of work (aka money) coming in, it's not good to overwork yourself. You need the down time. Unless there's no other choice, don't work seven days solid. You can't be your best if you're not rested and balanced in other areas of your life.

Thou shalt charge more. My husband has this way of stating the obvious -- often those things that should be obvious, but aren't. When I fussed once about being too busy, he said, "You need to be charging more." Wow. How brilliant is that? If you're too busy, you need to raise the rates a bit. That does two things -- it weeds out some of the work, plus it justifies your popularity with clients. And that popularity is your gauge for when the rates should be going up.

How do you handle an abundance of work and a shortage of time?


Devon Ellington said...


One has to be careful about subcontracting, though. Several of my best clients have "no subcontracting" clauses in their agreements,which I believe (in those specific cases) are worth honoring.

They do it for two reasons:
1. They hired me for MY particular quirky style, because the tone, voice, and viewpoint are different than anything else they've found and they love it. And yes, they can tell if someone else writes it.

2. They've been burned by writers who were hired and then subcontracted out before. The deadlines weren't met,the quality was poor, and it wasn't in the voice they contracted.

If I've got enough work coming in steadily, then, yes, I can take the downtime. However, if it's a feast cycle and I'm trying to make up for lost income, or I'm trying to get ahead because I know I'll be unavailable, I'll put in some extra hours to get it done, and then use famine times as downtime.

I do try to stay disconnected at least one day a week -- no phone, no internet -- I may still do some work, but the solitude is necessary.

Paula said...

When mentioned your husband's knack for stating the obvious, the first thing that went through my head was, "Why don't most writers think that way? That's how most business people think."

A couple years ago I was working on 13 articles at the same time. All for the same client. Thankfully they were very flexible with deadlines. One reason the editor said she was able give me more time was because she knew I always turned in clean copy, which made her job easier.

Will I ever again take on 13 articles due at the same time? Probably not. But after that, I know I'm up for almost anything.

I'm currently working on 6 articles for Favorite Editor, five of which are due at the same time. They're also a bit flexible with deadlines, but I usually wind up turning their assignments in early.

Lori said...

Great point about subcontracting, Devon. If you're going to subcontract, it has to be okay with the client and you have to be willing to oversee the work (and redo it if necessary). I've been fortunate to know and work with true professionals, but I did have one instance years ago where the subcontracted work never got completed and I had to scramble last minute to get it done. And I did because ultimately, it was my responsibility.

Paula, that's huge amounts of work! I'm glad you had an editor who gave you an open-ended deadline.

Anne Wayman said...

I don't subcontract... well almost never because the management of the project can take twice the time to do it myself... which is a shame, but... and when I get swamped I boost my rates.

Lori said...

I do the same, Anne, but I'm not against subcontracting with the right freelancers. In one case, the writer made my job so much easier. She anticipated some additional needs and just did it. It was a great experience.

True that it can take time to manage, but I look at that as money in the bank -- they get the bulk of the work (and the check) and I get someone who now knows how to handle a project the way the client and I need it to be handled.

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