by Patricia Fry
When You’re The Boss
By Patricia L. Fry
You’ve finally made the decision to become a full-time writer. Perhaps your youngest child enters school this year. Maybe you’ve taken early retirement or you quit your job and now you’re going to pursue your dream to write. Life is wonderful! Or is it?
If you’re like many beginning freelancers, you wonder where you’ll ever find the time to write. You’re trying to work from home now and it’s a virtual hub of activity. There are dishes to wash, lawns to mow, beds to make, a refrigerator full of food calling to you, dogs barking and possibly children underfoot. How do you discipline yourself to work amidst these household distractions?
After 29 years of practice, I’ve established some home-business standards. Here they are:
- Arrange separate office space. Don’t try to launch a writing career on the kitchen table. You need a separate and permanent place to write. Ideally, you can transform a spare room into an office. The next best thing would be to create permanent space in a corner of a bedroom. One writer friend had a cubical constructed in her garage for her office. A little insulation, a piece of carpeting, a space heater and some colorful posters made her feel right at home and cozy there.
- Set strict business hours. Commit to even two or three hours per day at first, while you’re acclimating yourself to this way of working. As soon as you can, shift into a six or eight-hour workday. You might start work at 8 a.m., take 30 minutes for lunch and then continue working until 4:30. If you have young children coming home from school at 2:30, work from 8 – 2.
If you’re accustomed to having someone else structure your workday or if you’ve been operating life without a schedule, put your business hours in writing. Make a sign stating these hours and post it on your office door. Block out this time on your engagement calendar.
If you’re easily distracted by household chores or hobbies, schedule time on your calendar for these activities as well. Knowing that you can look forward to time off, will help you to focus on work during working hours.
- Organize your time. Most freelance writers have a variety of responsibilities to handle each day and sometimes coordinating these tasks can be overwhelming. Over the years, I’ve discovered that I spend approximately ¾ of my time writing, doing research and conducting interviews, ¼ is spent promoting books and new articles and ¼ is devoted to doing bookwork. When I’m working with clients, the ratio is similar (¾ of the time on client work, ¼ drumming up new business and ¼ doing bookwork).
It makes sense to plan your day/week/month accordingly. Of course, the reason you’re in this business is for the joy of writing. But if you spend three days during the week writing, you’d better devote one day to making new business contacts and another day chasing down money owed, reading contracts, logging transactions and so forth. If you don’t take care of the details of your business, you don’t really have a business.
Likewise, organize your time away from home. Rather than running errands several times a week, save them up to do all at once. When I go out, I carry a list. I might do a little library research, deliver books to a local bookstore, buy supplies, conduct an interview, pick up some photos for an article and ship some books, for example.
- Prioritize. When you’re your own boss, sensible prioritization is vital to your success. Following through with a client’s project becomes more important than cleaning house, for example. Often more difficult is deciding which business tasks to handle in what order. I know many writers who spend a lot of time spinning their wheels instead of being productive because they can’t determine their priorities.
Here are my criteria: Let’s say that I have three articles to write with similar deadlines. I’ll generally work on the one for the highest paying magazine or the one with which I have the best working relationship first. If the lowest paying magazine has the closest deadline, I’ll typically finish that one first, making sure to leave plenty of time to complete the others within their deadlines.
If I have an article to write, rewrites on a book manuscript for a publisher and a book proposal to compile for a client, I’ll work on the project with the closest deadline. If there are no deadlines, I might schedule time each day for each project so no one has to wait long for the finished product.
- Learn to deal with distractions. Another real problem for many freelance writers are the distractions that normally occur around the home. Household tasks waiting to be tackled, barking dogs, neighbors stopping by, personal telephone calls, even your own children. Most writers can successfully minimize personal interruptions with honesty and bribery. Friends and family may find it difficult to take you seriously as a writer at first. It’s up to you to demonstrate your professionalism and sometimes you might have to be rather firm.
Learn to say “no.” And I like to offer something when I take something away. For example, when a friend calls to invite you to lunch, say, “I’d love to go, but I’m working on a deadline this week. Can we go after church on Sunday? Or how about coming over here for dinner next Thursday evening?”
I didn’t start writing until my own daughters were teenagers. I just don’t know how parents with small children around can write at home. I know a few women and one man who juggle parenthood with writing, though, and relatively successfully. One mother says, “I write while my three-year-old is sleeping. I also have a little corner in my office where Justin can play while I’m working. He has his own desk with a toy computer, play telephone, paper, colored markers and so forth. Sometimes he’ll entertain himself for nearly an hour at a time. And I’ve had to learn to get a lot of work done during short intervals.”
- Adopt rituals. Two major problems for the dozens of home-based workers I’ve interviewed over the years are, how to start working each day and how to quit. I suggest adopting rituals.
For me, pouring a glass of orange juice and starting the coffee, is my cue to go to work. I start at 5 a.m. and I take a break around 8 to do minimal household tasks. A friend of mine doesn’t start working until after she has a cup of coffee with the morning newspaper. I interviewed a graphic artist once who leaves his home every morning around 7, enjoys a cup of coffee downtown and then comes back home to work. That’s the ritual he has developed and he says it works for him.
Many writers find it easier to start working in the morning when they’re not facing a blank screen. Try always leaving something unfinished at quitting time, so you can ease into work the next day.
As for rituals to help you quit, turn off the computer at 5 o’clock, close your office door, plan specific activities for yourself or with the family for evening time so you won’t be tempted to go to work out of boredom. One writer says, “Putting everything away helps me to officially close the office for the day.”
- Create a healthy balance. It’s up to you to establish your personal and business lifestyle and pace. When developing a schedule around your work, be sure to include outdoor activities, mental stimulation, social events, time with friends/family, creative hobbies, physical activity and a spiritual component. Remember, in order to do your best at work, you need to participate in play.
Patricia Fry is the president of SPAWN (Small Publishers, Artists and Writers Network) www.spawn.org and the author of 35 books. Read her hallmark book “The Right Way to Write, Publish and Sell Your Book,” revised 2nd edition. http://www.matilijapress.com/rightway.html and her NEW Author’s Workbook http://www.matilijapress.com/workbook.html. If you are struggling to promote a book, order Patricia’s newest ebook, “The Author’s Repair Kit.” http://www.matilijapress.com/author_repairkit.html. Visit her informative publishing blog often at http://www.matilijapress.com/publishingblog See her most recent books in the left column of this page.