As I get more freelance assignments, it’s important to me to look like a professional (not least because, well, I am). If you consider the entire project of presenting yourself well at one time, it seems kind of like an octopus with too many arms, and you’re the jar. It’s a little terrifying and a lot overwhelming. I decided to focus on three things at a time, and to follow a progression that made sense for me. I’ll be outlining these steps as I go, in the hope that they might be useful for someone else getting started in freelance writing.
1. Get Organized
I admit that in many areas of my life, I just sort of wing it. I’m great at making lists, and not so good at following through on them. One of my resolutions this year was to actually implement a useful task tracking system for myself, and I spent the first half of the year trying them on for size. I’ve settled on a slightly modified version of Getting Things Done, which you’ve probably at least heard of unless you’ve been living under an Internet rock somewhere. The most important aspect for me is that my to-do list is reliable. Every time I think of something that needs to be done, no matter how small, I write it down and add it to my Inbox on Remember the Milk. At this point I no longer have to spend time worrying about the task; if your brain runs a mile a minute, this is no small advantage. I know that my ideas and tasks are recorded, and after getting used to the system and learning to trust it, this means I’m not wasting brain cycles worrying about whether I’ll remember to pick up cat food. I won’t say stray thoughts never intrude anymore, but it has made a huge and noticeable difference for me.
Since I have this system in place, I can also use it to track freelance jobs. I start a new list on RTM for each assignment, since it’s really a project with lots of small tasks. So far each job has been different enough that it takes a little while to tease out the steps I need to take, but once it’s done, it’s done. If I get tripped up, I can always refer to the project to-do list and sometimes that’s all I need to get going again. At the very least I’m not buried in Post-Its that aren’t even color coded or really at all useful for anything but making modular origami, which is definitely fun but maybe not so productive as a system for staying on track.
2. Get business cards.
If you had told me several years ago that not only would I want business cards, but that I’d be willing to spend my own money to get them, I would have laughed. A lot. I’ve never been much for anything I perceived as “too corporate,” which included business cards. Yeah. Then I grew up. Useful for more than just entering contests for free lunch, business cards can be a great way to market yourself and get folks to remember you. I think it’s helpful to add “freelance writer” as a job title, since otherwise the person is likely to forget and will someday clean out their card file and go “Jennifer Durren, who’s that? Round file!”
I know lots of folks recommend Vista Print as a cheap source of cards, but I really didn’t want an advertisement on the back of mine, and I found a lot of their designs to be, hmm, the card equivalent of a web page from 1997. Also, I wanted to have some cards in hand for PAX, so once I decided to have them printed I also needed to have them done quickly. I ended up using Staples; they offer a design service online and send it to your local store to be printed the same day. The design I chose ended up being $35 for 200 cards, which is a little steep but I figured if I get even one useful contact, they’ll pay for themselves. So I spent yesterday in happy anticipation of picking up my new cards, only to be really disappointed when I picked them up. Seems the employee in the copy area didn’t know what she was doing, and didn’t bother to call their technical support, so I have 200 cards that say “PROOF” across them in addition to being splotchy. Way to print the wrong PDF, copy area girl! So yeah, I’ve spent more time than I wanted trying to get this fixed, and the manager I spoke to last night essentially shrugged and said “call back tomorrow and talk to this other manager,” but said other manager’s attitude was that they needed to make this right and that it was, in fact, unacceptable. I still need to make a trip up there, but it sounds like it will actually be resolved, which is good. The fact that I’ve spent so much time on what should’ve been a simple order: Not so good. I’m certainly annoyed, and I hesitate to recommend Staples as a source, hence the lack of link. It might be better to actually visit your local store and see how much confidence they inspire before you trust them with your cards.
Once I have the cards, I plan to enter every free lunch contest I see, and also to hand them out to anybody willing to take one. Writing jobs turn up in the strangest places, and you never know.
3. Get Paid
One of the most intimidating aspects of working for yourself is the financial stuff, at least for me. Different clients use different payment methods, and when I realized I might have to actually send invoices I had a temporary moment of panic. But man, if Web 2.0 didn’t come to the rescue again: Invoice Journal is a free! site that lets you track your clients, your contacts, agreed-upon rates, hours spent or price per project, etc. Then you can generate an invoice for your client, which they can view online as a PDF, or which you can print and mail the old-fashioned way with stamps. Pretty nifty, and while it’s still a beta, it’s worked fairly smoothly for me as well. I also keep the same information in an Open Office spreadsheet, which provides me with a backup as well as a way to generate different kinds of reports for myself; better safe than sorry.
I also have a PayPal account, but really, who doesn’t? It’s an easy way for clients to pay, especially small businesses and individuals who don’t normally cut checks for freelancers. I’m setting up a separate business checking account with my bank, too, so I can keep a clearer picture of what I’m earning and what I’m spending. Untangling my business finances from my personal spending will be a huge step, and also will make it easier to file quarterly taxes. Good thing I like filling out forms.
I hope some of this has been useful for other folks who are just getting started, and welcome any comments or questions you might have.