As a freelancer, my time is limited. With two little kids and a part-time schedule, I have to make the most of every minute I’m at my desk. Over the last five years, since my son was born, I’ve become more efficient than ever about making the most of my time. You can, too, when you give these 10 strategies a try. They may be simple, but they add up to saving minutes every day, which results in hours of increased productivity.
1. Stop thinking so big. When I started freelancing, I tended to over-research. I’d interview more sources than I actually used in an assigned story, wasting my time and theirs.
Since then, I’ve developed the following rules of thumb: For a piece of 300 words or fewer, I typically interview and quote one “real person” or expert source. For stories of 300 to 700 words, I’ll use two sources. Stories of about 700 to 1,200 words get three sources, and for stories of about 1,200 to 1,800 words, I tend to use four sources, on average.
Sure, sometimes I use an extra source or two, but my days of interviewing six sources for an 800-word piece (yup, I’ve done that) are over. Sometimes I’ll deviate from the number of sources depending on the story topic and complexity (and if an editor wants something specific—say, a certain number of “real-people” quotes), but using these standards makes me a more efficient writer.
2. Make a plan the day before. At the end of every workday, I create a plan for the next. I check what interviews I have scheduled and write on my calendar how I plan to spend my work time, noting my top three priorities for the day. I also decide what I’ll do first (more about that later). I take a few minutes every Sunday evening to do the same thing—I look at my upcoming deadlines, make a list of my top five to 10 priorities, and create Monday’s “plan of attack.” Even a few minutes of planning pays off big time the next day.
3. Write first thing—or not. I’m a morning person. Give me a can of Diet Mountain Dew and a couple of hours, and I can get more done by 11 a.m. than most people do all day. So I try to save that time for actual writing, which is the most challenging thing I do. Other tasks—like interviews, transcribing notes, doing research, brainstorming ideas and sending invoices—I save for late morning or early afternoon when I’m not as sharp.
Of course, if your juices don’t start flowing until early afternoon, save that time for your most demanding work. And if you’re a true night owl, you may want to write then, when most of us are watching American Idol. The idea is to use your most productive time for writing for the biggest payoff.
4. Do like things together. This time-management strategy is simple yet effective. Do like things together. By that I mean write and respond to e-mails once or twice a day, not throughout the day. (I’m better about telling people to do this than actually doing it myself; I find it hard to resist that little chime that tells me I have a new message in my in-box!) But I have learned that it’s much quicker to call, say, five potential sources to line up interviews at the same time than to make those calls over the course of a day or two.
5. Keep a running list. Since I started freelancing full time in 1997, I’ve kept a list of story ideas. I may just write a line (e.g., how criticism can be a good thing) based on something that’s happened to me, or make a note of a news story or press release I’ve read. Then when I sit down to brainstorm and pitch ideas, I use my list as a jumping-off point. This means I always have a number of potential queries to research and flesh out, which saves me time when it comes to pitching.
I also try to reslant, or come up with different angles on the same subject, whenever I can. So, for example, when I pitched a piece on what moms need to know about social media for a regional parenting magazine, I also pitched a piece to a women’s magazine on using social media to date. Both pieces sold.
6. Develop “regulars.” When you freelance, you’re likely to work for dozens of clients and editors a year. The more work you can do for each client, however, the less time you have to spend marketing yourself to new prospects. That can mean a huge time-saver. Just as I never want to write about a topic once, as I mentioned earlier, I never want to write for a client only once either.
Strive to build relationships with the editors you work with. As soon as an editor accepts a story, pitch another. Be easy to work with. Figure out what she wants, and give it to her. Make yourself invaluable. I’ve worked with almost all of my current editors for years—and those long-term relationships mean that they come to me frequently with story assignments.
7. Keep a stash of templates. In the June 2010 issue of The Writer, I dedicated a column to the templates you should have in your freelance arsenal. Templates mean you don’t have to write every query, follow-up letter, letter of introduction (LOI), or invoice from scratch; you simply pull up your template and tweak it for your purpose.
If I see a job posting, for example, I want to be able to respond fast and hopefully be one of the first writers in line. I have several letters of introduction on my hard drive—including one for ghostwriting jobs, one for possible reprint clients, and one for custom magazines—so I can get my LOI out as quickly as possible.
8. Have a stable of experts. As a freelancer who primarily covers health, wellness, nutrition and fitness subjects, I rely on experts to provide me with the information I need. Just as I have a stable of clients I write for regularly, I have a stable of experts in every subject area I write about. When I need a quick quote for a query or a longer interview for an article, I’ll reach out to one of my regulars. (And I treat my experts well—I always send a personal thank-you note after an interview, and I let the source know when he or she is quoted in a piece.) Sure, sometimes I need a source I haven’t interviewed before, but having dozens of smart, quotable experts I can call on means I save time when researching articles.
9. Use your down time. I’ll admit that one reason I’m so productive during my real “work time” is because I use some of my down time to work. I call this “WWYNRW,” or Working When You’re Not Really Working. So at night when my kids are in bed and I’m watching Project Runway or Chopped, I’ll have my laptop and use that time to do things I may not have time for during my workday, like:
• Scouting for reprint markets. I make between $5,000 and $10,000 a year selling reprints to regional publications, specialty magazines and foreign publications. I find many of them through Google and then send a brief LOI. A five-minute investment may pay off with a new reprint market.
• Touching base with my regulars. I’ll scan through my e-mail and send a “just checking in” note to editors I haven’t worked with in a few months. I just did this recently and sold a reprint for $200, plus the promise of more work from several other clients.
• Searching on Medline for the latest journal articles on a specific topic—say, sleep and health. Then I have that research handy when I’m ready to query markets with that idea.
• Sending follow-ups. If I haven’t heard from an editor about a query, I’ll send a brief follow-up e-mail checking on the pitch and giving the editor a certain time (typically a week or two) to respond. I do the same thing with stories I’ve submitted but am awaiting an editor’s acceptance on.
10. Eliminate the ugliest. Finally, I’ll share my favorite time-management tip of all. You may be surprised to learn that the first thing I do every day isn’t the most important thing on my calendar. Nor is it a task that will take me only a few minutes to complete. Rather, it’s the thing I most do not want to do. That may be writing the first draft of a story, editing a piece I’ve been struggling with, or calling an editor to tell her that an article isn’t shaping up the way I planned.
I’ve found that when I first “eliminate the ugliest,” my day starts off on a positive note. Best of all, I waste no time coming up with excuses why I can’t do the dreaded task—which makes me much more productive all day long.
Kelly James-Enger, a contributing editor at The Writer, is the author of books including her latest, Goodbye Byline, Hello Big Bucks: The Writer’s Guide to Making Money Ghostwriting and Coauthoring Books. Web: becomebodywise.com.