Saturday, November 6, 2010

Profitable freelancing: Starting a business and keeping it productive

By Allison MacLachlan and Sara LaJeunesse

How can I find new assignments? How should I organize my time? Can I earn enough money to make freelancing a worthwhile career choice?

These are some of the questions we had when we settled in with our cups of coffee to hear freelance writers Amber Dance, Christopher Mims, John Pavlus, and Jeffrey Perkel talk about their experiences establishing and sustaining freelance businesses with maximal efficiency and minimal fuss.

Amber spoke about the analog office and gave tips on: setting goals, tracking financial success, selectively choosing jobs and clients, thinking of time as money, negotiating contracts, and managing multiple projects. “It’s all on you,” she said, noting that she sets goals annually and then regularly evaluates how she is meeting those goals. Amber tracks her projects on a physical bulletin board with projects listed on index cards and tacked under the categories: ideas, pitched, in progress, with editor, waiting for publication, and waiting for pay.

Amber also suggests spending a month timing everything you do, including brainstorming, researching, emailing, traveling, interviewing, writing, editing, and invoicing. “Figure out what an hour of your time is really worth,” she said.

Jeffrey spoke about the digital office, particularly how to run a business on the cheap with a laptop, smart phone, and wireless Internet. “To be productive you need to be flexible,” he said. “You need to be able to work wherever you happen to be.”

He suggests using several digital applications, such as communication software (Skype), to-do list manager (Remember the Milk), back-up program (CrashPlan), time-tracking program (Harvest), note-capturing tool (Evernote, Instapaper), file-saving software (Dropbox), and organizational software (Mac Freelance).

Jeffrey suggests maintaining an online identity by registering a domain name (, establishing a Web site/blog, getting a vanity email address (, and getting active on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.

John spoke about the "mental office," and gave examples of what he calls "mind hacks" that can help make freelance writing more productive. He emphasized the importance of owning your attention while at work. To mimic punching in on a time clock, he uses Harvest, a Mac widget that helps you track your tasks and how much time you spent on them.

Freelancers are employees, but are also their own managers. John advised against over-organizing and micro-managing, using his kitchen drawer as an example. Instead of overdoing it with systems and methods, he suggested a simple focus on what big-picture results you want to achieve in a work day.

Finally, John spoke about how to be a good boss. "Give yourself whatever you need to do your best work," he said, adding that this includes gadgets for an enjoyable work environment as well as a forgiving attitude.

Christopher, the final speaker, presented the results of the NASW's Freelance Science Writer Survey. According to the results, 65 percent of freelancers surveyed are female, while 33 percent are male. Most are in the 31-40 age bracket. Christopher joked that annual income spans the range from $5,000 to over $100,000, with no observable correlation to hours of work clocked. He noted that unfortunately, there is still a significant difference between how much men and women make in the freelance business.

According to the survey results, freelancers are homebodies: 91 percent have a home office, and 85 percent say they never work outside the home, like in a coffee shop. Coincidentally, those who do work in coffee shops tend to make less per year, a regrettable trend Christopher dubs the "latte penalty."

Christopher concluded by sharing some productivity tips. He advises turning off social media once in awhile, closing e-mail, and using the old-fashioned kitchen timer for bursts of good work.


  1. Just a quick note: the survey we conducted was not official in any way, and we definitely wouldn't call it the "NASW's Freelance Science Writer Survey" - other than our membership in NASW, we weren't acting in an official capacity and no one reviewed the questions in the survey or its implementation aside from the four panelists who gave this session.

    Maybe next year, however, we can use the technology we used to conduct this survey to empower an official NASW survey of its members...

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