Thursday, March 25, 2010

Project Management for Freelance Writers

Working with overlapping deadlines, juggling research and interviews for multiple assignments, and trying to stay on top of querying are all key in the world of freelancing.

The problem: the more projects you have on your plate, the easier it is for something to get lost in the shuffle. And nobody wants to drop the ball on a project. That's why staying on top of all of your freelance work is so important.

Here's the two-part method I use to stay organized. It certainly isn't a one-size-fits-all strategy, but perhaps it will provide a starting point for creating a method that works for you.

Part One: A Calendar/To-Do List
Go ahead, roll your eyes, all you tech-savvy freelancers.

I use a plain old Moleskine calendar to keep track of my life. I take it with me wherever I go, and when I'm working I open it on my desk to the current week. On the left page, I have the day's to-do list laid out, with key details such as appointments and deadlines highlighted so they're easy to spot.

The moment I get an assignment, I write down the big due date. Then I work backward, breaking down the tasks required to complete the job and assigning them to certain days on the calendar. As I'm doing this, I keep an eye on what else I have going on. So if I have a copy editing project scheduled for Wednesday, I'm not going to add "interview three major sources for story X" that day as well. I'll spread out those interviews throughout the week, or I'll try to tackle them all on Tuesday instead, so my Wednesday isn't overloaded.

On the right page, I have a spot for taking notes on anything and everything that strikes my fancy, from blog post and story ideas to a quick record of phone numbers I need for the week.

And in the front of the notebook, there's a quick-glance yearly calendar where I can keep track of important events. So if someone proposes a deadline, I can flip to that page, see I'll be out of town the week before, and work on negotiating a different due date.

Others choose to use online calendars, such as Google Calendar, which allow them to set up reminders for appointments and deadlines. PDAs, iPhones, and such all offer great organization tools.

Regardless of your method, the key is to stick with it so all the vital information you need is in one place.

Part Two: A Master Project Tracking Document
Once I started freelancing full-time, I began using a master freelance project-tracking document. It's a basic Excel file that allows me to track where I'm at with projects for the entire year. There is a column for each month.

The top half of the spreadsheet is for keeping tracking of any queries or LOIs I send out. I write a brief description of the query, who it went to, and when it was sent. That way, I can open the document on any given day and see which queries I should be following up on and which I should consider sending out to a different publication.

Then, the bottom half of the spreadsheet is where I keep track of booked opportunities. So anytime I agree to take a project, the details (project name, publication or client name, major deadlines) are listed in this portion of the spreadsheet for the month. There's also a column where I input the rate for each project, so I have a running total of my income for each month going at the bottom of the screen.

With these two methods, plus my time-tracking software, I feel like I have a good handle on what I'm doing now and what's on the horizon at any given moment.

What about you? What methods do you use to manage your workload? I'd love to hear your ideas!

Learn More:
Project Management and Editorial Calendars for Freelance Writers (
A Guide to Simple Project Management (Freelance Switch)

Photo: seanmcgrath via flickr

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Professional Memberships

Hey, freelancers. Here's your question of the day: Do you belong to any professional organizations?

I recently joined two: the Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ) and Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE). I'm still exploring the benefits of both of these memberships, but already I'm glad I spent the money to join.

For starters, I'm learning a ton just from being on some of the many SEJ listservs, where environmental reporters and editors from across the country and all over the world discuss challenges, issues, and topics relevant to environmental reporting. The SEJ members who contribute regularly are open and honest, sharing encouragement and sources and ideas with one another. But it's not all warm and fuzzy—often, there are debates going on about environmental and journalistic issues, too.

And one of the reasons I joined IRE is for access to its tip sheets, investigative reporting story archives, and publications. The information I'm gleaning from the IRE resources is valuable not only to my work as a freelancer, but also to my studies as a master's student completing my degree in Environmental Journalism & Communication.

Why bother joining, when membership fees can set you back anywhere from $35 to more than $100 a year?

Benefits usually include:
  • camaraderie and connections with fellow professionals
  • a slew of resources and publications you might not otherwise have access to (including newsletters and/or magazines produced by the organization and its members)
  • job listings
  • email discussion lists
  • discounts on conferences, books, and in some cases even things like rental cars and insurance
  • networking opportunities
  • mentoring opportunities
Plus organization members have the chance to take leadership positions and can help develop industry standards and get word out about issues that are important to freelance writers and editors.

Still not convinced? Consider this: Becoming a member of a major professional organization may lend you credibility with fellow writers and potential clients. For many people, that alone makes joining worth it.

Some of the most common organizations that freelancers join include (in no particular order):
Beyond national organizations, you might also look into the benefits of joining a local or regional group, which may boost marketing and networking opportunities and provide more face-to-face support than a national organization.

(Two examples: San Diego Professional Editors Network and the Austin Professional Chapter of the Association for Women in Communications/Freelance Austin.)

I'll talk a bit more later on about how to pick the right organization for you (hint: I wouldn't fork over the cash for every professional membership you can find—be selective!).

In the meantime, what organizations do you belong to? Do you benefit from your memberships? How did you choose which organizations to join?

Please share here!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A Way With Words

For those of you word-nerds (that's me! that's me!) or fans of NPR's Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me (also me!), I thought you might enjoy a little Thursday distraction.

Over at the Wait Wait ... Don't Blog Me site, blogger Ian Chillag manages to use all of the 119 "newsspeak" words and phrases Tribune Company CEO Randy Michaels banned ... in one sentence.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Tracking Time (Part II)

Last week, I wrote about the importance of tracking time for freelancers of all types. And I promised to explain more about the possible methods for tracking time this week. So here goes ...

Different people employ different techniques for keeping track of the amount of time they spend on certain projects. These methods vary depending on the amount of time they want to spend actually tracking their work hours, their personalities, the type of work they do, and so on.

My husband, an attorney, has to track billable hours as well. He does so in a very basic way: By leaving a legal pad sitting on his desk (or in his briefcase when he goes to court) so that he can record the start and end time for each task he undertakes for a certain client. He's a detail-oriented, diligent fellow, and so this works for him.

A former boss of mine—also the organized sort—had a great planner open in front of her at all times. She'd jot down start and finish times on whichever day she was on, so then it was easy to see at a glance what she'd done each day.

I know others who keep a spreadsheet open on their computer all day to note and calculate work time by project, like The Copywriter Underground does.

My method used to be rather haphazard—I'd scribble down what time I began on a notebook if I happened to spot one, on a sheet of scratch paper I grabbed from the recycling bin, on my planner if it was handy. It allowed me to track short bursts of work but wasn't very sustainable in the long haul.

So I went on the hunt for a more permanent method, one that would keep me on track in a way a notebook couldn't.

My search began with a bit of Googling, of course. I wanted to see what other freelancers recommended. At Freelance Switch, Leo Babauta of Zen Habits listed a few that sounded like good options. Freelance Design Business highlighted some possibilities too.

But I realized some of the recommendations only worked if you were connected to the Internet. I wanted something I could use anytime, anywhere I had my laptop with me, even if I didn't have WiFi around. And many downloadable apps were made specifically for PC and weren't compatible with Mac, so that reduced the field.

Then I stumbled upon a few posts about a Mac-compatible program called On the Job from StuntSoftware, which came with a 10-day free trial, and decided to give it a try. (That cute little bee up there is the logo for the program, by the way.)

I thought I might not like it and planned to try more, but after I extended my trial for an extra 10 free days I decided it would do the trick, so I purchased it for $39.95.

I know some of you will smirk at the fact I spent money on time-tracking software, but I'm a few months in now and it works.

It's an easy-to-use interface (it actually looks a lot like iTunes) that allows me to sort projects by client, break each project down into its smaller parts, and track time for each part. Plus I can keep all the vital details—contact information, deadlines, rates—right there in the program. If I'm getting paid by the hour, I can see how much I've earned as it tracks time. And with a quick click of a button, the software creates an attractive invoice with all of the information I deem important. Then all I have to do is click one more button to create a PDF of the invoice or another button to email it. Easy as can be.

But the real reason I decided to fork over the money for On the Job is because it knows when I've been away from my computer for more than a few minutes and, as soon as I come back to it, reminds me how long I've been idle. If I forgot to stop timing when I left, I can tell it to delete that idle time. Or I can keep it, or modify the number to make it accurate as needed.

This ensures that six hours and three projects later I don't suddenly discover I forgot to keep track of the day's time. And it keeps me from leaving the timer running when I'm not on the lock anymore.

(Oh, and on occasion it horrifies me into getting back to work when I discover my quick stop in the kitchen for a coffee refill spiraled into half an hour of mail reading and dog petting. When I see how long it has been since I last worked, I'm chastened, to say the least.)

If you use time-tracking software, what's your recommendation? PC or Mac, share here.

(And if you want to find more time-tracking software for Mac, Appstorm has a great list—one basic option is even free, and the rest are reasonably priced.)

[Disclaimer: The opinion above is solely my own. I was not paid or encouraged to promote On the Job or any other time-tracking software by anyone.]

Monday, March 1, 2010

Survey: Mag Editing and Fact Checking Standards Slack Online

As a freelance editor and copy editor, I cringed when I saw yesterday's NY Times article on a Columbia Journalism Review survey of consumer magazines and their web practices, which found inconsistent and rather lax standards in regard to editing and fact-checking online content.

Here's the scoop straight from the article:
  • Copy-editing requirements online were less stringent than those in print at 48 percent of the magazines. And 11 percent did not copy-edit online-only articles at all.

  • A similar trend held with fact-checking. Although 57 percent of the magazines fact-check online submissions in the same way they fact-check print articles, 27 percent used a less-stringent process. And 8 percent did not fact-check online-only content at all. (The other 8 percent did not fact-check either print or online articles.)
As CJR chairman Victor Navasky was quoted as saying in the NYT article: “One of the things that it appears to mean is that there’s this trade-off of standards for speed. The conventional wisdom is that you have to be there first in order to get traffic, and you need traffic in order to sell ads, therefore you do not have time to do conventional copy-editing and fact-checking.”


Today, the PDF of the report became available on the CJR website.

A note to all those consumer magazines that are struggling to squeeze in copy-editing and fact-checking before publishing content to the Web: there are plenty of incredibly talented freelance copy editors, proofreaders, and researchers ready to lend a hand.

You may have to pay us, but trust me, our skills are worth it when it comes to delivering quality content to your readers.