© Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, Networking Member, NAIWE Board of Experts
Based on a similar post for the An American Editor blog.
I often see advice from colleagues and outside experts who say the key to success as a freelancer or consultant is to have a business plan, ideally before you launch your editorial business. Most recently, National Association of Independent Writers and Editors executive director April Michelle Davis reminded members that December is National Write a Business Plan Month, saying, “As a freelancer, you are a business owner, so consider writing a business plan this month!” Inspiration struck!
I can’t argue with the advice and urge NAIWE colleagues to at least keep it in mind, even though I have to admit that I’ve never had a formal business plan. I started freelancing when I was in high school, kept it going while in college, and took on freelance projects when I had full-time in-house jobs in journalism or communications.
The closest I ever came to a business plan was when I reached that point of “can’t do this any longer” at a full-time job at a trade association where I enjoyed the work of writing, editing and producing a monthly newsletter but was tired of the slog to and from the office, meetings, and other aspects of being in-house, along with the demands of focusing almost exclusively on one topic. My one and only formal plan involved preparing a pitch to my boss to turn my “regular job” into a consulting contract and going from there, backed up by the resources of a regional writers’ organization to find more freelance gigs. The pitch worked, and I was in business — and that was as planned as I ever got.
Essentially, my business plan has always been:
- Get trained and experienced.
- Network and become known for skills and willingness to share knowledge/resources with colleagues.
- Find projects/clients.
- Do the work.
- Get paid.
- Suggest that clients with one-shot projects use me for future projects and pitch ideas for new topics to cover or services to offer.
And repeat. That last item has been a huge factor in keeping my writing, editing, proofreading and speaking business/career going for lo these many years. Clients often told me that I was the only freelancer they used who was proactive in keeping the relationship going beyond what was conceived of as a one-time assignment.
It wasn’t really anything conscious, formal or structured, and a lot of what the experts advise were things I did without realizing I was contributing to a plan. If you’re thinking about going out on your own, or have already started your editorial business but want to expand or improve it, here are some of those elements that you can adapt into a formal plan of your own.
Training and experience
The ideal — at least in my book — is to start with an in-house job where you get hands-on experience and meet colleagues who can provide guidance and mentorship. A lot of people skip that step these days, which can be understandable. Editorial jobs can be hard to find as publishers and publications merge, consolidate and even shut down, but I still think that working in-house is an important source of experience. It’s where you learn how publishing works and start building your network of colleagues and contacts who can be invaluable sources of not just advice and examples, but future connections with or as potential clients for your business.
A regular job can also pay for tools like training, software programs, memberships, events, etc. Look for memberships, courses, conferences, books, blogs, videos and other resources to learn or enhance the skills you need to be professional. You don’t have to take a full-scale degree-type certificate or certification program — there are lots of practical, reputable sources of training to build and enhance your skills.
If you haven’t joined a professional association yet, do it now. That’s a great way to find sources of development and skill-building, as well as enhance your visibility and value to colleagues and potential clients. It’s also often a way to find new projects; some clients only post work opportunities to associations, or go there first, and some associations have their own job services. Those can be highly competitive, but someone gets those gigs, and it might as well be you.
Networking and interacting with colleagues
One of the best ways to get freelance work is through former employers and co-workers, as well as colleagues we meet through professional associations, online groups and social media, and — if you have them — previous clients. As I’ve often said, be more than a “checkbook member” of any association or online group you join, especially this one. When you offer advice and answer questions, you become known as a valuable resource and someone whom colleagues will recommend, refer, hire or subcontract with.
That doesn’t mean you can’t post questions or ask for help. Such posts can create fascinating and useful conversations. It just means that you give at least as much as you take — and you don’t sit back and wait for the organization(s) to do the work for you of becoming visible and finding leads to projects or clients.
Since you’re reading this in my NAIWE blog, you already understand the value of association membership — but you could probably make even better use of this one. Blog regularly (do as I do, not as a I say!), present a webinar, answer group discussion list questions, write for our newsletter, respond to NAIWE’s Facebook writing prompts, etc. The more you do, the more you benefit. As NAIWE colleagues, we’ll buy your books, subscribe to your blog or newsletter, and otherwise support your publishing efforts.
An actual plan
The smart move is to actually have a plan before launching an editorial business. That isn’t always possible; many of us are forced into freelancing without time to plan or organize ourselves because we get laid off or fired, our employers go out of business, we have to cope with a health crisis of our own or a family member. Responding to such crises is a lot more fraught than moving into freelancing/consulting with forethought and foresight.
The foundation of any such plan is to have some funds set aside to cover basic life’s expenses until the freelance effort starts to pay off and become sustainable. It isn’t easy to do, but try to set aside something every month in savings to tide you over during the first few months to a year of being in business. Knowing you have a savings cushion means you won’t feel desperate if it takes time to build up your client base and will be less likely to accept bargain-basement rates or work you don’t enjoy.
A new plan — for the future
If you’re already in business, or if you had a business plan focused on launching your business, now — the dawn of a new year, but really anytime — is a good time to think about a plan for the future. Have a plan for expanding, enhancing or adapting your editorial business to be more profitable, incorporate and offer more services, or otherwise change to fit current conditions. A new plan for an established business could include looking as far ahead (which for some of us isn’t very far at all!) as succession and retirement.
Elements could include:
- Financial goal
- Increased rates
- Amount to save every month (this time for paying self-employment taxes and for updating or purchasing essential equipment and software, memberships, conferences, emergencies)
- New associations to join or activities to participate in with ones you already belong to, such as board or committee service
- Potential new clients/outlets to query
- Projects, assignments or story ideas, or services to pitch to current and past clients
- Training to take to develop new skills or strengthen current ones
- Promotional outlets to use and efforts to make, such as creating a website (or updating the one you have), blog or newsletter; platforms to join; posts to make about new successes, etc.
- Conferences to attend — and maybe speak at
- Charitable cause to support
And by the way, you can develop a business plan for your career even if you are or plan to remain an in-house writer, editor, proofreader or other publishing professional (photographer, graphic artist, website designer, content creator, etc., etc., etc.). It might be called a career plan or matrix, but it can still considered a business plan. That plan could include:
- Salary raise and/or higher title
- Expanded responsibilities
- Additional training
- Memberships, including committee or board service
- Expanded benefits (conference or membership support, work from home, etc.)
- Move to a new department or location
Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com), NAIWE’s Networking member of the Board of Experts, is an award-winning provider of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, associations, nonprofits and companies worldwide, and the editor-in-chief and owner of An American Editor. She created the annual Communication Central Be a Better Freelancer® conference for colleagues (www.communication-central.com), now co-hosted with NAIWE (www.naiwe.com) and sponsored by An American Editor. She also owns A Flair for Writing (www.aflairforwriting.com), which helps independent authors produce and publish their books. She can be reached at Ruth@writerruth.com.