Making the most of “the calm before the (holiday) storm”

By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, NAIWE Board of Experts-Networking
Owner, I can write about anything!®, Communication Central, An American Editor

For many of us, the few weeks from mid-October through late November are a form of calm before the storm. The holidays are coming up fast, and a lot of clients seem to slack off on work requests, creating a false sense of relaxation for some of us and a feeling of “how will I make it financially through the end of the year?” panic for others.

The storm, of course, is the holiday season itself, with all the fun, stress and frantic activity it demands; there’s also the end of the year, with its requirements for wrapping up record-keeping and preparing for tax season early in the new year. We have to balance family plans and expectations against client demands and deadlines, and all of that against the needs of our businesses, and that isn’t always easy.

Here are a few tips for making the most of downtime if you don’t have a lot of work in hand at the moment.

  • Get a head start on organizing tax records. If you’re flush, figure out what business-related expenses you can take care of before the end of this year to reduce your tax burden.
  • Review your recent income and expenses to see where you need to make improvements, and start working on a plan to generate more income in the new year. Plan on a rate increase, identify clients who aren’t worth keeping, look for new markets to explore, etc.
  • File stuff!
  • Update your résumé, website and promotional material.
  • Write a few blog posts or articles to build up a bank of material to publish over the next few weeks or months, so you have it ready to go when you’re mired in the holiday or end-of-year demands. (This is something I have to do myself!)
  • Learn a new skill or program that will benefit your writing or editing business.
  • Look for colleagues to follow online, especially those with blogs you can comment on, to learn something new and build your online presence.
  • Plan your professional development activities for the new year: organizations to join or rejoin, conferences to attend, etc. This will help you start putting funds aside for such expenses (think of them as investments in your writing or editing business).
  • Review past published material to see what you can update and resell or repurpose.
  • Start writing that book!
  • Do some holiday gift-buying or — if you’re crafty — -making.
  • Consider taking a refreshing few days totally “off” — a spa day, a weekend trip to somewhere fun, a family trip when the prices are inflated by the holiday season.

If this time of year is when some of your clients do the panicking about packing a lot of last-minute work into November or December, consider yourself at least somewhat lucky — many colleagues would like to be in your position. Do as much holiday planning and purchasing as you go along as possible, and enjoy being well-employed!

Long-time freelance writer/editor Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is the Networking member of the NAIWE Board of Experts and owner of Communication Central, which partnered with NAIWE this year to present the 14th annual Be a Better Freelancer® conference. Her website is www.writerruth.com and she can be reached at Ruth@writerruth.com.

Why bother with networking?

By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter, NAIWE Board of Experts-Networking

Owner, I can write about anything!®, Communication Central, An American Editor

Fresh from the 14th annual Be a Better Freelancer• conference, co-hosted this year by NAIWE for the first time, I’ve been reflecting on networking.

I’ve been called the Queen of Networking thanks to my active membership in at least a dozen professional associations and many years of contributing to communities of colleagues, including creating and hosting the Be a Better Freelancer® conference. Throughout all this time, I’ve often been asked why I bother to be such an active networker.

It’s a good question, because networking takes time, effort and a commitment to service, and the payoffs aren’t always immediately obvious. Payoffs being important, of course, because there’s certainly a level of self-interest in networking, no matter how much it involves giving back to colleagues, communities or professions.

Why do it

We network for the selfish reason of building our businesses and contacts, but ideally to be of service to colleagues and communities as well. Networking creates visibility and credibility if we do it right, and that should lead to new clients and projects.

Arguments against

Networking can create issues, especially for die-hard introverts. It can be hard work, it requires constant effort and, as noted above, the payoffs aren’t always immediately obvious.

If you aren’t comfortable with communicating frequently — even constantly — with peers and other colleagues, that’s fine: You can be an effective networker even if you only interact with one group or make posts once a month. If you’re shy and introverted, you can network electronically rather than attend meetings or conferences in person.

Figure out what is comfortable in terms of frequency or types of information to share, and resist pressure to do more than you can handle.

How to do it

The essence of networking is that it’s a two-way process, as well as a constant one.

Start on the right foot by introducing yourself to the group(s) you’ve chosen to join: Let colleagues know something about your training, skills, experience, preferred types of projects and clients, etc. Before asking for help, try to provide something of value to the group. It isn’t that networking can’t involve getting help with your independent writing or editing business in general or with specific aspects of that business, but that you don’t want to be seen as someone who constantly takes from colleagues and never gives anything back to the group. And “Gimme” is definitely not the image you want to present in your message to networking group!

What to share

Networking can include sharing information about yourself — your publishing triumphs, new projects, speaking engagements, awards, certifications, etc. — but is its most-effective if what you share is genuinely helpful to others. That can mean, for instance, letting colleagues know about new books, events and software programs that are useful for our work; providing tips for managing an independent writing or editing business (including how to use standard tools like Word); answering colleagues’ questions about their work or projects; etc.

It can also mean alerting colleagues to new scams aimed at our profession, such as the one that circulated recently through various professional associations involving a fake editing job offer — supposedly from major companies such as Penguin and Bayer — apparently intended to either capture respondents’ identity info or sending counterfeit checks for more than promised to clean out recipients’ bank accounts. Networking also often includes warning colleagues about skeevy clients.

What not to do

If you’re new to networking, keep in mind that — again — it’s a two-way process and not a purely self-promotional one. That means your first message to a networking group should not be a request for “overflow” work or referrals. No one knows who you are, or what your training, skills and experience might be, so why would members of the group hand off work to you or refer you to potential clients on first appearance? We build our networks of clients and colleagues with care, and few people will jeopardize those connections by bringing in or referring someone who’s a total unknown. And few of us would be comfortable with telling a stranger the names of our contacts at publications, publishing houses and other client businesses.

When it works

Doing networking right can have huge benefits. Being seen as someone who provides value builds your credibility and visibility, which makes it likely that prospective clients will learn of your existence and colleagues will contact you about working together, or refer you when they hear of projects that they don’t handle or can’t take on. A good networker is likely to be asked to make speeches, write for professional publications and take on new projects. Your business — and income — should increase as you become noted for your networking chops and contributions.

And while those are the self-serving reasons to network, there is also a strong sense of gratification in being helpful to others in the field; it does feel good to do good. Not to mention that effective networking also can result in making new friends!

About getting older

By Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

Inspired by a colleague’s request to write about birthdays, I came up with a few thoughts. Here I am in my 60s, and not quite sure what it means — but not worried about it.

Supposedly I’m old — but I don’t feel old. Of course, it helps that I seem to still be mentally intact and involved, can still look after myself, continue to be able to do the work I love. I think it also helps that I have a marvelous network of long-time friends who keep me feeling young, perhaps because we keep our wacky childhood and high school memories so fresh by staying close and seeing, or at least communicating with, each other fairly often.

Even if I did feel old, why would that be a bad thing? I’ve survived more than just the passing of the years, but a wide range of crises over those years, and that’s something to be proud of. It’s why I don’t let myself be pressured into coloring my hair when I go to the salon for haircuts (well, other than a splash of purple!): I earned every gray or white hair, and see no need to cover them up.

I know how I got here: born, raised, lived; still living. That’s a good thing. As my mom used to say whenever someone complained about the infelicities and challenges of increasing age, “Consider the alternative.”

Some aspects of all these birthdays are a nuisance — my knees and hips have started to creak a bit and make it difficult to get up from a chair or the bed, and to negotiate stairs, but … consider the alternative.

Getting older does mean dealing with loss. Both of my parents have died, and I miss them constantly, but … I had my dad in my life for more than 40 years and my mom for 60; that’s a lot longer than many friends can claim, and those were all wonderful, loving, supportive, fun years — also more and better than many people experience. And it’s natural for parents to go before their children. When life takes the opposite direction, it’s unimaginable.

My beloved husband, who was 12 years older than me, died last year and I miss him every moment of every day, but … we had 30 delightful years together, which is —again — more than many people get from their relationships and marriages. He was a tough guy (a retired steelworker; my man of steel!) who accepted the limits of aging with surprising grace; rather than complain (“Consider the alternative!”) or give up, he focused on what he still could do. His attitude toward birthdays, aging and increasing fragility was admirable: “I can’t do what I used to, but I’ll find a way to do as much as possible. If I can’t walk on my own, I’ll use a walker so I can still get around and go places. If I can’t carry all my cameras, lenses and gear, I’ll switch to digital. If I have dietary issues, I’ll reconfigure my favorite recipes so I can still enjoy some of the things I love to eat …”

Keeping in mind that increasing age probably will mean decreasing physical ability, I made a huge life change last year. What started out as thinking about moving locally to a neighborhood that would be more walkable and accessible turned into moving halfway across the country and becoming a first-time homeowner at this ripe age! While my new place — a condo — doesn’t have the front desk and onsite staff of the building I left, it is right across the street from a beautiful park and within two to five blocks of everything from shops to restaurants to a library branch, small concert venue, bookstore, medical center and more. I’m prepared for pretty much anything; I even have a dedicated guest room in case I ever need live-in care, instead of hving to use a second bedroom as my workspace.

Being “old” has its advantages. I qualify for Medicare, so I save a bundle on medical insurance, and can start getting my Social Security benefits whenever I’m ready to stop working (if that ever happens; I do find retirement hard to envision, but that’s because I enjoy what I do, and not — mainly thanks to my financial genius of a mom — because I have to keep working). And I get a kick out of senior discounts, even though I don’t see myself as “senior.” My recollection, although my brothers disagree, is that my dad loved using his 60-plus discounts; he said he earned and deserved them, and I concur.

I see every birthday as a type of new year, so I have more than January 1 as a moment to reflect, refresh and sometimes revamp. A birthday is an opportunity to celebrate still being here and to think about what new things I might do to stay as sharp, engaged and active as possible, both physically and mentally; socially and professionally; intellectually and maybe even emotionally. This year, I decided that my birthday present to myself would to be more creative and expand my interests beyond activities related to my work life. I’ve started playing around with painting and glasswork — neither of which I do very well (yet), but who knows where these might go! — and am looking into going back to a long-ago hobby of ceramics.

These projects are birthday gifts to myself that I think will take me into increasing age with increasing creativity and continuing mental and physical agility, a sense of joy and achievement, and appreciation for survival on many levels. They are my ways of fulfilling the concept of “I’m not (just) getting older; I’m getting better.” As actress Renée Zellweger told AARP’s Modern Maturity magazine (yup, I’m an AARP member) recently, “… I don’t call it aging; I call it winning.” I try to embrace getting older and having more birthdays. After all, “consider the alternative.”

Here’s to happy birthdays for all of us, and graceful, grateful perspectives on getting older!

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is the owner of Communication Central (www.communication-central.com), which is hosting “Gateway to Success,” the 14th annual “Be a Better Freelancer”® in conjunction with NAIWE. NAIWE members get a special rate for the conference!