Working successfully as a freelance editor involves knowing (or learning) how to do several things very well. Obviously we need the technical chops to be able to do our job – we need to learn to edit sensitively, efficiently and to a high standard. We also need to get to grips with the business side of things – marketing ourselves, negotiating and charging properly for our services. Finally, we need to learn how to manage time: our own, and other people’s.
This third aspect of our practice might seem trivial, but poor time management can make or break a business. One thing you simply can’t afford to do as a freelancer is miss deadlines without very good reason. If you persistently miss deadlines, you won’t be hired and your business will fail. It’s that brutal.
Getting yourself organised to meet deadlines (or renegotiate them in advance if necessary) is one thing. But at least you have a degree of control over this side of things. A harder thing to deal with is people not sending things quite when they say they will, which can become so much a part of your practice that you simply learn to accommodate it, rather than question it.
Most of my clients are very good about sending things when they say they will, but still I know I need to be flexible. If a large project is due, I always email a bit in advance to check that it’s still coming, and it’s surprising how often I am met with the reply ‘Oh, I was just about to email you to let you know that it’s slipped a bit’. This is usually possible for me to work around, because I have asked enough in advance that I have time to juggle things a bit. There’s often something else that has slipped in a slightly different way to fill in the gap.
I don’t blame the clients for this (more of which in a moment), though I do try to encourage them to communicate slippages to me as early as possible, either by asking them directly or by modelling good practice in my communications with them – always being very precise about times and doing things myself exactly when I say I will. It can be stressful, but it’s such a core part of my business that if I were to stop being diligent about this, I might as well hang up the red pen now and do something else.
So why am I comparatively chilled out about this inherent elasticity of time when it comes to clients sending things to me? Shouldn’t I be more worked up about it? Standing my ground, and not leaving myself open to exploitation? Well, I see it a little differently, and to some extent it is to do with picking my battles. If I am a little bit flexible on this, I might be able to play slightly harder ball in other areas (like pay).
When I worked in-house, I was very careful about keeping freelancers informed about the progress of projects, and letting them know early of any problems. But it was exhausting. I was running many projects at once, and there were always a lot of unknowns and much pressure for me to keep churning through stuff, and it was hard in that context to always consider the freelancers’ perspective and value their time, though I did try. I don’t imagine things have got any easier or less stressful for in-house editors in the decade since I left.
I think we have to have a degree of understanding and pragmatism about where we fit into the process and our relative insignificance, and develop a certain flexibility when it comes to timings. There’s no point throwing a tantrum about something not being ready for us. It won’t make it ready any sooner, and it will just stress everybody out (and perhaps lose us work down the line). That’s not to imply that we should be doormats, either. We just have to adopt a realistic attitude towards the elasticity of schedules, and learn strategies for coping with them.
- Model good communication with clients, and be specific about timings yourself; clarify timings with them if something’s unclear.
- Check in advance that a project is still coming on the agreed date.
- If a date slips, renegotiate the deadline if necessary (having said that, if you can reasonably stick to the original deadline and help make up lost time, this is worth much in terms of goodwill with the client).
- If schedule changes make things impossible for you, you have to tell the client. A revised schedule that is not your fault is not your responsibility to accommodate, and most clients will be completely understanding about this.
- Try to build in space for uncertainty and a little flexibility in your own schedule. Packing every hour with specific work that can’t budge is very stressful. It helps to get to a point where you’re charging enough that you don’t need to do this.
Finally, if you find yourself with odd pockets of time when you’re waiting for things to arrive you can do all sorts of things that might not be paid work but will benefit your business: Carry out some marketing activities. Tidy your desk. Go for a walk. Read a book. Read blog posts. Write blog posts! While I was writing this post, the thing I had been waiting for this morning miraculously arrived. Now I just need to go and do it …
Liz Jones has worked as an editor in the publishing industry since 1998, and has been freelance since 2008. She works with a range of publishing and non-publishing clients.