Making Good Use of Business Down Time
by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter
Here’s another topic that shows up often at LinkedIn, on the Copy Editing List, the Editorial Freelancers Association discussion list, and elsewhere: When you don’t get any editing work for a while, what do you do to keep your skills sharp?
Both the question and the answers apply to writing, editing, proofreading, indexing, graphic design — whatever your editorial freelancing niche might be. We all experience the occasional downtime, and we all could probably benefit from a fresh look at how to make the most of that time.
Simply continuing to do what you do professionally, even without pay, is one way to keep those skills up to par. My editorial eye never sleeps; I find typos and infelicities in everything I read or see. I clip and correct typos. I notice and mentally revise clunky writing. I like to think of that kind of activity as one way to keep my skills sharp. It might mean that even my reading for pleasure has a work-like edge, but that’s OK. I’d rather notice errors, inconsistencies, clunkiness, and other problems in the magazines, newspapers, and novels I read for fun than relax my guard enough that noticing those problems in work projects might suffer.
As for writing, there are always opportunities to exercise that skill if you don’t mind not getting paid for the effort. And November is National Novel Writing Month, so you could join that movement to keep the writing groove going if current assignments slow down.
There are plenty of more-structured ways to keep your skills strong, though, when there isn’t much work to do. You could:
- Take courses, either in person or online — on editing in general, on grammar, on using Word and other relevant tools of our trade, on macros, on working in a new genre, on self-publishing, on new tools or programs…. Maybe even take a noncredit university course on a totally new topic, so you can go after writing, editing, or proofreading work on that subject if an opportunity arises (or create such opportunities yourself).
- Look for a volunteer project to do — nonprofit organizations can always use help with writing, editing, and producing publications, both print and electronic. That can help build your skillset, your portfolio, and your network of contacts; it gets you out of the house and in touch with the real world; and it makes you feel good about contributing to a cause or organization you believe in.
- Spend some time at the library or a nearby bookstore to find books you can invest in to learn about new ways of working, new programs or applications to use, new techniques worth learning — or just new angles on the world at large. No matter how esoteric, the information will come in handy eventually.
More prosaically, downtime is good for catching up on filing and other bookkeeping headaches. Not only will you finally get those piles under control and battled down to nothing, you might uncover something that is just what you need to study or work on as a skill refresher. You might not learn anything earthshaking in terms of skills, but you’ll feel so much better about your workspace.
This is also an ideal time to figure out not only your business needs, but your required effective hourly rate (see the five-part essay on calculating fees that begins with Business of Editing: What to Charge (Part I)), and any other aspects of your freelance business that need work, and then create or modify your business plan accordingly.
Use this time to give yourself a treat — a day trip somewhere nearby but new, a couple hours at a local art gallery or museum, get-togethers with friends or colleagues, reading for pleasure. Fun and culture are good for the soul and can refresh the spirit, opening up channels to new ideas and different ways of doing things that could yield new projects or clients.
It’s the exceedingly rare editorial freelancer who never has a gap in the work schedule or a dry spell when it seems as if that next project is never going to show up. While refreshing, strengthening, or adding to skills is always a good idea, what might make more sense when work slows down is to ramp up your marketing efforts. When immersed in a current project, especially a demanding one, it’s hard to think beyond getting through a given chapter (or page!) and meeting the deadline for that project, no matter how important it is to make marketing an ongoing, constant process. If you do your marketing right, you should reduce your downtime, but if downtime strikes regardless, focus on marketing to make it pay its way.
Use down time to:
- Build up a batch of posts for your own blog, if you have one, so you can drop them in as needed and don’t have to interrupt time on a paying project to put a new post together.
- Find blogs to contribute to whose audiences might become clients.
- Search Literary Market Place or Writer’s Market for potential new clients.
- Update your résumé.
- Join LinkedIn if you aren’t already there, expand or revamp your LinkedIn profile if you are, and look for LinkedIn groups to join and contribute to.
- Contribute to discussion lists.
- Contact former clients and long-lost colleagues to let them know you’re available for projects.
- Make the most of any professional memberships by refreshing or adding to your profile or listing in organization directories.
- Create or enhance your website.
- Look for new places to be visible in social media (see Erin Brenner’s The Practical Editor: 5 Social Media Sites You Should Be Using (Part I) and The Practical Editor: 5 Social Media Sites You Should Be Using (Part II) here for specifics).
- Let past and current clients know you’re available — call or write to them, even if just to chat or share an interesting resource.
- Hone your query letters and pitches to prospective clients.
- Look for colleagues who might use your help. This can be tricky — you don’t want to seem desperate, and you don’t want to violate the etiquette of discussion lists or online groups by asking people for work when you’ve never been active in the group before — but, if you’ve been visible and helpful, colleagues will be inclined to help in return.
In essence, whatever you can do to become more visible and look more valuable, do it! You can never do too much marketing. Get in the habit of marketing your skills and services, and those downtimes should become a thing of the past.
Ruth E. Thaler-Carter is an award-winning freelance writer, editor, proofreader, desktop publisher, and speaker whose motto is “I can write about anything!”® She is also the owner of Communication Central, author of the Freelance Basics blog for the Society for Technical Communication, and a regular contributor to An American Editor.