by Louise Harnby
I love a list! Recording the stuff I need to do helps me to organize my thoughts and steers me away from procrastination and toward action. So what follows is by no means a call for the abandonment of the to-do list. New starters and old hands alike can benefit from a list of actionable points.
More than a to-do list – linear vs. interconnected thinking
Caution is required, though. The to-do list does have the potential to encourage linear thinking, and this can be a hindrance when it comes to the business of proofreading (or any other type of editorial service for that matter).
Linear thinking can lead one down a road of focusing too heavily on one part of our business in the belief that if we get X just right everything else will fall into place, or that X is more important than Y and therefore must be completed in full before Y is considered. Interconnected thinking (I call this joined-up thinking elsewhere), on the other hand, recognizes that X impacts on Y, which impacts on Z, and that, together, X, Y, and Z drive success.
In this essay, I’ll look at the interconnectedness of our business practices, and the time it takes to build connections.
A simplified example
Isabel is in the process of setting up a proofreading business. She’s completed a comprehensive training course followed by mentoring. She’s confident in her skills and believes that she’s fit for the purpose. And she is – from a technical point of view. She has a potential problem, however. She’s been so focused on her training that she’s not spent any time considering how she’ll make herself visible to paying clients. Training was at the top of her list – and while this is certainly no bad thing to be at the top of any freelance business owner’s list, focusing on this alone will not bring in paying work.
Isabel’s business to-do list
- Training – courses and follow-up mentoring
- Buying relevant equipment – hardware and software
- Networking: joining a society, setting up social media accounts, attending meetings
- Design brand: name of business, logo, color way
- Officially launching the business – tax authorities, bank, insurance policies if required
- Creating a promotion plan: website, business cards, leaflets, adverts, directories, domain name, and custom email address
- Create pricing matrix for different client types
- Create additional resources: consider blog, information sheets, terms and conditions, process documents outlining service
- Create stationery: letterhead, invoices, email signature, postage labels
- Create work schedule to track jobs, payments, time, etc.
An alternative view: Isabel’s business wheel
I’m a firm believer that Isabel would benefit from looking at her proofreading business in a different way. What if, instead, she visualized it as a wheel rather than a list? I’ve regularly promoted this approach specifically in relation to editorial marketing (see, for example, “The Marketing Wheel – Visualizing Your Editorial Business’s Promotion Strategy,” Proofreader’s Parlour, January 2016), but it’s a useful tool for thinking more broadly about editorial business practice.
Both the list and the wheel address the same issues, but the wheel has the advantage of helping Isabel to visualize the interconnectedness of the various aspects of her business development.
Let’s consider Isabel’s training in relation to other aspects of business development.
- Training provides her with skills. But it’s also a valuable message that she could use in her promotion materials, and that will make her more interesting to potential clients.
- Her qualifications include rich keywords that potential clients will use when searching online for people with her skills, so there will be SEO benefits, which will enhance her discoverability further.
- Her training program has also instilled in her a desire to provide proofreading work of the highest quality, and these high standards mean those new clients who discover her will be more likely to retain her and recommend her, thus leading in the longer term to a more consistent work flow and income stream. This will give her greater choice as to the work she accepts and the prices she can charge.
- Training has also contributed heavily towards her application for a higher-level tier of membership in her national editorial society, and this membership tier will provide her with the right to take an entry in its online directory. She can link her new website to this directory, so that’s increased professional credibility, SEO and visibility.
- The training organization she used might be interested in featuring a guest article that she could write about her experiences. This will add to her professional credibility, and will provide her with an opportunity to create inbound and outbound links between her website and the training organization’s website. The organization has a large following on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. It will share a link to her guest article with its followers. Some of its followers will link with Isabel, thus expanding her own professional community. That’s training, professional credibility, brand enhancement, business networking, SEO, and social media engagement in one fell swoop.
I could go on, but I expect you get the point. Training isn’t something you do before marketing. Rather, it’s connected to marketing. They are but two spokes on a wheel and they link the hub (the business) to the rim (clients). Training gives substance to the marketing message. Marketing generates visibility and, therefore, new clients. New clients become regular clients because of the standards embedded by training. And up and down the spokes and round the rim we go.
We might carry out a similar exercise when considering the links between pricing, an accounting schedule and stationery; or resource creation and business promotion; or brand design, accounting and stationery.
Taking the long view
Developing a successful proofreading business doesn’t happen overnight. No matter how good your skills, how creative your marketing, how professional your practice, it takes time to become so discoverable that you’re never without work offers; it takes time to build a list of regular clients who trust your skills and judgment so that they return to you time and again. And, even then, you can’t sit on your laurels because our industry, broad as it is, is always changing.
- What your clients wanted 5 years ago may not be what they want next year (consider, for example, the number of publishers who now require PDF markup).
- What your clients were paying 5 years ago may not be what they are paying this year (you may be worse off in real terms).
- The types of clients who were using people like you 5 years ago may have become more varied as of today (consider the expansion of the self-publishing market).
- The software or hardware you used 5 years ago might no longer be fit for the purpose or compatible with what your current potential clients are using and expect you to use.
- Two companies you worked for 5 years ago might merge tomorrow; or one might acquire the another. This could reduce the number of editorial freelancers hired, and you could end up on the cut list.
- The publisher you work with directly today might outsource its proofreading and editing to a packager in 2 years’ time. That could affect the rate you are paid and even the security of your freelancing relationship.
Moving from entitlement to investment
This means that, as business owners, we need to be keeping our ear to the ground so that change is something we embrace, not resent, and something we view as providing opportunity, not marginalization.
When we own our own businesses, we don’t have the luxury of spending time on blaming a lack of success on others who are now doing things in ways that don’t suit us. We’re not entitled to be paid X by a publisher whose profit margins may be being squeezed its own customers (consider, for example, the impact of university library budget cuts on academic publishers in the past two decades); we’re not entitled to work on paper because that’s the way we prefer it (for example, most independent authors want us to work in Word or on PDF).
Instead, we have to invest in what makes us interesting and discoverable to those we want to work for and who will pay us what we want/need to earn if our businesses are to be profitable. Whether that means acquiring new skills, learning how to use new tools, changing the way we do our tax returns, targeting new client types, replacing old equipment, or testing and evaluating new and innovative marketing activities that increase customer engagement, the responsibility lies with us, and us alone.
It takes time and hard work
Furthermore, we may not see the fruits of our labor for months, even years. None of us can say how long it will take for an individual’s marketing strategy to put them on pages 1–3 of Google. None of us can predict whether a favorite publisher client will merge with another press and freeze its freelance rates. None of us can know whether the skill we learned back in 2008 will still be relevant in 2020 (proofreading on paper? Are you mad?).
I do know one thing, though. There are no shortcuts — building an editorial business takes time and effort (and even courage when we are pushed out of our comfort zone). Taking the short view leads to disappointment and stagnancy: disappointment that the creation of a website alone didn’t generate 50 new leads a month — only 2 eight weeks after launch — or that the client you’ve worked for almost solidly for 6 years is now squeezing 200 additional words on a page but still paying you the same page rate; and stagnancy because you didn’t keep up to date with new developments and are no longer able to compete with colleagues who are providing a service that you consider unusual but that they consider run-of-the-mill (editing and proofreading onscreen might be a current example).
First, you may be the type of person who is perfectly capable of looking at a list without feeling compelled to move through it only from top to bottom. In that case, list away! However, if you think that your to-do list is leading you into a mode of thinking that ignores the connections between the various aspects of running your business, try redrawing it as a wheel. It may be just the ticket to seeing your editing or proofreading business in a whole new interconnected light – and focusing your energy accordingly.
Second, be realistic about the time it will take to build your editorial business. The hard work you put in at the beginning will not generate immediate results. Taking the long view will keep you on your toes and prevent disappointment and stagnation.
Louise Harnby is a professional proofreader and the curator of The Proofreader’s Parlour. Visit her business website at Louise Harnby | Proofreader, follow her on Twitter at @LouiseHarnby, or find her on LinkedIn. She is the author of Business Planning for Editorial Freelancers and Marketing Your Editing & Proofreading Business.