An American Editor

February 21, 2018

On the Basics: Developing and Posting Business Practices

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter 

Several things came together recently to make me think about aspects of my freelance business that I usually “just do” without conscious thought or planning.

It isn’t that I fell unthinkingly into being a freelance writer/editor. I did freelance writing for several years while working full-time, and one newsletter writing and editing project saved my bacon when I lost one of those jobs. That taught me to have at least one substantial freelance project in hand at all times, even with a satisfying full-time job. But I did reach a point in one of those jobs when I felt burned out and decided I was ready to freelance full-time.

Although I didn’t take what is common advice (including my own nowadays) to save several months’ worth of expenses beforehand, I did consciously plan the launch of my business: I negotiated turning that full-time, in-house communications manager job with a trade association into a freelance contract, along with finding two onsite editing projects. That meant I could start out with a known income and didn’t have to panic about finances, unlike unfortunate colleagues who experienced “involuntary freelancing” by being laid off unexpectedly, RIFFed (a government worker who was part of a Reduction in Force), or fired.

My approach was more reactive than proactive. I didn’t have a formal business plan, marketing strategy, set of policies, contracts, work process, or any of the other elements of what some people would say are important to a successful business. And I launched Communication Central with nothing but a list of conference topics and speakers jotted on a napkin! I would query potential clients — mostly publications and organizations I wanted to write for — and respond to unsolicited offers of projects, but none of it was especially organized, even though it was successful.

I did make a point of joining and being visible in professional associations even before going out on my own as a freelancer. Using the job bank of a regional writers’ group resulted in those two onsite projects that constituted two-thirds of my business when I officially launched my business, and helped me garner a variety of writing assignments as well.

I’ve done quite well over many years without a formal business structure for either my freelance business or Communication Central. Income went up and down over the years, but never down enough to be frightening. New work sometimes seemed to appear almost magically when needed. However, these recent developments made me think:

  • A friend and colleague posted about developing a mission statement for her coaching and presentation business. (She works primarily in the not-for-profit sector, where mission and vision statements are standard.)
  • A prospective client asked me about my process for handling editing projects.
  • Another prospective client asked how I handle deadlines.

I decided that it couldn’t hurt, and could help, to develop some formal guidelines for my business this year. Clients — whether current, prospective, or even past — might be reassured by knowing something about how I work and what my principles are.

My Business Principles

In thinking consciously about what I do and how I do it, I realized that I do have both a process and a set of principles or ethics to guide my editorial business. They may need some further fine-tuning — with each item I thought of, another one came to mind — but the essence is there.

Clients (and colleagues) can expect that I will do the following for the core services I provide.

Writing

Do research as needed for each assignment.

Write in a clear, active, direct voice.

Produce original material.

Quote or paraphrase sources accurately.

Include diverse voices as sources whenever possible.

Check facts.

Editing

Confirm and maintain client’s preferred style.

Maintain (and learn from) a library of current style manuals and grammar guides.

Retain/Respect the author’s or client’s voice and style.

Maintain consistency and accuracy throughout each document.

Check everything twice.

Proofreading

Stick to the proofreading perspective — maintain the distinction between proofreading and editing.

Any and all projects

Be reliable.

Meet or beat deadlines.

Provide quality and consistency.

Be accessible and responsive.

Provide new insights and resources.

Respond to clients promptly, pleasantly, and tactfully.

Track and respond to new trends and tools as they arise.

Continually learn new techniques and adapt to new technology.

Give clients more than they ask for.

Develop a network of colleagues for support in case of an emergency.

Respect and learn from colleagues.

Share resources and opportunities with colleagues.

Process

Provide prospective clients with background information.

Discuss project in detail.

Confirm client style preferences, project scope, rate/fee, deadline(s), revision policy, kill fee, cancellation policy, payment process, etc., before beginning project.

Request information about client — website, past issue(s)/previous edition, annual report, previous publications, CV or résumé, etc.

Obtain full contact information for interviewees and details of other research sources.

Alert client to any problems or concerns immediately.

Ask client before going beyond original hours or budget.

Complete project on schedule.

Invoice as agreed with client (advance and interim payments or on completion).

Do not accept projects involving unfamiliar technology or tools.

Wrapping Up

Now that I’ve clarified what I provide and how I work, maybe I should add something about what I expect from clients! In initial conversations about any new project, I do make a point of confirming as much of the project elements as possible and asking pertinent questions about how the client and I will work together (as noted in those process points). It might be worth posting the other side of the equation to my website. Something to think about.

Do AAE subscribers have written business practices, policies, or processes? If so, do these include any elements not discussed here? How do you relay them to prospective and active clients? Do you state any requirements for how you expect clients to work with you?

Ruth E. Thaler-Carter (www.writerruth.com) is the editor-in-chief of An American Editor; an award-winning provider of editorial and publishing services for publications, independent authors, publishers, and companies worldwide; and the owner of Communication Central, which hosts an annual conference for current and aspiring freelancers. Ruth can be contacted at Ruth.Thaler-Carter@AnAmericanEditor.com.

7 Comments

  1. Very helpful checklist! Thanks, Ruth.

    Like

    Comment by Amy Heininger Spungen — February 21, 2018 @ 10:16 am

  2. Since we’re on the topic of business practices, I recently found an article about how one should present one’s business process, signature story, etc, to potential clients:
    http://www.awaionline.com/2017/10/7-things-you-must-have-on-your-website/

    Like

    Comment by Nate Hoffelder — February 21, 2018 @ 10:23 am

  3. Ruth, thanks for sharing. It’s no wonder that you continue to be successful. One of the tools I created early on was a Client-Supplier Communications Checklist to use when scoping out a project. It was of enormous value in keeping both parties on the same page.

    Like

    Comment by Judith Shenouda — February 21, 2018 @ 12:07 pm

  4. In case anyone is wondering, I’ll be posting my business policies/practices to my website after a session with my website designer tomorrow – I want to update and improve a few things, along with posting this material.

    Like

    Comment by Ruth Thaler-Carter — February 21, 2018 @ 1:06 pm

  5. I’m working on building a new editing website, and I can’t believe how long it has taken to put into words what I do everyday.

    Like you, I’ve just been doing the work and explaining the relevant bits on a per-client basis. But I’ve found taking the time to write out my processes and policies to be very helpful and hope it will save time when talking to new clients–both because they can read many of the answers on my website and because the answers are clearer in my own mind.

    Thank you so much for sharing this fantastic list–it made made me realize I left cancellations off of my own policy list.

    Like

    Comment by Amanda Ann Larson — February 22, 2018 @ 4:04 am

  6. I too started out with nothing organized beyond practices acquired from decades of conventional employment, augmented by my personal M.O. and ethics.

    What I’ve ultimately learned to do is get maximum mileage out of a contract. Once informal dialogue with prospects turns into a stated desire from them to work together, I insert our agreed-upon terms into my boilerplate contract and send a draft of it to them for review, asking if it confirms their understanding of our agreement and explaining that the document is a formality that allows us to avoid misunderstandings and protect both of us as invisible strangers operating through cyberspace.

    In the scope of work and payment sections, I spell out precisely what’s going to happen and who is responsible for what. I invite them to discuss any clauses they’re not comfortable with so we can tailor the document to our mutual satisfaction. Most times they sign off on the first round and send along their deposit, and the project proceeds successfully from there.

    This process gives us confidence in each other as well as a guideline for the project. If the agreement needs to be amended further on, usually a date adjustment, we have a written basis to refer to and specifically update. The system works reliably well.

    Like

    Comment by Carolyn — February 22, 2018 @ 5:56 am

  7. Excellent essay! Thanks for sharing your lists.
    I like the planning process, so when I knew that I would be out of my government job (RIFFed) in a year, I started planning my business. I had some sessions with a job coach to clarify the focus for my research/writing/editing business, took editing courses from Simon Fraser University, and joined Editors Canada at a time when the listserve discussions were a wonderful mentoring resource. Although I had been editing for decades, taking these steps helped me solidify my identity and credibility as a professional editor.
    I drafted a mission statement and mapped out my process in an infographic. Later, I wrote that process into an e-book that I give at no charge to anyone who inquires about my editing services. I plan to do the same for the other components of my business. I have a set response to inquiries that I paste into my reply to their email and have a standardized contract that I revise according to the needs of the client. The contract includes scope of service, schedule, fees, cancellations, acknowledgement of my service, etc. If revisions are extensive, I re-do the contract as an amendment; otherwise, if just a date rescheduling, I keep an email trail of our agreement.
    My process also includes a thank-you for your business note on completion of the contract and a seasonal greeting card in December to all former and current clients, just to keep me on their radar. That’s brought me substantial return business.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by vmcgowan2015 — February 24, 2018 @ 5:44 pm


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