A Fifth Commandment: Thou Shall Be Prepared
by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter
You don’t have to be a Girl or Boy Scout for “Be prepared” to matter. It’s also an excellent rule of business for a freelance writer, editor, proofreader, indexer, or other publishing/editorial professional.
For any freelancer (and most in-house editorial professionals as well), “be prepared” means some, if not all, of the following.
- Create and maintain a stash of cash or a credit-card balance to cover emergencies — a computer crash, printer breakdown, phone foul-up, even e-mail outage (you might have to rent time at a cyber café to stay in touch with or send assignments to clients), not to mention family crises.
- Have the right tools at hand — equipment (computer, software, printer), reference books, style manuals (both print and online), paper, pens and pencils (some of us do still write in long-hand, or get asked to edit or proofread on paper), fax capability (either a machine and phone line or an e-version) — whatever is essential to get your work done.
- Put together a backup system so you’re ready to cope in an emergency. Have a laptop if you usually work on a desktop machine, and a second laptop, tablet, or other device if you do all your work on a laptop and it conks out; extra printer cartridges or toner; both disk and download versions of essential software so you can power back up after a crash; places to go — cybercafé, public library, co-working site — in a power outage or equipment breakdown; trusted colleagues in case you (or a spouse, child, or parent) get sick when you’re on deadline. Think about what could go wrong, and try to have mechanism in place ahead of time to respond.
- Have a website, and keep it updated. It’s an invaluable tool for promoting and building your business. It doesn’t have to be fancy or extensive, but it has to exist these days for a freelancer to succeed.
- Update your résumé, promotional brochure, website, and online profiles regularly. Every time you have a new client (or job) or publish a new project, add it where appropriate. If you read about new trends in résumés, revamp yours accordingly. Keep current versions as Word documents and PDFs on every computer or device you use, so you can dash it off in response to every new opportunity you might see or receive and update whenever the need arises. Make sure you never have to make excuses for not being ready to respond promptly or simply miss out on the chance to be considered; timing can be everything.
- Have a good photo of yourself. You probably will want one for your website, and you might need it for a bio to go along with an assignment, or if you’re asked to make a speech somewhere. It doesn’t have to be an expensive studio portrait; an informal, well-composed, flattering snapshot will do.
- Have a business card; get a lot of ’em printed up and carry them with you always, including to social events, the store, wherever. You never know when it might come in handy and lead to a new client.
- Be ready to take on assignments with little or no notice. That might mean beating instead of meeting deadlines so you have time available to accept something new with little warning, or organizing your projects so you always have some wiggle room to add something new and appealing when the opportunity shows up.
- For when you can’t or don’t want to be available for new projects, practice ways of saying “No” (or “Thanks, but not now” if that’s more appropriate). Plan ahead to know what you prefer not to cover or work on — topics, types, or lengths of projects; kinds of clients, etc. If you think about these things ahead of time, saying no will be less intimidating and you’ll be less likely to let someone badger you into saying yes to projects you don’t want to do.
- Develop a personal script to use with difficult, demanding clients and ones you’d rather not work with, so you don’t have to respond to them off the cuff. You’ll be more likely to protect yourself against such situations if you don’t face every one of them as new and distinct.
- Have a template for contracts and letters of agreement, so you never forget to include important details or clauses in assignments.
- Have a template for invoices, so it’s as easy as possible to do the billing that’s part of every independent editorial business.
- Develop a strong network of colleagues so you have someone to turn to when you’re sick, want to take a vacation, are offered a project that doesn’t interest you or you’re too busy to accept, or want to subcontract.
- Read, read, read! The more you read, the better prepared you will be to cope with assignments. Read newspapers, magazines, books, blogs, and anything else for both business and pleasure — they all inform and expand your skills and ability to handle assignments.
- Have health insurance, so you and your family are protected against the costs of health emergencies.
In addition, for writers, “be prepared” means:
- Develop an ongoing, ever-growing network of sources and contacts, so you always have someone or somewhere as a starting point for a new assignment or project. Some editors and clients will tell you whom to contact, or at least a couple of sources to include, but even the ones who give you all the names you’ll need will be impressed if you can add a couple more. If you’re writing fiction, that network might be the starting point for character names or sources of background information and other research.
- Know the market for your kind of writing. Writer’s Market and Literary Marketplace are great starting points, but look for writers’ groups — either in-person or online — to build up your knowledge base and stay tuned to news about publications that are right for your work. Conferences are also a good resource for market knowledge (and expanding your network).
- Follow trends in publishing so you know what new ones might be best for your work and when to adopt them.
For editors and proofreaders, “be prepared” means:
- Invest in training every year — either refresher courses or classes with new information — because trends in language, usage, tools, and technology are constantly changing, and we have to keep up with them to do our work at our best.
- Consider learning new style manuals to be prepared to work with new types of clients or publications, just in case your current niche dries up.
Essentially, being prepared means being ready to cope with work and life emergencies, and up to date on anything that affects the work we do — or might do. Being prepared means being a better businessperson, better employee, and better freelancer.
Therefore, the commandment:
Thou shall be prepared.
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.