An American Editor

January 8, 2014

What? The Fundamental Question

The what questions are the formational questions that each freelancer needs to self-ask but rarely does. What questions are the fundamental questions. They are questions that have no universally definitive answer; each of our answers will fit our particular circumstances. Yet the what questions are the questions that freelancers need to ask and answer repeatedly throughout their career. They are the questions whose answers act as our business guide; they define our business persona.

The what questions are these: What do I expect out of my freelance career? What do I want out of my freelance career?

Expectations and wants are not the same thing. They can be formulated so that they are the same, but it is best if they are not the same, even if they have the same root concern. They should parallel each other; they are like identical twins — identical in every way except in the way they are individuals and different from each other.

The what questions go hand-in-hand with goals, which we discussed in “The Business of Editing: Goals.” What we expect and what we want help form our goals because our goals should be steps in achieving our expectations and wants.

When I began my career as a freelancer, I wanted to create a successful business, one that I could enjoy for decades and that would earn me enough money to do the usual middle-class things such as own a home, take vacations, send my children to college, fund my retirement. But I didn’t really have expectations, largely because I had little familiarity with editing as a career. In my case, my wants defined my expectations. After a few years, I expected my business to meet my wants.

Because I didn’t have truly distinct expectations, my early years in business were not all they could have been. However, because of the convergence of my wants and my expectations, I was able to define a success measure that suited my needs. That measure helped formulate my yearly goals. Interestingly, my expectations and wants have not changed much over the decades.

Wants and expectations are intertwined and they both come about from answering the two what questions. Yet when I speak with colleagues about what they expect from their career and what they want from it, many of them have given little thought to the questions. The answer is often as vague as “I want to be successful” but without a real measure of what will constitute their success.

Some measures are more difficult than others. Financial measures are easy to calculate and apply; measures related to quality, competency, and similar intangibles are much harder to apply. Even so, there is nothing wrong with saying “I want to be the editor who is recommended first” or “I want to be the best of the best editors.” The problem is in defining how to achieve that goal.

Our wants and expectations are often used as fallbacks, as defenses to explain why we are not as successful as we really want to be. I know editors who never say they want success measured financially because they are not financially successful and to use that measure would be to question their skill. These editors should be thinking, instead, about how using that measure could help them achieve the financial success goals; that is, they should view the measure as an aid, not as a hindrance.

We need to ask these questions of ourselves and we need to answer ourselves honestly, because our honest answers need to be our guides in running our businesses. Honest answers lead to honest reflection on what we need to do that we are not doing to meet our expectations and wants. Honest answers lead to honest decision making when we face business choices.

For example, if we know that we want greater financial success and we know that we want to edit only mystery novels, we then also know that we need to find a way to alter what we are currently doing to engender that increased financial success. But if we think that our want is simply to be recognized among mystery novelists as one of the top ten mystery editors in the country, the way we achieve that goal will be significantly different than were we directing our efforts toward financial success. It is not that they cannot go hand-in-hand, it is how we focus our efforts to accomplish our wants.

Why (another very important question and a topic for another day), you are asking, the focus on what questions today and on goals previously? Because every business owner should determine if her current business model is sustainable and whether she should remain in the current business (or even enter it) or should move in a different direction. Every business owner should have confidence in the business choices she has made, which means there must be something to measure those choices against.

Many of us “fell” into freelancing. Perhaps we worked for a publisher and got laid off. Or we didn’t know what to do with ourselves after college. Or we thought editing was a “romantic” profession at which we would be good. Or…

Many of us entered the profession without really knowing what we wanted from the profession or knowing what to expect. (One former editor told me that he became a freelance editor because he thought it would be easy to get business and make money. He said he quickly discovered otherwise.) Now we are struggling and have no clear path to ending our struggles.

Answering the what questions will help to focus our efforts; establishing goals will give us benchmarks that can help us decide whether this is really the career for us — or, more importantly, whether the career is fine but our direction is wrong and needs changing. Answering the what questions and establishing appropriate goals may help bring us to the decision that we need to broaden our opportunities and not be so adamantly certain that we are not interested in pursuing particular opportunities.

The key is to use the what questions, combined with setting goals, to map our future course so that it better aligns with our wants, expectations, and needs. We need to be the drivers of our future, not passengers. It is hard to know if we are successful if we do not know what we want and what we expect from our career choices.

Richard Adin, An American Editor


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