An American Editor

November 6, 2017

On the Basics: Overcoming a Freelancer’s Isolation

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

One of the concerns that many people have when they contemplate going freelance and working from home is feeling isolated from colleagues (and even the nonwork world). Depending on where you live and your personality, isolation could be an issue. If you’re in a rural area or suburbia, you could feel cut off. If you’re an extrovert who needs to interact with people in real life, freelancing alone from home could feel almost like punishment. (If you’re an introvert, you might actually feel better freelancing at home because you would have control over when and how much you interact with other people.)

The good news is that today’s electronically connected world makes it easier than ever to combat isolation by providing constant connections with colleagues, friends, and family. In fact, that always-on environment could be overwhelming; many people remove themselves from online communities at least occasionally because it can be too much interaction and activity.

The easiest way to overcome isolation is to join a few online communities or discussion lists — and not just ones focused on the type of editorial work that you do. Participating in such activities expands your horizons in many ways. You meet new people, stay connected with valued friends and colleagues, learn new information, solve problems, provide solutions, and more. You do have to discipline yourself not to get so immersed in that social media world that you neglect your freelance work or real-life relationships, but online engagement is a great way to conquer isolation. How can we feel isolated when we’re in contact with the whole world?

If isolation does worry you, here are a few ways to head it off by engaging with the real world that beckons outside your home office.

  • Don’t subscribe to home delivery or online versions of your newspaper, so you have to get out of the house every day to keep up with the news. This works best in neighborhoods where there’s a newsstand in walking distance, and serves as both an antidote to isolation and an exercise routine. Depending on your current deadlines, you can choose a cybercafé or coffee shop for picking up and reading the paper rather than taking it right back home. That gives you the opportunity to connect with neighbors, or at least the café staff and customers, which also helps reduce feelings of being cut off from the world.
  • Get a pet. Dogs are particularly good because you have to get out of the house every day for “walkies,” giving you opportunities to meet and make friends with neighbors and other dog people. If you have a cat, dog, or other animal companion, veterinary appointments will get you back into the real world, and could provide opportunities to expand your personal and professional networks — people you talk to while waiting for your animal’s appointment could become friends and even new clients (always carry business cards with you!), or the clinic itself could become a client. If you notice errors in the clinic’s website or office flyers and brochures, find a tactful way to present your writing, editing, proofreading, or other relevant skills. If they don’t want to pay, you might be able to barter or swap services.
  • At the beginning of every new year, budget to attend at least one work-related conference and, if possible, one hobby-related conference. Conferences are a wonderful way to enhance your skills and build your network, as well as combat isolation. You get exposure to new places and new people, along with new skills and information. If you put targeted funds aside starting in January, it will be easy to commit to these events and the related expenses as soon as you see an announcement of a conference that might interest you.

If the thought of going to a big conference full of strangers frightens you, keep in mind that there are smaller events you can attend. Most organizations also have special sessions for first-timers or hospitality committees dedicated to making new attendees feel welcome.

  • Develop a hobby that involves going somewhere. Instead of staying home to knit, crochet, quilt, collect stamps, etc., join a group for whatever hobby interests you and work on your art or obsession in company with other people who share that interest. You can take lessons in new hobbies or crafts, and join various clubs based on your nonwork interests. There’s an organization, association, or business for any hobby or craft you can imagine, and they all hold meetings in real life. Sometimes meetings are based on creating charity projects, which means you not only get out of the house, you do something nice for other people.

Keep in mind that those same associations, clubs, organizations, and businesses all have — or should have — activities that probably could use your professional skills. As an example, one of my all-time favorite projects was editing and producing the newsletter of the American Kiteflyers Association — which paid its editor!

  • Get out and walk or run. This may seem obvious, but it’s an invaluable habit to develop, and one that’s good for your health as well as for overcoming a sense of isolation. Even if you don’t plan to interact with other people, you’re out and about with the potential of meeting or joining others.
  • Volunteer with a not-for-profit organization or cause you believe in. Volunteering gets you out of the house for a good cause, so you can make new friends, meet potential new clients among organizational staff and other volunteers, learn new skills or enhance existing ones, and contribute something to society in the process. Most nonprofits also host events, which adds to your ability to network while conquering isolation.
  • Be the one to organize something. Instead of waiting for family, friends, and colleagues to contact you about outings, make an effort to be the one who hosts a get-together, whether an informal brunch at a new restaurant, a museum or leaf-peeping outing, a movie or bowling night … whatever you’ve been wanting to do but haven’t gotten around to because no one has invited you.
  • Join — or start — the local chapter of a professional association. Most organizations have local or regional units, and many others would if only someone would step up to be the host or coordinator. If one already exists, get to a few meetings. If one doesn’t, be the guiding force. The national level is usually more than glad to provide tips and resources for local chapters. You don’t have to hold monthly meetings, but even bimonthly or quarterly ones have value, and will get you out of the house and enhance your networking efforts.

Do keep in mind that coping with or defeating isolation is an important aspect of freelancing, but that we must be disciplined about finding and maintaining a proper balance between work and play. If your efforts to combat isolation start taking time away from meeting your deadlines, it’s time to restructure your schedule.

How do you combat feeling isolated when working from home? Which works better for you, in-person activities or online engagement?

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, which hosts an annual conference for colleagues, and a regular contributor to An American Editor.

October 7, 2015

On the Basics: Turning Freelancing Lemons into Lemonade

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

It’s been said that adversity is good for us, and failure teaches us important lessons. I’m sure most of us would just as soon do without either one, but there are times when something bad can turn into something good.

I have a history of making lemonade out of lemons. When I was turned down for my high school’s literary magazine many years ago, I started my own. When I ended up in an “I quit/You’re fired” situation at a job I mostly enjoyed, it pushed me to do more freelancing and eventually freed me to relocate from St. Louis to D.C., where my career and collegial network really took off. When a toxic colleague bumped me from a speaking engagement, I wrote up the topic and have made money ever since from selling the result as a booklet. When I chaired a national conference for one of my professional associations and the board decided not to do another one for reasons that made no sense, I started my own conference for colleagues, which just had its 10th annual event and promises to keep bringing colleagues together as long as I have the energy to keep it going.

Freelancing in any niche or field is an ongoing challenge, and there are likely to be opportunities to turn lemons into lemonade for all of us. Those lemons can range from unfair treatment to unpleasant clients to our own failures — we’re human, and we’re probably all going to make a few mistakes, blow a deadline once or twice, encounter problem clients and painful projects, miss errors we should have caught in a project, or get stiffed on a payment. Here are some ideas for making your own version of lemonade from such lemons.

Losing a client or project

This is probably the most common “lemon” experience for any freelancer — writer, editor, proofreader, graphic artist, website designer, indexer; whoever. It can be devastating, both personally and financially. But look at it carefully: What can you learn? Where can it take you?

One flavor of lemonade in such a situation is having colleagues to fall back on. Describe what happened as objectively and rationally as you can, and ask for input about whether you really did screw up. Be prepared to be told that yes, it’s you, not them, and to learn from the experience. Even if you were in the wrong, you are likely to get sympathy and encouragement from your colleagues.

If you lost the client because of something you did do wrong, accept the responsibility and find ways to improve your skills or process so you don’t make the same mistakes again. Apologize to the client, try to offer something to make up for the problem (a discount, perhaps), and move on. Learn the appropriate style guide, improve your organizational systems, develop a checklist to refer to, refresh your basic skills — take a course, read a book; become better for the experience.

If you did nothing wrong but simply encountered an unpleasant client who turned out to be impossible to work with, or one who refused to raise your rate of pay, the lemonade is that you are free of a difficult client, or one who doesn’t pay very much. You now have the time and freedom to replace that one with a client who’s more pleasant and easier to work with, and who pays more. Make the most of that opportunity.

Sometimes we have to be pushed or even kicked into stretching ourselves to walk away from negative work experiences and find better ones, because even a low-paying or unpleasant client seems to be better — and more secure — than no client. You may find that you’ve been holding onto a client you didn’t really need because it was easier to do that than to make the effort to find a better client. Get your networking and cold-querying into gear, and see what you can find.

Losing a client also could push you into new directions. It might give you the impetus to try offering a different editorial service or skill — one that you’re better at or more comfortable with doing. Losing the income from that client also could motivate you to try being more independent of clients for a living. This might be the moment to try coming up with something you can sell on your own — a book or booklet, a webinar about something you’re good at, speeches, and workshops. You may have skills you never thought of profiting from; now is the time to explore the market for those skills. Create something and take control outside the traditional client–service provider relationship.

If the disruption is major, it might mean that it’s time to think about your career direction. Maybe editorial work is simply not for you. You might need to take a different fork in the road. The “lemon” might push you into looking at something other than editorial work to make money — crafts, for instance. Maybe that artsy, creative hobby could earn you a living.

Difficult clients

Sometimes a difficult — rude, uncommunicative, unpredictable — client can be fixed. Try to pin down what the problem is. Maybe you can do more to keep the client informed about the status of the project. Maybe the client’s personality or style is different enough from yours to seem worse than it really is. You might be able to educate the client about aspects of the project that are unclear, or ask a few questions that would clarify the process and reassure the client that you can handle it after all. Perhaps you could suggest a better, more straightforward process or a formal schedule of not only when the project is due but when you and the client will communicate about it.

Then again, some people are simply impossible to work with. Another flavor of lemonade in this situation is to walk away and remove yourself from that situation.

Low rates

We all want to be paid what we think we’re worth, but sometimes a project comes along that is below that amount at a time when we really need the work, or when the project is genuinely interesting. There are a couple of ways to make lemonade out of such a lemon.

With a writing assignment at a low per-word rate, for instance, you might be able to rethink it in terms of an hourly rate. That is, if you can do the research and actual writing fast enough and easily enough — that low per-word rate might actually look pretty good. A 1,000-word assignment at 15 cents/word is only $150, which isn’t much — but if you pull that piece together in three hours, you’re making a respectable $50/hour. If the story means something to you, gets you experience with a new topic, supports a cause you believe in, or otherwise seems important enough to write even at a low per-word rate, and you can justify it in terms of an hourly fee, there’s your lemonade.

For editing and proofreading work, you might not be able to get a higher fee from some clients, but you can work better, faster, and smarter so that fee works in your favor. Try to get paid by the page rather than by the hour, for instance, and use macros and other shortcuts to speed up the number of pages you can get through in an hour.

Take some time to look through the An American Editor essays. Many of them discuss rates and productivity, and could help you rethink either how you work or how you charge for your work.

Health issues

Getting sick or being injured — or caring for someone in such situations — can throw a huge monkey wrench into your freelance business. One area where this could have the greatest negative impact is in your ability to travel to do presentations or lead workshops. In this situation, technology is your lemonade. Figure out how to do presentations via Skype or webinar. Turn your presentation or workshop material into a book you can self- or copublish and sell. If your health is OK but you’re caring for someone who needs you to stay put, look for local sites where you can do programs and invite people from out of town, as well as nearby, to attend.

Isolation and loneliness

We’re constantly being told about how important it is to network and socialize, but many of us live alone and some of us live in rural areas where we might the be only editorial professional for miles. Again, technology can be your lemonade — but you also can be your own. If you don’t live near any other people to network with, look to the Internet for places to interact online, from e-mail discussion lists to Facebook and LinkedIn groups to forums of national professional organizations.

If you live in a town or city, there may be dozens of potential colleagues (and clients!) nearby whom you’ve never met. Set a few dollars aside so you can join a national organization that has a chapter in your area — or start a new chapter, or even a new organization, yourself. It’s easy nowadays to get the word out about such groups. Ask at your local writers’ center, bookstore, library, college, art gallery, or coffee shop about holding occasional get-togethers on the premises. Get the word out through social media and a standard press release to local media, and go from there. It doesn’t have to be anything especially structured or fancy; it just has to be an opportunity to get out of the house, meet colleagues, and expand your horizons. It might even turn into connections that lead to work.

Have you encountered any lemons in your freelance life that turned into lemonade? What did you do to sweeten the situation and turn it to your favor?

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.

October 13, 2014

On the Basics: Overcoming the Isolation of Freelancing

Overcoming the Isolation of Freelancing

by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter

After helping to finalize The Business of Editing, the book compiling columns from Rich Adin’s An American Editor blog, I decided that we hadn’t done enough with the topic of how a freelance editor (or writer, proofreader, indexer, or any solopreneur who works from home) can overcome the potential isolation of working alone.

Although I understand it as a problem for others, I’ve never had a problem with isolation. That’s in large part because I’m about as extroverted as one can get — someone once said I could make friends with a lamppost. It’s also because of how and where I lived for the past many years — in apartment buildings, which provide built-in communities to interact with, and in walkable urban neighborhoods, where I could meet and interact with all kinds of people right outside my front door without much effort — neighbors, business owners and workers, beat cops, restaurateurs, dog walkers, other shoppers, and more.

For those who don’t live in such environments and have to go farther afield to feel connected with colleagues or the world in general, or who just need a little nudge to get out of an isolation rut, I have a few ideas. And I’m one of those folks now — I’m in an apartment building in a totally residential neighborhood and that lively outside world on my doorstep isn’t available any longer; it’s a world I miss. There are still neighbors to chit-chat with in the elevator or mailroom, and I can go out for a walk around the neighborhood, but there’s none of the business vitality, diversity, and community of Adams Morgan and Dupont Circle in Washington, DC, or Federal Hill in Baltimore, Maryland. It takes a little more effort to get up and out of the home-office rut.

The good thing is that, unlike when I started freelancing, nowadays you can combat isolation through the Internet, by participating in blogs, e-mail discussion lists and LinkedIn groups; on Facebook, Google+, Twitter; through Pinterest and Instagram, and whatever other new outlets pop up from one day to the next. There are new online communities every day. You can ask questions, offer insights and advice, explore new ideas, make friends, find clients and colleagues to work with — all without ever leaving your computer, much less your home.

Not that never leaving your home or computer is a good thing, but that connectivity does expand your horizons and connections with people with less effort than it takes to get out of the house, and with less trauma and more control for the introverted. The Internet makes it possible to stay connected to people you already know, find ones you thought were lost forever and meet new ones you would never otherwise have an opportunity to know. It might encourage introverts to stay put and leave the house even less often than otherwise, but it does expand your world.

That isn’t the same as, or enough, human contact, though. At least not for me. Ways I’ve gotten myself out of the office and away from the computer include:

  • Not subscribing to the daily paper, so I have to go out at least every other day, but ideally every day, because I still much prefer to read the newspaper on paper.
  • Joining a nearby pool club (for swimming, that is!) — or one for fitness, running, biking, hiking, dance — which has the potential to meet new friends, colleagues, and clients while counteracting the negative effect of all that sitting at a desk to work.
  • Joining and actively participating in local chapters of professional organizations — if there isn’t a local chapter, you can always start one.
  • Teaching and speaking, which brings in extra income while creating opportunities to meet new people.
  • Occasionally doing some work on my laptop at local coffee shops, where other people might ask what I’m working on or I might overhear and plug into conversations around me.
  • Playing mah-jongg (or bridge, euchre, etc.) — it’s good for your brain as well as your social life, probably brings in new people to meet, and could be good for your freelance business; a colleague invited me to join a regular game, and I’ve already met someone I’ll be doing some work for through that connection.

Other ways to combat isolation, both mine and a colleague’s, are:

  • Get a dog — You have to go out at least once a day (usually several times!), which creates opportunities to interact with neighbors at local dog parks.
  • Be proactive — Don’t sit around waiting for opportunities to socialize to come to you; be the one to start a writer’s or editor’s group, book club, dinner group, alumni connection, hobby club, etc.
  • Reconnect — Join a high school or college alumni association; some of those difficult old classmates may have become interesting, even likable, adults!
  • Get culture — Hang out at local galleries and museums; even if you don’t make new friends, you’ll enrich your soul (and might find new things to write about or edit).
  • Volunteer — You meet new people (some of whom might become clients), do good, and feel good.
  • Meet-ups — Considering how many freelancers there are in all professions, it is unlikely that you live where there are none, so why not start a local freelancers’ monthly meet-up? Meet for breakfast or lunch once a month and, if nothing else, discuss problems freelancers in your area are facing.
  • Marketing day — If you work directly with individuals and small businesses, why not set a marketing day — that is, a day when you will go out and meet with potential clients. For example, call your local bookstore and ask if it would be interested in your giving a presentation to writers, or call your local Chamber of Commerce and ask if they would like you to give a presentation on how members can benefit from hiring services such as you provide. The possibilities are myriad — just put on your thinking cap!
  • Silly day — The hardest thing for most people to do is to walk up to a stranger, introduce themselves, and give a marketing pitch. Why not break the ice with a Silly Day. Put your creative juices to work and do something silly (e.g., dress up like a clown and film yourself editing with humongous fingers); send it around to past, current, and potential clients and/or to colleagues with a note saying you hope this brings a smile to them; and invite them to participate in the next Silly Day with you. It will start slowly, but you will be surprised at how well this works on multiple fronts. People like to smile and smiles bring comradeship.

Thanks to the Internet, there’s really no excuse for being isolated, but the more introverted among us may need a little nudging to get out of the home office and at least see, if not interact with, the real world. Give it a try and try to make getting out a habit. You could be happily surprised at the results.

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.

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