2014 Retrospective

So 2014. I started the year off in a panic. November and December were dismal and I was sure that this was the final downslope on the freelance rollercoaster. That there would never be another upswing. I don’t think I will ever get comfortable with the ebb and flow of freelancing. I love the freedom, and the ability to say no, but the feast or famine thing is just tough to take. Will I ever get to the point where the security wins out over the freedom and I decide to head back into an office? There are days when I say “Never!” but then there are days where the panic sets in and I just want something steady, predictable, and secure.

I considered expanding my business to include copyediting. I quickly realized that copyediting is its own  animal – it’s not the same as what I do. I mean, I do some copyediting, but my strength is in developmental and substantive editing, specifically in the biomedical sciences. More than that, I realized that to make any money in copyediting, I would need to automate much of what I do. I would need to use macros and software to make every second count and get up to a decent hourly rate. Even taking into consideration the learning curve, it was clear that adding copyediting to my repertoire was not going to solve my income problem.

So I decided in January that I would delve into my virtual Rolodex and seek out more work in healthcare communications – I’d hoped that as the recession started to ease up, more agencies might be willing to hire freelancers. I reached out to my previous employer, and although they were not looking for freelance help, I was able to get my name back in circulation. It eventually paid off, with about 6 months of steady work over the summer and fall.

Almost at the same time, a former colleague of mine referred me to another agency. I went in to speak to the head of medical writing and started doing freelance work for them a couple of months later – it’s led to a fantastic working relationship that I hope to sustain and even expand in the coming year.

By March, grant proposal jobs had kicked back in. In the current funding environment, though, I think it’s time to resign myself to the fact that grant work will not be a big percentage of my income. That said, grant editing and consulting is one of the most personally and professionally satisfying parts of my career, and I was able to add on a new client this year who kept me very busy during October and November. I am hopeful that I can keep it going in 2015.

Manuscript editing continued to be a big part of my business, and I enjoy it as much as, and maybe even a little more than, grant projects. The work is sporadic, though, so it was good to have the agency work to fill in the gaps.

On the business side, I switched accountants and promptly realized how disinterested my previous accountant had been in my business. My new accountant has put me on the right track, curing me of really bad bookkeeping habits, gently guiding me towards what I should have been doing all along (ahem, QuickBooks). I also made the decision to incorporate, which has turned out to be one of the best decisions I have ever made, financially speaking.

So what did I learn this year?

1) Networking is crucial. Most if not all of my business is based on referrals. I’m glad I reached out to previous clients and kept in touch with former colleagues. Even if they have no work, they are reminded I am out there and I am available to take work. I send out a New Year postcard every year for that very reason – just get to get my name back in their head as they start their year.

2) Quality really is king. Always do your best work. Always. You’ll get repeat business as well as referrals. By February, just as I was starting to dust off the resume, my repeat clients started calling with jobs. I should have more faith, really.

I’m sure I covered this in a previous post, but it’s worth repeating. If you think you can’t do your best quality work, don’t take the job. Really. Be honest with potential clients if you have doubts about your ability to complete the job. It doesn’t help you or your client if you have to struggle through a job. I hate having to admit I can’t do something, but I really hate having to tell a client I can’t finish their job. Or sending them poor quality work.

3) Do what you’re good at. Although it’s always good to learn new skills, it’s also important to focus on your strengths and offer your clients your very best. I am really good at substantive and developmental biomedical editing and biomedical writing. I’m good at editing biomedical grant proposals and peer-reviewed manuscripts. I’m good at brainstorming and planning and constructing a good scientific story. But there are many things I am not as good at and other things I know nothing about. I recognize this and I wouldn’t offer my services in these areas to any client, no matter how freaked out I am about the potentially lost income.

4) Introspection is important. I try to assess how I am doing a few times a year. And not just financially. How many active clients do I have? How many are new? What kinds of projects have I been doing? Where have I struggled and what can I do about it?

5) Go with a diverse client base. As much as I love grants and manuscripts, they are not sufficient to pay the bills. I ended up with 25 clients in 2014, some repeat, some new. They were independent researchers, research institutions, healthcare communications agencies, publishers, and pharma. I also did some volunteer work for AWIS Magazine – great experience and more contacts!

So how did I end up doing in 2014? I am up a little more than 10% in billing and a little more than 5% in income from last year – so that is really something.

As I write this, I am in the midst of my annual December slump – the part of the freelance ride I guess I’m just going to have to get used to. But this year, I will not panic and instead have faith that all my hard work and diversification and introspection and newfound business sense will pay off and the rollercoaster will once again head in the upward direction. Here’s to an even better 2015!

Don’t Panic! Learn to Market Yourself.

So I had an okay 2013. Didn’t do worse than 2012, but that’s not exactly an inspiring achievement. Plus, the end of the year was pretty slow. Scary slow. So it gave me plenty of time to think about what I am doing and how I am doing it.

The majority of my clients are academic researchers and institutions. So I wondered if the slowdown in my workload is a sign that the drop in federal research funding has finally trickled down to me? Or is this just a typical down period in the cycle and there’s no need to panic? Not sure.

Either way, I think I have to come to terms with the fact that I need to market myself more actively and find new clients. For too long, I’ve been relying on passive marketing through my website, blog, LinkedIn, and listings on sites like AMWA and EFA. And I think it’s given me a false sense of security.

So I started with my current clients. I designed and sent a New Year’s card, just as a subtle reminder that I’m out here, if they need me. Still pretty passive though. But it is what it is.

I plowed through Rich Adin’s (An American Editor) The Business of Editing and I bought and devoured Elizabeth Fricke’s excellent book A Freelancer’s Guide to Business Success in Any Economy. I considered the possibility of trying to join existing editorial groups, rather than continuing as a solopreneur. I considered the possibility of branching out into copyediting. I joined the Professional Editors Network (PEN), the American Copy Editors Society (ACES), and copyediting.com to access their resources and network.  I set up coffee dates with local colleagues to discuss my options.

I also spent some quality time on LinkedIn, updating my profile, reaching out to potential new contacts, soliciting recommendations, and asking more pointed questions about possible opportunities. I searched through job postings just to get a feel for places that might use the services of a medical writer/editor.

Probably most importantly, I revisited my business plan for a long overdue update, particularly the marketing portion. This year, my marketing plan will include getting more involved as a volunteer and investing in a trip to the AMWA annual conference in October.

What am I NOT going to do? Dwell on the low points of last year. Take things personally. Panic. Not going to do any of that. Or at least try not to do any of that.

Diversifying vs. Finding a Niche

So a long time ago, I wrote a post on the importance of finding a niche. It’s important, otherwise you run the risk of overextending yourself, maybe taking jobs that don’t quite fit your particular skill set and getting paid relatively little as a consequence of climbing the learning curve.


I have also been struggling recently with how to increase my income. I could raise my hourly rates, which doesn’t always work out. I could attempt project-based pricing. I could quit being a solopreneur and throw in my lot with an editorial group. Or I could find more clients and/or work more hours, which will inevitably lead to burnout.

I was also given the advice that I should find different clients. Hmmm.

Some history: I took a very gradual route to full-time freelancing. I had a full-time job, so the freelance gigs I took were like a bonus. Also, my day job was in content development for continuing medical education and healthcare communications companies, whereas my freelance jobs were in scientific manuscript and grant editing. Very different. Day job: big projects in medical writing with project-based pricing. Freelance: smaller projects in science writing and editing with hourly pricing.  When I switched to freelancing full time, the majority of my work became science writing and editing, billed hourly.

Every once in a while, I still do get a big project in healthcare comm, but for the most part, manuscripts and grants are my bread and butter and university researchers are my main clients. Even though I had settled in a niche, I also decided to keep my experience up on my website, classified by client and the types of services I am able to offer to each. Maybe deep down I recognized the value in presenting myself as someone with a broad skill set, but I am still hesitant to leave my “niche” and risk overextending my one employee. Which I have done in the past and I’d like to avoid for sanity’s sake.

Another factor is the current state of federally funded research. It’s dire. Scientists are being laid off. These are my clients. They don’t have a whole lot of money to invest in developing a grant proposal that is less and less likely to be funded. Hopefully that’s where I come in, to help them get it funded. But it can be hard for them to weigh the need to hire a grant editor when they are already struggling to keep their labs going. It’s not yet clear whether the current situation with NIH funding is going to drive business or dry it up. To be safe, diversifying is probably a smart thing to do.

Now, how to diversify without overextending? There’s a skill I really need to work on.

The Pricing Saga

I’ve been a full-time freelance writer/editor for a few years now, and a part-timer for a decade before that. Feels like I should have the pricing issues worked out, right? Nope. At the moment it feels as if I have hit a wall – pricing is tied to the growth of my business, and as a single editor, I have a finite amount of time. I have to make every hour count. So if I am going to have an income that increases with the cost of living, I have three options: bring in other editors who can take on the overflow; raise my hourly rate; or start using project-based fees.  I now recognize the need to address this issue or watch my income stall (or worse, watch my business wither away). Here is the argument that rages in my head:

1) The question of branding

There’s a great pair of posts over on An American Editor that discusses the pros and cons of staying a “solopreneur” or becoming part of a group of editors. I know this depends on the kind of editing you do, so I’m still working through this. Up to this point, I have been selling myself and my skills as my brand. Should I expand my brand to include other editors and their skills? But the bigger obstacle is administrative. I can’t even fathom how I would handle my projects plus management of other editors’ projects and payments. I would definitely need to hire some kind of virtual assistant, and then there goes any extra income I would have gained by becoming a multi-editor company.

2) The pitfalls of project-based pricing

I have this mental block against project-based pricing, particularly for editing jobs. I find it incredibly difficult to anticipate the scope of editing projects, and usually end up underselling myself. For those clients who have insisted on a project-based fee, I have run into two issues. The first is that my estimate is taken as the project fee, with no room to increase fees should the scope of work change. In response, I have started to produce incredibly detailed scopes of work for these projects so that I can give myself some leeway to renegotiate (and something to fall back on when the client starts asking for more than what the fee covers), but it has been a bit of a learning process. I also have to remind myself to stipulate that a portion of the project fee will be paid midway through the project, or with the first deliverable, or whatever. Otherwise my cash flow gets seriously messed up.

3) The icky-ness of raising rates

I am probably justified in raising my rates, which haven’t really changed for – I am embarrassed to admit – 8 years. The first time I tried to raise my rates, I met with so much push back that it put me off trying again for quite some time. In fact, it resulted in this particular client hiring me at the new rate but telling me to limit the time I worked on the project (so that the final fee was about the same). Ugh. Really? I am going to take your project, work on it for X amount of hours, and then, no matter what state the project might be in, stop working and send it back to you? Really? At the risk of losing a pretty regular client, I tried to work faster to get everything done in the stipulated time frame–showing the client they get what they pay for–but I am always anxious that working faster also means producing poorer quality work. Which is definitely NOT a precedent I’d like to set.

The most recent experience involved me butting heads with client’s HR and the “company policy” that could not be changed no matter how valuable my services might be, so sorry. Again, I backed off because the project was a pretty big one and I didn’t want to  miss out and wonder where I was going to make up the income.

Now, I realize that this is no way to run a business, particularly now that this business is my sole source of income. I hate rocking the boat, but I know that when I fail to negotiate, I may be perceived as an amateur who doesn’t even recognize her own value. The business side of freelancing is really doing my head in.

To raise my rates, I think the easiest way is to go back and look at all of my service agreements, find the ones with rates that need to be changed, and for those that are about to expire, renew at the higher rates. I just have to be confident that I will find new clients who will accept my rates, knowing that they are getting a quality service.

For the project-based fees, I need to write out exactly what the fee includes, and if the fee is low, then the scope of work will need to be smaller. I need to make sure that my time is spent wisely, and that my effective hourly rate doesn’t shrink down to ridiculous.

So there is the glimpse of the pricing chaos in my head. I really know what I need to do, I just need the confidence to be the savvy business woman who can do it.

Burning out and booting up

It’s been a while – I’ve been busy. That’s an understatement, actually. I’ve been swamped. Overloaded. Overbooked. Overwhelmed. You get the picture. I don’t know what happened, but my schedule somehow went bonkers. Either I need a better project tracking system (any suggestions?) or I need to remind myself more often how many hours there are in a day and how many of those hours must be scheduled for sleep.

After many, many days in a row with no break, and realizing that it’s not letting up any time soon, I am starting to burn out. Don’t get me wrong, I am definitely NOT complaining about being busy. It’s being too busy for long periods of time that ends up killing me. And in this most recent stretch, my laptop decided it was burnt out too. So there I was at Best Buy on a Sunday evening, one hour before closing, frantically trying to figure out if my laptop could be resurrected or if I could buy a new one and get it set up ASAP. I’m sure the salespeople saw me walk in, wild-eyed and crazed, and decided I was an easy commission – I think I was being helped by 3 different people at one point.

Anyway, I ended up buying a new laptop and rushing home to set it up and get back to my  two projects with deadlines on Monday. I got everything plugged in, and hoped that I could at least get Word up and running. I will spare you a full description of the hysteria and tears. (tip: keep all your product keys somewhere safe, and if you move, attach them to your person until you get to your new house and put them somewhere safe).

I will say that I’d like to join the chorus of other PC users and declare my hatred for Windows 8. It’s probably an excellent operating system for tablets. For laptops? Not so much. I feel like I am pretty comfortable with computers (I kinda have to be), and it took me at least a half an hour to find the control panel! Somehow I was able to find my product key for Office and could load that up, transfer over the projects I was working on, and finish them up.

The rest of the set-up process was laden with some award-winning profanity and several calls to tech support. It ended with a very frustrated writer who thought she was savvy with technology, but was now feeling like an old fogey. The only good thing about the whole process? Carbonite. It’s the best investment I ever made. Everything was transferred over to the new computer in 2 days. Even my Internet Explorer favorites. So it could have been much worse, I know.

Despite the technical difficulties, I ended up making my two deadlines, so that was good. And so far I haven’t let any clients down by being so busy. But when I get this busy, for this long, it’s only a matter of time before I drop a ball. And that’s all it really takes to screw up a freelance business. One ball.

Moving your business (not recommended)

So we recently moved – which means my freelance business recently moved.* Anyone who has moved can appreciate what a hassle it is to change your address for your utilities, your magazine subscriptions, etc. So I sorta figured that moving my business would also be a lot of work.

I. Had. No. Idea.

Beyond changing my website, my business cards, and my letterhead, I had to inform all of my clients and change my address with the IRS, the state dept of revenue, the assumed names division, the USTPO (for my service mark), the Secretary of State (because I’m an LLC), my registered agent, my insurance agent…it seemed to be endless. Add that to packing and unpacking an entire household AND my regular writing/editing workload.

Lesson learned: if you can avoid moving, do.

*This is actually a long-winded way to excuse my absence from my blog. It’s been a bit hectic around here.