Several years of the author’s spiral notebooks, containing lists of goals and business plans. Photo ⓒ Christine Woodside
Editor’s Note: Freelance Files is a regular column for and by SEJ freelancers. A rotating cast of journalists share hard-earned wisdom here about myriad aspects of weaving a life and business out of their independent status. SEJournal welcomes submissions for this column. Contact Freelance Files editor Sharon Oosthoek at firstname.lastname@example.org .
By CHRISTINE WOODSIDE
Early in my freelance career, a successful writer giving a talk about his six-figure income reminded me that I am a business owner. Hearing this made me sit up a little straighter and remember the “free” part of freelancing — choosing my work. But of course, with freedom comes responsibility.
As business owners, we must make a business plan that plays to our talents, enthusiasm and energy. Every year since 2000, when I left my staff newspaper job and started freelancing full-time, I list business goals, by hand, in spiral-bound notebooks I keep.
The goals can be idea-driven (write about dying lobsters), financial (propose adding tasks to editing contract for x-percent increase), practical (use a telephone log, open a business checking account). Two or three times throughout the year, I revisit and often change the plan.
Working this way, I have tried, perfected, and occasionally rejected enterprises that many freelancers consider classic doctrine. First, I no longer feel I must sell a story to an editor before starting to work on it. That’s because I write about forgotten stories and people often enough that my ideas are too quirky to sell quickly every time.
Second, I used to use my reporting for multiple articles. I don’t feel I have to do that anymore.
So, early in my freelancing career, I wrote about the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut for Preservation Online, The New York Times, and a quarterly, Connecticut Woodlands. I reported on wild birds taking over an inaccessible city park on a beach peninsula for Connecticut Woodlands and Connecticut Public Radio. I wrote about taking my young daughters backpacking for an anthology, and for The New York Times. And when The Atlantic Monthly rejected a proposal after much discussion, I turned around and sold the proposal — which needed no additional reporting — as an oped to the Washington Post.
Those projects were great. But for every time I sold another one, I also spent untold hours, days, months, years, trying to resell these projects to outlets that ignored me or said no. I concluded that I was losing money by sticking to this concept of reselling reporting. I still use my knowledge again and again, but I no longer think in terms of repackaging. I feel more creative and energized this way.
Setting and reaching for these targets over twelve years have vaulted me from regional newspaper reporter to magazine and book writer and occasional radio journalist. Without dreams, I stagnate.
Some of the enterprises my goal list put me up to didn’t go so well. It felt to me as if some schemes ripened fast into rotten fruit. I now think of those ambitions as mistakes, but in truth, they were good, too. Mistakes have taught me to better recognize those other goals that do lead somewhere.
2010, a case study in goal setting
The objectives I set for 2010, and their outcome, illustrate the value of both good and bad goals. As 2009 wound down and the nation recoiled at the financial crisis, I noticed that my gross receipts for the year had dipped a little.
I set six goals. Three were money-saving goals:
- I’d sublet the office I’d been renting for a decade and work from my house.
- I’d look for a new contract for regular work (on top of what I was doing).
- I wouldn’t take a vacation unless it would yield paying work.
I know now that this list combined two misguided fantasies: that I was like environmental writer Wendell Berry or homesteading gurus Helen and Scott Nearing, or any number of environmental sages whose writing incorporated a deep understanding of their homes.
I know many writers who thrive working at home. I would learn that year that I don’t. At home I occasionally procrastinated and wanted to putter around the kitchen. More often I worked all the time. The work day bled into the night. I never “went home” because I never left.
In 2011, I took my office back. (My subletter had never used it! I guess he’s not like me. He did pay the rent, though.) After my big goodbye of the previous year, I ate some crow with my landlord, who billed me for another sign with my name on it. Lesson learned — and a good one. I need a geographic shift in order to lead a productive life.
Another error in 2010: I found more work, all right. I was already writing magazine and web articles and editing two environmental journals. I thought I could take on another project, so I began covering the environment for a new website in Connecticut. I wrote many articles I was proud of, but the editor and I did not click. Nothing I did for him ever was right until the third try. I had moved on from short-form breaking news writer to magazine writer, and I could no longer switch gears back and forth from genre to genre. It hurt, but I called him up six months into the project and asked to move on. No hard feelings.
Goals with a gain
But I was not all wet. I made some sensible goals in 2010:
- Make every editor to be a repeat client. (My website designer told me he does this with his clients. It motivated me to keep communication open with editors.)
- Post new material each week to my website. Even if I don’t make this goal, it nags at me to pound out something that’s been on my mind for my section called “Get This.” Or, I’ll post another of my new articles. That goal ensures that my website will not be some neat thing I spent thousands on — but a tool to make me money.
- Draft the book about Laura Ingalls Wilder I’d been researching for years. This of course has occupied me for great hunks of time ever since. I have made major progress on four chapters, and I’m writing my book proposal. Because of this goal, I signed up for a class with a narrative nonfiction teacher, Mark Kramer, and every month or so the class meets in his kitchen. I have to show up with new drafts.
I talk about 2010 because it was a watershed year. I did work I’d never tried before and really understood my limitations, especially where time is concerned. Taking on that extra contract late in 2010 increased my gross receipts by more than seven per cent for the entire year. So it was decent income.
But as the editor and I struggled to work together, my malaise increased by an undetermined percentage. I had forgotten two hard-won lessons from goals I’d established very early in my freelance career:
- Match my skills and interests with work that delivers a good hourly wage. (Sometimes do work without concern for money, but only when other reasons are obvious.)
- Rent an office outside of the house. I might work at home some days, but I must have that outside discipline.
My handwritten business plans, usually penned during the chilly winter evenings each year, change as the realities of my personality, talents and the workplace smooth them out. Without a plan, though, I don’t move forward. I know after all of these years that time spins wisdom out of all this goal-following.
Christine Woodside has been freelancing for twelve and a half years. She has written for outlets, including Nature Climate Change, The New York Times, The Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media, Popular Mechanics online, Appalachia Journal (which she edits), Audubon, New England Watershed and Connecticut Explored. She wrote “Energy Independence” (Lyons Press, 2009). She’s writing a book about Laura Ingalls Wilder and the pioneer myth. She lives in Connecticut.
* From the quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Spring 2013.  Each new issue of SEJournal is available to members and subscribers only; find subscription information here  or learn how to join SEJ.  Past issues are archived for the public here.