Lest you be tempted by the dream of freelancing …

I’m not complaining for a minute; this is the life I have chosen for myself and I love it. As in any job, though, there are good days and bad days.

I am often asked for advice by people who are considering going self employed in creative fields and my first line is a reality check. If I had known all this when I started three and a half years ago, I don’t think it would have changed anything, but this is my second attempt to “go it alone” after I learned some hard lessons the first time round, which was about ten years ago.

Dream

Reality

Shuffling to your PC in your pyjamas with a cup of coffee at 11am to start work Getting up at 6am and sometimes working ‘til midnight to meet a deadline.
Lunching with friends Skipping meals because you are “in the zone” and don’t want to lose the flow
Being your own boss and beholden to nobody Working for a string of “bosses” in succession and often simultaneously
Never having to fill in another job application Being on a permanent job hunt to line up the next month of work
Never having to go through another annual performance review Trying to stay on top of your game and develop your skills with virtually no guidance
Holidays when you want them No paid leave and the laptop comes on holiday with you because it’s impossible to “abandon the baby”
Extended amounts of time in your own little world Missing the banter and mutual support of a work environment
Doing what you love every day Tax returns, accounts, marketing, pitching and admin at least 30% of the time
Time to work on your “big idea” Shelving the “big idea” until things calm down a bit
Having control over your working environment Moving to the kitchen because the desk is too cluttered, tripping over the laundry pile and the dog/cat who is doing everything in its power to distract you
“My office is a coffee shop” Spending half an hour trying to get access to their unfeasibly slow WiFi, getting the shakes by lunch time (after your 4th espresso), going outside to take a phone call that you don’t want to be overheard
Practice the guitar in your “lunch break” Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook and Stumbleupon in your “lunch break”

8 Continuing Professional Development (CPD) Tips for Freelancers

Back in my nursing days, my right to practice was contingent upon staying up-to-date with developments in the field and being able to show evidence of continuous learning and improvement. The possibility that the NMC could call in my learning portfolio at any point was always in the back of my mind. In reality, the organisation I worked for also required, and arranged, a certain amount of mandatory training and extra courses that covered my CPD needs.

As a freelancer, nobody sends you on courses or asks for evidence that you are keeping up with changes in your area of expertise; it’s down to you.

You are your own training department.

You expertise is your stock in trade and you are responsible for keeping it fresh and for staying informed. I aim to spend at least three hours a week on CPD and, as you will see, this doesn’t have to be much more than religiously reading a few blogs or listening to a podcast. Remember, Most freelancers sell a skill they have developed plus the stuff they have stashed in their brain cells; we need to keep the stock fresh.

My field is copy editing, document support and coaching written communication across  academic, business, technical and fiction writing. As we go, I will share a few links to free resources for my fellow word-mongers, but here are a few CPD ideas to keep any freelancer on the ball.

Dedicated time

We all know where to go to download information if we need it. I use web searches several times a day to check facts or verify current practice, in the middle of my workflow. However, the CPD dimension of my work requires time that is set aside for it (out of office hours, usually soon after waking up). Decide how many hours a week you are going to spend purely investing in yourself as a professional and block out that time in your schedule.

A professional musician racks up hours of practice on a daily basis; they don’t rely on performance time to learn and improve technique. It should be no different for other freelancers.

The reading list

A shelf of books to consult on-the-fly is essential for any freelancer. However, you need as much of that stuff on the tip of your tongue as possible because you can’t take “SEO for Dummies” to a client meeting. For this reason, my books divide into “to refer to” and “to digest” categories.

Maintain a list of books to read and books read, and set yourself a target to read two or three books in your field every month. It is tempting to read more books on becoming a better freelancer or running a better business, and these should form part of your diet, but don’t neglect learning more about your actual trade – the stuff you sell.

While we are on the subject, libraries are great, too. How about using your local library once a week for a dedicated reading session.

Grab the news

As well as subscribing to the leading RSS channels in your field, it is worth setting up a couple of Google searches for key terms and having them pushed to your inbox. This makes it easy to add keeping abreast of developing news and trends into your email-reading routine.

For example, I currently have a news search on “grammar” set to send me a daily email so I don’t miss a story.

Read a blog, or two

This is not difficult for most of us. In fact, the challenge is to restrain a tendency to disappear down the rabbit hole on a fairly boring “clickathon”, only to emerge a few hours later either choking on information reflux or wondering how we ended up looking at LOLcats … again.

Choose two leading blogs in your field and read them, religiously. Separate them out from all the other channels. My online RSS reader aggregates lots of fluff for me to read in my spare time, but these come to my mailbox.

For me, these are Daily Writing Tips (absolutely leading the field from my point of view) and Copyblogger (slightly off-topic for my speciality but often useful).

Podcasts

If you have a commute, these are ideal for the train or car – you can get edumacated on your way to work.

Since my journey to work tends to be down the stairs and through the living room, I still make time to listen to podcasts every week. As with the blogs, pick one (two at the most) and block out time to listen. Think of it in the same light as learning a language: you are going to spend a certain amount of time with the headphones on … learning.

If you listen at home or in an office, you may even want to treat it like a classroom and take notes.

Quite apart from the fact that Mignon Fogarty taught me most of what I know and is still my “go-to guru”, the 15 minutes I spend listening to her Grammar Girl podcast two or three times a week often gives me the edge.

Find a coach

There is no substitute for the walking, talking expertise of someone who is further along the road than you.

I’m extremely lucky to have worked for and with Hannah Juby of Express Language in the last few years. This has included informal mentoring and feedback that has corrected a lot of my worst habits and pushed me to improve.

Finding a mentor who is prepared to share their knowledge with you for free could be tricky, especially if you are a potential competitor. However, scroll through your phonebook now and you will surely spot someone, perhaps in a parallel or overlapping sphere, with whom you are friendly enough to be allowed to draw on their brilliance.

Online (and other) courses

Finally, I have a few thoughts on courses, because I’ve thrown money at them and I know people who have thrown money at them.

Be cautious: there is an industry that plays on your ambitions by reselling stuff you could find out quite easily for yourself. Having said that, they are not all scams. Some will offer certification of some sort and, at the very least, someone has usually put a lot of time into making the information structured and digestible. You may also find that paying for something means you are more likely to follow through on it – so courses do work for some people.

In my experience, people who have completed courses don’t necessarily have more expertise than the folk who rig up their own CPD program as recommended in this post.

Use it reflectively

Reflect on learning before moving on to the next chunk of information.

In my nursing portfolio, I used to have blank copies of a form I would fill in every time I read an article. I forced me to think about how what I had read would affect my practice in the future. It asked me to respond to a few questions (if I recall correctly):

  • Do you agree with this?
  • What are the problems with this article?
  • How will you apply what you have learned?
  • Has it raised any further areas of enquiry to direct future learning?

Put what you learn into practice at the earliest opportunity.

In summary …

  • DO take your continuing professional development seriously and block out time in your schedule to train yourself.
  • DON’T flood yourself with information or lose yourself on the web, find a few good resources and digest them thoroughly on a routine basis.
  • DO draw on your personal network.
  • DON’T sign up and shell out for courses on a whim.
  • DO see it as a journey and enjoy every minute of it.

Freelancing: a Time Management System that Works for Me

As a natural procrastinator and date-phobe, deadlines do nothing to lower my blood pressure. In the last two years of trying to get established as a freelancer I have tried every single time management strategy available. I have probably spent as much time re-structuring my diary and prioritising to-do lists as I have spent actually working. More recently, my growing workload has made it an imperative that I get this thing nailed down – pinned down, to be precise.

All my experimentation and money spent on index cards and software has not been in vain. I’m going to share with you the system that I have evolved to suit my way of working in the hope that it might help other freelancers like me.

You will need

  • A large cork board
  • A large assortment of different coloured pins (I have about 50 of each colour)
  • A marker
  • Some labels
  • Possibly some coloured tape or sticky notes that are the same colours as your pins (these are to indicate deadlines)

    It should start to look something like this.

  1. Take the marker and divide the board into eight rows (for days of the week and a label) and as many columns as you can fit across it.
  2. Label the bottom seven rows Monday to Sunday (or Monday to Friday if you strictly don’t work weekends …  as if!)
  3. Use the top row to add labels for each coming week. These will need to be removable so you can update it with fresh weeks every so often.
  4. You are ready to go.

How to use it

There are a few simple principles to grasp:

  1. Each pin represents an hour’s work. When you take on a new job you need to estimate how many hours it is going to take you and set aside that number of pins (I write at about 500 words an hour and copy edit at about 1,500 words an hour).
  2. Use different coloured pins for different clients or jobs.
  3. Populate the “calendar” with the pins, showing when you are going to do each hour’s work. Each of my days has space for nine pins (nine working hours). Loosely, the first pin is 8am-9am and the last pin is 5pm-6pm (with an hour off for lunch).
  4. Use a specific colour (I use white) to block out days when you are not available and hours when you have appointments or non-work commitments during the normal working day.
  5. Indicate your deadlines with a piece of tape (or even a dedicated pin) in the colour for that job.
  6. You can play with the pins as much as you like but there is one rule: red pins can’t go past the red deadline, and so on.

Advantages

This system works for me because there is something about physically moving pins around that really helps me to understand how my time is distributed in a way that paper or a computer screen never does. I can tell at a glance if someone phones me up and says “can you do it by Tuesday?” If a job takes less time than I expected I can just subtract a few pins. For each hour of work completed, that pin gets removed and put to the side so progress towards completion can be seen instantly (and taking a pin out is a nice feeling). If something else needs to be slotted in, it is very easy to arrange the pins around it.

Handy tip: take a photo of the board with your phone camera and set it as your screensaver/background so you can carry it around with you.

There is lots of flexibility and scope for creative variation, but here are the basics.

It is not until you start using it that you realise the elegance of the system. Give it a go!

Thoughts on Creativity: Lessons from the Journey

Reflecting on the last year of creativity after having quit my full time job in order to pursue some creative stuff that had become too lively to be confined to evenings and weekends, I have learned a few lessons:

1. It Takes Longer Than You Think

Waiting

Wait for it!

Firstly, until I tried to give myself over to creative paths on more than just an “ad-hoc” basis, I never realised what a long time the act of creating actually takes. Previously, I had worked when compelled and inspired and with not much expectation that what I was doing needed to be really all that amazing. As a result, things got done easily and quickly and there was not even an expectation that I needed to finish anything if I lost the muse during the process. Now it is different, I need to write when I feel less like it, when the words come slowly, or when my imagination takes a vacation.

However, this has not been the most time consuming thing.The real time-sink has been the slow process of facing down the chatter of the demons we encounter on the creative path:

  • Motivation – Why am I doing this? Am I just being selfish? Is this really contributing to society? Does it matter what other people think? Who am I doing this for? These kind of questions can put a dampner or things for weeks. And just because we have answered them once, it doesn’t mean we won’t have to answer them every day.
  • Vulnerability – Putting creative work out there, sharing it, publishing it, is all very exposing.We make a deep personal investment in our work and then others get to see into us through it in ways that we might not be ready for. Am I ready to go public with this?Am I ready for criticism, or indifference, or misinterpretation?
  • Doubts – Does anyone really care about what I create? Does that matter? Am I good enough? Look at what other people are doing, they have been doing it for years and they are brilliant. I’m not a natural like them. I should get a proper job. I’ll never be world class. Should I care if I’m not?
  • Discipline – I’m so badly disciplined. I’m supposed to love what I do and it’s a privilege but I can’t settle to it sometimes. Most people who have jobs with bosses breathing down their necks and set work hours have that extra incentive to stay on task. I have none of that. It is hard, every day I have to start by re-discovering my reasons for doing this.

2. Persistence

From my observations and from the received wisdom of others, the difference between great writers and the rest of us is not necessarily innate gifting but pure graft. This goes for all the arts. Some talent helps but there are more talented people out there who have fallen on the first hurdle of of applying themselves to their craft. Working on your creativity daily brings two rewards:

  • Upping the Average – If 2% of what you write is pure gold then you just have to write enough for that 2% to be significant.The analogy is often cited of a photographer. Again, the difference between a pro photographer and the rest of us is that while I take hundreds of pictures, they take thousands. Even if one in every thousand pictures is an iconic masterpiece, you have more chance of hitting it if you take more pictures.
  • Practice – Honing and improving your work comes through practice, repetition, iteration. The more you create the more practice you get creating. I once spoke to a silversmith who had his own business and he told me how when he first came out of art college and went for his first job, he was walking around the workshops and the boss picked up a ring off a workbench. “How long would it take you to polish this?” he asked. “About an hour, maybe two,” he replied. “That’s a four minute job,” said the boss. Sure enough, after several months at the workshops, doing not much more than polishing,this guy could do a two hour job in four minutes. Practice!

The basic skills of our work need to become second nature whether that is mixing oils, playing scales, or writing dialogue, so that we are not hindered by technique.

3. Finding the Right Motivation

Whatever our initial reasons are for embarking on a creative career, sooner or later it has to become about more than wanting to be noticed.

Creativity

"Creativity"

Most people I know, who are trying to get traction or considering putting significantly more energy into their creativity, are actually not after fame or recognition. In fact it is slowly dawning on them that what they have been doing as a hobby might be something that others will enjoy, and it is time to “come out”.

I think a lot of writers, however, have a desperation to see “their name in print” as if there is something magical about that. We have to find better motivation than that, otherwise (among other things) we will be in danger of feeling bitter about the “success” of others who get there before we do with what is often quite lousy manuscript.

We have to joy over the intrinsic rewards of our process and product, and hold the adoration of fans lightly. I’ll admit that on weeks when my Borders of Sleep podcast is getting 50-100 downloads a day, I feel great. The problem is that when it drops to 20, that affects my mood, too. I forget that I’m not doing this for the hits but because I love creating stories.

Do what you do, well and lovingly, and if it turns out that you are the prophet of the zeitgeist then let that be what it is.

4. Community

In spite of the “cult of the artist” and this idea that the creative’s lot is to slave away in a windy garret, that’s all bunkum. Yes it is lonely at times, but that is why we need others. Really one of the most enjoyable aspects of pursuing creativity, for me, has been the community that forms around it. I think the community gives us two things:

  • Accountability – I know that if I talk to people about my plans and dreams, they are more likely to happen. As long as they stay in my head as a vague nice idea, they are safe; and if I never tell anyone then I’ll never need to try them and risk failure. Even better, I know that if I can rope people in collaboratively then a project is even more likely to fly. I cannot overemphasise the value of this. For example, with my podcast, if it was not for the producer (Tim) and illustrator (Robyn), I doubt if it would have been sustainable. Having other people involved and interacting with ideas keeps me working on it week after week.
  • Synergy – Actually working with others often means that, together you are more than the sum of your parts. That extra element of “synergy” comes into play. It is great to have friends who say, “that sounds like a great idea, why don’t you go ahead” but it is even better to have allies who say, “that sounds like a great idea, let’s do it together.” In order to open yourself up to synergy, you have to let go a little of the control but I think it is a small price to pay for having a creative ally.

So …

What are the core lessons you learned along the way that it would have been helpful to have known before you got started?

Are You Creative? Send Me Your Card!

I’m a sucker for business cards. Collecting them is like playing a grown-up game of swapsies. Even though we live in a digital age of networking, there’s still nothing quite like taking home a pretty little piece of card with someone’s details on it.

So here’s a thing I’m going to do: If you are a person who works broadly in the area of creativity, art, writing, music, performing arts or that sort of thing, send me your card (either a scan or a “hard copy” – email seymour@seymourjacklin.co.uk for my snail address) and I’ll feature it on this blog and link it to your website … simples!

I have started with a few that were already in my wallet:

Creative Entrepreneur of the Month: Robyn Trainer of Floral Footsteps

Confucius say, “Make a living from what you love and you’ll never work another day in your life” and although this sounds lovely and has become something of a mantra for our times, anyone who has succeeded in making a living from something they love will be able to tell you there is a lot of hard work involved.

One of the effects of the instability of our economic system seems to have been to loosen the concept of career and employment as many people seek to meet their circumstances creatively, develop alternative streams of income, and question why they do what they do and how much it matters anyway. There is a new breed of creative entrepreneurs who have stopped waiting for someone to employ them and given themselves a job instead. They have said, “The future is so uncertain I might as well take things into my own hands and do something I love instead of waiting for the next round of redundancies.”

These are really exciting times and, once a month, over the next year, I will be profiling some of the creative entrepreneurs who have inspired me and continue to offer the companionable reassurance that we are not alone on the hard road to doing what we love for a living.

I have had the pleasure of working with Robyn Trainer of Floral Footsteps (she provides the artwork for Stories from the Borders of Sleep) and being part of her journey over the last year. She kindly agreed to be my first interviewee for the Creative Entrepreneur of the Month series.

Robyn is a mathematics graduate from Durham who got in the habit of sidestepping the geek label by telling people that she wanted to be a florist one day. She is married to Phil and exercised by a mischievous but adorable spaniel called Samuel. In April 2011, Robyn left her full time job at the Ethical Superstore to give herself fully to her floristry, illustration and photography business, Floral Footsteps. To fully understand how these three strands link together into her unique brand, you really need to see examples of her work and style as displayed on the Floral Footsteps Website.

Robyn says that the combination of three creative practices bounce off one another and although she has a distinctive style that is somehow recognizable in all her work she gets special satisfaction out of creating exactly what a customer wants.

“My work is entirely personal in that each order I create, either a floral arrangement or a bespoke illustration, is unique and designed according to the individual.”

Of course, there is a fourth strand to Robyn’s work, the all-essential business side of things. As anyone who has watched “Dragon’s Den” will know, being outstandingly creative and having business acumen is a very rare combination. Robyn certainly has both, and I dare say the maths comes in handy here, too.

I asked Robyn to give us an insight into her business and offer some thoughts and advice on creative entrepreneurship.

What are you working on at the moment? What’s on the “to do list” this week?

There are plenty of things going on! I’m hoping that my brand new website will be launched either today or tomorrow, which is rather exciting. Samuel the Spaniel (my naughty/adventurous dog) has his very own blog, which started this week. I’m working on a “Celebrations!” Greetings Cards range and a Christmas card range and I’ve wedding flowers to do next week, amongst other things!

So you are thinking about Christmas already! And you have involved the dog in the enterprise!

Samuel the Spaniel is too inspiring to not involve him in the business, and yes, sadly I’m thinking about Christmas already. Where I used to work, Christmas tunes began playing in the beginning of July… I’m not kidding!

How does a typical day look for you as a self-employed person? Do you have any routines you depend on?

I think the only routine I have is: start early, finish late! As I haven’t been trading for long, my work really varies, from building websites, through planning financial forecasts, to actually doing the work of illustrating, designing, working with flowers and meeting with clients. In a year’s time, I’m sure my answer will be different, but for now, each day is very varied.

How many hours a week would you say you are working at the moment?

Probably about 40 – 45?

Do you ever wish for a steady office job?

Not at the moment. Having had one of those, it’s great for stability and regular income, but I found myself longing to do something else. That longing has gone now because I’m actually doing it.

Do you think that you’ll need to have another strand of income while the business grows or is it a case of succeed or bust?

I initially thought that I would, but decided to do the summer season full time. I’m really glad I made this decision. I am considering taking on another strand of income in the autumn, but I’m seeing how that goes. Setting up business is quite hard; it does take quite a lot of investment to begin with.

What made you decide to start Floral Footsteps? Was it a slow burning idea or did you have a moment of epiphany?

I studied Maths at University, but always said “I’m going to become a Florist”. When I finished University, I thought I should really study it and become qualified, to see if I like it and want to take it further. I loved it, and was asked to do a friend’s wedding at the end of the year, which I also thoroughly enjoyed. So from there, working as a florist became something I definitely wanted to do. With regards to the other strands, illustration and photography – these are things I’ve always done and have slowly improved over the years, so it seemed natural to me to incorporate them into a business as a florist. So I’d say it was a slow burning idea.

How did friends and family respond to your decision to go for it?

My parents have been very supportive, but not without their “warnings” about “financial safety”. My husband has been really encouraging along every step of the way and helps me in making some of the bigger decisions and logistics (although he keeps well clear of any actual floristry or illustration! the wiring scares him…) and my friends have been wonderfully supportive by finding ways to involve me, and being my advertisers, giving me cause to start Floral Footsteps officially.

Some people would say you are crazy to try a venture like this in today’s economic climate. What would you say to them?

I’d say that I think one of the main ways in which we can improve our economy is through local business, by supporting one another in their employment. Yes, it is a difficult time to start a business, but I do believe that working with local trades instead of outsourcing to larger companies is the way forward.

So would you say that Floral Footsteps has a socially conscious edge to it?

Yes I would. I’m keen to work more closely with local growers of flowers, foliage and herbs (although that’s not easy in the North East!) and to recycle, reuse and reduce my waste as a business. I’m also keen to support other businesses that are local and eco-friendly in what I do and what stock I buy. I was shocked when I did my floristry course that some florists throw away leftover cellophane, ribbon and non-compostable rubbish with organic waste (loads of it!) in the same bin bag and put it out for collection. Some don’t recycle or compost anything! It’s madness!

How important is blogging to your business?

Very important for me personally, and I think for those closest to me, and for those just dipping their toe in. It provides a pretty unique insight into the person behind the business, as well as the business itself. It also shows you are interested in more than just “making money”…

I guess in these days of social media, people are not so comfortable dealing with “faceless corporations”; they want to know the people they are dealing with and what the story is.

I agree. It’s funny how just communicating over a computer can change the way we feel about someone and give a sense of ownership in what they’re up to and your relationship with them (however virtual or real that may be!)

What is your most important source of referrals?

I think most referrals come from word of mouth. From people telling one another about Floral Footsteps and what I do, and passing on that information. If someone chooses to contact me, I will reply as soon as I can to find out how I can help and be of service

Are there any websites that have been useful to you in your work either for networking or information, or support or anything else?

Well, I keep an eye on lots of different blogs and websites to see what others are up to and support them. I have a profile on lots of different networking platforms and websites including Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Blogger, Pinterest, Google+ and more to build up an online profile and I also have a shop on Etsy, which I link people to. In terms of specific websites, there are a few wedding blogs which are good to read to check out trends, and twitter is always fantastic for keeping up with the latest news in your business sector.

What are your thoughts about using online markets, like Etsy, versus setting up your own website?

Hmm I’m not sure yet. I have my own website and I have a shop on Etsy, but have chosen to sell goods through Etsy because of the community already established there. It’s easier for people to find you through Etsy than it is through a standalone website.

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to strike out as a creative entrepreneur?

I think they need to assess 1) Is there a need for your business? I.e. – is there a market for it? Will people buy your service or product? And try to think objectively. Will your business make money or is it better as a hobby? 2) Is now the right time for you to financially go for a creative business? It takes time to earn money in setting up a business and the business takes investment, do you need to wait a while until you can afford to set up? 3) Ask your family and friends for advice and support. They know you best. Ask them to be truthful and guiding, as I can say this has been one of the most influential things for me.

Three quite hard things, but you have to ask yourself the difficult questions!

So now another hard question for you: What was the lowest point in the last few months?

Oh, that is a hard question! So often my lowest points are to do with my own confidence, rather than specific events. If I lose confidence in my ability to run a business or in my work, I can fall quite low. It’s then that the support of others really lifts me – in having people who I am accountable to with the business.

On a happier note: Can you put your finger on your favourite project or your highest moment so far?

There have been lots of great moments! Every time I make a bridal bouquet I get a little quiver of excitement and say to myself, “this is actually a bouquet for the bride!” (Yep, geek!) When you see your completed work being appreciated by others, that’s a fantastic moment. I can’t name one in particular really, as each event feels very different! Perhaps handing in my resignation at my old job was a highlight…

Could you describe to me where you hope to be in a year’s time?

In a year’s time, I hope to have full weeks of hands-on floral designs, illustrations and more, keeping busy with clients, fulfilling regular and special orders. Perhaps I’ll be in a slightly more comfortable workspace, too!

That sounds achievable.

I hope so!

And so do I. To find out more about Robyn’s work, check out her website: http://www.floralfootsteps.com or her Etsy shop at: http://www.etsy.com/shop/FloralFootsteps
I am sure she would be happy to answer any more questions. All images in this post are the property of Robyn Trainer.

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