When you decided to become a freelance web writer, I’ll bet you focused on things like a big income, scheduling freedom, and creative projects. I know I did. I didn’t give much thought to things like getting organized, systemizing my marketing, or setting up a good accounting system. Boring!
I wanted the sexy, fun side of this gig. But, I’ve learned — too often the hard way — that you don’t get one without the other.
Without a good accounting system, it’s hard to get paid on time. It’s not that your clients don’t want to pay you. It’s just that if they receive your invoice weeks after the project is complete (because you couldn’t be bothered to create it), they still need processing time … and that means no money in the bank for a few more weeks. Without a semblance of organization to your office, writing well can be like pulling teeth because you’re spending all your time searching for that missing 3×5 card with your BIG IDEA on it … what was that Big Idea again? It was great, really great … I know that much.
If you want to eke out all the enjoyment you can from the creative, fun side of your web-writing business, you’ll find that the amount of joy grows if you just give some time and attention to the nuts and bolts now and then.
And, now is as good a time as any. This article is by no means meant to be a comprehensive answer to every administrative issue you need to address in your business. But, it will get you started and answer a lot of the most pressing questions … you know, all those little things you’d like to ignore like a billing system and time-tracking software and a marketing plan.
So, let’s get started …
One of the first things I recommend is some way to track your time. You can go cheap and low tech. Many days, I rely on my stopwatch. Or, you can get a little fancier and invest in software that will track your time based on the activity you’re doing and the project you’re working on. This is nice, because you automatically get a cumulative total for the hours you’ve put into a project.
You can also quickly see how much time you spent on research, writing, and revisions. This information will help you set fair prices (for you and your client) and it will help you plan for your future projects, which hopefully makes them go more smoothly.
I’ve used a number of different time-tracking programs over the years. My current favorite is Freshbooks. It’s an online time tracking and invoicing tool. I like it because I can install a widget on my computer that I can flip on and off when I want to track my time. The widget sends the time I’ve put in to the online program and keeps track of totals. It’s super simple and for me that is key. If it’s not super simple, I’ve found I don’t use computerized time-trackers. I have to be able to get to them without disrupting the flow of what I’m doing for more than two seconds. The Freshbooks widget does that.
Ultimately, you want to get paid. I mean, there’s not much point in working as a freelance web writer if you aren’t getting paid for your efforts. In order to get paid, you need to invoice your clients. Sure, you’ll come across the rare client that just drops a check in the mail when the project is complete, but most clients want an invoice for their records and they’ll wait to pay you until they receive it.
When you get really busy with paid projects, invoicing is one of those things that a lot of freelancers tend to put off. Don’t do it! I’ve heard of freelancers going out of business because they got behind on their billing, which disrupted their cash flow to the point where they had to get a job in order to stabilize their finances. Don’t let that be you. Schedule an invoicing time on your calendar and send out bills at least once a month. You probably should spend a half an hour each week, making sure your billing is up-to-date.
You can create invoices in a word processing program like Word and then export them to a PDF file if you want to keep things cheap and simple. For invoicing, I’ve found a few more bells and whistles actually make things easier in the long run.
A professional invoicing program is handy to have. It will do a lot of things for you. Again, I use Freshbooks for this. It keeps track of my invoices, reimbursed expenses, and project time. I can use it to send invoices automatically through the system and when I do, Freshbooks tells me if my clients have viewed the invoice or not. It will also automatically send out reminder notices if a bill goes overdue. I like that my time-tracking tool ties right into my invoicing program because there are a few services that I bill hourly for. It also keeps all my information in the same place, so when I want to audit my time versus my income, it’s a quick and easy thing to do.
Before using Freshbooks, I used Quickbooks. Quickbooks is a really robust program and will help you keep very detailed records of your expenses. It’s also a program that most online bank programs can sync with, so you can keep track of not only your invoicing, but your spending, too.
It really doesn’t matter which program you use, as long as you use something to help you stay on top of your billing. So test drive a few programs — most have a demo or free trial period available — and find one that works for you.
Project Planning & Organization
If you’re just starting out, your projects might be marketing projects instead of paid projects. It doesn’t matter. If you set up a good organization system early on, it will help you stick with your marketing projects better and when the paid projects start rolling in, you’ll come across as a put-together professional who always knows the next step and who never misses a deadline.
To stay organized, there are a few tools that are essential:
Calendar: Online or offline, you’ve got to have a calendar. To be honest, I use both. I have a four-month calendar up on my wall. I mark project deadlines on this calendar, so it’s always in front of me and I always know what’s coming and I can plan my tasks accordingly. For things like appointments, I use my online calendar because I can ask it to send me an email reminding me about meetings or calls and that way I never forget.
Task Management Tool: That’s a fancy way of saying “to-do” list. I’m old school when it comes to my to-do list. I keep a weekly print-out of tasks I’d like to accomplish and I build a daily to-do list from that. I start out small — with five or six items — and focus on the things that either have upcoming deadlines or that are most important to me. When I cross these items off my list, I revisit my weekly task list and make a second to-do list. This approach helps me stay focused on getting the really important things done and also makes it possible for me to give some attention to back-burner projects, too.
There are software programs that will help you with task management, too. One that I’ve tried and like is Things. I can create project-level items and assign a task list to the projects. I can set deadlines for each task and Things will remind me when I’m within three days of those deadlines. Like any software program, take advantage of demos and free trials to find one that works best for you.
Active Project Files: When you’re working on a project, whether it’s one you’ve assigned yourself or one that a client has hired you to do, it’s important to stay organized and on task. As a writer, you’ll probably generate a number of research notes and items as you progress. You’ll also have drafts, brainstorming scribbles, and interview recordings. It’s important to keep all this information organized so that you aren’t spending precious minutes hunting each time you need to find something.
For hard copies — anything not stored on my computer — I use standard manila folders. I put the project name on the outside of the folder in big letters and tuck everything inside that has to do with the project. I’ll even use the folder front to scribble notes on sometimes. I’m not a neat-nick. (My husband is nodding vigorously in the background). I usually just keep these folders in a stack on my desk. That’s not ideal, though. I’ve heard great things about filing cabinets for keeping those folders organized … I just haven’t made that transition personally yet.
When a project is done, I go through my hard notes and I pull out any research that I might use again on different projects. This I actually do file in a filing cabinet. Then, next time I’m working on a similar topic, some of my legwork is already done.
Computer Files: I cannot underscore enough the importance of having a system to organize your computer files. There are few bigger time-wasters than having to search your computer files for the draft that you finished last week that you can’t remember the file name for.
So, here’s what I recommend. I recommend that you create a top-level folder called “Work Documents” or something akin to it. Then, inside that “Work Documents” folder, create a folder for each of your clients. Whenever you start a new project for a client, create a folder for that project inside of that client’s folder. By using this system, you’ll always know where your document is even if you can’t remember what you named it. (This makes finding relevant work samples easier, too, for when you’re marketing yourself!)
You can keep your own marketing stuff inside your Work Documents folder, but you could also make a top-level folder called “Marketing” and keep your marketing project documents in there. This is what I do, because over time I’ve become my biggest, most long-term client. That means I have a lot of documents that I’ve written for myself, and it helps me to stay organized when I keep them in a separate place.
So, there you have it — a few basic business tools and habits that you as a freelancer can implement immediately, even if you don’t have clients yet. These will help you be a more productive, more professional freelancer right from the start. Oh, and if you’re already established, but you aren’t doing these things, give them a try. You might find they give your productivity a welcome boost!