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Some Free Advice on Being a Freelancer

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Freelancer. What a strange word -- and an even stranger way of describing one's profession.

First of all, there shouldn't be anything "free" about freelancing. It's work, right? One does the work and gets paid for it. Secondly, there's the "lance" part, which sounds kind of dangerous if you ask me.

Shortly after I was laid off last year, I met with an outplacement career coach who recommended that I create a business card to help provide me with an "identity" as I began my job search and took on some freelance editorial assignments. Several titles floated through my head -- publisher, author, screenwriter, editor-at-large - -but none seemed exactly right or covered everything. The term "freelancer" was never even a possibility, seeming generic and downright unsexy.

I ended up going with a combination of names and then put more skills on the back. The cards showed up a few weeks later and I scratched my head, uncertain if I had really captured what I was doing and if I had solved the "identity" crisis.

It was with great interest that I noticed the following post on Facebook from the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) -- a 1,500 member group I have long admired: "What job title do you use on your business card?" There were a few cheeky responses ("Goddess," "Obsessive-Compulsive"), but the most common replies were "Writer/Editor" (in one instance combined with the disclaimer that "it doesn't begin to capture it") or the more direct "Copyeditor and Proofreader." Only two respondents included the word "freelance" and no one used the word "freelancer." I was becoming part of a group that didn't want itself as a member.

With all the transformations that are happening in the book industry -- the proliferation of e-readers as a main example -- I wondered how freelancers were faring, and if the longtime professionals were experiencing any kind of identity crisis. I looked no further than speaking with the multi-talented freelancer extraordinaire Sheila Buff, who is not only a successful author (Birding for Beginners; Insider's Guide to the Hudson River Valley), ghostwriter (Dr. Atkins' Age-Defying Diet, by Robert C. Atkins; Why Dirt Is Good, by Mary Ruebush) and editor; she is also the Job List Chair of the Editorial Freelancer's Association and a past Co-Executive Director. Here is some of our conversation:

GMK: Do you think freelance editors are still relevant today?

Sheila: Everyone needs an editor! Even I admit I need an editor for my writing. Today, if freelancers are out there hustling, working weekends, meeting deadlines and delivering what the clients want, they can do really well. But they have to stick to it. Some people quit too early; you need a good six months to build a reputation and get steady clients. Then you have to market yourself, just like any other business. A lot of freelancers have incredible skills but don't know how to market themselves and no one knows what they can do. A simple thing like creating an online portfolio on a web page can go a long way.

GMK: So many people are now self-publishing these days instead of going with traditional publishers. Is this a threat to freelancers?

Sheila: No, quite the contrary. At first a lot of people thought they could just self-publish and throw stuff on a Kindle. But then they started to catch on that the end products weren't so great; they needed editorial guidance. These past couple of years, in addition to all of the regular work from traditional publishers, I'm getting many clients who are self-publishing print and/or ebooks and want the end result to be professional. It's a new lucrative business for freelancers, as these writers don't understand editorial process. I'm also seeing a significant amount of work from international students who need editorial work on their dissertations; it's not only allowable to have an editor, in some cases it's required.

GMK: What do you see are the upsides of being a freelancer?

Sheila: I worked in publishing offices years ago and I would never go back. I'm incapable of a 9-5 job. I love the freedom of being a freelancer and I've been doing it since 1981. It's not for everyone. You have to have the right personality and the right discipline. It can get pretty isolated working at home and you have to be okay with that.

GMK: What do you call yourself on your business card?

Sheila: It's not "Chief Word Wrangler," I can tell you that! I tend not to use a title at all. It's more of a tagline: "Writing -- Health, Medicine, and Nutrition."

Sheila's words and advice were really helpful and comforting to me as I continue to make the transition to the freelancer lifestyle. I have no idea how long it will last as I continue to keep all options open -- or what I will be doing five years from now -- but I am making some adjustments that I've discovered on my own. Hopefully these five tips will be useful for all future freelancers out there:

1. Make a schedule: It seems so obvious, even for someone really organized and structured, yet time slips through one's fingers when you are working on your own.
2. Make time for exercise: Whatever you like to do to move around and get the blood flowing, put it on your schedule and do it. Sitting around all day by yourself causes atrophy and all-around nuttiness.
3. Shut off the Internet, the TV, and all phones: If you have a scheduled time to work on a project, all electronics must be off. If you don't, you'll get caught up in all kinds of ridiculous conversations and or social media activity that will eat up your time and earnings.
4. Don't sell yourself short: Share compliments from authors with other clients. How will they know you do good work if you don't advertise it?
5. Be careful what projects you turn down: You never know what can happen. Sometimes a "low-paying" job can have rewards in hidden places, such as with recommendations or just continued assignments.

Which leads to one last tip...

After I completed my last blog installment, my daughter (who is about to turn 13) begged to read it. I told her she could once it was posted -- I really dislike people eyeballing it beforehand -- but she insisted on reading it right away.

Finally, I caved and printed out a copy. A minute later she said, "Dad, you have a typo."

Impossible! Moi -- publisher, author, screenwriter, editor-at-large? A typo that I would miss? Unthinkable! I took back the paper and, sure enough, there it was, invisible in plain sight: a horrific typo. As Sheila said, "Everyone needs an editor." Even (or especially) moi.

I thanked my daughter for the great catch and told her from now on she could proofread all of my posts before they go live (including this one). Who knows? Someday maybe she'll be a proofreader. And maybe she'll be the genius who finally comes up with a better word for her business card than freelancer.