WHY SO SERIOUS? Writing is No Joke
NOTE: This post is the first in a series covering tips to help you succeed as an author/freelance writer. Granted, I’m not living in a mansion or sipping boat drinks on my private yacht, but I do okay as a writer/freelancer. During the series I’ll offer some suggestions based on what works for me. I intend to cover the following topics:
Taking the Job Seriously (Current Post)
Finding Work as a Freelancer
I was talking to a friend on the phone a short time ago and we were discussing jobs. She is presently out of work and is looking for something—anything—to tide her over until she could land that “dream job.” I asked her what her definition of the dream job was, and she replied, “something like yours, where I can stay at home, make my own hours, sleep in, watch some of the soaps and keep up with the house in the meantime.”
I had to chuckle through gritted teeth. Sleep in. Do stuff around the house. Watch TV. Wow. It does sound like a great job—too bad that’s not the job description for an author/freelance writer!
Let’s face it, if you work from home, and especially if you are a writer, many people don’t take your job seriously (unless, of course, you are on the NY Times Best Seller list). Too many people have the misconception that since I work from home, I have the luxury of sleeping until noon, then watching The Price is Right while I tidy up the house. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Writing is a job. It is often a strenuous, all-consuming job. Not strenuous in the physical sense, like someone who hauls sacks of concrete for a living (is there really such a job?). In fact, most days, I worry about throwing a clot because I have to sit on my butt for so many hours. But it is mentally strenuous. The creative process can be exhausting. If you don’t believe me, try it for eight hours one day, and let me know how fried your brain is afterwards. And for anyone who wants to succeed as a writer, especially if they work from home, they have to take their job seriously, treat it with respect. That means no late morning naps. No mid-day television shows. No afternoon laundry-folding sessions. And no late day wanderings on the internet to find that perfect vacation spot. Instead, it means discipline; finding a routine and sticking to it. It means sitting at your desk and doing your work while ignoring the distractions of everyday life.
So how, exactly, does one do that? It’s not easy, and everybody sees it a little differently. But I can tell you what works for me.
When I first embarked upon this journey of full-time writing from home, I struggled with the temptations hiding at every turn. It was hard to focus on my work and not notice that the dogs needed grooming or that the ceiling fan had a stack of dust on it an inch thick. It was a battle not to check my e-mail “just one more time,” or see who was on Facebook. But I soon learned that if I gave into temptation, at the end of the day, I'd have nothing to show for my efforts except a matt-free dog and a shiny ceiling fan. That wasn’t paying the bills. So I came up with a few tricks to keep me on track. Are they foolproof? No. Do I still get sidetracked? Oh yeah. But they have helped to make me more efficient and more productive. Maybe they’ll work for you.
Have a designated working space
This is key. If you have an extra room and can set up an office, that’s perfect. But if you’re short on space, perhaps you’ll have to carve out a little corner of your dining room, or your bedroom, or even your garage. Wherever it is, make sure it is fairly quiet, comfortable, and set up like a work station in an average office would be: desk, comfy chair (with back support), computer, keyboard, printer, paper, pens, pencils, paper clips, reference books, etc. Then, once it’s set up, dub it as your work space. Not your computer gaming station, not your social media station, not your read-a-book-and-relax station. As far as practical, whenever you are sitting at that work station, you should be doing work. If at all possible, leisure activities, even during non-working hours, should occur elsewhere. This will help set your brain into the routine that, when you’re sitting at the work station, you’re there to work and nothing else.
Whatever tools you use as a writer should be right there at your fingertips so that you don’t need to go searching through the house to find that yellow highlighter, red pen or toner cartridge. Same deal if you’re a snacker. Keep some snacks at your desk so that you don’t get up and go routing through the kitchen cabinets looking for goodies. Why? Not only is it a waste of valuable writing time, but if you need to search the house for stuff, inevitably you will get distracted and find something else to do while you are looking.
Set your hours
You need to have designated working hours. Set a time when you will “arrive” at your work station and a time when you will “leave.” This, of course will depend on your schedule and preferences, but if you are doing this full time, make sure you schedule yourself for at least an eight hour workday. The hours your work don't necessarily have to be in a row. For instance, I start work at 8:00 a.m. and go until 3:00 (that’s when the kids are home and I have to start considering dinner options). Then, in the evening, I’ll return to the office around 8:00 p.m. and work until about 10:00 p.m. Whatever hours you set, make sure you respect them and abide by them.
In addition, set certain break times during the day, including a lunch break. If you’re anything like me, sometimes when you’re writing you lose track of time. I suggest you invest in a timer and set it so that you’ll have an audible reminder to take your breaks when you’re supposed to. Avoid switching things around and skipping breaks unless you absolutely have to (i.e. doctor’s appointments, post-office runs, or the muse just won’t let you stop writing the best chapter of your life). When you take your breaks, get up and walk around—it’s good for both your physical and mental health. Like I said earlier, writing can be strenuous brain-work and sitting too long can be downright dangerous when you reach my age. Eat lunch in the kitchen, outside, or somewhere away from your desk so as to give your eyes and head a break from the computer. Avoid the temptation to stretch your break time or lunch time. Pretend you have a foot-tapping boss waiting back at your desk, just looking for an excuse to dock your pay.
Don’t forget to take days off. Writing can be a 24/7 occupation if you let it. I don’t recommend it. You’ll burn out pretty quickly, even if you love it as much as I do. Take weekends off; or if you schedule doesn’t permit both days, make sure at least one day on the weekend is writing-free. Even the harshest of bosses give their employees vacation time, so don’t forget to take a day off every so often—and when you do, resist the temptation to sit at your work station and do “just a little bit” of work. A true day off should be “writing-free.” Your muse (and your family) will thank you.
Don’t surround yourself with distractions. For instance, unless you absolutely need it, I suggest either keeping your phone away from your desk or turning the ringer off. Even if you don’t pick it up, the sound of the phone ringing will wreak havoc with your focus and concentration. If you were in an office setting outside of your home, you wouldn’t be getting calls on your home line, would you? And you’d probably have your cell phone turned off. Generally, you are not allowed to take personal calls in an office setting, so treat your job with the same respect—don’t pick up personal calls while you’re working! At the very least, if you absolutely must have a phone next to you, make sure you have caller ID. This way, you won’t waste your valuable time talking to telemarketers.
Aside from the phone, consider other distractions. For instance, if you have a disruptive pet (i.e. a pup who keeps placing his favorite toy on your lap, wanting to play, or a cat who insists on sleeping on your keyboard) you need to keep them away while you work, preferably in another room or part of the house. Yes, I know it sounds mean, but it’s also necessary if you’re going to take your job seriously.
Don’t keep un-work related items on your desk. For instance if you have your bills and checkbook sitting on your desk, while your dreaming up a hook for your article, they will inevitably catch your eye and you will consider logging into your online bank account, or maybe take a minute to write that check to the doctor that you keep forgetting about. Similarly, if your favorite book or iPad is lying there, you’ll be tempted to read a quick chapter or perhaps play a short game of Temple Run. It’s best not to even have such enticements so nearby.
Set Ground Rules for Others
Inevitably, when I have the most pressing deadlines, that’s when my kids have a day off from school, or my husband decides to call in “sick.” Regardless, unless necessary (i.e. your kid is off from school because he's ill and need some TLC) you don’t necessarily have the day off. Make sure your kids or significant other knows this and set boundaries for your work time. You may have to readjust your break times to make lunch for the young ‘uns or chauffeur your son or daughter to their friend’s house, but make sure they don’t monopolize your time. Let them know you are working and when you are at your desk, aside from emergencies, interruptions are not advised. Oh, and make sure you define the term “emergency” (i.e. the inability to find a lost sock does not constitute an emergency). These “day off” rules apply to my summer schedule, too. The kids are both home and are feeling fine because they are on summer vacation. I, however, don't get summers off, and in order to afford those excursions to the shore, I must work. It was harder when they were younger but it's a little easier now that they’re in their teens. Generally, I simply get up a little earlier than during the school year and get nearly a full day in before the teenage zombies arise from their tombs.
Give yourself some leeway
I’m a tough boss; always have been. But sometimes you just have to cut yourself some
slack. Occasionally, when working on a
novel, I need to get up and chase the muse a little—take an hour or so and go for
a walk or putter around the garden. The
fresh air clears my head and allows the creative juices to flow more
freely. There are also those days when,
having not slept well the night before, an extra bit of shut eye is needed to
function correctly, so that power-nap becomes a necessary addition to my
agenda. And some days, when no deadlines
are pending, I find that the extra load of laundry just can’t wait. The point is this: yes, have your schedule, but don’t beat
yourself up if once in a while you stray.
Just don’t make a habit of it. Because
you take a catnap on Monday doesn’t mean you have the right to take one on
Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Be
forgiving but firm because exceptions and excuses can quickly form a slippery
slope, messing with even the most well-established routine.
No one is perfect and interruptions, variations and
unexpected snafus are inevitable. Still, these
guidelines can help validate your job, and allow you to take it more seriously. If you do, so will others, including freelance
clients, agents and publishers. STAY TUNED FOR PART II:
Juggling Balls and Spinning Plates:
The Time Management Trick.
No one is perfect and interruptions, variations and unexpected snafus are inevitable. Still, these guidelines can help validate your job, and allow you to take it more seriously. If you do, so will others, including freelance clients, agents and publishers.
STAY TUNED FOR PART II: Juggling Balls and Spinning Plates: The Time Management Trick.