There are many differences between successful and unsuccessful freelance writers that have nothing to do with their relative abilities to write. One of the most important is how well they manage the critical business functions that are essential to surviving in the writing game.
As the author of How To Organize Your Work and Your Life, I’ve been interested in “time management” for decades, and I’ve used my “Tickler File” to great advantage not only to meet my writing commitments, but to build and maintain a freelance writing practice that paid for my two sons’ college educations, a couple of homes, and countless hot dinners.
In today’s electronic world, it may surprise you that I advocate the standard, old-fashioned, paper “Tickler File.” It’s a simple device consisting of 12 file folders labeled “January” through “December,” plus 31 file folders labeled “1” through “31.” Into these folders you place, as they come up in your mind, written reminders of every task you want to do on a specific date in the future. On the first of each month, you sort through this month’s folder and distribute your written reminders into the appropriate locations within the 1-thru-31 dated folders. Each day, you look in “today’s” folder and retrieve your notes and associated paperwork for each of the tasks you’ve set for yourself.
If you’ve switched to any form of electronic calendaring system, you can dispense with the paper folders and simply post the same kind of “tickler” notes to yourself electronically, each one under the appropriate upcoming date. (It’s more difficult to keep associated documents with these electronic reminders, however, so you may want to use the physical file folder system, in addition.)
Now let’s look at how you apply the power of your “Tickler File” (TF) to some essential tasks for thriving financially as a freelancer:
You’ve already know to spend a good portion of your time looking for new sales and new markets. Whether you generate ideas first and then go looking for appropriate markets, or find new markets first and then generate suitable ideas, it is essential that you maintain continuity. And that’s where the TF is a big help. Place your ideas and/or your prospective markets in your TF to make sure none of them falls through the cracks and dies, unexplored. After each contact with a prospective market, place a reminder in your TF so you are certain to follow up in the right way at the right time
If only pitching were as easy as making a phone call and spewing a spiel. But as you probably know, keeping a pitch alive and nurturing it into an assignment often requires a long, convoluted series of communications, sometimes with several people, in which your original idea gets restructured to better meet that market’s needs and preferences. It’s easy to lose track of where you are in the process and your best next step, particularly when you’re juggling multiple pitches to multiple markets all at once. Keeping your notes on each pitch to each market moving forward in your TF is the simplest and most reliable way to avoid getting tangled in your own glib tongue.
Once you’ve established yourself with a particular market, it’s basic good business practice to keep going back to ask for more sales. But how often, and what to say each time? Your TF provides an excellent mechanism for making sure you pitch your best markets at the most appropriate intervals, and also for keeping track of your past interactions with each market so you can make the people there feel well-remembered each time you call or write.
It’s great to write a story for pay, and it’s even better to write the invoice for it. But I never like to send my invoice in the same envelope or email with my story, because I don’t want to give the impression that I am done working until my client is satisfied. So I put a note in my TF to bill for the story a week, or in some cases a month, into the future. This way, I give the editor enough time to ask for changes, if he/she wants any, with no risk of my forgetting to ask for payment.
Writing an invoice is fun, but cashing a check is even better. So I’m careful to put a note in my TF that reminds me who I’ve billed, when, and how much. Usually, I place the reminder about 45 days out. This way, if the billing and payment process goes normally, I won’t bother the editor or publisher unnecessarily for my payment, and I can simply discard the reminder when it pops up in my TF. But if there’s any unusual delay, my TF makes sure I’m right on top of the situation quickly enough to keep my cash flow healthy.
As you’ll see when you try it with these tasks and others, your “Tickler File” can be a successful freelance writer’s best friend.
Robert Moskowitz is a successful author and editor with a knack for conveying complex and difficult topics in a friendly, down-to-earth style. He resides in Santa Monica with his wife, a novelist, where they collaborate on writing stories. In addition to his countless articles for scores of popular magazines, his published non-fiction books include How To Organize Your Work and Your Life, Small Business Computing — A Guide in Plain English, Out On Your Own, and Parenting Your Aging Parents.