One day shortly after I became a full-time freelance writer, I stopped working mid-morning, hopped on my bicycle, and made three stops around town: my accountant’s office, the post office, and the bank. While I was out, I saw a friend walking outsider of her office. “Getting a little exercise?” she asked. And I was. It was a beautiful day, and the brisk pace of my peddling had produced a gleam of perspiration on my brow. But I wasn’t taking a break. I was working.
That’s the thing I’ve been most surprised (and frustrated) about in my freelance writing career: all the time I have to spend NOT writing. Like most jobs, there are lots of administrative tasks that accompany my work. But since I am self-employed, it’s up to me to make sure they get done.
I haven’t gotten my own system down perfectly, and even though I try hard to plan for both the writing and non-writing tasks of my day, my calendar doesn’t reflect the ratio perfectly. But if I had to make an educated guess, I’d say it’s about a three-to-one ratio. For every three hours of writing or editing I do, there’s about an hour of other tasks required.
You don’t have to be a full-time or self-employed writer to know the frustration of “wasting” your writing time doing something other than writing, even if it’s related to your writing. What’s most frustrating, though, is when you didn’t realize these tasks needed to be done and so you didn’t plan for them. Remove the surprise factor, and maybe these non-writing tasks aren’t quite as irritating.
In this two-part series, I want to talk about all of these non-writing tasks that writers need to master. First, we’ll make a list of five common tasks that fall into this category. Maybe seeing them all together will help you realize where your time goes and where you need to plan better. Then, next in two weeks, we’ll talk about five strategies for getting a handle on these tasks.
Remember, these are the non-writing I’ve identified in my writing life; yours may be different. As we go, I’ll be prompting you to consider your own non-writing tasks.
This category is a biggie! I feel like I’m always behind with logging expenses or filing receipts. Especially if your writing work brings in any income, you’ll find yourself at least sending invoices, making deposits, or filling out paperwork for direct deposit. And if you are making income, chances are you’ll want to keep track of your expenses, too. (Be sure to talk with an accountant about this one.) That means saving receipts and coming up with a system for logging and categorizing any business-related money you spend.
Since I am entirely self-employed, I also spent the better part of one day legally establishing my business as a Limited Liability Corporation, applying for a federal employer identification number, and then registering to pay sales tax. Now, once a year I have to have an “annual meeting” where all the officers of my company (hey, that’s me!) meet and take notes. And four times a year, I sit down at my laptop, log on to IRS.gov or the Indiana Department of Revenue, and prepay income taxes. Don’t even get me started on the hours I spent pulling all these details together in February to take to my accountant for our annual tax return. And have I even mentioned keeping track of mileage, calculating the expenses of renting my office, or applying for a company credit card? Well, I have now.
You may not have all of these bookkeeping tasks to worry about, but likely you have some. And as you write more and more and send your work out to new places, your bookkeeping tasks will increase, as well.
What tasks do you do regularly that might fall into this category? How much time do you spend on them each week?
Of course I couldn’t do all those bookkeeping tasks without being at least a little organized. But I think organizing needs a category of its own because there are always things to be put away, straightened, and kept track of. Like the pens, notepads, highlighters, notecards, and stamps I use almost daily. Just this morning I went to grab a pen, and all the black ones were missing. I found them in the bag I take with me when I work at home or a coffee shop. Right now, I’m fully stocked on all supplies (if I can just keep track of them!), but eventually I will have to purchase new pens or more stamps, not to mention printer ink and paper, which runs out much faster than I think it should.
Other tasks fall into this category: I maintain my own calendar of meetings, I keep a constantly updated to-do list, I track my submissions (for projects that aren’t assigned), I type up notes that made their way onto receipts or sticky notes, I keep track of time worked for billing clients, and often, after I’ve grabbed several books off my shelves or borrowed them from the library while working on a project, I have to put them back or return them. Otherwise, my workspace feels like it’s closing in around me.
You don’t have to be a full-time writer to realize you need to be organized in your writing life. What tasks do you do regularly that might fall into this category? How much time do you spend on them each week?
Whoever perpetuated the myth that the writing life is a solitary one surely wasn’t living in the 21st century. It’s true that I spend most of each day alone in my office, but that doesn’t mean I’m not constantly communicating with other writers, editors, publishers, clients, and more. Occasionally I pick up the phone or leave a voice message on Voxer (a walkie-talkie app), but more often than not I am using email or social media to interact with people about my work. Like many writers, I send out an eNewsletter to subscribers. I read other people’s blogs and leave comments, too. My favorite way to communicate is writing letters, though that is not my first choice for efficiency, especially since most people don’t write me back! And don’t forget all those trips to the post office to buy stamps and mail packages. It all takes time.
What about you? How do you communicate with others about your writing work? What tasks do you do regularly that might fall into this category? How much time do you spend on them each week?
Updating your website or blog.
Rumor has it there are some writers who actually don’t blog or have a website. But the majority of writers I know spend at least a little time each week prepping blog posts, sourcing and prepping photos and graphics, and creating other multimedia content (like podcasts or videos) for their sites. I keep a portfolio of all my published work on my website, too. So every time I amass a new writing credit, I have to log in to my WordPress dashboard and add the latest article. And let’s not forget all the routine updates to plugins and widgets and themes, and the occasional changes to profiles and headshots.
Everyone’s a webmaster these days, especially writers. What tasks do you do regularly that might fall into this category? How much time do you spend on them each week?
Maintaining your health.
This last one probably surprises you, but the longer I write, the more I realize that my body is my primary tool as a writer. My physical health matters. It’s not that I can’t write when I’m ill, and it’s not like only healthy writers are good writers. There are many excellent wordsmiths who do their work in spite of (or maybe even because of) physical infirmities. But sitting down at my desk day after day hunched over my laptop, I am realizing that that better I treat my body, the better it treats me while I am working. It starts with simple things like paying attention to my posture, not sitting on or crossing my legs too long, and standing up and walking away from my desk for short breaks throughout the day. But I also notice that when I stay hydrated, get plenty of sleep each night, and eat healthy meals and snacks, I’m also more alert and able to stay engaged with my work longer.
Unlike yesterday when I got up early to run, today I’ll combine exercise with my errands while walking around town. Both types of exercise are important to my writing life. We all know sitting is not so good for us. So, I try to get regular exercise that gets my blood pumping and strengthens my muscles and bones. I need to work toward improving my flexibility and balance, too, especially since I’m not getting any younger.
We hear messages all the time about diet and exercise, and you’re probably a little disgruntled that I snuck another one of those messages into an article about writing. But our bodies need our attention, and though that attention is important, it’s also time we are not writing.
How do you take care of your most important writing tool, your body? What tasks do you do regularly that might fall into this category? How much time do you spend on them each week?
So, all these things add up to a lot of non-writing in the writing life. Next week, we’ll work on some strategies for taking control of these tasks and maximizing our writing time.