On Medium: An Evernote Productivity System for Creatives

I’ve had a few people ask about my to-do list/productivity system recently, so I decided to write an in-depth post about it.

It’s basically an Evernote notebook that I set up based on David Allen’s Getting Things Done method – essentially, a digital version of his series of folders and notes. In it, I plan out my tasks for the week and keep track of all the bigger picture projects I have going on in my life.

As a bonus, because it’s in Evernote, I can link to other notes and subfolders within the program.

(I love Evernote.)

For a long time I struggled to find a system that was flexible enough to accommodate my ever-changing workload, digital enough to travel with me, and convenient enough that I’d actually use it.

Enter my Evernote Productivity System. Evernote productivity system screenshot

This system works particularly well for me because I feel more at ease when I know exactly what’s going on in my day/week. Will it work for you? Maybe, maybe not. If you like to have minute-by-minute control of your day and never lose track of your tasks, it just might. If you prefer to roll with the punches and work on whatever you feel like at the moment, maybe not.

Either way, it doesn’t hurt to check it out. Even just reading this post might inspire you to think differently about your own to-do management system.

If this sounds vaguely interesting to you, here’s the post:

An Evernote System for Self-Employed Creatives.

I’ve been wanting to experiment more with publishing on Medium, and since I was recently invited to join the Writers on Writing publication I decided to make this my first topic. I have to say I love formatting posts in the Medium ecosystem – it’s very pretty. I haven’t tried actually drafting anything there yet, since I don’t trust my drafts not to disappear. I’ll stick to Scrivener there, thank you very much.

Anyway, I hope you enjoy the post! If you end up using all or any of this system, I’d love to hear about it.

How do you to-do? I love learning from other people’s productivity systems. Let me know how you structure your day in the comments!

New To Freelancing? The 3 Things I Wish I’d Known

Hey there! This post is part of a series of freelancing advice articles from various bloggers, coordinated by invoicing app Invoice2Go. If you’re looking for a simple way to invoice through a phone app, definitely check them out. And as for all the usual disclosures: I’m not getting a cut of any sort – I just dig this project of theirs as a way to support the freelance community. 🙂


I hate making mistakes.

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve had a tendency to be way too hard on myself when I did something wrong – even if no one else noticed or cared.

In fact, that perfectionist tendency is what has often kept me from trying something new, or pushing myself too far. After all, if I don’t push myself too hard then I can’t fail, right?

On the surface that may be right, but I’ve also started to realize that the safe way is a boring way to go through life.

I’ve forced myself out of my comfort zone in a lot of scary ways, but by far the most life-changing was when I decided to stop playing it safe at a desk job and start make a career as a freelance writer. I’ve made a lot of mistakes along the way – but I’ve also avoided a lot of pitfalls by learning from freelancers who went before me.

In the spirit of paying it forward, here my biggest pieces of freelancing advice.

(Oh, and by the way? I spent the last week visiting my family back on the farm, where my 5-year-old niece sagely told me, “If we make mistakes, that means we’re learning.” Learn from the rugrat’s wisdom, everyone.)

1. Sow your (marketing) oats widely

Last week I was talking to a friend, a real estate agent who’s just getting started in the business. He mentioned to me that he’s been surprised lately when prospects he talked to months ago contact him out of the blue – he’d written them off, but they were just biding their time.

That sort of thing happens to me (and other freelancers I know) all the time. A few days before that conversation, I received two emails about prospective work: one from a client I’d written for two years previously, and one from a new prospect who’d been referred to me by a client I’d worked for nearly three years ago.

Part of marketing is about planting seeds, and understanding that those seeds will grow in ways you can’t anticipate. My current biggest client is the result of a friendship I struck up during a networking event. We were both unemployed and just enjoyed each other’s company – but when my new friend got a job at a creative agency several months later, I was the copywriter she knew to call.

2. You probably won’t make money on your passion topics

I see this question again and again in freelancing forums and comment sections:

“I’m passionate about writing about [antiques/spirituality/yoga/golfing/knitting]. How can I find people who will pay me to write about this?”

The hard reality is that you probably can’t. When I first started, I wanted to write about cycling, crafting, travel, and beer. They were things I was passionate about – but they’re also things that a lot of people are passionate about.

I’ve sold articles to travel websites and beer magazines – and I even sold an article on bicycle crafts to a fashionable bike style magazine. I wrote for the Brewers Association trade magazine. I wrote for cycling blogs. But trying to scrape together a career of $50 travel site articles and “free exposure” blog posts was frustrating. Paying markets for these topics were few and far between – and competition was fierce.

It took me ages to learn this, but in industries that people are passionate about, there’s a steady supply of writers who are willing to write about the topics for pennies – or for free.

I’m not trying to say you shouldn’t pursue writing about topics you’re passionate about – just understand that it’s going to be much harder to find well-paying gigs in a popular topic.

3. Think sideways to break into a new niche

Another question I see a lot is how do you get clips to break into X or Y niche. The trick is by making your clips work double duty.

Let me tell you what I mean.

The only clips I had when I started out were travel writing. For the reasons outlined above, I wanted to break into better-paying niches – so I pitched a travel article to a parenting magazine. Sweet! I now had a parenting* clip to add to my portfolio.

I’ve used the same trick to break into trade magazines, cycling magazines, corporate blogging, and eventually into my current primary work writing B2B content marketing pieces for software-as-a-service companies.

(If you want more specific examples, I wrote about this in more detail on Make A Living Writing a couple of years back.)

When you’re starting out, take the work you can get, but don’t be satisfied with it. With every piece you write, scheme how it can advance your portfolio and break you into the next niche. With some strategic thinking, you’ll make it to your dream niche.

(* I have no kids. Bonus advice #4 – don’t worry about only trying to write what you know. As I told one of my current clients when they asked if I knew anything about forklifts, “Nope, but I know a lot about research.”)

Was this helpful? I’d love to hear your own tips – or challenges! Leave ‘em in the comments.

What I Learned In My 2nd Year As A Full-Time Writer

My most popular post on this blog was last year’s look back at being a full-time writer in 2014. My goal in writing that post – and this one – is to share my story with others who are just dipping their toes into making a living with their writing. And, of course, others like me who are managing to make it pay the bills, but aren’t at “guru” status just yet. 🙂

At the end of every year, I like to do a client analysis that helps me get a grasp on where I’m spending my time, and what are the most worthwhile projects. The surprising thing I discovered was that the bulk of my good clients are in the B2B software-as-a-service niche. In other words, I write for companies that sell cloud-based software to other companies.

I wouldn’t have been able to tell you what that meant two years ago, and now it’s my biggest niche – such is the way of freelancing!

And now that I know that, it will help me say no to anything that’s not in that industry. In the last few months I’ve already dropped five smaller clients who weren’t in that niche.

How I made a living writing in 2015

(Again, I’m not going to throw out any specific numbers, but I’m going to be as transparent as possible about this journey. Feel free to get in touch if you have any questions for me!)

The exciting thing about looking at my finances at the end of this year was that in this second year, my paycheck* from my freelance business is now more than that of my desk copywriting job!

Plus, have enough saved up in my business saving to cover 3 months worth of my salary and biz expenses. That’s allowed me to invest some extra money (and time) in writing and producing fiction this year.

*To see what I mean about “paycheck,” check out this post on how I work my freelance finances.

What kinds of writing work paid my bills?

Here’s where my income came from in 2015:

  • Website copy (through agencies): 37%
  • Business blogging: 25%
  • Website copy (long-term client): 20%
  • Content marketing projects*: 16%
  • Ghost writing: 5%
  • Misc. business marketing collateral**: 3%
  • Social media management: 3%
  • Product copy: 2%
  • Magazine articles: 1.5%
  • Fiction: 0.5%

* I separated out my ongoing clients for whom I do a variety of content marketing (including blogging) from those for whom I only blog.

** These were all one-off pieces for clients that didn’t turn into ongoing content marketing work, and so I separated it out.

*** I just added that up, and it adds up to 112%. Because I’m that rad.

What this tells me:

  • I’m less reliant on one income stream. Last year, 57% of my income came from a single client. That client’s still around, but their contribution is now only 20% (and I’m doing about the same amount of work for them, so that tells you something!). A major goal of mine last year was to be less reliant on a single client, so I did well there.
  • I made more from Fiction than last year. Last year, Fiction represented only 0.1% of my total income. Now, 0.5% isn’t anything to write home about, but it is an increase! Next year, I’d like to increase that number by a more substantial amount – and I’m poised to do it, with one novel out already, and several more in the pipeline.
  • Blogging actually paid a lot of my bills. Another thing I anticipate changing in 2016 is the Business Blogging category. I separated it out from Content Marketing to differentiate between clients that I do a variety of work for, and those that I only blog for. I actually dropped almost all of my “just blogging” clients at the end of November, and in 2016 I’ll be concentrating on growing that Content Marketing category. Seeing just how big a percentage of my income came from only blogging gives me pause about that decision, but I think in the long run this will be better for business. Onward!
  • Those one-off projects aren’t worth it. For weighing in at only 3% of my total income, those random one-off marketing projects just aren’t worth the time onboarding a brand new client.
  • I’m not a magazine writer. A lot of the content marketing work I do for ongoing clients is similar to magazine writing – I do interviews, work with an editor, provide snazzy quotes and interesting angles – but it also pays better with less hassle. 2016 is probably the time to stop taking low-paying article assignments and focus on business clients.

Where I found my clients*

Outbound (11):

  • I answered a job ad: 5
  • Met at a networking event: 2
  • Already a friend: 1
  • I sent a cold pitch: 2
  • Saw my ad on Ravelry: 1

Inbound (13):

  • Referred by another client: 7 (3 from the same client. Thanks, Melanie!)
  • Saw my writing on another site: 4
  • Found me on LinkedIn: 2

(* These are all people I worked with this year, though not necessarily are all new clients from this year)

Takeaways:

Start building a reputation, and you won’t have to work your tail off marketing.

These numbers don’t show one trend – that most of my outbound marketing efforts took place earlier in the year. I haven’t checked a job board, sent a cold pitch, or gone to a networking event since probably…. Actually, all but one of those clients in the Outbound list are carry-forwards from last year. And the one new client is someone I met at WorldCon, a sci-fi/fantasy convention that only loosely falls in the category of “networking event.”

Keyword the hell out of your LinkedIn page.

My biggest source of inbound prospects has been through LinkedIn, although as of posting this only 2 have become clients. I wrote about what I did to spiff up my profile last year, so you can head there if you’re curious.

Referrals and bylines help.

Referrals were my biggest total source of new clients – which is a good reason to keep your clients happy! I was also pleasantly surprised 4(!) times this year when someone emailed me to say they saw my writing on X Site, and would I pretty please also write for them?

My second biggest source of clients was job boards.

There are some gems out there in all the crud that clogs up the job boards. Don’t waste time going after things you’re not right for, and focus on the good boards.

Overall, this has been a good year.

Although I still stumble into regular periods of overwhelm and anxiety, has managed to find a better balance than I had my first year freelancing. I’ve been able to travel more with my husband, taking overnight trips with him throughout Oregon (he’s a sales rep in the state).

I’ve found more time for writing fiction – and it’s not always after dinner when my brain is already bleary from staring at the computer screen all day.

I sometimes take weekends off, even.

My big takeaway at the end of the year is that stress is a killer. I’ve started to become better at recognizing the warning signs of burnout before it comes – although I don’t think I’m always very good at avoiding it.

I also haven’t been very good at saying no to new projects, which is led to some pretty rough periods of overworking myself. In my first year of freelancing, this seemed inevitable – after all, I needed to make ends meet. But in the second year, when I had enough clients who are paying me well enough that I didn’t have to say yes to every tiny project that came across my plate, I still had a hard time saying no.

Doing this client analysis has been a good way for me to hone in on my priorities:

Say “Yes” to more ongoing opportunities in B2B software, say “No” to one-off projects, magazine writing, and anything that’s not in my niche.

Honing my focus will free up a lot of extra administrative time, which I can use to grow that Fiction category from a measly 0.5% into something a bit more substantial!

How was your 2015?

I’d love to hear how things are going with you, both in business and creatively. Leave me a comment or drop me a line!

The Zen of a Writer’s Finances: Cheating the Feast or Famine Cycle

Am I kidding? “Writer’s finances” and “zen” in the same sentence?

For most writers I know, talking about the financials of how we make a living is completely antithetical to feeling calm and zen-like. There’s the stress of finding paying gigs. Of selling stories. Of late checks. Of deadbeat clients.

Things are messy and complicated, and far too close to the edge of total ruin than most of us would like to admit.

Maybe you’ve already seen this Salon article about writers who are sponsored by their well-off partners. If not, give it a read. It’s thoughtful – and thought-provoking.

I’m not pointing you there to start a bitchfest about how we can’t all have rich partners or parents to support our writing habits (although in my case having a second income has made my transition to freelancing loads easier than it would have been otherwise). Rather, I think the author, Ann Bauer, has a good point.

Writers don’t talk often enough about the money side of our art.

We get jealous of the 6-figure incomes of freelancers who now make most of their salary selling informational products. We assume Nebula and Hugo winners must be living the high life of leisurely writing days broken only by trips to the bank to deposit royalty checks. We think if only we can break into the Huffington Post we’ll be rich (they don’t pay, people!).

But here’s the thing.

I LOVE talking about money.

I’m that person in our relationship who likes to budget down to the cent and figure out income and expense. I run numbers constantly. I really like sitting down with my husband to talk about our budget. I read blogs about interest rates. I was ecstatic when our bank (BECU) came out with a new money management tool that ran automatic reports! And had color-coded budgets!

My husband used to think I obsessed about our finances in order to stress myself out, but it’s really not that. I do it because it’s a comfort to know exactly what’s going on.

Today I’m sharing my obsession with my writing business finances with you, in the hopes that it’ll help someone else who’s just getting started see how I do things. I’m constantly tinkering, so if you have any advice to share, please please please leave it in the comments!

C’mon, writers! Let’s talk about money!

Part 1: Setting Up Your Finances

I’m not going to lie – it’s a feast or famine out there. I’ve had horrible lean stretches that would have had me on the street if I didn’t have the luxury of a husband with a (mostly) steady paycheck, or a squirreled-away savings account for the low times.

But even though that feast or famine cycle is never going to change, I’ve tried to set myself up to weather it as best as I can.

1. Budget, budget, budget

If you’re going to live on a variable income, you absolutely need to know your budget. I’m not talking about using an envelope system or anything like that – though you certainly can if you want to. I’m talking about being honest about where you’re spending your money every month.

Because I track our spending, I know exactly which payments we can stop, luxuries we can scrimp on, and items we can sell off (*ahembikes*) if we need extra help on the rent this month.

Part of budgeting is figuring out where you can cut back to take the stress off. It’s knowing what you have to pay, and what you’re paying out of preference. It’s knowing that eating beans and rice instead of going out a few nights a week means $400 less a month that you have to drum up in client work.

2. Pay yourself a set salary

The best thing I ever did for my finances was to set up a business checking account. I deposit every writing-related check into that account, I transfer 35% of the amount into a separate savings account for taxes, and then I pay myself a set salary on the 1st and 15th every month.

This does two things:

First, it lets you budget your personal life, knowing that you’ll be receiving a set paycheck twice a month. Especially once you’ve built up a buffer, setting up your finances this way smooths out your income. Now, even though your client may be late on their check, you’re not late on your rent.

Second, it puts any surplus out of reach. If you had a great month, let your business treat yourself to a nice dinner or buy you a bonus bottle of Deschutes anniversary ale – after all, you’re your own boss, and you should treat yourself when you’ve done a good job. But don’t be tempted to spend that extra cash, because when next month is slim pickings you’ll have nothing to draw on for your salary.

My business account is as sacred as a company credit card. Would you buy groceries or go to a movie on your company’s dime? No way in hell. Set up an automatic transfer for your salary, then treat your business account like it’s your boss’s money. Because it is.

3. Build up recurring work

The best peace of mind you can have is a recurring base of income. Whether that’s a job waiting tables, a steady blogging client or two, or regular income from published books, this is crucial to smoothing out the feast or famine cycle.

Right now I have a pretty standard base I can rely on every month, thanks to several clients who give me regular work. Without them, each month would be a nail-biter of a blank slate. With them, I know at least I’ve got groceries covered if everything else is crickets.

What I’m working on at this point is building up a regular passive income, as well. I get regular beer money from my bike crafting ebook, and I plan to publish several novels this year that I can hopefully start to build on. I have no illusions that I’ll make it rich yet, but each drop of water helps, right?

Part 2: Getting Clients To Pay You

Cool. You’ve got things figured out on your end, right? Now how do you get clients to pay?

That can be tough. As I write this, I’ve invoiced more for January than I have for each of the last 6 months – but I still can’t pay my own salary for February 1st because 90% of those invoices are still outstanding. Ideally, I’d have a buffer built up so that it wouldn’t matter, but I just don’t at this point. (No judging, right?)

So how do you get your hard-earned money?

None of the invoices I mentioned above are overdue – just some clients take a while to get the paychecks cut. Weeks and weeks and weeks. All you can do is sit and wait.

But once they become overdue? The instant I see in Freshbooks that they’re past the 30-day terms (which is written on my invoice, as well as in my contract), I email my contact to gently remind them that I haven’t seen the cash.

I recently heard someone say he puts clause in his contract that the copyright doesn’t transfer to the client until he gets paid in full. I haven’t tried this yet, but it’s totally brilliant, and I’ll definitely be adding that in for the future.

Getting paid:

1. If they’re regular clients, and you regularly get paid…

Just ask what happened this time.

Most of my client contacts aren’t in charge of payroll, so making sure I get paid is pretty far down on their list of priorities. They probably forwarded my invoice on and accounts payable missed it. Or they forgot to forward it on, because they were too excited about the new blog post series I turned in.

Whatever the reason, once I’ve brought it to their attention that I haven’t been paid yet, they’re generally a) mortified, and b) quick to take care of it.

If you’re having issues with a regular but otherwise awesome client, ask your contact for the accounts payable person. That way you can contact them directly about payment holdups, and keep your relationship with your primary contact free from money troubles.

2. If they’re new clients…

Assume the best and shoot them a followup email. Ideally with new clients I try to get a deposit up front, but unless they seem like total skeezeballs during our initial interactions, I generally assume my clients are good-yet-absentminded people. I’ve yet to be proven wrong. (Knock on wood.)

As a general rule, you should get half up front with new clients. If they balk at that, you should probably balk at putting in an entire project’s worth of work for free. They don’t trust you? Don’t trust them.

3. If you’re having problems with payment every time…

Get out of that relationship!

Please don’t work for people who don’t have their financial shit together. If they seem sketchy and are holding up paying you, fire them and find another client. If you have to hunt down your payment every single time, drop ’em like a rattlesnake before you get bit in the ass.

I used to have a friend who waited tables at a restaurant, and would literally run to the bank each payday to deposit the check, because if he was one of the last on the payroll to do so, his paycheck would most likely bounce. Isn’t that insane?

You can guarantee that if this restaurant didn’t have enough cash on hand to make payroll – EVER – they didn’t have other basic shit together.

Don’t work for people like that.

Whew. That was way longer than I thought it would be. If you’re still reading, I’d love to hear from you. How do you deal with the financial uncertainty of making a living as a writer?