Time-saving tips for freelance writers

I belong to a group of writers that meets once a month to discuss writing, trade tips and flesh out pitches. I’ve been meeting with this group of people for a year now. We call ourselves The Thumb Slammers. The name comes from the act of slamming your thumb down on your mouse when you send a really big pitch to an editor. As far as I know the term was coined by David Hochman, at whose writing workshop we met. (Hi, David.)

A few weeks ago The Thumb Slammers celebrated our one-year reunion. We talked about the usual frustrations of making time to write, waiting to hear back from editors and trying to strike the proper money/life/joy balance. During the day a recurring question emerged, and that was how to be more efficient and manage your time and your life so that you can do work that you’re proud of.

Unbeknownst to the group, efficiency has become a fetish of mine. I’ve been reading books, articles, websites, you name it, on the topic. I think it’s because, as I transitioned back to being a freelance writer after being laid off and replaced by Paul F. Tompkins, I knew it would be important.

This list of time-savers for freelance writers is by no means complete. Also, hey, they might not apply to you, depending on a host of factors. But if they helped me, and help The Thumb Slammers, maybe they can help you, too. Many of these tips were taken from or inspired by David Allen’s Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity.

Why does any of this matter? Experts say, and I concur, that being efficient boosts creativity. Being efficient also means you can knock off at 4 on Friday and go to happy hour with your wife, which is exactly the type of lifestyle bonus we should all enjoy in return for the financial trade-offs we make by choosing to be self-employed writers.

1. Do two  big things a day
I try to accomplish one major task in the morning and one major task in the afternoon. If I try to do too much, and don’t get it done, it bums be out, my energy drops and I become less productive. If I get my one thing done, and then tackle something else, and get that thing started or done, and it’s not even noon yet, I feel great. Just as we should under-promise and over-deliver with editors, we should do the same with ourselves.

2. Embrace the whiteboard
I use a whiteboard. The whiteboard reminds me of tasks I have to accomplish that day, such as my two things from above. I also use it to jot down ideas I don’t want to forget.

3. Embrace the digital whiteboard
I keep a list of tasks I need to complete in one place on my computer so that all of my work obligations are in one place, and not scattered in various files and calendars and such.

4. Use email folders
It’s easy to let email stack up. That’s why I broke down my email into folders such as To Do (email I need to answer that day), Work (work-related email that demands my attention), Upcoming Events, Save for Later and others. I star any email that requires action before depositing it into a folder. At the end of the day I go through each folder to make sure I’ve tackled everything.

5. Use real folders
All important printed papers go into a well-organized file cabinet, where they can be accessed easily. I file things like tax forms, business expenses and contracts.

6. Use calendars
If I have to make a decision, but I don’t need to make it for a few weeks, I save it in a folder, no star, and make a note on my calendar to revisit the email and make a decision. Sometimes decisions can’t or won’t be made for weeks. This way I know it will be be dealt with and I can free my mind to tackle the next task instead letting it weigh on my brain or hoping I will remember it in a few weeks. (I won’t.)

7. Write when you write best
For a long time I did all of my web browsing in the morning. This was stupid. These are my best hours of the day. Now I save non-mission critical tasks, such as answering email and browsing the web and paying bills, for the mid-afternoon, when my energy and alertness wanes.

8. Snack
I eat a healthy snack of fruit or vegetables or nuts between every meal. This keeps my energy level up. I got this from the book Willpower. Your brain needs good, healthy glucose to operate at an optimal level. Don’t deprive it.

9. Exercise
I exercise for 30 minutes a day. Even if it’s just walking to the store or walking my dog. This also keeps my energy levels up.

10. Drink water
See 8 and 9.

11. Track your time
I count how many hours I work on a job. I have a goal rate in my head. If I am being paid for one hour of my goal rate, I dedicate one hour to that job, file, send and move on. The temptation to keep working on something over and over can be tempting, but at some point you’re costing yourself money and you’re not improving the piece that much, so don’t let the perfect become the enemy of paying the rent.

OK. That can’t be all of them. I’m not that smart. Add yours!

Image by Sean MacEntee 


Joe Donatelli
Joe Donatelli is a writer in Los Angeles
  • M_flynn

    Thanks, Joe! I’m a big fan of morning writing, too. I also find that it helps to plan out my weekly writing goals and general to-do list every Sunday, so I have an idea of how much I need to tackle every day.

  • These are great. I especially like Do 2 Big Things, because my daily to-do list generally includes like, 10 things, most of them BIG. I mean, it’s ridiculous to think I’d get all of them done, and yes, I end up working on them throughout the week and feeling like a slacker because of it. 

    Also, I’ve never quite gotten the hang of a whiteboard, though I have a big one (stashed in my “back office” in the basement) and a smaller one (still in the wrapper from Staples). I think part of it’s that I never quite know what to put on them. I guess I could transfer those to-do lists to the whiteboard, though I don’t think I could get them done any faster. 

    Maybe I should just try it and see if it changes my perspective on the list. Or try turning the big one into a “vision board” of what I want to accomplish this month or year. Yeah, maybe month would be good to start. 

  • Jane — it’s easy to get in patterns and hard to break out of them. But when you do break out of them, sometimes really cool things happen. Good luck.

  • This is why you will finish a novel and get married in the same year, Maggie. Hat’s off to you.

  • Excellent Joe! I would just add that for “digital whiteboard” I use Springpad. Another popular solution is Evernote. For tracking time, I use OfficeTime, which is hugely helpful. Ooops, tells me i better get moving!

  • I use Evernote, too. Will have to check out Springpad. Thanks, Eric.

  • I love that you have been able to put together a “Thumb Slammer” group. Congrats on getting to one year with it.

    These are all great productivity reminders. And, it’s wise to give the “your mileage may vary” caveat. I can only really manage to assure myself of knocking one thing off a weekly to do list these days. But then, I do have a regular part-time job. Trying to do more was too stressful for me.

    The only thing I’d add to this list is my latest mantra: Pitch first, blog later.

    It has been immensely helpful in changing my focus to landing those money-making gigs we freelancers need the most.

  • Thanks, Jenny. And good for you. As you can see from my lack of blog posts, I’ve been pitching a lot, too.

  • It takes a lot of practice to achieve the professional skill-level required to sell written works. Also, the right resources must be found before the paychecks start flowing in. Clients who love your work enough to purchase it are the main key to success.


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