Jennifer D. Foster, freelance writer, editor, and owner of Planet Word
I think almost all of us are aiming for balance in our professional and personal lives.
I’m not a certified expert on time-management, motivation, or productivity. And I don’t have all the answers. But I’m a fairly successful freelance editor and writer, who’s happy to share the strategies and best practices I use in order to keep my clients happy, juggle multiple editorial jobs, and keep sane in the process.
I’ll give you a brief synopsis of how I got to where I am professionally and what I do, to give you some overall context, then I’ll talk about specifics.
I’m a freelance writer, editor, and mentor, with 20 years’ experience, 14 of those as a freelancer. As the sole proprietor of my business, Planet Word, I wear many hats and tackle many projects. I work on everything from adult and children’s fiction and non-fiction, consumer and trade magazines, web content, newsletters, and ads to style guides, curatorial material, press releases, annual reports, and book reviews. My clients and projects are vast and varied—just how I like it!
My first degree is an honours double major in sociology and mass communications from York University in Toronto. For my second degree, I went to journalism school at Ryerson University, also in Toronto.
After graduating from Ryerson, I got a two-month internship at Chatelaine magazine, while Rona Maynard was editor-in-chief. I wrote a few articles, did some fact-checking, and sat in on editorial meetings, but I wasn’t hired, as there were no staff jobs available. It was a fantastic view into the editorial world, and I wanted more!
I then worked for about three years as assistant editor at Homemakers magazine, under the leadership of Sally Armstrong. She was an inspirational boss and gave me my own section to edit after less than a year there, and after two years there, she sent me on a feature-writing assignment to the Philippines.
After Homemakers, I headed to the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) as writer and editor in the Marketing and Communications department. That was a dream job, where I got to utilize both my editing and my writing skills. On particularly intense or trying days, I’d leave my desk to wander in the galleries, remembering why I was working there in the first place! After 2.5 years, I went on maternity leave and never looked back. When my son, who’s now 14, was six months old, I felt I was going brain dead as a stay-at-home mom and decided to launch Planet Word. I had no idea what I was doing as a new business owner, but I told all of my friends, family, and business contacts that I was available for freelance writing and editing.
Fast-forward to now, where sometimes I’m juggling up to half a dozen client projects at a time, with overlapping deadlines. This is very stressful and extremely demanding, but I find the following strategies help me get through even the most intense work periods.
Know Yourself and Your Work Style
My main tip is to know yourself and your work style and embrace them both wholeheartedly.
I know that I like lots of natural light, myriad lists, an uncluttered work space, lots of herbal teas and salty snacks, great variety in my projects and that I thrive under work pressure. Be your own best friend and work with yourself and your quirks—not against them. Don’t compare yourself to others and how they work: one magic formula does not fit all, and I believe everyone’s a work in progress, so be kind to yourself.
Woody Allen said 80 per cent of success is showing up. I couldn’t agree more, so that’s why I make an effort every work day, which is often seven days a week, to wake early, eat a decent breakfast, get dressed (yes, no pyjamas or sweats for me!), and be at my computer for 9 am. I treat my freelancing for what it is—a successful business and a professional undertaking. Call me crazy, but I feel very unmotivated and unprofessional sitting at my desk in pyjamas. Getting dressed and being at my desk for 9 am gets me into the right frame of mind to work.
I’m high energy, detail-oriented, and work well under lots of pressure. I think that’s how I came out of the womb! But I’m always open to trying new strategies, and I know that I have room for ongoing improvement. My theory is carpe diem. Treat each job as a privilege. And take each day as a gift and run with it. Which brings me to another tip: don’t procrastinate! I know—we all do it. But try and jump into a project right away. As a freelancer, I never know what’s coming down the pipe and when, so I need to tackle each project as soon as possible.
Speaking of trying something new, I wanted to share a time-management method that I discovered last year, while I was writing a feature on beating writer’s block for Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market. It’s called the Pomodoro Technique. In a nutshell, this is how it works:
Step one: Pick your task.
Step two: Set a timer (traditionally, it’s for 25 minutes).
Step three: Work on that sole task until your timer rings.
Step four: Put a checkmark on a piece of paper after the timer rings.
Step five: If you have fewer than four checkmarks, take a short break (typically, it’s for three to five minutes) and then go back to step two.
Step six: After you have a total of four pomodoros, take a longer break (typically, it’s for 15 to 30 minutes). Reset your checkmark count back to zero and then return to the first step.
The main premise is to work in 25-minute blocks of time (called “pomodoro sessions”), followed by breaks. Each pomodoro session requires your full attention on a single task and then you take a break. The supposed results are improved productivity, burnout elimination, work-life balance and distraction-management.
Maybe some of you may have already tried it, and maybe it works for you. I tried it a few times, but I realized I’m more of a head-down, just-get-the-job-done kind of gal, so the timer going off was, ironically, a major distraction for me, and I found this method more irritating than anything, so I ditched it!
I’ll confess that I’m a list junkie. I make lists for almost everything, whether it’s business or personal, and I get a thrill crossing things off the list. My husband’s now doing it, after years of initially thinking I was crazy! He was always amazed at how much I’d get done in a day, and I told him it’s partly because I thrive on using lists. Now he’s a convert, and sometimes we jokingly fight over who will get to cross completed tasks off the chore list! Crossing jobs off a list gives me a great sense of purpose and accomplishment, and it motivates me to see lines through completed projects and tasks. I used lists with all my in-house jobs, and I’ve continued that method with freelancing.
It may shock you to know, however, that I work with a hard copy calendar and pen-and-paper lists—call me a dinosaur, but I love to get and stay organized on paper. I spend so much of my day on a screen that it’s a welcome change to actually use my hand to write, though my handwriting is atrocious! I have a work calendar that gives me a month at a glance, as I’m one of those people who needs to see the big picture, as well as the details. I write down when projects are due, and that way I can see where the bottlenecks are/could be, and that helps me know right away if I can take on any more work. I also use lots of highlighters and different coloured pens, so projects and deadlines stand out.
I make a list for the upcoming work week, usually on Sunday night, so I know what is due when and to whom for the upcoming week. That’s a smaller version, if you will, of the bigger picture. If my workload is light for that week, then I put on my marketing hat, contacting clients I haven’t heard from in a while, reminding them I’m available for work, or contacting potential clients (and yes, I have a list of potential clients!). Before going to bed, I add to the list, cross off tasks completed or move them to a newly created list. I also have an organized plan for each work day and that keeps me on track and motivated. Maybe there are apps or programs to do this, but hard copies work for me.
I also find creating editorial checklists helpful, depending on the size of the project. If it’s only a few pages, then I don’t create one. But if it’s a major project, like copy editing a 300-page cookbook, I develop a checklist in addition to the style guide I’m using. They are often a simple Word doc or sometimes I write out my checklist. I usually use the checklist at the beginning and at the end of my project, to ensure I’ve been thorough.
Get Through Every Email
Another time-management and motivation strategy I use is making it a priority to get through all of my emails before the end of each day. It’s a quirk of mine, and I realize it sounds freakishly anal and maybe impossible, but, again, this a strategy that works for me. I find it soul-crushing to open up my email in the morning, only to find a long stream of neglected emails/clients. Sometimes that just means a quick and professional acknowledgment of the email, stating that I’ll respond in more detail the next day or very soon.
Regular Breaks, Exercise, and Self Rewards
Another tip: I make time each day for regular breaks and exercise. They are essential for my sanity and my productivity. I do weekly hatha yoga, and I have an ex-racer greyhound who needs multiple daily walks. Exercise helps me manage stress and allows me to brainstorm or work through an issue I may be having with something I’m writing or editing. Bestselling author Gretchen Rubin says that doing 10 jumping jacks will boost your mood and increase your energy. I haven’t tried that yet, but maybe I should! Even when I was an in-house editor at Homemakers and especially at the AGO, I took time for regular breaks. As I mentioned, on particularly stressful days, I’d wander in the galleries, enjoying my favourite Emily Carrs and Tom Thomsons. I have very fond memories of the Yoko Ono, William Wegman and Hermitage exhibitions because I was able to enjoy the art during a weekday morning, often avoiding all the ugly weekend and afternoon crowds. For me, breaks are a form of escapism and regeneration, a chance to lose the work chains and give my brain time to recharge and think freely, which really aids in efficiency and motivation.
I’m also a big believer in self-rewards. I will say to myself that after I get X number of pages edited or y number of pages written, I will treat myself to, for example, wandering in some of my favourite neighbourhood shops or cafes, watching a BBC show, or to some pleasure reading.
Also, I take advantage of any downtime or lulls in work. Freelancing is feast or famine, so I use downtime to re-energize, strategize, and sometimes make more lists! I visit arts and antique markets, visit with friends or family, or think of potential new clients or story ideas. I also meet with fellow editors and writers to commiserate, often sharing work tips and strategies.
Just Say “No!”
Another tactic I use is just saying “No!” No to a client, no to a volunteer opportunity, and even no to myself for doing any more work that day. My theory is, it’s better to pass on a project than to take it on and do a less-than-spectacular job and ruin your precious reputation. Clients appreciate the honesty, which keeps your integrity as an editor intact. Almost every client I’ve ever said no to has come back another time with another job or another part of the job I originally declined. I recently had to turn down a copy editing project for a main client because of prior work commitments, but I was approached by that client again several weeks later to proofread the same project. Fortunately, I was able to say yes then.
I also don’t have a problem with making some nights a “get-your-own-meal” or “cereal night” at our house. My husband likes to cook, but he gets home from work around 7 pm. He is very understanding and so is our teenaged son. They’re used to this occurrence and know that sometimes a decent weekday meal isn’t going to happen, because “Mom’s on deadline again!”
Switch to Something New
Another way for me to meet deadlines and stay motivated is to work on multiple projects in one day or just switch to a different project altogether. As I mentioned, I wrote a feature last year for Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market on beating writer’s block, and many of the writers, editors, publishers, and writing instructors I interviewed do this. If my mind is wandering or if I need a break, I put aside that project and start on another. For example, if I just can’t look at that annual report pdf one more time, I’ll try writing a page for my YA novel, start working on my next book review for Canadian Children’s Book News, or research or brainstorm potential authors for the next season of Rowers Readers Series, for which I’m the administrative director. Sometimes that’s all I need to feel motivated to finish or return to the first project.
Positive Energy, Kind People
My final strategy is, surround yourself with positive, kind people. I express regular gratitude to those people in my life, as I know success is never a solo venture. It may sound cliché, but having family and friends who are supportive and respectful of you and your work will do wonders for your self-esteem and your peace of mind, which in turn has a favourable effect on your productivity, motivation and efficiency.
Jennifer D. Foster is a Toronto, Canada-based freelance writer, editor, and mentor. She’s been in the writing and editing business for two decades, and her company is Planet Word. Jennifer’s clients are from the book and custom publishing, magazine, and marketing and communications fields and include The Globe and Mail, Art Gallery of Ontario, D. F. Plett Historical Research Foundation, McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Canadian Children’s Book News, Dundurn Press, Ontario Dental Association, and Firefly Books. When she’s not busy spilling ink for her first novel, walking her greyhound, Aquaman, or reading, Jennifer enjoys travelling, antiquing, gardening, camping and yoga. She’s a long-time mentor to novice editors via Editors Canada and novice writers via the Professional Writers Association of Canada. Jennifer is chair of Editors Toronto and administrative director of the Rowers Reading Series. Find her online at lifeonplanetword.wordpress.com.