“How do you get so much done?” is a question I hear from friends, colleagues, and clients pretty frequently. I don’t say this to brag. Like every other successful freelance writer I know, I hustle. I make hay while the sun shines. I burn the midnight oil (and, sometimes the candle at both ends). I get stuff done because I have to. (A deadline is a great motivator.)
What I do is not magic. I’m not an incredibly fast writer, nor have I figured out how to survive without sleep. (If you crack that mystery, please let me know.) What I do have is a system and some basic project management skills. Today, I want to share them with you because if I can help even one working writer reduce the chaos and tame the stress, it’ll make my day.
In my two-part series on the secrets of successful freelance writers I encouraged writers to become good project managers. One of the most important aspects of providing strong project management is creating and managing project schedules. You need to be able to provide an up-front plan, stay on top of it, and revise as things develop. You also need to be able to help keep your team (including your client) on track and on task with friendly reminders and nudges.
But how on earth can you expect to stay on top of all of that while you’re also trying to handle your own marketing, client meetings, and the actual writing?
It may seem impossible, but it’s not.
There are 5 tools I use to help me get a handle on (and manage!) my schedule – from the Big Picture to the minute details and everything in between. In this post, I’ll share the first two:
The Writer’s Big Picture: Good, Old Excel
You know that saying about not being able to see the forest for the trees? It’s definitely applicable to the freelance writer’s life. Often we are juggling so many projects and tasks that it’s easy for things to slip through the cracks – things like an interim deadline, client call, or – you know – feeding the kids.
Whenever I begin to feel overwhelmed by my workload, I take a breath, step back, and look at the Big Picture. I do this using a basic Excel spreadsheet that I designed to help me create a visual overview of my workload and pipeline (jobs that I think are coming soon). This 30,000-foot view always helps me to feel a little bit saner.
I call the spreadsheet my “Workflow Doc.” Here’s what it looks like:
And if you click here, you can download a copy of the actual Excel document.
To use it:
- List your clients and projects down the left-hand side
- Define the current and upcoming months and weeks across the top (I like to look at four months at a time, but you can look at two or three if that seems more manageable.)
- Using the color key at the bottom (which you can’t see in the screen grab, but it’s there), color code the project cells to indicate what type of work needs to be done for each project during each week. I use the following phases: Initiation, First Draft, Edits, Development, and Launch. I know that each of these phases will require a different level of attention from me. For instance, the Initiation phase is typically just a meeting or two and will usually only require a few hours while the First Draft phase may require several solid days. The Edits phase might need about 30-50% of my time, while Development (typically the phase during which the project has moved from my hands to either a designer or a developer) may only require 10% of my time for small edits and adjustments.
After you have the chart filled out, you’ll easily be able to see any potential train wrecks, where you have time available, and opportunities to “massage” schedules in order to make your life less crazy. For me, being able to see everything on paper is a lot less scary than just having a vague sense that things are barreling out of control. Even if I fill out the spreadsheet and see that I am, in fact, in a load of trouble, just knowing exactly what kind of trouble I’m in makes me feel better and gives me the information I need to start working on a solution.
The Writer’s Project Plan: A Gantt Chart
The next level of detail is the individual project plan.
Confession: in my past life, I was a project manager, so I have better-than-average tolerance for all things budget- and schedule-related. That said, learning the basics is not as difficult as you might think.
When I was a full-time project manager, I used Microsoft Project to create project schedules in a Gantt chart format. Now that I am on my own (and on a Mac), I don’t have MS Project anymore, so I needed to find a simple (preferably free) tool that would let me create Gantt schedules. After much searching, I settled on an online service called ViewPath, which has the baseline features I need and a free option. Perfect!
Here is what a basic Gantt format schedule looks like:
I could spend several posts talking about how to build a schedule, but here are the basic steps:
- Make a list of all the tasks that need to be completed. For a basic writing project, these might include initiation tasks (discovery meetings, research, outlining, etc.), writing tasks (first drafts, revisions, final edits), client management tasks (presentation and review meetings), and so on.
- Put the relevant tasks into your Gannt chart in the appropriate order. (I group each set under a sub-head to make the overall schedule easier to read.)
- Identify where there are “task dependencies” and “link” those tasks in the Gantt chart. For instance, you cannot start your research until you have had the kickoff meeting and received the reference materials from the client. You can’t start on your first draft until the client has approved the outline. You can’t make revisions until the client has provided feedback. Within the Gantt chart, you can connect the end of one task to the beginning of another to show these dependencies. The beauty of this is that, within the scheduling software, when you move one date (say the client is two days late with feedback), it automatically moves all the subsequent dates so that you know what impact the delay will have on the overall schedule.
- If you are so inclined, you can assign resources to each task.
You can, of course, go into all kinds of additional detail, but those are the basic steps. Once you have created the schedule, you can include it in your scope of work so that everyone involved is on the same page in terms of timing. In this way, you are providing a better experience for the client and making your life easier because you’ll have an even better sense of exactly what has to happen next.
… but, we’ll get into the nitty-gritty of managing individual tasks next time.
Here’s the thing – managing your time and your projects well is a critical part of freelance writing success. Without these skills, one of two things will happen: 1) You’ll miss deadlines and lose customers (and, eventually, your business will fail), or 2) You’ll push yourself to work ungodly hours and burn out (and, eventually, your business will fail).
I don’t want that for you. We writers need to stick together and help each other out.
I hope that my Big Picture and Project Plan tools help you find some additional sanity. Next time, I’ll share with you the three tools that I use to manage my time and projects on a day-to-day basis. Until then, keep writing, keep breathing, and if you have any questions – leave ’em in the comments!
Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of the equestrian arts, voice, and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.
Image Credit: iam_photography