How to be a freelance writer – 5 tools for smart planning and time management: Part 1

roaring lion

“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:


Workflow spreadsheet sm

And if you click here, you can download a copy of the actual Excel document.

To use it:

  1. List your clients and projects down the left-hand side
  2. 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.)
  3. 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:

sample gantt

I could spend several posts talking about how to build a schedule, but here are the basic steps:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.
  4. 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

34 thoughts on “How to be a freelance writer – 5 tools for smart planning and time management: Part 1

  1. Great post (and much needed by me!) Thanks. I will be sharing this with my writing friends on Twitter. I’m sure there’s a lot of us out there who could benefit from some time management tools.

  2. Time management is critical – a visual chart is a great solution. (how did we function without excel? – it’s good for everything. Also project manager past – flow charts helped keep everyone and everything moving along)
    Gantt chart is a real find – thanks

    • So nice to hear from other writers who embrace the left-brain side of things as well. I can definitely geek out on this sort of stuff, so it’s fun to share! Thanks for stopping by (as always) 🙂

  3. Great tips! Having worked as a freelance corporate writer for a number of years, I know how difficult it can be to get organized/motivated. One of the resources that really helped me was a book called “The Well-Fed Writer,” by Bob Bly. It really provided a road map for me as I left the corporate world and went out on my own. Looking forward to your next post!

    • I know “The Well-Fed Writer” well! It’s actually by the lovely Peter Bowerman (whom I had the pleasure of meeting a couple years ago) and is part of a great series that includes “Back for Seconds” (his first follow-up) and “The Well-Fed Self-Publisher.” He also has a great website that is full of helpful information: http://wellfedwriter.com/

      Thanks for coming by and reminding me of his great resources!
      🙂

      • Oh, crap. You’re right. My apologies to Peter Bowerman — his Well-Fed Writer really was my Bible for the first few years on my own. I’m 100% convinced that my business wouldn’t have been nearly as successful without that book. Bob Bly’s Guide to Freelance Writing Success was also a permanent fixture on my desk, but not nearly as well-worn… 🙂

      • Honest mistake. 😉
        I haven’t read Bob Bly, but he is a giant in the advertising/copywriting world. I’ll have to look up his book now.
        TKS!!

  4. I always have lived by my calendar (the paper one) to keep me going. I like the excel chart to keep the projects visually in front of me — I have to keep turning pages in the calendar.
    Thanks. Look forward to Part 2.

    • I was a Franklin Covey disciple (paper planner) for YEARS. I have a whole new system now which is what I’ll share in Part 2.

      Thanks for the comment! 🙂

  5. I could never get my creativity to work on the same schedule I created. I could create great schedules in MS Project for everything, except my Freelance work. Ideas hit me at 3:00 AM. 3 AM was not on the schedule. I am going to be interested in reading Part 2,

    • Yes, creativity on demand is a tough nut to crack. 😉
      Flexibility is an important part of the tools I’ll share in part 2. “See” you then!

  6. Pingback: Off The Wire: News for the Canadian media freelancer August 20-26

  7. If you’d like a tool for managing your time and projects, you can use this web-application inspired by David Allen’s GTD:

    GTDAgenda

    You can use it to manage your goals, projects and tasks, set next actions and contexts, use checklists, and a calendar.
    Syncs with Evernote and Google Calendar, and also comes with mobile version, and Android and iPhone apps.

    • Sounds interesting. I explore GTD a little, and borrowed what I liked, but never went “whole hog.” I’ll check this out, though! 🙂 TKS!!

  8. Pingback: How to be a freelance writer – 5 tools for smart planning and time management: Part 2 | Live to Write - Write to Live

  9. Pingback: Taking Control of Your Schedule: 5 Tools for Better Planning and Time Management | Suddenly Marketing

  10. Pingback: Link It Up | Classyville

  11. Great Post, Jamie.

    I definitely have to give a try to Viewpath 😀 Right now, I am using Evernote and other applications for managing my schedule.

    I never realized that we could use Excel for managing our time. Great tip!

    I do plan to offer writing/consultancy service (once I launch my new blog). So, this will definitely be helpful 🙂

    Thanks!

    • Excellent, Jeevan!
      I haven’t tried Evernote for project management, but I’ve heard some people like it for that purpose.

      Good luck with your writing/consultancy service & your new blog launch. Looking forward to seeing it!

  12. Pingback: Freelance Writers Toolkit, How We’re Going to Get Started

  13. Pingback: Improve Your Writing Time Management | Eric Dontigney's Blog

  14. Pingback: Improve Your Writing Time Management | Eric Dontigney's Blog

  15. Good thoughts here…

    I usually make list of all tasks that I have to do the next day, so that when I wake up I would have a list of tasks to work on. Once I am done with those, I would start my regular routine, where I would have lot time saved. I normally use this time for my personal tasks or work.

    I also use few task management and time tracking tools to keep myself organized and on schedule. They are Replicon time and expense tracking software and Google Calender.

  16. Great post! If you look for a beautifully designed and extremely simple tool you should check out Proofhub (www.proofhub.com)

  17. Interesting post (and the next as well) – i will be re-blogging! I’m pleased to find someone else using Google Calendar though I’ve struggled to make Tasks work as effectively

    • I agree re: tasks, Tony. Would love to see Google make a few changes there. For instance, would great to have a place to put tasks that I’m not ready to schedule … though I suppose that would defeat the purpose of calendaring in the first place. 😉

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s