Whether you’re new to freelancing or an old hand at working for yourself, one of the key factors of successful self-employment is keeping track of your workload and income.
Freelance writers often work across a whole manner of topics, publications, and methods of writing — editorial and commercial writing; print and online; commissioned pieces and projects — which means good organisation is a priority. We all work in different ways and with varied goals, but ultimately all need to meet deadlines to earn a living.
So, what is the best way to keep track of all those variables? Is there some nifty way of working that long-term freelancers know about and swear-by, or is it a learn-as-you-go experience?
The Power Of Lists
My freelance career as a travel, lifestyle, and entertainment journalist began in 2011, after years in an staff role. Since then, my workload has varied massively. I’ve gone from working regular shifts for magazines and newspapers to taking on short-term contracts as an editor for publications and websites. I’ve also continued freelancing for other titles, taking on writing projects along the way.
For almost that entire time — bar a few shifts in offices — I have worked from home, so managing and prioritising my work is essential. It’s easy to get complacent when there’s no one nearby cracking the whip and asking for copy, which is when my notebook, full of lists, comes in handy as a driver.
"I’ll make a very, very specific list: rather than saying ‘write article’, my list will be broken down into small steps — put in interview requests, follow up with enquiry, transcribe audio — to keep me motivated."
Issy Sampson, Freelance Journalist
At the end of each week, I write a list of my work for the week ahead, noting down the number of hours or days needed to complete each task. Each piece of writing or editing is prioritised by its deadline. My working week fills up quickly, but it also gives me a clear goal of what needs to be achieved every single day. Only when each project or article is completed, checked, and sent off, does it get ticked off the list.
For me, the efficiency of lists is better than any other method. I’ve experimented with phone calendars and apps such as Trello, but they don’t motivate me in the same way. As a result, I always depend on handwritten lists — I find there’s no shying away from a page with ‘Work To-Do’ scrawled across the top!
Issy Sampson has worked as a freelance music and TV writer for over 10 years. When it comes to administrative tasks, she also swears by a good, old-fashioned list.
“I’ve tried apps and iPhone notes, but nothing beats the feeling of ticking a box on a handwritten list. However, I’ll make a very, very specific list: rather than saying ‘write article’, my list will be broken down into small steps — put in interview requests, follow up with enquiry, transcribe audio — to keep me motivated. Honestly, I just love ticking boxes off. I also set phone reminders for when I need to complete tasks, so deadlines are inescapable.”
Wherever you choose to note down your tasks, be sure to detail exactly what needs doing and in what order. This helps your mind adjust to the size of the tasks that need attending to. However, it really is the satisfaction in ticking off a task from a jam-packed to-do list that can be healthy and motivating for the mind.
Remember, your work to-do list is a showcase of what you are achieving. The feel-good factor of striking something off is very much a mindful celebration you deserve.
Diaries For The Win
Journalist and travel writer Shafik Meghji works across a range of publications, as well as regularly writing for guidebooks and NGOs. Having such different avenues of income means keeping a strict order on the work being done and the invoices that need to be paid. However, Meghji says he has “never felt the need to use a specialist app” for organisation purposes, depending on his diary instead to keep on course.
The Stationery Our Team Swears By...
• Hobonichi Techno Daily Planner: These daily planners are a firm favourite for our deputy editor, Catharina. They explain: “There’s a reason why the Hobonichi Techo has been making waves among the journalling communities for over 20 years. Available in two sizes, Hobonichi releases new interchangeable cover designs for their journals each September, and the super-thin Tomoe River paper is an absolute joy to handle and use — with zero ghosting even while using fountain pens or water colours! Truly the journal to beat them all.”
• Dingbats Hardcover Notebooks: Ever since discovering these incredibly cute animal-themed notebooks a few years ago, our editor Jem hasn’t ordered anything else. She adds: “There are 13 different animal types, each with a different cover colour and footprint end sheets – I’m trying to work through them all. The paper quality is incredibly silky, it doesn’t get bashed up in your bag, and has pockets! Plus it’s certified vegan, has sustainable paper and includes a donation to the World Wildlife Foundation.”
• Papier Daily Planners: Trainees Fern and Hannah are big fans of the Papier Daily Planner. “I tried it and absolutely loved it,” says Fern. “you get sections for 16 weeks, all undated so you can use them whenever you like. As well as helping you track your to-dos, there’s also space to set and review personal goals, or even what you’re having for dinner tonight.”
“My work schedule is pretty varied,” Meghji explains. “I’m currently juggling editorial shifts for an NGO, magazine features, a travel book, and a couple of projects for publishers. I use a diary to keep track of shifts, interviews, research trips, events, and so on; a running Word file of commissions and deadlines; and a simple spreadsheet for invoices.”
This might seem like an old-fashioned way of operating, but there is good reason to keep everything centralised and diarised. A diary provides quick access to a schedule, so it’s clear what needs to be done when. This is useful for anyone juggling a myriad of different tasks and ventures like Meghji. One day you could be interviewing a case study and attending a press event, and the next might involve a trip away or a day shift at a publication. Either way, a diary tells you where you need to be and when — it’s just up to you to check it every day.
For Meghji, time management is also critical, which is why he doesn’t allow himself to get too absorbed online during the day. “As far as possible, I also only check my email and social media accounts at set points of the day, and then log out afterwards so they don’t act as a distraction,” he admits. “My phone stays in another room for the same reason.”
While his working week is a busy one, Meghji ensures he finds a few hours in his diary at the end of the week to keep up to date with his freelancer administration. “I set aside some time — ideally 30 minutes to one hour — to chase up overdue invoices and outstanding pitches, and then spend one to two hours fleshing out ideas for potential articles,” he finishes.
Tools For Tech Whizzes
While the tried-and-tested method of hard-copy notes is a favourite with many journalists, others are embracing the ever-developing technological assets available to writers. Online tools and apps allow journalists to access their organisational information from anywhere, which can be a vital tool for anyone, particularly those constantly on the move or working in different environments.
New York-based freelance journalist Rosie Hopegood swears by online portal Trello for keeping on top of her workload. By tracking her monthly commissions within the tool — which can log deadlines, checklists, conversations, notes, and attachments — she keeps ahead of her earnings and the work she is accepting.
“I use a diary to keep track of shifts, interviews, research trips, events, and so on; a running Word file of commissions and deadlines; and a simple spreadsheet for invoices.”
“I have a new column for each month, with a running total of how much my new projects are bringing in, and how many — if any — days off I’ve had,” explains Rosie, who moved to New York from London last year. “While this figure is very different from the amount of money that hits my account each month, because of the timing difference in when publishers pay, it is important for me to keep track of how much work I’m generating.
“There’s a set sum I like to meet each month to feel comfortable with my earnings, as well as a second sum that I feel pleased with myself if I reach.”
When it comes to managing invoices, payments, and tax information, Rosie continues to use technology. She is registered with FreeAgent, an easy-to-use mobile accounting app, that keeps on top of everything from invoices and expenses to day-to-day accounts and tax deadlines.
“I can’t imagine being freelance without it,” explains Rosie. “This is where all my invoices and expenses live, and there are handy charts that show my monthly earnings.
“At the end of the year, I use one of their accredited accountants to help put my tax return together, which removes a lot of stress. For a sole trader, it costs £19 a month.”
Plugging Numbers Into Spreadsheets
While we all have many different methods for keeping track of work, spreadsheets appear to feature a lot when it comes to invoice handling, simply because they offer a simple, non-time-consuming way of lining up commissions with their invoices and payments.
My freelancing Excel spreadsheet is achingly simple but has been my way of successfully tracking payments for ten years. Each commission starts off with the date of instruction, the publisher or publication, and title of work. Once completed, I assign an invoice number to the work — which also goes into the invoice I send off — along with the delivery and invoice date.
Once the payment is received, this date is also added into a separate column, along with any notes I might need to keep in mind. For some writers, including an expenses column, with notes on any expenditure associated with each commission, could be useful. Basic formulas add up my monthly earnings and my annual income. When it comes to submitting a tax return, I share this file with my accountant, who can then double-check any details directly from the grid.
Sampson finds that adding a traffic light system to her spreadsheets is key for keeping track of payments.
“My spreadsheet has columns telling me what stage each invoice is at: when I submitted it, when it was due, if it’s taxed, and the date it was finally paid,” she demonstrates. “Each Friday, I check the list and turn [the] paid ones green, due invoices amber, and unpaid ones red. Then every Monday (because nobody wants to hear from an unpaid freelancer on a Friday), I follow up on any waiting invoices with a polite email.”
However you decide to managing your writer admin, the best method is one that works for you. While there are many ways to use technology for organisation, you may find that simple and straightforward works best. Equally, with the growing number of apps and portals, the right method for you might just be waiting around the corner. There will naturally be unique attributes to how each individual writer stays on top of their work. When you find the method that works, stick with it.
Header image courtesy of 2H Media via Unsplash.
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Karen Edwards is the senior journalist at Journo Resources.
She focuses on practical, advice-led pieces on various sectors across the industry – feel free to get in touch with her if you have suggestions on what we should cover!
Outside of Journo Resources, Karen writes for print titles such as High Life by British Airways, Grazia and Metro, alongside digital platforms, including IndyVoices and Telegraph Travel.