New year, new (writing) habits

Back in mid-December, I took the opportunity to visit Toronto and Montreal for a few days, meeting with friends and revisiting old haunts. It’s a lovely time to visit the big cities; all dressed up in their holiday lights and generally less snow and warmer temperatures than in northern Ontario.

In addition to prioritizing time spent in cafes, wine bars and one really excellent pizzeria, I also decided to take the train between the two cities, making good on a previous year’s resolution to create more dedicated reading and writing time for myself.

Of that many things that came to mind with pen, paper and a few good books in hand, was a reflection on the past year of my freelance work. And not just the various projects I worked on,  or the new clients I met and collaborated with, but the ways I am learning to navigate life as a freelancer.

Feast and famine

When I started freelancing in 2010 with some copyediting for a friend of a friend, it was mixed into my time as the stay-at-home parent to three children all under the age of six. It really wasn’t until January of last year, with all my kids in full-time school, that I really stated my intention to grow this “side gig” into my full-time career.

Of course, as any freelancer knows, January is probably the worst time of the year to make a declaration to dig in and dig up new work: the holidays close up many shops for several weeks, and spend down the last of people’s budgets. The slow start back to work in the New Year for many businesses often translates to several dry months for freelancers until new budgets and new projects emerge again in the spring.

Trying not to be deterred by my rapid immersion into the feast-or-famine freelance life cycle, I did what any industrious, A-type bookworm would do, and searched the Internet and my library for “how to survive as a freelancer”.

Not surprisingly, this returned a lot of information. Turns out there are a lot of things we can do for our professional development during the downtimes to strengthen our business and skills – not to mention keep our spirits up by keeping busy.

Spending downtime wisely: my top 5

What follows is my own list of standout habits or tools I have used to support and expand my craft and my business. Healthy habits if you will, that I took up last January to add some drive and structure to my slower working months. And that in the end, helped pave the way for some new business once spring finally sprung.

Tuning in.  I am a habitual late-adapter of technology … I literally just started listening to audio books in the car this summer (life-changing!), and finally opened up the Podcasts app on my phone to a whole new audio world.

Doing dishes and folding laundry, or taking a walk in the fresh snow, is now also the time I spend listening to other writers talk about the practice of writing or sharing their work. Two of my current favourites are Hot Copy (for tips and conversation on producing quality copy) and the Modern Love podcast from NPR, featuring well known celebs reading beautifully penned essays for the column of the same name in the New York Times.

I’ve also tuned into several free webinars about writing, editing and freelancing, including the ones regularly offered by Editors Canada and Public Works and Government Service Canada.

Following along. Twitter has become my daily dose of motivation – and distraction – for all things writing, editing and freelancing. Following the accounts like SFU Creative Writing, Storyboard and Editing Canadian English provides a steady stream of helpful (and often entertaining) tips, news, essays, thoughts, ramblings, musings and more.

I also subscribe to a few e-newsletters, including one by CBC Literary Prizes that delivers motivation and insight from other writers right into my inbox. Sometimes, I need that level of micro-motivation to remind me to just sit down and type. And yes, enter writing contests (and that if I ever get anything other than a warm rejection from, you’ll read about it right here.)

Hitting the stacks. In my opinion, nothing beats reading a good book to inspire and enlighten. A friend gave me a copy of Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art last winter, and if you haven’t read this, find a copy now. It is the kick in the pants from someone who has been there, and knows the creative demons we all wrestle with.

I also invested in a copy of the latest Canadian Writer’s Market last year, and made time to skim a few chapters of my favourite style guides now and again to keep things fresh in my mind on certain matters of editing.

Through a freelance coaching session, I also got copies of some writing resources from Renegade Writer. Of the many valuable tips and how-to’s, was a whole workbook on crafting the perfect query or pitch letter, advice that I leaned on when sending out handful of pitches last winter – one of which ended up landing me a feature article in Almost Fearless magazine last fall.

If you build it … The biggest project I undertook last year was finally launching this website. I agonized over this process, mostly because there seemed to be too much choice and no clear winner for everything from style to platform and even what content to include.

Thankfully, I had some friends in the know to turn to: my colleagues at Vincent Design walked me through the whole process and helped me set up my site.

(For any of you creative types in the same tech-challenged boat I was in, the process involves: getting a domain name, picking your web creation software and template, buying your hosting service and then writing and loading all your content. Oh yes, and then hitting that scary, scary button called “publish”.)

And don’t forget photos: I like for free stock photos, but be warned, this can be a rabbit hole of pretty distraction on a cold winter’s day.

Finding a village. Truthfully, I have yet to join a writing group of live humans, mostly because I am terrified of having to read anything I write creatively out loud and in front of a group (maybe that can be 2019’s goals).

However, I have not entirely ignored the advice of many other successful writers about the ways that being in a writing group can enrich your life and creative work: last winter, I did join an online freelance writer’s forum for a few months.

We met once a month over for informal chatting and Q&As, moderated by the organizer and covering everything from pitch ideas and tips, time management, budgeting and what fees to charge. The group is currently on hiatus, but looking back, I realize how much the conversation with those writers really got me through the slow winter months last year: sharing in the camaraderie of our self-employed, freelance experience was fun, motivating and supportive.

I recently noticed that CBC Books has posted the beginnings of a list of writer’s groups from across the country.

Food for thought for this year … or next.