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Home > Publications > Quill > Freelancing: You Can, Sometimes, Get What You Want



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Wednesday, June 14, 2017
Freelancing: You Can, Sometimes, Get What You Want

Freelance Toolbox

By Hilary Niles

“Unless you know exactly what you want, you’re sure not to get it.”

I could attempt to diagram that sentence. Instead, I’ll explain how this nugget of advice became a cornerstone of my freelance business — and how it can help yours.

Those words stuck with me for years after meeting a friend of my in-laws. Bill is a self-made millionaire — twice so, actually, having lost everything around mid-life and rebounding. I know Bill as intense, charming and generous. In telling me his story, he shared the secret of his success.

Perhaps the awkwardness of the sentence syntax is part of why it stuck with me. But more so, the advice resonated. It articulated in a new way something I had long admired in others and tried to cultivate in my own life: self-direction. A sense of agency. Firm rooting. Clear goals.

It was on my mind years later as I reluctantly realized my staff reporting position wasn’t satisfying crucial elements of my drive for journalism. I kept returning to those words as I grappled with the question: If this job isn’t what I want, what do I want instead?

“Unless you know exactly what you want, you’re sure not to get it.”

I knew I wanted to get it. But I didn’t know what “it” was. But I’m a journalist, a storyteller. We find and choose details that illustrate and symbolize the deeper concepts we report on. So I got to work.

I journaled. I talked with my husband, family, close friends and professional mentors. I compared options, breaking down the good/bad/ugly elements of each. I ignored what “it” might look like and focused instead on the values underlying my sense of success. Going back to the options I had researched, I checked off whether they got me any closer to the “it” I was after.

No matter where you are in your freelance business — successful and loving it, thinking of striking out solo, or somewhere in between — here are some resources I’ve found helpful in any stage. These may help you formulate a vision, bring it to the next level with an action plan, tap the collective wisdom of the SPJ Freelance Community, or simply find the camaraderie we often miss not working from a newsroom:

• “Lean” business planning is a pared-back approach in which you can invest as much or as little time as you’d like. The internet is riddled with this. I’ve found Tim Berry’s template at leplan.com helpful.

• A 12-month cashflow lays out the big picture of your financial cycles. SCORE offers a great template. I’ve added fields to mine to help schedule my editorial calendar around my cashflow needs.

On Your Own: A Guide to Freelance Journalism is an ebook written by SPJ freelance members over the years. It covers everything from introductory issues and business considerations to finances, marketing and other tools.

SPJ's Freelance Community is also a phenomenal brain trust. Our Facebook group is 550-plus strong, and we host occasional old-school, online chats about a variety of issues. Please join us and chime in!

If looking for clarity about what you’re after, here are some prompts to help you get started.

• If money were no object, how would you want to spend your time?

• If you could live anywhere, where would you want to be?

• Where are you “at” with work now — whether freelance or other employment? List specifically what you like about it and what you don’t.

• How much money do you actually need? How much do you really want?

• If you were to diversify your offerings — perhaps by working in different mediums — what would be the perfect blend?

• If you could focus on only one project, what would it be?

The clarity and support I’ve found from those resources and reflections have helped me stay firmly rooted in my freelance business plan. I've even turned down work when money was tight — because some “opportunities” are actually distractions in disguise, and if they lead you too far astray, it can be hard to get back on track.

I got to see Bill again last year. He beamed when I told him that his single sentence had helped me so much. He knew exactly what I was referring to, and even completed the sentence in unison with me as I recited it back to him. It turns out, that’s one of the first lessons he instills in anyone he mentors.

He then told me the second: Knowing exactly what you want doesn’t mean you’re always going to get it! Be prepared for disappointments. Just return to the drawing board when you meet them and keep going after your goals.

As freelancers, we enjoy latitude to chart our own course. Give your work the respect it deserves by staying actively engaged with your business. The more you do so, the more likely it will achieve true success — as a reflection of you. ***

Hilary Niles is a freelance data journalism consultant, multimedia investigative storyteller and award-winning researcher based in Vermont. She’s secretary of the SPJ Freelance Community, a member of the FOI Committee, and an alum of the Missouri School of Journalism graduate program. Her reporting has been featured in The Boston Globe and on Vermont Public Radio; NPR’s "Only a Game," "Here and Now" and "All Things Considered"; and the BBC World Service.

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