Don’t Panic! Learn to Market Yourself.

So I had an okay 2013. Didn’t do worse than 2012, but that’s not exactly an inspiring achievement. Plus, the end of the year was pretty slow. Scary slow. So it gave me plenty of time to think about what I am doing and how I am doing it.

The majority of my clients are academic researchers and institutions. So I wondered if the slowdown in my workload is a sign that the drop in federal research funding has finally trickled down to me? Or is this just a typical down period in the cycle and there’s no need to panic? Not sure.

Either way, I think I have to come to terms with the fact that I need to market myself more actively and find new clients. For too long, I’ve been relying on passive marketing through my website, blog, LinkedIn, and listings on sites like AMWA and EFA. And I think it’s given me a false sense of security.

So I started with my current clients. I designed and sent a New Year’s card, just as a subtle reminder that I’m out here, if they need me. Still pretty passive though. But it is what it is.

I plowed through Rich Adin’s (An American Editor) The Business of Editing and I bought and devoured Elizabeth Fricke’s excellent book A Freelancer’s Guide to Business Success in Any Economy. I considered the possibility of trying to join existing editorial groups, rather than continuing as a solopreneur. I considered the possibility of branching out into copyediting. I joined the Professional Editors Network (PEN), the American Copy Editors Society (ACES), and copyediting.com to access their resources and network.  I set up coffee dates with local colleagues to discuss my options.

I also spent some quality time on LinkedIn, updating my profile, reaching out to potential new contacts, soliciting recommendations, and asking more pointed questions about possible opportunities. I searched through job postings just to get a feel for places that might use the services of a medical writer/editor.

Probably most importantly, I revisited my business plan for a long overdue update, particularly the marketing portion. This year, my marketing plan will include getting more involved as a volunteer and investing in a trip to the AMWA annual conference in October.

What am I NOT going to do? Dwell on the low points of last year. Take things personally. Panic. Not going to do any of that. Or at least try not to do any of that.

What I do

I have been meaning to do this post for a while, but finally got down to it after reading an excellent post describing substantive editing, and another post on the importance of building off your unique set of skills and background. For some reason, I’ve often struggled to describe exactly what I do, beyond saying I am a biomedical editor. There’s nothing wrong with that, it just fails to capture the nuance. I could get really philosophical about what it means to be an editor, but Rich Adin over at An American Editor has done a far better job at this than I ever could, so I will direct you to his excellent posts here and here. His characterization of the twin pillars of editing–mechanics and thinking–really struck me.

So back to my purpose. How do I describe what I do? Of course, what I do differs based on my client, so I will focus on what I feel I do best – scientific grant and manuscript editing. There are really several different levels of editing going on here.

1) Basic editing: Checking spelling and grammar, fixing awkward sentence structures, simplifying the language, and checking verb tenses and parallelism. This is a part of the “mechanics” pillar of editing.

2) Substantive editing: checking the flow and logic. How is the story being told? Is it clear what has been done and what needs to be done? It is clear what hypothesis is being tested and why? Are the right headers being used to help the reader through the document? Obviously this is part of the “thinking” pillar.

My goal here is to make the paper or grant proposal something that the reader wants to read, that the reader actually enjoys reading, rather than just skimming the abstract and figure legends. As a graduate student, I read many, many, many papers, but there were only a few that sucked me in because they were just written so well. There was a clear explanation up front about why the research was being done, each experiment in the results section flowed logically into the next, and the discussion put all the data in perspective, in the context of what is already known. I almost felt like I could see the authors at the bench, working through the data, designing the next experiment. Those are the papers I want my clients to publish. The same thing goes for grants – if anything is confusing or convoluted, the grant reviewer is going to pass it over. I edit grant proposals so that they are as clear and logical as possible, so that the reviewer immediately understands and appreciates the problem that needs to be solved, sees that the proposed aims will answer a clear set of relevant questions, and agrees that the methods used and people involved are up to the challenge.

3) Content editing: Another one for the “thinking” pillar. This is where my unique background fits in, where I can look at the experiments and the results and think about what conclusions are being drawn and whether they are being communicated accurately. Is the experimental design sound? What are the caveats? Are the statistics appropriate? Are the proposed experiments going to test the stated hypothesis? Have the data proven or disproven the stated hypothesis?  How do the data compare to what’s been done before? What are the implications for future basic or translational research? For research grants, I also draw on my background in promotional writing – will the science as presented convince the reviewer that this is a worthy problem (or gap in knowledge) to tackle and that the proposed experiments will provide the data needed to solve the problem?

4) Formatting: This also falls under mechanics – it’s making sure that the manuscript follows the journal’s editorial rules, and that the grant proposal follows the structure stipulated in the funding announcement. There are a ton of rules and regulations for preparing federal grants, and even more embedded in specific funding announcements.

So that is what I do…and now I can just direct friends and family here when they ask (hi mom!).

Diversifying vs. Finding a Niche

So a long time ago, I wrote a post on the importance of finding a niche. It’s important, otherwise you run the risk of overextending yourself, maybe taking jobs that don’t quite fit your particular skill set and getting paid relatively little as a consequence of climbing the learning curve.

However…

I have also been struggling recently with how to increase my income. I could raise my hourly rates, which doesn’t always work out. I could attempt project-based pricing. I could quit being a solopreneur and throw in my lot with an editorial group. Or I could find more clients and/or work more hours, which will inevitably lead to burnout.

I was also given the advice that I should find different clients. Hmmm.

Some history: I took a very gradual route to full-time freelancing. I had a full-time job, so the freelance gigs I took were like a bonus. Also, my day job was in content development for continuing medical education and healthcare communications companies, whereas my freelance jobs were in scientific manuscript and grant editing. Very different. Day job: big projects in medical writing with project-based pricing. Freelance: smaller projects in science writing and editing with hourly pricing.  When I switched to freelancing full time, the majority of my work became science writing and editing, billed hourly.

Every once in a while, I still do get a big project in healthcare comm, but for the most part, manuscripts and grants are my bread and butter and university researchers are my main clients. Even though I had settled in a niche, I also decided to keep my experience up on my website, classified by client and the types of services I am able to offer to each. Maybe deep down I recognized the value in presenting myself as someone with a broad skill set, but I am still hesitant to leave my “niche” and risk overextending my one employee. Which I have done in the past and I’d like to avoid for sanity’s sake.

Another factor is the current state of federally funded research. It’s dire. Scientists are being laid off. These are my clients. They don’t have a whole lot of money to invest in developing a grant proposal that is less and less likely to be funded. Hopefully that’s where I come in, to help them get it funded. But it can be hard for them to weigh the need to hire a grant editor when they are already struggling to keep their labs going. It’s not yet clear whether the current situation with NIH funding is going to drive business or dry it up. To be safe, diversifying is probably a smart thing to do.

Now, how to diversify without overextending? There’s a skill I really need to work on.

The Pricing Saga

I’ve been a full-time freelance writer/editor for a few years now, and a part-timer for a decade before that. Feels like I should have the pricing issues worked out, right? Nope. At the moment it feels as if I have hit a wall – pricing is tied to the growth of my business, and as a single editor, I have a finite amount of time. I have to make every hour count. So if I am going to have an income that increases with the cost of living, I have three options: bring in other editors who can take on the overflow; raise my hourly rate; or start using project-based fees.  I now recognize the need to address this issue or watch my income stall (or worse, watch my business wither away). Here is the argument that rages in my head:

1) The question of branding

There’s a great pair of posts over on An American Editor that discusses the pros and cons of staying a “solopreneur” or becoming part of a group of editors. I know this depends on the kind of editing you do, so I’m still working through this. Up to this point, I have been selling myself and my skills as my brand. Should I expand my brand to include other editors and their skills? But the bigger obstacle is administrative. I can’t even fathom how I would handle my projects plus management of other editors’ projects and payments. I would definitely need to hire some kind of virtual assistant, and then there goes any extra income I would have gained by becoming a multi-editor company.

2) The pitfalls of project-based pricing

I have this mental block against project-based pricing, particularly for editing jobs. I find it incredibly difficult to anticipate the scope of editing projects, and usually end up underselling myself. For those clients who have insisted on a project-based fee, I have run into two issues. The first is that my estimate is taken as the project fee, with no room to increase fees should the scope of work change. In response, I have started to produce incredibly detailed scopes of work for these projects so that I can give myself some leeway to renegotiate (and something to fall back on when the client starts asking for more than what the fee covers), but it has been a bit of a learning process. I also have to remind myself to stipulate that a portion of the project fee will be paid midway through the project, or with the first deliverable, or whatever. Otherwise my cash flow gets seriously messed up.

3) The icky-ness of raising rates

I am probably justified in raising my rates, which haven’t really changed for – I am embarrassed to admit – 8 years. The first time I tried to raise my rates, I met with so much push back that it put me off trying again for quite some time. In fact, it resulted in this particular client hiring me at the new rate but telling me to limit the time I worked on the project (so that the final fee was about the same). Ugh. Really? I am going to take your project, work on it for X amount of hours, and then, no matter what state the project might be in, stop working and send it back to you? Really? At the risk of losing a pretty regular client, I tried to work faster to get everything done in the stipulated time frame–showing the client they get what they pay for–but I am always anxious that working faster also means producing poorer quality work. Which is definitely NOT a precedent I’d like to set.

The most recent experience involved me butting heads with client’s HR and the “company policy” that could not be changed no matter how valuable my services might be, so sorry. Again, I backed off because the project was a pretty big one and I didn’t want to  miss out and wonder where I was going to make up the income.

Now, I realize that this is no way to run a business, particularly now that this business is my sole source of income. I hate rocking the boat, but I know that when I fail to negotiate, I may be perceived as an amateur who doesn’t even recognize her own value. The business side of freelancing is really doing my head in.

To raise my rates, I think the easiest way is to go back and look at all of my service agreements, find the ones with rates that need to be changed, and for those that are about to expire, renew at the higher rates. I just have to be confident that I will find new clients who will accept my rates, knowing that they are getting a quality service.

For the project-based fees, I need to write out exactly what the fee includes, and if the fee is low, then the scope of work will need to be smaller. I need to make sure that my time is spent wisely, and that my effective hourly rate doesn’t shrink down to ridiculous.

So there is the glimpse of the pricing chaos in my head. I really know what I need to do, I just need the confidence to be the savvy business woman who can do it.

Burning out and booting up

It’s been a while – I’ve been busy. That’s an understatement, actually. I’ve been swamped. Overloaded. Overbooked. Overwhelmed. You get the picture. I don’t know what happened, but my schedule somehow went bonkers. Either I need a better project tracking system (any suggestions?) or I need to remind myself more often how many hours there are in a day and how many of those hours must be scheduled for sleep.

After many, many days in a row with no break, and realizing that it’s not letting up any time soon, I am starting to burn out. Don’t get me wrong, I am definitely NOT complaining about being busy. It’s being too busy for long periods of time that ends up killing me. And in this most recent stretch, my laptop decided it was burnt out too. So there I was at Best Buy on a Sunday evening, one hour before closing, frantically trying to figure out if my laptop could be resurrected or if I could buy a new one and get it set up ASAP. I’m sure the salespeople saw me walk in, wild-eyed and crazed, and decided I was an easy commission – I think I was being helped by 3 different people at one point.

Anyway, I ended up buying a new laptop and rushing home to set it up and get back to my  two projects with deadlines on Monday. I got everything plugged in, and hoped that I could at least get Word up and running. I will spare you a full description of the hysteria and tears. (tip: keep all your product keys somewhere safe, and if you move, attach them to your person until you get to your new house and put them somewhere safe).

I will say that I’d like to join the chorus of other PC users and declare my hatred for Windows 8. It’s probably an excellent operating system for tablets. For laptops? Not so much. I feel like I am pretty comfortable with computers (I kinda have to be), and it took me at least a half an hour to find the control panel! Somehow I was able to find my product key for Office and could load that up, transfer over the projects I was working on, and finish them up.

The rest of the set-up process was laden with some award-winning profanity and several calls to tech support. It ended with a very frustrated writer who thought she was savvy with technology, but was now feeling like an old fogey. The only good thing about the whole process? Carbonite. It’s the best investment I ever made. Everything was transferred over to the new computer in 2 days. Even my Internet Explorer favorites. So it could have been much worse, I know.

Despite the technical difficulties, I ended up making my two deadlines, so that was good. And so far I haven’t let any clients down by being so busy. But when I get this busy, for this long, it’s only a matter of time before I drop a ball. And that’s all it really takes to screw up a freelance business. One ball.

Moving your business (not recommended)

So we recently moved – which means my freelance business recently moved.* Anyone who has moved can appreciate what a hassle it is to change your address for your utilities, your magazine subscriptions, etc. So I sorta figured that moving my business would also be a lot of work.

I. Had. No. Idea.

Beyond changing my website, my business cards, and my letterhead, I had to inform all of my clients and change my address with the IRS, the state dept of revenue, the assumed names division, the USTPO (for my service mark), the Secretary of State (because I’m an LLC), my registered agent, my insurance agent…it seemed to be endless. Add that to packing and unpacking an entire household AND my regular writing/editing workload.

Lesson learned: if you can avoid moving, do.

*This is actually a long-winded way to excuse my absence from my blog. It’s been a bit hectic around here.

Learning to write

It’s terrible to admit: I didn’t learn to write until I was in college. My freshman year at a liberal arts school was brutal – but by the end of four years, this science major managed to catch up. (Look at me now, Ma!) The difficult memories of writing tutors and tears resurfaced when I read an article in The Atlantic on teaching analytical writing in high school. Oh, how I wish I had been taught to write in high school!! All I remember is stacks of note cards I was supposed to assemble into paragraphs for English class essays. Despite my embarrassing beginnings, though, I decided to become a professional writer/editor.

Today, even though I consider myself somewhat experienced, I constantly seek out professional development opportunities–taking seminars, reading the literature, going to professional meetings–not only to stay current on the issues within my field, but also to make me a better writer. I recently took an online science writing course from Stanford that was offered through Coursera (along with many of my medical writing and editing peers). It would be an understatement to say it was a great experience.  I consider the notes I took during the class to be priceless, and I am amazed at how often I go back and refer to them in my everyday work. It reminded me of how important it is to return to the basics, even when I consider myself to be a veteran writer. I would recommend the first few weeks of the class to anyone who writes – not just those who write in the sciences.