4 Counter-intuitive Things Writers Should Do

I get it. In the world of writing, particularly in this day and age, you’ve got to get the words you want on the page and submitted as quickly as possible. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. Heck, the world is so fast-paced, they’ve even made a shorter version of Monopoly so you don’t have to pass go. (Don’t get me started.) If you’re a freelance writer, chances are you’re writing for companies, whether directly or indirectly. Companies tend to want things yesterday. So, you might be tempted to just open up Word and start banging out your articles. Don’t. A lot of writers are under the impression that planning in any significant detail is a waste of time. I used to, also. But then I did some timed tests and quality tests. What follows are the results of those tests, and an explanation of four completely counter-intuitive things you should do (and why they aren’t so counter-intuitive).

Outline

If you think outlining is a waste of time, I can understand where that comes from. I used to think it was, too. I mean most of the time I can write an article in the time it would take me to outline one. So why not just bang out the article and submit it, right? Because those articles are usually crap. I mean let’s face it, the only articles you ever sit down, churn out, and submit with hardly an edit is usually for a low-paying client. Said differently, would you ever take that approach for a $1,500 magazine feature? I didn’t think so. Outlining might take some time, but when you go to actually write your article, it goes much faster, makes more sense, is better organized, and is of much higher quality. But I know you want the proof before you try it out, so here you go.

The Research

I decided to write two sets of five articles to test this theory. Both sets of articles needed the same word count, the same amount of research, and took about the same amount of effort since they were both for the same client/project. The first set of five I wrote, I didn’t bother to do any outlines. These were the results:

  • Average time per article with editing, rewriting, etc. – 40-50 minutes
  • Average time researching – 30 minutes
  • Project/set time – 5.5 hours

As far as the non-measurable things go, I felt totally disjointed. I kept having to switch between screens, going back to my reference pages, flipping between windows, saying “What did they say about chronic pain in athletes again?”, “What was that system called?”, and so on. So I wrote another set of five articles, but this time I outlined them first. Here’s what happened:

  • Average time per article outlining – 10-20 minutes
  • Average time writing the article – 15 minutes
  • Project/set time – 3 hours

I felt completely organized and fluid, I knew what I was going to say, I could take notes as I was looking at the reference material, etc. The process not only felt more efficient, it clearly was more efficient. Not what you were expecting? Me, neither.

Track Your Jobs

You know what you need to get done, right? So why waste time with silly administrative tasks like tracking your jobs? I’ll give you a hint. There’s a reason most corporations have an administrative assistant. It’s the same reason the office falls apart when the admin goes on vacation. It’s because administrative tasks are crucial to functioning effectively as a business – and you are a business – yes, even you there in your bathrobe drinking coffee at 3pm…you, sir, are still a business pro because your business is to write. So act like a business. I mean, don’t buy a suit or anything crazy like that…but at least take the time to track your business.

When I first started freelance writing, I didn’t track anything. Of course, I wasn’t really even sure what I did for a living, it was more like throwing proverbial pasta at the wall and hoping it stuck. But even once I figured out this thing called freelancing, I didn’t track my jobs for awhile. Then I forgot about an article. Oops, one miss, no big deal. But then, I started realizing that without a method of tracking my work, I had no way to track anything else – income, clients, project types – and that was a problem. Here are a few reasons I feel taking the time to track your work can help you.

  • Tracking your jobs gives you a nice overview of what type of work you do. This can give you a reference point for future clients. If you’re pitching a client about gardening articles, why you can pull up that list of last month’s orders and say yes you have written about vegetable gardening and its many environmental and financial benefits. Don’t track what you do and it becomes “I’m sure I wrote about that before…”
  • Tracking your jobs gives you an overview of your income. This is actually important. Knowing what you’ve made, where you’re at, and what you’re projecting for the week/month is really important. If you don’t track these things, you don’t really know the state of your business, and then things go south rather quickly where your bank account is concerned. Ask me how I know.
  • Tracking your jobs allows you to get a picture of your monthly/weekly productivity, which is something else you want to know. If you’re looking at a week with a $20 earning over 3 jobs….maybe Facebook can go. *shrug*
  • Tracking is easy. It’s as simple as setting up a spreadsheet every month, or per project, depending. I do both. It’s the information you need to know about your business right in front of you in an easy-to-see, bird’s-eye-view format.

Time Tests

What am I, an engineer? Someone’s asking it. I can hear the snort of derision at the mere suggestion that you, a writer, would need to do a time test. Pipe down and sip that coffee, pajama man, I’m about to tell you why you need to do a time test, thank you very much. If you don’t know how much time it takes you to write an article, or outline an article, or compose a blog post, you won’t know how much time you spend doing things. If you don’t know how much time it takes, you really don’t know what to charge. If you don’t know what to charge, you become penniless in a month because you’re earning less than a guy begging for money on the street. Again, ask me how I know. 

So how do you avoid that mistake? (And trust me, if you haven’t made it yet, you don’t want to.) You do a time test. There are several ways to do a time test, but I’m a sucker for simplicity, so here you go. 

Pick an article topic. 

Set a word count. 

Get a stopwatch or use an online resource for one, or use your cell phone. 

Hit start, and start working. Research, outline, whatever you’d do for a normal article that you’d actually submit. 

When you’re done with the article, hit stop. 

Do this three times so you can get an average. 

See? Simple. Once you do a time test three times (I suggest using a 500-word article for your test), add up the times for all three articles and divide by three. This is the average number of minutes it takes you to write a 500-word article. I would do two sets of these timed tests – one for subjects you have a good base knowledge of, and one for subjects you’d have to research a bit. The latter usually takes a bit longer than the former. 

Now that you know how long it takes you to write a page, essentially, you can set your price accordingly. I don’t suggest charging by the hour for several reasons I’ll address in a later post, but at least you can use the time to judge how much you need to earn per article in order to hit your income goals. 

Alright, last but not least…

Learn

Yes, I want you to learn. You want you to learn. You might not know it yet, but you do. As freelancers, we tend to get an overview of almost every subject known to man because at some point someone needs an article on underwater basket weaving in saltwater oceans RIGHT now. But you should go out of your way to learn about topics that you don’t know much about. And – don’t freak out on me – learn about things you really aren’t that interested in. For one thing, you might have to write about it later, and you’ll have at least a general idea of the topic. Yes, it takes extra time to read when you don’t need to. Even takes extra time, sometimes, to do some reading after your work is over. But it can really help you in the long run.

I was going to include “Edit” here, but I sincerely hope we all edit our work as writers. If you don’t, though, then here’s a bonus fifth thing you should do – edit your work!

The bottom line is that some things seem to take extra work, but they can save you a lot of time in the long run. So if you’ve been thinking that outlining or tracking or doing some extra reading is simply a waste of time, you might want to think again! Hopefully this has helped you a little bit. Also, for a bit of shameless self-promotion, at the end of November I’m releasing my first eBook, finally. It’s called Building the Foundation of Your Freelance Writing Career: 30 Days to a Solid Start. I hope it will help beginning freelancers (and maybe some not-so-new ones) avoid some common pitfalls, oversights, and mistakes, and help set a foundation that can be built upon. I could have called it 30 Things I Wish I’d Done When I Started Freelancing, but I thought it sounded a little lame. 🙂

Some of the tips I’ve shared on my blog will be in there, but a lot of new ones will show up, as well. I’ll post the link here when it’s up on the Kindle if anyone is interested. 🙂

That’s all I have for today; hopefully it has been beneficial. Until next time, happy writing! And don’t forget to leave your comments if you have them (or questions).

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