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From the Periodical Writers' Association of Canada

Freelancer's Mantra:
Work Smarter, Not Harder

Kathe Lieber

Every spring, I conduct an interesting professional exercise. I take the Statement of Income I put together for my accountant (which usually includes 20 to 25 client names) and list my top five clients. Almost invariably, the top five account for about 80 percent of my income. And most years, three of the top five are names that appeared on the previous year's list.

What does this prove? It tells me which clients I should be nurturing. While I enjoy courting new clients, some of whom will indeed turn into regulars, I realized eons ago that, to paraphrase Shakespeare, "Those [clients] thou hast, and their adoption tried, Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel." (The original quote, of course, is about friends, and the speaker is Polonius in Hamlet.)

The key to keeping food in the fridge and a roof over your head is having a mixture of what I call "bread-and-butter" clients and "jam" clients. The bread-and-butter variety are the ones who count on you, which means that you can also (usually) count on them for repeat assignments. In other words, they call you.

It's much more cost-effective to keep on satisfying a regular client than it is to woo a new client, who may turn out to be a slow payer, overly demanding or unprofessional in the extreme. Save their bacon once or twice, and regular clients will go down the hall to accounting and scream at someone when your cheque is late. They may even (and believe it or not, this has happened to me more than once!) pay you in advance at the end of the fiscal year if there's a slight surplus in the budget. They will tell their colleagues, friends, and family how wonderful you are, and circulate your contact information. Bread-and-butter clients are pleasant, professional, and pay promptly - the three Ps, in my book.

"Jam" clients are great, too, but in a different way. You may get the opportunity to learn about a fascinating subject - and learning is one of the best parts of being a freelancer, n'est-ce pas? This type of project tends to be extremely intense and may involve unreasonable deadlines, but when it's going well, you're soaring on an incredible high. Alas, you may crash afterwards, when the cheque takes months to arrive.

So how do you get a mix that keeps you sane and solvent? I can't claim that my relative success in this area is the result of deliberate career planning - it's been more like happenstance. But here are a few pointers that have emerged with 20/20 hindsight.

1. Get some sort of regular gig

A column, a newsletter, corporate clients - if you have a couple of these on your roster, you won't starve. Your main asset here is your complete reliability. You may even be able to negotiate a retainer, which will give you what every freelancer dreams of: a modicum of financial stability.

2. Develop a sideline

I translate (French to English) and edit as well as writing. For some of my clients, I do all three. They think I'm absolutely indispensable. I'm not, of course, but I don't mind them thinking that!

3. Nurture your regulars

This takes us back to Polonius' advice. Invite your favourite client to lunch now and then (chances are, they'll offer to pick up the tab). Send them clippings you think might be of interest to them. Pick their brains occasionally - most people love to be regarded as information sources. If you haven't heard from one of your regulars in a while, call up just to say hi. I've had clients who moved on to bigger and better things and took me with them, partly because I kept in touch.

4. Follow up assiduously

When you file a story, it seems to disappear into cyberspace. If Montreal PWAC member Stephanie Whittaker doesn't hear back within a day or two, she phones the editor and says, "This is my quality control check-up. I'm calling to find out whether you're satisfied with the product I sent you." Most editors are "quite stunned!" she reports with a grin.

5. If you can't do the job, suggest a reliable replacement

Work sharing really pays off. When I'm super-busy and can't handle an assignment, I like to suggest a colleague, preferably a PWACer. I make sure it's someone who can provide work of comparable quality to my own. Every time I've done this, the client has come back to me the next time saying that so-and-so did a good job, but could I fit him in this time?

6. Be realistic about your work habits

I happen to be a fast worker (I know this because my clients tell me so!). However, I know my limits. Since my daughter is only 10 and I love hanging out with her, I choose to limit my working hours. I keep a list of current projects by the phone and check it before I say "yes" to more work. Amazingly often, if the client tells me on Tuesday that she needs the job by the following Monday, but I tell her I couldn't do it till Thursday, she'll decide that Thursday is okay.

So take the time to take stock. Make your working hours really count, and you'll be a happier, healthier, and (at least somewhat) wealthier freelancer. Working smarter can do wonders for your confidence and self-respect.


Kathe Lieber, a Montreal-based writer, editor, and translator, has been a "word juggler" (her e-mail signature) since 1982. She is currently serving as National President of the Periodical Writers Association of Canada (PWAC), which will celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2001. Her E-mail address is

Published in Sources, Number 47, Winter 2001.

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