Monday, December 14, 2009

Balancing Writing and a Day Job

A few writers are lucky to work at the craft whenever they want. For the rest of us who haven't been able to make the leap yet, we first have to put our time in at an outside job before we can come home and get back to our real work. Time management is important to any effective writer, but for those of us who have limited hours to spend pounding the keys, it's even more crucial.

This semester I had the added weight of my teaching gig, which was a real challenge. I had to hit the ground running since I was offered the job on a Friday afternoon and would start the following Tuesday! I had no idea what I was doing, and tried my best to keep up, but I had many late nights over the last few months where I wondered what I'd gotten myself into and when would I ever have time to get back to writing?!?

But I made it, which just goes to show that it does pay to be organized. Here's how I've been able to juggle everything--my methods may not work for everyone, but maybe they'll give you some ideas of how to manage:

Make the most of any, and I mean any, spare time. I'm talking nights, weekends, early mornings, and yes, even downtimes at work (or if you're totally swamped the entire day, use your lunch break wisely!) And don't forget days off (yes, that might even mean a holiday now and then.) That's time that you could be spending researching, querying, or doing some actual writing. Even if you only get to email that query, it still counts as productivity. (Obviously, never use your work email address for writing-related business, but you knew that already.) Early weekend mornings are my prime writing time, followed by weeknights. But really, I squeeze in some writing time whenever possible. I prefer a solid chunk of time to get bigger assignments finished, but will make the most of whatever time I can get.

Make friends with your to-do list. If you don't have a to-do list (and I don't know many writers who don't), it's time you started one. Or two. The list might seem a trifle overwhelming, but as most time management experts will tell you, start with the smaller, less time-consuming tasks and work your way up to the more demanding projects. Also, invest in a good planner. Or two. I can't seem to have enough calendars. I carry a "master" planner in my purse with all of my commitments listed, but decided to get a second one just for my writing-related activities.

Cut back if necessary. I had to scale waaaay back on my querying and didn't pursue many projects besides my regular monthly columns. Between my new teaching gig and the full-time job, I have to admit my writing projects took a backseat over these past few months. In a way I was glad that so many editors were slow to respond--it gave me the chance to focus on the other things. I have a few assignments on my plate over the next few months, but can see it slowing down again once the spring semester starts.

Conduct interviews via email whenever possible. There seem to be writers who are very pro-email interviews, and the others who are staunchly anti-email. I do prefer the face-to-face interviews whenever possible so I can capture the sense of a place or a personality, but sometimes in-person meetings just aren't possible. One of my favorite assignments from the past year was a straight-up interview with an author and forensic psychologist. The editor encouraged email communication, and she was only too happy to "talk" over email, as well. All I had to do was add some transition material so it sounded like more of an actual conversation and spice up my intro, and boom! A finished piece. I also try to schedule phone interviews with folks as late in the day as possible (some are OK with evenings; others, not) or, better yet, in another time zone so I can call them at my convenience.

Don't be so hard on yourself. I hated to cut back on finding new assignments (especially now that I've gotten better at actively seeking markets and finding new story ideas!), but there came a point where I simply had no choice. I was swamped between my various projects, my job, and still trying to have some semblance of a real life--besides wanting to spend the very needed "quality time" with my boyfriend, that laundry won't do itself, nor will those bills get paid on their own! So I had to let the writing projects slide for awhile until I could get back to them. You just have to set priorities and get as much work done as you can without sacrificing the other parts of your life.

What other tips would you share with part-time freelancers?


  1. Sounds like you're on the right track! I remember how tough it was to juggle a day job and freelancing on the side, but it also means you can (and should) be pickier about the projects you take on. I also used to make lists during my subway ride to and from work. Now that I have a Blackberry, I can use it to check email or catch up on my RSS feeds on the bus or certain subway lines.

  2. Susan,
    Thanks for your comment! I've been juggling both for awhile now, but it gets trickier--I'm one of those people who finds it hard to say "No" when any kind of good opportunity comes my way. I've learned that it's about quality, non quantity, and you really can't do it all...effectively, anyway. It's kind of nice to pick and choose writing projects--definitely a luxury most people don't find at a regular 9-5 job!