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Frances Peck

A Little Strategy, a Lot of Satisfaction

Photo by Dawid Zawiła on Unsplash

Now that I am officially middle-aged, I can say that the most pressing urge is not the need to buy a convertible or meditate under the moon or urinate (thankfully). It is the desire to Pass Along Advice.

Here is the top tip I wish I’d stumbled across when I was a novice editor/writer: Income matters, but so does job satisfaction. Be strategic about the work you take, and make sure that some (if not all) of it is work you actually enjoy.

If you’re thinking “Well, duh,” I salute you. You can stop reading. But if you’ve always thought that work has to feel like work, that it doesn’t matter whether you enjoy the 200-page final report from the Task Force to Evaluate the Value of Task Forces so long as you meet your deadline and get paid, then read on.

My first inkling that enjoyment might matter came about haphazardly. In 2012 I took a semi-sabbatical to write a novel. I handed my freelance clients to my business partners, covered the bills by continuing to teach (which seldom feels like work) and immersed myself in fiction.

When the year was up, I had the draft of a book. And zero desire to take back any of my clients.

Don’t get me wrong. In many important ways, my clients were great. They gave me steady work, they were pleasant to deal with, they paid well and on time. But the material! Most of it was dull, some of it stupefyingly so.

My second inkling came during the 2017 Editors Canada conference, at a session by Lana Okerlund (which later became an Editors BC seminar) on using performance measurement to assess your career. Lana suggested we evaluate our work strategically, measuring not just our income but variables such as how much we work, where our work comes from and how much we enjoy it.

It dawned on me during Lana’s talk that I had assessed my career in this strategic sort of way . . . well, never. My philosophy was basically: if you can squeeze the work in and it pays well, take it. Do you like the material? Is it interesting, creative, fun? Those were questions I’d never asked myself.

It also dawned on me that since my semi-sabbatical, I had somehow heeded those questions, albeit in an unconscious, non-strategic sort of way. Listening to my gut, I had left my former clients with my partners. Those clients would get better, fresher service from others anyhow. For a while, work was scarce. I spent a lot of time commending whoever invented the line of credit. But job by job, client by client, I rebuilt my roster, saying no to anything low on the satisfaction scale.

Now I edit and write material that I genuinely want to work on. If an offer comes along that makes me want to run, I run. Sometimes I worry about the economics of saying no. Then I remind myself that if I accept a job I don’t really want today, I may have to decline a fulfilling project tomorrow.

So far, so good. I have all the work I need. And I enjoy it.

“It’s taken me all my life to learn what not to play,” said the jazz great Dizzy Gillespie. #LFMF. Don’t wait most of your career to learn what jobs not to take.

Previous post from Frances Peck: The Story of Canadian English.

 

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8 Comments on “A Little Strategy, a Lot of Satisfaction”

  • Hazel Bird

    says:

    Great post, Frances. Thank you. Sometimes it can feel like a luxury to enjoy what we do, but it’s something we should all aim for, even if we can only make tiny incremental gains over time. They can add up to a lot! In my business analysis, I explicitly include a measure of how much I enjoy working with my clients so I can track this over time in relation to the amount of income they give me and the hourly rate I receive (if anybody would like to check this out, see ‘How to use bubble charts to get a snapshot of your clients’ value to your business’: http://www.wordstitcheditorial.com/blog/bubble-charts-snapshot-clients-value/). Thanks again for a thought-provoking post!

  • Good point, Frances. As editors, we are «handmaidens» to the authors and publishers, often uncredited or unsung. So at least we should feel that we’re enjoying the work. For me, a lot of the satisfaction is in contributing to something important, even if the day-to-day task is a bit of a grind. I take pride in being part of the team on a document or project that changes the world or our corner of it. (Yes, you can work on projects like that.) I have recently given up two clients — one because they were not in a position to pay my current rate (an unfortunate but inevitable reason), and one because I feel that much of my work is not contributing.

  • Thanks, Frances! It’s easy as a beginning editor or a freelancer to panic and think, «I’ll take any work I’m offered!» but this is a good reminder that fit is important. Editing covers such a wide variety of work, and we all have our particular skills and passions. That said, we have to explore things we’re not sure whether we’ll like or not sometimes too!

  • These are thoughtful comments. I agree that there’s a certain level of luxury in picking and choosing your projects, and it’s not always possible to be that selective, especially in the early years of your career or at times when the work arrives more slowly than the bills.

    Nancy, you make an important point about needing to get outside our comfort zone and explore work we’re not sure of. Some of my most fulfilling projects have started with a moment (or a hundred of them) of feeling seriously out of my depth. But I’ve learned that when my stomach falls like an elevator and I suddenly ask «What have I gotten myself into?» it can be the start of a great adventure that will teach me loads and boost my confidence.

  • Anita I. Jenkins

    says:

    Another fabulous post from Frances Peck. Right on, right on. A client once praised me for saying no to a job. She said that so many freelancers are desperate and take anything they can get, even if they are not really qualified or their heart is not in it. A recipe for disaster and a hit to your reputation.

  • Excellent post, Frances!
    I would add one thing that was a huge epiphany to me about 7 years into my career: until I really thought about it, I was acting on a *mistaken* understanding of what work I *did* love. I had assumed from the time I first thought of myself as an editor (which was already a few years into my career) that my preference would be to edit the kind of work I liked to read. As I became established enough to (mostly) pay my bills, I would tell people «Oh, I edit a range of things. I’m doing an economics paper right now; it’s the kind of thing that pays the bills so I can do an interesting trade book like the one I have coming up next month.»
    But a time came when I realized that I actually DID enjoy editing those economics papers much MORE than I did many trade books. No, I wouldn’t have read them for fun. But… I WASN’T reading them for fun. As work, they were satisfying: the authors were usually great to collaborate with (most were keen to be edited, respected my expertise, met their deadlines, and responded to queries); of the few that were suspicious of editing, I often was able to persuade them of its value–a HUGE satisfaction. The projects were a good size for me: took a few weeks each, meaty but not dragging on. The timelines were reasonable. The pay was good. And the editing problems were often quite interesting, and satisfying to solve. These things, I realized, mattered much more than whether I found the content interesting on its own merits. If I want to read a book, it dawned on me, I can … buy the book! (Especially if my economics clients were paying well!) If anything, it could sometimes ruin a good read for me to have to edit it. Some trade books I worked on, on topics I liked, made me miserable: cranky authors, tight schedules, low pay made for a poor work experience. I’d take the Task Force Report on Task Forces any day instead!
    Now, the factors that matter most in what work I want to do have changed over time, and will continue to do so, I’m sure. That’s what makes the occasional taking stock such as you describe so important! And the actual measuring (including my own metric of «how much do I like X aspect?») that Lana advises also crucial.
    Don’t *assume* you like what you think you will like (or should like, or like in some OTHER context, like reading for pleasure). Consider it. Assess it. Ask your gut. Do this sometime when you are NOT on deadline. I love Melanie Powers’s «Biz Retreat for One» idea
    http://meledits.com/how-you-can-create-your-own-solo-business-retreat/
    And don’t be afraid to make a change, starting with just saying «no» to something you’ve realized, however belatedly, you didn’t like.
    Ed’A
    P.S. Nancy, I do agree that freelancers early in their careers should be much more willing to say yes. You’ll find out what you like, what you’re good at, what’s out there, etc. that way. But as you learn those things, it’s a huge benefit to do as Frances says and *use* that information to assess and then guide your career.

    • Thanks so much, Elizabeth, for calling out my biz retreat idea. I’m glad you found it helpful! I’m actually racing to get all my work done this week so I can do another retreat this Friday all day—no client work, no emails. One of my ideas this time is to go through all my conference notes from the past few years and actually start to organize and implement those ideas. How many times do we take great notes and have good intentions but get swept up by work as soon as we get home?

  • Rosemary Shipton

    says:

    I’m one of those people who likes to have my cake and eat it too, so I try for a good balance between editing and writing in my favourite areas and those that pay better and have other redeeming qualities.

    I’m all for exploring work in new areas and genres that I think I will find interesting. The first project or two will require research and a slower pace for me, items I can’t charge to the client, so I’ll earn less than I would in my usual lines of work. But that’s OK – I’ll learn a lot and meet some fascinating new people. Sometimes I’ll take a leap into entirely new territory, and that can be very exciting. The best thing about our profession is that we never repeat ourselves – we’re truly engaged in lifelong learning.

    Thanks, Frances, for initiating this fascinating conversation.

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