Saturday, December 8, 2007

Serenity Question: Finding Serenity Insurance

A self-employed friend recently asked this question:

For God's sake, I've been a professional writer for more than 20 years now. Granted, I've only been doing consumer magazines for about 5....but still! Many of my articles are still keeping me awake at night with anxiety.

Any of you pros...did you eventually get over this????

I'm a perfectionist and a worrier. I worry that this will be the last story an editor will assign to me because THIS time, I won't get the right sources. Or I'll miss the important points they wanted. Or I'll do lazy reporting.

And I worry about deadlines. I never miss them, but I often feel totally overwhelmed by them even though I'm organized and keep meticulous lists--to the point where I'm thinking about work almost every second of the day and unable to enjoy hanging out with my kids.

I want to be a freelancer who ENJOYS the flexibility of the work and schedules, not one who is feeling more shackled to my work then I did when I was in corporate America.

Any advice? And I'm getting over bronchitis, too, which I often get at this time of year and when I working hard. Maybe it's the meds making me crazy. Talk me off the ledge??
Self-Employed Stresscase

Dear Self (ha!),

Boy, what self-employed person hasn't stressed about their work to distraction? It's kind of a hazard of the self-employment biz. But it doesn't have to rob you of serenity and time with your family. As I said in my last post, it's that drive for perfection (and perfection's unrealistic demands on our time and energy) that makes us both successful and robs us of serenity.

It is possible to get good sleep, though. I feel much less anxiety about my work today than I did as a full-time newspaper reporter. I think the difference for me is time and clarity.

As a newspaper reporter, it was always deadline time, and the encouragement I got to take my time and double-check things was always counterbalanced by the need for it now, now NOW! I know now that my anxiety was caused by failing to take the time to double or even triple-check things if I wasn't certain they were dead-on right. For me, if I know I've done that--and can remind myself I've done that--I sleep much easier.

As a freelancer, because I have to manage my own time more now than when I was a staff person, I've gotten clear about how much time each story takes. I break it into six sections:

--Marketing: For me, this is contacting editors and sending story queries.

And then there's the work involved in actually doing the assignment. In my field, I break it down to:
--Research: Online, in person, via books, it's whatever it takes for me to get a grasp of the subject matter and figure out which sources I'm going to contact. If this is a topic with which I have a lot of experience, it's quick work.
--Writing: I figure almost any story takes at least an hour to write, and many, if they're features, take about eight hours or writing, rewriting, and self-editing.

For most jobs, then there's quality assurance. In my case, it's:

--Fact-checking: For me, the stress of making a mistake is what kept me up at night, or woke me from a dead sleep. So I think of this as my serenity insurance. Even if a client has a fact-checker, I'll often call and double-check facts or ask questions about quotes if they are at all vague in my notes. Here, I need to pay attention to my gut:

* What's keeping me awake?
* What's causing fretting?
* Is it realistic?
* What can I do about it?
* Who do I need to talk to?

The more I do this, the more I find my gut is right on.

And the final step, after the project has been turned in:

--Edits: Changes, questions, etc.

Knowing this process and myself, I try to finish stories at least one day before they're due so I can fact-check. If I don't get it done in time to fact-check, I let my editor know that all the facts are true to my knowledge, but if they don't have a fact-checker, let me know and I'll fact-check it myself. Or, I double-check facts after I file the story and when it comes back for edits, I make the changes and let my editor know why I'm changing it. My clients love this because they feel they're getting high quality and, again, it's saving them time and stress.

And the final part that insures my serenity is to acknowledge for myself that I've addressed every reasonable concern I have. After that, I have to just remind myself over and over again that I'm not a mind-reader and any changes my editor makes will likely improve the story.

I'm willing to grow and learn. And I can't control what an editor thinks of my work. All I can do is manage my side of things and learn how to do my job better. This is key. I can make myself crazy with self-doubt. But I have to consciously decide against it.

And, frankly, I think you asking this question is a great way to get relief!

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