Podcast Episode 53: Get a makeover in a morning – very quick tips to transform your freelance business

Running a freelance writing business can be pretty hectic at times, and while there are plenty of tasks you know you should be doing it can be hard to find the time. In this podcast episode, Lorrie goes through some quick hits to boost your business in no time at all.

Show Notes

Boomerang for Gmail

Cam Scanner

ALBTM 51 – Essential Smartphone Apps For Freelance Writers

ALBTM 52 – Episode 52: The Freelance Writers’ Guide to LinkedIn Success

ALBTM 48 – How to stop your business losing money

ALBTM 50 – How to stop your business losing money


TED talks


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Hello and welcome to A Little Bird Told Me, the freelance writing podcast about the highs, the lows and the absolute no-nos of successful self-employment.

You can find us on the web at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com, which is not only our podomatic HQ but a hive of handy resources and past episodes. Every link and recommendation we ever give in the podcast – ever! – is listed right there, along with all the links to our websites, social media feeds and subscription options so it’s worth having a nosy!

Subscribing is so worthwhile, although of course I’d say that, because there’s a new episode out every week, with new advice and topics covered in every single one. We don’t scrimp – we can talk the hind legs off a donkey, even when we’re doing solo episodes like this one.

I’m Lorrie Hartshorn and this week, my usual co-host, the lovely Philippa Willitts, is busy working away while I share a few drops of writing wisdom with you all. She’ll be back next week, though, so stay tuned and subscribe if you’re missing her as much as I am.

This week, I’m going to be talking about freelancing quick wins. Sometimes, running your own business can be overwhelming. There are so many things you know you ought to be doing, but where do you find the time when you’re busy working your way through paid projects from those hard-won clients?

If your time is limited, you need to work out which problem area to tackle first. In this episode, I’ve helpfully – and you can thank me later by cheque or bank transfer – split out these freelance mini-makeover ideas into different categories so you can decide which jobs to go for first.

The tasks I’ve come up with should take no more than about 5 minutes each and that’s the whole point – pick and choose from the list and decide which bits to tackle first.

So the first category I’m going to look at is creating a better workspace. Now, when you work from home, you can sometimes end up a bit cabin feverish. You’re stuck in the same room day after day, papers and books higher than your head and just you and your laptop in the middle of all that chaos. It can be quite disheartening so creating a better workspace is a really good way to improve your state of mind.

My desk is cluttered
My desk is cluttered (Photo credit: Rich Gibson)

So, first tip: clear out the crap – yes, I’m not mincing my words! Clear that crap out! Clean the dust out of your keyboard and out of the window, clear the unneeded books from desk and on to your bookshelf, test your pens and throw out the non-working ones.

Second tip! Go paperless – mountains of paper are an inevitable part of a freelancer’s life, unless you’re a very unusual freelancer. One thing you can do, though, is take five minutes to go through your utility bills – gas, electricity, water, phone, broadband etc. and choose the paperless options. This can sometimes save you a bit of money as well – although maybe only 10p a month!

Tip three! I’m going to stop numbering these because I’m going to lose track. So, next tip: storage solutions. Find some that work for you. You might be lucky enough to have your own office, or you might be working from the corner of a room. Whichever it is, make sure you have storage solutions! So whether it’s those stackable boxes under your desk or – I saw this recently – a dish-rack on your desk filled with folders, as a handy little in-tray, or one of those vertically stackable in-boxes so you’re not using up all your desk space. Grab something that will help you keep stuff out of the way and you’re less likely to get frustrated by all the junk on your desk.

Next tip: improve your lighting. There’s nothing worse (OK, there are plenty of things worse but we love a bit of hyperbole!) than terrible lighting for your workspace. It’s bad for your eyes, it can give you a headache, you can’t see what you’re doing and it’s a bit troll-like. So spend $10-15 on an LED bulb for your work area and you’ve got a light that will save energy and money – about £20 a year on one bulb. It reaches full luminosity as soon as you switch it on, so you don’t have those ten minutes of bzzzzzzz that you sometimes get with fluorescent bulbs, and they’re super bright.

If you don’t fancy switching to LED, set up a nice desk lamp: buy one, grab one from the garage, stick in next to the desk and make sure you’re working in a well-lit situation. It’ll make a use difference, honestly.

Next tip: improve your seating – don’t work on the bed! We’ve all done it and it’s bad for your back and neck. Plus, you don’t feel work-y – try and get a proper seat. Invest in the best chair you can; if you’re a bit skint, stick a cushion on the chair to stop you slouching. After a few aches and pains, it’ll improve your posture in the long-term.

Next tip: dust and vacuum, or mop. If you have two minutes, lift eveyrhitng off your desk, dust it, vacuum the carpet, clean the windows – just improve your space. It reduces the risk of asthma, breathing problems, skin problems; don’t sit there dessicating like some horrible troll in your own filth! Get yourself a damp duster and give everything a good clean.

Now technically, this next tip isn’t about your work space but it is virtually. Clear your inbox! If you’re anything like me, you spend a LOT of time in your inbox. I actually only see Pip, my co-host, quite infrequently. While we can easily reach one another, we’re a couple of hours apart. But Pip is like a little elf that lives in my inbox – she’s always in there.

Clear out your inbox and it’ll make you feel so much better. Archive emails you’re not going to need again, Boomerang any you don’t need to worry about until next week (if you don’t know what Boomerang is, I’ll link to it in the show notes) and answer as many as quickly and clearly as you can in five minutes.

Second category of tips: Create a better online presence. Now this is all about managing your online reputation – making sure that when people find you online, they get a positive impression.

Tip one: improve your website – proof-read it, chop out unnecessary or lengthy paragraphs, add some testimonials in – get some from your LinkedIn, add a new plug-in that shows your latest tweets (new content will always help your website ranking, even something as small as a tweet!), add a course to your training and development list (if you’ve got one – or start one if you haven’t!). whatever you’ve done to improve yourself and your services, do shout about it.

Tip two – I’m back with the numbers again! I’m going to stop again, as well. Improve your LinkedIn – make sure it’s clear, easy to read and error free! Do make sure it doesn’t let you down.

Make sure that you’ve included some keywords and search terms rather than just thinking of LinkedIn as a CV. LinkedIn is a search engine, so that when people search for “freelance copywriter Manchester” or “professional proof-reader Sheffield”, your name pops up. If you’ve not linked to your website and social media feeds yet, do it. Because LinkedIn is a high traffic website. We’ve actually done an episode on LinkedIn – I think it was actually our last episode, so I’ll link to that in the show notes.

Next tip: improve your Twitter – the same applies when it comes to keywords: make sure you optimise your profile information. You’ve only got a few words to deal with – it’s not hard, you can do it in five minutes. Forget the deep and meaningful quote as your header – let people know what you do and which services you offer. You can still be eloquent and dedicate some space to showing personality, because that’s good, but don’t forget the obvious, which is who you are and what you do.

Make sure you link to your website as well – it’s so frustrating when someone mentions their website and there’s no link there. I get bored really quickly – maybe I’m fickle or maybe I’m just a normal online browser. If I can’t find the info I want very quickly, my brain tends to switch off.

Next tip: improve your Facebook, same as Twitter and LinkedIn. Make sure everything’s filled in and all the content is optimised.

Next tip: improve your headshots. Make sure the picture you’re using isn’t rubbish! Be smart, well-presented. Make sure it’s well lit with an appropriate background. Make sure it’s clear, not blurry, and that you’re not doing duck-face. I’ve seen duck-face pictures on LinkedIn – just have a nice, up-to-date picture.

My next tip is hide the crap. We’ve had ‘clear the crap’, now we’re on ‘hide the crap’. Google yourself. If there are any half-baked, useless profiles you may have signed up to but not filled in, see if you can remember the password, sign in and deactivate them. Or, if you want to keep them, fill out those profiles and add links in. Make sure you’re not linking back to your site from a dodgy website, though, as it’ll only do you harm.

Final tip in this section: comment on some interesting blog posts – this is a really quick and easy way to boost your online presence and drive traffic to your sites. Make sure you comment on some popular posts with real insightful comments. As Pip and I have said on here before, it’ll be obvious to the world and his dog if you’re just commenting for the back-links, so make sure you read the post and say something you’ve considered. It’s good to have a link back to your website so people can see more about you, but at the same time, “Great blog post – I said something about this on my site!” isn’t going to look good.

Next category: get new ideas. First tip: pick a new service to add to your offering. Maybe you’re a copywriter who could get into proof-reading; maybe you’re a proof-reader who could get into editing; maybe you’re an academic editor who could get into book editing. Diversifying your business can be great as long as you’re not spreading yourself too thin.

It could be something as small as press releases. Maybe you’re a copywriter who focuses on digital content, so blog posts, news articles, web content, research press releases and advertise that you know how to write them. And let clients know by email, too.

Coffee meeting [35mm]

Second tip: invite a writer or freelance you admire out for coffee – not in a sleazy or cheesy way, though. What I mean is pick the brains of someone doing well – someone you’ve seen and chatted to online, maybe. Or, if they don’t want to meet for coffee, see if you can arrange a Skype chat – and draw up some really insightful, intelligent questions you’d like to ask them about their success and just try your luck.

Next tip: sign up to some new email newsletters. As long as these aren’t clogging up your inbox, this can be really helpful for getting snippets of advice and information every morning or week and help to boost your ideas. It’s outside input in a job where you work a lot on your own. Emails are designed to be digested quickly, so it’s a good thing to do while you have your morning cup of coffee.

Next tip: listen to a podcast! Tadaa! You’re already doing this one, so well done. But seriously, have a look at our back catalogue, have a look at the topics we’ve covered – there are so many. There are also other podcasts; you don’t even have to listen to something work related – just get some human input, external contact and more fresh ideas.

Next tip: lie down on your bed – or even your floor – and have a meditate! Now this is one of the more artsy tips, so if you’re listening and thinking, “Mmm…not sure it’s a good idea!” then don’t do it, but you’d be surprised at what a massive difference it can make to physically remove yourself from your desk, lie down, close your eyes, do some deep breathing and pop some relaxing music on your iPod for five minutes.

Along the same lines, change your computer desktop wallpaper to a photo or saying that inspires you. Now, it’s pure cheese but if it makes life a bit more pleasant, then why on earth not?

The next category is get more money / clients. My first tip is sign up to PeoplePerHour and offer an Hourlie – what this is, is a set-fee project you can offer on PeoplePerHour that saves you the hassle of entering the fray and bidding for work. Now, I’m not super keen on freelancing websites like this. However, hourlies – I think – are a good thing.

Basically, you fill out your profile and say, for example, I’ll write a top quality press release and accompanying news story for X pounds. And if someone likes what you’re offering, they can click on it – there’s no negotiation, no bartering, you don’t have to compete with other people. Either they want it or they don’t; just have it there as another work option.

My next tip is to identify low-paying clients. Now there are two courses of action you can take, really, when you’ve identified clients who don’t pay as much as you like – decide whether to ditch them and spend the time on business development as you hunt for better paying clients or increase your rates.

Now, again, there are two options when it comes to increasing your rates. You can either increase your rate for that one client – which is often the way it’ll go. Or, if you don’t feel you could add enough to that client’s fee but you need more money overall, sometimes, a small increase to all – or several – of your clients can make a huge difference without one client taking the hit, but make sure your tiny clients aren’t subsidising your big ones! Big clients can generally afford to pay more than smaller clients. That’s not to say smaller clients aren’t worth it, though.

So yeah, if you need to increase your fees, either whack the increase in fees on one lower-paying client (and that’s not wrong – if someone’s paying less than you need them to, you’re entitled to ask them for more) or increase everyone’s fees by just a little bit, that’s a solution, although not every week, of course!

Next tip: check your income records and follow up on late payments by email. Pip and I recently did a two par episode – 48 and 50 – on how to stop your freelance business losing and wasting money and this came into it. It can be so easy to invoice people then forget to check if they’ve paid you. What I tend to do is pop a reminder in my calendar when I invoice someone, for a week after the deadline, saying, “Check invoice”. If you don’t do that already, start now – it’s a great way to remind yourself. If someone forgets to pay you £20 and someone else forgets to pay you £10, alright it’s not much, but it all adds up. Just make sure you keep your records up to date – even just in an Excel file – and tick off all those payments.

Next tip: check who last viewed your LinkedIn profile and email them to see if they’d like to connect in case they need a copywriter in future. This is a great way to drum up interest and dialogue: it’s nice to talk to people. It’s easy to connect on LinkedIn and never speak again. What I find helpful is to contact people who view my profile and invite them to link up with a bit of info on how we could help one another. It’s not cheeky – LinkedIn is a networking site, so don’t miss your opportunities on there.

Receipt (Photo credit: skittlbrau)

Next tip for bagging more money! Dig out all your paper receipts from your pockets and wallets. Using a PDF app on your phone (Pip’s recommendation of Cam Scanner in episode 51 is a brilliant one – check the show notes), take a picture of every one of those business receipts, send it to your emails, or your DropBox or Google Drive or wherever, and file them with your accounts so you can claim your tax back at the end of the year. It makes a huge difference – 20% return on all those expenses! – and you can chuck the paper away afterwards!

The next category is “get more time”. It seems to be what none of us has enough of: time. Start your week off by planning your week. You might think you can’t because you have to take work as it comes in, but you can plan the stuff you do regularly: clearing your inbox, scheduling social media, doing some exercise, having lunch – there are plenty of things you know you have to do that you can easily plan. If you’ve got work that’s already come in, schedule that. The time left over is what you use for new work. You might need to be flexible and shift stuff around, but if you try and do this every week, having a bit of a plan can just help to order the chaos.

Make a to do list and split your to-do list into days or weeks. Now, this week and the week before have been absolute chaos for me and Pip. We’ve been swamped with so much work. This is a Saturday morning and I’m recording this podcast, and I still have loads to do.

What’s really helped me this week is to take the huuuuuge to-do list and split it into days. It can be really tempting to have a huge to-do list, start at the top and work your way down, but it’s not the best way.

What it’s better to do is go through, find urgent stuff and stick that on one list. I did it on Thursday this week – I chopped stuff that wasn’t urgent and stuck it on the Friday list: it was mostly internal stuff like invoicing people, paying invoices, chasing invoices, sorting my accounts, social media. It’s all stuff that needs to be done but it didn’t have to be done first. I got all my urgent work done on Thursday and all the non-urgent on Friday. And when work came in on Friday, if it wasn’t urgent, I said, “Sorry, I’m busy today – I’ll tackle it on Monday”. And that’s sometimes what you have to do.

The sooner you can split your list into days, the sooner it looks manageable. If you start on a Monday, go through your list, see when your deadlines are. Again, it can tempting to say, “I don’t have time for this – I just need to get started!” but calm yourself down, have a cup of tea or coffee and some breakfast, and go through your to-do list and decide what can be postponed until later in the week. You don’t have to do it all now. Just having that stuff out of the way – pinned up on your noticeboard and ready to pull down (and be ignored for now!) – can really help.

Next tip for getting more time: outsource. If you have regular work coming in that you have a really good handle on, say writing three blog posts a week for a long-term client, and you’re swamped, consider outsourcing.

You won’t get as much money as you’ll have to pay someone to do the work for you – but the time might be more valuable to you, either to work on something else, do some business development or just have a break. I wouldn’t suggest outsourcing complex work because it’s important not to let your clients down but if you do the same kind of blog posts every week, perhaps consider outsourcing.

Next tip: put your out of office on – it’s amazing how much you can get done when your clients aren’t expecting an instant response. When you’re stressed, it can be tempting to think “I have to respond to all emails NOW!” but you don’t.

Pop a concise note on there about how you’re in meetings for the afternoon, and use the time to catch up on that big piece of work that needs your full concentration. It doesn’t do your clients any harm, either, to think you’re meeting with someone else, either – you’re in demand!

Next tip: go through your list of blog posts that need writing up (most of us have one of these!). Taking time to go through them takes time. You can’t write them in five minutes, but why not prepare for them by coming up with titles and images? There’s nothing worse than a blank page, so get yourself ahead of the game. Come up with titles and images. Images help to boost click-through rates – people love pictures, so get yourself on a free image site like Search.CreativeCommons.org (link in the show notes!), choose some really eye-catching images and pop those – along with a title – in an individual file for every blog post.

Type in there, “Image by [name and hyperlink]; used under a Creative Commons licence” and then you’re sure to give credit where it’s due and shave off five minutes when you come to write the post up.

Next category – penultimate category! – is improve your skills.

First tip: watch a TED talk or YouTube video. Have a look on YouTube. As Pip reliably informed me the other day, it’s the second largest search engine online. Have a look at someone inspiring giving a talk on something useful or interesting to you. Spend five or 10 minutes learning something new.

Take an online course – of course, you can’t take a whole course in five or ten, but you can always do a few minutes on a short course.

Sign up to attend a local seminar – lots of local networking groups have talks. In the UK, we have Eventbrite.com and I often go and have a nosy for things in my local area that I can just pop to for half an hour.

Same goes for eCourses or newsletters – sign up to those!

Next tip: add five new writing blogs to your Feedly (and if you don’t know what Feedly is, it’s an RSS reader that allows you to read all your favourite blogs in one place). If you want more information on apps that can be useful for freelance writers, why not go and have a listen to episode 51, which was Pip’s last solo podcast and is on that very topic.

Read a book is my next tip: get down to your local library and read a book! Books are great – hold them, flick through, get away from your laptop. It’s all good!

Final tip: follow five or ten fellow freelance writers on social media. This isn’t about copying people, or stealing their ideas – by no means should you approach anyone’s contacts or clients! – it’s about getting inspiration for your own business. See how they pitch, take a look at their posts and their tone. Think of it as watching the lesser-spotted freelancer in their natural habitat!

My final category is improve your customer relations – just wee things you can do in five minutes to improve your customer relations.

First tip: make a list of your clients and put a sad, happy or neutral face next to them depending on how you feel the relationship is. Look through the neutral and sad faces and see if you can think of things that can improve the relationships.

Second tip: send a useful link to your clients along with info on how it could help them. I spotted the news about Facebook changing online promotion rules recently, and I remembered a client saying they wanted to run more contests. So I pinged off an email with some information and got a really positive response; I’m offering added value.

An extension of this: prepare an informative document for your clients as a freebie. I was in touch with a client recently who’d never sent out a press release so I sent them an email about how to prepare and send off the press release I’d written for them. Now, you often find yourself giving step-by-step advice to clients without thinking about it. What you can do is pull the information out, generalise it, turn it into a PDF and send it to your other clients because everyone loves a freebie. It shows clients that you’re not just in it for the money, and that’s a good thing.

What you can do is save the information as PDF and offer it as a white paper on your blog, which might help to get people signing up with their details to your mailing list. There are ways to get more use from content you might otherwise never look at again.

The next tip in improving customer relations is just to ask them how they’re doing! Catch up on the phone for a chat about how the work is going and how they’re doing. Ask them appropriate questions about how life is. Be a voice on the phone; it humanises you more than an email would.

Final tip: take five minutes to thank your recent social media followers and ask if they need a writer – trust me, it works! I’ve won business from this quite frequently. Thank people sincerely for linking up and it can start dialogue as long as you add more stuff in there.

So those are my five minute mini makeover top tips for freelance writers. If you’ve got five minutes and you want to make a big difference to your freelance business, those little tips will do you no harm at all. Small things can make a big difference.

Habits are hard to introduce all at once, so just try and introduce one at a time – squeeze just a bit more out of your business, and it’ll make a world of difference.

So, it’s now time for the infamous A Little Bird Told Me Recommendation of the week. My recommendation this week is a list of free audio books on a site called Open Culture, which does what it says on the tin. It tags itself as “the best free cultural and education media on the web” and there’s all sorts on there. There are language courses, films, e-books, text books, kids education, video sites, something entitled “Life Changing Books” and the list of free audio books is over 500 long, so there’s a good selection.

What inspired me to start looking at free audio books was my relatively recent disappointment with Audible, who refused to engage with concerns of people over violent images appearing on their Facebook page. People put pressure on lots of companies, asking them to pressure Facebook to remove these kinds of misogynist, pro-rape pages. Lots of companies were really pro-active and Facebook have reviewed their reporting abuse buttons.

Bringing it back to Audible – big, big company – refused to do anything. They just weren’t bothered. Loads of customers engaged them but they did nothing. It’s put me off them for life.

Now, Audible is a great service but it’s also pretty expensive when all’s said and done so if you like to listen to audio books, why not try Open Culture’s list of free audio books. Good selection on there, great if you want to read a new book but can’t quite face another day in front of written words!

Another good option to try is Librivox.org, which is a project that aims to get every book in the public domain recorded and available as an audio book. And if you fancy a new challenge, you can sign up as a reader as well! It’s great for people with visual impairments, and for people who just don’t have it in them to read another written book. You can download all these files, subscribe on iTunes or elsewhere, and maybe listen to them for five minutes during the little meditation session I mentioned earlier.

So, that brings us to the end of this episode of A Little Bird Told Me – the freelance writing podcast to end all freelance writing podcasts! I really hope you’ve enjoyed this latest episode – if you have, why not go and have a nosy through the other episodes at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com. With me being a more bookish sort of person and Pip being a tech and social media wizardess, there’s bound to be something right up your street. And if there isn’t, let us know and we’ll sort that out!

Do make sure you subscribe – our episodes are weekly, and you’ll get a notification as soon as the latest one is out. Come and have a chat to us on our Facebook page or our individual social media feeds – we’re nice and friendly, so let us know if you have any feedback, questions or ideas for future podcasts.

In the meantime, I’ve been Lorrie Hartshorn, thank you again for listening and Pip and I will catch you next time.