It’s hard to believe that I’ve been an agency owner for almost half my life. Last weekend marked the end of my time as an FTE for someone else. I admit at the time I thought I’d freelance for a while till I found my next gig. But I got and stayed busy enough that I figured I’d see how long I could go. Truthfully, I don’t know if I thought it’d be this long, but here we are.

30 things I’ve learned over 30 years

As I did for the 20th and 25th anniversaries, I’ve updated my list of lessons and advice picked up over my three decades in the business.

9 pieces of business advice

  1. Think like a business owner even if you aren’t one. I learned this vital lesson from Gayle Saldinger, the last (and best) boss I ever had. When I worked with her, she challenged me to manage my group like an internal agency serving the entire school. I had my own budget and other departments could come to me for help on projects in their budgets. Till then, I’d approached my work project-to-project. Now I had to think about our work strategically and make decisions that had the most impact on departmental and school goals and performance – rather than the squeakiest wheels. I learned how to evaluate projects, choosing the ones that advanced the School’s mission. I figured out how to maximize budget when we had to do cost-pricing because we were using state funds. I became an expert consultant and strategist rather than a writer or project manager – and got better results for me, my clients and the school. How can you think more like a business owner?
  2. Understand the difference between cost and investment. It's easy to focus solely on price when considering a new piece of equipment or conference registration. That's always a good place to start, but it's not the only metric. Some expenses are actually investments – purchases that create meaningful returns. (Jill James has a great rap on this.) Here’s an example: When most of our work dried up in the first quarter of the COVID shutdowns, we used the downtime to hone our skills and learn new ones. Sure, I was a little concerned about spending when things were uncertain, but I decided it was worth the investment to keep us engaged for a few weeks (who knew?!) and allow us to offer new services when clients and prospects were back in the marketplace.
  3. Learn to like risk. I’m not saying throw caution to the wind, but take some calculated risks, those safe bets that help us learn without too much downside. I’d been doing a lot of corporate training and a client asked if I offered individual coaching. I hadn’t thought of that, honestly, and it was something I was pretty sure I could do. So I did some quick research on rates and said, “let’s do it”. That calculated risk paid off and now writing coaching is a good revenue stream for me.
  4. Set boundaries. Just like fences make good neighbors, boundaries make good coworkers and clients. That said, I know it’s scary. We also set boundaries about missed deadlines from our clients. Every day missed pushes the project back two days (one for their day and one for our day to do the work). This helps them value our time and remember that they’re not our only client. It also creates an incentive to stay on track. It works! When I’m on vacation, I give myself an hour a day to check VIP emails before it’s back to relaxing. Don’t forget to respect others’ boundaries, too. Where can you set some boundaries?
  5. Don’t show off. It’s tempting to bring the full force of our awesomeness to every project, but the (somewhat controversial) truth is that being too much better often backfires. Rather than establishing your value-add, it makes you look show-offy and can make others feel self-conscious and resentful. Be just enough smarter, faster and better than your colleagues and your competition. It won’t dim your light – you’ll still be the best writer and people will like you better.
  6. Acknowledge your screw-ups. Own your errors and – for the love of God – don’t fall back on good intentions. In fact, read up on intent and impact, then apply it to your life. It will help you make amends more effectively and learn more from your mistakes. See an example of an effective apology.
  7. Call in and call out. I’m pretty outspoken and even I know I’ve let things slide that I shouldn’t have. So I’m trying to do better by speaking up when I see bad behavior, especially gatekeeping, erasure, bias, discrimination and harassment. The folks at RightToBe.org have a lot of resources and free trainings to help you safely and effectively intervene as a bystander.
  8. Balance being right with staying sane. Being right is overrated. Unless lives and livelihoods are truly in danger, you can often let things go without negative impact. Of course, you shouldn't sit idly by but if you express your opinion or share the correct perspective and it's not taken, think about if the fight is worth it. Because a lot of time it's not. I'd rather not use up energy and social capital arguing with someone who won't budge, saving those resources for when the stakes are high. So I skip it when the stakes are low and the issue is small. Let that go and you’ll have more impact and influence when it really counts.
  9. Make people look good. When somebody refers me or puts me on a project team, I add a priority to my to-do list: make them look smart for choosing me. Take a little more time getting to know the person and their relationship with the person who referred you. Publicly credit that person, too. It’s a tiny additional effort that’s a nice thing to do for someone who helped you out.

5 tips for professional and business growth

  1. Create opportunities. Don’t wait around for good stuff to fall out of the sky – make things happen. Here's what I mean: A good client moved to a new company and contacted me to say she'd like to keep working together. Yay! When she announced her move on LinkedIn, she mentioned she was building a stable of freelancers and asked for referrals. I immediately dropped her a line saying I had some former journalist friends who were available and could wrangle them for her so I remained the single point of contact for three more people. She was thrilled to have fewer freelancers to manage and I expanded my business. Keep your eyes peeled for opportunities to help you reach your goals or advance your career.
  2. Leverage weaknesses. Each of us has something we’re not great at. The key is to know that and decide to either shore it up (especially important if it’s in high demand) or not worry about it. If you choose the latter, make a point of getting to know people who are great at that in your organization or outside of it so you always have a go-to (see Cultivate connections). For example, someone contacted me about helping him with his memoir. I could have done it, but I knew someone who’d do it better and suggested he call Taylor instead. The gentleman was thankful – and asked me to stay on as editor and project manager. I got the work I was better at and he got a really great memoir.
  3. Give it away. Look, if you’ve got something akin to the original Coke recipe, or the exact blend of 37 herbs and spices in a KFC bucket, lock that baby up. But for most of us, what passes for “trade secrets” isn’t so valuable when it’s locked in our vault. All my writing strategies are copyright protected – and available for free on this very blog. Turns out, they’re a great gateway for business. In fact, last spring I was hired for a staff training gig by someone who’d been to a free workshop I gave 10 years ago. She’d held onto the strategy sheet I’d given away all that time. What can you give away to grow your reputation or revenues?
  4. Seek out other opinions and perspectives. Get beyond your bubble and engage with people who think differently than you do, have had different life experiences than you have, and work in different areas than you do. You’ll get truly meaningful insights and advice. This also extends to your network, vendors and subject matter experts. See my tips for diversifying your supplier list.
  5. Cultivate connections. Everybody loves having a go-to person to contact when they need a referral, a solution or a hand. You can be that resource. Look for opportunities to connect people who share interests, work on similar issues or have complementary skills. Bonus points if you make a concerted effort to suggest people who have been traditionally left out of the conversation or on the sidelines. Connecting people is a great way to raise and maintain your own profile, too. Have you written a recommendation for a LinkedIn connection recently?

5 tips to be more efficient

  1. Manage competing priorities. If you’re busy, you’ve got loads of to-dos that conflict and compete. Finding a way to manage them is vital to success and sanity. I used the Important/Urgent method for years and it was great for my individual effectiveness. But when The Word Factory added team members, I switched to “weighted shortest job first” from the Agile methodology, which I still use today. I keep a backlog of assignments organized chronologically by project increment. (For team projects, the granular list is posted in Basecamp for everyone to see, which is great because we don't have to do so much asking around about status). I evaluate the backlog items to choose the first three things I need to do for the day (or day part) and adjust as conditions change. The key is finding a way that works for you and evolving it as necessary. Want some help figuring that out? Sign up for a free 15-minute consult.
  2. Understand your velocity. Whether you're a salaried employee, a fixed-rate contractor or a by-the-word freelancer, figure out how long it takes you to do the recurring tasks of your job. I know how much time I need to pull together a 1500-word article, edit a 3000-word monograph, do a good interview, and create an issues calendar. This knowledge makes my day/week/month planning more accurate, mitigates bottlenecks, and helps manage client and coworker expectations.
  3. Establish processes. I’m an operations geek, loving all things process. I’m that person who plans errands in the most logical order and you don’t want to know the granularity of my party planning. Here at work, I develop processes to help us produce better work faster and reduce internal friction. We follow a process for revisions and fact-checking. We build templates for recurring projects, customized for each client's needs. We use Calendly for scheduling and Basecamp for project management so we can reduce cycles and focus on higher-level work. Process improvement and content operations became an area of focus for my consulting and coaching work, too. Reach out if I can help you!
  4. Be your own editor. Too often, we write something (a memo, a white paper, whatever) and just toss it over the transom for the reviewer, eager to get it off our plates. I get that. But before you do, step away for a bit and then review the copy to make it better. The easiest way to do that is to do a word count and then cut 20% of that. I know, it feels like a lot. We all overwrite, though. Just try it. Read aloud and find more opportunities for improvement. Doing this makes the work you send out for review better, which makes it easier on the reviewer and reflects well on you. Learn the nine revisions that make you a better writer.
  5. Fix feedback. Review is where good projects go to die. We waste so much time dealing with feedback that isn’t relevant or actionable. But it doesn’t have to be that way! Ask for the feedback you need from reviewers and ask requestors what they’re looking for from you. At the very least ask for/give specific guidance on what’s good about the work, what would make it better and what’s missing. If multiple people are reviewing at once, be prepared to resolve conflicting comments and requests. Learn more about giving better feedback.

6 ways to delight customers and colleagues

  1. Play nice. It seems ridiculous to make this a "lesson", but when I ask my long-term clients why they stay with The Word Factory "easy to work with" and "nice" are always in the top three reasons. For a long time, I thought that was table stakes, but not being a dick is, apparently, noteworthy. This doesn't mean being a pushover. But if you're congenial and pleasant most of the time, when you have to play harder, you’ve got lots of social capital built up and your concerns are more likely to be heard and taken seriously.
  2. Make life easier. We have a few chances every day to reduce drag for the folks we work with. Don’t reply all when you don’t have to. Give actionable feedback. Find ways to make less work for them. For example, I noticed that revisions from one client included underlined keywords and highlighted contextual links, so we started doing that when we submitted copy. It was hardly any extra effort, but the client noticed and appreciated that we saved him a step. These little things are how you build loyalty and create fans.
  3. Know what matters to your client/boss and their boss. Paying attention to the concerns, objections and preferences of your immediate supervisor or client helps you find ways to align your work with their priorities and provide more strategic value to the organization. When I onboard a new client, I ask about their priorities beyond the project and how this assignment relates to KPIs, etc. This strengthens our relationship and establishes me as a strategic partner, not just another service provider.
  4. Be reliable. Here's another one that seems obvious, but enough people aren't doing it because it's another thing our clients point out about us all the time. I keep my word as much as I can. And when I can’t, which legitimately happens, I tell the affected parties as soon as possible, providing new deadlines or an alternative source. This practice creates trust, which fuels loyalty and referrals/references.
  5. Say yes. No, not to everything (see Set boundaries). If you’ve done improv, you know that the way to keep a scene going is to say, “yes, and…”. It’s also an effective way to keep conversations going. For example, instead of saying, "no, I can't do that" or "no, that won't work" say "yes" as acknowledgment, not assent. You're saying, "yes, I hear you, and let's consider/do this instead". This tactic supports "play nice" and contributes to your reputation as a problem-solving team player.
  6. Check your work. I still can’t believe this is an issue in 2023, but here I am still talking about it. “Your work is so clean, we hardly have to do anything to it” is perennially one of the top three reasons repeat clients stay with us. I would have thought error-free work was table stakes for brand journalism, but apparently not. Ditto plagiarism. Recently, a client sent a note to all vendors reminding us not to plagiarize. Seriously?! (I wrote them back and reminded them of our standards and said we could take more work if they needed to let some of the plagiarists go.) The free version of Grammarly is far better than your word processor’s checker and I’ve noticed it's helped my coaching clients more because it explains why it flags something. The Hemingway Editor’s UI frustrates me, but it does help if you need to write to a specific grade level.

5 ways to take care of yourself

  1. Resist the temptation to stay on top of everything. Unless you really do like being an authority on the latest whatever, don’t feel obligated. I used to feel a lot of pressure to stay up on the latest everything. It was eating up so much time that I could barely apply what I’d learned. And I was stressed! So a couple years ago I canceled a bunch of newsletter subscriptions, stopped signing up for all those webinars and started focusing only on stuff that felt truly relevant to my work today and in the coming quarters. Scott Monty is a must-follow for me because his perspective and takeaways are always of value. Same with Jill James and Lily Zheng. This shift yields better ROI from the opportunities I take advantage of.
  2. Avoid sitting still. Changing positions during the day does have physical and mental benefits. Think about a standing desk (I made one from a bookcase) perhaps with a FluidStance, which I love. We also have a FitDesk in the office, which is great on low resistance for conference calls or at higher resistance for triaging emails or watching a webinar.
  3. Use your skills for good. Put your talents to use for the causes you care about. It helps build the organization's capacity or support campaigns. It expands your network. It feels good to do good. It makes the world better. Even if you don’t have time for board service or volunteer work, you can make personal care kits for unhoused folks you see daily, do a team community service project or find another way to support your community.
  4. Have fun at work. Whenever you can, infuse some levity and play. When I was working at the Grammys, we needed to deploy new error message pages to help users navigate the site during a re-platforming. Our team was super creative, so I did a jam session to brainstorm funny music-related images and copy. On a less strategic note, here at The Word Factory, we play instant jukebox, where someone emails out a theme or a band and everyone else adds a song to a Spotify playlist. We keep a bottle of sparkling wine in the fridge, ready to pop when someone has a big win. Have a doodle or haiku contest. How can you add some fun to your day?
  5. Take more naps. Nap time isn’t just for toddlers! I take a 13- or 19-minute nap EVERY DAY. It keeps my mind sharp and gives me a boost to get through a tough project. I have a YogiBo in my office and hop on whenever I need to recharge.

Whew! I appreciate your reading to the end.

I wouldn't have made it these last three decades if it weren't for the clients, colleagues and interns who made -- and continue to make -- it all possible. THANK YOU.

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