What To Do When You Mess Up

Throughout the majority of my writing career, I’ve worked with long-term clients. Usually, my clients are business owners who need regular content for their blogs or their newsletters. We get to know each other fairly well. Lately, I’ve been diversifying a bit and adding in a few publications.

A few weeks ago, I pitched an article to an editor I’d never worked with. She liked my idea and gave me a rather short deadline. It was exciting because it was a topic that I love, and the pay was higher than

Perfection is over-rated.

Perfection is over-rated.

I’d expected it to be. I put the deadline on my calendar on the right date, but got it mixed up in my mind.

In case you are wondering how that is possible: The article was due on Monday, August 4. As I planned my schedule, I somehow thought the 4th was on a Friday. I scheduled time to interview, write, edit, and proofread on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Duh!

My subconscious, though, had a better grasp of dates than my conscious mind. I woke up in the middle of the night Sunday night — suddenly — and realized that Monday was the 4th, and that the article wasn’t started. Cue the panic.

I got up early Monday morning and went to work, cobbling something together. It wasn’t great. I wasn’t proud of it. In the email submitting it, I told the editor that since it was my first article for her, it would probably need revision. She responded that it was totally inappropriate, and asked if I could write something that included original interviews and was more suitable by Wednesday. I owned up to the mistake, agreed that the first draft wasn’t good, and said that I absolutely could send something better.

Feeling pretty good about getting a second chance, I went to work, contacting people who might be willing to interview, writing questions, and generally doing my job. I wanted the second attempt to be outstanding. And, at the risk of being a braggart, it was. The editor published it within 10 minutes of receiving it, and send another assignment the next day.

That is just one example of my many, many stories about messing up. Through years of stumbling along, screwing things up, and carrying on with life, I’ve come up with a list of things that help when you know you’ve messed up:

1. Own it. Confess. Admit that you screwed up. Honesty is the best policy, and you will really put some bad juju out in the universe if you try to blame someone else.

2. Apologize. Say you are sorry. You don’t have grovel, but once you confess the next thing to do is apologize.

3. Come up with a plan to make it better. Make some suggestion that may help remedy the situation.

4. Deliver superior results. If you get a second chance, as I did in with the new client, make sure you come through.

5. Remember: everyone messes up. Don’t spend time beating yourself up. Just do what you can to make it better and move on with your life.

Have you messed up in a big way? Did you recover? How? What are your best tips for getting past a screw up? 

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Doing the Right Thing at the Wrong Time

There are so many ways to procrastinate that look like work, it’s a wonder anything ever gets done. For instance, I have a friend who loves to market her writing, to talk to editors, interview, and put together outlines. But she detests turning those outlines into articles. She will send out an extra five letters of introduction, reconcile her finances for last year, make

I also take photos of flowers when I'm avoiding writing fiction.

I also take photos of flowers when I’m avoiding writing fiction.

budget predictions for next year, and scrub the toilet in order to avoid the actual writing part of her job. All of her procrastination activities are useful and helpful, but they are a good example of doing the right thing at the wrong time.

I’m writing a novel. I have a gap-ridden first draft, and am about a quarter of the way through first revisions. It has taken me about ten times longer to get this far than I ever imagined it would. There are lots of reasons it’s taking so long — from the fact I have to earn a living writing other things to being fearful. If you’ve been a reader your whole life, and you have a good idea of what good writing is, it can be terrifying to put your own work out there.

In any case, I find myself doing the right things at the wrong time constantly. Yesterday, during my scheduled writing time, I found myself wondering what categories I would use on Amazon when the book is completed. If you know much about self-publishing, you know that categories and keywords are critical because they are how people find your work, so choosing the best ones is the right thing to do. Choosing them when the book is only a fraction of the way to being finished is the wrong time to do it. I have also chosen an editor (who I will not be able to afford, barring a winning lottery ticket or other unforeseen windfall), and have discussed cover art with an artist whose work I admire. Right things, wrong time.

What productive things do you find yourself doing to avoid the hard stuff? Do you go with it, or do you exercise some discipline get yourself on track?

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“I’ll Take a Look at It on Spec”

The majority of my writing clients are regular clients, and most of them are people I’ve met. I work with several local business owners, and a few folks I met or found online. In any case, my invoices go to pretty much the same group of people month after month. Sometimes there will be additions, and sometimes clients will drop off. Now and then, I like to look for new work — either because I’m ready to boost my income, or I want to learn about a new industry, or I have a good story idea.

Recently, I decided to look for publications within a particular industry. I had some ideas for stories and wanted to see what the market was like. I identified a couple, called

It's nice to look at pretty flowers while pondering a difficult business dilemma.

It’s nice to look at pretty flowers while pondering a difficult business dilemma.

one, and learned they preferred to receive queries. I read several past publications then pitched three articles. The editor liked one of them and emailed me to say that she would “take a look at it on spec.”

If we were talking about a publication I’d dreamed of seeing my name in for years, maybe I’d feel differently, but my first reaction (in my mind only) was “I don’t work on spec.” But then I thought about the fact that this editor doesn’t know me. She would be taking a risk by assigning an article to an unknown. I offered to send clips in my introductory letter, but maybe she doesn’t have time for that. Even if she does have time to look at my clips, she has no assurances that I will turn in clean copy; there’s always the chance that my clips were cleaned up by some other editor.

However, I would be taking a risk by spending the time to write a good article on spec. It would, of course, be tailored to fit the tone and voice of this particular publication. There would be several interviews involved. It would take time and effort to do it right — time and effort that I could be spending on doing work for clients who know (and regularly pay) me, or looking for clients willing to take the risk of getting to know me. There are definitely two sides to this spec coin!

Ideally, I could offer this editor some kind of compromise, but I’m having trouble coming up with one. The publication is lovely, and one of the best in this particular niche. The pay is what I’d call average to low in the wider lens of magazine writing, but high for the industry. I’m opposed to working on spec — on principal, and because this is what I do for a living. It’s not a hobby. Getting paid matters. There’s the possibility of pitching the same story to several publications in case the editor doesn’t want it, but that doesn’t feel quite right either.

Have you dealt with this situation? What was your response? 

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Do You Wear a Mask?

When it comes to interacting online, there are as many opinions as there are people. You see words like “authenticity” and “transparency” tossed around, and there are discussions of privacy that deserve our attention. The fact is, we all wear masks all the time. You behave differently at home with your family than you do at work. When I was working as an office assistant, I wore makeup to work everyday and realized it was because I felt the need to hide a little in that particular environment. I’ve never had a job where I was 100% openly dava. (Except for now. As a freelancer, I’m me, through and through.)

This is one of my better masks!

This is one of my better masks!

Years ago, I started writing letters, by hand, on paper, mailed at the USPS to my parents-in-law. The idea was to communicate with them in a way I could control. They wouldn’t hear anything in the background like on the phone, and they couldn’t see my weird self like on visits. I could show them what I wanted them to see and share news they would like to hear. It totally worked, too. They went from not really liking me very much and expecting news of a divorce any day to thinking that I was a pretty good mom and we were a happy family (which was all true).

In a way, social media profiles are like my letters. People are showing you what they want you to see. There are plenty of posts and studies and articles about how Facebook makes us lonelier and Pinterest makes us less satisfied because we feel like our friends are doing better than we are, or that we can never have the kind of beautiful home or wedding or whatever that other people do. And, lots of people do only share the good stuff.

There’s this whole other group of people, though, who seem to use social media as a place to talk only about the bad stuff. People who share every little thing that goes wrong, and who ask questions like “Why can’t I ever catch a break?” or who share way too much about their family drama, or who complain about their jobs, or just whatever. Maybe it’s their way of combatting all those pictures of happy people? Who knows, but it sure is tiresome.

Then, there are some people who share nothing personal. Maybe they only share links, articles, and photos regarding one topic — writing, or music, or art, or cooking. Those people bore me in an entirely different way. I want to know what they think about those things, where they live, what their lives are like to some degree.

So, it’s a balancing act. You have to show some happy stuff, but also a little bit of bad stuff — but not too much. You need to share stuff that shows your interests and knowledge, but other stuff too. Then, bit by bit, you create an online mask that is much like your real self.

Do you consider any of this when you post on Facebook, or Twitter, or Google+, or wherever you hang out? Do you have a different mask for each platform? What are your thoughts on being authentic? Do you actively tone down parts of your personality when you are online?

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Diversify & Other Lessons from the Freelance Writing World

There are some pieces of advice that turn up ubiquitously in articles and blog posts directed at freelance writers:

One wide, deep income stream might be attractive, but can be dangerous!

One wide, deep income stream might be attractive, but can be dangerous!

  • Learn to say no.
  • Always have a contract.
  • Never stop marketing.
  • Diversify your income.

Smiling Tree Writing has existed as a business for about six years now (I think. It might actually be 7. I’m losing track!). I’ve had the opportunity to learn why certain bits of advice show up over and over again.

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about having a diverse income and what that means for me. Summer before last (the summer of 2012) was the lowest point my business has encountered to date (and hopefully ever will). My income was down to about $800 a month — a fraction of what my family needed. At that time, most of my income came from 2-3 regular clients and a couple of one-off projects each month.

At that time, I was reading “diversify” to mean that I should earn money from writing articles for publications, selling my own books, working with clients, and then create a few “passive streams” from things like ads or affiliations. My idea about what a diversified income looks like now is drastically different.

Back then, I was trying to diversify my income by adding more article writing to the mix. The majority of my work was with small business owners, creating site content, blog posts, and newsletters. I began sending out letters of introduction and writing for print publications, even if the pay was lower than it should have been. It wasn’t working.

It’s hard to pull out of that kind of downward spiral, and the thing that helped me was to take a job. It ended up being a short term thing, but it was exactly what I needed in order to mentally reset. In the year since, I’ve taken definitive steps to diversify my work activities, and have finally hit a comfortable mix.

I have two part time jobs, one of which is completely outside my realm of expertise and gets me out of the house for about 15 hours each week – I work at a restaurant 2 evenings a week. The other is a marketing job that I do from home for 10 hours each week. I got into marketing after going to https://www.springboard.com/workshops/marketing-career-track/ in order to fine-tune my skillset. Then, there is client work, which creates the bulk of my income and takes up the majority of my time. I also sell a few books, and am working on writing more with the goal of that portion of my income gaining significance.

Although working in a restaurant or as an hourly employee may not be the typical freelancer’s dream, it means that my income won’t suffer too much should any one client decide not to use my services. It also means that I have more flexibility to follow one of those other often-repeated bits of advice: I can turn projects down if they aren’t a good fit, without being terrified I’m making a financial mistake.

Now and then, I play with the idea of dropping a couple of clients in order to have more time to work on my own projects, or quitting the restaurant job to find more clients or to look for another part-time marketing job. This mix of work gives me options.

During that terrible summer of the downward spiral, it didn’t feel like I had many choices. I think that is why the advice to diversify is repeated so frequently — it gives you more room to wiggle. My particular working situation is also highly flexible. I can do client work in the middle of the night, we have been able to take several short trips this year, and I can make time to pursue personal projects (like writing fiction).

What piece of tried and true advice have you found to be of vital importance when interpreted correctly for your personal situation? Have you ever discovered any conventional wisdom that needs a bit of twisting to work well for you?

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