There are plenty of articles about treating your writing like a business by keeping business-like expense records and tracking deadlines and submissions. But how do you manage the performance of your business’s personnel — namely you, the writer? Thinking like a boss (and like an employee) can help keep you on track toward your goals, give you structure and help you evaluate yourself.
Start With a Plan
You know what your goal is: to win a contest, get a publishing contract, become a major bestseller or whatever it is you want at this time in your writing career. Some aspects of that goal may be out of your control, but you do control the steps you must take toward reaching that goal. Those steps are your plan.
Break your goal down into the major steps that are required — completing a manuscript, sending a query, entering a contest. Then break each of those steps into their components and assign them to a timeline with short and long-term goals. Put it all in writing so you can refer to it later. Think of it as a combination business plan/job description, with the tasks you need to accomplish and the milestones you need to reach.
Evaluate Your Progress
At most jobs, you have a regular employee review in which your progress toward your job goals and objectives is measured and your performance is assessed. You should do the same for your writing career. Think like a boss and look at your progress every so often. Have you stuck to the timeline in your plan? Have you accomplished the necessary steps? Do you have any areas of weakness where you need to improve? What kind of feedback are you getting from other people (contest judges, critique partners, editors or agents)?
Then think like an employee. Does your goal still reflect what you want to achieve? How is your plan working for you? Can you identify any steps that might be missing, or is there a different approach that you now believe would be more effective?
Based on this evaluation, revisit your plan. Incorporate training that targets the areas of weakness you’ve identified. You could plan to attend a workshop, listen to a workshop tape or read a how-to book. Adjust your timeline to be more realistic if you find that you’re missing self-imposed deadlines, or adjust your work schedule to better meet externally imposed deadlines. Add or subtract steps or revise approaches based on how effective your plan has been.
Finally, set new targets, extend your timeline and set new short-term goals. Then set a target date for your next employee review. To make the process a little more fun, attach a reward to your goals for your next review, then treat yourself if you hit your targets.
Vacations, Sick Leave and Other Time Off
One of the joys of being self-employed is total control of your own schedule. That’s also one of the dangers. It can be far too easy to decide to work some other time (that never seems to actually come). Or, if you’re the guilt-ridden sort, you may not be able to enjoy leisure time or allow yourself to be sick because you can’t get rid of the feeling that you probably should be working. That’s where having a defined sick leave and vacation policy can help. If you define what your work day is, give yourself a reasonable number of sick days and vacation days, then make a point of keeping track of whether or not you’ve worked enough for a day to count as a work day, you can hold yourself accountable to work while allowing yourself to enjoy time off guilt-free.
Each person’s time-off allocation will be different. Someone who writes in the spare time around another job may have to come up with one kind of policy for the allowed reasons not to write in a given evening, while a full-time self-employed author may have an entirely different policy.
When you have an office job, there are a number of other reasons why you might not be working during business hours. You may have off-site training, office parties or staff retreats. As an employer, you can give yourself the same benefits. Going to RWA chapter meetings, conferences and workshops could be considered off-site training. So might going to see a movie that fits into your genre or that’s based on a book in your genre (or that stars the actor you’ve cast as your hero — you can be flexible with this, since you’re the one making the rules!). Give yourself the occasional break during work time, deadlines permitting, for the equivalent of an office party. Go out to lunch, take some time to read a good book, visit a museum or do something else that recharges you and inspires you. A good manager needs that employees need down time every so often to remain effective.
A “staff retreat” is a great way to launch yourself into a new project. Set aside some time to immerse yourself in the world of your next book. Watch movies set in the appropriate time or place. Flip through research books and let yourself daydream. Listen to music that sets the right mood — all with fun food and drink, of course. At the end of a project, when you’ve typed “The End” and you’re exhausted from the marathon, it’s another good time to have a retreat, this time just to relax and unwind so you can be ready to take on the next project.
By acting like your own boss, as well as your own employee, you can set yourself on the right track toward reaching your writing goals, but you don’t have to give up the freedom and flexibility of working for yourself. Just be a fun boss who still expects you to get the job done.