Seven habits of highly effective freelance journalists

I have difficulty finding time to relax, freelancer Chris Hardwick says. (Photo by Sian Kennedy)
"I'll be honest: I have difficulty finding time to relax", freelancer Chris Hardwick says. (Photo by Sian Kennedy)

Chris Hardwick, a freelancer and contributor to Wired magazine, rocked out two popular self-help, time-management guides – the Four Hour Work Week and Never Check Your E-mail in the Morning – and broke it down for the average freelance journalist or writer.

Well, as a freelancer myself, I am often looking for better methods to save time and accomplish more. So, when I saw another noted self-help guide, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, was giving away a free audio-book, I nabbed it and put it on my Zune.

I thought I could break down Stephen R. W. Covey’s 1988 cult hit for you freelancers out there.

  1. Be Proactive — Well, alright Stephen, yeah this is important. A freelancer has to be persistent, but not annoying, be investigative, but not time-prohibitive. You’re on your own clock, and editors roll their eyes when they have to coddle staffers,  so you don’t have a chance. Check your Writer’s Market or use your contacts to get access to someone who can give the green light for a story you want, send that e-mail, but follow-up, one week or two weeks later. But what’s more, this is important for your sources. What’s your niche? Who are your top sources? Make certain you check in with them from with regularity.
  2. Begin with the End In Mind — What do you want to do? Why do you want to freelance? – money isn’t stable, no health insurance and other nuisances. What do you want to be doing one year, five years, ten years from now and how does what you’re doing now help that? If your dream is to be a political reporter, why not make inroads now and set aside the easier road of arts writing.
  3. Put First Things First — Here’s something I need to develop better. Stephen speaks at length about things that are urgent and important, urgent and unimportant, un-urgent but important, and things that are neither urgent nor important. Decide what’s what and do the urgent and important first, while making time for the important but non-urgent – for a freelancer, that’s those non-billable hours, like networking, Web-site development, etc. Categorize your tasks and be serious.
  4. Think Win/Win — Compromise? Freedom brings most freelancers, so there isn’t much interaction with compromise in Stephen’s sense, so unless we’re talking payment, word-count or speed, I don’t think this much directly correlates.
  5. Seek First to Understand Then to be Understood — Here’s a lesson for all journalists. When I was starting my reporting career, I had a couple experiences with not misquoting, but misunderstanding. My summaries or paraphrases wasn’t so accurate. I wasn’t really hearing those I interviewed. The technique to learn is, of course, talking to your sources. “OK, so what I hear you saying is that…” Don’t be afraid to seem stupid or, gosh, even repetitive. The secret is even the best journalists do this. I remember pretending I knew what something was because I thought I should and then failing to find much help online. My editor told me he didn’t know what it meant, so why should I? Stephen’s point here is to never assume you understand someone’s point because, chances are, you really don’t. So when your source says something, repeat it and ask if you understand correctly. Call them back – I’ve gotten some of my best quotes after calling back, when that source has had a chance to be with his thoughts on the interview and my questions.
  6. Synergize — Stephen’s talking quite broadly in his book, but this again makes me think of your sources. As a freelancer, or even a staff beater, those non-urgent but important moments of conversation, compromise and real discussion are really valuable.
  7. Sharpen the saw — This is to renew, as Stephen keeps saying. You have to keep learning. I think of those older or more established journalists who are forced into the age of new media. Some just want to hang on to the job, so they just say the words. But if you want to remain viable and competitive and challenged, you have to really learn, really develop. As you age, don’t defend the position you have, work to develop with it.

Any thoughts? Did you read (or hear) this book and have any different experiences?