Over 4 million of us in Britain are now self-employed – more than ever before. Worklifeblog is about sharing tips and techniques to make self-employed working work better. From decision-making to resilience, time-management to forward planning, find ideas here to make your life as a freelancer a huge success on your own terms.

Yes, and: taking my own advice

Great writing tips were the focus of this year’s Successful Freelancing session in Birmingham last week. As part of the Careers Cafe strand of the Museums Association conference, I’d planned to share good principles for working out your tone and style as a freelancer, your message and how to put it across simply. And as it turned out, I needed to put my own advice into practice immediately… here’s why.

A key idea of the session was the need for freelancers in museums and heritage to take a ‘Yes, and’ approach to work, life and creativity. I’d encountered this from Tina Fey, the comedian and improvisation expert, who in her book Bossypants tells us:

THERE ARE NO MISTAKES, only opportunities. If I start a scene as what I think is very clearly a cop riding a bicycle, but you think I am a hamster in a hamster wheel, guess what? Now I’m a hamster in a hamster wheel. I’m not going to stop everything to explain that it was really supposed to be a bike… In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents.

I do believe that if you take the ‘Yes, and’ approach to your work as a freelancer, you are more likely to find that obstacles become opportunities, and difficulties can turn into chances to build relationships. You are someone who helps clients solve problems, using your experience from a wide range of projects and institutions.

So this was all good. And then, the day before the conference, a book review I’d written appeared in the new edition of Museums Journal. The piece was about good writing in museum text – specifically art interpretation – and the need for clarity and simplicity. But through an editing snafu, now there was an error in the first paragraph, a mix-up between the word implies and its often-confused cousin infers. My article about good writing now contained bad writing.

If you are thinking ‘don’t worry, no one will notice’, perhaps you don’t spend much time on planet museums+heritage. When I arrived at the MA conference to give my session, the very first person I ran into said: ‘I was reading your piece in Museums Journal on the plane over’. He hesitated and looked suddenly shy. I said: ‘Did you see the error in the first paragraph?’ He said ‘Infers and implies? Yes, I was wondering whether to mention it.’

Professionally, it’s pretty important that my clients know my grammar and spelling are up to scratch if they’re thinking of employing me as a writer, interpretation consultant or trainer.

Yet that isn’t the whole picture here. Everyone makes mistakes. As we say in the TextWorkshop writing courses I give with Dea Birkett, everyone has a blind spot for some grammatical nicety or common spelling. In one exhibition for which I wrote text, somebody in-house consistently changed my minuscule back to miniscule so that the incorrect version eventually appeared on the panels.

And we are all still learning. I discovered the unexpected meaning of the word pulchritude only the other day. (Click it if you don’t know! You’ll be surprised.)

So how could I emerge from the episode with bruised grammar-ego restored, and also with relationships strengthened? How could I maintain my positive freelance tone and style?

I emailed editors at MJ explaining the problem but without assigning any blame. After all, they wouldn’t have changed the opening paragraph if they hadn’t felt it could be improved. I then suggested that if anyone wrote in pointing out the irony of the error, that we could craft a response together. Maybe we could try to make it light-hearted.

MJ responded immediately with an apology, offered to print a correction and change the online edition. I don’t think I could ask for anything more than that and I’m very grateful. In the end, instead of asking for a correction, I wrote a letter to MJ which will be published in the next edition. I hope when you see it, you’ll feel that I have captured something of the ‘Yes, and’ approach to freelancing.

I’ve also discovered an entire book about applying ‘Yes, and’ thinking to creativity and collaboration. It’s by people from The Second City theatre in Chicago, where Tina Fey trained. I’ll report back.


Finding your freelance strengths

The summer’s a great time to get perspective on life and work – that is, if your freelance schedule actually gives you any time off. I spent one summer holiday writing a book by night and playing with the children by day. I’d say it was memorable experience, except that my brain seems to have blotted it kindly from my consciousness.

Still, this summer is working out better. I have not only been away, and read a couple of actual novels, I picked up Are you fully charged? by Tom Rath. He’s better known for his title StrengthsFinder, an assessment tool designed to help you find what you’re best at, and then focus on doing that every day in your work. This idea of specialisation is very relevant to us freelancers, and I found the assessment of my strengths useful when I did it a couple of years ago.

The new book looks what the latest research says about how we can work at our best, both personally, and for the sake of the world, by being fully charged. Rath asks ‘what will you do today that makes a difference?’ – a question sharpened when we learn that the reason he asks himself this each day is because he has lived since the age of 16 in the shadow of various cancers that constantly threaten to return.

In our work as freelancers we have more latitude than most to explore our strengths, pursue new ideas and initiate new projects. It’s up to us to take responsibility for our own career – but no one can tell us what that must look like. We can define our own success, and books like these can help us find potential areas to explore.

Freelancers have an opportunity to gather and discuss this kind of thing at the next Museums Association Conference in Birmingham on 5 and 6 November 2015, when I’ll be running another Careers Cafe session. So, in terms of finding our motivations and strengths, what were the key points of last year’s survey and conference session? When I look back, several things emerge:

  • there are freelancers in all areas of museum or gallery work, offering their skills and experience
  • freelancing offers flexibility – to do a particular kind of work, keep particular hours or build a portfolio
  • word of mouth is the best source of work for most freelancers, followed by client recommendation
  • freelancers thrive on focused work, juggling projects and meeting deadlines to help their clients achieve a wide range of outcomes.