Making a Living as a Writer: Applying the 80/20 Rule to Editors/Clients

I really connected to Lisa’s post recently about how different an experience writing for the same project can be when you change editors. Recently, I was reading the book The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results. This is not a writing book; it’s a business book, all about focus and productivity. But I found it applied enormously to my writing.

One of the sections I really liked in the book talked about the 80/20 rule, which I’m sure you’ve heard before. It’s the idea that 80% of your results come from 20% of your efforts. And I thought about the corollary, that 80% of your successful writing/editing assignments come from 20% of your clients.

So the trick is to try to work more with that 20% and to not spend 80% on the less productive ones, right? There’s an editor at a company that I work with regularly. It’s one of my most regular clients. But this particular editor, every time I try to work with her, the project either dead ends or takes three times as long as I project at the beginning. This editor and I are just not on the same wavelength. Most recently, I spent quite a few hours proposing topics for a project, including fleshing out topics she actually suggested. She later expressed concern that a topic was too complex for our audience age. I was confused, since she had suggested the topic. This kind of thing happens regularly when I try to work with her.

I’m not saying it’s her! I’m betting she has many writers who find it very easy to collaborate with her. But we somehow always seem to be at cross-purposes, slightly misunderstanding each other. I don’t know why. But I do know that, before this last time when I responded to a call for writers, I thought long and hard, because of our rather unsuccessful history. But I decided to give it one more shot. Long story short, after 5 or 6 hours’ worth of correspondence and research and proposing things, I gave up.

So one thing I’m going to do to try to be more effective in my for-money writing is to clearly identify my 20%–the editors I find it easiest to work with, whom I want to work with even more. And my 20% will be different from your 20%. But I’m going to spend less time pursuing work with my 80% and try to be an even more awesome writer for my 20%.

This approach is something that you can’t go out and do in 3 days to earn money. But if you’re building a career as a writer or editor, I think it’s worth thinking about. As you finish an assignment or a speaking gig or whatever, evaluate how well your approach meshed with the person who hired you. When you make those golden matches, do everything you can to give them the best work and the easiest relationship you’re able to, so that you get hired again. And for the not-so-golden matches, consider whether your time is better spent trying to make those relationships work or whether you should just find other clients with whom you just naturally work more easily.

Here are a few quotes from The ONE Thing just to give you the flavor of it, and here’s the link again to the book: The ONE Thing. I’m still absorbing the philosophies, like the idea of giving up multi-tasking! But I’ve implemented some major changes already this week, and I am seeing huge leaps in my own focus and productivity, so I’m hopeful:>)


About Laura Purdie Salas

children's writer, poet, reader, visiting author, speaker/teacher, mentor, copyeditor, freelance writer
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