Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Workspace

Freelancer's Survival Guide On Writing

The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Workspace
Kristine Kathryn Rusch

In my introduction to this Guide, I promised that I would answer readers’ questions. In the last week, I’ve received a wonderful response, in e-mail and in the comment section here. Many had suggestions for topics, but only one person had an actual question.

My goal is to keep this Guide lively and interactive. So in that spirit, let me share the question I received from Dave Goodwin:

I’m about to move into a new home, my first place with enough space for a dedicated office. Since creating the proper setting is the first step of any project, would you mind starting with your advice on setting up a proper workspace? I could be the first real world test for your theories.

I’ve been thinking about this question all week, because it’s tougher than it sounds. As I said in the introduction, I want this Guide to work for all types of freelancers from plumbers to writers. Since I’ve owned or been a part of four retail businesses, and started two other businesses (not counting my own professional writing), I can help with more traditional businesses as well.

Workspace Outside of the Home
At lunch on Tuesday, I met a contractor who now buys and sells distressed properties. He sat at a booth in our local Thai restaurant, phone in one hand, printouts of retail listings spread across the table, and a legal pad at his side. His laptop, closed, rested on the booth beside him.

He had stopped for lunch in the middle of a very busy day. He made calls, talked to potential clients, and scanned properties while waiting for his Pad Thai. After the food arrived, the restaurant’s owner asked about the value of some property he had seen.

This question led to more questions, which led to a discussion involving me and my husband Dean. We learned a lot about the contractor’s new business. He spent his days examining properties on 100-mile stretch of the Oregon Coast.

He had three workspaces: his car, his home office, and wherever he found himself. Fortunately, in the 21st century, we can take the important parts of our office with us.
The contractor illustrates my hesitation in tackling this topic. Workspace is what you need, when and where you need it. Workspace varies from profession to profession.

Pam, a housecleaner who recently retired, came to her clients. She carried her equipment in her truck and billed the clients who required a formal written statement from her dining room table.

Thomas, a gardener, also comes to his clients. He has two trucks, an equipment shed, and a room in his house for the bookwork. Last month, he informed me that he had just learned how to operate a computer. Now his statements, which had been typewritten and minimal (Thomas does not like being indoors), have a modern structure, with a place for the current amount, past due amounts, and balance forwards. His estimate form can be customized. The new computer also enabled him to get rid of his fax machine since he has finally learned the joys of e-mail.

Sue, who owns a collectibles store, works at the shop from 10 to 6. While the entire store is her workspace, she now has a dedicated area for E-Bay. On one desk, she has a computer and printer. Behind that, she has a flat table so that she can ship items without bending over too much or reaching up too high.

Unlike most workspaces of the self-employed, Sue’s workspace provides no real privacy. She doesn’t dare hide from the walk-in customers who might buy something from her shop. Her computer set up also houses a security monitor system so that she can watch customers even if she is momentarily unable to leave her desk.

These outside-the-home workspaces have some similarities and many differences. The main similarity is that they suit the owner’s business. Pam, who rarely billed her clients since she got paid as she finished the day’s work, didn’t have a computer or a home office. She didn’t need one.

Thomas needs the home office to keep track of all of his (hated) paperwork. Eventually, he hopes to hire an assistant to help him with that part of his job, so he has designed the workspace with the future assistant in mind.

Sue doesn’t work at home. Her business has retail customers who walk through the brick-and-mortar store and retail customers who buy from her on-line. She has to accommodate both—and keep an eye on the inventory during business hours.

Those of you currently looking for work have businesses that most closely resemble the contractor’s. Your workspace exists in three locations: your home, your car, and wherever you stop. You need a cell phone and some way to remain organized on the road.

Very generally, then, what an office outside the home needs is this:

1. A phone. You must stay in contact somehow. Most of the self employed who work outside the home have cell phones. Many of these phones are sophisticated high end models that dispense with the need for a laptop. I know that Thomas synchs his phone with his new computer because he told me how much paperwork it saves him every single day.

2. As much privacy as possible. Midway through a phone conversation on Tuesday, the contractor (who was one of those guys who spoke too loudly when he was on the phone) said to the person he was talking to, “I’m in a restaurant. I can’t discuss this right now. I’ll call you back when I get to my car.” Sue’s E-Bay computer is in a cubby at the very back of the store. She can see anyone who enters the front door, but they can’t see her or her computer, unless they go all the way back and step inside that cubby.

3. The tools of your trade. Be they vacuum cleaners and dust mops, lawn mowers and clipping sheers, or a high speed computer with the fastest internet connection possible, make sure you have the right tools at your fingertips. I’ve seen small business owners lose customers because the owner wasn’t prepared to handle a problem or a new sale right at that very moment. Figure out what you need and be prepared.

4. Try, whenever possible, to design an ergonomically correct workspace. Those of you working out of your car can’t do this, but the rest of you probably can. Thomas uses earplugs and braces to keep himself in shape. Sue has a shipping area suited to her height, with everything in reach so that she doesn’t have to bend too much or lift too much. Treat your body well and you’ll work more efficiently (and you won’t get the kinds of injuries that often force the self-employed to retire).

As for the rest, I can’t help much for those of you working outside the home. Your businesses have such different and individual requirements that I’ll probably miss most of what you need.

Office in the Home

Most freelancers work out of their homes—or should. In the words of Randy Tatano, who has freelanced for NBC for four years, “The freelancers I’ve known who have had problems are the ones who set up fancy offices and buy all kinds of equipment. I’m sure you’ll have a chapter on minimizing overhead.” (Check out Randy’s website here:

In the future, I will have a section on overhead. But this is a good place to start. An office in the home saves money. For those of you who are afraid to take the office-in-the-home deduction on your tax return because you’ve heard that it’s a red flag for an audit, stop worrying.

If you follow these rules, you’ll make it through any audit just fine. (Please do remember, however, that I am not an accountant or a tax attorney, so any tax advice I give here is based only on personal experience which includes surviving two full audits and several small ones.)

1. Your home office must be a workspace only. Don’t store your Christmas decorations in the back corner, don’t put the exercise equipment in the center of the room, and don’t set up next to the washer and dryer. Your office must be a professional workspace, the kind you would have if you worked in a corporation. If you wouldn’t put the kids’ toybox in your office at your former day job, then you shouldn’t put the toybox in your office at home either.

2. If you must use part of the utility room (or the dining room) as your workspace, block your workspace office. When I moved to Oregon, I had a small one-bedroom apartment. I used part of the dining room as my office and walled it off from the living room with bookshelves. The office space, while tiny, housed a desk, my computer and printer, my chair, two filing cabinets and my bookshelves. I couldn’t see the living room from my office, and no one in the living room could see me. The only problem that office had was noise—I could hear everything in the apartment. Fortunately, I lived alone, so the noise problem was a minor one.

3. Figure out what you need and buy the best equipment you can—used. I have a custom-made desk in my office. My husband found the desk used at an insurance liquidator’s auction for $75. The desk is built for someone 5’5” (my height), so I don’t have to elevate my chair and put little blocks under my feet to sit in a proper position at the keyboard. None of my file cabinets, mismatched though they are, cost more than $25. Some were free, since businesses often junk the things that they no longer need. Remember that your office is not a public space, so it doesn’t have to be pretty. It just has to be functional.

4. Your home office needs a door, preferably one you can close. I didn’t have a door that I could close in that dining room office, but I could have rigged one up with a beaded curtain or a blanket. But you need some way to shut out the world, to let your family know that you are working and cannot be disturbed except, as novelist Nora Roberts used to tell her children, in cases of fire or serious injury (she actually said arterial bleeding, but I think injury is a bit more prudent). If you live with others, keep your door closed when you’re working. Open it only when you want company. Post your hours on that door, so that everyone respects them—including you.

5. Remove all distractions. I took the television out of my office when I stopped writing nonfiction. (It was a good thing too, because I’m a political junkie and in election season, I can watch the cable channels 24/7.) Take the games off your computer and anything else that might waste your time. (I finally had to ditch Garage Band from mine because it kept me from writing.) Figure out what your business requires and put only those things in your office.

6. If your business is not something like E-Bay that needs a continual on-line presence, then set up a separate computer for your e-mail and your internet connection. You can buy a good internet computer used (on E-Bay, in fact) for a few hundred dollars. It’ll be the best investment you can make. E-mail distracts. Most computers are set up so that the system pings when new mail comes in. My internet computer pings for e-mail, bongs for instant messages, and trills when my FaceBook page updates. Those little sound effects are hard to ignore. So is the temptation to research something when you should be producing. Make a list and research later. I’ll deal with these things in depth in a section on time sinks, but if you’re setting up your office now, find a space for another computer and use it for the internet.

7. The same goes for the telephone. If your business does not require you to use a phone most of the time, take the phone out of your office. Set times to make phone calls. Let voice mail pick up when you’re working and return calls later. The fewer distractions you have in your office, the more efficient you will be. The more efficient you are, the more you’ll get done—and you won’t have to spend as many hours at your desk. You’ll have more time for leisure or family or health (see the section on priorities).

8. Make hard and fast rules that help you become more productive. For example, I do not allow any fiction in my office except my own fiction. I am too prone to reading other people’s work instead of doing my own. No novel without my own byline crosses the threshold. For some reason, nonfiction doesn’t distract me, so I can keep all my nonfiction books inside my office. But fiction—forget about it. You’ll find your own time sinks. Ban them from your workspace.

9. One insurance point (and yes, I’ll do a section on insurance later, but this is important here): Get a business rider on your homeowner’s policy. Insurance usually doesn’t cover business computers in the home and often won’t cover any other business equipment in the home. So your family’s computer in the kitchen is covered, but your precious work computer, where you make your living, is not unless you spend an extra few bucks per month to insure it against disaster. (Also, if you have people visiting your workspace [your yoga studio or your therapy practice, for example], then you’ll also need liability insurance, with a multimillion dollar rider. People can sustain lifelong injuries just by falling down stairs. You don’t want someone to fall down your stairs and sue you for everything you own.)

10. Finally, make your workspace comfortable. Make it a place that’s your haven, somewhere you want to go every day.

Setting up your workspace is complicated, and you won’t get it right at first. You’ll have to re-evaluate it as you get used to freelancing and you identify what your needs really are. Be flexible. Try not to spend too much money. And make sure your workspace is yours, not someone else’s.

I’m sure I’ve missed a lot of points. Readers, please add observations, tips, and what works for you in the comment section below. Thanks.

Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Workspace copyright 2009 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

You can now order either an e-book copy of the Guide or a trade paper copy of the Guide. It’s in slightly different format and has been organized, so that related topics are in an easily accessible place.

You can get the print version here.

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23 thoughts on “Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Workspace

  1. I’m going to kick in an idea I’m experimenting with right now.

    Currently, my “office” is the kitchen table, because it was the most comfortable for long-term writing.

    Then I read this: (The title is “Your Office Chair is Killing You”)

    Yep, I realized that I was sitting on my derriere too much. So now I’m experimenting with no chair at all. I’ve got a stool on said table to raise my computer to typing height, and I’m seeing how long I can work standing.

    Logically, it seems like a good idea, but all I can recommend at the moment is some way to work standing as a way to switch up your routine, especially if you are prone to numb-butt-itis, as I am. I have yet to find a chair I enjoy sitting in all day, and I’ve tried quite a few.

    I also have some minor training in chinese martial arts, so I’m seeing whether this is a way to practice stance training and get useful work done simultaneously. We’ll see how it goes.

    This may be filed under multitasking, as in exercising and writing simultaneously.

  2. I’d like to comment on my office. I am a software developer specializing in iPhone development. We also live in our motorhome, so our house is wherever we are parked. My current office is sitting on my porch with a fire going in the firepit. My office view is the Siskiyou Mountains.

    Sometimes my office is in a Starbucks. And sometimes it’s inside the motorhome.

    A bit unique, but it works for me.

    1. Sounds wonderful, John. I’m not sure my husband should see this. Every now and then he threatens to sell everything, buy us a motorhome, and just drive. Sounds like you’re doing well.

  3. Regarding Item 6 you can tailor your noise environment quite inexpensively.

    I do software development telecommuting from home. Thus I have several computers sitting around with various subsets of them active at various times. (I also have some ham radio equipment for times I need to relax. It’s sadly underutilized of late.) That means I have several sources of beeps and boops and other distractions. I purchased a CHEAP (E-Bay used cheap) house mixer. (Twisty knobs are cheaper than sliders. {^_-}) The exact brand does not matter. The trick matters. When I do not want beeps I crank the source’s volume control to zero. I can still here the audio sounds from the development in progress, if needed. (Video usually has sound with it.)

    Then in a stroke of genius I purchased a pair of noise canceling headphones. They provide good sound. They block out external noise. And I can turn them off when I want real silence.

    It gives me a way to tune my noise environment, which is quite necessary since my partner is developing some fancy sound based software. It also helps with the noise generated by the room AC which protects the computer equipment (and owners) from overheating.

    You can tailor almost any part of your home personal workspace including the noise environment. If it bothers you or gets in the way of productivity – do something about it.

    I often leave one source of noise on. I have a separate computer that filters email. I used, of all things, the email filter program to play a special sound when my main customer sends email. So I leave it active most of the time with everything else turned off as needed.

    7 is a “more is less” issue. I have a cell phone I got specifically for special contacts. Then I have a land line I tell everybody else about. If it rings and I feel like some brief entertainment I pick it up. If it’s a marketer I get to exercise free range my imagination for the absurd and gruesome, “Call again and I’ll climb through this telephone and rip your throat out.” Then I drop the handset back into its holder, refreshed and giggling at the image.

    {^_^} Joanne

    1. I’m a ham, too – just got my DX rig. I’m temporarily sidelined from using it – I am hobbling around in a cast, while the doctor tries to decide whether it’s a tendon/ligament problem, or a stress fracture.
      Can’t climb the stairs to my attic shack, so…
      Fortunately, I have a lounge chair from which I can work on my laptop.

  4. Two points and I hope you’ll forgive the second one.

    First, buy a decent chair and then remind yourself to replace it every year or two. Office chairs that get used a lot wear out. Write it off as a business expense and give the chair to your kids or leave them at the curb.

    Second, I have an 11-part series on “Freelance Writing For A Living” on my blog that people reading this one might be interested. You can find the links on the right-hand side of the blog.

    1. Why should I have to forgive the second one, Mark? The more information we all have the better off we’ll be. I’m planning to check it out myself–when I’m not on a short e-mail break like now. 🙂

  5. Alas, working a 9-5 job allows me very few opportunities to write, but I do find them. I focus on getting at least 500 words a day so that I know I’ve accomplished something, even if it’s just an intro or a description. Fortunately, my job allows me to bring a laptop and I manage to get a few words in between calls. My evening are usually devoted to exercise dinner, and a little reading. If I don’t get my 500 at work, I will devote time in the evening to making the quota. I’m also very fortunate that my loved ones (mainly my boyfriend) understand I have to get that in everyday, regardless.

    It’s annoying to write in an office, but I deal. I put music on my laptop in case the lady in the row over gets too loud, but I always leave it low enought to catch an incoming call. Not the best space, but I make due. One day, I’ll have my own office, but now’s not the best.

  6. Kris,
    I was referred here by another freelancer, and just spending 20 minutes reading this series has given me concrete ideas. Keep writing ’em, we’ll keep reading and pass it on.

    1. Great, ZR. Glad to hear it. The support, in all forms (verbal, e-mail, comments, donations, forwards), will keep me going on this thing. Thanks.

  7. I too work on a laptop in a big comfortable chair with the thing in my lap. My wife bought me this product called a “Portabook” which attaches to the bottom of the laptop and lets you adjust the angle at which you type. It also keeps the heat off your lap, as it lets air flow between you and the laptop. I’ve noticed my back doesn’t hurt after writing like it used to, and I’m hooked on it. Best twenty bucks we ever spent.

  8. For many years my workspace was the kitchen table, my office two plastic crates full of research materials and hard copies of works in progress or in the mail. I used to work late at night and/or early in the morning to keep distractions to a minimum. (It wasn’t until my second sale that the children started respecting that Daddy sitting and staring at the cabinets, then typing furiously at random intervals = Daddy working.)

    When I needed all day to myself — as I did when the deadline for Wolf Hunters was bearing down on me — I went to Port City Java. Coffee shops are, I think, one of the worst places to work — though I know many writers who choose them. I was fortunate enough to find a manager who didn’t mind campers (even campers with a crate full of books & papers). I created my own workspace by sitting facing the wall, keeping headphones full of hot jazz clamped on my head, and wearing a baseball cap pulled down so I could only see my computer screen. Living on organic coffee, power bars, and chewable Maalox Plus, I churned out three times the words-per-day I did working at my kitchen table.

    Nowadays I have six file crates filled with source materials related to four game universes stored in what was once our eldest’s bedroom. Since that is now the family computer/exercise machine room, I work at the dining room table, bringing down the crate(s) I need. My writing schedule is about the same. I store everything I’m working on flash drives, which allows me to switch computers at need (there are two family computers and a day-jb laptop at my disposal) and every week or so I burn a CD, which I leave at my day-job office.

    What I need more than a private space — though I wish I had one — is an internet-free writing-only computer. A few hundred dollars is a cheap investment, I know, but I keep blowing my funds trying to pay down my truly insane debt-to-income ratio. Though it’s more a time sink than workspace issue, the internet (and my need to research just one more fact) is the biggest single hindrance to my production. (Note: It’s midday as I type this; I am not here during my writing time.)

    In one of your husband’s columns, Dean mentioned getting over the idea that one must have certain conditions in order to write. He particularly warned against not writing just because you don’t have your computer — write by hand in a notebook and transcribe later. I’m trying to teach myself to do this (or reteach myself — that’s how I wrote before I had a laptop). In the meantime I carry my laptop and one or two game-related source books with me wherever I go because I never know when I’ll have some down time I can commit to writing.

  9. I think Kris’s point about your workspace being for work — in the case of writers, especially — is of prime importance. It can be a walk-in closet, or a converted tool shed or a corner in the bedroom — all of which I’ve had for my office — but when you go there, it is for the purpose of work. Yeah, yeah, you’ll get on the net or the phone or otherwise sharpen pencils, but you have to *protect* the space. By which I mean, if Mommy or Daddy go their office, then that means they are *working,* and not on-call for anything that comes up unless there is no other way to deal with it.

    The universe doesn’t like to see a writer happily tapping away at her keyboard. It will throw stuff at you.

    If you can only manage an hour, then it should be *your* hour, and you aren’t going to do laundry or dishes or feed the cat.
    ‘Cause if you don’t make it clear, you may rest assured that somebody or some thing will require your attention.

    There is always something you can do instead of writing. Always.
    Whether you do it by time or pages, you need to keep that space as inviolate as you possibly can. Yes, there will always be exceptions, but if you don’t fight for the time and space, you’ll lose both.

  10. Thanks for doing this, Kris!

    I’m a writer. I’m interested in what you say about ergonomics. I have a great home office but I almost never work in it. I work with a laptop on my legs in a big leather chair in my front room, where it’s warm and filled with light and open and the center of everything in my house. The chair is very comfortable. But as I get older, I think it’s too comfortable. Over the course of a few hours, I slide down in it until I am working on my laptop as if lying in bed. Any tips for what to look for in a better chair? Or who to ask?

    1. Cindie, first, I’d move around more if I were you. Get up once an hour, do a few stretches. Are you getting stiff? Having soreness problems? If not, then don’t worry about the chair. If the chair is hurting you, you do have to move somewhere else or get a new chair. I don’t know how to go about getting one (except the furniture store), so if anyone has any ideas, feel free to help out Cindie. Kris

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