Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Continuing Education (Networking Part Two)
Artwork donated by Pati Nagle.
The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Continuing Education (Networking Part Two)
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
It’s interesting for me to write the Guide as I have. In two more posts, I will have been writing this for a year. However, I haven’t spent the entire year on it. I’ve written two novels while doing the Guide and a number of short stories, as well as other pieces of nonfiction.
As I mentioned last week, I’m writing these networking posts while Dean and I are conducting a writing workshop. Technically, I’m not conducting much. I spoke on the first night, and I’ve been there for several meals. Dean’s done 99% of the work, as he does on a number of these workshops.
But I do a lot of networking while they’re going on. The writers who come to our workshops are mostly professionals, so they have contacts and ties and various things happening in their careers. For this workshop, Denise Little of Tekno Books kindly joins us, and she brings her unique perspective, not just to the workshops, but also to the casual discussions.
Dean will tell you, with disgust, that most of my conversations at these things revolve around books, television, movies, and cats. Not books that people are working on—books we’ve read. (I’d talk politics, but we learned long ago to ban that topic from our workshops, along with religion.) He’s right: my tables at the dinners usually focus on peripheral things. But mixed with those important discussions of cat health and the latest hot TV show are tidbits about writing, writers, business, and professionalism.
If we only discussed writing and writing-related business, we’d get bored with each other pretty quickly. The fact that we do talk about other things slowly builds friendships and friendships are an important part of networking.
I know some of you are wondering how long this workshop is going on. After all, I mentioned it in last week’s post. By the time you read this, the workshop will have ended days before. But I’ll be referring to it this week and next as if it were still on-going, because, from my perspective it is.
I’m writing the next two posts during the workshop because I’m about to dive into another novel. Unlike the previous two, this one has already informed me (yes, novels talk to their creators—or at least, my novels talk to me) that it wants to be the only thing I write. Apparently, my subconscious knows I need to focus—and focus hard—on this book to do it right.
I’ve learned, over the years, to listen to that. Rather than get annoyed at the Guide, I’m going to write ahead. I’m teaching another workshop in March, and won’t have time to write fiction then. So I’ll write another batch of posts during that full week.
I’m telling you this partly to show process (because some of you have said you were interested) and partly so that you’ll know why my references seem so screwy in the next few weeks. Or perhaps I should say, screwier than usual…
Rather than title these posts “Part One,” “Part Two,” and “Part Three,” as I have in the past, I’m going to give them actual titles, and then include the part number in parenthesis, as I did above. The reason for this is that the various forms of networking are vastly different, and I can see that some sections will have subheadings of subheadings.
(Can I get more baroque? Um, well, yes….)
Anyway, I’m starting with continuing education because that’s what’s happening around here this week. We’re teaching continuing education classes for professional writers. We’re doing one as I write this (or rather, Dean and Denise are) and we’ll do another in March. (On marketing. Here’s the link.)
Dean and I often say to writers that money should flow to the writer, except for continuing education. In that area, the writer needs to spend money to expand her horizons. I think that’s true of most professions, although I’m not entirely certain. I know that some professions require an annual fee to remain current—dues of some kind—and others require an annual fee plus proof of continuing education (certain medical professions, for example [and thank heavens for that!]).
The reason we have to tell writers that money should flow to them and not away from them is that in writing (and I suspect many of the arts professions), scam artists have learned that the practitioners know little about business. It’s easy to convince a young professional writer or a wannabe to spend money on something that the writer should either get for free or should be paid for.
For more on that subject, see Dean’s Killing The Sacred Cows of Publishing posts and the other writing posts on his website.
Suffice to say, though, that the professional should continually update her knowledge in one way or another—whether it’s at formal classes provided through the bar association or through a continuing education track at a university, or whether it’s in the form of workshops or seminars, or whether it’s just through trade magazine subscriptions and related books on the subject. The professional who does not continually educate herself in the changes in her profession gets left behind.
There is no set rule of thumb on continuing education. Some states mandate the amount of continuing education some professionals receive to maintain their license. (For example, the forensic psychologist I worked for had to have [I believe] fifteen hours of continuing education over two years to maintain his license. Minor, in the scheme of things.) Most professions have no such requirement—and freelancers often don’t.
As I mentioned above, some continuing education comes in the form of books, trade journals, websites—all things you can consume at home or during off hours at work.
The main topic here, however, is networking. Continuing education provides countless opportunities for networking. Sometimes the networking comes through the instructor himself—his resume, and his track record for success through his programs. Sometimes (often) the networking comes through the other professionals at the seminar. People trade business cards, make contacts, and discuss business in the line for coffee during the break, over lunch, and in the elevator on the way to meetings. I’ve made a lot of contacts that way, some of whom I’d forgotten by the time I get home, and some who have become lifelong friends.
(A tip: when you receive a business card from someone at a conference or seminar, write a note about your conversation on the back of the card. You’ll be glad you did. By the time you get home, you will have 10-20 business cards, and no real way to remember who is who if you don’t make notes. I learned that one through hard experience.)
First, let’s talk about how you evaluate a continuing education program outside the home.
1. Figure out where the holes are in your knowledge base and find a way to fill them. What don’t you know or what don’t you know well? That part’s pretty self-explanatory. Let’s assume you need a better way to do bookkeeping in your business, but you don’t want to hire a bookkeeper. (Or you have hired a bookkeeper, and then you read the section on employees here in the Guide, and realize you really should supervise that person. Which means you should understand what he’s doing.)
You’ve never kept books for any business, and the computer programs you can download seem unbelievably complex. You have no idea whether you need double-entry bookkeeping or what even the “accrual” bookkeeping method is.
You need to ask yourself: Can you learn this on your own or do you need guidance?
Some things are relatively easy to learn on your own. But some things require assistance. What those “things” are vary from person to person. Only you can answer the above questions. You also are the only one who knows if you can go to the weekend seminar on bookkeeping sponsored by the local chamber of commerce (we had one such seminar in our tiny resort town just last week) or if you need a full-on course at the local community college.
If you need the course, take it. You’ll probably find yourself with other professionals—or maybe budding accountants who might become good bookkeepers when you’re ready to hire a few years from now.
The seminar at the local chamber might serve you better, however, and you’ll get to know the other business people in your area. You’ll gain contacts as well as knowledge.
2. Do a cost-benefit analysis. Two factors should go into your analysis of cost: time and money. Let’s take money first, because that’s the most obvious part of a cost-benefit analysis. First, what will it cost you not to learn the information? Will it harm your business financially?
Obviously, not knowing how to keep the books for your business will hurt you in the long run. So you need to learn how to do it. Let’s assume that a weekend seminar in your hometown costs $50 (including lunch), a bookkeeping course at the community college costs $250, and the best bookkeeping software with tutorial costs $100. (I’m making these numbers up.)
Clearly, the seminar is the cheapest. But will it give you the most bang for the buck? Will you have to buy software anyway? If so, your cost just went up at least another $50. (The recommended software without the tutorial.) What will you gain from the seminar that you won’t gain from the software itself?
The answer used to be pretty simple: You used to be on your own with software, and a seminar would give you people to consult. But now, with websites and FAQs and help lines, you might get the information help you need to understand the software—or not.
If you’re mathematically challenged, you might be better off in the class. (I’m not suggesting the class because you’re mathematically challenged and don’t understand that $250 is more than $50—if that’s your issue, you shouldn’t be in business at all.) But if you didn’t do well in math at school or you left before you had second-year Algebra or you cribbed your homework off the kid next to you and never really learned anything past basic arithmetic, then a class might be the best thing for you. The teacher will help you, step-by-step, because that’s what she gets paid for, and you’ll have months to learn something that has given you fits in the past.
The toughest part of the cost-benefit analysis is the time factor. Some of us—particularly those of us who run our own businesses—simply don’t have the four hours per week for sixteen weeks that a course at a community college would require. Some of us will have trouble carving a weekend out of our schedule for the seminar. For some businesses, like that retail store I discussed last week, weekends are the busiest time of the week. If you don’t have an employee to cover for you, you can’t go.
But will you spend more time struggling to learn the computer software in an unfamiliar discipline? Are you willing to take that risk? You have to answer that as you make these choices.
Fortunately, none of these choices are life or death. If you try the software first and it doesn’t work, you can go to the weekend seminar. If you’re more confused after the seminar than you were with the software, then you might have to take a class. Of course, all of this will lose you time and money—you’re now at $400 plus the weekend plus the sixteen weeks of class plus the time you lost trying to figure out the damn software.
Sometimes the cheapest route turns out to be the most expensive. Sometimes the shortcut you take to save time doesn’t save any time at all—and may even cost you more time than you ever bargained for.
3. Evaluate the seminar/class/workshop/conference. Who are the instructors? Are they well respected in their fields? Are they people you can learn from?
And here’s the biggie: Are they people you want to learn from?
I learned about the differences between instructors in my twenties. I have said, ever since I can remember, that my goal in life was to be a professional writer. I defined professional—even as a kid—as someone who made her living from writing.
Early on, I believed that you could not make a living as a fiction writer, so I went into journalism. That belief was a faulty one—fiction writers can and do make a living, and can, in fact, make a much better living than journalists (particularly nowadays).
Even though I was a history major in college, I took creative writing courses, and felt vaguely dissatisfied throughout without knowing why. I graduated, mailed out my fiction, and developed a relationship with Ellen Datlow at Omni Magazine. She apparently felt as frustrated as I did at my inability to break into her magazine, so she sent me the information on Clarion Writers Workshop, which was then held at Michigan State University for six weeks over the summer.
I applied; I got in; I attended. I learned more in six weeks than I ever learned in my college creative writing courses. Of course, I was learning from published professionals (not all of whom were earning a living, but I didn’t know that at the time). I grew and developed as a writer, and within six months of my return had sold my first professional short story.
But I was still a journalist, and one nice thing about being a reporter is that you can ask a question, and then get paid to seek the answers. So I asked why did I learn more at Clarion than I did in my prestigious university’s writing courses. I interviewed the director of Clarion, and I interviewed the director of creative writing at the university—and learned something startling, something that made me, young firebrand that I was, furious.
I asked both directors the same set of questions. What I remember asking was a do-you-beat-your-wife question of the university creative writing director—why isn’t your program turning out professional writers? What I really asked him—I was a diplomatic little thing—was for a list of the writers who had gone through his program who made a living at writing.
He said they didn’t keep those records.
I asked why.
He said because that’s not the point of the program.
Feeling a bit stunned, I asked, if you’re not trying to create professional writers, what are you trying to do?
He said that they were trying to get as many of their students into qualified MFA programs in creative writing.
Okay, I said, but then what? Don’t you know who graduated and became a professional writer?
He explained to me, as if I was stupid which I guess I was, that the point of an MFA in creative writing was not to become a professional writer, but to go on to get a doctorate in writing, so that the student could then become a professor of creative writing at a prestigious university. He had the figures on that success rate, if I wanted to see it.
I don’t remember if I did or did not. I did want to fall off my chair. I was furious—at him, and at myself. No one had told me the goal of the university’s creative writing program before. Of course, I hadn’t asked either. I had wasted years—literally years—of my education, being taught by instructors whose goal for me was different than my own.
Of course I learned more at Clarion, which was designed to help young writers become professional. I had finally found the right classes and the right instructors.
Not that there is anything wrong with becoming a professor. I come from a family filled with them. I’m one of the few people in my family who does not have an advanced degree in something or other.
But I never wanted to be a professor. I wanted to be a professional writer. And I had gone to the wrong instructors at the wrong school who proceeded—innocently enough—to teach me the wrong trade.
It took me years to realize that the mistake had not been theirs. It had been mine. (Even though I was raised by a professor who repeatedly said as I was growing up that no one should go to college to learn a trade. I guess that cluestick continually missed me.)
Now when I want to learn something from someone else, I research their credentials first and foremost. I would have told the young me to skip the MFAs and the PhDs even if those professors had earned those degrees at top-ranking universities (which many of my instructors had). I would have told the young me to go to science fiction conventions and writers conferences and attend panels/workshops run by writers who were making a documented living at their profession. By documented, I mean that they had a bibliography—works in print, that I could find and read and evaluate.
I still attend seminars. I often go to writers conferences as an instructor so that I can sit in on panels by other professional writers and learn from them. Dean and I spoke at the Space Coast Writers Conference a few years ago because of the roster of guests and because we wanted to visit Cape Canaveral, which we did. The added bonus of that writer’s conference? The attendees, many of whom worked at NASA during the glory years of the moon landings. Boy, did I learn a lot. Boy, did I enjoy myself. Boy, did I make connections.
Other things to evaluate: Will you get time with the instructors? Will you learn from the other attendees? Will you have incidental costs—hotel rooms, plane fare, meals—or will a seminar/class in your hometown do just as well for you?
4. List your reasons for attending. Some freelancers become conference/workshop junkies. I’ll discuss this phenomenon in full in a later post, but make sure you’re not going “because everyone else is” or “because you don’t want to miss anything.”
It’s perfectly fine to go to a conference because you need to get out of your routine—all of us, particularly those of us who work at home, do that on occasion—but make sure you’re not doing that too much. (And realize there might be cheaper ways to break your routine than flying across country for a conference.)
5. Plan your continuing education year. Use your calendar and figure out how many hours you can devote to outside learning—conferences, classes, seminars. Do this before looking at the conference listings for your profession. Then stick to that timeline. One year Dean and I made the mistake of traveling 26 weekends (out of 52). That hurt our business and it hurt us. We had reasons for each conference we attended (and no, friends and former students, the reasons weren’t just “it seemed like a good idea at the time.”), but those reasons were not enough to justify that much time away from our businesses.
There’s a reason that the professions which require a certain number of hours of continuing education require those hours over a two or three year period. To require the hours in one year makes it hard for the working professional to meet the requirements and make a living. Remember that as you set up your timeline.
6. Step Out Of Your Comfort Zone. If you do attend a conference/workshop/seminar, make sure you do more than go to panels and sit quietly in the back. Meet the other attendees. Go to meals. Go to the pre-banquet happy hour. Talk to people. Exchange contact information. You can and will learn from the attendees.
It always stuns me that a small handful of writers attend our classes and never come out of their rooms. They do the homework, do the writing, and do the reading, but they don’t meet their fellow attendees. Those fellow attendees may go on to be bestselling or award-winning writers, well-known editors or influential publishers. All of those things have happened to our past students. You never know which contact will prove valuable in the future.
Dean and I use the workshops as well. The reason I’m writing the Freelancer’s Guide on my blog is because of contacts I made at a workshop nearly twenty years ago. Michael Totten and Scott William Carter came to a workshop Dean and I were running every week in Eugene, Oregon. Michael and Scott were college students then. They’ve gone on to become professional writers who know a lot about computers.
When Dean and I decided we needed to know more about websites, blogs, and internet business, we asked to meet Scott and Michael in a nearby city. We bought them dinner, and for four hours, they told us what we needed to know to start. We have been talking to them off and on for an entire year, sharing information and learning.
Learning we would never have made if we had dismissed them as just college students and wannabe writers all those years ago.
When you go to a seminar, be professional. Dress well. Be polite. But talk to people. And more importantly, listen to them. You’ll be surprised what you learn.
Continuing education is a very important part of your business. Without it, you will stagnate and your business will stop growing. But don’t let education overwhelm your business. Remember why you’re doing this and make each educational project work for you.
Next week, I’ll deal with groups—from support groups to professional organizations, the original point of the query from Carolyn Nicita that started this thread.
In the future, I’ll deal with social media. Please let me know how you’re networking effectively online. The more information I get from the readers, the more I can share. You can reach me here.
“Freelancer Writer’s Survival Guide: Continuing Education (Networking Part Two)” copyright 2010 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.