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On Mondays, as I’ve written, I usually spend an hour or more putting things in order, including a tour of the yard: doing a general tidy-up of any plants looking droopy or dead, and of any garbage that might have wandered in.

This week I zeroed in on all the extra growth that’s gathered around the edges of my front garden. I put in bordering stones a couple years back, but you wouldn’t have known it. So I’m yanking out handfuls of grass, weeds, spent blooms and other junk that’s been hiding them.

I’m also meditating on the workshops I have to plan starting a week from now. In helping the group sharpen up their writing, I’m working from the excellent book by Paul Brown and Alison Davis, Your Attention Please, which I just ate up before going on holidays (As I tweeted back then, it’s so good, I wish I’d written it).

But first, some thoughts on weeds.

I used to have a problem with removing weeds. When I first began to garden, I quickly learned to recognize what was one of my plants, and what was a weed: If it grew terribly fast and seemed to appear far beyond where I’d planted it, it was probably a weed. But I still had trouble with the idea of killing them. Especially anything that produced pretty flowers, as many do.

My front garden border - the stones have gone AWOL!

But as things started to evolve, I realized the garden can take on more of a jungle-like character, with the larger, windier roots choking out the meeker, more delicate ones. Even our desired perennials can cause this problem from time to time, once they’ve grown too large or spread too widely. A prolific peppermint I purchased for 99 cents has cost me several dollars worth of other plants, as their shallow talons wound round and strangled out everything else.

So I’ve learned to shut my eyes tight and just start hacking and yanking. After about a decade of summers, it’s even become somewhat therapeutic to reap destruction on certain parts of the plot in order to promote the overall greater good of the whole.

Uncovering the thicket in my document – and giving it some edge, too!

So this morning, as I’m yanking blooms, I’m thinking about the thicket of information – as Brown and Davis put it – that we all have to navigate through. One of their key points here is that even if what you write is admirable – all grammar correct, tone on-target, concise and informative, engaging and educational – you may still have produced something that no-one will use.

Why? Because we all have so many types of information constantly coming at us. And with all the new ways it’s transmitted, much of the info that comes to us we didn’t seek out ourselves. So now, more than ever, most people will not pay attention to information that forces them to wade through the forest to find the trees. It may be that you’ve selected an attractive range of trees and arranged them elegantly – but the problem is there are just too many of them.

Who among us in the course of our demanding days is going to sally their merry way through the scenic countryside when they can just hop on the bridge and get somewhere right away? We usually save those scenic drives for our holidays, when we have the time to savour the journey. (It’s not for nothing that Summer Fiction is known for being light, unchallenging reading). And with so much info now packaged to be as instant as mashed potato flakes, your lovely boxwoods just can’t compete.

So I see it as my job in my garden to help people looking at it appreciate its contents as a grouping – but also to pick out individual colours, shapes and textures that all say something important. Similarly, rather than creating a ‘dense thicket of impenetrable information,’ Brown and Davis remind us to be ruthless in doing away with a lot of padding – and sometimes even some really good stuff – and arranging things visually so that the person who sees it can readily appreciate what’s key.

And if it’s both focused and well-organized, chances are better that people will take the time to stop and look at everything you’ve put in front of them.

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Several people have told me that, because of what I do for a living, they’ve worried that I’d be scrutinizing for spelling or grammar errors in their e-mails.  This has sometimes made them reluctant to write me.

Sigh, it’s junior school all over again…driving away friends because I’m a browner.

Seriously though, I find it works the opposite way, too: when it’s your job to help people improve their writing, you then have to be vigilant that you constantly demonstrate your skill in how you compose your own e-mails, proposals and other written communication.

It’s not like selling a type of boat, where even if the client thinks that you have a strange communication style, they’ll probably not care as long as they know it’s the boat they want and that they can get it from you at a fair price.

As a writer, you have countless opportunities to demonstrate your skill in almost everything you do with your client. But you also have countless opportunities to lose credibility — have a few off days, and you can easily start to look like you’ve some cracks in your canoe.

I’m still humbled by the time I gave a talk about clear communication, and later got feedback from several people saying that I’d spoken too quickly with too sharp a tone. Committing the errors that you ask your clients to remedy in their work doesn’t create much credibility.

These days I can only hope that I’m on my game most of the time. Then those relatively fewer times where I reveal my flawed humanity won’t make much of a dent in an otherwise shining impression.

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(Oh, and BTW, I do notice grammar and spelling errors, but unless they’re in something created for the public, I try not to judge the writer who made them.

Not everyone’s being paid to be as crazy-picky about this stuff as I am. And the grammar and spelling mountain is not the one I plan to die on. Context is everything, and as long as they got message across the way they wanted to, who am I to judge?! )

To err is still humanI tweeted awhile back my frustration that in writing my own materials, I often forget to follow the advice I would normally give to clients. Recently, for example, I saw how easy it is to lapse into rambling prose while composing an e-mail to a client.

I was writing to someone within a client’s organization about a workshop we’re preparing, where one of the key goals is to help the attendees learn how to focus more on the points the reader cares most about and express them more succinctly.

Here’s how my first sentence wrote:

We are already talking about changes to the curriculum that will aim to drive home your feedback about the need for succinctness and reader-focussedness.

It was when my spell checker found that wonderful chestnut, ‘focussedness,’ that I clued in to the slippery slope I was careening down. Here’s my update:

We are already talking about changes to the curriculum that will drive home your feedback about being succinct and reader-focussed.

As often happens, it was a matter of changing those nouns (created by adding the suffix –ness) back into the adjectives that were already doing their job just fine, thank you.

Then, deleting the words ‘aim to’ made the statement stronger. (Often we add words like aim to, promises to, expect to before an action when we are reluctant to – or our employer tells us we can’t – fully commit to.)

Isn’t it amazing how much you can do to one sentence to make it stronger and clearer? I’m glad I caught the areas needing those edits (I’m sure I don’t always!).

It’s Monday and I am doing my level best to avoid the real, rather mundane work that lie ahead today. As a self-employed consultant, I tend to be pretty disciplined when there’s a concrete project with a concrete deadline (at least, I hope my clients will attest to that!). But there’s much time in-between which has lots of administrative, marketing and ‘Other’ category tasks attached to it. It’s time in which, quite frankly, I would rather be doing something else.

I’m the type of person often classified as ‘highly-sensitive,’ and as part of this I tend to work best unsupervised, under more fluid time constraints than the traditional 9-5’er. I often work the same number of hours, but it’s a different combination of tasks over a different arrangement of hours (often running into evenings and weekends). I’m fully capable of winding it out when my clients require it, but then I need time to dial it down and be more easygoing once those projects are complete.

So on those other times, like today, my work time bleeds into activities that do not even fit into the ‘Other’ category. But they don’t really qualify as ‘goofing off’ either. I’m avoiding the activities that contribute to running my business not by staying in bed until noon (however tempting a notion as that is after we pack the 1- and 7-year-old off to school), but by cleaning, dusting and generally getting in-order some area of my home that is looking a bit neglected.

Parts of me feel a bit let down by this. If I briefly rest on the feminist analysis, I chastise myself: what kind of ‘break’ is it to be toiling at the more traditionally female, and downright mundane, tasks in the home? How does cleansing the gutters in my windowsills help to cleanse my spirit and feed my job productivity? (Not to mention that it doesn’t involve much brainpower, nor does it serve to generate income.)

A cluttered desk can be a sign of genius – but also of a cluttered mind

But then I correct my thinking by remembering that it’s hard to move forward and keep your mind organized around your projects when you’re surrounded by chaos and disorder.

People who’ve chosen not to work at home – or who don’t let their employees telecommute – often say that home-based workers are too tempted to finish their laundry and dishes, and thus do not get their paid work done. That can happen. But in my case, I don’t see it an equal trade between ‘real’ business and cleaning my house. After all, this is where I work, and no cleaner comes in after I’ve left my desk for the day.

It may seem flaky to some, but I do subscribe to the Feng Shui-like notion that you get the type of energy you invite in. So today, I’m cleaning and tidying the area around my front entrance. In my book, if the place where people walk in looks like a train went through it, then people will feel that (including the people who live and work there). I’d rather invite in the most positive vibe I can. So I go around that area thinking about not just how it looks, but also about how someone might feel when they come into our home (slash-my office): Does it look like we’re happy to be here, and take the time to keep things in good order and repair? Or do we look like we barely have the time to even notice?  We’re far from wealthy, and most of our furniture’s, er, inherited. But I think it’s important to project a sense of pride in your dwelling just by how you take care of things.

And after applying some physical labour to make my surroundings flow better, it’s often easier to go back to doing similarly with my mind. And this is quite often to the benefit of my business, as very often I discover new solutions to problems and ways to manage the project effectively – often in the midst of all that ‘mindless’ work. So, I log it in my calendar as ‘planning time’ – or better yet – as an ‘executive retreat’.

Let’s face it: you don’t as often appreciate the results of all that diligent financial data-entry you did, as often as you’re going to be pleased to enter your home without feeling a cobweb drag across your forehead. And in warm weather, this extends outward to the extensive gardens that border my front and backyards, where the beauty and other sensory gifts that nature offers open up the spirit to let in previously-untapped insights. It all has a way of giving the mind a clearer platform from which to take off into productive thinking.

Writing teachers often remind us that clear writing is an extension of clear thought. So if I’m in the business of helping people get clear on their messages, I need to be thinking clearly myself. And before I can do that, I just gotta take the time to get my house in order.

Recently two people have approached me to ask for my tips on independent consulting. Having quickly dashed off my list of do’s and don’ts to them, it occurred to me that I could re-purpose that list here in case it’s useful to you.

I’ll start by sharing that one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned, which will be obvious from my post history: it’s very hard to stay disciplined about regularly posting to a blog, even with more control over my work hours. (This could be due to my still having my one-year-old son home part-time, but that’s surely not the only reason.)

I’m loving many aspects of the freelance life, since I have learned that I work best when my time and working conditions are less tightly controlled. But, I have been learning some hard lessons since I threw my lot in completely (i.e., quit the day job and exited the 9-5 contractor’s life) in late 2008.

What’s below therefore reflects my experience – and the weaknesses I’ve uncovered – but if you recognize yourself in any of them, then the advice might be useful.

DO’s

  • Give out business cards, post on LinkedIn, guest-write articles – heck, sponsor events if you can afford it: whatever you can do to be in people’s face about what you do, you should do (without being obnoxious, of course).
  • Budget for those weeks when you know things will be slow, or for when you’ll be on holiday, so you don’t end up with cashflow problems. Having another source of predictable income in the family really helps (Not having that income can sap your schedule due to much juggling and time spent robbing Pete to pay Paul)
  • Take breaks when you feel the need for them (and even sometimes when you don’t); it’s one thing to be disciplined, but doing some exercise, having a good cup of tea or taking a walk can all help open up parts of your brain that were dormant while you drilled away. It might help you come up with good solutions to work issues you’ve been grappling with.
  • Keep good books and records (or hire someone else to do it if you’re not inclined). You should be able to put your hands on any document related to your business finances quickly. Otherwise, at tax time and other points throughout the year, you’ll take away time from your paid work as you ransack the office looking for the receipt from that expensive new laptop you can’t wait to write off.
  • Find out what you can write off and keep receipts for everything (and if you’ve followed the previous DO, you’ll have logged them somewhere and know where they are).
  • – Give some stuff away for free – volunteer to write some stuff for people to show them what you can do, but ONLY if you think they’ll come through with work or a referral to work (as you get more well-known, you’ll want that freebie to be more of a ‘sample’).
  • Join professional associations and newsgroups, and be open to the idea of partnering with other small businesses who offer a complementary service to yours (you may, for example, pool your resources to bid on a job through a request for proposal).

DON’Ts

  • Don’t wait until tax time to pull your financials together.
  • Don’t spend any tax money you collect, assuming you’ll pay it back later. Later may not come soon as you think.
  • Don’t get discouraged on those days where it seems the phone isn’t ringing.
  • Don’t be afraid to charge what you think you’re worth. Remember that while 9-5ers are sitting in boring meetings, they’re still being paid; your non-productive time isn’t being paid for.
  • Don’t leave marketing and client follow-up to the last item on your list…it won’t get done once you get busy with paid hours.

There – the fifteen-minute ‘brain dump’.

And remember, do as I SAY, not as I DO. These are lessons I’m still very much in the process of learning =;->

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