The following quote from fantasy author Neil Gaiman’s 2012 graduation speech, wherein he called upon the graduates to “make good art” came across my email stream the other week. The speech in its entirety is well worth a look and listen, but this bit definitely speaks to those of us doing freelance work in general, even if we don’t think of it as art. 🙂
People who keep work in a freelance world — and more and more it is freelance– it’s because their work is good and because they’re easy to get along with and because they deliver the work on time. And you don’t even need all three.
Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver on time. People will forgive the lateness of the work if it’s good and they like you, and you don’t have to be as good as everyone else if you’re on time and it’s always a pleasure to hear from you.
(full speech here https://vimeo.com/42372767)
I think that sometimes we freelance folks get caught up in always having to maximize in all three areas in order to have any chance at billable work, but that fear of not being perfectly punctual, perfectly helpful, and perfectly excellent all the time can actually sabotage your business mainly because it means that you are attempting to be all things to your clients all the time, and all by yourself.
I tend to be over-helpful, so I know how much stress we can put on ourselves to be all things to our clients. We can be, and I have been, successful at asking for delivery date changes, or convincing clients that their idea of a perfect index may actually not be as useful for their readers and is likely unaffordable. I’ve been amazed at how flexible people can be if asked ahead of time. But we must be brave enough to ask for the client’s indulgence, knowing that we are still providing that two out of three elements that Mr. Gaiman mentioned.
The idea is to serve your clientele well over time, not to be perfect on each and every project. Besides, perfection is way overrated. I learned this one from editing technical documentation in the early 2000s (when it was still printed!).
The client for this tech doc services company I worked for had to set a balance between editorial perfection and timely publication of computer guidance that changed often to keep up with new hardware and software developments. One editor colleague of mine used to hang on to the documents she was working on, missing deadlines because she wanted to go through the text with a fine-toothed comb and make it perfect before delivering it. Works if you edit for the New Yorker magazine, but not so much with tech manuals. She ended up “perfecting” herself out of a job as a result. Actually, since she was also a bit of a prickly personality, she got down to only providing one of Mr. Gaiman’s three facets of service, quality, and it really wasn’t enough.
So, ultimate success as a freelance service provider comes from expertise, flexibility, and knowing when to ask for help so you can create a realistic and productive relationship with your clients over time, thus ensuring a regular flow of good work for you and great editorial art for them. 🙂