This Wednesday (19 November) is National Freelancers Day, and so I just had to write a blog post on freelancing. Rather than reflect on the obvious theme of how good (and sometimes not so good) it is to be a freelance, I’m going for something a little different and am asking myself ‘Which are my favourite tools that help me as a freelance, and why?’
Everyone loves to have a nosey at what the next person uses in their work (I do!), so though they’re often surprisingly low-tech, here are 10 top tools that in my opinion have really helped me manage my freelance workload:
1. Private lists on Twitter
There is a fine line between spending time on a social media platform such as Twitter and wasting time. I use it to keep up-to-date with what is going on in my field, as well as it being a means of staying in touch or self-promoting. Private lists, in particular, enable me to segment incoming news by theme, as some news I’ll want to hear in relation to my own blogs and social media, and in other cases I’ll want to hear things for specific projects. It can otherwise be distracting and overwhelming to keep seeing items of interest for ‘Project 2’ when you’re working on ‘Project 1’.
2. Notepads – and lots of them
I keep reading articles where someone will say that they must keep their Moleskin with them at all times! It doesn’t matter what sort of notepad you have (an old exercise book is fine by me), keep one with you, and have a spare pad of paper and pen by the bed and in the bathroom! Ideas often come to me when I’m not actually working on them, so it’s vital to capture them before they disappear.
3. A digital voice recorder
There are voice recorder apps on smart phones, which sound very useful for situations when you didn’t expect to need a recorder, although I haven’t personally any experience of using them. I use a digital voice recorder from Olympus, which allows me to record interviews, conversations and presentations where I need to later work on the content of those recordings. The benefit is that I can also still use my phone at the same time, and there are situations where I wouldn’t want to leave my phone lying around. For a charity event, we bought a compatible wired microphone for a digital voice recorder, so that speaker presentations could be recorded. This increased the detail and accuracy with which we could write and edit articles based on those presentations.
4. Word for referencing
I’ve used a number of academic referencing platforms (both paid and unpaid) and have never found anything better or more satisfying to use than a standard Word document. Months later, when I want to refer to a distant name in my head, I use the ‘Find’ function and have any reference at hand in seconds. Everybody is different, but I find most online referencing tools take quite a long time to use (I’m not very patient!) and are very cumbersome. Some have many plus points such as the ability to filter, to create references based on different referencing systems, and to share references publically with others. Unless you need these features though, I find simple is best. I also wonder what would happen if one of the platforms ceased to exist – that could mean many years of accumulated research is lost, and it’s completely beyond your control.
5. The ‘Find’ function in Microsoft Windows
As a researcher, I keep LOTS of materials over many months or years. However I organise these, there’s always likely to be a name or phrase at the back of my mind, but I can’t quite place where the material will be. There is a ‘Search’ function within Microsoft Explorer, and if you want to search the contents of files themselves, it’s important to make sure that you enable the search to take place within ‘File Contents’.
6. Touch typing
I learnt to touch type at school, and it is one of the most useful skills I have ever learned. I can type away without looking at the keyboard, which allows me to concentrate on what I’m thinking, and read from notes and materials around me without any effort. Even if your typing speed is pretty good, I would highly recommend you invest some time in learning proper touch typing – it will make your computer work so much more rewarding.
7. My tablet
There’s no doubt that without my tablet I would struggle to do the volume of research I do on a desktop computer. This isn’t an issue that concerns everybody, but as someone whose health is affected by spending many hours at a computer screen, tablets have been of huge benefit to me personally.
This app, which is also accessible on a desktop computer, is very easy to use. I cut-and-paste my research links on one device, and can access them instantly on another. It’s clean and tidy, and prevents me from complicating my email inbox with lots of extra material. I can also title and tag each ‘note’ to keep order, although I don’t recommend storing large volumes of information this way as in my experience it’s too easy to accidentally delete something.
Unless you’re working on a complex project or as part of a team (I’m only focusing here on work I do by myself), there aren’t many problems that can’t be solved with an Excel spreadsheet. They’re great for timesheets, working out invoices, creating schedules of activity (e.g. newsletter content schedules, social media posting reminders) and storing lists of ideas I hope one day to come back to.
10. MOOCs and free online courses
MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), webinars, conference videos on YouTube… the opportunities for professional development are now very wide-ranging. I believe it is important to evaluate the credibility of the providing organisation, but I use all of these tools to develop my weaker skills, and enhance my understanding of trends and knowledge areas. I don’t necessarily recommend these resources instead of books or formal learning (I’m even planning to start a CIM Diploma in Digital Marketing shortly), but it’s worth pointing out one advantage: because they are easier to put together, these resources can also be quicker to evolve than a published book or set course.
Two of my favourite MOOC providers are Future Learn and Coursera and, for example, the IPSE (Independent Professionals and the Self Employed) frequently hold free webinars on how to write your CV for the contract market.
Which tools and techniques do you value most in your own work (freelance or not)? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Janine is a communications consultant based in the beautiful Lake District. To discuss a communications issue or project with her, phone 015394 69034 or 07707 038 092 or you can email her on firstname.lastname@example.org