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Wriggly WormWhen you’re up to your eyes in work, it can be hard to keep track of the essential nuts and bolts that hold together a freelance business. I suspect many a freelancer has been guilty of overlooking the time you need to devote to non-chargeable administrative tasks, with the result that they get left at the bottom of the pile. And yet, without admin, our businesses would grind to a halt. We all need to quote for new jobs to ensure our livelihood beyond the current rush. Invoicing is another necessity if we are to be paid, and dealing with clients goes without saying, as without them, there would be no work in the first place.

Sometimes, though, you find yourself really resenting the time you have to spend dealing with inquiry after inquiry when you’re rushing to meet a variety of urgent (aren’t they always?) deadlines. A colleague of mine calls it “firefighting” – and that’s exactly what it feels like. On the one had you’re frantically working against the clock, yet on the other, your e-mail inbox is constantly pinging with new requests from clients, old and new, and the ‘phone is ringing incessantly in the background. I know some translators can resist checking their e-mail as they work or leave the ‘phone on answer, but I personally find that hard to do. I know how frustrating it is to send an urgent enquiry off to someone, only for them not to reply until ages after the event… I’d rather keep a check on incoming mail/’phone calls, if only to send a holding message or simple yes/no answer so the client knows you’re on the case. Skype messages can be even more disruptive as they are insistently there, in your face! I only give my Skype details to certain trusted clients/colleagues and quite like the brevity they offer as no-one expects a detailed response in an instant message. A quick “Give me 15 minutes” will often suffice, so you can respond at greater length later. Alternatively you can set your visibility to conceal your presence – but desperate project managers may still try you just on the off-chance….

Even when you do have a moment to breathe and check out all those requests for work, issuing quotations is rarely a task you can rush. They may involve complicated file formats, pdf conversions and setting up projects in your CAT tool of choice to establish the word count and any possible repetitions. All of which can feel overwhelming when you’re already knee-deep in work…. I try and prioritise requests on the basis of regular/existing direct clients first, then regular agency clients, followed by other existing clients. After that come new client enquiries, depending on how they are phrased: anything starting “Dear Translator”, “Hello” or (worst of all in my book) “Hi there” is liable to have me hitting the Delete button straightaway! Any mention of pitifully low rates receives the same treatment, along with pleas for “your best price”. Suggestions that I fill out complicated registration forms or perform mandatory (unpaid) test translations don’t fare any better. Having sifted out the dross, I may send a brief response to genuine-sounding, serious inquiries, but I rarely go to the trouble of converting pdf files or providing detailed quotations at this stage – I merely inform them of my rates and potential availability. Only once my rate had been accepted would I submit a formal quote.

Of course, the main issue is giving yourself TIME to actually quote for other jobs when you’re ultra-busy in the first place. As I’ve said before in my post on long vs. short assignments (The Long and Short of it), the key is not to overcommit. Only commit yourself to half your theoretical maximum output on longer jobs, so that you’ve time to fit in other jobs for regular clients AND cover contingencies AND give yourself wriggle room to do those essential admin jobs like quoting, invoicing and record-keeping. It’s when these aspects get forgotten that they start to become a headache. I invoice most clients on a monthly basis, so it’s a matter of minutes to update the ongoing Excel sheets with the latest jobs, and I usually enter the details in my translations database and TO3000 at the same time. I then try and set aside time at the end of each month to do my monthly accounts, so that the yearly accounts are that much easier when the time comes to collate the monthly figures and pass the lot over to my accountant. Accounting software packages would probably simplify it even further, but I haven’t quite yet felt the need to change a system that works for me!

Having sent off your quote, it may be weeks until you reap the rewards – or it may have all been for nothing if your offered timescale/price don’t fit the bill, or the client changes their mind. I have a couple of large corporate clients who routinely take ages to respond to quotes, then invariably all respond at once, when you’ve taken on new work, so have to renegotiate the deadline. For that reason, I usually tell them how long it will take me to translate a text, rather than offering a specific date. It’s amazing how often clients, especially the direct variety, seem to think you’re sitting there twiddling your thumbs, with nothing to do but wait for their job to be confirmed!

Outsourcing is another possibility for stemming (or diverting) the flow, but definitely not my preferred option. I do outsource occasionally for my former employers, but, perfectionist that I am, I’d rather translate than proof-read/edit someone else’s work. Plus, of course, you’ve still got to find the time to check the resulting translation before returning it to your client and do all the associated admin. Recommending trusted colleagues is my modus operandi if I really can’t accommodate work for regular clients.

Obviously there are times when you’ve squeezed in one (or more!) job too many, and things still get out of hand, but as a general rule, I think we all know our limitations. I try not to work at weekends, but will do so on occasion if I’ve simply run out of time to finish what I’d hoped to do – usually because a particular job was too tempting to forego, as happened this weekend! But you need to know, when you quote a deadline for a job, that completing the job on time will still allow you to run your business as normal. We can’t expect to work in a vacuum, even those of us who live and work alone. Few of us can afford to hire an assistant to perform the more straightforward administrative duties, much as we’d like to! And when it comes down to it, the only one who can really decide whether you can do a job on time or not is you – and you need to be honest with yourself about what you can reasonably do in the allotted time. Firefighting is all very well, but it’s definitely not good for the stress levels on a constant basis!