The Independent Writer
by Pamela Cowan
July 12, 2022
I had a job interview once, and one of the questions was this.
Interviewer: What kind of management do you prefer?
Surprisingly, or maybe not, they hired me anyway. The job required someone who could support a fluctuating number of staff who worked in the field. It meant prioritizing their requests based on the needs of the office, juggling dozens of tasks, and getting things done with little or no supervision. There was no clock to punch, and the boss spent most of his time about a hundred miles away.
It was glorious.
I won’t pretend there weren’t times I craved more direction. Times when I wished there was someone to help me set goals. or decide what sort of learning I might want to pursue. There were also times I felt a little lonely. However, with the constant inflow of emails, phone calls, and texts, as well as contact with vendors and peers on different teams, those times were rare.
Being independent is great, but it also means you must guard against doing the fun stuff and ignoring the rest. I wish I could say it was easy for me, but that wasn’t, and isn’t, always true. I’ve had to develop routines and tricks to help me stay on task.
I tried ignoring email until after lunch. I tried dealing with email first thing. I created lists, and plans, and schedules. Eventually I came up with what worked. Each morning I’d check my email and respond to anything urgent. After that I’d look at the to-do list and work my way down the list from top to bottom. I learned prioritization meant the same thing got ignored every time, so I quit prioritizing.
To deal with projects I kept each in its own stack. On top was the most relevant information such as budget, timeline, and contacts. Keeping each project in sight, piled on a table near my desk, served as a visual reminder. I did like to keep it neat, so each stack was topped by some sort of paperweight, usually just a rock. My boss once asked if I had a fear that gravity was going to fail!
Managing projects with a great deal of independence was a great training ground for writing novels. A novel is a project for which you set the goals and deadlines and create the to-do lists. It has multiple elements you must deal with, especially if you’re an independent author. That includes staying motivated, maybe the hardest task, writing the content, editing, proofing, developing front and back matter, creating the cover, formatting the interior, uploading to a publisher, and marketing. The entire project is your responsibility, and developing the strategies you’ll use, one of the most vital elements.
Of course, that doesn’t mean you have to do everything yourself. Knowing when to delegate tasks is an important skill. You might want to hire a copy editor, a proofreader, a cover designer, a formatter, a publicist, or a social media expert. Anyone can miss holes in their plot or timeline, make spelling errors or . . . the list goes on.
Becoming a writer can be a long, and pretty lonely road, with lots of work and not much praise. I don’t claim to know the magic formula that makes someone a good writer. Some combination of talent, training, and tenacity no doubt. What I do know is that developing independence and self-direction, and celebrating every challenge you overcome, will help make you happier and more successful.
Pamela Cowan is an award-winning, Pacific Northwest author, best known for her psychological thrillers. She has degrees in Communication and Organizational Psychology but is most proud of being selected to take a class from Ursula K. Le Guinn. An army brat who was born in Germany, she moved with her family 17 times before her father retired to Oregon, where she has stubbornly remained. She has two grown children, a remarkably patient and supportive husband, an unruly flock of quail, and a killer view of the lake.