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Streamlining a freelance business

In my first blog post of 2020, I explain how I used Gay Hendricks' concept of zones to narrow down my hectic freelance career and focus on what I do (and love) best.

In search of a beach towel

One of my favourite quotations in the freelancing world is from Walt Kania, who writes a great blog called The Freelancery. According to Walt, you should 'stake out your private territory, even if it’s the size of a beach towel, and then own it. You’re not trying to cover all bases, appeal to everyone, do everything. You have your thing.’

I have always thought this made perfect sense, but after I left a full-time university job teaching English for Academic Purposes (EAP) to international students at the end of 2012, I set about building my own freelance career in the exact opposite way. Edit a paper? Sure, I can do that. Write a textbook? Absolutely! Design a curriculum? Teach a course? When do I start? Beach towel? I wanted to own the whole Riviera. I didn’t want to focus on one little corner of the beach and give up everything else.

I once contributed to a YouTube video for MaWSIG, the IATEFL Materials Writing Special Interest Group. The question was, ‘How do you describe your job to Muggles?’ In other words, how do you explain what you do to people who know nothing about writing or editing in the field of English Language Teaching (ELT)? In the video I said something along the lines of ‘I tell them I write and edit educational materials.’ I couldn’t get more specific than that.

And for a while, it worked. I was never short of work – interesting and lucrative work, too. I published three coursebooks, two EAP and one academic upgrading, and wrote other bits of materials. I designed ESL courses for several universities and colleges. I taught academic English in Canada and the UK. I trained teachers and wrote teacher training courses. Finally, I did a lot of editing and proofreading – for individual clients, for publishers and for IATEFL, the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language.

The problem was, I didn’t have a focus. I was trying to do too much. I spent seven years juggling all kinds of projects; as I contemplated my eighth year working for myself, I was overloaded, frazzled and really, really tired. It was time to figure out where I wanted to put my energies. But how?

Working with zones

I found my answer on Joanna Penn’s website. Joanna is a successful writer of thrillers under the name J. F. Penn; she also has a series of how-to books for writers. Poking around on Joanna’s website one day, I came across her praise for the work of Gay Hendricks, particularly the book The Big Leap and the notion of zones. As Joanna explains it:

In the book, Hendricks mentions four zones:

  • Zone of Incompetence – things we're not good at and don't want to do

  • Zone of Competence – things we're good at but don't really enjoy

  • Zone of Excellence – things we're good at, sometimes enjoy, but are not fulfilling our life purpose

  • Zone of Genius – things we're good at (or want to be), things we enjoy, and our unique ability, things that fulfil the reason we were put on this earth

This resonated with me, and I bought The Big Leap. Working with Hendricks’ framework, I came up with the following application to my own career:

  • Zone of Incompetence: writing children’s materials (which I have done, but not well or happily); writing test-prep materials

  • Zone of Competence: writing and editing general ELT materials; UK/US localisation; teaching general ESL/EFL; writing teacher training materials; training teachers

  • Zone of Excellence: teaching EAP

  • Zone of Genius: writing EAP materials and curricula; editing and proofreading materials related to ELT theory and methodology

Looking at this, I knew I wanted to stay mostly within my Zone of Genius, with the occasional return to Excellence in the form of teaching. Before I go any further, it’s important to say that I do not consider myself a ‘genius’ at the things I identified as my main interests – far from it. In fact, Hendricks’ terminology doesn’t sit quite right with me. But going forward, I want to invest my energies in EAP materials writing and in editing/proofreading. In Maslow’s terms, this is where self-actualisation lies.

As we start 2020, my EAP career is humming along quite nicely; I have a couple of interesting writing/curriculum projects in the works, and I am thinking about teaching in the UK again this summer. The focus of this new website and blog is my editing and proofreading career.

Why editing and proofreading?

It all started in 2009, when I became editor of IATEFL Conference Selections. IATEFL is based in the UK but has members in over 100 countries. Conference Selections is the peer-reviewed proceedings of the annual IATEFL Conference, held in the UK every spring. It’s a five-day event with over 600 talks on all aspects of ELT. I loved this job, and I ended up doing it for ten years. As I write this, I am putting the final touches to my last issue; I stepped down from Conference Selections to become editor of Voices, IATEFL’s bimonthly magazine. Over the years, I have edited the work of the biggest names in ELT, but I’ve also helped a lot of first-time writers to see their words in print.

Editing Conference Selections showed me how much I enjoyed academic editing, and I developed a side line in editing articles, theses and dissertations on a variety of non-ELT subjects: Islamic art, the Korean diaspora, race relations in the US, advertising strategies and more. This was not something I actively promoted – there was no concerted marketing strategy or anything like that – but when a project came along, I found it both enjoyable and very satisfying.

I loved the thanks I got from my clients, who were obviously thrilled to see their ideas expressed in clearer, more elegant language. More telling, though, is a comment my husband Tom made: ‘I’ve never seen you as calm as you are when you’re doing this kind of work.’ It’s true. I find editing somehow therapeutic: it’s just me, a client and a Word document, and I love being able to take a piece of ungrammatical text, or something that sounds awkward or clunky, and turn it into a thing of beauty.


With all this in mind, I made a decision to build up my editing business, focusing primarily on documents related to ELT and education. I have identified several client groups:

  • Academics: postgraduate students and researchers with journal articles, theses, dissertations, research proposals, books, etc.

  • Publishers, especially those whose lists include academic books related to ELT/education

  • Self-publishers on ELT methodology, classroom activities, etc.

  • IATEFL: this is a category on its own and really means my work with Voices

After making this decision to develop my editing/proofreading career, I decided to (a) launch this new website, separate from my materials writing/curriculum design site, and (b) use it as a platform for blogging. I was never a prolific blogger, but I do love writing. This coming year, 2020, is going to be an interesting one, and I’m planning to explore aspects of skills development, marketing and business planning, and the freelance lifestyle. This will keep me on track; it might even help other editors who are starting freelance careers or who, like me, are changing or narrowing their focus. At the moment, my goal is to blog once a week, but please don’t hold me to that!

Next week: Writing a business plan


Tania Pattison is an editor and proofreader specialising in English language teaching, education and related subjects. When not editing, she is an EAP textbook writer, curriculum designer and occasional university/college teacher.


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