Ask Aunt Elizabeth: How do I get work-life balance back?

By Elizabeth d’Anjou

Looking for advice on editing the editing life? Whether you’re a beginner looking for tips on starting out or an old hand looking for another perspective, veteran editor Aunt Elizabeth is ready to address your queries. Submit them to [email protected]—you may find the answers you are looking for in next month’s column.

(1) Dear Aunt Elizabeth,

I’ve been freelancing from home since my long-term in-house job ended in late 2014. My routine is to wake up at 7 AM, eat breakfast, shower, and then start work. I usually work till 6 PM (longer if there’s a deadline looming), shut off my computer, and make dinner, with only short breaks throughout the day for lunch and tea. 

This routine is getting to me.

My life is so uneventful! I feel so isolated! I rarely see the outside world except through my office window, let alone talk to anyone besides my spouse, who does not work from home. This is so different from the “forced” socialization of the office I was used to (and, admittedly, enjoyed). How do I find the right work-life balance as a freelancer? What steps can I take to feel a part of the world again? 


Going Stir-Crazy

Dear GSC,

Oh, my dear, Aunt Elizabeth feels your pain!

There was a period in my freelance career when I too had become miserably isolated. And I didn’t even have a spouse to talk to in the evenings—just a cat (and I strictly limited myself to one cat out of fear of the slippery slope).

I’d grown up in a bustling household of five kids, and I’d gotten my editorial training working for a group of seasoned freelancers who shared a lively office. When I first struck out on my own, I revelled in the ability to work in my pyjamas and in the lack of interruptions. After a year or so, however, came a moment when I found myself detaining a courier at my threshold for half an hour while I delivered a diatribe on the misuse of the em dash in my current manuscript, then badgered the poor fellow for his thoughts about the serial comma. When he finally escaped, I looked around my basement apartment and said to the cat, “Something’s got to change.”

I set out to end my freelancers’ isolation much as you are doing now; based on my experience, here are my best tips:

  • Be realistic about the amount of work you can do—Full-time work for a freelance editor is usually 20 to 30 billable hours a week, plus 10 to 15 hours of non-billable work activity (administration, invoicing, networking, professional development, etc.). Remember that you are no longer someone with the job of editor but rather an entrepreneur running an editing business. If you commit to a schedule that calls for 35 to 40 hours of actually editing every week, you will either (a) work 10 hours a day yet always be behind schedule or (b) neglect important parts of your business, like the part where you find new work, or even where you bill for the work you have actually done, and believe me, that will come around to bite you eventually.
  • Add some structure to your schedule—This doesn’t mean you have to become a 9-to-5 Dilbert zombie! By all means, be flexible, and indulge in the great joy of the freelancer’s ability to pick your own hours. But do pick some—both some hours when you usually work and some hours when you usually do something else: go to book club, walk the dog, meet a colleague for coffee, etc. Pick a few activities that you enjoy or find rewarding, put them on your calendar, and respect them as much as you do your work deadlines. I like to schedule these commitments for the start or end of the work day (I’ve learned that going out for lunch can kill my productivity), and I try to keep two days a week completely free of other commitments so I increase the chances of getting into the “flow” and churning through a lot of manuscript pages. But I actually get more done in weeks that have a few fixed outside commitments in them. (It turns out that most people work more efficiently if they know their time for working is limited.) Experiment to see what balance works for you.
  • Volunteer—Start by joining an Editors Toronto or Editors Canada committee! It’s a great way to find that unique kind of satisfaction that comes from accomplishing something as part of a team. This feeling is often what people miss most when they leave a job to work for themselves in a solitary profession like editing.

I remember another moment, about a year after that sad incident of courier abuse described above, when the phone rang and the caller began, “I got your phone call asking about ‘Squid-Jigging Ground.’” I racked my brain to remember what the heck “Squid-Jigging Ground” was! A restaurant I was hoping to book for attendees of the Editors Canada conference, for which I was now volunteering? A band I’d agreed to go see with a friend on one of our regular Thursday-night outings? It turned out to be a song for which I was seeking reprint rights as part of a freelance permissions job—this was a work call after all. But that moment of uncertainty made me realize I now had much more in my life than I had a year earlier.

“Now, that’s more like it,” I said to the cat.

(2) Dear Aunt Elizabeth,

I work in an agency setting as a proofreader along with a few others. Lately, one of my newer colleagues (who has the same job title as me) has been taking pains to point out every little mistake I make both to me and to my superiors by combing through my work after I am done. While no one can edit perfectly, especially under tight deadlines, I have never received complaints about my work before, and it’s particularly galling to hear them from a co-worker who goes out of her way to make me look bad.

So my questions are these: How do I save face in front of my bosses whenever I make a mistake? And how do I get my co-worker to focus on her own work and stop examining mine? 


Tormented in Toronto

Dear Tormented,

You don’t make clear whether Nitpicking Nellie is pointing out these mistakes when there is still time to fix them or not. If there is, then she’s actually saving you from making mistakes. True, a quiet word to you would have been more tactful than announcing loudly “Don’t you know the client’s preferred spelling is ‘scrumptiouslyliciouss’?” But in the end, she’s improved the final document, and you should acknowledge that fact with the proofreader’s highest compliment: “Good catch!”

If, on the other hand, Nellie is pointing out mistakes publicly and pointing the finger at you at a time when there’s nothing that can be done to fix them, then she’s just being obnoxious.

And, either way, if she goes on and on about it (“I mean, they’ve always used two esses at the end. It’s right there in the style guide, just before ‘soooo delicious’”), she’s just demonstrating her own lack of professionalism. The good news is that any boss worth working for will see that.

The bad news is that there’s not much you can do to change an attitude like that in a co-worker. Focus on making sure you behave professionally when mistakes are made, and that the boss knows you are doing so: acknowledge the problem; if there’s anything you can do to fix things, do so (“I’ll make the change right away, and run a search on the file to make sure it’s correct if it comes up elsewhere in the flyer”); and learn from the error if you can (e.g., make a mental note to double-check all weird marketing terms in future). Then go back to work.

However, if the boss encourages a “gotcha” culture rather than one where employees are all on the same team striving to help each other do great work, you need to find another job. To keep your sanity while you’re looking, remember whenever you think of Nellie that co-worker is only one misplaced hyphen away from cow-orker. Good luck!


Elizabeth d’Anjou is a third-generation editor with over 20 years of experience. A past chair of Editors Toronto, she has worked freelance, in-house, and in-between; teaches both grammar and copy editing online courses for Ryerson; and is a sought-after presenter on all subjects editorial. She is also a rather competent tomato gardener and tweets as @ElizdAnjou.

This article was copy edited by Jeny Nussey.

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