I just finished a conversation with a client who wanted to send me money. Sadly, they expect me to perform a written act of marketing before sending a check, and they wanted a project estimate.

Long ago, I made a rule to never give off-the-cuff estimates on complex projects.

Perhaps I do it badly (perhaps everyone does), but I grew tired of burning myself — typically the result of forgetting a time-intensive aspect of a project.


So I did what I always do; fired up my project checklist/estimate spreadsheet, and started moving through the list.

Money, after all, matters, which leads me to wonder; could the spreadsheet be the successful freelance writer’s most important piece of software?

Words Matter, But So Do Numbers.

Writers have long fought wars (with a religious zeal) over word processors, and for good reason.

When you sit down at the keyboard and open up that vein, the interface between you and your now-manifesting neurosis should be a smooth one.

Still, in all the glitz, angst and fervor heaped by writers on word processors, I think writers don’t give the humble, non-flashy spreadsheet its due.

I use OpenOffice — the Open Source (free) equivalent to Microsoft’s Office suite. While I never use the included spreadsheet software at anywhere near its full potential, I use it often:

  • Invoices
  • Estimates
  • Job tracking
  • Job planning/project schedules
  • Checklists
  • Analysis

On complex jobs, I often put together a spreadsheet-based timeline accompanied by a checklist.

Estimating projects on a spreadsheet allows you to run a bazillion different pricing scenarios.

Where spreadsheets really shine is in analysis — both project/response data and when conducting “what if” scenarios.

Do higher offers really result in better response rates (not always, and without a spreadsheet, how do you know what the optimal offer is)? What can we spend on trade show promotion? What’s the lifetime value of our average customer?

In fact, learn to use pivot tables, and I guarantee that no question will ever go unanswered again*.


Years ago, my most-reliable, client-butt-saving direct mail tool was the breakeven spreadsheet, where — rather than try to predict a response rate — I figured out what response was needed for a program to break even.

If that rate was too high, the program was in trouble before it started — and the client received a warning before it was too late. They weren’t always happy, but they weren’t poorer either.

A spreadsheet also taught me the value of incremental improvements when dealing with large mailing lists, and once saved me from making a very, very bad royalty deal (I was assuming most of the risk and getting little of the reward).

When I was writing and submitting articles to trade magazines for a client, I used (you guessed it) a spreadsheet to track submissions. It even reminded me when it was time to follow up.

How could I not like something that’s meant so much to my business?

Easy to Use. And Easy to Get.

Microsoft Excel sits atop the heap of spreadsheets, though if you don’t own MS Office, don’t despair; OpenOffice offers a spreadsheet that’s largely compatible with Excel, and you can download it (for Linux, Mac & Windows) free.

There are other choices available, but if you must look beyond powerful & expensive (Excel) and power & free (OpenOffice), feel free to do so.

For example, Google Docs and Zoho both offer an online spreadsheet, though I’m not overkeen on the sometimes sluggish response.


Whatever tool you chose, you might struggle with a piece of software that’s a bit more linear than most writers are used to.

Given the flood of data washing over most marketers, a spreadsheet is a powerful tool against (what I call) data blindness; the inability to see the forest for all the burning trees.

Give a spreadsheet a little time – and download a few of the bazillion templates available on the Internet – and you’ll have a lifelong friend (and revenue-enhancing business partner).

Keep writing, Tom Chandler

(*Not a guarantee)

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