At the 2016 American Copy Editors Society conference, I presented a session on systems and shortcuts for running a solo business that was well received — standing room only, in fact. (I’m a little bit blown away by that, actually.)

I’ve had many requests to share a little more in depth about some of the things I touched on there, since that hour went so quickly and I couldn’t dive too deeply into anything. So, here we are, at the start of an occasional series about working smart and building efficiency into the ways you do the things that support your business.

Note: While my presentation was aimed at freelance editors in particular, many of these systems and shortcuts could be applied to just about any kind of solo enterprise. I use the same approach in my other business, Alchemary, adjusted to fit how that business works.

And above all, as in all things, People Vary, and what works for me might not work the same or at all for you, so take what works, tweak what needs tweaking to fit your business and work style, and disregard the rest.


So, then, what is a business manual, and how does it help?

A business manual is where you keep all those nitpicky little details about your business that you need to know but don’t need to be rattling around in your head every day, taking up space. It also documents procedures for doing things that you need to do for your business but may not do very often and tend to forget (mail merge in Word, I’m looking at you). All of those details live together in one easy-to-access place.

That one place could be a Word file, an Evernote file, a password-protected webpage, a Google doc — whatever floats your boat. For extra bonus points, you can print it out and put it in a three-ring binder and keep it within arm’s reach of your desk, then update it as necessary. (I’m a bit old-fashioned that way.) Mine is a Word file that lives in my Dropbox, and a printed copy lives in a simple three-ring binder that sits on the bottom shelf behind my desk. I like prettying things up, so it has a nice cover, and I use sheet protectors rather than punching papers. Maybe one of these days I’ll get that cover sheet reprinted in color. Or pull out the crayons. Mine is not so hefty that I need subject dividers, but if that’s the way you roll, go for it.

Why does a business manual help? Because it gathers everything you need to know to run your business all in one place, you save a ton of time digging around and searching for info when you need it. Examples: On the rare occasion when I need to sign a contract in my business name (I’m an LLC), I don’t have to Google around to find the legal way to sign; it’s right there in the manual. Just this past week, I got a new UK client who is going to pay by wire transfer; all the info I need to give them is right there in the manual. For Alchemary, I have to file sales taxes twice a year, and the system to do so is clunky and opaque; the reminders for what numbers I need to gather and which ones go in which box are right there in that manual.

(On a somber note, it also serves as a repository of basic information about your business if something bad were to happen to you.)

Time is money. We’ve all heard this, probably for most of our lives. And it’s true. For every five minutes you spend poking around on the internet looking up how to do something for the umpteenth time, that’s five minutes you’re not spending on paying work. And let’s face it, that five minutes ends up being twenty minutes, because silly cat videos or someone was wrong on the internet. Sure, five minutes isn’t a big deal, but over the course of a day, week, month, year… all that time adds up. I’d rather spend it getting paid or — gasp! — doing something fun.

Here’s what’s in my business manual today: 


  • Bank info, including routing and account numbers and branch hours
  • Incoming wire information
  • QuickPay information & instruction link (Chase’s way to email money to someone)
  • Credit card number and contact phone in case lost or stolen
  • Breakdowns by year of income by client and by service


  • Account numbers (mine and clients’)
  • Cutoff times for different shipping locations
  • Info on what it costs to mail the types of envelopes and packages I send frequently (updated every time USPS changes it)
  • Link to product page for the mailers I like


  • Set descriptions of the different things I do (master)
  • General estimating and pricing info
  • Reminders to self (“this type of project always needs extra time for x, y, and z,” etc.)


  • Language about my policies (master) — turnaround times, rush fees, scope creep, etc.
  • Notes about my own internal policies and rules (never work for jerks, etc.)*


  • Reminders of the routines and timetables I’ve set up for myself*
  • How-tos about stuff I don’t do often enough to master (mail merge, Quickbooks reports — sometimes are just links to well-written posts)
  • Master checklists (reference only)

General office

  • Info on supply reorders, with links, where possible (printer cartridges, label maker labels, preferred pens & pencils, rubber stamps, notebooks, planner)
  • General timetable for upgrades
  • Equipment and software serial numbers, activation keys, and links


  • A link to my LLC formation papers (actual copy in printed manual)
  • How to sign contracts for LLC


  • Running holiday card/gift list
  • Links to purchase cards/gifts I like
  • References
  • Titles I’ve worked on in various categories
  • Cover letter language
  • Reminders of which resume is for which occasion (file name not perfect)


  • Jack Lyon’s awesome wildcards cheatsheet, which I picked up at one of his sessions at Communication Central a few years ago
  • Reminders of those keyboard shortcuts I need for just a couple projects each year but can’t be bothered to store in long-term memory
  • Things keyboard shortcuts cheatsheet (Things is the amazing to-do program that I use [Mac only], which I’ll write about another time)

*I find it extremely helpful to have these things written down. Having clear policies (and adding to them as I go along) about my boundaries and routines is a psychological trick that works for me when my monkey brain wants to go off on a blog-reading spree in the middle of work time or take on a particular type of project or client that just doesn’t mesh well with me. YMMV.

I add to the manual as things occur to me or if I find myself looking something up for the second time.

I also have a separate client manual for keeping track of things specific to each client, and I’ll talk about that another time.

I’d love to know:

  • What other information would you put in your own client manual?
  • Is there anything in my list that you’d like to know more about?
  • What other things would you like to know about running an efficient solo business?

Leave a note in the comments. (ALL comments are moderated, because OMG the link spam, and the spammers are getting more clever with their legitimate-sounding first posts, so please be patient if your comment doesn’t show up right away.)