Friday, December 21, 2007

See You Next Year!

It's been a hectic week for me--my Christmas shopping always winds up being last minute, so this week I was scrambling to shop on top of finishing two weeks' worth of client work in five days. I had a few last-minute orders, which I probably could have postponed--but I know I'll be glad I got them done when I get a look at my credit card bill next month.

So, I just finished up my remaining work and I'm about to close up shop. I'll be returning on Wednesday, January 2. May you have a great holiday, a memorable New Year, and plenty of client work waiting for you in January. Hope that 2008 turns out to be our best year yet.

Happy holidays from Catalyst Writing Services.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

My Business Resolutions for 2008

It's almost the end of the year, and just about everyone is posting their New Years' Resolutions in cyberspace. I think this is a good idea--a whole bunch of people will see my resolutions, and they'll know if I don't follow through. Hopefully this means I'll be more driven to accomplish them--public shame is a great motivator.

What works better for me, however, is setting goals I can achieve. I'm a dreamer by nature. I love setting elaborate, fantastic, reach-for-the-stars goals. When I was in school, this worked pretty well--I was surrounded by a network of teachers and parents who would help me out. However, I'm finding that the key to adult success isn't necessarily dreaming big--anyone can do that. The key is to keep trudging along--a bunch of little achievements can add up to some big-time success.

Anyway, enough motivational blather. Here are my (eminently achievable) business goals for 2008:

Move this blog to Wordpress. I would really like to move this blog from its current Blogger location to my own URL: There are a few reasons, but the biggest is that I think the continual updating on that URL will help my business site's Google rankings, plus make my blog look a bit more professional. I'd love to do a whole-site-in-Wordpress thing like Matt's site at Copywriter's Crucible, but I'm sticking to one thing at a time here.

Monetize this blog. I can't say this blog hasn't been a blast, but I'd have even more fun if I was generating some income from it. I think I'll give myself a few months to see if my current traffic levels will sustain--I got a big boost from the Top Ten Blogs for Writers awards. Then I'm going to start looking into ways to monetize that won't be too intrusive to readers. Expect a few surveys on which types of blog advertising you mind the least and the most while I figure this out.

Streamline my marketing routine. I have to admit, I haven't been experiencing the same slowdown I've seen Lori writing about at Words on the Page. I think part of the reason is that I'm lucky: right now I have two very regular clients who put in large orders each month, as well as a circulating stream of repeat clients who drop in every few months or so with new orders. Most of these folks I met through Elance--either by bidding or by keeping my profile up--which is why I stuck with the site all this time, in case anyone's wondering why I've bothered. But a few of them came to me through other marketing tactics--and some even found me through Search.

All this is great, but I'm very aware that my two regulars could take off at any time and my circulating regulars often do fade out--and they need to be reminded or replaced with new clients. My marketing habits are haphazard at best--I start thinking about it only during the slow months. Instead, I'd like to develop a streamlined process that I can apply continuously, so that there will always be more work waiting.

Look into some passive income streams. PLR has caught my attention lately, and I've been thinking about writing an E-book for ages. This year, I'd like to make a commitment to start developing some passive-income products I can sell on my site.

Continue with my article marketing campaign. It's been working well for me already, but I've been slacking off lately on article marketing. I've still got a long list of titles for articles I haven't written, and I think it's definitely doable to work through it this year and raise my site's Google rank even further.

This year has been great for my freelance writing business--I've accomplished a great deal. Here's hoping I can continue my progress in 2008.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

When Your Client Hates Your Work

I first started freelancing several years ago, moonlighting while holding down a full-time job. During my first few months, I got a call from a local ad agency that was in a bind. Their in-house writer just quit, and they needed brochure copy written pronto. I was absolutely thrilled to land work with a real ad agency.

Anyway, I talked with the creative director, who had a little trouble telling me what they wanted. "We want this one to be edgy, really edgy," he said. "But not, like, obnoxiously edgy. More like smoothly edgy. Like Tina Turner meets Frank Sinatra, and they have a love child, and that love child is...this brochure. That kind of edgy." I was having a hard time picturing that, so I tried to pin him down with a bunch of questions about their audience and their product. After a while, I felt I knew enough to knock out a first draft.

It turned out I didn't. I sent the first draft over, and within a few hours they called me back. "This is totally not what we wanted," the creative director said. "I hate it. I showed it to my boss and he hates it too. We're cancelling the project. Just send us the bill for what you've done so far."

This affected my confidence for a long time. For a while, I actually questioned whether or not I was a capable writer. But other projects started coming in, other clients loved my work, and slowly I began to put things in perspective. Still, even now I still get a little nervous sometimes when I send in a first draft. Here's what this experience taught me:

This happens to everyone. Even pro copywriters. Writing, like visual arts, theatre, and a host of other careers, is a creative job. And when it comes to creative work, there's always an element of subjectivity. Some people will love your work. If you're good, a lot of people will. But there will always be a few who won't. And when you work with a lot of clients, you're likely to run into those people every so often. Don't let it make you think you're not suited to the job.

It doesn't mean you stink. Okay, if this happened every single time you handed in a first draft, it might mean you stink. But there are any number of reasons your client might not like your draft that have little to do with your actual skill as a writer. The more of a creative risk you took, the more likely it is that you'll get a negative response. The client may not have communicated with you clearly enough, or you may not have asked the right questions.

Keep questioning until you're sure. Looking back, I realize now that one of the reasons I didn't get this one right was because the client didn't know how to tell me what he wanted--and I didn't know how to ask. His description of the tone he wanted was always vague, and I couldn't get him to paint me a sharper picture. Tone is always subjective; one person's "edgy and fun" can be another person's "obnoxious." Now I know I could have asked him to send me examples of other writing in the tone they're looking for, or to show me his previous copy and tell me exactly what he liked and didn't like about it.

Use it as a learning experience. Sometimes a single crash and burn can teach you more than you'd learn from twenty perfect projects. This one taught me to refine my questioning process, and not to hesitate to ask for more material if the client is vague about what he's looking for. The experience was unpleasant, but it taught me to be better at what I do.

Get back on the horse. If negative feedback affects your confidence, don't let it hold you back from looking for more work. Nothing will make you feel better like praise from a few new clients. The sooner you get back in the game, the easier it will be to move forward and put things in perspective.

Don't completely write the client off. The first draft may not have gone over as planned. But that doesn't mean you can't become this client's favorite writer, if they're willing to keep working with you. As long as they've treated you fairly--they paid you for your time and they didn't expect you to change the scope entirely without extra payment--you could still salvage your working relationship. You both might face a steeper learning curve than usual: them with learning to communicate more clearly, and you with getting used to their tastes and expectations. But do your best with revisions and stay in front of them, and they could become an easy client once you understand each other better.

Negative feedback is part of doing business as a writer. It's important to learn from the experience, and then move forward with what you've learned. Negative feedback is not much fun, but it can help you become better at what you do.

Friday, December 14, 2007

My Other Blogs

I've mentioned before that I'm starting a few other blogs. These are outside of business writing, but two of them are relevant to other writing topics--so some of my Catalyst audience might be interested. Without further ado, they are:

Minion and Maverick. Like nearly every freelance writer I know, I work on novels in my spare time. I use this blog to talk about genre fiction writing--generally romance and fantasy. I run this blog with a friend of mine in publishing who writes on her genre interests too--which tend more toward children's and chick lit--as well as an insider's perspective on the publishing industry. She's blogging anonymously so she can write without worrying what her employer will think, but when Catalyst started getting a readership, we decided I should go public to get the blog a little more exposure.

Anyone who wants to get published nowadays should know that publishers expect authors to have their own marketing plans. My hope is that I can use this blog as a marketing platform when (someday) I start shopping my first novel around.

Living Literary. This blog is brand-new--excuse the bubble wrap. I'm using it to talk about literary writing; generally poetry and short stories. While this usually takes a back seat to my business and genre writing, it's my hope that the blog will inspire me to do more of this type of writing when I have time. I've been featured at several venues in and around Philadelphia as a poet, and I've started sending a chapbook to publishers. I want to be able to publicize my appearances, publications, and chapbooks here, plus talk about language, symbolism, publishing your work, and local markets in Philadelphia.

Philly Actress Blog. I love acting, and I've come across a lot of things in the Philadelphia acting industry that I've been itching to write about. I'm planning to write theatre reviews, talk about plays I'm in and the rehearsal process, landing an agent, doing film and commercial work, acting for film vs. acting for theatre--anything that might be interesting to an audience of actors. This blog is less career-oriented than my others are; it's mainly for fun.

I might be spreading myself too thin here--there are only so many hours in the day, after all. But I'm planning to give it a try. Even so, I'm keeping Catalyst as my principal blog; no slacking off here.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Elance: The Morning After

It's been a little over a week now since Elance instituted its changes. Right now I'm not doing much work on Elance, aside from a project that was initiated before the changes were set in motion. However, I've been monitoring the Water Cooler and keeping an eye out for other updates on the status of the work environment on Elance, and here's what I've noticed so far.

A select group of providers don't have to pay for verified credentials for "premier" status--yet. Elance's new "Premier" status has ticked off a lot of providers. Elance claims this little gold star next to your name is awarded based on merit--you can't earn one unless you maintain a high feedback rating. However, Elance has been doing everything it can to make this a service it can earn money on--after March, it will charge providers with a "premier" status $20 per month. It also requires providers to have two or more "verified credentials" to be eligible, and Elance charges for those, too.

According to a recent Water Cooler discussion, Elance has noticed providers invited to join the Premier program aren't taking advantage of it. They believed the "verified credentials" requirement was a roadblock for these providers, so they waived the requirement only for this select group. If you weren't invited, you still have to buy verified credentials. If you were, you don't have to--until March. Then, Elance will take away your gold star unless you fork over the cash to verify your credentials, on top of that $20-a-month fee.

Despite reports of complacent acceptance, many writers are still upset. I saw this article in Business Daily Journal recently, reporting on the possibility that Elance members would strike. There have been some rumblings about that on Elance, but I don't really think it will happen. If a large group strikes, the rest will undoubtedly take that as an opportunity to get more work in those months. In a thread where one provider suggested everyone drop their Elance membership for two months, another responded with something like "That's a great idea--more work for the rest of us!"

However, writers and other service providers on Elance are not pleased, and the comments I've seen so far have led me to believe that business here is drying up. The changes have made it more difficult for providers to put out the amount of bids they need to get worthwhile returns on Elance. As one provider put it, "I am sitting quietly because I am afraid to lose any more connects. Gone are the days when I used to bid aggressively and compete aggressively on Elance."

I don't think the writers on Elance are going to take a cue from the writers in Hollywood and start marching in the streets. They're just not unified enough. Also, a lot of writers (myself included) had just paid for another yearlong subscription when these changes went into effect. I think most disgruntled writers on Elance are taking a "wait and see" approach while they use up the money they've already paid there, and they'll start to leave the marketplace once that money is gone. I predict that Elance will see a gradual stream of their best providers leaving over time--not a big, dramatic strike.

Some things change, some remain the same. Elance has made a few meagre concessions for writers. But they have also refused to budge on several things that really put writers in a bind. Despite pleas to reconsider, Elance has no plans to refund connects bidders have spent on a project that goes unrewarded--and according to anecdotal reports from writers and my own experience, over half of projects posted on Elance do. You'll still have to pay cash for the Premier Provider program, either now or later. And Elance still does not seem to be exerting any effort to reduce lowball bids; providers are still seeing their competition offering lower rates in their bids than Elance's bid minimums allow.

Some buyers are leaving Elance, too. I came across a thread recently that highlights the problem from the buyer perspective. This provider had to turn down work from a long-time buyer who has proved reliable in the past. The buyer posted his project on Elance to find a new writer. Because the buyer had a less-than-stellar award rate--three unawarded and one awarded project--nobody bid on his posting. The buyer then took his business to Guru, where he received plenty of bids and found a new writer.

Not all buyers think a lack of bids is a good thing. Elance is now charging buyers a $10 non-refundable deposit to post a project. If nobody bids--or only a few people do, and the buyer doesn't see anyone he likes--that's a waste of money for the buyer. He's more likely not to award the project, mess up his Elance record further, and do less business in the marketplace.

Other providers have observed that even "featured" projects are barely attracting any bids. This may be because it costs more connects to place a bid on these projects.

There's a new discussion board in town. I found this tip on JCME Enterprises' blog about a new Yahoo! group started by service providers who want to discuss Elance changes freely and without censorship. Actually, it looks like this group has been around for some time--but it's still a place to discuss Elance issues freely. Personally, I advocate discussing these issues on blogs--it makes the problem public and might put some pressure on Elance to pay more attention to its providers.

These new developments are really a shame, in my opinion. Elance was never perfect, but I started there and for a while it really was a good place to build a portfolio, make connections and pick up a few long-time, lucrative clients. Now, it's just not the same place it was. If you're interested in getting a start on Elance at this point, I'd advise against it. You have to compete pretty aggressively to get any work on Elance, particularly if you're a brand new provider with no feedback. The new changes are making cautious bidding more and more of a requirement.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Top Ten Blogs for Writers: The Results Are In!

I've been checking Michael Stelzner's Writing White Papers blog incessantly since I found out this blog made the short list for the top ten. The results just went up this morning--and we made it!

This was a pretty big surprise to me, I have to admit. This blog hasn't been around long, and to be honest I'm always surprised (and pleased) to see any traffic and comments. To win an award alongside people like Brian Clark and Deb Ng was much more than I ever expected.

I'm very grateful to the people who nominated this blog, and to all my readers. And thanks to Michael for taking the time to read and review. There are many different types of blogs for writers out there, and it looks like he really did a great job of choosing a wide range of high-quality writing in all categories.

Here's a list of the winners:

Copyblogger by Brian Clark: Holding the number-one spot for the second year running, this site excels at teaching the art of writing.
Freelance Writing Jobs by Deborah Ng: For writers seeking new work, this site is your sole destination and maintains a top spot in our contest from last year.
The Renegade Writer by Linda Formichelli and Dianna Burell: Are you a freelance journalist looking for inspiration? Look no further.
Web Content Writing Tips by James Chartrand and Harrison McLeod: With a focus on making more money as a writer, this blog is full of helpful how-to articles.
Web Writing Info by Courtney Ramirez: This excellent blog looks at social networking and emerging web-based opportunities for writers.
The Golden Pencil by Anne Wayman: Wayman, a second-year winner, examines how to go for the gold as a freelance writer.
CatalystBlogger by Jennifer Williamson: Williamson writes about the pains and trials writers face.
Freelance Parent by Lorna Doone Brewer and Tamara Berry: Two moms provide excellent perspective on writing with a dash of parenting.
Write From Home by Amy Derby: Derby provides fresh commentary and advice on writing.
Copywriter Underground by Tom Chandler: This site, a second-year winner, provides regular doses of inspiration for copywriters.

Congratulations to those who won, and thanks again for this recognition. I will do my absolute best to live up to it.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

One Writer, Many Blogs

I've noticed that there are quite a few writing bloggers out there with more than one blog. And while some are clearly related to their writing business, others are on completely different topics.

Why have so many blogs? Despite the fact that it's time consuming, there are plenty of good reasons to have multiple blogs.

Reaching multiple business audiences. If you start to specialize in writing for a certain niche market, you might want to consider creating a blog targeted to it. It positions you as a writer of authority and experience in that market and it helps you reach potential clients.

The Article Writer's Matt Keegan provides a great example. In addition to a general blog about freelance writing, he blogs on a wide variety of business-related themes including the airline industry, the auto industry, cruise ship employment, and financial topics.

Inkthinker's Kristen King does this too; she also blogs on women's issues and pet-related themes.

A place to write about your passions. Most of us have interests outside of our businesses. But the audience for your freelance writing blog may not share your passion for musical theatre. That's probably why Susan at The Urban Muse writes about musical theatre on a separate blog; Matt Keegan from The Article Writer writes about religion outside of his business blogging, and Irreverent Freelancer's Kathy Kehrli writes about her love of books on a separate site.

Professional vs. personal. It's part of business-blogging orthodoxy that our business-related blogs should include only minimal personal info. But writers who want to get personal--either in public or to a private audience of friends and family--often open up private blogs that include their personal views, activities and opinions--and they're usually not aimed at a specific niche audience.

You're getting paid. There are plenty of ways you can get paid for blogging; sometimes you're doing it anonymously under a client's name and sometimes you get a byline. But I'm sure at least a few multiple-blog writers are handling some of their blogs as paid projects.

I'm in the process of launching a few new blogs that cater to my interests outside of business writing. While I get ready to announce their existence on this blog, I would love to hear from other writers who have multiple blogs. Why did you choose the topics you write on? How do you manage marketing and writing for more than one? And do you feel like you get out of blogging on multiple topics enough to make up for the energy and time you put into it?

Friday, December 7, 2007

Productive Procrastination

I'm a compulsive procrastinator. Right now I'm writing a blog post instead of writing some articles for my article marketing campaign, revising a resume I haven't used in years so I can send it to a potential client, doing some job searching, getting a head start on next week's big client project, and going to the gym.

There are many different types of procrastination. Some of us procrastinate in big ways--putting things off for days or weeks, only to scramble at the last minute to make deadline. Others procrastinate in small ways throughout the day. Everything gets done--but it gets done much more slowly than it could. It may be impossible to break the habit completely, but here are a few ideas for making procrastination productive.

Checking email. I'm an obsessive email-checker. If a project isn't coming easily, I take a break every third paragraph or so just to see if I have any email. It's sad, really--especially when it's the ninth time I've checked in the past thirty minutes and I still don't have any mail. Somebody write me something, already!

Checking email incessantly can be productive, though. I came across this tip at Freelance Switch, and it's worth sharing: focus on action when you check your mail. Most emails require you to do something--schedule a meeting, call someone, send a sample or resume, or write an email back. Instead of putting it off, do it right then. Your clients will love how responsive you are, and you'll get something useful done.

Surfing the net. The Internet is one big portal to procrastination. And it's right there at our fingertips. It's frightening how easy it is to get sucked in--and how much time you can lose there. When I do creative writing projects, I often go to a local coffee shop that doesn't have online access--just so I can't procrastinate this way. But when I'm doing client work, I usually need online access.

When I procrastinate online, I go to the job boards. Or I head over to some forums to leave some comments and put some links out there. Or I try to find an easy tutorial for a technical problem that's holding me up. Yes, this can cause me to lose a lot of time. But at least it's useful and productive in its own right.

Reading blogs. Blogs are another huge time drain. But you can waste your time at it--or you can make it a productive activity. I try to stay on industry-specific blogs so I pick up useful tips that will help my writing business. I also make a point to leave comments with links where it's appropriate. This can bring you a boost in traffic and notice from more established blogging communities.

Cleaning. I hardly ever clean to put anything else off. Cleaning is something I'll put off by doing actual work. But some people are obsessive cleaners, especially when there's something else to be done. If you clean to procrastinate, focus your efforts on your office. Clean off your desk, take care of all the paperwork you've been piling up and forgetting about, or update your calendar. You'll have to get these things done eventually--and when else will you want to do them except when you have something more important to do instead?

Put off doing something important by doing something only slightly less important. Instead of doing something completely useless to procrastinate, choose something else you've been planning to do and that you just never find the time for. A lot of things aren't immediately pressing, but they're useful--and when you want to do anything but that one important task you need to get done, they can start to look more attractive.

When I'm putting off working on my novel--NaNoWriMo has come and gone, and I still don't have something I can shop around to agents--I work on article marketing. When I'm supposed to work on article marketing and just don't feel like it, I brainstorm topics for an e-book or a set of PLR articles. And when I'm supposed to be doing those things, I get to work on my novel. Procrastination really can help you get things done--you just have to trick yourself into it.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Finding My Blogging Voice

I remember reading Frank McCourt's biography, Teacher Man, a few years ago. Somewhere in there, McCourt said something about teaching that's stuck with me: it takes about five years to really get a handle on your job as a teacher. Some of it's figuring out how to manage grades and paperwork; some has to do with designing lessons and teaching effectively. But most of it is because it takes that long to find your voice. Once you're established in your teaching persona, you start to feel at home in front of a classroom.

It's the same with blogging. When I started this blog, I knew that there were plenty of other great sites out there that offered similar information--and that the "voice" I chose would set me apart. While I think I still have a lot to learn about settling into a voice that works, here's what I've picked up so far.

You need to choose something authentic. The thing about blogging is that it's an endurance activity. You have to keep coming up with post after post without getting stale or bored or blocked for ideas. If the voice you choose isn't something that comes naturally, it's going to be very difficult to maintain. I tried a couple different personas on when I started blogging--from mildly acerbic to authoritative and businesslike. After a few posts in each of these styles, I realized that a more casual and positive voice was easier for me to return to day after day.

Choose a persona you wouldn't mind clients seeing. No matter why you're blogging, you should be aware that potential buyers and even current clients may wander onto your blog from time to time. How well does your blogging persona mesh with the face you wear when you talk to them? And what would clients think when they get a look at your blog?

Writing blogs such as Irreverent Freelancer and The Frump take problem clients and unreasonable employers to task as part of their persona. Clearly neither of them is aimed at buyers, but there's always a possibility that clients and potential clients will find those blogs. Each writer has to deal with the client perception issue.

Know why you're blogging in the first place. Are you trying to position yourself as an expert? Appeal to buyers? Share your knowledge with others? These are all very different reasons to blog, and each calls for a slightly different voice. Looking around at other writing blogs, I'd say Problogger and Copyblogger do a good job of setting themselves up as experts-among-experts in the field of blogging and copywriting; The Copywriter's Crucible is a great example of a blog that aims to educate and attract buyers; and The Article Writer seems more casual to me--and focused on sharing knowledge with other freelancers.

Respect your readers. What do your readers want to read? This probably has more to do with what you write about than how you write about it, but it's still a big part of your blogging personality. I've learned to think "what will readers get out of this?" every time I sit down to write a blog post. I've even posted something, let it sit for a few hours, come back and completely re-written it later. Whatever persona you choose, quality should be a part of it.

Check out what else is out there. What other voices are already out there? It can help to find bloggers whose voices appeal to you, just to get a sense of what you could be doing. Reading other blogs can also tell you where the vacuum is in your blogging industry. Are you seeing a lot of professional, formal blogs--and could you be the one to add a slightly edgier voice to the community? Are you seeing a lot of bloggers trying to be funny--and could you add a bit of levity and authority? If your voice is different from the norm, you may generate more traffic.

Some people are very deliberate in choosing a blogging persona; others seem to just write what comes naturally. Over time, I'm sure I'll become more aware of my voice and how to make adjustments to deliver the results I'm looking for. Hopefully, it won't take five years.

Monday, December 3, 2007

My First Full Year: What I've Learned

We're now in the last month of 2007--the first full year I've spent as a full-time freelancer. I went full-time in June of 2006, and have been working pretty much nonstop since then. I started with almost none of the advantages most people will tell you are essential before quitting your full-time job. I moonlighted for several years part-time, but I was hardly making anything approaching a wage I could live on. I had savings, but not enough to support me for a year. And I had a few contacts, but they were mostly within small-scale nonprofits that preferred to enlist volunteers or overworked internal staff to handle communications. They were great for getting samples through offering free work--but not potentially-lucrative clients.

Needless to say, I was a little nervous about leaving the safety of a full-time job and stepping out into the self-employment void. But I was impatient and sick of waiting for the "ideal" time--and I really believed in my writing ability. I thought if anyone on the planet can make a career out of this, I can. People in full-time jobs have to wait for their companies to decide to give them a chance--at a better wage, a promotion, a better lifestyle. I was ready to give myself a chance.

Anyway, I wish I could go back in time to the day I quit my job--and tell the "me" of the past the following things. It would have made me feel so much better.

Just because someone else does things a certain way doesn't mean I have to do it the same way. I remember reading Peter Bowerman's The Well-Fed Writer in my first few weeks of unemployment and feeling completely horrified and discouraged at the idea of cold-calling businesses. It was something I had absolutely no training in or affinity for. After giving it a shot for a few months, I realized that I absolutely had to find a way of marketing myself that wasn't torture. I might be able to learn to cold-call effectively, but I would never be comfortable doing it.

Throughout this past year I've been learning many different ways to market myself--some of which are tolerable, some of which are actually fun, and none of which were described in The Well-Fed Writer--sorry, Peter! Anyway, the lesson I learned is that there is no "good" or "bad" way to market yourself--there's only what works and what doesn't. In the end, you'll find methods that work for you--or you won't stay in business long.

Technology is my friend. I'm a serious techno-phobe. Somehow, I managed to stay in business for about a year (as a web writer, no less) with my clunky old brochure of a website and a handful of general samples. This summer, I finally decided to get out of my comfort zone and learn what I could about the technologies that could help me take my business to the next level. I've surprised myself in picking up enough Dreamweaver to redo my site; enough SEO to improve my rankings; and enough HTML to do basic programming tasks. Very basic. But still, I"m quite a bit farther along now than I was before. I've learned that while technology can seem intimidating, I can't afford to let my hatred of all things technical hold me back from better earnings. And anyway, there's always some kind soul out there who's written an easy step-by-step guide I can follow.

Keep records. Very careful records. I'm a disorganized person, but I've learned to be a neat freak about my business. Nobody else but me is keeping track of my earnings and expenses, who owes me money and who's late with a check, and when all those pesky deadlines fall. I've developed a system that works for keeping track of bills, and I've learned to be meticulous about keeping my calendar up-to-date. I've also learned that if I don't track how long jobs are taking me and how much I'm making per hour on each job, I won't truly be able to price a project without guessing.

Choose pricing I can justify. Pricing is probably one of the biggest sources of confusion for new writers, and I was no different. I can't say I'm perfect at it now, but I have learned that I need to know exactly why I need to make a certain amount on each project--the amount I need to keep afloat financially--and why my writing is worth the price I charge. I no longer back down on prices, because I know I'm quoting what I need to charge--and if the client can't pay it, we're not the right match. I'm also more aware of the value I bring to a business than I was when I started. When you have this knowledge, it's easier to defend your pricing structure--and to know how low you can go.

Don't freak out so much about money. This summer I went on a long vacation against my better judgment. I was staying with family and doing everything as cheaply as possible, but I was still spending more than I wanted to--and I wound up spending twice my (unrealistically low) budget for the trip. When I got home, I had monthly bills waiting for me. Luckily, I also had an email from an old client who needed a big project done. More projects came in over the next few weeks, and before I knew it I had made back twice the amount I'd spent--I'd even managed to save quite a bit.

The moral of the story isn't that it's OK to be careless with money, because more will always come along. The moral is more like this: don't freak out so much. Relax and have fun. I work hard, I have some great regular clients, I'm no marketing slouch, and it will come back eventually. And if not, there's always Ramen noodles.

I'm the boss. I used to think I had to take everything that came along and accede to every client demand because that's what professionalism is. I've since learned that not only is that not professional, it can do serious harm. I've learned that it's fine to choose my clients based on the project, the pay, and the fit--that's one of the perks of this job. It's also okay to listen to my instincts and turn down requests I can't fulfill, including those that infringe too much on my time--requests like hours of unpaid time on IM or over the phone. I'm not a full-time employee, after all; I choose the time and place to work, and as long as I meet my deadlines and answer emails quickly, I'm being perfectly professional.

Starting any business takes a lot of work, dedication, and flat-out failure before you start to see success. My business has been reasonably successful in its first year--far more so than I thought it would be. I have every reason to believe things will continue to improve in the next year--and that my failures will only teach me how to be better at what I do.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Elance Case Study: My Comment Moderation Peeves

I've already written about my position on Elance now that new changes have been made to the membership structure, and now they're at it again. Elance has an online forum where members can discuss issues and get answers from the staff. I've noticed a disturbing trend there lately: Elance is deleting posts it deems "inappropriate."

I think Elance is the perfect example of a site that gets it wrong when it comes to managing comments. The thread that was deleted was titled something like "How Many Service Providers are Considering Leaving Elance?" There were a few angry responses, but many of them were reasonable explanations of the reasons some providers were considering leaving and what it would take to get them to stay. In my opinion, it was valuable information for the Elance staff to understand exactly why providers were upset. When Elance deleted the post, it gave the impression that it was trying to stifle dissent--not a good move, especially when you've just ticked your customers off by making an unpopular change.

As a blogger myself, I understand the fine line bloggers and administrators face when it comes to censoring comments. Here are a few things I think Elance did wrong when it came to dealing with the forum discussions on their site.

Deleting posts or comments that question the company. When a company polices its forum and deletes posts that question their product or service in any way, it can make the users feel like they're in some sort of totalitarian state where the media is controlled by the evil dictator. It's definitely off-putting, especially if the dissenting comments are respectful and well-reasoned. Companies can make a better impression by standing up for themselves in a clear and non-defensive way.

Ignoring dozens of questions. There are plenty of responses from Elance staff on the Water Cooler forum, but what really bothered me about the discussions on the new changes was that for every response to a question, there were dozens of questions that went unanswered. Elance had just made a very unpopular change, and in my opinion the company could have worked harder to respond publicly to questions and criticism. The providers were owed some answers. Elance tended to ignore the more critical questions and respond more frequently to more neutral questions, such as "how do I sign up under the new plan?"

Being irregular about the threads it deleted. I understand that negative, abusive, and angry posts shouldn't be tolerated. But those weren't the posts Elance was targeting. Looking around the site, I found a lot of comments that are very negative and hostile left on, while a lot of thoughtful posts under threads like the one I mentioned earlier were deleted. Elance staff stated that they have a policy of removing posts they feel are too hostile or inappropriate, but it's tough to figure out what exactly their criteria is by looking at what they choose to delete.

Elance did do a few things right; they held a live discussion and they did make changes based on feedback, in a limited sense. But their policy of deleting dissenting views really bothers me. It makes the company look like it cares more about its image than it does about the people it serves--and that's never a good impression to make.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

We Made the Short List!

I'm thrilled to announce that CatalystBlogger has made the short list for Michael Stelzner's Top 10 Blogs for Writers awards! I've got some stiff competition, though. These are the nominated blogs:

Copywriter Underground
Copywriting Maven
Freelance Parent
Freelance Writing Jobs
Get Paid to Write Online
Golden Pencil
Heather Strang, Writer
Ink in my Coffee
Renegade Writer Blog
The Urban Muse
Web Content Writer Tips
Web Writing Info
Write From Home
Writer Mama
Writer’s Resource Center
Writing for Writers
Writing the Cyber Highway

I feel pretty good to be up there with such great blogs. As I was setting this post up I took a peek at each of these, and here are some of my favorite posts:

Copyblogger has a post up on what improvisational acting can teach us about blogging. This is an appealing post to me because acting is my second love. I earned two majors in college; one in theatre arts and one in writing. Anyway, I love both business writing and acting, but rarely do I find a place where the two intersect. I give Copyblogger a lot of credit for such a creative (and useful) post.

Get Paid to Write Online writes about how to manage your workload so that you're not depending on just a few lucrative clients. I've definitely had points where most of my work has come from just a few clients, and once it was very bad news for me when a client left. We're all safer when we're getting our work from multiple sources.

Ink in my Coffee. This person is a powerhouse. Check out the word counts she's racked up on the two novels she's working on--they're up at the end of each post. She does all this in addition to running an extremely successful writing business. I think I have a new hero.

Web Content Writer Tips has a thoughtful piece up on the pros and cons of making your rates public. I wrote about this when I first decided to do it, and it was definitely not an easy decision. This post brings up a lot of good reasons both to avoid doing this and to try it--many of which I hadn't thought of before. I particularly like how James talks himself into putting his rates up by the end of the piece, even though he started off with the opposite view.

There's a great piece on Web Writing Info about the harm crappy content does to a business--even if it's just a keyword article. It's never made sense to me why businesses that would never dream of sending a marketing brochure or sales letter out less-than-perfect are completely happy to throw garbage content at the search engines. If anything, many more people will see those online articles than will ever see your sales brochure. Courtney's piece should be required reading for anyone starting an article marketing campaign.

Writer’s Resource Center has a lively discussion going on about the ProCopywriter debacle. Definitely worth a read. And while you're at it, check out ProCopywriters to see if they're using the content on your blog.

The winners will be decided in December. Best of luck to all my fellow bloggers!

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Blog Plagiarism: A Close Call

I got an email last night from Melissa Donovan, who writes at Writing Forward. She alerted me to the fact that a blog called ProCopywriters had been posting articles from other blogs on its site, and that it may have done this with some of mine. I checked it out and didn't see any of my content on their site--but I was listed as a "contributor" among other blogs such as Copyblogger, Web Writing Info, and Freelance Switch.

There's a lively discussion about this going on at the Writers' Resource Center, where a lot of other bloggers complain that their content has appeared on the site without their permission. The owner of ProCopywriters, Jon Castleman, made an appearance and tried to explain himself. I wasn't crazy about his tone; he made a lot of condescending comments along the lines of "...not everyone here understands RSS" and "I thought that if you were a little more educated about what we were doing, you'd see it's to the benefit of both of us." But anyway, his reasoning was that:

a). Since all the blogs he uses as "contributors" had syndicated their content through RSS feeds, that means it is free for him to take.

b). Since he's lifting the content through an RSS feed and not through the actual website, it's not stealing.

c). Since he provided links back to the "contributor" sites, his use of others' content benefits the other sites as well.

I sent an email through the site asking that my name be removed as a contributor. I got an email back from Jon stating that they had begun the blog yesterday with the assumption that writers would appreciate their content being "syndicated" on his site. He seemed a bit surprised that he'd received so many emails from other writers asking that they be removed. Just to clear up any confusion over at ProCopywriter, I'm going to go through a list of reasons why other bloggers might object to their behavior.

They didn't ask permission. Okay, I admit--I've written guest posts for free and as a paid service, I've allowed my content to be syndicated, and once in a while I've allowed another site to use one of my posts or articles on their own site. But here's the thing, Jon: I was in control of where my content went. I gave permission. There are reasons why allowing others to publish my posts might conceivably help me; if Copyblogger, for example, loved one of my posts and just had to reprint it on their site, I might consider saying yes--despite the fact that the duplicate content issue might hurt me a little--just for the traffic and credibility that would bring. But I'd rather write an original post for them as a guest blogger. And if there isn't a compelling reason for me to let others publish my blog content, I won't do it. It's a pretty nasty surprise to find your hard work on someone else's site when you didn't agree to it.

They don't link to our sites--they link to our feeds. Jon claimed that linking back to our sites ought to show that he's in it to benefit the original writers as well as himself. But if you click on the link to my site under "contributors," you don't get my website--you get my RSS feed. This doesn't help my Technorati ranking, and Google doesn't count it as a link to my site either.

They use others' content to earn themselves advertising revenue. The Google Adwords on the left-hand column isn't paying into the accounts of the original writers, I'm sure. Jon, if you want to work out a revenue-sharing scheme with me whereby you publish my content and I get a healthy cut of the ad revenue, I might be up for it. But I'm not thrilled about my content earning someone else money without seeing a dime for myself. I didn't write all this just to earn ProCopywriter a buck.

It's not set up as a "syndicating news source"--it's set up as a blog. Go to the ProCopywriters website, and you won't see a big, obvious notice stating that all the content was written by other writers. The site refers to itself as a blog, not a syndicating news source that uses other people's blogs. Beneath the heading of each post, there's some very tiny, practically microscopic typing in grayed-out font that lists the name of the contributing website--but without a link. It looks like ProCopywriters wouldn't mind if visitors chose not to look at the fine print and assumed the content is their own.

They don't just post exerpts--they use entire posts. I have absolutely no problem with other bloggers quoting my work in their blogs and adding their own commentary. It stimulates discussion and generates traffic, and if I decide to continue the discussion on my own blog, I can link back and generate traffic for the other site in turn. But that's not what's happening here. ProCopywriters isn't using my blog posts to comment about some issue and continue an exchange that proves valuable for both blogs and readers. He's just posting other people's work in its entirety, with no commentary. He's not adding anything of value to the discussion.

RSS wasn't intended as a splogging tool. ProCopywriters seems to feel that because the content is syndicated, it's out there for anyone to post on their site--that's what RSS is for. But as far as I understand, RSS was created for people to subscribe privately to their favorite blogs--not to scrape content for their own websites. Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, but it put me off that Castleman said others didn't understand the concept of RSS when he responded to criticism at the Writers' Resource forum. It seemed to me like he was the one who didn't understand.

Duplicate content can hurt the original writers. Google penalizes duplicate content sites by listing only one as the "source" site. The thing is, the "source" isn't determined by who posted the content first--I think it may actually be determined by whose site has a higher PageRank or something like that (SEO people, correct me if I'm wrong!). But there's a chance ProCopywriter's copy of my post might come up in search rankings--and mine won't show up at all. Not cool.

The whole thing reminds me of those bogus ads where the employer says he can't pay his writers, but they'll get lots and lots of "exposure." There seems to be a belief out there that writers really don't care about being paid; they just want to be famous. The ProCopywriters site doesn't exactly offer exposure I can't turn down--they don't even link directly to sites--and they don't seem to be familiar with the concept of royalties. If all the content we write is just available for anyone to use, how do these people--who are supposed to be professional writers themselves--suppose we make a living?

To his credit, Jon did remove my link from the site and told me in his email that he would not use my content. He also said that due to the responses from writers, they were going to consider rethinking their blogging strategy. That seems like a fine idea to me.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Apostrophe Catastrophe!

I'm a pretty even-tempered person under normal circumstances. But we all have our irrational peeves, and mine is bad grammar. Okay, if writing just isn't your thing, I understand--I stink at math, after all. But I don't publish my sorry attempts at algebra and fractions. I never do math in public. My position is that people who don't have a solid grasp on the English language should not write anything that goes public, either--not without a proofreader to do damage control.

I have plenty of grammar gripes--too many to cover in just one post. So today I'm focusing on the most misunderstood piece of punctuation ever to mark a page: the humble apostrophe.

I see more apostrophe catastrophes in stores, newspaper ads, internal business communications, and websites than I do any other grammatical mistake. And every time I see one, I make an automatic judgment about the business or person involved. I think uneducated. Careless. Not too bright. I know many people would think that's a little harsh--but it's not. Your writing is your way of communicating with customers, clients, and partners--and if your apostrophes are always getting away from you, they'll think those things, too. Here are a few of the most common apostrophe mistakes I've seen--and how to fix them.

Apostrophes with plural nouns. I can't say how many times I've been in a department store and seen a big sign for "SHOE'S." Most writers would probably think something like shoe's what? Some sort of accessory department for shoes, perhaps? Like shoe polish or laces? Say it with me, folks: Plural nouns DO NOT need an apostrophe. If you're talking about more than one shoe--or if you want to indicate the location of the shoe department in your store, maybe--your sign should read "SHOES."

This error in public: The apostrophe problem in our country is so great that someone actually dedicated a blog to catching the errors. There are plenty of examples here, particularly this one here from a sign in a public school. When the teachers themselves don't know what to do with their apostrophes, it's no wonder nobody else does.

Possessive nouns with no apostrophes. It's equally common to find possessive nouns traipsing around in public without their apostrophes. You know we're in a sad state when sites that market to writers omit their apostrophes from their possessives. Whose store is this? Certainly not a writer's store--although you might be able to buy a writer here.

This error in public: Check out this resource for writers. Come on, guys--you're marketing to writers and you leave your apostrophe out of your intro headline. Your target audience is going to think exactly what I do: if you can't even tell a plural from a possessive, what can you possibly tell me about writing as an industry?

Plural vs. singular possessives. When you're talking about something owned by one person or thing, your apostrophe comes before the s: Joe's book, the car's wheel. If you're talking about something owned by two or more people or objects, the apostrophe comes after the s: The students' books, the cats' tails. This one is often confused. I see a lot of businesses trying to avoid making a mistake by eliminating the apostrophe altogether--or even the plural itself.

This error in public: This magazine has a prime example of a singular possessive where there should be a plural possessive: "Writer's Blogs." So I guess this means all the blogs on their list are written by one extremely prolific writer, right? And here's an example of a site that just got rid of the apostrophe altogether. There are actors and blogs on this site, but one is not related to the other.

It's vs. Its. These are confusing because they buck the possessive rule. "It's" is a contraction of "it is," while "its" is the possessive--"The tree dropped its leaves." Because it's an exception to the rule, this is an easy one to screw up.

This error in public: Here's a blog with the classic "it's/its" mistake loud and proud in the title. Apparently, bad grammar is a nursing thing. Oh, and here's an example of the opposite problem on a well-known news site. Shame on you, ABC.

Contraction confusion. There are all kinds of ways to screw up contractions. One of the most common ones is the "your/you're" dilemma. "Your" is a possessive; your food or your drink. "You're" is a contraction of you and are--you're a grammar genius. Despite the simplicity, these are often tragically mangled.

This error in public: This guy is obviously a victim of grammatical crime.

Despite the careless way many people write, grammar does matter. It makes an impression on others, for good or ill. Avoid these apostrophe blunders, and you'll avoid making the wrong impression on your audience.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Five Things to be Thankful For

It's almost Thanksgiving, and I'm about to start packing up the car to visit some family in a far-flung state. Before I pry myself off my laptop for the holiday, I'd like to take a few minutes to think about what I'm most thankful for in my writing career.

Great clients. I love my clients. I've worked for some fascinating people who are doing exciting things with their businesses, and it's been great to be able to contribute to their success. Thanks to all the folks I've worked for this year.

Generous writers. I never realized what a tightly-knit and supportive community there is out there for web writers until I got into blogging. So many writers are so generous with their knowledge and time, both in person and through their blogs. Since I've started my blog I've had some great opportunities to learn from others, swap war stories, and generally share experiences about the crazy world of online writing. Thanks to Matt, Matt, Lori, Kathy, Courtney, Chris, Anne, James and everyone else on my blogroll for...well, just being you.

Freelance forums. Sometimes you just need to check in with your writer buddies when some issue comes up in your writing business--and you can find people on these forums who've handled the same stuff you're dealing with many times. My favorite freelancer's forum is Absolute Write and the Copywriters' Board are also great places to seek help from experienced writers and throw your knowledge around, too.

Bloggers who post job listings. It's tough enough writing a blog post without scouring the web for job notices for your fellow writers. These bloggers take the time to do it--and they deserve a big round of applause for their efforts, in my opinion:

Deborah Ng's Freelance Writing Jobs
The Golden Pencil
Words on the Page

Free Rice. The world ought to be grateful for this site. Who knew? You really can save the world with your vocabulary.

Have a great Thanksgiving, everyone!

Sunday, November 18, 2007

What's Your Take on PLR?

I was over at Web Writing Info this weekend and I saw some interesting information on a new way to sell web content: PLR articles. For the uninitiated, “PLR” stands for Private Label Rights. It basically means that instead of selling your writing once, you sell it many times.

At first glance, this sounded like a great idea to me—I’d love to be able to sell some of my writing more than once. However, I also noticed that Courtney Ramirez, the writer who runs Web Writing Info, received a lot of controversial comments on her series on how to write and market PLR content. Apparently she had to turn off the comments function on her blog temporarily. I hadn’t realized there were so many strong feelings surrounding the PLR debate. Anyway, here’s why I’m considering giving it a try:

An affordable option for clients. I’m aware that my prices eliminate a lot of clients who can’t afford what I charge, especially for large orders of content. PLR articles would be cheaper and would give me a way to reach these clients without having to reduce my rates or offer bulk discounts on original work.

Passive income streams are better. This would be a great way to set up a passive income stream—one that keeps earning me money, long after I’ve finished my work. Right now, I have to work more to earn more money. With a good set of PLR articles, that might not be the case.

Increased earnings. I could stand to make ten times as much on a single PLR article as I could on an original article for a single client, if I get enough traffic to my site.

A way to introduce my custom writing service. There’s a chance that PLR buyers will like my writing and come back to me for custom work.

An easy, affordable way for clients to get started. From the client perspective, I can see the value of a pack of PLR articles. Clients can repackage PLR articles into reports for sale or giveaway; an autoresponder series or e-course; a short e-book; or even newsletter or blog articles, and all for the fraction of the cost of buying original content. This seems like the ideal solution for clients who need a lot of content and don’t have a huge startup budget.

The major drawback I can think of is when a client uses PLR articles unchanged on their websites. Duplicate content is said to hurt your rankings. If my content sells really well and everyone uses it unchanged, that’s to the detriment of all my clients. Naturally, I want to offer a product that serves clients well—and I would definitely limit the amount of people I’d sell my PLR articles to.

I was interested in hearing both sides on Courtney’s blog, but when I looked at her posts on PLR articles, I didn’t find many heated comments—I suspect the offending posts may have been erased. Still, I’m interested in testing the PLR waters, so…anyone out there have an opinion on PLR, heated or otherwise?

Friday, November 16, 2007

Nightmare on Elance II: Revenge of the "Connects"

It's been an interesting week. Elance dropped a bomb when it announced its new membership structure, and the change hit many providers hard--particularly in the Writing & Translation category. After a flood of angry postings on the Water Cooler--and a few outside bloggers covering the story as well--Elance has made changes to its new structure. To its credit, the company appears to be making an effort to listen to its providers.

An Elance representative (Lorenzo, who replied to the last post on this blog) actually called me last night to discuss the changes. Much of what he said was an attempt to explain to me why Elance was making the changes in the first place--nothing I hadn't heard from Elance already, to be honest--but he did tell me he was also looking for feedback. The feedback I gave him was this: I needed more "connects" to make a membership worthwhile; the Premier program can't claim to be merit-based if we have to pay for it; and I'm not wild about paying monthly.

I was happy to hear that Elance was taking our feedback into account, and today they announced some changes to the changes. Here's my impression.

The "connects" situation is just a little more reasonable. In the first installment of this horrow show, it cost three "connects" to bid on a project between $500 and $1,000 in budget. Since I bid on a lot of those projects and would only get about 25 "connects" maximum, that left me with about eight bids in a month--not enough to make my subscription worthwhile.

With the changes, some memberships have slighty more "connects;" not enough to make a real difference, in my opinion. But a few other adjustments make the plan a bit more reasonable. This time around, the "under $250" project category is gone, and all projects budgeted at $500 and under are worth one "connect." This means I can bid on more projects using just one "connect," and it's possible to work it so that my "connects" each buy me a bid and I might not have to buy more.

In addition, "connects" are now spent in multiples of two, not three--two for $500-$1,000 projects and four for higher-budgeted jobs. Spending in packs of three was problematic, as "connects" were only sold in packs of ten--ensuring you'd always have a few left over and would have to buy more to use them. Now there's no disconnect between how I spend my bids and how I buy more.

These changes are not huge, but they do make conditions a little better--and they make me think perhaps continuing my Elance membership might be doable, if I'm careful.

Premier status is free--for now. Elance has promised to make its Premier status free until March so providers are given time to judge its value. Here are my thoughts on that.

For a long time, I worked on Elance under the Professional membership. A year ago, I splurged and bought a Select membership. I saw my value in the marketplace go up significantly; I was winning more projects and commanding higher fees. I realized that buyers were seeing the Select category as an indication of quality, even though it just meant providers spent more money for their membership.

I have a feeling the Premier membership will do the same, except to an even greater degree because Elance will market it to buyers as a merit-based award. That's fine, if it really is. But Elance is still planning to charge us for it in a few months; plus you have to pay them extra to verify your credentials--a waste of money for writers, in my opinion, as your portfolio and feedback should be "credentials" enough. I think that soon it will be difficult to win bids as the high quality option without a premier star, which will cost us an extra $240 per year on top of our original plans. I don't want to pay that much for it and I can foresee having more difficulty winning bids without it--something that makes me believe Elance isn't going to work so well for me in the future, after all.

You can get a refund. No, you can't. Yes, you can. In the early Water Cooler discussions, a lot of people asked about refunds. Initially, Elance responded back that your remaining membership fees (if you've already bought a full year's subscription) could be applied toward a new subscription. No mention was made of refunds. So a lot of writers believed no refunds were being offered, and people were upset.

Later, I saw a few Elance people saying refunds were available on the Water Cooler. Then I got my call from Lorenzo (the Elance employee) who assured me that refunds were, in fact, being offered. I'm not sure if this was simply bad communication on Elance's part or if they truly did intend to discourage people from asking for refunds by not mentioning them, but it's strange how they didn't stress right away that refunds were an option.

You can't use money previously spent on Elance to buy connect packs. No wait, yes you can. When I found out what was going down at Elance, I considered rolling over to a cheaper plan and using my remaining paid membership funds to buy extra "connects." None of the plans offered enough "connects," so I knew I'd have to do that anyway if I wanted to stay. I emailed customer service to make sure it was an option, and I was told it wasn't--I would have to buy extra "connects" on top of my membership fees, no matter what plan I chose.

I wasn't too keen on throwing more money at Elance that way--especially since I'd thought I'd already bought a year's worth of bids. That pretty much clinched it--I didn't want to stay on Elance at all after I heard that news. I decided to roll over to the free plan and ask for a refund.

Later--after posting my thoughts on the Water Cooler--I heard back from customer service that they had made a mistake; that in fact you could use remaining funds to buy extra connects. Confusing, to say the least--but it again made the new Elance a little more palatable.

Low quality bids: are they really that big of a problem? One thing I kept hearing, in my phone conversations and on the Water Cooler, is that low quality bids are a big problem on Elance. Buyers are getting dozens of bids from low quality providers and don't like sorting through them to find the quality workers. I'd offer one piece of advice to those buyers right away: look for the higher prices. Quality workers don't make $5-an-article offers. But at any rate it never sounded quite right to me, this idea that buyers were being inundated with junk bids.

I just took a look in my project history to see how many bids were accumulating on these projects. In my most recent of round of bidding, here's what I saw:

35 bids: one project
20-30 bids: seven projects (mostly in the low twenties)
10-20 bids: fourteen projects
Under 10 bids: eight projects

In my bid history, most of the projects were getting between ten and twenty bids. That seems like a reasonable number--hardly an inundation. These changes seem to have been made to filter out the "junk" bids primarily--but I'm just not seeing that in the marketplace. Hm...curiouser and curiouser.

I'm not sure what to do about Elance at this point. I suspect that even if I do decide to stick it out for a few more months, I'll probably want to leave as soon as the Premier program becomes expensive. I have several great repeat clients on Elance that I wouldn't want to lose, but I can probably keep working with them if i keep a free (Basic) plan and let them get in touch with me. The new changes-to-the-changes have made things slightly better, but regardless of what I do in the short term, this situation has made me think that maybe it's best to cut the strings in the long term.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Why I'm Leaving Elance (And You Should, Too)

For those of you who haven't heard, Elance is changing its membership structure. And the change is so bad that I've decided to cancel my subscription.

Before, I paid an annual fee. Now, I can only subscribe on a monthly basis. Before, my annual fee gave me 120 free bids per month. Now, my monthly fee will give me anywhere from three to 25 "connects" each month. Before, a bid was a bid was a bid. Now, lower-budget projects will cost me one "connect;" medium-sized budgets cost three, and some "featured" projects cost six or even more.

I've worked on Elance since the beginning of my writing career. When I started, it was a great way to gain experience and make connections. The transaction fees were high, there were too many dummy projects, and there was always a lowballing problem; but for me the benefits outweighed the costs. With these new changes, the benefits are dwindling and the costs are rocketing into space.

Here's why I'm leaving, and why I'm no longer recommending Elance.

It's no longer a good place for beginners to get started. When I first got started on Elance, I signed up under the cheapest plan possible. This plan gave me only a handful of free bids. I thought they would be enough at first, but I soon found that nobody wanted to hire a newbie with no feedback rating. After quickly racking up a bill for extra bids that almost doubled my subscription cost, I bought a plan with an adequate number of bids. It took me about three months of unselected bids before I landed my first project.

Now that would no longer be feasible. New providers would have to spend a great deal of money on extra "connects" before landing even one project. And that project is likely to be extremely underpaid, as you usually have to underbid everyone else to get work as a newbie provider. It might take you a year or more to make back the money you spend in "connects" landing those first few jobs.

"Connects" are costly--no matter how you look at it. Elance claims that under its new plan, prices would go down for 80% of its providers. While this may be true in some other categories--programming, administration, graphics, etc--that are more highly paid, writers get the shaft. The "writing and translation" category was cheaper than others under the old plan, but writing jobs paid much less on Elance than jobs listed in other categories. But if I paid for a plan equivalent to the one I have now under Elance's new structure, I'd pay around $1,200 per year--that's nearly four times what I pay now. And that's not including the 8.75% transaction fee Elance charges on each project. And I'll be bidding on the same low-paying jobs, for the most part; payment won't go up along with costs.

The monthly costs may be lower for some providers in some categories. I've found them to be roughly equivalent, and often a little higher, to what you'd pay for an annual plan in the writing and translation category. But that's not what makes it so expensive. What Elance's new plan does, essentially, is force providers to buy extra "connects." Their most expensive plan provides 25 free "connects" per month. A single "connect" might be worth one bid for a low-budgeted project, but for a medium-sized budget you might have to spend three. I usually bid on medium- and high-budgeted projects, so this plan would only allow me three to six bids per month.

It's no longer feasible to be the "high-quality option." My strategy on Elance was to offer professional rates for high-quality work. There were plenty of low-balling writers from third-world countries out there who were offering substandard writing for substandard rates, and a lot of buyers went with the cheap option. But there were still a handful of buyers who were looking for quality, and I tended to find one of them for every ten to twenty bids I made. I spent a lot of bids to land a single job.

Now it's just not realistic to do that. I'd have to pay extra for every bid I made, so every bid would have to count. I can't take the chance that hundreds of my bids would go unchosen to land a few projects--it just isn't financially viable.

The new system will make underbidding worse. Elance claims that by asking writers to pay more, it will squeeze out the lowballers who bid pennies on dollar projects. The idea is that these writers can't afford the new costs, so they'll leave. But I usually bid higher than most other bidders--and I can't afford the changes, either.

In reallty, I think the change will make the lowballing problem worse. Before, I could afford to spend twenty or thirty bids to land one project. Now, every bid will count--I can't afford to waste any. If I stayed, I'd be forced to lower my prices considerably in the hope that more of my bids would result in paid projects and help me recoup my losses.

Elance isn't addressing the real problems. Elance states that the reason for the change is to combat several different problems the site has been dealing with ever since I joined. One is the problem of "non-serious" bids--providers simply throwing a lowball bid on every project they find in the hopes of getting work. Some high-budget projects attract dozens of bids, not all of them serious. If each bid costs money, providers will bid more carefully.

Some buyers may get an influx of bids, but on most I've seen only a maximum of twenty or so. The bigger problem on Elance, in my experience, is dummy projects. Some buyers post projects simply to get an idea of the cost or to try to find free work. Others simply don't follow up on their projects. Today I'd say nearly half the projects I bid on never go awarded. Under the new plan, about half my "connects" would be wasted on projects never intended to be awarded at all--and Elance has no plan to reimburse writers for those "connects."

Elance essentially railroaded these changes down the throats of providers. The new change goes into effect on December 4, and I received an email about this at the beginning of the week. We didn't even get a month's notice. Even worse, many providers who renewed their memberships recently under the old plan (myself included) are seeing their old membership terms evaporate. Elance isn't being clear on its refund policy; I received notice that Elance would not be offering refunds on old memberships that have not expired, but Jon Diller, the president, did say in the forums that refunds would be available. I have a feeling that it will take a lot of phone time and arguing with sales reps before I see any money back for my membership, if I ever do.

So, for any new writers out there looking to get a start in Elance: don't do it. The new model will not be kind to you. You'll be forced to pay extra for every bid, and it'll take months to land your first feedback rating.

Here are a few other blogs that are covering the Elance changes. I'll add more to this as I find new sites; if you're a blogger and you have a post up on the Elance changes, leave a comment here and I will add you to the list.

The Hidden Writer
JCM Enterprises
Irreverent Freelancer
Swan's Blog
Words on the Page
Fab Freelance Writing

Monday, November 12, 2007

Should You Reduce Your Rates?

It happens to all writers occasionally. Maybe you've hit the "famine" stage of the feast-or-famine lifestyle most freelancers enjoy. You're drumming your fingers, staring at your rapidly dwindling bank account and your rapidly bloating credit card bill, and you're starting to get anxious. Finally, thank the Spaghetti Monster, you get an email from a project you applied for ages ago. The client wants to hire you. You're about to do the Happy Dance around your office, when suddenly you come to the end of the email and the other shoe drops.

They're only paying half the price you usually ask.

So: should you take cut-rate jobs when the circumstances warrant it? Is it simply a matter of survival, or will it hurt you in the long run? Here are a few things to think about before you say "yes" to that cut-rate project.

How long will this take? If it's a teeny project that won't take too much of your time, that's a different matter than if it's copy for an entire website, a print-quality article with lots of interviews, or (God forbid) a long-term blogging assignment. Don't let yourself get caught up in a project that will keep you busy without adequate compensation. Those famine periods have a habit of ending as unexpectedly as they begin, and you don't want to be stuck refusing or postponing better-paying work for the slave wage project that's currently consuming your life.

Can you afford to make the cut? Think about how much money it takes for your business to stay solvent--from your electricity and rent bills to the cost of your computer. What's the minimum you have to make per day in order to stay in business? If this project doesn't pay you what you need to earn, you're probably better off using that time to market yourself.

Could you be using this time more wisely? Sometimes slow periods are a blessing in disguise. In many cases, you may get a bigger payoff in the end if you can refuse those cut-rate jobs and work for yourself instead. Start an email marketing campaign; answer some high-paying job ads; or teach yourself Dreamweaver and redesign your website. Consider this time an investment in your business. It'll pay off in the long run.

Could this actually hurt your business? Take jobs at reduced rates, and you lower your client's perception of your value. Do this too often, and you might get a reputation as the cheap guy on the block. While that will certainly bring you work, it might not be the type of work you want. If your clients care more about price than quality, they'll ditch you as soon as somebody cheaper comes along. And with writers in third-world countries selling content for a tiny fraction of the cost, somebody cheaper will eventually come along. It's an unfortunate reality of the global marketplace.

In addition, if clients successfully talk you down without granting concessions of their own, they may start to think you're price-gouging. Stick to your guns and you'll come out looking professional.

Can you negotiate? Before you give a quick yes-or-no answer to that cut-rate offer, consider negotiating. My standard response is to tell the client that I usually charge $x for such a project, and I would be able to offer the lesser price they're asking for only if some change is made that would make the project easier and the pay worth my time. These changes might include reducing the length, eliminating the need for interviews, or asking the client to provide an outline and all research materials.

When you do accept a cut-rate project, always tell the client that this is not your usual price for such work. If you really need the money, tell them that you are accepting this price as a one-time offer and that for future work of this nature, your ongoing price is $x. If you don't really need the money, say no. A few extra bucks may not be worth the time it takes to involve yourself in a cut-rate project.

Remember, you set your prices a certain way for a reason. Stick to your guns and keep your minimum mandatory earnings in mind when choosing whether or not to accept a cut-rate job. In many cases, your time may be better spent marketing your business and looking for well-paid work.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Why They Won't Pay: Crazy Client Excuses

I've been on a kick lately about late-paying clients. I'm currently chasing one down right now, and just finalized payments from two others last week. The score so far is Me: 2, Late-Payers: 1. I'm still waiting on that one straggler.

Anyway, all this waiting and chasing has inspired me to write down some of the most annoying excuses I've had--or heard from other writers--on why clients won't pay.

We've decided we're not going to use it. It astonishes me how often people assume that because they've decided they don't want to use your work, they don't have to pay you. This is pretty common in print--and I've ranted about it before--but in copywriting and web writing (and in my business practices, generally), it's not too common. And it shouldn't be, in my opinion; it's exploitative and it gives clients far too much power.

I actually have had a client tell me he'd decided he wasn't going to use something I wrote for him, and expect some sort of discount. Maybe he was a magazine editor in a former life. Anyway, I pointed out that since there was no kill fee clause in the contract, he was liable for the whole amount.

We had to have someone else rewrite it. This hasn't ever happened to me, but I've heard of people telling writers that because the copy came through with so many grammatical errors, they had to actually hire someone else to rework the writing--and then they took the amount out of the writer's pay check. If this happened to me, I think I'd have a good case in small claims court. I'd bring in my client's original directions so I can show how I followed orders and delivered what they asked for, plus the copy I handed in so that I can show that it's error-free. I think that it wouldn't necessarily come to that, but knowing that I had a good case would give me the confidence to bring out the big guns and threaten litigation if necessary.

We can't pay you til our clients pay us. I've had to tell a client before that the contract states "payment due within 30 days of invoice date" regardless of their financial situation. It's amazing how many times I've heard people using this excuse. It's not like I can tell my landlord that since my client didn't pay me, I don't have to pay rent on the first of the month. In my opinion, this excuse shows a clear disrespect of freelancers and I've been known to get irate when I hear it.

The check's in the mail. No, the check is never in the mail. I've had a client who was months late on payment swear up and down that she sent the check out the minute the invoice touched her desk. When I told her I never got it, she made a big show of checking to see if it had cleared her bank account--and then had the nerve to subtract $20 from my payment for the cost of cancelling the "original" check which never existed.

Oh, that's not my department. You need to contact billing. Except "billing" doesn't exist. The runaround is definitely frustrating, especially when the person your client tells you to email doesn't get back to you. I usually wait a few days after emailing nonexistent billing departments, then send a firm email to the client that the billing department never replied and that I expect him to take care of it, or I'll have to ask my lawyer to get involved--depending on how long it's been since I've invoiced.

The vast majority of clients I've worked with have paid within a reasonable amount of time. Of the late-payers (knock on wood), I've always gotten paid eventually. Excuses might infuriate you at the time--but when the check clears, you'll start laughing.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Shameless Self-Promotion

Well, they're accepting nominations for the top ten writing blogs for 2007/2008 over at Michael Steizner's blog. If you like this blog, now's the time to show your love!

Monday, November 5, 2007

Why Creative Writers Get the Shaft

Well, it's finally happened--television and movie scriptwriters are going on strike. I'm less concerned with how this will affect my weekly Heroes habit and more concerned with the precedent this will set among writers in all industries. Will novelists, poets, short story writers, and web content writers start demanding more for their work? Maybe it's time they did.

Writers get dumped on in all writing-related careers. In what other industry do you not get paid if your customer doesn't like your work? If you're a wholesaler and a company buys your product to sell, on what other planet can they pay you less for products they sell at a discount--or not pay you at all for products they failed to sell? Oh, and if you're an actor, a television producer, or a movie director, do you get paid for DVD sales of your movies? Yep. But the scriptwriter doesn't see a nickel.

The only exception I can think of is copywriting. Copywriters generally have it easy. They don't mess around with kill fees; they dictate their terms; and they don't work through agents. I've been thinking about why this is--what makes copywriting and content writing different from creative writing professions such as novel-writing and screenwriting? Here are a few reasons I've come up with.

Copywriters know business. Copywriters write about business. They are immersed in business. They think about how to sell more for their clients and how to maximize profits for themselves every day. While it's rare to find a novelist who describes herself as a "businessperson" first and a writer second, many copywriters think of themselves this way. In copywriting, creativity isn't necessarily valued so much as profitability. You may write the most plain, drab prose in the world--but if it sells, it's gold. An awareness of how business works is, in my opinion, crucial to getting the best deal for your work.

Creative writing is a glamour job. When's the last time you sat down and wrote a landing page or a batch of catalogue descriptions for fun? Probably never. But if you have the creative writing bug, you'll write that novel or poem or short story no matter who reads it--because you feel compelled to. Copywriters write for money. If they're not getting paid a fair wage, they won't do the work. And they definitely won't do it for free. But creative writers do it for the sheer love. When you're that passionate about what you do, it can seem like an unbelievable blessing that someone would want to pay you anything to do it. This could mean creatives are more likely to fail to negotiate rights and ask for more.

MFA programs don't teach business savvy. Go to any creative writing school, and you'll find professors who are concerned with your wording and syntax, your skill with metaphor and other poetic conceits, your character development and dialogue skills, and so on: all the subtle and obvious things that make a great piece of art. You'll rarely find anyone drilling students on how to land a publisher, the ins and outs of royalties and advances, and how to negotiate without losing your agreement entirely, as some publishers will actually dump new writers who even attempt it. As a result, a whole lot of talented people stumble around in the real world after graduating from high-priced programs, confused as to what to do with all that talent. If one of them gets lucky enough to actually land a publishing deal, the average MFA is in no position to tell how good that deal actually is.

Supply and demand. Let's face it: creative writers are a dime a dozen. Unless you're Stephen King or Danielle Steele, there are thousands of other novels in the slush pile that will fill the same market niche as yours. If you get fired from your screenwriting job, there are hundreds of hungry writers out there desperate for a chance to work on a syndicated show. Creative writing attracts people who are truly passionate about their craft. And there are more of them than there are well-paying jobs. This gives employers, publishers, television studios, and other bosses all the power.

A good copywriter is a bit harder to find--although there are plenty of us out there, too. But while there are a limited number of television studios and publishing houses--not to mention viewers and readers, who are actually shrinking--the amount of businesses who need writers is growing every day. This gives the writers much more power.

I've spent my adult life learning about the established practices of the publishing industry--and becoming more and more dismayed by the way it treats its writers. These screenwriters are unionized, so it's much easier for them to make demands. While this probably won't happen for novelists any time soon, it's my hope that the strike will send a message to everyone who works with writers.

Friday, November 2, 2007

My Writing Routine

Isn't it funny how a subject tends to find its way around the blogosphere? Recently I saw a flurry of posts in various places about whether or not it's actually possible to earn a living as a web writer. (It is.) This week, I've seen posts from different writers on their individual routines. The Golden Pencil and The Article Writer have both written on it. Here's my contribution to the topic.

When I was a cubicle dweller, I thought one of the reasons I wanted to work for myself was that I disliked the rigid structure of a typical workday. I wanted control over my own schedule. I wanted to get up at a different time every day and take days off whenever I wanted. However, now that I'm a full-time freelancer, I find that I actually need a rather strict routine of my own. Here's what I've found I need in order to be successful.

An early start. I get up around 8 in the morning every day. I've found I'm very focused early in the morning, despite the fact that for most of my life I never got up before 10 if I didn't have to. But during a workday, if I start writing after 10, I have a lot of trouble focusing on my work--I surf the net, check my email incessantly, spend hours on writing blogs, and generally procrastinate until lunch time. It's a waste of half a day. But if I start early, I can keep my focus for about four hours before I have to stop.

Equal time for client and personal work. I spend the first half of my day on client work. I work from eight until around noon, taking a break to grab breakfast and get dressed. Weirdly enough, I thought I'd love working in my pj's every day, but after the novelty wore off I got sick of it. Anyway, it's important for me to get client work done first because I like to work on personal projects in the afternoon. If I don't get paid work done, it'll just hang over my head and keep me from concentrating on the creative stuff.

My personal work is important to me--it's the reason I've chosen to work as a freelancer. In the afternoon I'll work on a novel, submit short stories to journals, or set aside time for poetry. I also work on marketing my writing business. I've found that I'm a little more prone to daydreaming in the afternoon, which is an asset if I'm writing something imaginative like a novel or a poem, but not so good for an article or a landing page. I've found that my routine and my way of concentrating are different depending on the type of writing I'm doing.

Right now, I'm working on a novel for National Novel Writing Month--so I'm going to put most of my other projects on the back burner for a while. My username is jrw2868, and my word count for today is 1,934.

Forced breaks. If I get really involved in a project, I am capable of sitting down in the morning and writing until the sun sinks in the sky. I'll look up and suddenly realize it's four o'clock and I haven't eaten anything all day. Starvation is awful for my health. Sometimes I have to make myself take breaks. I take a break in the morning for breakfast, and another one between 12 and 2 for exercise and lunch. I go for a walk, head to the gym, do some sit-ups, or (more often than not, if I want to be honest) watch What Not To Wear for an hour before getting back to work.

Done by evening. I try to get my work done before 4pm, when my peers with "normal" jobs come home from work. Back when I worked one of those jobs, I did most of my writing at night. But I've found I'd really rather get it done during the day. Writing can be an isolating career, and I usually end each day feeling a need to connect to others. I try to leave my time free at night to meet friends for drinks or watch a movie with my guy.

I used to feel inferior and hopeless whenever I heard about some successful writer who'd get up and write at five a.m. before going to work. I thought that because I couldn't get up that early, I didn't have the dedication it takes to be a professional writer. For a while, I tried to get up before the sun and force myself to concentrate on poetry or plot. But that never really worked for me; I couldn't make myself do it consistently. I've since learned that routine is a personal thing. While it may be interesting to learn how others work--I've always found it fascinating--what works for one writer might not work for another. It doesn't matter if you get up at five in the morning or work best at night. What matters, ultimately, is your output.