Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Your Writing Held Hostage

It's always an uncomfortable situation when your client appears to be in a hurry, insisting that you rush to get their work done--and then they take weeks to get back to you on revisions. When half your paycheck is tied up with those revisions, these delays can become a hassle.

So what do you do with nonresponsive clients? Here are a few things that have worked for me.

Don't lose your cool. First, take a deep breath. It can be stressful to worry about whether or not your client intends to walk off with your payment. If it makes you feel better, though, this is relatively rare. I've dealt with hundreds of late-paying clients, and so far (knock on wood), I've never had anyone fail to pay me.

But late-paying and nonresponsive clients are pretty common. Maybe they really are so harried and busy--or so flaky--that they forget you exist after you send in the first draft. My personal theory is that some people just hate parting with their money, so they procrastinate as long as possible. But they aren't actually out to cheat you. They simply allow themselves to forget. If you force most of these people to make an active choice not to pay you, most of them will pay up. Those who are comfortable making the choice not to pay you are the crooks.

So how long should you wait before you start to worry? It depends. I remember when I was first starting out, I got nervous about a client who didn't pay me after a month. I asked a question on a writing forum I belonged to, and everyone said I was crazy for worrying about a month delay--some clients took 90 days or more to pay, and that was normal. But most of those writers worked offline. In web writing, a month is a pretty long delay. I usually start to wonder if I don't see a response to a draft or a payment after one or two weeks, depending on the client.

Set a deadline. If I've sent in a first draft and haven't heard back from a client, I usually give it a week. I'll then send them a note asking about the draft--and I'll let them know that if I don't hear from them on revisions by a certain date, I'll assume everything is fine and send over an invoice. It's important to keep the tone friendly and casual.

Don't rewrite time-sensitive material. I signed on to write for a blog once. The agreement was to write one post a day, and posts couldn't be written too far in advance because the client wanted them to reflect current events in his field. I would submit the posts to draft by deadline, and the client wouldn't sign off on them by the due date--so they'd never get published. Then he'd get back to me weeks later saying, "you know that old post you wrote about widgets? That's out of date now. Can you rewrite it so that it's about flanges instead?"

Don't do it! You shouldn't do revisions that require you to do a major rewrite based on anything outside the original directions. If the client asked you to write a post about widgets, he can't come back later and ask you to rewrite the same post about something else--not without paying for a second post. If the content is time-sensitive and he didn't get back to you in time, that's a cost he should absorb.

Don't let it go. Those procrastinating clients will "forget" about you forever, if you let them. For some writers, it can be easy to just shrug it off and move on to the next gig. This is a dangerous habit to get into. Don't cheat yourself by failing to chase after the money that's owed you. 99% of the time, you'll get your check eventually--but you have to be persistent.

Don't take on new projects with them. I try to weed out nonresponsive clients as much as possible--they're just too much hassle to deal with on a regular basis. If I do work with them again, I'll usually charge more for the added hassle of chasing down my paycheck. At the very least, ask for a larger upfront deposit.

If you pester a client about your draft and you don't hear back after a certain period of time, send an invoice. If they don't respond to the invoice, it's time to take it to the next level. Dealing with a non-paying client is a hassle, but there are plenty of resources out there that will help you. Check out this article for more information.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Making a Living Writing Online: Can it Be Done?

Over at Writing for the Web, I saw a question about whether or not it's actually possible to make a living writing online. I've seen this question in several freelance writing forums as well.

To answer: Yes, it can be done.

I make a living purely by writing for web-based clients. I do content articles, but that's only a small facet of my business. I also do print-quality articles for online journals, online landing pages and catalog copy, reports and ebooks, proofreading and editing, and even the odd resume-writing gig or radio script. I do this full-time. I rarely work over eight hours a day. I don't have any special advantages such as a trust fund or a supporting spouse. I'm not a millionaire, but I definitely make enough to cover the bills and have some fun. And I hardly ever pick up the phone.

Be willing to go low to get samples. Most clients have choices. When you're a beginner without samples or a track record, you're unlikely to earn lucrative work right away. Many established writers will tell you never, ever to work for free, use job bidding sites, or accept low rates. I advocate doing what works for you when you're starting out. Many beginning writers do free work for nonprofits, groups and religious organizations they belong to, or their present employers to get their start. I used Elance as a training ground, picking up diverse client projects and learning the ropes while getting paid--even if it wasn't always market rates. You shouldn't have to do this for long, but when you're a beginner, the samples are sometimes more important than the paycheck. Once you have a portfolio--and it doesn't have to be a huge one; three or four pieces is fine--you stand a much better chance of landing high-paying work.

Build a website. When you're planning to work primarily for online clients, it's absolutely essential to have a website. It doesn't have to be perfect, but it should look reasonably professional and show off your best samples. I customized a template to build my site. At some point I may hire a pro designer for an overhaul.

Don't let all those low bidders freak you out. On one writers' forum, I saw a post from someone who dismissed the field of web writing entirely because of all those content writers out there who offer dirt-cheap prices. But brick-and-mortar companies have Internet connections, too. Those dirt-cheap writers could be working for your local design shop just as easily as for affiliate marketers and SEO's.

So why don't offline writers go out of business entirely? Because the freelance writing market isn't driven by low prices alone, even though it sometimes looks that way. There are plenty of potential clients out there who know that you get one type of writing for dirt cheap, and you get an entirely different type for professional rates. Do good work and avoid markets that are geared toward the lowest bidder, and you'll definitely be able to compete.

Don't quit your day job. It can take a while to build up a thriving online business, and in the meantime you'll need to have at least enough savings to pay your bills for a year. I was covering my bills with writing income just a few months after quitting my day job, but I had already moonlighted for several years by that time. It's definitely smart to test the waters while holding on to your steady paycheck, at least for a year or two.

It's not a myth: you really can make a living writing online. Like any startup business, however, it takes time to build a solid base. You'll also be on your own for health insurance, retirement, and all those other extras you usually get through your job. The great thing about web writing is its flexibility--you don't have to be home to answer the office phone, and it's completely compatible with a full-time job. Test the waters first after hours, and make the leap when you have the savings and experience to improve your chances.

Friday, October 26, 2007

What's the Deal With "Bulk Rates"?

I've been noticing a trend lately. I get an inquiry about an enormous project. I quote an enormous price to match--one that realistically compensates me for the time being put in. And I get this shocked-and-amazed email back: "What? No bulk discount?" I in the wholesale business?

I'm not sure why, but somewhere along the way some buyers have been led to expect that if they're offering a large amount of work, it's common courtesy for writers to offer a "bulk" discount. As if I have a ton of copy just sitting there in my warehouse and I need to move it.

Bulk rates don't make sense for service-based businesses.

Some business owners are used to getting bulk rates on supplies they buy from manufacturers. And when you're selling large amounts of goods, it makes sense to offer bulk discounts. You have limited space in your warehouse; you need to make room for new products; you have to move your goods along. You're still selling your goods for dollars when it cost you pennies to manufacture them; if you have to sell a bunch at a few dollars less, you're still making a profit. And the more goods you can move, the more money you make.

But when you're a freelance service provider, your time is what you sell. And the name of the game is to make as much as possible for every working hour. Say Client A offers me $25 an hour (a "bulk rate") for a job that will take up all my worktime for a month. Well, I could do that....or I could fill my month with smaller projects from Clients B, C, and D. These guys are offering me less work individually, but added together it comes to about the same amount of time spent...and the pay rate works out to $50 an hour. In this case, offering bulk rates hurts me. I have to turn down smaller projects that pay a higher hourly rate in order to accommodate the lower-paying, larger project. It's not a good business decision. The hours I put in per page remain the same, no matter how long the project is.

Discounts for "steady work"?

The other day, a prospective client asked about my per-word price for web copy, and I gave him a standard rate I used--explaining, of course, that this is dependent on a number of factors. He came back asking about what my per-word rate is for a large amount of work--something it would realistically take me four months to finish, even without other clients. Of course, my rate wouldn't change dependent on the length of the project alone, and so I sent him a price based on the per-word estimate I'd already given. He wrote back: "so it's a dollar a word all the way up, huh?"

"Uh, yeah," I said. "All the way up. That's how I roll."

"But I'm giving you steady work!" he said.

Okay, now here's another interesting development: people who think that because they're offering steady work, they deserve some sort of financial break. But here's the thing: if I really wanted "steady work" all that much, I could just get a "steady job." And no full-time employer will tell me that because they're giving me steady work, they're going to pay me less. Actually, they're supposed to pay me more each year. It's called a raise.

I think the perception is that since I don't have to spend a lot of unpaid time marketing myself, what with all their steady work, I should be willing to offer discounts. That even though Clients B, C and D pay more on an hourly basis, I had to market myself to land them...and Client A didn't require any extra marketing efforts on my part.

The thing is, I probably should be marketing myself a little anyway, even with a "bulk" project--because it's not forever, and it's not smart to put all your eggs in one basket when you're a freelancer. A project that keeps me too busy to market myself will keep me from growing my business beyond having to take these crummy bulk-rate jobs.

Maybe some writers can get away with offering cut rates for big projects. But in my opinion, it's not a smart decision. It doesn't fit with the service-based business model, and it costs us in the long run.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Contract Clauses You Shouldn't Live Without

I'm no lawyer. But as a freelancer I still have to write (or cobble together) my own contracts. Much of the time, my contracts are simple, one-page "letters of agreement" that outline the terms of doing business without a lot of legalese. But I've used long contracts before, and a few times I've agreed to sign contracts that clients have given me. These should be read carefully, however, as they usually protect the client's rights more than your own.

You should never do a job without a contract or written agreement of some sort--even with a trusted client. Here are a few things that are essential to any written agreement.

Detailed scope. Obviously, you must be very clear about the scope of the project. State the expected length in words, not pages. Pages are easily manipulated by changing font, adding graphics, and so on, and a website page can be of any length. In addition, clearly define the topic of the work, plus the amount of research required. Is the client planning on giving you all research materials, or are you expected to find them on your own? Are you expected to do interviews, and if so, how many? Include the exact amount of client phone calls and meetings expected. If the client wants to leave anything undefined, document an hourly rate for those tasks.

Writing a detailed definition of the project scope can protect you against "scope creep"--those insidious little extras some clients keep asking for. The more specific your original scope definition, the easier it will be for you to set boundaries and justify charging more for extra services.

Payment schedule. Be clear about when you get paid. I always ask for a deposit up front, especially for new clients. Usually it's 50%, with the rest due when the project is finished. For longer projects, you may split your payments up among three or more deliverables or charge a monthly fee.

Deadlines that rely on client response. What happens if you tell your client you'll start on Monday, but she still hasn't paid your deposit by the time Monday rolls around? It's not unusual for clients to stall on paying the up-front deposit or giving feedback on drafts, keeping you from moving forward. You don't want to miss your deadline because your client dropped the ball--you look bad, even if it's her fault.

To get around this, make it clear at the outset that you will require certain things from the client to meet due dates. Instead of agreeing that you'll start on a specific date, write in your contract that you will start upon receipt of deposit. State that subsequent drafts will be delivered, say, five days from receipt of feedback instead of on a certain day. This way, your expectations for your client are clear--and she'll have a harder time blaming you for a delay she caused herself.

An exit strategy. Clients sometimes change their minds. If your client decides halfway through your project that he doesn't want to move forward after all, you could be left holding the bag--especially if you've done research but haven't yet turned in any drafts.

To prevent this, write an early-cancellation payment schedule that starts the minute your contract is signed. I usually charge 10% of the project fee for cancelled projects if the client cancels after signing the contract, but before I've started any work--and it goes up from there. This is fair, because even if you haven't started the project yet, you may have turned down other work to make room for this one.

If the client cancels after receiving a rough draft, you should charge no less than 75% of the full fee. It couldn't hurt to add in wording that states that payment is not contingent on usage--they can't decide to pay you less or not at all if they decide not to use your work. This prevents any unpleasant "kill fee" situations.

A set number of revisions. Some clients will come back to you time and again for tweaking, even after you consider the project to be complete. To prevent a quick project from turning into The Job That Never Ends, specify a limit to the revisions your client is entitled to. Most writers specify two "rounds of revision"--meaning after the first draft, you can ask for a second draft, and then you can tweak one last time after that if needed. Other writers offer unlimited revisions within a certain time period.

A time limit on revisions. I just had a client get in touch with me about a job that he had approved and paid for weeks ago. He was asking for another revision on this project, even though I believed it was finished. He did not ask for any revisions on the first round, and the work he was asking for wouldn't take long--so I agreed to do it without charging him extra. But I may have been within my rights to, just as I'm sure he believed he was simply asking for a revision he was entitled to.

To prevent any misunderstanding about when clients can ask for revisions, think about adding wording stating that clients may not ask for revisions after the project has received final approval.

Client rights. Does the client have unlimited rights to use this piece anywhere he wants to, or are there limits? The amount of rights you give your client may depend on the original project.

I usually add a sentence into my agreements stating that rights do not revert to the client until the project has been fully paid for. Officially, this means that the client may not use any of my work until I have been paid. If the client does use my work before the payment deadline has elapsed, I usually don't make a fuss over it--but if they're far past deadline and I see my work up on their site, I have cause to complain and even sue for copyright infringement.

It's not a sign of distrust to ask for a contract--it's a sign of professionalism. Clients who refuse to sign contracts are probably looking to take advantage of you in some way, and you should steer clear. It's a good idea to have a lawyer look over your contracts as well.

What do you include in your contracts?

Monday, October 22, 2007

When Charging Rush Rates Backfires

I got a request last week for a rather large project with a due date in just a few weeks--a fraction of the time I usually take to do this type of work. I didn't really want the project--I'm already booked up for the next few weeks. Instead of simply saying "no" and pointing the client toward a colleague, I quoted a fee well above what I'd normally charge for the project, believing the high price would scare them away. It didn't.

Now I'm looking at a truckload of work in the next few weeks, several other client deadlines looming, and the distinct possibility that I'll be a very sleep-deprived writer by the end of this project. I'm also looking at a mountain of cash. So it certainly isn't all bad.

What did I learn from this? That rush jobs can be tricky, even if they're lucrative. Here are a few questions to ask yourself--questions I'll definitely ask next time--when you're considering whether or not to take a rush job.

Will this job affect your other clients? Taking a rush job often means pushing other clients to the side while you rush to make a tight deadline. Sometimes you can afford to do this--your other clients may be flexible, or you may not need much time to finish their work. But if you're down to the wire with your existing work, you may want to consider passing on that rush job.

No matter how well-paying this new client is, there were people in front of him in line. You can inconvenience yourself as much as you want--you're the boss, after all--but it's only fair to avoid inconveniencing other clients, no matter how small their projects are. Be sure you're treating everyone who's depending on you fairly.

Are there enough hours in the day? Don't make the same mistake I made, quoting a high price and believing it will scare them off. Before you take that step, think about whether this deadline is possible for you. Know how fast you work. How many hours of writing will you have to do per day to meet this deadline? Will you have to do interviews, interact with designers, or depend on others in any way? Make sure you're not setting an impossible goal for yourself.

Is the client more trouble than he's worth? Rush jobs often come with stressed-out clients. As a freelancer, it's crucial to keep the client's problems from becoming your own. When a job is rushed, you're much more likely to be stuck dealing with a demanding client who wants unlimited access.

Because these clients are under a lot of pressure within their own companies, they can also be prone to "forgetting" to give you crucial information and materials until the last minute, delaying on draft comments, and then blaming you when you miss a deadline. It's important to take these risks into account, as they can slow you down. It's also crucial to communicate that you need certain things--an up-front payment, comments on a draft, a signed contract, et cetera--to move forward with the project. Instead of setting a specific start date, for example, make it contingent on receiving a payment from the client. If the client knows the deadline will be pushed back for every day he delays on your deposit, he may be in more of a hurry to pay you.

Can you outsource? Sometimes you can stand to earn more by outsourcing your pre-existing work to someone else to free your schedule for a more lucrative job. A rush job isn't the best time to get into outsourcing for the first time or to work with a brand-new outsourcee. If you don't have a dependable partner whose skills match the work, you may want to reconsider outsourcing this time around. If you do outsource, it's best to make sure your clients know about it and approve.

Rush jobs can be more trouble than they're worth. But they can also pay very well. Even though the client's rushing you, take some time to think about your capabilities before you take these projects on.

Friday, October 19, 2007

I Rank, Therefore I Am

I've become obsessed with Google Analytics. Ever since I figured out that if you want the program to work you actually have to install the script on your site (yeah, I know; I'm hopeless), I check it at least once a day to see where my traffic's coming from. I do this for both my blog and my business site. When I first started tracking, my traffic was coming in through various links I'd gathered and some others who generously decided to link to my site on their own.

Then I started to notice traffic from Search coming in at my business site. The search terms didn't look like phrases used by potential buyers (which is my ideal scenario); they were things like "how to open a locked safe" and "distinctive clothes of the 80's." My writing samples, which are all over the map subject-wise, were picking up search traffic. Not terrible--hey, one of those searchers might be looking for someone to write something on those topics--but not likely to be buyers.

Then I started noticing a small trickle from a search term I've actually been targeting. I think I did a little dance in my office. I did a search for that exact term, and saw that I was on page four of the Google SERP's. Okay, so that's hardly gold star rankings. But it's better than not at all, which is what I had been ranking before. Yep, it's possible for your site not to show up in any search engine, anywhere, at all. My first website had no online game.

My boyfriend, who is a brilliant person but not a pro designer, set that first website up. My goal was to simply have something to show clients looking for samples. It was very basic; there were maybe three samples on it, all from my first forays into freelancing, mostly in .pdf format. This summer I decided to see if I was capable of more. Here's what I've done so far to get myself ranked on Page Four of an actual real-live targeted search term.

Redo my website. I taught myself very basic Dreamweaver skills and designed my new website myself. Is it perfect? No. I probably have a long way to go. Is it better than my old site? Absolutely. It's got a lot of content in terms of samples, it's more focused toward web writing (which I've come to concentrate on), and it's a bit snazzier than before. It's also got some basic SEO principles on there: I incorporated bread crumb navigation and I wrote a separate title tag for each page. Look out, Aaron Wall.

Submit to website directories. Directories don't give you traffic, but they can give you PageRank. Some of these directories, like DMOZ, carry a lot of authority on the net. If they link to you using one of your chosen keywords, search engines are more likely to serve you up when someone types in those phrases--or so I understand. I found a list of website directories and submitted my website to all the free ones. I used targeted keywords as anchor text (the words you actually use as a link), and looked for deep as well as home page links whenever I could. To the uninitiated: a "deep" link is a link to a page within a deeper level of your website--my article on the benefits of an autoresponder series, which is a few clicks in, would be an example of a page on a deeper level. A home page link just links to your index page.

Start a blog. Originally I was planning to put this blog on Wordpress and upload it to my own site. But I was all teched out by the time I got to that point. I just wanted to get started writing without facing another steep learning curve, and figuring out how to install Wordpress myself was just too much for me to handle at the time. The website talks about how easy it is to install. They're liars.

Anyway, this blog has brought quite a bit of traffic to my website. It links to it, obviously--but it brings in search traffic, too. I read a cautionary article once that blogs on Blogger addresses aren't indexed by Google because of that "" address, but mine comes up in search results.

Write articles for other blogs. I've written some free articles for blogs I like, including few links using targeted keywords. I try to include two or three links: one to the home page of my site, one to a deeper page like my services or samples page, and one to my blog. I'm careful about the words I choose as anchor text.

Write articles for directories. I've been moving forward slowly on my article marketing campaign. I've submitted ten articles to Ezine Articles, each with a resource box with links back to my site. Most of these articles have gotten syndicated. I've submitted an article to IdeaMarketers, too. So far it only has six views and one syndication--but it's only been a week.

That about wraps it up for the effort I've put in to get ranked for this keyword. To be honest, I wasn't sure I'd be able to do it this soon--I've only been working on this since August. I know, there are probably plenty of folks out there who are top ranked all over the place in the first three months of their SEO campaign. My thought on that is they may be using some dark-side SEO tactics, because organic search is supposed to take a while. If not, more power to 'em. Organic SEO is a long process, and I've got to fit this in around client work and other commitments. But hey--it does work!

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Job Bidding Sites: Love Them or Hate Them?

Cruising around Anne Wayman's About Freelancing forum the other day, I found a post from a new freelancer asking about Elance in particular and paid bidding sites in general: good idea, or not so good? Most of the responders said that paid bidding sites were the lowest of the low--"you should never pay for job listings," as one poster said. Most of those who responded agreed.

Occasionally I'm on the opposite side of the fence when it comes to advice that most people agree on--and bidding sites are one of those things. I got my first few paying jobs through Elance, and under certain circumstances I do recommend it. If you've been wondering whether or not to give bidding sites a try, here are my responses to some common objections. I can't really speak as an expert on all bidding sites--I'm just relaying my own experiences. Because I've only worked with Elance, most of my responses reference that site.

You should never pay for job listings. In general, I agree that you should never pay for anything you can get for free. However, I joined Elance when I was a beginning writer with a day job in an office. I didn't have much in the way of clips or experience, and I wasn't getting hired when I applied to traditional job listings.

This is probably because online job postings often get hundreds of responses within hours. When you're one out of a hundred, many of whom have samples and websites and a track record, it's tough to stand out. On Elance, most postings only attract around ten or twenty bids. It's a smaller pool, and it's a bit easier to compete if you're a rookie. Your off-Elance experience isn't as important as your feedback rating, and it only takes one or two high ratings to make you competitive. Some of the highest-earning providers on Elance only have two or three pieces in their portfolios.

I think that one reason why most writers believe that bidding sites aren't worth the money is that the up-front cost can be steep and the payback doesn't come right away. It takes time to build up a reputation that allows you to attract higher-paying work--and you have to underbid other people until you do it. It took me about three months of underbidding everyone else to get my first paying work on Elance, but after that I got jobs more often.

The bidding system drives prices down. This is true. But when everyone else is offering bargain-basement prices, you have an opportunity to differentiate yourself as the "high-quality alternative." I've made decent money on Elance by selling myself as high-priced and worth every penny. So far it's worked--my feedback is 100% positive, and I rarely compromise on my prices anymore. Of course, it does take time to build up the kind of reputation that allows you to do this.

You can only find lousy keyword-article jobs on bidding sites. Also not true. There is plenty of keyword article work on Elance--and I've gotten paid reasonable prices for articles there; not all keyword article work is underpaid. But if that's not your thing, there are plenty of other projects to bid on--including brochures and sales letters, ghostwriting and editing, web copy, print articles, newsletters, white papers, transcription and scripts.

When I started writing, I really hadn't done that much. I didn't know what I liked, where my talents lay, and how to sell myself as a writer. Elance allowed me to try many different types of copywriting and decide what I liked and where I should start to specialize.

Elance buyers are dishonest and shady. I've heard horror stories from writers who say their buyers never paid them, their feedback ratings were trashed unfairly, and so on. I'm not saying this never happens, but it's never happened to me. I've worked with hundreds of people on Elance and so far (knock on wood), nobody has failed to pay me.

I actually believe that in some cases, working through bidding sites can be safer than working solo. I don't get all my work via Elance now--I use them only rarely as a stopgap. But many of my clients are online--I find them all over the place. Some are in different countries. If my latest client, in South Africa, decided not to pay me, how would I drag him into small claims court? It can be difficult to extract payment out of online clients in far-flung locations.

Elance gives you some protection from no-pay clients. They have a dispute-resolution system in place, so as long as you document your agreement you have someone to back it up if it's broken. There's also the feedback system--you can leave feedback for buyers too. This is a powerful incentive to resolve disputes to everyone's satisfaction, because leaving negative feedback for a buyer can limit them from attracting the best providers for their projects in the future.

When to use Elance: I think that Elance is a good way to get a start in freelancing. It's pricey, but I've earned much more each year than the cost of my membership. If you have a day job and can afford to underbid to attract buyers while you work to accumulate feedback, it's not such a bad way to get started.

When not to use Elance: I don't think that Elance is such a great deal if you're already established, with a long list of satisfied clients and a website full of great-looking samples. You probably won't have much trouble getting work on free listings or by contacting potential clients directly.

Elance isn't a great idea if you're looking for an immediate payoff, either. It takes time to gather feedback, and you have to be willing to be the low-cost option for a while until you do get work. For a beginner with a day job and no immediate financial need, this isn't such a problem. But for an experienced professional with high rates, it's not the best option--everyone starts as a "beginner" on Elance, no matter how many years of experience they have outside of it.

I think the reason why I did well on Elance--and the reason I continue to use it--has to do with timing. I started using it at the right point in my career, when the benefits in experience and contacts outweighed the cost of earning feedback. Now, I've used it enough to build up a great rating, and I can earn decent prices there. I don't use it often anymore, and wouldn't recommend anyone use it as their sole method of doing business. But I do use it as a stopgap when other options aren't working, and so far it's worth it to me to hang onto my membership a little longer.

If you're wondering about bidding sites in general or Elance in particular, think about your particular position first. Weigh the costs and benefits for you. Contact people who already use the site, and ask them about the pros and cons. Conventional wisdom may be well-meaning, but only you can decide what opportunities are worth your time.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Blogging Green

Today is Blog Action Day and the topic is the environment. Today thousands of bloggers across the net are writing about environmental topics and concerns. Not to sound like the old cliche, but I really did grow up in a log cabin in the woods--in Vermont, along a dirt road, out of sight of neighbors and miles from the nearest store. Vermont has very little zoning regulation, and as I've watched housing developments and parking lots and Wal-Marts threaten my hometown, I've grown very passionate about environmental issues.

It can be difficult to know where to start when it comes to the environment. I never feel smaller or more ineffectual than when thinking about issues like global warming--it's easy to give up before I start, thinking I'm just one person and what difference can I possibly make?

I think that environmental activists would say, however, that as one person you're definitely making a negative difference by choosing to do nothing. And I also know that it's no good to look at the Big Picture when setting goals--you have to set goals that are possible for you on a day to day basis. So for Blog Action Day, I'm writing up a list of three easy, relatively cheap things you can do as a freelance writer to make a difference.

Work from home. As a work-from-home freelancer, you're already more environmentally friendly than most office workers. Every day, millions of people drive to work, putting about 333 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere yearly. By choosing not to drive to work every day, you are keeping a few tons of carbon dioxide out of the air and significantly reducing your own carbon footprint.

Recycle your office paper--and buy recycled paper. About 41% of solid waste in America is paper. In an office, paper makes up about 80% of that waste. It's a common misconception that recycled paper isn't appropriate for office use--it's thick and discolored and crumbly. But in fact, you can buy 100% recycled paper from Staples that looks exactly like ordinary printer and copy paper. The only difference is the price: it's slightly more expensive.

You are doing the world a favor by choosing to buy recycled paper for your office. For every ton of paper you use, you'll be saving about 17 trees. You'll also reduce the demand for paper made from scratch. This is good for several reasons.

Paper companies don't always harvest wild trees to make paper. Much of the time, they replant the forests they cut down. Sounds good, right? Well...not really. Tree farms often cut down older, diverse forests with established ecosystems, replacing them with a few species of trees that grow quickly and are great for making paper--usually softwoods. But the surrounding ecosystem was adapted to a naturally diverse forest of trees--and without them, it can fail.

By buying recycled paper, you also keep paper out of landfills. It's true that paper is biodegradable. But when it rots, it produces methane--a greenhouse gas twenty times worse than carbon dioxide. There's no doubt that the millions of tons of paper in our landfills is contributing to global warming.

Recycling paper also takes less energy--and emits less pollution--than creating it from scratch. Every ton of recycled paper saves approximately 8,000 gallons of water, plus three to four thousand kilowatt-hours of energy. Recycling paper also puts out 95% less air pollution than manufacturing paper from scratch.

So recycle your office paper--and buy recycled paper. This way, you can help reduce the demand for paper made from scratch, increase the demand for recycled paper, save natural forests, reduce global warming, help preserve natural ecosystems....whew! If that doesn't convince you to recycle paper, I don't know what will.

Use energy efficient bulbs. Simply by using compact fluorescent bulbs, you can save 50% to 90% of the energy used by incandescents. Using energy efficient bulbs saves about a ton of carbon dioxide. It's a smart economic choice, too. Over its lifetime, a compact fluorescent bulb will pay for itself, even though it's more expensive on the supermarket shelf.

Forget making big sacrifices, cutting the cord and living off the land--if just one person does that, it won't make much difference. But if every household in America simply replaced one incandescent bulb with a compact fluorescent, we could reduce the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as we could by removing 1.3 million cars from the road. Now that's change.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Getting More Business Without Picking Up the Phone

One of my freelance writing idols is Peter Bowerman, author of The Well Fed Writer. I never even knew there was such a career as a copywriter until I read his book. I got that book for Christmas a few years after graduating college, and I thought to myself: "this is it. This is exactly what I need to do." Like a lot of writers, I credit him with showing me the way.

But there's one thing he advocates in his book that I just can't seem to do, and that held me back from being a full-time freelancer for a long time: cold-calling.

Peter's sales technique relies on cold-calling. To build a business his way, you have to go through the phonebook (or the online yellow pages, nowadays) and dial hundreds of numbers, give hundreds of sales pitches over the phone, and then send samples to those who ask for them. There's just one problem with this approach: I completely lose it around the phone. I get nervous. I misspeak. I wander off script. I really am The World's Worst Telemarketer.

The thing is, I'm a darn good writer--and I didn't feel that a lack of ability for phone sales should hold me back from doing what I'm actually good at. So after a few months of trying to follow Bowerman's advice and market myself via phone--I think I actually did harm to my career by doing this--I started to look for other alternatives. Here's what I came up with:

Join a bidding site. Everyone has their favorite. Mine is Elance. The problem with bidding sites is that each bid turns into a bit of a price war that drives wages down. But I've gotten some reasonably-priced work from this site. The trick is to post proposals without worrying about others' prices. Sometimes you'll be much higher than anyone else, but sometimes you'll only be a bit higher. Sell yourself as the "high-quality alternative" and you will get work. You definitely won't get every job--and I've gotten my bids rejected plenty of times because they were too high. But for every ten to twenty bids I place, I get one or two jobs.

Post on forums. There are forums for everything nowadays--from SEO to insurance sales. Find a forum that caters to an industry you have experience writing for. Many professional forums have a section that allows you to promote yourself--so put in a post advertising your business. Join in the discussions, and put a link to your website in your signature so it shows up every time. It's a good way to connect with others in the industries you write for. I've gotten work this way in the past.

Send some emails. Do a Google search for businesses in an industry you've written for. Write a generic sales letter that can be tweaked slightly to accommodate individual businesses, and email it over. I've had the best luck doing this when I've done something to make the email seem personally tailored to the site--so be sure to mention something specific about their business you feel you could make a positive difference with. But that's just the intro; the rest of the letter, which details your abilities and experiences, can be boilerplate. Send it along and see what happens. I've picked up several long-term clients this way.

Frequent job boards. There are several blogs and sites that gather and post online job listings for writers. Here are a few I like:

Deborah Ng's Freelance Writing Jobs
The Golden Pencil
Online Writing Jobs
Words on the Page
About Freelance Writing
Media Bistro
Tech Writers
Writers Weekly

There are also other ways to promote yourself online, including writing and commenting on blogs, learning SEO, creating and optimizing a website, article marketing, and so on. But these four tips are quick and easy--you can use them to pay the bills while you refine your online marketing techniques. You don't need in-person sales skills or vast technological knowledge--just an ability to say the right things in print. And you probably have that already, or you wouldn't be in this business.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Promotional Language Must Die

I've been meaning to write about this for a while, ever since I saw this article over at the Copywriter's Crucible about how people ignore advertising when they read--but they do read the news. Apparently, people reading online have even less tolerance and attention for ads than readers of print magazines and newspapers.

I guess I just have one question: why is this a surprise?

Maybe I think more like a "consumer" than an advertiser, but when I think about my own behavior online, I have to admit: I never look at ads. I never click on sponsored links. Somebody must be, because there are plenty of people making money from PPC and text link ads. But I don't. And when I surf online I don't look at graphics much, either. If something is flashing at me, jumping up and down, or dancing the Cha-Cha in one corner of the screen, I know it's probably an ad--and I deliberately avoid looking at it.

Can Internet readers spot an ad a mile away? You betcha--if I'm not just a weird and completely unique example of my species, that is. But somehow I don't think I am. And I wonder what is it that makes marketers, graphic designers, and advertisers think that people will automatically stop and look at something they know is an ad? Do they do this themselves when they're surfing, for any reason other than professional curiosity? And why does it take an eyetracker study to figure this out? Why isn't it just common sense? It seems to me that if businesses stopped and asked themselves "would I watch/read/click on this ad by choice, if I was just a regular human being surfing the net?" before they sent a campaign off into the wide world, they'd make a lot more money.

So how does this apply to writers?

I found a fascinating article on a Nielsen study that looked at what type of writing gets the most attention online. They used several samples of writing that discussed the same topic in different ways. One was objective; it simply stated the facts. Another was promotional; it contained "exaggeration, subjective claims, and boasting." The samples were presented in long versions, short versions, scannable versions, and versions that mixed plain objectivity with subjective, promotional language.

The study found that objective language was 27% more effective at getting the message across than promotional language. Effectiveness went up when the language was concise and easy to scan. The study's conclusion states that readers take longer to process promotional language because of resistance: the copy makes a bold claim, and the reader thinks "yeah, right. You're just trying to sell me something." With objective language, readers simply accept what's said at face value.

The lesson: online readers can spot advertising embedded in text just as easily as if it were a big sparkly giraffe in the corner, dancing the tango.

This seems like common sense to me as well. I remember a few years ago I looked into AWAI, a company that sells correspondence courses on how to write sales letters. I asked about the company in a writers' forum, and some writers said the class was worth the money. There were many, however, who thought the classes were a scam. Not because they didn't like the product--most of them hadn't tried it--but because they didn't trust the sales copy on the website.

AWAI teaches how to write direct response. And their web copy is written in the same style. Click around their site, and you'll see a lot of claims that their classes will lead to working only two or three hours a month, making money hand over fist, and living in a mansion by the beach somewhere. I know that these sales letters are intended to hit the "emotional hot buttons" of people who visit the site--and hey, piles of cash, houses by the beach, and a two-hour work month sound great to me--but they were also causing a lot of distrust in people who may well have bought their product otherwise. People were thinking the claims were just too good to be true.

Meanwhile, I wrote an educational landing page for a client who sells water filters. The page discussed the health risks of chlorine vapor and the benefits of shower filters in a purely objective, informational tone. It doubled the conversion rate of his control. Why? I'd say it's because it increased readers' trust in him as a vendor.

I think that marketers, advertisers, and yes, even copywriters sometimes forget what an unpleasant feeling it is to be approached with a sales pitch. Walking out of my supermarket just a few hours ago, I saw a booth set up for a nonprofit looking for donations. I made the mistake of glancing over at the table as I walked past. Immediately the woman staffing it ran up to me and started talking very fast: "Hihowareyouwhydon'tyoucomeoverrealquickandcheckoutourwork!" I wasn't in a hurry, and I'm often willing to contribute to causes I believe in. But her approach turned me off so much that I couldn't get out of there fast enough.

It's like that in print and online, too. It can be easy to forget that the people we're trying to reach are just like us. They want real information that will help them make decisions and educate them about topics they're interested in. They don't think of themselves as "consumers" and they don't want their web-based info-seeking to be interrupted by intrusive, attention-grabbing ads or sales letters making far-fetched claims.

The bottom line: promotional language doesn't work on the web. But information sells.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Five Reasons to Embrace the Humble Keyword Article Gig

I do a lot of keyword article churn-outs. Yeah, I know; these are the bottom of the barrel when it comes to writing work. Not sexy and glamorous like a high-earning sales letter. Not creative and inspiring like writing a novel or a poem. Plenty of writers turn up their noses at these gigs, but there are a lot of reasons why you should embrace them. Here are just a few:

They're lucrative. When most people think of keyword articles, they think of those joke gigs that demand hundreds of articles for $3 apiece. And if you do it that way, you definitely won't make much for your time. But there are clients who want good work from good writers, and are willing to pay a decent wage. I figure half an hour to two hours per page for this work, depending on the topic, and then price accordingly. Sometimes I quote a normal price to a client who's expecting the third-world price. But once I explain that these articles will include their name and links and will reflect on them professionally, they're sometimes surprisingly willing to pay reasonable prices for work that will make them look good. And once they see how much traffic, recognition, and business a set of well-written articles brings them, they're usually willing to come back for more.

They're regular. Article marketing is a volume game. The more articles you have out there, the more traffic you get. Keyword article clients are not just looking for a one-shot project. They have ongoing writing needs, and if they like you, they'll put in a nice big order each month. Impress a few SEO's or affiliate marketers, charge reasonable rates, and there you go: the closest you'll come to financial stability as a freelance writer.

They're no sweat. Most keyword and article marketing pieces are simple how-tos. There's no need to track down experts to interview--the article is coming from the point of view of the client, who is presenting himself as the expert. You don't have to come up with an elaborate "angle." You're not looking to make something newsworthy, convert visitors to buyers, or win advertising awards; just inform people and help customers. If you have a lot of high-pressure client work that demands lots of creativity and sales savvy, a few keyword articles may just be a breath of fresh air.

You don't have much competition. In the article writing business, your competition is often the low-budget third-world outsourcer. Yes, they will undercut you on price--and that will work to your advantage. Position yourself as the reasonably priced, skilled alternative for articles that stand out in the crowd, and you're sure to get plenty of work.

When it comes to web article writing, it's not hard to look good. Fill your articles with useful, well-organized information, write well and include catchy headings and subheads, and add some value with your knowledge of keyword optimization and web-writing best practices, and you'll be irreplaceable to your clients.

You always learn something new. I don't know how some writers can limit the topics they write on. I'll write on anything I can research and learn about without needing an advanced degree--because I love learning new things. A lot of writers groan about having to write thirty 500-word articles on something like "real estate," but I see this as an opportunity to become a pseudo-expert. When you have to write a lot about something, you have to get into the minds of readers to figure out what they would want to know about the industry. You don't just learn about the topic; you also learn about controversy and questions in the industry, how customers view it, and how its businesses operate. If you like business at all, it's fascinating.

I now know a lot about a number of random topics. At home I'm the resident expert on Do-Not-Call legislation because of a previous client project; I make telemarketers cry. I know more about residential fire sprinklers than some firefighters I know. Want to know how to buy conflict-free diamonds, the difference between HD and Blu-ray, or the history of hot air balloons? I'm your girl.

Sometimes the knowledge you pick up from article marketing campaigns is interesting but random. At other times, it's useful. Nearly everything I know about SEO comes from writing articles for SEO clients.

Next time you get an offer for a batch of articles, don't brush it off. Instead, make a reasonably priced offer and see what the client says. Not every article marketing client is looking for cheap writing--many really do care about quality. If you impress the client, you could get a nice, easy, lucrative gig that pays your rent every month. And you'll soon be able to dazzle friends and family with your in-depth knowledge of...oyster breeding habits. Hey, you never know.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Remembering the Process

Not to brag, but I rarely get asked for revisions.

When I think about my time in college when I learned to structure an essay, I remember how much emphasis was placed on the process. You never got anything right on the first try. The first draft was just a draft, and while sometimes it counted for a grade, it was never perfect. It usually came back with at least a few marks from the dreaded red pen.

How different it is when you're writing for a living.

When I started freelance writing, I was just a couple of years out of college. And I still thought of writing as a process. I never assumed that the first draft would be perfect, and it never occurred to me that clients would not expect revisions. But when I started working, I was surprised when my first paying client accepted my work on the first try: "That's perfect! Just what we wanted! Send over an invoice!" I was thrilled that she loved it, but I was also wondering what happened to the process. Are you sure? I wanted to ask. Isn't there some way this could conceivably be better?

As time went by, I had a lot more clients who loved the first draft. Less than a quarter of my clients asked for revisions. And I realized that there was sometimes a gulf between a client's expectations and the way I had been taught to view my writing. There's a small but vocal minority of clients who believe that since they're hiring a professional, they should get a perfect product on the first try. And sometimes they're so shocked and amazed that they don't get a picture-perfect first draft that they're willing to take their project to someone else--or they might try to get out of paying the writer. Just look what happened to the poor Frump.

These clients don't understand that any writing activity is a process, not a one-shot deal. And as a professional writer, you can ask as many questions as possible on the front end--but there's still some possibility that you'll misunderstand something, the client might misstate something, or you'll both just have different visions for the piece. Creativity is not an exact science.

These days I rarely do get asked for revisions. I've learned to ask questions, check out websites on my own, and try to combine client-given info with what I observe about their business. I also choose writing projects that fit my strengths, and try to screen for clients who are a good match. But every so often, I do get asked for revisions. And sometimes they're extensive.

Once, I had a client who was so dissatisfied with the first draft that he stopped the project partway through. This was when I was just starting out, and it really affected my confidence. It also made it very clear to me that some clients don't see writing as a process at all--that they expect a home run on the first pitch.

To this day, I still think of that project when I get asked for extensive revisions. It hasn't happened again so far--of those who've needed revisions in the several years since, all have been able to work with me to get things exactly right. But it shows me that I've come to expect the same thing from myself that some clients expect from me: perfection at all times.

Maybe it's time for me to re-learn what I used to know: writing is a process.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Eight Random Facts About Me

I've been tagged by Kathy Kehrli at the Irreverent Freelancer for a meme: "The Random 8 Meme: Tagged with My Pants Down!"

Here are the rules:

1. Link to the person who tagged you and post these rules.
2. List eight random facts about yourself.
3. Tag eight people at the end of your post and list their names with links.
4. Let them know they’ve been tagged by leaving them a comment on their blogs.

8 random facts about me:

1. I'm a classically trained singer.

2. When I was a teenager, I wanted to be an actress on Broadway. I'm an (occasionally) working actress now: I've been in a few local commercials and lots of plays in and around Philly. I also model randomly sometimes. I'm on the cover of a romance novel: Kathryn Smith's Taken By the Night, which is coming out in November.

3. I started to write before I could actually write. I used to draw pictures on construction paper, then have my mom write captions underneath. She'd staple them together, and voila: my first paperbacks. She still has a filing cabinet full of these things, which she'll bring out and pass around when I bring guests over.

4. My current boyfriend and I celebrated our eight-year anniversary this June.

5. My favorite foods are sushi and Ethiopian.

6. I'm an avid downhill skier and used to be an instructor in high school and college.

7. I have six toes on one foot.

8. My bedroom has a working wood stove in it.

Just to make it interesting: ONE of these eight facts isn't true!

I'm now tagging Chris, Amy, Laura, Courtney, Susan, The Frump, Matt, and Rico.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Smart Spec Work: When to Work for Free

On a post a few days back, Ted Grigg from DMCG left a comment that got me thinking. I made a sort of off-the-cuff reference to how spec work is never a good idea. Ted responded that there are some times when working for free as a freelancer might be an advantage. Thinking about it later, I realized that “never” is too strong a word. Here are some circumstances under which I’ve worked for free—and maybe you have, too.

You need some legitimate-looking samples. Nobody comes out of the womb with a fully-formed portfolio of writing samples set in professional graphics. If you have no experience, it can be tough to convince someone to pay you to write—even if you know you can do it. I collected my first samples by writing a newsletter for my former employer, a brochure for my dad’s business, a fundraising letter for the choir I sang with, and a few feature articles for a local arts magazine—all for free. Those gave me the credentials and the confidence I needed to start looking for paying work.

Do it smart: Choose clients who will be willing to help you in your quest to look professional. Offer to do the project for free if they’ll dress it up with graphics and give you copies. Or ask them to provide you with your first testimonials, or contact info to use as a business reference. This will help you establish a professional-looking track record in a short amount of time.

You want to break into a new area. If you have come to specialize in one area of copywriting and want to break into another, you might want to consider doing some spec work to make connections and get samples. I’ve read advice from direct mail marketers that said to seed yourself on the mailing lists of companies who use direct mail, choose a business and write a sales letter for them, and then send it in on an “I’ll bet my letter can beat your control” offer. No matter what type of writing you’re looking to break into, a free or even discounted offer can look attractive—especially if you already have a professional track record to prove you’re good at what you do.

Do it smart: As with the situation above, make sure you’re getting something in exchange: a finished copy, testimonials or references. Make sure their testimonials reference the type of work you did (for example: “Jennifer did an AMAZING job writing our video script!”) so that you can showcase your experience there.

You’re genuinely inspired to write. I occasionally write free posts for Employee Evolution, a site geared toward Generation Y in the workplace. I’ve been interested in this topic ever since I experienced my own generational culture clashes in my first jobs out of college. I already had a few ideas for articles in this vein, and writing for them was easy for me.

I’m willing to work for free on a very limited basis if it’s a topic I’m extremely interested in, or a cause I’m passionate about. I know several writers who have donated work for charities and nonprofits they believe in, and I see nothing wrong with that.

Do it smart: If you’re writing for charity, you’re writing for charity. But if it’s just a topic you’re interested in, try to be tactical about who you choose to write for. Employee Evolution, for example, wasn’t a random choice. It has a lot of recognition in its area. It’s been cited in the New York Times and other well-known publications, and it has a strong audience. Even if I was writing for them for free, I knew that having my work and links on their page would bring me good things.

You really will get great exposure. I cringe at those job offers on Craigslist and other places that say “we can’t afford to pay you, but you’ll get great exposure.” But I realized I’ve done just that many times. I’ve written articles for article directories without any compensation, as part of my article marketing campaign. But in these cases, I really do get some exposure. The idea is to get links to my site out there and establish credibility on the web.

Do it smart: Be very selective about where you choose to submit your articles. Choose sites whose articles come up all the time in web searches, with strong Page Ranks and a track record of at least two years. No start-up that can’t afford to pay you can offer good traffic and exposure. But a good article directory doesn’t pay its authors because it doesn’t have to—it has other things to give.

In addition, don’t submit articles for free to a place that won’t allow you to use your own name as a byline, link back to your website, or choose your anchor text.

Never work for free if you won’t benefit from it. That’s the bottom line. When you’re doing paid work, the client rules. But if you’re not getting money for your work, make sure the job serves your agenda in some other way: it’s a sample you need or exposure that will benefit you.