Friday, December 19, 2008

My Freelance Wish List

CatalystBlogger will be on official holiday hiatus until January 2. This has been my second full year in business, and it has been seriously eventful--I may not have accomplished everything on my resolutions list from last year, but I did a lot this year and I'm happy with my progress. Sometimes life doesn't go the way you plan it, and it's a constant struggle for me to be okay with that.

But anyway, if there's room in Santa's bag for gifts for freelancers, here's my list of requests.

A blessed absence of tech problems. People assume that because I run a more-or-less online business that I'm technically savvy. Um...not so fast. All I know about technical issues is I want the darn things to work. Period. End of story. I don't want to troubleshoot. I don't want to figure out new and better ways to do things. I just want to get the job done without any fuss or bother. And when things break, I can think of absolutely nothing I want to do less than figure out the problem myself. To people who truly understand technology, machines are predictable. To me, they're fickle and mysterious and go deviant for absolutely no reason. Don't make me muck around in there.

A long run of mediocre clients. In the face of a rash of stellar clients and difficult ones, writing buddy Lori brought up a desire for mediocre clients. Freelancing is an up-and-down business, and that's true of the people you work for as well as the pay. Sometimes the clients is off-the-charts in love with you, and you're a superstar. Other times you just can't do anything right. Instead of the ups and downs, I'm happy to work with a long string of even-tempered, easy-going folks who know what they want, say "thanks" at the end and pay you on time. That's the kind of client I'm wishing for more of.

More hours in the day. My workload has increased as my business has grown. I used to have a perfect workday pretty much all the time: I worked four hours a day on client work, four hours a day on work for my business, and I was golden. Now I'm lucky to squeeze in marketing and business-related stuff on weekends and lunch breaks. I wish for a return to that schedule sweet spot--or more hours in the day, whichever is more possible.

A successful year for writers.This hasn't been a banner year for most businesses. I've been booming--partially because even in a recession, businesses need to market; much of the time they need to market more. My final wish is that success will continue to come despite economic conditions--not just to me, but to all of my colleagues in writing, design, SEO, and other related businesses.

Have a great holiday, and I'll see you next year!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Anyone Else Sick of Technology Prophecies?

There are a lot of predictions on the net about the demise of keyboards with the improvement of touch-screen technology and the development of better voice recognition and even gesture-recognition software. The breathless hype claims that soon we'll all be able to use touch screens, just talk or--better yet--act out the things we wish to type, and our computers will faithfully transcribe them with no actual typing on our part.

Maybe most people don't like to type. I love to type; I can type as fast as I can think thanks to a typing class I took a long time ago in high school. Plus, I'm better at organizing my thoughts on the page than I am in saying them aloud; I could never dictate a client project or a novel, but I'm pretty proficient at writing those things. (Well, maybe not novels. But dictating a novel would lead to a big huge incoherent mess.) I'm not looking forward to anyone rendering my keyboard obsolete. I intend to hang onto it with cracked and bleeding fingernails until the bitter end.

Tech articles that gleefully claim the end of the keyboard is just around the corner seem to forget that this isn't a desirable outcome for some of us. Not only do I not want to dictate, use a touch screen, or--God forbid--gesture my next client project into existence, I don't like writing on tiny screens. I don't need a huge, million-pixeled expensive desktop screen like designers use; I just need to see what I'm writing without squinting, and to see both sides of a page without having to scroll left or right. It's not much to ask. So please don't suggest that laptops will soon be the size of PDA's. You're giving me the heebie-jeebies.

This isn't the only dire prophecy for writers. We're all sick of hearing about the demise of the book. Since people are reading less and spending more time online, people assume that readers are reading online--and now that Google is scanning entire books to make their contents available online, who will want to read a stupid paper book?

Well, I do. Those who love curling up with a book don't love curling up with a laptop. You can't read a laptop screen in the bath. You can't read a laptop screen on the beach. Laptops run out of batteries and have to be plugged in; books don't. You're stuck in your uncomfortable desk chair when you're reading on your desktop; you can sit wherever you want and read a book. Plus reading screens for hours makes my eyes squinty; reading books doesn't. Yes, I read news and some blogs and articles online--but it is absolutely no substitute for a real book.

All of these advances in technology are bad for both writers and readers. My hope is that as technology evolves, it will consider the wants and needs of those who still love and live by the written word--instead of steamrolling over us in the interests of progress.

Monday, December 15, 2008

13 Signs You Don't Want That Project

I just found this hilarious list on "20 Signs You Don't Want That Web Design Project" (and thanks to Inkthinker for finding this page!). I had to laugh at this list--and I was inspired to write my own. As with Zeldman's list, this one is based entirely on firsthand experience.

1. Client tells you he's a "bit of a writer himself." In fact, he'd write the coming project himself, but he just doesn't have the time. Take my word for it: this one will criticize your copy to death in his efforts to prove to you--or to himself--that he's a writer too.

2. The client asks you why you're charging so much money for a postcard mailer when it's "just a measly couple of lines." He tells you he could write it himself in ten minutes.

3. Client asks if you can't just copy and paste the home page text from a competitor's site to save money on writing costs.

4. The client can't tell you why his product is better than the competition's. He can't tell you who his competition is. When you ask who his audience is, he says "everyone."

5. There's no real budget for this project, but he'll have lots of really highly paid work in the future and he's looking for a long-term partner who's willing to "get in on the ground floor."

6. The client sells purple widgets for the multi-pronged flange industry. He's looking for a ten-page brochure for his latest product. He demands to know how many ten-page brochures selling purple widgets you've written targeted toward the multi-pronged flange industry.

7. The client tells you he loves what you written, it's perfect, he's absolutely satisfied. Then you send the invoice. Then he needs extensive revisions.

8. The client tells you he has a million-dollar promotional budget for his new business venture. Then when you send him a quote for the work, he tells you it's too high and he could get the work for a fraction of the price from writers in India.

10. The client asks you why you charge so much when he could get the same work done elsewhere for $5 a page.

11. You deliver a quote. The client asks for a reduction in price. You tell him you can meet $x budget if he's willing to sacrifice y and z. The client tells you he wants a reduction in price without reducing the amount of work.

12. The client loves your first draft. Then he comes back a few days later saying he spoke to his wife, his cousin in marketing, or his father-in-law who writes technical manuals and they all think what you've written doesn't have "that WOW factor."

13. You send in the first draft. The client says, "that's a good start. Now make it better." When asked what he thinks should be improved, the client is vague to completely nonresponsive.

What are your signs of a bad business partnership?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Keeping Stress to a Minimum (It's All in Your Head)

My business is starting to grow. I'm landing higher-profile clients and more lucrative contracts. While this is definitely something worth celebrating--I'm not complaining, and I feel blessed to be doing well so far in this economy--I'm also feeling the level of pressure increase as the level of client and pay does. This is the ugly side of success that nobody tells you about.

Some people are naturally chill and relaxed, while others have so much confidence that nothing phases them. I'm a very high-strung individual, and I really, really want to please my clients. But this month I found myself under a lot of stress, and my traditional way of dealing with it--i.e. breathing heavily into a paper bag until the urge to pass out subsides--just wasn't cutting it any more.

At the beginning of the month, I landed myself in a situation where it seemed whatever could go wrong did. At the end of two weeks of incendiary contract disputes with a third-party client, I found myself on a bus to Boston on the way to a week-long business trip, stuck in traffic, twenty minutes from my flight's departure time. Under normal circumstances I would be banging my head against the window and shrieking at the driver to drive over the median to get there faster. But after all I'd been through up until then, I had to laugh. For what was probably the first time in my life, I thought to myself, "screw it. I'll either make the flight or I won't." And somehow, I did make the flight.

This taught me a big lesson: even though I have complete faith in my own skill as a writer, this job can still bring me enormous stress. I could handle it when I was just starting out. But at the levels I'm starting to compete at, it could easily consume me. I realized this month that this job could only get to me if I let it--and I had to stop letting it.

Here are a few mental tricks I'm putting into practice to lift the pressure.

Keep things in perspective. We're writers, not doctors. When we screw up, nobody dies. Nations don't rise and fall. Global economies don't crash. The worst that can happen is someone's promotion isn't as successful as hoped, or there's a typo in the headline of your sales letter, or your landing page doesn't beat the control. Not great, true--that typo thing can seem like the end of the world to us grammar perfectionists--but not exactly a national crisis, either. Whenever something doesn't go as planned and you feel yourself starting to stress, ask yourself this: in five years, will you care?

Pick and choose what you'll allow to stress you out. Let your family issues stress you out. Let your relationships stress you out. Let your dog's hip displasia stress you out. But do not let other people's stresses stress you out. As your business grows, you'll find yourself working with many, many people who are stressed themselves. They need your draft yesterday. They're dealing with pressures of their own. Do your best for them, but don't let their anxiety become your anxiety. Set boundaries when needed.

Let go of other people's responses. You don't want them to like your work--you want them to love it. As a professional with a very high standard of quality, i can totally relate to that. But bear in mind that the quality of your work and the client's response are not always tied to each other. No matter how on-target your copy is, you will almost always get nit-pickers and people who feel the need to mark their territory by giving you additional revisions. Take a deep breath and do the best you can, but do not let criticism of your work damage your confidence as a writer. That confidence is your livelihood.

There will always be another chance. Clients come and go. Projects come and go. Nothing is forever. If one business relationship doesn't work out, it could be a blessing in disguise--it could clear your schedule for that fabulous project or client just around the corner. When you let go of a troublesome business relationship, remember that the money will come back--you're freelance and flexible, and there are thousands of businesses who need your expertise.

Running your own business is always stressful. And in a creative field, you face myriad challenges from client attitudes toward writing in general, subjective direction, giant egos and third-party editors with agendas of their own, among other things. But as long as you're making enough money every month to support yourself, you're doing fine.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Interviews: Keeping Control of the Conversation

I've just returned from a big trip to a client site across the country. Hence not a lot of posting last week; I thought I'd get time to write a bunch of posts (again), but found myself wined and dined long after the traditional work day was over. I had a lovely time--but I also worked hard, interviewing multiple staffmembers at all levels of the organization.

Interviewing is hard work. It's tough to draw a person out, cultivate trust, and still keep the conversation focused and ensure you're getting all the information you need. I tend to be a very focused person--I want to get in, get out, and move on. But many people I interview don't work the way I do--they're less focused, and as the interviewer you need to be sure you can keep control of the conversation.

Here are several different types of interviewees I encountered on my trip--and how to make sure you get the answers you need from each of them.

The self-aggrandizer. The self-aggrandizer is thrilled to death that you're interviewing him. And he doesn't think you're interested in the company's services and the insight he brings to those--he thinks you're interested in him. Personally. So he might answer your questions perfunctorily, but he'll always wander back to himself--how he started working there, where he worked beforehand, his family and how they felt about his taking the job. When working with the self-aggrandizer, it's important to tell them at the outset why you're interviewing him and what information you're interested in. Sometimes it helps to give him his due and listen to his digressions, and act suitably impressed--once he feels he's been heard, he may be willing to move on to more relevant topics.

The befriender. The befriender can't sit down to have a conversation without trying to get to know you as well. And that would be great--if you didn't have six other people to interview today. She'll ask you questions about yourself and tell you personal details of her own life in an effort to build rapport. Let her do it for a bit--it will make her more likely to open up when you start asking the important questions--but don't let it continue for too long, or you'll have made a new friend without getting the info you need.

The clam. The clam doesn't have much to say. He answers your questions with one-word answers, and he's very difficult to draw out. When working with this guy, it's important to avoid yes-or-no answers like the plague; if he can get away with yes or no, he will. Be prepared to follow up with further questions and know exactly what information you're trying to get. With the clam, you may have to write your own quotes and then go back to him for approval; it's unlikely he'll deliver any memorable sound bites.

The confused soul. The confused one has difficulty staying on topic. He doesn't just want to tell you about the service the company offers now; he wants to talk about the services they're planning to offer next year, the services they tried and discontinued, and everything in between. With this one, it's key to tell him at the outset exactly what information you need at the outset and how you plan to use it. This way, he's more likely to focus only on the information that's useful to you.

Keeping control of the conversation is important for any interviewer. You need to make sure you get all the crucial information without wasting too much time--even though it takes time to build rapport and get someone to open up. When you're balancing thoroughness and efficiency, you always walk a tightrope. But with experience, you'll soon become adept at controlling the conversation without seeming abrupt.

Monday, December 1, 2008

What I'm Up To

November is over, and I'm re-committing to getting regular posts up this month. I have to admit this year has been crazy; I had to stop blogging regularly this summer and this spring when other commitments got in the way. This is probably why I'll never be a pro blogger--I tend to know when I've got too much to handle, and I tend to drop the least-paying commitments first.

A few people wrote in with offers to do guest posts, and I appreciate the offers. While I didn't take you up on it this time, I will definitely look into it next time I feel a hiatus coming on and will keep your names on file. If you'd like to be considered to write a guest post for me, get in touch. I may be able to work something out where you write a post, send it in, and I save it for a rainy day.

Anyway, here's what I've been up to this month instead of blogging:

A big fiction-writing contest. I'm one of those people who's always talking about writing a book, but I've never finished one. A lot of writers I know commit to National Novel Writing Month every year, but few finish the stated goal: a 50,000 word novel in one month. Granted, 50,000 words is a pretty short novel. Last year I gave it a good try, but finished well short of the goal. This year, with the help of a very close group of like-minded friends, I completed 50,000 words. Doing this involved writing about 2500 words of my novel a night. It was grueling--I gave up social commitments, time spent with family, and even stopped posting on this blog to get through it. But recommitting to my creative goals was really invigorating for me. I punched through a plateau that i thought was going to be endless in this novel, and now I'm finally feeling good about finishing it.

A new regular client. I landed a new regular a few months ago, and while the projects started small, they've been pouring in over the last few weeks. I've been taking on as much as I could possibly handle--more than I usually would--to save up for the holidays and for a move I'm planning in the next month or so.

A new website. I've been uploading samples, tweaking copy, and getting my new website up and running. Ideally I wanted to finish in November, but everything else took a backseat to my noveling and freelancing this month. I swear, guys, it'll be up by 2009.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Intermittent Posting til December

Hello again, and I apologize to readers that I have not been posting more often. My work burden has increased lately and I'm also trying to keep up with a big Nano commitment. I thought I could get back to a regular posting schedule this month, but it's starting to look like I may not be able to do that. I will be posting intermittently as I have time, and seeing if I can try to find some time this week to throw up a few posts I can spread out in schedule. Until then, I may have to post a bit more irregularly until the beginning of December.

Thanks for bearing with me!

Monday, November 10, 2008

A Busy Week

Well, it's been a busy week here at Catalyst. I've been handling lots of client work, uploading tons of content for my new website, and sticking to a grueling schedule for NaNo, which I'm sure a lot of the other writers who read this blog can sympathize with. I've been writing from sun-up to sun-down a lot of days--breaking to eat and sleep, believe it or not--and my blogging has dropped off. I definitely owe my readers some good posts.

Speaking of posts, I've noticed that usually I get decent commentary for what I write--but some posts tend to slip under the radar. A lot of bloggers do a round-up of posts that attracted lots of comments, but I'd like to do the opposite. Here are some Catalyst posts that you may have missed.

Shady Writing Projects: What to Watch For. In which Jennifer offers advice about less-than-aboveboard writing projects after a particularly unproductive skim of the online job boards.

How to Spot Web Clutter. One of the first blog posts on this site, in which Jennifer loses it over a really bad SEO article.

What's the Deal With Bulk Rates? In which Jennifer questions why some potential clients expect discounts for large amounts of work.

Why Creative Writers Get the Shaft: In which Jennifer goes on a bit of a rant about the trials and tribulations of our creative brethren.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Outsourcing: What's Your Policy?

Lately I've been getting more and more emails from other copywriters offering their services as outsourcers. I've never done outsourcing before, and I've never worked on an outsourced project. If I have too much work to handle, I'll generally refer potential clients to other writers whose work I respect. I'm a good source of referrals; I even referred a very long-time client to another writer once because he wanted something I could do, but I felt she could do much better. (I didn't lose the client, by the way.)

However, lately I've been thinking about outsourcing and how it might work for my business. I'm wondering if I could get more done by outsourcing some of the work to others and taking a cut. The graphic design company I work with does this when they hire me. I don't know any writers who outsource work to others under their own business model, but I've considered it and know several excellent writers I'd want to tap for this kind of work if I ever decided to get into it. Here are a few outsourcing models I'm considering:

Occasional outsourcing. Every so often I might get swamped. Instead of referring clients to other writers, I could "hire" another writer to do the project and take a cut. I'm not sure how this works in terms of taxes and reporting, and whether or not I should tell clients if it's me doing the work or someone else. I'd love to hear from other writers who do this regularly.

Regular outsourcing. Instead of being a one-woman show, I could partner up with other writers who specialize in different areas: press releases, business plan writing, et cetera. This would allow me to specialize in the writing work I like best, without turning away other work. It would also allow me to exponentially grow my business.

Outsourcing of other services. Why stick with just writing? Why not partner with graphic designers, web designers, programmers, SEO's, desktop publishers, public relations people and other professionals whose work complements mine? Then I'd have a full-service agency.

What's your policy on outsourcing? Have you had luck marketing your services to other writers or outsourcing your own work?

Friday, October 24, 2008

Are 20-Something Workers Out of Line or On to Something?

I'm a regular contributor to Brazen Careerist, a blog and columnist network for twenty-something professionals. I'm interested in news about how my generation is changing and growing into the workplace, and I'm also fascinated by how the media and the larger corporate culture views us. Unfortunately, it's not all good.

The media thrives on stereotypes. And the ones about Generation Y are mixed. According to common wisdom, we're flexible, innovative, enthusiastic and technically savvy. But we're also arrogant and entitled--we're young upstarts who want a flexible workplace, an influential job, and great work-life balance right away. There's more info on this here, here and here, if you're interested.

I can see how this attitude can chafe on veteran workers who dedicated their early years to getting ahead. I also have great respect for those with more experience and years in their profession than I do--I jump at a chance for mentorship whenever I can get it. But I also feel very close to those Gen-Y stereotypes, because, well...look at me. I'm a 20-something entrepreneur who discovered a regular job just couldn't deliver the flexibility and control over my life that I wanted--so I abandoned the whole concept.

The traditional workplace doesn't like to bend to accommodate its employees' happiness. And maybe I'm naive about this, but my question is: why not? I'm an extremely hard worker. I am 100% dedicated to my job and I'm great at what I do. I know I could've done some great things for a company that was willing to make me happy. But life is awfully short, and I thought I would get what I wanted more quickly if I struck out on my own than I would with a regular job, hoping my employers came around. I might have missed opportunities to work with great companies by doing this--but they missed an opportunity with me, as well.

The bottom line is this: Generation Y doesn't want to wait to be happy. We've seen our parents pay their dues, only to be denied steady health insurance, deserved advancement or better quality of life--things they sacrificed their best years for. The things Generation Y is purported to want too early--flexibility, work-life balance, quality of life--are the same things everyone would like to have, no matter your generation. When people say my generation is out of line in wanting these things now, my internal response is always something like this: Why should I have to wait to be happy? Is any career goal worth spending my twenties in misery? I guess I have trouble seeing those things as rewards that you have to spend decades in toil to earn, rather than basic human rights.

I realize that you have to work hard to succeed. I do work hard. I work evenings and weekends. I work twelve-hour days. But the rewards I see for this are direct: greater pay, a more successful business, and more time to have fun later. Sometimes in a corporate situation, the rewards for such hard work aren't so directly delivered. There might be no time off later if you put in extra hours now. Your department may simply expect that kind of work as a matter of course, with no special recognition. You may deserve a bonus or promotion but not get it due to company politics that are out of your control. People put up with this for years.

I believe that everyone, no matter their age or place in the company, deserves a reasonable work-life balance, a flexible schedule and great quality of life. I might get people writing in to say that Corporate America would dissolve if such lax rules were in place, but I'm not so sure--if employees are engaged in their work, work in positions that use their strengths to best advantage, and see direct reward for their contributions, they'll work hard. And today's technologies have made remote working possible for people in diverse industries and positions.

People say Generation Y will change the workplace. I don't know if they will or if they'll just wind up settling for the status quo once they have children and mortgages and can't move around as freely. But it's my hope that older generations will take a look at them and think, "why shouldn't they have these things? Why shouldn't I?"

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Writing for College Credit? Do Your Homework First.

This one's for the college students.

Cruising the blogs yesterday, I found a post on Words on the Page detailing a sham job advertisement looking for students (it's always a bad sign when they're looking for students, isn't it?). The job post was from a start-up "online fashion community" and was looking for bloggers, forum moderators, article writers, e-blast writers, and such to "Develop strategies to motivate and engage our members to become an integral part of our online community"; "Support the expansion of our community with new features and member interaction"; "Write and moderate persuasive, effective and appropriate content for blogs with compelling topics and discussions" and perform other important-sounding tasks. The job wanted students who could commit to a six-month, UNPAID internship. The payoff? College credit.

You see a lot of these job ads for college credit lately. Often they're offering credit instead of payment. And so many students are willing to take these deals because the resume booster is more important to them than the money. But what many students don't realize (I didn't, back when I was a student) is that an employer can't just declare willy-nilly that it can grant you college credit instead of pay. That's up to your school. Here are a few things to keep in mind when looking into internships that offer credit.

Your college may not accept that experience as credit. Some colleges don't offer academic credit for internships at all. Others offer specific internship programs that pair students with approved employers. Generally, you don't get college credit for working with an employer outside that network. In other schools, the policy varies by department. Still others will award you credit, but they'll charge you for it. Overall, the knowledge you gain at the internship has to be of academic value to the school, and may need to be directly relevant to a certain course to justify credit. Be sure to talk to your department head before signing on to any internship program that claims to "offer" college credit. It can't, unless your college goes along with it.

Federal Law has a few things to say about the credit situation. According to Federal law, an intern can't do the same work as a regular employee, and the employer isn't allowed to get an immediate advantage from the work of the student. In other words, it's an arrangement that's supposed to have academic value for the student, not monetary value for the employer. Go to Lori's blog and read that job offer again. Does it sound like this one's breaking any Federal rules? Granted, a lot of legitimate credit internships do break those rules, but interns usually don't know to report them--and wouldn't if they did. This article from Slate has more info on Federal laws regarding college credit.

Be wary of start-ups offering credit. If I were looking for an internship now, I would not look for one with a start-up advertising on Craigslist. First of all, these people are not looking to offer an academically valuable experience to students. They are looking for full-time employees who will work for free. Your work will indeed be monetarily valuable to that company. If you want to be involved with the start-up experience, start your own business this summer instead of carrying someone else's--you won't get college credit for that either, but you might make some money. Second, that start-up looking for a six-month commitment may not even be around in six months. Third, nobody has heard of these companies--and it's doubtful they'll make it big later, especially if they don't even care enough to invest in real employees. They're not likely to give your resume much of a boost. If you want to work in online media, get an internship with an established site instead.

Don't fall for the "college credit" scam being peddled in so many online job offers. If you want an unpaid internship, go with a company that can actually offer you a prestigious-looking line on your resume--and make sure your university will grant you credit for it. If you don't, you may find yourself getting nothing at the end of your internship--no pay, no resume booster, and no credit.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Is the Client Always Right?

Recently I wrote copy for a small postcard flyer. The company was quite technical, but I came up with a snappy concept and covered all the required benefits and bullets in concise, attention-grabbing professional prose. Proud of myself? You bet. The client loved it--but wanted it more wordy and "busy."

Wordiness is definitely not always a good thing--especially in a short promotion that needs to capture attention and get info across quickly. As I've matured in my business, I've found myself coming up against clients who have disagreed with me on what's effective much more often. And I'm starting to suspect that it's not that there are just more of these clients around--but that I'm more clued in to what works and what doesn't.

When I first started out, the client always knew best. Lately, however, I've begun to respectfully disagree when I've suspected I might know more about something than the client does. That's why I was hired, presumably--because I bring to the table an expertise that the client lacks. So I make suggestions. I point things out. Sometimes the client sees my point and is happy for the feedback. Other times I get more polite versions of "just shut up and do what you're told."

What's your experience with disagreeing with clients? Do you speak up when you feel it's warranted, or is the client always right?

Friday, October 17, 2008

Are You Cut Out to Be a Freelancer?

I think my job is the greatest job ever. But recently I was telling someone what I do--very enthusiastically--and she wrinkled her nose. "You mean you don't know what you're going to make from month to month?" she said. "I would hate that."

We're not all cut out to be freelancers. Here are a few signs you shouldn't give up your day job--at least for the time being.

You really can't bring yourself to sell or market. I was like this when I first started, and to be honest I still don't market much. But I did do a fair amount of it when I first started, and before that I delayed starting my business for years because of a fear of marketing. It's a necessary evil, though. If you really can't do it, you have to learn--and you'd better not quit your day job until you do.

You can't stand the uncertainty. Freelancing comes with a lot of ups and downs. To me, it's exciting--I don't know what I'll make from month to month, and I might make a fabulous income next month! Of course, there's always the possibility that the opposite will happen. Some people are naturally more at home than others with the uncertainty, and some people have higher overhead--a mortgage, kids to support, college loans to pay--that makes them less able to handle uncertainty. Depending on how comfortable you are with an irregular income, you may be better off hanging on to your day job--at least until you have significant savings to get you through lean times.

You just want it to be easy. Some people just want to roll into work, do what they're paid to do, and go home again. With freelancing, you will take your job with you. You will work overtime and weekends sometimes. You will have lean months and periods of too much work. But you can also go jogging in the afternoon if you want, take on only the projects you want, and skip it all to go have coffee with a friend or catch a poetry reading. It's a balance, but running a business demands a lot of time and energy you likely wouldn't spend at a 9-to-5 job.

You need cash now. If you're looking for a get-rich-quick scheme, don't look here. Any freelancing business takes time to build, and you could labor for years before you're earning as much as you did at the office. Then again, you could earn signficantly more--who knows? But you're not likely to earn it quickly. If you have bills that need to be paid right away, you're better off looking for a full-time job to gain solvency before you strike out on your own.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Five Signs You're Working Too Hard

Ever have one of those weeks where you're so busy you forget to eat? Okay, maybe that's a little extreme. Or maybe it's not. I've done it. Here are a few signs you're working too hard and you need a break from the computer.

You're not eating right. You know the drill: the alarm goes off. You hit it a few times, then you go get your laptop, bring it back to bed, and start typing with half-closed eyes. You want to get a head start on the day, and you figure you'll get up in an hour and go get some corn flakes. Well, you don't. You want to get five articles done before lunch and you're already behind because you spent an hour answering emails and next thing you know it's halfway to dinnertime and you haven't eaten--or moved--in hours. Be vigilant about your eating schedule. Set the alarm clock for lunch and dinnertime.

You're not exercising. Ever have one of those days where you literally sat in one place all day? I do this sometimes. Ours can be a sedentary life, and it isn't healthy. For a while I did well when I got up early to exercise--then my whole day was free to write, guilt free--but it's tough for me to maintain because I'm really not a morning person. Still, it's important to set aside time for physical activity regularly.

You're slacking on your personal projects. We've all got a novel or screenplay or chapbook of poems we're working on. Chances are, you started your freelance business in part so you would have more time to work on these things. So why haven't you touched your personal projects in a month? If you're ignoring what gives you joy, you're missing the best part of being a freelancer. Be sure to set aside some time each week to dedicate to creative work. Your clients will benefit as much as you will.

Your friends and family forget you exist. Have the social calls tapered off? Has your family given up on knocking on your study door? If your kids are going "mommy? We have a mommy?" and your husband refers to you as "the troll who lives in our spare room/office," you've been in there too long.

You go pre-verbal. Freelancers don't talk to other people much. We're naturally reclusive and hermit-like. We can go full days without talking to anyone. Sometimes we forget how to talk entirely. If you're responding in grunts and nonsensical mutterings instead of real sentences, it's a sign you've been spending too much time in the office and not enough time interacting with human beings.

What are your personal signs of workaholism?

Monday, October 13, 2008

Are You the Right Writer For That Project?

When you're a freelancer, it can be tough to say no to any work that comes along. But sometimes money isn't the issue--there are legitimate reasons why you should turn a certain project down. Sometimes you can spot these signs a mile away--and other times you need to get your hands dirty before you find out.

The industry requires specialized knowledge. For many industries, the principles are the same for good copy. Know your audience. Emphasize benefits. Prove your claims. Paint a picture. But for some, specialized technical knowledge is required. I tend to avoid all but the most superficial copy in the tech and medical industries, and the legal industry is a whole 'nother ball of wax--it's extra sensitive to any possible misunderstanding, and sometimes you need to be a lawyer to know where to put the disclaimers. Even if you work for a wide variety of different industries, you need to know where to draw the line.

You're not comfortable in that format. I'm a strong believer in the idea that you should try new things, especially when you're first starting your business. But sometimes you know enough to know that you don't like writing a certain type of project. When I first started, I was uncomfortable with sales. I quickly learned that if I wanted to have a thriving business, I'd better get comfortable--and I took steps to become a strong sales writer. But I believe that the clarity and organization skills I learned writing primarily educational copy still serve me well. Some people aren't crazy about writing press releases or prefer writing for print than online. As freelancers, we have the freedom to follow our joy--so follow it.

This is a job for...not you. Some clients want you to be more than a writer. They want you to be a business adviser, a marketing strategist, sometimes a graphic designer or SEO or administrator. I stick to work that requires just the writing--I especially don't like technical troubleshooting, so I stay away from anything requiring uploading or maintenance of a site. Occasionally I'm willing to do basic formatting, but I always let people know up front I'm not a designer.

You and the client work very differently. This is tough to spot, but sometimes the client lets you know off the bat how they work. I've seen gigs advertised on bidding sites where you have to have your computer camera enabled so the client can see that you're working a certain number of hours. Even if the pay was good I'd avoid those gigs; they're a little too Big Brother for me, and I got into this business in the first place so I wouldn't have to put in face time. Sometimes the client won't go for your non-negotiable business terms, or is a micro-manager while you're a free spirit. To keep yourself happy, weigh the level of hassle with the level of pay--and get out if you're miserable.

You're not the right writer for every project. As a freelancer, it's key to know thyself--and what you'll put up with for a certain amount of money. Sometimes these guidelines are worth bending if the price is right.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Are You Working With the Wrong Regulars?

As a freelancer, regulars are invaluable. They're the folks who have a lot of writing needs, and they come back to you regularly, month after month, with substantial orders. These companies can keep your business going during the lean times. It can be tough deciding to let go of such steady work--but sometimes your regular client might not be one you should hang on to. Here are a few signs you might want to consider moving on--and they're not all about the money.

Are you keeping quiet about your work? When I'm thrilled about a client, I tell everyone I know about the cool business I'm working for. Seriously, my friends and family are sick of hearing about it. But eventually in your career, you'll probably land at least a few clients you don't talk much about. Maybe their values clash with yours--you're an avid anti-smoker and they're a cigar-manufacturing company, or you're a passionate conservative and they're a political organization with a liberal bent. You get my drift. Sometimes these clients pay well, but you're kind of disappointed in yourself for working with them--and you don't tell everyone you know about what you're doing. Ultimately even if the paycheck is good, it's better for you to walk.

Are you being asked to do something shady? Sometimes you'll get asked to do things you're not comfortable with. Like write an "article" that turns out to be a college student's essay, or write website copy promoting a scam product. There are plenty of gigs out there that aren't for everyone--and some that shouldn't be for anyone. If you feel what you're doing is wrong, get out sooner rather than later.

Are you getting paid less than you're worth? You don't always realize this will happen right away. You sign up with a company promising regular work. You discover those articles you quoted an hour for are really taking you three hours to complete. You're working more than you thought you would, and suddenly that great pay rate doesn't look so hot. It happens to the best of us. While it can be scary to let go of a regular, you'll have more time to develop your business if you drop the low paying projects.

Are you bored? Five hundred keyword articles around the word "California Real Estate," anyone? Sometimes projects can be boring or repetitive. Maybe you're just writing too much about a subject that's too small--or you're just not interested in the topic. They say a great writer should be able to make any topic interesting, but before you can do that you have to develop your own interest in the topic--and nobody is interested in everything. Spending weeks bored out of your skull is why you left your cubicle job in the first place, right?

Do you and the client have conflicting visions? With some clients, you can't get anything right. And some clients will be ultra-picky even if they like you enough to keep coming back. This is fine if it only happens once in a while with short-term clients, but when you're doing a lot of work for someone, it can be draining to your ego to be nitpicked to death all the time. If you're doing substantial amounts of work for a client who's never satisfied, it may simply be that you and she are not a good match.

It can be tough letting go of regular work. If you're reluctant to let go of a lucrative regular, start marketing to find some new clients who are a better fit for your business--then drop the ones that aren't. The freedom of freelancing is wasted if you can't do just that.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

"Nice" is a Double-Edged Sword

I've been thinking a lot lately about being nice--and how niceness affects my business. Is being "nice" good for your business, or does it hurt you? And are women entrepreneurs and businesspeople under more pressure to be nice than men?

A disclaimer here: I am not advocating being mean or treating people badly. I'm not even saying you can't get to know your clients better--or even have clients become friends. But in those relationships, business still has to come first, and things can get cloudy if either party doesn't understand this.

One of the reasons why I had such a hard time changing my mindset when I first started freelancing was that a lot of sound business practices jarred with my idea of who I was and how I was supposed to act. In those days, I knew myself as a friend, a sister, a daughter, a girlfriend. In all of those roles, niceness and kindness would get me ahead--and putting myself first, although necessary sometimes, was something I had to do diplomatically and usually brought at least a little guilt. I'd just graduated from college. I was just getting used to myself as an employee, and I didn't know myself at all as a business owner or service provider.

And a few things I knew I had to do in those roles didn't sit well with me. Take marketing and sales, for example. I felt weird telling people how great I was. In my past life as a student, I was used to doing a really good job and having recognition come to me in the form of good grades and awards. It never occurred to me that I would have to push people to give me what I wanted instead of working really hard to deserve it and hoping they noticed. But that's how people succeed in the business world.

When it comes to client relations, I've been thinking about niceness lately and its worth. I'm not convinced that being "nice" is such a great selling point. If I were hiring a writer, I wouldn't care how nice she was. I would care if she got results. And I'm not saying that we should all go around being rude to people, throwing rocks at squirrels and making babies cry. I never say anything to clients that's less than civil, even when I'm refusing a request or demanding a late payment. But I also don't back down on my business terms, don't give freebies, and don't cave under pressure.

These are qualities opposite of what you'd call nice. Nice people make personal exceptions all the time. Nice is unselfish. And although unselfishness is an admirable quality, you have to be careful when someone demands it of you. When people expect you to be nice or act surprised that you're not being nice, it's usually because they want and expect you to put their needs before yours. And in a business situation, sometimes that's not a great idea.

Sometimes I suspect that niceness and professionalism sometimes clash in values. Businesspeople have to guard against being taken advantage of, but friends should trust each other. This is why I never do business with friends. I do favors.

I've always been nice and friendly to clients. I like to have fun, let my personality show through, and get to know people. And often that solidifies the business relationship. But nice can be a double-edged sword, leading some to think you can be taken advantage of.

I'm sure if I say that women face the expectation to be "nice" rather than professional more than men do, I'll get a few protestations from guys. And I'm sure there are guys out there who have experienced the same thing. But it's a commonly held belief that women are more often expected to be nice, to grant favors, to smile. Friendliness in women is more often mistaken for an invitation to take advantage. And women are more often penalized as being "mean" if they're assertive.

What do you think? Have you faced expectations to be nice in the past? Has being nice helped or hurt your business? Are niceness expectations different for women? And what does "being nice" mean for your business?

Monday, September 29, 2008

Business Terms: Are They Ever Personal?

Just recently I got an email from a client that I hadn't heard from in a while. I'd done some bulk work with them a while back, where I'd provided ten or twelve articles a month for two or three months. The work trickled out and the client and I parted ways, but just recently he got back in touch with a one-time article writing project. Following my normal business procedure, I sent over a contract defining the length of the pieces, price, and payment schedule. That's when the trouble started.

The client wrote back saying he was offended to be asked for a 50% deposit upfront, because he believed we were past the "initial stage" of doing business together. He also "refused" to define a length for the articles, saying he wanted them to be whatever length was needed to give a thorough accounting of the topic. He felt I was treating him like a first-time client and wasn't giving him the freedom he needed to get the articles just right.

This gave me pause, even though I've worked with this client before with nary a problem. For me, business terms are never personal; they're just the conditions under which I do business.

However, I do work without a deposit sometimes--only for clients I have a history with who are ordering regular amounts of work each month. A few of my clients use me as a "go-to" writer and will ask me for random work--sometimes small, sometimes quite large--consistently throughout the month. Sometimes I'll do 20 or more small projects for a single client in a month. In these cases, it's onerous to the client to have to contract and pay 50% up front for each project, and they sometimes can't predict what they need at the beginning of the month so I can't charge them up front for everything at once. When this happens, I draw up a general contract and bill at the end of the month. This client was operating on a contract like this, because for a while he was a regular. But once he returned for a single one-off project, I billed him under my typical single-project business terms--50% up front.

I would have considered waiving that requirement for him if it had been the only issue. However, the fact that he didn't want the length of the articles defined really bothered me. The thing was, I was perfectly willing to write with no consideration to length--and told him so. But if there's no limit on length, there can't be a limit on price either--and he wasn't satisfied with that arrangement. Ultimately, it seemed he wanted to contract for a longer work and pay the price for a shorter one.

Unfortunately, this client and I couldn't see eye-to-eye and parted ways. This can happen, even for regulars you think you know well. Very rarely, I've had a prospective client tell me he feels a deposit isn't a "friendly" way of doing business or it indicates mistrust, but I'm not in this business to make friends. I'm here to make money, and I tend to resist people trying to control me by telling me I'm not being nice. Nice girls don't make waves or stand up for themselves. Professional women do.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Clients to Target in a Bad Economy--And How to Appeal to Them.

It's all over the news--the economy is going from bad to worse. Stocks are plunging, the government is considering massive bailouts to financial institutions, and it's increasingly difficult to get a loan to start a new business, go to school or buy a home. Recently a family member looked at me sympathetically and said, "your business must really be suffering with the economic downturn."

Actually, it isn't. Copywriting is one of those businesses that can thrive even during economic downturns, if you play your cards right. The truth is that every business needs to market in good times and in bad--and they need writers more than ever to boost their bottom line. Here are a few clients to keep an eye out for in a failing economy, and how to ensure you get the job.

Resume writing firms. With all the layoffs going on, plenty of people--including C-level executives--are facing unemployment. And many of them know the value of a professionally written resume. Business for top-level resume-writing firms is booming right now, and many of them outsource their writing. Get in touch with some executive level resume-writing firms, or market on your own to individual clients.

Companies that usually do copywriting in-house. In an economic downturn, many larger companies tend to lay off and outsource wherever they can. It's bad news for in-house writers, but great news for freelancers. If you've ever been told "no" by a company because they do all their writing in-house, now is the time to get back in touch. They may have let go a lot of key writers, but that doesn't mean they need less writing done.

Entrepreneurs. You have to watch it with entrepreneurs; sometimes start-ups can be financially unstable, and I know some writers who generally don't work with them. But when the economy is winding down, many laid-off employees will be opening their own businesses. And although the economy isn't great, some of them won't be doomed to fail.

If you're going to work with entrepreneurs in an economic downturn, do a little investigation into their background. Do these people have a background in sales or in their industry that will give them strong contacts? Make sure your contract is iron-clad and consider taking 100% up front for smaller jobs. Start small with entrepreneurs to give working with them a try--if they prove to be good clients, move on to larger projects with them.

Now you know who to target--how do you make sure they hire you instead of the other guy? Here are a few suggestions.

Offer better value for the money. No, you don't have to lower your rates--in our business, it's generally not a great idea to compete as the cheap option. But make sure potential clients know that they get more from you than the other guys. Do you offer free e-books and information products along with hiring? Do you offer value-added services like marketing consultation, connections with graphic design or SEO firms, or press release submission? If you do, now's the time to emphasize those in your marketing materials.

Position yourself as the economical choice. You are cheaper than an in-house copywriter. When companies hire you they don't have to pay a salary plus health benefits, sick days and Christmas bonuses. They just have to pay the cost of the project. This enables companies to buy what they need from you and save money where they have to. This is a big selling point, especially in an economic downturn.

Put a heavy emphasis on your past success. Selling is supposedly more difficult than ever--and that means results matter. Think back on past projects and consider what you've done to help your clients--concrete facts and figures are going to be very helpful here. Did you increase response rates by 25% in your last promotion? Increase click-through rates or have articles and content go viral? Boost your company's bottom line by 50% with your website rewrite? Check with past clients to see if you can get some to give you figures like this if you don't have any on hand; these will definitely set you apart.

An economic downturn doesn't have to be bad news for your business. Emphasize how great of a deal you are by saving the company money and boosting their bottom line, and you're sure to do well no matter the state of the economy.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Ghost in the Portfolio

I recently had a question from Diana over at Indigo Inkwell about how to use ghostwriting projects in your resume. Peter Bowerman wrote recently about how he doesn't generally ask permission to use client pieces in his portfolio, and I think this is a pretty sensible approach--the worst that can happen is that they ask you to take it down. This isn't true in all instances, however. Sometimes the writing sample contains sensitive corporate information. And sometimes it's a ghostwriting assignment.

Ghostwriting projects can be a little more difficult, because the client is publicly saying that he is the author. If it comes out that the client isn't actually the author, it could conceivably hurt his reputation in some industries. Because of this, it's best to be careful when you use these projects in your portfolio. Here are a few of my thoughts on the issue:

First: be aware of what is and isn't "ghostwriting." I've heard all sorts of strange definitions of ghostwriting; one of the funniest recently was from someone who wanted to use articles from one of my clients' sites on his own site, and thought "ghostwriting" meant "anyone can put their name on the piece." Not so. When you ghostwrite an article for someone, you write it. The client gets all the rights to it, and puts it out under their own name.

Ask before you start the project. Check with the client beforehand to make sure they won't mind if you use the work as a writing sample. If they have a heads-up before they start, the client may be willing to work it into the contract.

If you can, get it in writing. It's generally best to put in a stipulation that says you can use the project in your portfolio, post it online, and discuss it with prospective employers.

Notify the client before you post the work. If you don't have permission and you didn't tell the client you want to use the project, tell him before you post it on your website. If he doesn't object, go ahead. If he does--or if he doesn't respond, and you have no correspondence that proves he gave you permission earlier--don't chance using it.

Anyone else have experience using ghostwritten projects as portfolio pieces? If so, I'd love to hear your advice.

Friday, September 19, 2008

My Message to $5 Article Writers

I went over to Web Writing Info the other day and saw an interesting post--It's Okay to Start Low, where Courtney admits she started as a $5-an-article writer.

I got my start article writing, too. I liked it because it wasn't salesy and I really wasn't comfortable with the idea of selling when I first started out. I charged $15-$20 an article off the bat. I just couldn't stomach charging $3-$5 for what I knew would be an hour job, or longer--I've never been able to churn out articles consistently in under an hour, although it happens sometimes when I'm really focused. I thought that if I was going to get paid that little, I might as well do it for free--because I sure wasn't doing it for the money.

I've always thought that people who work for that little were probably coming from other countries where the cost of living was lower, and they could afford to undercut writers in the States. But (and maybe I'm the last person surprised by this) it seems a lot of really fantastic English-as-a-first-language writers are doing the same thing. If this is you, I'm not going to berate you with accusations that you're ruining the copywriting industry or anything like that. But I would like to see you earning more--I feel you deserve it--and I have a few things to say.

You DO deserve more. I think a lot of people get started charging low because they feel they're inexperienced and don't deserve more. But anyone who can research well, not make grammar and spelling mistakes, and string together coherent sentences deserves more than $3-$5 an hour. People who work at McDonalds get paid more. The minimum wage is more. You're an educated, skilled worker, probably with a college degree, and you didn't go through college to get paid less than minimum wage on anything. You are offering a service that someone else can't do--and you deserve to be paid a fair and realistic price for your skills.

Writing is a job. I think a lot of people fall into the trap of getting paid less because they get all precious about writing. They feel honored and flattered that anyone would pay them anything at all to write. But let me tell you, what you're writing isn't glamorous. It's not going to make you famous. It's not even that creative. You're writing articles that are basically grist for the search engine mill. You're not writing poetry or memoir or the great American novel. People may insist that they "have to" write; that they'd do it even if they weren't getting paid. And maybe that's true if you're a poet or a novelist. But would you really write fifty 500-word articles around the keyword "diamond engagement rings" because you felt the call of the muses? No. You wouldn't. The kind of writing you're doing is a job, not an inspiration-fest. Even if you're treating it like a hobby, it's better to get paid more than less for it.

Ask for more and you'll get it. Believe me, this is true. I started out working on Elance, where people regularly pay less than a penny per word. I was asking $25 and $30 per article--and getting it. You can do it too. If you don't believe me, give it two weeks. Quote a price you'd like to get paid for an hour's worth of work to everyone who asks. I'll bet you'll get a few takers. If you don't, you're looking in the wrong place.

Your market isn't paying? Find another one. Now here's the key. You don't want to be working with affilliate marketers. In my experience, this is the group that expects to pay dirt for articles. However, getting a few professional SEO firms as clients isn't a bad idea. These folks tend to pay more because they can then turn around and charge their clients for it--and they're regular work. Right now I do ongoing article writing work for several top SEO firms and I charge $45 an article and higher. If you're not getting any leads when you charge more, it's not because you're charging too much. It's because you're in the wrong market. Check out this post I did on clients who will pay good rates for the same articles you'd write for $5 elsewhere.

If you're getting paid $5 per article, believe me--you can get paid more. Just ask for it. If the client balks, there are all kinds of things to say to justify your prices: that you do high quality, well-researched work; that their articles are a projection of them and need to make a good impression; and that great writing will make their articles stand out from a sea of sludge, among other things. And guess what? They'll all be true.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

AWAI: Should You or Shouldn't You?

If you've been freelancing for a while, you've probably heard of the American Writers and Artists Institute. It's a correspondence school for copywriters and graphic designers, and it includes courses on copywriting, travel writing, photography, desktop publishing, and even romance novel writing. The courses are expensive--around $500 each--and I've heard a lot of writers question whether they're worth it. I've taken the Accelerated Direct Mail copywriting course, and I thought I'd share my thoughts on the program here for those who are curious.

The website copy is a tad overblown, but the product is good. One of the reasons why some writers are skeptical of the program, I believe, is the really hype-y sales copy throughout the site that promises you'll earn a six-figure salary working two hours a week from your vacation home in Cape Cod. Overblown? Yes. And a lot of that is probably due to the fact that AWAI is backed by a lot of big names in the direct mail business: Bob Bly, Michael Masterson and Don Mahoney among others. Painting a picture of the big dream and trying to tug on the prospect's heart strings are all proven tactics in the direct mail business, but I know that for me personally, my defenses go up when I see people promising me the world. Give me facts, figures and proof instead of appealing to my emotional side, and I'll be more likely to buy--and I suspect a lot of other writers feel the same way.

Still, I did get a lot out of the copywriting course--it provided detailed, step-by-step instructions on how to write an effective sales letter, and I learned a lot not just about writing in this format, but about writing to sell. These are skills I've used a lot in my client work since, even if I didn't wind up concentrating on direct mail sales copy.

The fringe benefits are mixed. The school advertises a lot of extras when you buy into their program--including a newsletter, ongoing business tips and access to their job boards. I still get the newsletter and I find a lot of useful tips there. The job boards, however, aren't that exhaustive--and a lot of the employers seem to be looking for spec work. I've never gotten work from it, but I'd love to hear from someone who has.

The company just came out with a new class on web copy, and I'm considering ordering it as soon as I have time. I'd love to hear from others in the comments section who have had experience with AWAI.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Freelance Don'ts: Do You Break the Rules?

As a new freelancer, you'll hear all sorts of advice on things you should never, ever do while you're in business. Much of the time, it's perfectly sound. However, there will be times when following this advice becomes impractical--and you may actually lose business if you do. Here are a few freelancing rules I've broken that have brought me more business.

Don't work for free. I work for "free" every time I write a post on this blog, but I am getting valuable exposure and making connections with colleagues. For me, that's invaluable. I've definitely written for free before, but I've always made sure I've gotten something out of it that I needed. For more info on when to work for free, check out this prior blog post.

Don't do unpaid "training assignments." I did an unpaid training assignment once, years ago, for a client to whom I was referred by a colleague. At the time I didn't know any better, and they became a lucrative regular. Today, I might have turned that project down and missed out on all that income. But I don't advocate doing this for any company unless (a). you don't have much to lose and (b). they are a fairly stable company with a good reputation.

Don't work without an upfront payment. A handful of times I've accepted projects without an up-front deposit of some sort (usually 50%). All of those times, it's been with organizations that work with a lot of writers and have a routine down. I would never do this for startups. I usually have known other writers within the organization who have never had problems with payment. And I've also known it's pretty futile trying to negotiate a deposit, as it's not the usual for the industry they're in (e.g., print).

Don't bend on your business terms. After you do this enough, you get inflexible. I've heard a lot of very experienced writers say they don't compromise on business terms. But I've made some compromises--some I was comfortable with, and some I was a little leery of--and gotten a lot in return. Make sure you know which of your terms are privately negotiable and which you can't live without when you go into negotiation.

What freelance writing rules have you broken?

Friday, September 12, 2008

Computers...Can't Live With 'Em, Can't Throw 'Em Out the Window

OK, anyone out there with any computer-related skills, I need your help.

I've got a client who needs documents returned with precise formatting. They're on a PC. I'm on a Mac. I use the Mac version of Windows 2004. I have no idea what they use.

I write the document. The document looks just peachy on my end. I send it over, and on their end the last line of the first page invariably rolls over onto the top of the second page. It happens sometimes, and sometimes it doesn't--even if I leave two spaces between the last line of the first page and the top of the second.

I've been poking around online and in help forums, but haven't seen mention of this particular problem. If you have any idea of how to fix it, your input would be most appreciated.

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Signing Client Contracts: When Negotiation is Futile

This is part three in my series on signing client contracts. In the first two, I talked about terms to watch for when signing client contracts, as well as how to negotiate changes. In the third installment, I'm taking a look at two times when negotiating is probably not going to work.

Some freelancers refuse to change their terms at all for client projects. Personally, there are a few things I insist on, but I can also be flexible in certain situations. When you find a client like the two below, be warned: you will probably have to be flexible.

First, just to be clear: if there's something you really can't live with in the contract, bring it up. No matter what. Worst case, they'll say no and you'll have to turn the project down. If you don't say anything, you could find yourself stuck in a contract with unworkable terms.

When it's the usual in their industry. If you're doing magazine writing, you're going to get kill fees. It's that simple. If you're working with a middleman client like an ad agency or a web designer, you'll probably have a non-compete clause of some type. It's just what's done for those particular clients, and you are probably not going to get a good response if you try to take those clauses out entirely--although you can ask for minor changes. In these cases, it's still possible to ensure rights revert to you if the project is killed, or loosen the restrictions on the noncompete agreement if it's too tight.

When the client works with a lot of writers and has a routine. Some clients work with a ton of writers, and they've honed their contract to what works best for them and what receives the least complaints from writers. These clients often don't want to bother with a different contract for each writer they work with, and they'll tell you so if you try to make changes. You may or may not know you have a client like this until you ask. But if you do, you'll probably have to take the contract as-is.

If you get a client like this, it will probably come down to your instincts to decide whether you should stay or go. Read the contract carefully, and decide to negotiate only over clauses you really can't put up with. When it comes to unflexible contracts from clients whose business you want to keep, you have to be careful when choosing the hills you're willing to die on.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Signing Client Contracts: Negotiating Changes

Last week I wrote about what to watch for when signing a contract given to you by a client, rather than one you wrote yourself. Some clients will want you to sign their own contract instead of signing yours, and there's nothing wrong with this--but bear in mind that contracts are usually written to protect the people giving them, not the people receiving them. It's important to read the fine print carefully and know what you're signing on for.

So if you do find something you don't like in the client's contract, what do you do? It can be tempting just to walk away--freelancers learn the hard way to trust their instincts, and we can be a skittish lot. But many clients are perfectly willing to renegotiate contract terms. Here's how to approach the situation.

Know before you go in. First, be aware: is this a problem you're willing to leave the project over, or is it something you'd just like to see changed? I'm pretty flexible, but there are a few things that will make me leave a project. "Payment upon acceptance" clauses are a no-go for me, as well as noncompete agreements that are too restrictive. I'm willing to tolerate kill fees under certain circumstances, but I'll usually bring it up with the client before I get started to see if it can be changed.

Explain your position. If you do find something you don't like in the contract, explain to the client why it could be a problem for you. I spotted a clause in a recent client contract that said I could do no business with the client's competitors--any SEO or web marketing firm--while I was working with them. I explained to the client that a large percentage of my business came from companies like this, and I'd be hurting myself financially if I agreed to it. The client understood and took out the clause.

I sometimes take a harder line with certain clauses, like "payment upon acceptance." These stipulate that clients must pay only if they find the work "acceptable" (and "acceptable" is rarely defined in the contract). I generally explain that I require a 50% deposit and final payment after delivery of the last draft, and ask if I can change the contract to reflect that. The few times I've had to do this, the client has agreed.

If they say no, trust your instincts. The client might be understanding, or they might refuse your request. If they do say no, give yourself a gut check. Does the client seem trustworthy? Have they been responsive to all your emails? Have you checked them out online and are they fairly established? Do you know any other writers who've worked with them, and have they had a good experience? If so, it may be safe for you to stay.

Freelancers can be skittish, but so can people who hire freelancers online--they've been burned just as much as we have. Be willing to work with clients, know where you draw the line and where you're willing to negotiate, and trust your intuition. It's always okay to walk away from an inflexible contract. But if you walk away every time, you could be missing out on some great regular clients.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Signing Client Contracts: What to Watch For

Over at the Irreverent Freelancer today, I spotted a discussion on client contracts: do you insist on one? Will you sign a contract given to you by a client? If so, do you go through them with a fine-toothed comb, and is it OK to question the terms?

I usually give clients a contract of my own to sign--it's really more of an informal letter of agreement laying out my terms (and if you want to know what should go in your own letter of agreement, look here). But occasionally I get a client who wants me to sign their contract--either instead or in addition. I'm fine with this, but I definitely think it's necessary to go through it--and I have made change requests to clients before. If they refuse, it can be a dealbreaker. Here are a few things I look for in contracts clients give me to sign.

Non-compete agreements. Many clients will ask you to sign some sort of non-compete agreement. Much of the time, this simply states you won't give away company secrets to competitors. If they're a middleman client--like a web design company, ad agency or SEO firm--they may ask you not to work directly with their clients for a set length of time.

Once I was signing on to work as a copywriter for a web design firm, and the contract's non-compete agreement said I could work with no other companies that did work similar to theirs--this included web design, SEO, e-commerce of any sort--while I was working with this company. Obviously, this was a dealbreaker for me. I explained my situation to the client, and they were willing to take that clause out.

Payment only upon acceptance. Sometimes clients will put a clause into the contract stating they won't pay you if they review the work and find it "unacceptable." This is dangerous for writers. What constitutes "unacceptable" is hardly ever spelled out. Theoretically, it allows clients to simply decide not to pay you no matter how good a job you did. I will never take a project when the client insists on this clause in the contract.

When and where you can use samples of the work. This isn't a dealbreaker for me, but it's a good thing to be aware of. Every so often, a client won't want you to use samples from the project on your website or in your portfolio. Once I had a client ask me to sign a contract saying I wasn't allowed to advertise, list them as a client, or put them on my resume. I didn't really mind this--it was a well-paying, possibly regular project and I didn't see this as a reason to walk. But still, you need to be aware of it. Like Peter Bowerman, I often use samples without getting written permission first. If I had missed the fine print on the contract and then posted that particular sample, I could be in trouble.

A payment schedule that doesn't match with yours. I do 50% up front and 50% at the end of the project. Exceptions are rare--for a handful of regular clients I bill at the end of the month, and for some very large projects I'll spread out the schedule to three or more payments. But I almost always insist on an up-front payment. Client-given contracts rarely spell that out, so I make sure the client's fine with me adding the payment schedule into the contract.

Weird terms. Once I had a client give me a contract that said I wouldn't get paid unless I posted the sample of the work on my website, with links back to the client's site. The kicker? The client got to specify what anchor text I used as links. I didn't like giving clients this much control over what's on my own business site--especially in my sample section, where everything has to be just right in order to showcase my writing ability to best effect. I asked to take that clause out of the contract, and the client complied.

Lack of clarity about third parties. Sometimes you'll be working with a middleman--a web designer or SEO firm that works with clients of its own. If this is the case, it needs to be clear who you're working with. Some of my middleman clients ask me to talk directly to their own clients--and with others, I never speak to the third party. Other complications arise when your web design firm doesn't want you to give the client a direct quote, or when it's not clear who's actually writing your check. These are things that may need to be written into the contract, if not at least explained clearly to you.

Kill fees. These are more common in magazines and newspapers, but I had an online news site once that insisted on it. A kill fee clause states that the client has the right to pay you a percentage of the original fee--something like 20%--if they decide not to use your writing for whatever reason. I generally don't accept contracts with kill fees unless the project is an article that I would be able to sell to a different magazine--and I make sure the rights revert to me if the client decides not to use the piece.

Clients who don't want to give you their contact info or sign the contract by hand. This is just something to watch for whether you're using the client's contract or your own. Clients who won't give you their address and phone number, or who try to convince you that their typewritten name is just as good as a real signature, are definitely questionable.

There's no reason not to sign a client contract if your client is more comfortable with that. But you do need to read over it to ensure the contract covers your butt as well as theirs. I usually don't sign client contracts without some sort of change to ensure my terms will be honored--and I also make sure the project scope, timetable, cost, and other basics are clearly spelled out. Don't be afraid to ask for changes. If the client says no, listen to your gut. It may be OK to go ahead with the project anyway--I've done this before. But if you can't get your client to change a clause that really worries you, it may be best to pass on the project.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

What's Your Recurring Nightmare?

Over at Lori Widmer's Words on the Page, Lori mentions a recurring client issue: clients bringing in groups of outside people to edit her work. Over at another of my favorite blogs, the Irreverent Freelancer seems to get a lot of clients who try to find excuses not to pay after the project is completed. I've rarely had this happen (knock on wood), but I do have my own recurring client issue: clients who disappear after the first draft.

Most of us have some sort of client issue that happens over and over again. If you find this happening, here are a few actions you can take.

First, ask yourself: Is it you? If a certain situation keeps happening, it's not unreasonable to think you might be inviting it in some way. For those clients who disappear on me, I've definitely done things that have made the situation worse and may have led clients to believe they can get away with it--like not insisting on having a working phone number and address on file for every new client. It's a danger when you're a basically laid-back person and you communicate with clients primarily by email, but the problem with having only an email address is a). it's easy to ignore and b). it doesn't always give you a hint as to where the person's located in case you get in trouble. It helps to know where people live.

Know the signs. For me, there are two types of clients who are likely to disappear after the first draft: clients who take forever to get started on the project, and clients who need it yesterday. The first type can take weeks to get your signed contract back; you'll think the project is off after a while, and then you'll hear back weeks later. It's pretty common. The second type, in my opinion, is likely to be disorganized and gets all anxious about not having a certain type of copy that some marketing guru probably told them they needed. Then once they get it, they aren't thinking about you anymore--they move on to other things--and you've got to push for feedback and payment.

Have a procedure in place. My procedure for nonresponding clients involves letting them know up front that if I don't hear back from them after a certain time, I'll invoice them. I also make sure I have all the information I need in place to pursue payment, if I have trouble getting it. While nonpayment has been very rare in my experience, delayed payment isn't unusual.

Nip it in the bud. Getting a certain type of client problem over and over means you get plenty of practice dealing with it--and eventually you'll learn how to spot the signs and prevent problems before they happen. With time, you may be able to make that recurring issue a non-issue.

What's your recurring issue?

Friday, August 29, 2008

10 Best Blogs--Nominate CatalystBlogger!

Last year this blog won a coveted place among Michael Stelzner's Top Ten Blogs for Writers. I'd love to see it happen again this year. It can't happen without you!

If you feel this blog merits the recognition, head over to the nomination page and leave a comment nominating my blog. Thank you for your support!

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

What's Wrong With This Website?

Every so often, I get a prospective client asking for me to take a look at their site and let them know what I think can be done to improve the copy. To be honest, much of the time I have to know more about the business and the audience before I can give a thorough critique. However, there are a few common problems I see often with client-written website content, as well as brochures, newsletters, and pretty much anything else written by businesses for customers to read. Here are a few of the common signs you need a copy rewrite:

Lax spelling and grammar. This is hands-down the most common problem. I know I harp on this a lot, and a lot of copywriters will probably say it doesn't matter as much as other things. But I just can't let it go. I will repeat this until the day I die: bad writing makes you look bad. Period. End of sentence. If you screw up your punctuation, people will notice. If you don't put the apostrophe in the right place in your title, people will notice. If you think "you're" and "your" are interchangeable, people will notice. If you have a comma splice in the middle of your tagline (Subaru, take note), people will throw things at the television. You may think this is just me talking and I'm a grammar Nazi, but believe me--there are more of us out there than you realize.

Absolutely no awareness of the audience and their problems. Every website should have its visitors in mind--and every word should be about how the company solves their problems. So many companies don't mention their prospective clients' problems at all. You don't leave with any impression of how the product or company can benefit you. There is plenty of copy explaining who they are and what they do, but no "here's what's in it for you" moment. No mention of why this matters, of how this will make people's lives easier. Knowing your audience and their problems takes some market research--you can't guess on this--but it's worth it.

The assumption that people care about you. Nobody cares that you've won a slew of industry awards. People do care that your product will work better for them than the other guy's and will cost them less, too. Much of the time, website copy is all "we" and "us" and not much "you" at all.

Attempts to "sound like we know what we're talking about." Jargon should be avoided for most audiences. I've seen a lot of websites--particularly in more technical industries--where the writing is all about how smart the company is and how many big words they can cram into a single page. Much of the time, their audience isn't people with advanced degrees in the subject who can understand that jargon--it's middle managers with little technical skill who have to make the case to their bosses to buy this technical equipment--and who need to understand why the company needs it first.

Writers bring clarity to website copy. They tease out what's special about your product--why people should want it--and they explain it in the easiest, most compelling way possible. Good graphics are important in a good site, but without good writing, your snazzy website won't sell like it could.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Is Being a Writer Less Prestigious Now?

I saw this post over on Bly's Blog the other day asking the question: is it easier to become a writer now than it was? And does that make the job less "prestigious"?

There's a certain glamour to being able to call yourself a writer. It's one of those jobs a lot of people wished they could do--and who succeeds and who fails, particularly in fiction, is often up to chance and the fickleness of the market. Like many "glamour" jobs--actor, artist, musician--most people don't make any money in this field, and a chosen few strike it rich.

But how prestigious is the type of writing freelance copywriters do? I would put forth the opinion that it's got more in common with other freelance business owners--like freelance graphic designers, coders, SEO's, and so on--than it does with fiction writers. We don't work at the whim of a market. We don't usually go through agents. And from what I can see, anyone with the requisite abilities and a smattering of business sense can make a living in this field. Sometimes people are impressed when I tell them I'm a writer. And I love being able to say that. But really, it's not as impressive as they think.

Bob brings up the fact that there is more competition than ever--and that more people than ever are becoming writers. That makes it less prestigious. But to be honest, I don't find myself tripping over someone who's a freelance writer every time I go out. To be honest, I rarely meet other people who do what I do. And I live in a pretty big city.

I think what's important isn't how "prestigious" your job is, but how much demand there is for your services and how much competition you have to deal with. While there is definitely competition out there, I still find there's plenty of work to go around--enough that I'm perfectly willing to refer a businessowner to another writer who specializes in the project they're looking for. There might be more competition due to the Internet and bidding sites nowadays than the old-school direct mail gurus experienced in the past, but let's face it: a lot of that competition is from people who write severely-misspelled articles for $3, not people who write expert direct mail copy that pulls in sales for $3. This is not the same level of competition that people like Bob are working at, and I don't feel professional writers should be threatened.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Finding Your Niche: Walking the Tightrope

Reading over some comments from a previous post, I've noticed that there's some confusion out there surrounding finding marketable niches. I've definitely had the same problem: I want to focus on web content and copy, but I don't want to turn away clients looking for brochures, resume rewrites, editing, video scripts, and all sorts of other fun projects. I want to build a business brand that encourages a certain type of project, but I don't want to turn away other projects.

This isn't that organized, but here are a few thoughts I have on the balance between developing a profitable niche and avoiding turning away other work.

Don't actually turn away work until you're really established. There's really no point in turning away non-niche work unless you're doing so well in your niche that taking on an outside project means turning away a more lucrative, easier niche project. Your niche is supposed to make you money, not cost you.

Concentrate on your niche in your website. Experienced niche marketers will probably tell you that you should have a different website for each niche you're breaking into. I love writing web copy and am starting to build a website that focuses on that--but I'd also like to focus on scriptwriting for radio and online video in the future, and as soon as I've gotten enough credits in that I'll think about building another website that highlights my experience there. But while you're a still a generalist with specific tendencies--like me at the moment--it's okay to have just one website that features your niche, but still includes samples and services that are outside of that.

Market aggressively within your niche. There's no other way to become known in your niche than by putting yourself out there. Focus your marketing efforts on companies and projects within your niche. If a different type of project happens to come your way, no problem--don't turn it down, especially if you have the time to do it.

Develop a specialist network. Once you're established--and even before--it can be very beneficial to form a network with other writers who specialize in different things. Once your niche work starts rolling in, you can refer outside work to colleagues who specialize--and if they get offers for projects in your niche, they'll pass the business along to you.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Finding Time to Write While You're Still A Wage Slave

I got an email the other day from a freelancer who asks:

"I am a freelance writer who is still in that 'trying to work full-time while finding time to write' phase. I'd love it if you could share a little insight on how you handled both before you left corporate America to write full-time."

I moonlighted for about two years before quitting full-time work. To be honest, I was very motivated to carve out time to freelance--at the time, it was the only thing that made me feel good about my professional life. But I was also lucky in certain respects. I didn't have kids. I didn't have a family to cook for or clean up after. When I came home from work, my time was more or less mine.

Still, it's not easy to freelance while you're working full-time. I definitely came home drained and had days when I didn't want to work. Here are a few pointers for people still stuck in wage slavery and doing their best to get a business going.

Set reasonable goals. It's important not to get discouraged. And if you set the bar too high, you might do just that. It's crucial to set goals--make contact with twenty new businesses per week, for example. But if twenty is too much, don't throw up your hands in despair and quit. Lower the bar. Try for ten instead. As long as you're doing something, you'll be moving ahead.

Carve out some time. You'll need some quiet time to write--and your family will need to honor that. Make sure everyone in the family knows that when you're in your writing room or writing space, you're still at work. Maybe for you that quiet time is right after work, or in the morning before work, or on your lunch break, or at night before bed. But make sure you choose a time that matches your temperament. If it's a struggle for you to get up early enough to write, you won't stick with it over time.

Keep phone contact to a minimum. Clients may or may not care whether or not you're moonlighting. But you do want to give the appearance of being professional and experienced and successful--and some clients, when they find out you don't do this full time, may assume the worst. Try to keep in touch with your clients primarily by email. If someone wants to talk to you on the phone, schedule some time where you won't be trying to talk to them at work. Your full-time job may not appreciate you devoting "company time" to your business.

Know your limits. Don't assume you need to take a million projects on every week to keep going. As you go, you'll learn how long it takes to do different types of projects. While you always have to be careful with time management as a freelancer, you have to be extra careful when you're fitting your freelancing around a full-time job. Quantity of work at this point isn't as important as collecting great samples, making contacts and impressing the hell out of the clients you have. This will keep the business coming when you leave your full-time job.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Five Things I Learned From My Blogging Sabbatical

I'm back!

I spent the summer in New York and in Vermont, where I have family. It sounds like a vacation, but it was really more of a working vacation--and I had to take a lot of client work with me. Of course, I wanted to carve out time in my schedule to have fun, spend time with loved ones, and even relax a little--that's what summer's for, right?--and something in my regular routine had to give. I couldn't give up the client work.

Most Probloggers would say it's blogging suicide to leave your blog dark for a month. I say it's not the end of the world. Here are a few things I've learned from my extended break from blogging.

Even the best laid plans don't always work out. You know how this is supposed to go. When you take a break, you need to write posts to cover that break. You need to timestamp 'em, turn off comment moderation, and lay low. If you do it right, your readership will never notice while you're away.

Of course, writing almost two months' worth of extra posts was way more work than I could've handled, even weeks before I left on the trip. And originally I thought I'd just continue posting as usual during the summer. It didn't work out that way, and sometimes things just don't work out the way you think they will.

Remember: you have a life offline. When I first started this blog, I had one rule: if it grows too onerous, it's OK to back off. I didn't want to commit to posting every day, not see enough return for my effort, and have blogging become a burden. But when I got started, I realized something: blogging is addictive. And I became a junkie. Before I left I had become addicted to checking my traffic, reading my comments, surfing other blogs, seeing who was linking to me. My blog was my way of connecting with others in my business--and I loved it. I still love it.

But when I was away, I realized that I had to spend time with the people who love me in person. And I had to spend time on real-life things that I love to do. No matter how much is at our fingertips online, depending on it too much can still reduce our world to the size of our laptop screens. I had developed tunnel vision and hadn't even realized it, and believe it or not, I needed the break.

Sometimes a break is good for your creativity. I was having a little trouble before I left thinking up great new blog posts. Sure, I was still enthused about my blog--but I was starting to feel like I'd written everything there was to write already. This blog is barely a year old, and I wasn't ready for burnout yet. But I was getting there. This break has recharged my creativity, and I've got a lot to talk about here in the next few weeks.

Your readers are more forgiving than you realize. I just checked my traffic scores on Feedburner. As expected, I saw a big drop in traffic in August. But I didn't expect my subscriber list to actually increase, which it did. My regulars stuck with me, and it looks like I even picked up a few new subscribers while I was gone as well. If your writing is good, people will stick around.

Traffic drops? There are ways to get it back. Regular posting will help. Commenting on other people's blogs will help. I'm going to go out of my way in the next few weeks to let people know I'm back and posting on a regular schedule again.

On a successful blog, you're supposed to post regularly every day. But that can take a toll. If you have to take a break, take a break. Tell people when you'll be back, and try to jot down a few ideas as they come to you while you're gone. When you do come back, you'll have some worthwhile things to say.