Monday, December 14, 2009

On Being The Freelancer Your Client Calls in an Emergency

I have a very good friend who works for a company that hires freelancers. We often have conversations about what life is like on the other side. I love hearing her insight on what it's like to work as a creative director or marketing manager with freelancers every day--and what they look for.

One thing that came up recently was the idea that a great freelancer is one who is "no hassles"--they can be called up even in an emergency and can turn work around quickly. For many corporate creative leaders, the freelancer they'll work with is the one who can be called up in an emergency, and can fix a problem--no fuss, no muss.

I am all about making my clients' lives easier. But this particular issue made me think. Here's why I think it's tough--for all but a few, probably impossible--to really be that "emergency" freelancer on a consistent basis.

Because next-day turnaround requires client cooperation. As a corporate manager, if you have an internal issue, you can call on whatever employee is expected to take care of it, and that person will do it. Period. You don't have to sign a contract. You don't have to send out a deposit. You don't have to clear it with your boss before you spend the money.

I can't count how many times a client has gotten in touch with an emergency situation--then when I say yes, I can get it done tomorrow provided I have a signed contract faxed and a deposit in my Paypal account, everything goes silent. I've never figured out why this is--but I think it has to do with the fact that the client is too busy to handle the details of actually hiring me. My response to the idea that a good freelancer is one who can be counted on in an emergency-turnaround situation is that I can sometimes do that--but it requires client cooperation.

Because you probably have other work to do. If you're the boss at a company, you're used to everyone doing their work as it's prioritized by you. Freelancers still see you as the boss--but of their particular project with you, not their entire practice. A freelancer may not be able to handle a next-day project because he or she has other projects scheduled for that week--and so might not be able to accommodate a rush project.

Because I'm not a full-time employee. Here's the crux of the problem, I think. Sometimes people who work for companies are used to having full-time employees around. They get to know where the employees are all the time, make sure the employees are dedicating all of their work time to the company, and get fast turnaround on requests. Freelancers can't be available on demand the way employees are. We have multiple projects and clients to juggle--and we have to maintain a schedule that makes sure every project gets the time and attention it requires.

When I can accommodate a client who needs an emergency rush job, I do. But it's not all the time--and lately it's been less and less likely. What do you do when a client confuses you for a full-timer?

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Myths And Facts About Marketing

I received a fascinating response to an old post the other day. Go ahead and read it. Then come back.

So I've been meaning to write a response to this for a while, but each response turned into a lengthy diatribe. So I thought I'd better post it here. This is an attitude on marketing that I confess I used to have before it became critical to my business's survival. Once I hit that point, i lost a lot of my hesitancy about it right quick. But more to the point, once I thought through some of these objections to marketing, I realized they didn't hold water.

Myth 1: Marketing requires an advanced degree. The poster says that "Marketing is not a way of life. It is a highly specialized skill set. Colleges teach classes in it and offer degrees in it. To say that the typical small business person should "market" themself is to demand that they undertake a specialized area of activity for which they have no particular qualification."

OK, in some positions and especially for larger companies, you might need a marketing degree. You might need to conduct market surveys and gather data and orchestrate nationwide, multi-media campaigns to numerous target markets. But for many small businesses, that's not what you're doing. You're writing up a brochure to leave with clients. You're creating and mailing some simple postcards with VistaPrint. You're calling or emailing five or ten people a day and telling them about your services. Or maybe you're joining a business networking group you found through That's it. No special degree required.

As to your chosen marketing methods, you could cold call, send postcards, send emails, set up a regular e-zine, or do all of those--or something else. Just try a bunch of things and see what works, and most importantly, what you'll stick with. You don't have to have an advanced degree to market your skills. Persistence pays off.

Myth 2: Marketing is universally annoying. The poster stated that "I have always found marketing and the marketing mindset offensive. Why, then, should I try to market to others?" The thing is, while most people just put up with ads, sometimes you see ads for something you actually want, and at a good price--and then you're probably glad you saw that ad.

Marketing isn't universally annoying--especially to people who want and need what you offer. A successful "marketing mindset" starts with the idea that someone out there wants what you're selling--and if you don't believe that yourself, maybe you should find a different line of work.

"Tooting your own horn" is somehow bad. The most interesting thing the poster said, in my opinion, is this:

"Marketing basically involves creating the illusion for the potential customer that you are better than the other people in your line of work. Unless you're somebody fairly exceptional, you're probably NOT appreciably better at your profession than the competition. If you really ARE the highly talented cream of the crop, you will stand out and gain a reputaion by that fact alone. There's no need to involve yourself in a 'snow job' that is degrading of your own self-respect and demonstrates contempt for the discernment of your potential customers. "

The idea that marketing involves creating the illusion that you're better than others in your field is NOT necessarily true. Your marketing need not contain any mention at all of others in your field. Instead of making negative statements about how you're better than them, you can make positive statements about why you're the right fit for their company. Maybe you have a background in the industry. it doesn't have to be implicitly insulting to someone else--and it shouldn't be.

Just because you're willing to stand up, wave your arms and shout "Over here!" doesn't mean you're also shouting "Everyone else stinks!" When I market, I'm not doing it with the mindset that I'm better than other copywriters. I'm doing it with the idea that I might be a good choice because I'm a better fit for that company. Or maybe I'm the only one who stuck my neck out to get noticed. You don't have to be "fairly exceptional" to have the right to market your services.

If you're the best, the business will come to you. Boy, do I wish this were true. There's nothing I love more than a meritocracy. But the real world doesn't work like that, as countless famous, highly gifted artists who died in poverty will tell you. Half the financial success of an artist lies in marketing. Nobody will buy your novel if they can't find it in stores, even if it's the best work of your generation. And nobody will hire you as a copywriter if you don't tell them you exist.

Marketing is not an implicitly insulting or shameful practice--or an arcane discipline that only a chosen few can understand. It's persistence, plain and simple. It's showing up. It's putting yourself in front of clients on a consistent basis, doing a great job, and building a relationship over time. It's also how small businesses--and large businesses--survive and thrive.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Slow-Ball Client...And What You Can Do

Recently I've been thinking a lot about clients who take their time on revisions--slowing you down when it comes to invoicing for your remaining payment. I find this very frustrating, and lately it's led to a few cash flow problems--not to mention scheduling issues when clients come back for revisions long after I thought the project would be over and done with.

Here are a few solutions I've been contemplating. Some of them are a little out there--but all are pretty tempting.

Charging twice what I need. I determine my prices based on what I need to make to keep my business afloat and pay bills. When I have to wait a long time to get half that from each project, it can cause cash flow problems. Lately my rebellious side has been considering quoting twice what I need on every project, so that I know I can meet my own needs with just the 50% deposit. This way I can sit back, relax and wait for the rest to come in when the project is finished--no more worrying about bills when the end of the month rolls around and the client hasn't gotten back about revisions. It's a bold move, but wouldn't it be great?

Putting it in the contract. This one's a bit more realistic. I've started adding a clause that states something like "remainder will be invoiced upon completion of project OR two weeks from delivery of first draft--whichever comes first." That way I'm not hanging around waiting for a client to get back to me with feedback before sending the invoice.

Charging 100% up front. Some writers refuse to do this, but I kind of think it's reasonable--especially for smaller projects.

What do you do to keep projects rolling?

Friday, December 4, 2009

My Writerly Limits

Lori Widmer over at Words on the Page had an interesting post a while back on "writerly limits." Her post was about advertising on your blog, and what you will and won't accept--but this post got me thinking about other limits.

I tend to be pretty flexible. It's why I'm my own boss--I love the freedom. But there are a few limits I have--both in business and in the practice of writing. Here they are:

I won't work without a contract--and a deposit. I've had clients before who were in a huge hurry--such a hurry they didn't have time to wait for the contract to be signed, the check to be sent, and so on. That doesn't work for me. Unless the proper framework is set for a business relationship, I don't work. It's too easy to get burned.

I don't work without knowing everything I need to know. It's crucial to have all the info necessary to sell the product. That usually means, for me, a client interview to go over the audience, their needs, and how the product or service meets those needs. I've had clients want to breeze through this part or fill out a questionnaire online instead--which is fine, as long as I can get all the info I need. I tell clients that the more work we do together up front, the less work there will be in revisions later on.

I don't take on too much at a time. It's tough to turn down work. But it's crucial for me to accept my own limitations. I need time to work on personal projects, marketing, and nothing at all.

I don't make myself available all the time. I've found if I'm available by phone all the time, I might as well have a full-time job--because I have to stay home in case the phone rings. I don't like working that way. I like running errands during the day or meeting a friend for a long lunch, then catching up on work at night. I like working in cafe's and even in parks. I don't like being accountable for all my time or staying in one place--it's why I left the corporate world. These days, I schedule my phone calls strictly, keep the necessary phone calls to clients at one if at all possible, and keep other communications to email.

What are your limits?

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Why Nano Could Be Good for Your Business

I've participated in NaNoWriMo every year. For those who don't know, the odd almost-acronym stands for "National Novel Writing Month," and it's an event in November where you're encouraged to try to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.

I've done Nano for three years now. My first year, I didn't finish. My second year, I made the 50K mark--and went on to finish my first novel, which is now in the editing process. This year, I also made 50K--and it seemed much less painful this time than last. Now I have one first draft in the editing stage, and am halfway through something new--not a bad start to my goal of becoming a novelist.

Many people I talk to who want to write use their perfectionism as a crutch to keep them forever in the first-draft stage. They labor over every sentence, and each paragraph must be a work of art. Predictably, they lose momentum for months--even years--because their novel can never live up to the masterpiece they want it to be. I've been trying to write novels since I was ten--and up until a few years ago, this was how I operated too.

But there was something powerful about sitting down every day, for a period of time, to accomplish a specific goal. I powered through the doubt--and eventually I accomplished significant things. And it made me think--in what areas of my life am I getting in my own way?

Like novels, I often let perfectionism get in my way. With marketing, for example--I never want to send out a mailing until my website is perfect or my logo is updated. Not needed. All I need to do is sit down, put together a list, order some postcards, and wait for the business.

The same with networking events. I say I never have time--but I do. I just need to sit down, choose one--there are always a million going on in New York--and go. Better yet, make it a habit.

I'm starting to think I need to apply the discipline of Nano to other areas of my life. Where could you make use of it?

Monday, November 30, 2009

When Your Client Changes the Copy

I'm sure this has happened to you: you write up a perfect home page for a client. The project is finished and everyone is happy. Weeks later, you decide to link to it for your online portfolio. When you go to the site, you find that your client has changed the copy--and not for the better.

So what do you do in these instances? Do you tell the client that there are problems with the new copy, or do you let it go? Here are a few factors that influence my decision.

Consider the client. Some clients appreciate it that you are still looking out for them, despite the fact that the project has finished. Others will be a little more prickly and might see it as pushiness. Think about whether the client considers him- or herself a writer as well--sometimes those who hold their own writing abilities highly can be territorial when you offer criticism.

Consider the situation. Did the client ask you to proofread the new version of the site? Sometimes criticism that isn't asked for can come off as rude--and that's the last thing you want. It may be better to save the suggestions for when the client hires you to do something else. Then you'll have a better excuse to mention it as an added service in addition to something else you're doing for them.

Is your paycheck dependent on the effectiveness of that writing? A few copywriters work on commission--they get a cut of what that landing page or salesletter earns. If that's the case, it's probably better to make it your business to ensure the error isn't left up or sent out--because it could damage your earnings.

How severe is the problem? If it's a misstatement or misspelling that could damage your client's credibility, or adjustments to a key headline that could seriously reduce sales, they may thank you for the unsolicited advice. If it's a small change to a mid-body paragraph, consider the damage that error is doing before you get in touch. The effect of the error or change may not be that much.

You may want to rethink linking directly to client sites for samples. Because of this exact problem, you may want to rethink the strategy of linking directly to client sites to show off your copy. You never know when the client will decide to change the headline on your home page, and add a big typo in bold-faced font--or worse. I link to client sites now, but I'm considering simply providing easily-viewable reproductions of the text on the site, with a screenshot of the site graphics to show that this is a published site.

What's your tactic when your client makes changes to something you've written?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Who Are Your Markets?

I know a lot has been said about niche marketing. For some people, it's really easy to specialize. For others, specialization is a difficult beast.

Personally, I'm a generalist at heart--but I really like to think of myself as more of a Renaissance woman. Many people believe the old adage "jack of all trades, master of none." I don't. I believe that having a diverse skill set is a good thing--because certain skills inform other skills. As a writer, my online sales writing is better since I learned how to write for direct mail--I better understand basic sales writing concepts that can work in both areas. I feel my understanding of SEO is informed by social marketing. Both are subspecialties of web marketing, but you get the idea.

But everyone knows specailists make more--and they also have an easier way to differentiate themselves and select businesses to market to. I need to narrow down my marketing efforts as well--so here the several niches I'm targeting.

Web designers. Web designers often have clients who need writing, and some of them want to expand and offer writing services as well--if they could only find the right writing partner. The trick here is to find a designer whose business model matches yours. Look for a web designer who serves businesses with larger budgets--don't bother applying to those "website for $199" template shops. Look for designers with rather marketing-savvy clients who understand the need for copywriting. To them, I'm marketing myself as a web writer who understands both writing to sell and SEO.

Recruiters. I got a tip-off from a pro resume writer I knew to try marketing to recruiters--according to him, some independent recruiters rely on resume writers to make their candidates look appealing to client companies, who may pay them only if their candidate gets hired. I've heard back from a few recruiters who say they wouldn't use a resume writer, but then again they worked directly for companies instead of freelancing. I've just done a big mailing to a group of recruiters in my area--so we'll see. Here, my pitch is that I'm a professional resume writer with over 95% success in getting clients the interview within the first 30 days.

Law marketing firms and law firms. I'm partnering with a writer who just happens to be a lawyer--so that gives my company a unique qualification to write for law firms. I'm looking forward to seeing how I might be able to break into this market.

Who are you targeting--and how do you position yourself?

Friday, November 6, 2009

Advice Can Take You Only So Far.

I've been reading a lot lately about what works and what doesn't in sales and marketing. And I've been getting a lot of contradictory advice. One book says joining your local Chamber of Commerce is critical. Another says Chambers of Commerce are often packed full of mom-and-pop business owners who don't know what a copywriter does. One says cold-calling is critical; another says the best way to get business is with a complicated, multi-step direct mail campaign. So who should you listen to?

It's tough to sort it all out. Here are a few things I'm keeping in mind as I market:

There's no teacher like experience. All the great advice in your favorite writers' marketing book may not apply to your area or specialty. The only way to figure this out in a way that's specific to you is to try a lot of different things, see what works and see what fails miserably. Then keep sticking with what works.

Stick with your talents. Love networking? Then follow your bliss. Hate cold calling? You can get business without it. Just because some guru advocates a certain marketing method doesn't mean that's the one you should follow. You can try lots of different things, but the marketing method that's easiest for you is likely the one you'll stick with long-term.

Don't invest a lot of money at first. You don't need a slick direct mail package and a list of thousands of prospects yet. Start small--mail something simple to a couple hundred. This will keep costs down while you figure out what works and what doesn't. And don't forget about free marketing options like email and phone.

It's tough to become a marketing expert just by reading a few books. You need hands-on experience--so go out there and try, and see where it gets you. If you keep putting yourself out there consistently, you'll find the business.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Now Leaving the Comfort Zone

I started a cold calling campaign today.

This is completely out of character for me. I'm strictly a sales-by-the-written-word kind of gal. I can cold-email til the sun goes down, til my fingertips are bloody stumps. But actually talking to a real, live human being who's never met me before, and trying to convince them to hire me? That's my idea of hell.

But I've been thinking lately about getting out of my comfort zone--and how good that would be for my business. I hold myself back from engaging in certain marketing activities for reasons that have nothing to do with solid business thinking and everything to do with the fact that they give me the willies--and most of them, like cold calling and networking, can actually be extremely effective if used right.

Cold calling would be good for my business in several ways. First, it will get me out from behind the keyboard and into a more personal-sales mentality--useful in networking situations, too. It gets you business fast--and it makes your business seem more legitimate than a random email. And the more personal your contact with a prospect, the more likely they'll be to hire you.

Cold calling still isn't my favorite way to spend a morning, but here are a few things to remember that made it possible for me.

These people you're calling? They get cold calls all the time. Seriously, you're not going to be seen as a total weirdo for calling them. Vendors and freelancers call marketing directors, creative directors and other people in hiring positions at companies of all sizes all the time. I mentioned to a very good friend of mine in marketing for a publishing house that I was starting a cold call campaign, and her response was this: "I get cold calls ALL THE TIME. Here's how to get my attention." She then proceeded to give me some great tips on when to call, what to say, and the tone to take to make sure the conversation turns out profitably. The lesson? These people get cold calls all the time and what you're doing isn't out of the ordinary.

Some of them might be actively looking for someone like you right now. Forget the intrusive telemarketer stereotype. You have something valuable to offer, something the people you're calling need--marketing expertise in a very specialized field. Some of the people you're calling might be wracking their brains, right that minute, to figure out how to word that headline. They won't be annoyed to hear from you; they'll be glad you called.

You ARE qualified. I think much of my trepidation about cold calling comes from when I first started my business--when I hadn't handled a large project on my own; when I didn't have a load of good samples; and when I didn't have a long client list. I have to remind myself that I'm not that person anymore. My writing has gotten people real results, and marketing pros in vendor hiring situations should know about me--I'm a legitimate resource.

What's holding YOU back from trying cold calling?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Kidnapped by Wolves

Howling, hunting, eating with my teeth--it's what I've been up to these past two weeks.

Actually, I've just been really busy with client work, but things are slowing down. I should be able to get back to a regular posting schedule this week.

Thanks for your patience!

Monday, October 19, 2009

My Thoughts on Content Mills--and Getting Paid What You're Worth

I've been seeing a lot of posts on blogs I read regularly regarding content mills. Over at Writer's Weekly, there's a big expose on Demand Studios, a content mill that owns and supplies content to eHow and some other content sites. Web Writing Info and Words on the Page have both added to the discussion as well.

If this is a new term for you, content mills are websites that pay writers very low sums of money for articles, which are then either resold or used to boost search engine rankings for the site. Typically the only benefits the writers get are the low paychecks ($5 or so on the low end; $20 or so on the high end)--they don't get links or resale rights. Often the writers' pay depends on traffic, and sometimes the writers are expected to help drive traffic to their own articles.

Like many others, I see content mills as borderline-to-obviously exploitive of writers. But I also do believe that writers need to be responsible in choosing their own opportunities and developing business sense, and one of the major problems here is general preciousness-about-writing--a topic I've written about before. In a world where so many people love to write but have never been able to make a career of it, getting paid anything can be addictive validation.

They're also easy--and a lot of writers tend to be self-promotion-phobic introverts. The argument goes that content mills provide easy work with no need to promote yourself or even talk to clients--a perfect situation for a writer who's not confident in her own abilities and doesn't feel comfortable acquiring or dealing with real clients.

Let me tell you--I've been there. I don't love promoting myself either. But if you want real validation, there's nothing quite so addictive as conquering your fears--and getting paid what you're really worth. And I've said most of this stuff before, but this is for the content mill writers on how to get out of that rut and have a REAL writing career.

You need a mind shift. Stop thinking of your writing as a hobby and think of it as a job. You are a breed of freelance writer, whether you believe it or not--and you need to start thinking like a businessperson. $20 an hour (assuming it takes you an hour to write a simple 500 word article, which is about what it takes for me) might be a decent wage for a full-time employee, but for you it WON'T suffice. Why? Simple: because as a sole proprietor (which you are unless you incorporate--and if you've incorporated recently, you'd know) you pay twice the Social Security taxes, additional business taxes and registration fees, and your own health insurance. $20 an hour doesn't begin to cover those expenses. You should be getting $60 or $70 an hour as a rock bottom price. I charge more than that.

You shouldn't be bragging about fast. I've heard some content mill writers justify their payment by saying things like "well, I may be getting paid $5 an article, but I can crank out 10 articles an hour--so I get paid a decent hourly wage." Really? 10 articles an hour? And does that allow for time for decent research, checking sources, gathering quotes, and other things that go into producing a good article? Does it even allow you time to run Spell-Check? Cranking out content fast isn't something you should brag about. Do you think W.S. Merwin brags about cranking out 10 poems an hour? You think Shakespeare spit out a play a day? No. Good writing takes time. It takes multiple drafts. One sure sign you're being exploited is that the actual quality of your writing isn't valued--just that you can spit words out on a page in a short amount of time. You're working a sweatshop, not an actual job.

Ask for what you're worth. Instead of working for a content mill, sign up for Freelance Daily. It's a list of freelance writing and editing jobs delivered daily into your inbox. It's free for a week or so, then you pay about $4 per month for the service. Apply for a few jobs, and ask for what you're worth. (HINT: it's more than $20 per hour.) Trust me--some people really are looking for professionals who know what they're doing and charge a fair wage.

If you write for content mills, you could do better. Develop your commercial writing skills--get The Well-Fed Writer and The Copywriter's Handbook--those two books should provide you with everything you need to get started, in terms of both commercial writing skill and marketing ideas. If you're going to do this, don't be exploited--develop your own career, on your own terms.

Friday, October 16, 2009

On Knowing When to Say No

I had an inquiry recently from an SEO company. I work with several SEO companies already and know the drill, and I felt very confident with this one. The client seemed excited about me and thrilled to get me to handle the full volume of the writing work they needed--until I sent them my rates. Then the excitement evaporated.

The client was hoping to pay about a quarter of the amount I quoted. His business was a "volume game," he said--and it was his aim to get as much client work done as possible for as affordable an amount as possible. The per-hour rate he wanted might have been reasonable for a full-time employee with benefits and vacation days, but for me--paying double the Social Security taxes and buying my own healthcare, not to mention managing all the expenses of a small business--it was well below what I needed to make per hour. I told the client that regrettably our business models didn't match up, and wished him well.

Earlier in my career, I would have taken this job--I never said no. I didn't know where my next paycheck was coming from, and felt I had to grab whatever came by. But a day or two after I said no to this job, I was inundated with work--and now I'm booked well into next month with projects that pay me an hourly rate that works for me.

A year into my career, I never would have thought about how much I needed to make per hour to make a project worth my time--or that saying no to a low-paying job would leave more room and opportunity for the better projects. But they do. And those projects do come around. The other day when I gave a definitive, well-thought-out "no" to a project that didn't fit my business model, I realized how far I've come.

When was that moment for you?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

On Timing

I noticed a comment in my last post about defending your prices that got me thinking. My colleague Mike Chen recounted this story:

I had one guy who asked for a quote on a Sunday, I reviewed his stuff on Monday and asked for more info, he replied on Tuesday, and I gave him a quote on Wednesday. He said my quote was too high and I screwed up his schedule.

I've definitely been in this situation before--when the client needs it yesterday and doesn't factor in that arranging a copywriting project takes time. I've never had any project that I've been able to actually start on the same day as initial contact. But I've still been in situations where a client contacts me on a Monday, says he needs the piece by Wednesday, I've said yes, and then the process stalls us both. The bottom line? Allow enough time to get things done.

Here are a few thoughts on how long things take--and why you can't get it all done in a day.

Give yourself 24 hours to come up with a quote. My copywriting business isn't Geico--you can't just type in your facts and figures and get an automatic quote in seconds. I need to talk to the client, check out the existing website, and generally expend some time to understand their needs and come up with a proposal. Getting the quote right is another thing you don't want to rush. You want to allow yourself plenty of time to gauge how long you think it will take and a fair hourly or flat rate. Rushing your quotes can lead to anxiety and overcharging, or a simple failure to think things through--and an off-kilter quote as a result. Above all, never give a quote over the phone without getting a chance to think about it first.

Expect some give and take over contracts. In my experience, it's not really possible to get a project started and finished in a matter of two days. There can be some client back-and-forth over the contract that can slow things down. I usually allow for at least 24 hours to get the signed contract back by email.

Allow some time for everything to be mailed in. If you need to do things immediately, you can have your client scan and send contracts by email or fax them to your office, and you can accept payments through Paypal or your bank's credit card acceptance system. But Paypal charges its own fees, and whenever the project allows it I'd rather do things by mail. That way I have an original signature on the contract as well. If you're operating under business terms that require you to have a contract and deposit check in hand before starting the project (which is never a bad idea), that can slow things down by several days.

Sometimes the due date depends on client response. In Mike's example, the prospect waited a day to respond to his request for more information--then got mad at him for "screwing up his schedule." I've found that the more client back-and-forth there is, the longer it's going to take to get everything done. Clients are usually busy people, and may not be able to respond to your email by the end of the day--and the same for you. Unless you can get every question answered over the phone, the time it takes to get the info you need can slow things down.

Their rush isn't your rush. Above all, keep in mind that your client's hurry is their problem, not yours. You know how long the process takes; don't let anyone get a quote from you or get you to agree to a due date your gut is telling you is unworkable.

I've seen prospects try to rush me right up until I need something back from them; then they can take forever to get back. They may have been trying to rush me to keep me off balance during the negotiating process. Always keep in mind that it's a possibility.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Defending Your Prices

Recently I had a client request a quote for a small project--a landing page for a new website. I quoted a price based on my pricing parameters, and the response I got was this: "this seems awfully high for such a short project. Would you consider charging less?"

Once upon a time, I would have considered doing it. I would have had an insecurity attack, thinking my price was really too high, and would have offered a lower quote. Here's a hint: never do this. Every time I've done it, it hasn't worked out well for me--either I didn't get the project anyway, or I got a client who continually tried to negotiate me down--and got stuck working for much less than I was worth over a longer period of time. If you show weakness once, folks, it's all over with that client.

The thing is, I knew that price was reasonable for that project. I knew the type of work that would go into it. And I knew that despite this client's protestations, I was still probably undercharging. So I didn't back down. Instead, I justify my prices.

If you haven't been called upon to justify your prices yet, don't worry--you will. The good thing is that most clients are reasonable too--and in most cases, once they understand why you charge what you do, you'll get less resistance. Those who are unreasonable are probably not ideal prospects--if you've done your pricing homework, that is.

Here are a few things to consider when justifying your prices to clients.

You have overhead, too. I hear over and over that freelance writing is a low-overhead business. Maybe that is true--sometimes. But you're paying twice the Social Security and Medicare taxes that employees pay--that's a business expense. Internet costs, computer costs, rental for your home or off-site office--all business expenses. And let's not forget marketing, classes to build your skills, even costs of living. The truth is, if you don't charge enough to cover your expenses, you can't provide your services to anyone--including them.

Just because it's short doesn't mean it's easy. This is pretty common with me: I'll send out a quote on a short but complicated project, and I"ll get back a reply to the effect of "But it's only 2,000 words!". The thing is, some promotions take time to get right--even if they're short. Think about how much has to be packed into a tagline or postcard mailer copy--just because these are often just a handful of words, does that mean you should charge pennies? No. Explain what goes into the project, and that if you were working for a really low price, you wouldn't be able to afford to put the time in that it takes to do this type of job right.

You're more qualified than the cheap guys. I occasionally get a question from clients such as "why do you charge $x when the guy down the street charges $y?" I don't go off and criticize the guy down the street--instead, I simply list my qualifications, which the guy down the street might not have. I'm not the cheapest guy on the block for resume writing, for example--but I'm CPRW-certified, I have a history of working with executive search firms and larger resume-writing firms that serve executive clients, I've written hundreds of resumes for the client's industry, and my interview rate is over 90%.

Next time a client questions your prices, don't back down. Put some thought into your initial quote--based on what you need to make to meet your revenue goals--and give some justification. Chances are, you'll get paid what you're worth a lot more frequently.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Constructive vs. Destructive Criticism

As a professional writer, I get a lot of requests for criticism of other people's work. Sometimes it's from potential clients asking for a critique as part of the buying process. Sometimes it's from friends who want to know what I think of their new website or blog. Giving criticism is always tricky, because many people have their egos tied up in what they write--even if they don't realize it. Even that potential business client may have written that web copy himself and be proud of it. And some people, consciously or unconsciously, may seek to use you to validate their own talents--they come to you for "criticism," hoping you'll have only positive things to say.

Of course, as a professional, you don't want to let your friend or potential client keep bad copy in their promotional materials--but sometimes preserving that friendship or landing that job involves giving criticism carefully. Here are a few tips for giving constructive, not destructive, criticism.

Emphasize the positive. I've heard it said that you should always start your criticism by listing three or four things you like about the piece. Then again, I've heard others say that if you start this way, the person you're criticizing is just waiting for the other shoe to drop--and that you should offer positive comments at the end. Whatever order you choose, there's no doubt you shouldn't let your comments be all negative. Try to temper negative critique with positive commentary.

Don't offer unsolicited advice. I've also heard some suggest that to get new business, you should email, mail or phone businesses telling them why their existing promotions suck and what you can do to fix it. Do this with care--you're offering unsolicited advice the other person isn't prepared for, and that person may a). be getting good results from that ad, despite the glaring typos or b). have written it himself (or had his wife/kid/brother write it) and feel protective of it. Don't offer advice unless others ask for it.

Stick to specific issues. When criticizing, avoid broad-based comments like "this is terrible." Instead, stick to specific issues, such as "this piece doesn't address the interests of clients who are already doing business with our competitors." These comments are less about the value of the overall piece than about specific qualities that can be more easily changed--so you're not condemning the entire piece (and thus the writer's abilities).

Always offer suggestions for change. Constructive criticism should always end with ideas to make the piece better. Otherwise, you leave the writer at loose ends--you've told him what to fix, but not how to fix it.

Giving criticism is a delicate matter--but not an impossible one. Do it with tact, and you should be able to preserve your relationships and save the world from bad copy at the same time.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Continuing Education: How to Make Yourself More Valuable

As a copywriter, you have to market yourself, land clients, work on projects, and make yourself more valuable to your clients--all the time. This justifies your yearly rate increases (you do increase your rates yearly, right?). Here are a few ways I'm looking at to make my work more valuable--and my business more profitable.

Take online classes. I know, the promotional copy is a bit over-hyped. But AWAI has some really effective courses, if you're willing to put in the time and effort. They're distance-ed, but the courses generally come with in-person critiques of your work at different project stages. I took their Six Figure Copywriting course a while back--it's mostly geared toward direct mail, which I don't do a lot of, but it taught me some valuable basics in sales writing. Now I've got their Copywriting for the Web program on my wish list. Many of their programs have a steep price, but others are quite affordable--I recently bought the Resume Writing program for an affordable $49 (it's usually $99, but there was a sale).

Take in-person classes. Where I live in New York, the local Freelancer's Union provides low-cost classes on business topics to members and nonmembers alike. There are also continuing education organizations for business including New York City Business Solutions, which provides classes on marketing that could easily translate into better skills for your clients; and the New York School of Visual Arts has some interesting classes on copywriting and marketing. It' s a traditional college, but with a continuing education section--so it's no problem for adults to sign up. What in-person classes are available where you live?

Read a book. Bob Bly's The Copywriter's Handbook is still the industry standard if you want to learn the basics, in my opinion. I just picked up Dan S. Kennedy's Ultimate Sales Letter--I'm planning a marketing initiative to local businesses in New York, and thought I'd give direct mail a try. What books could help your own marketing--and marketing for your clients?

What are you doing to increase your skills?

Friday, September 25, 2009

How to Handle the Post-Vacation Rush

Is it just me, or does all the work seem to come in at once? Last month was pretty quiet, but the minute I got back from my vacation I had three proposal requests, several emails from previous clients looking for quotes on fairly large projects, and three projects from my regulars to get cracking on--all by the end of the month. I've been busy. So busy I've been neglecting my blog, and after I finally prepared for my vacation with some excellent guest posts. (Thanks to all my guest posters by the way!). So this weekend I'm foregoing personal plans to keep working.

So here are a few tips I need to apply to get my act together after my vacation--that might be helpful to you too.

Map projects out on a calendar. I made a big mistake the past two weeks and said "yes" to several projects with due dates within a few days of each other. In my head I sort of vaguely thought I had plenty of time, but now that I'm in the middle I realized I made serious scheduling mistakes here. The reason was that when I was talking to one client, I didn't have a timeline of all my other projects firmly in my head. I need to write these things down and figure out which days are booked with one project--and not try to pile on more work than I can get done in a day.

Try to solidify some projects before you leave. I had several clients asking me about starting new projects the week before I left on my vacation. I tried to get all the details, send in a contract, and get everything lined up for an easy start when I got back--but that's not how it worked out. Sometimes these things are out of your control, but it's better to try to get everything set before you go (if it works for the client) so you can hit the ground running when you get back.

Do everything you can possibly do beforehand. I have a few regular projects I've been putting off until the last few days before the due date. Not a good idea. If you have an existing project, do at least a little every day even if you don't anticipate getting slammed. Procrastination may have been OK in college, but in running a freelance business it never does anything but hurt you.

How do you deal with getting slammed with work after a vacation?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Getting Serious About Your Business

For several years after I started my freelance writing business, I was more or less skating by.

I was good at what I did. But I wasn't actively pursuing growth; I was taking what came. I had several lucrative regulars and a few semi-regulars who dropped in from time to time, and occasionally I'd pick up a new one through a referral. I barely ever marketed. I barely ever networked. I didn't have business cards. I started my business fairly young, and I wasn't putting a lot of effort into it.

But in the past year, I've found myself wanting more than my freedom. I also wanted a more lucrative, stable income. I wanted to think about buying a house. I wanted to bulk up my savings. I wanted clients I didn't have to constantly justify my prices to. I realized that to have all these things, I needed to get grown-up about my business.

No matter where you are in your business, it's never a bad idea to re-evaluate from time to time--and I'm going through a large period of re-evaluation now. Here are a few things to think about when you want to take your business to the next level--whatever that level should be.

Think about how you charge. The more your prices are based on concrete requirements, the better you'll do in negotiations with prospects. If you know why you're charging a certain amount for a certain job, you'll go into negotiations on solid ground--you'll be able to justify strongly. You'll also know when a job is still worth your time and at what price point you have to walk.

Think about how your business is structured. Are you still a sole proprietorship? Is that the best structure for you from a tax perspective? Sole proprietorships may have less paperwork, but they can get slammed when it comes to taxes. As your business grows, question how your business is organized and talk to a tax professional about business structures that may be a better fit for you.

Think about what you're good at. What do you bring to the table that other writers don't? We all start with excellent writing skills--but what is special about yours? Maybe you're a killer interviewer with a background in journalism. Maybe you're a stand-out copywriter with a background in sales. Maybe your prior work experience makes you particularly suited to certain types of clients. Personally, I'm looking to specialize--and I'm considering web writing and resume writing as niches that may be perfectly suited to my prior writing experience. If you know what you do better than your competition, you can also justify your pricing better--because you're not just a dime a dozen.

Think about marketing that. How are you reaching out to clients? When I started (and I admit I still tend to want to do this). I stayed away from phone and direct mail. My marketing was very lackadaisical, and it revolved around cold emailing. I do get business that way--but it's time to move on to more sophisticated forms of marketing. Sending hardcopy mailings gives your business a more legitimate look--and calling prospects on the phone might be scary, but it's not rocket science--and I'm sure that with practice, I'll get better. What could you be doing that you're not doing now to get yourself in front of the better clients?

Maybe the recession is affecting the amount of work you're getting from your regulars--I know it is with me--but freelancers are lean, mean, and flexble. We're the guerilla troops of the job market, and in tough conditions we're well set up to succeed where big companies with high overhead might be prone to fail. So use your flexibility, continually re-evaluate yourself, and hopefully you'll do well regardless of market conditions.

Friday, September 11, 2009

GUEST POST: Want to Work With Me? Here Are My Rules!

Brilliant aspiring novelist Ginny Stone is a long-time writing collaborator and partner of mine. We've both just finished novels, and are blogging about the editing process (and that whole getting-published thing) over at our new blog, Not So Solitary, along with fellow collaborista Angela Dawn. By day, Ginny is a marketing genius for a well-known publishing house, managing book-release and promotion campaigns for fantasy/sci-fi/paranormal titles-- and she's often in charge of hiring freelancers. So I thought she'd be perfect to bring you a valuable client-side perspective on the hiring process.

GUEST POST: Want to Work With Me? Here Are My Rules!
By Ginny Stone

I work for a major British publishing company in the Marketing Department. I frequently hire freelance graphic designers, web consultants, and copywriters. Recently, I was talking to Jennifer about what I look for when I hire a freelancer. I'm pretty laid back and I tend to like to work with people who are also laid back but deadline/goal orientated. Generally I have an established list of freelancers and don't take on new freelancers by query letter alone. A query letter and a trusted recommendation is my preferred method of finding new talent. I get about a hundred query letters a year-- but without a reference I usually have to pass these up. But, assuming you queried me and/or had a reference (or portfolio of projects) I trusted here are my rules for working on a project.

Ask Questions Early

If I hire a freelancer and (s)he doesn't understand the brief I've given them, then I expect her/him to take the initiative and ask questions early on in the project. There is nothing worse than a freelancer sending in work that does not meet the brief I have given them-- because this puts me in the awkward position of having to ask them to redo it. A few questions asked early on might have salvaged the project and meant that we were able to make our deadlines with less stress and fuss. Don't be afraid to ask questions-- it lets me see how your mind works (and I am more likely to give you a more comprehensive or tailored brief next time). Part of what keeps companies returning to the same freelancers is that we mesh and are able to communicate our wants and needs quickly and efficiently. This only happens if both parties are able to trust each other and ask as many questions as it takes to get the job done.

Be Reliable

If I like working with you then I will work with your schedule. Good (and reliable) freelancers are hard to find. This is why most companies have a list of people/companies they regularly work with. Because, here's the secret-- we want to work with people who understand tight deadlines, good communication and produce results. If you want to score a repeat job with a company like mine you have to be reliable and produce consistent results under the deadlines we give you. Its simple. If you don't have time to take the job, don't. We'd rather you pass on a job because you can't meet the deadline and produce your usual results than have you take the job and produce something not up to your standards. I promise, if we like working with you we will respect that you are in demand and next time send you our work request earlier.

Check and Answer Your Messages Frequently

I can't stress this enough. I had one company I worked with that didn't get back to me for three business days. I had to chase them for a reply (just to let me know they had gotten my work request). This is frankly unacceptable. If work is being outsourced to you it's generally because of time constraints. Meaning there is a deadline looming that needs to be met and we are hiring you to produce work and meet this deadline. If you are happy to work on a project then reply early (when the request comes in) and let me know your schedule. If you will be working on my project from Tuesday than fair enough-- I'll look for an email/copy/design from you on Wednesday. Don't make me chase you to get a timeline from you. We are both busy and I don't need to spend my time fretting when you have a project in hand. I don't want to be that annoying client. You are a professional, if I am hiring you to work for me than the least you can do is let me know when I can expect a draft, when I will be able to give you corrections etc. This way I can pass this information along to my bosses who will anxiously be awaiting an update on this project. Remember, we all have deadlines and bosses to answer to.

Meet Your Deadlines

If you say you will deliver a draft/design on Tuesday then you'd better deliver it (and not at 6pm). Don't make promises you can't keep. I'd much rather you say, 'I'll be might able to show you a draft late Tuesday but more realistically Wednesday afternoon' then promise me a date and time that you can't meet. If I know you wont really be able to give me anything until Wednesday than I wont look for something until then. But if I am waiting for something on Tuesday and nothing comes until Wednesday 5pm I am not going to be confident with your skills-- regardless of how good whatever you've produced happens to be.

Remember We Write Copy Too

Marketeers write copy. We are the creative brains behind national marketing campaigns, tv/radio commercials, and press adverts. If we are hiring you to write copy we trust your copy writing skills implicitly. However, should we send your copy back with (loads of) changes then please note this doesn't mean we don't like the work you've produced. A lot of creative work is done by committee and sometimes we need to look at several different approaches. It doesn't mean what you've produced isn't brilliant (it probably is) but part of marketing/sales copy has to do with positioning the product in the right manner. So, if was ask that you take a different approach, believe me its because we think you've produced something good-- but we need to see it in a different way as well. This way we can find the right creative approach. Good marketing takes time and creativity. Don't be afraid to take chances and give us two ideas. Just follow your brief.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

GUEST POST: 4 Tips for Recognizing Clients That Pay Well

Kimberly Ben blogs at Avid Writer, where she gives tips on the business side of freelancing drawn from her 15 years of experience. I like her even-handed, thoughtful approach to topics such as content mills, freelancing ethics and SEO writing. Her site is definitely one to bookmark.

4 Tips for Recognizing Clients that Pay Well
By Kimberly Ben

One of the biggest problems many freelance writers encounter while establishing their business is how to find clients that pay well. When first starting out, the tendency is to aim your marketing efforts low. Low paying projects lead to burnout and make it difficult to grow your business.

Business start-ups, entrepreneurs and “mom and pop” companies are typically not ideal prospects if you’re looking for high-paying gigs. However, there are small and medium-size businesses out there that know the value of good writing, a consistent marketing campaign and have the budget to hire a qualified freelance writer.

You already know that marketing your business constantly is essential in order to keep business coming in; but if you don’t know how to weed out low-paying prospects, you’ll wind up wasting valuable time.

When you’re searching online for new clients, there are many clues that reveal quality prospects if you know what to look for.

Contact Information

Clicking on the contact tab of a site can tell you a lot. If there is only a phone number and a contact form with no other information, you might want to keep looking. Look for signs of an established business. Is the address a post office box or an actual street address located in a business district? Is a phone and fax number provided? Is the phone number toll-free? The more information, the better.

PR Coverage

Be on the look out for a posted press release, news/magazine feature articles, videos of broadcast news stories and any other media coverage about the company. Make sure the information is up to date (within the past five years).


Explore the website and pay attention to important details like multiple office locations, a board of directors or senior executive bios.

Professional Website

Don’t be intimidated by a well-designed site with impressive headlines and well-written, scannable copy. Is there a newsletter or a maintained blog? These are all signs of a business that cares about its message, image and brand.

These are only a few of the signs to look for when searching for high paying clients. Even if you’ve narrowed your marketing message to a specific target audience, you must to be able to tell the difference between low-paying clients and those willing to pay for your skills and expertise. What are some signs you recognize when searching for well-paying prospects?

Monday, September 7, 2009

GUEST POST: What Do You Do When A Prospective Client Requests a Free Sample?

I've just discovered Laura Cross's blog True Story Ink. It focuses on ghostwriting and writing nonfiction books, but Laura's got some great advice that's applicable to magazine writers and copywriters, drawing on over sixteen years of experience as a pro--including how to find and approach subject matter experts for a piece you're writing. It's a new blog, but definitely one to watch.

What Do You Do When A Prospective Client Requests a Free Sample?
By Laura Cross

I’ve noticed an increase in the number of clients asking me to provide free samples for their projects. Why is this? Are they afraid I can’t craft good content? Haven’t they reviewed my portfolio, read my testimonials, or perused my blog? Did they not notice my bio page, which clearly states I have been a professional freelance writer and editor for more than 16 years and actually have an education in this stuff? Maybe they just enjoy comparison-shopping or collecting samples?

I’d like to be able to do this. The next time I remodel my kitchen, I think I’ll ask the contractor if he can do a free remodel of my bathroom first so I can get an idea of his expertise before I invest. I wonder if my phone company would offer me a free sample of their services? Or my hair-stylist? Or the fancy four-star French restaurant downtown?

No one would consider actually asking for any of those services or products for free. As writers, we make our living writing. Yet, writers are continually asked to provide free copy.

I admit there was a time when I would dutifully crank out free samples whenever a prospective client asked. I figured editing a few pages of a manuscript or ghostwriting a short piece for their project was worth the effort to secure a profitable job. And it always worked. Until one day.

A few years ago I was approached by a well-known, reputable publication that produced an annual travel guide. To be considered for their assignment, they asked me to write a sample chapter for their upcoming issue. They also asked several other writers to do the same.

Even though I knew the spec would require a week to research and produce (during which time I would not be able to work on other paying projects) and I had some heavy competition, I was confident in my ability to create the winning chapter and secure the job – which was substantial and paid well. Alas, I was not selected for the job. Nor were any of the other writers.

The publication must have liked my work though, as several months later I picked up their latest travel guide and found it included the chapter I wrote – word for word. Only sans credit and payment. I quickly established a new policy regarding free samples.

Writers are valuable. Writing is a REAL job. We must remember our worth. Sometimes all it takes is reminding a client that you are running a business, not a non-profit charitable foundation. Other times a client may require a little more education. I’ve found my portfolio, collected testimonials, and web presence help establish my skill and credibility with most potential clients. For those clients who feel they “must” have a sample based on their specific project prior to hiring me, I accommodate their request - for a fee.

Your turn: How do you handle requests for free samples? Are there certain circumstances where you would write on spec?

Laura Cross is a freelance writer and editor. She has ghostwritten numerous nonfiction books on various topics and adapted books to screenplays as a “hidden” writer. Check out her nonfiction writing blog at True Story Ink and her screenwriting blog at About A Screenplay.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

GUEST POST: Building Financial Momentum as a Freelancer

One of the most prolific writers I know, Devon Ellington blogs at Ink in My Coffee, where she shares her experiences as a professional writer--when she's not copywriting or writing short stories, romantic comedies, essays, YA fiction, or blogging on magic and meditation. In both her blog and her comments on this site and others, Devon provides a no-nonsense, no-excuses approach to freelancing that's a breath of fresh air.

Building Financial Momentum as a Freelancer
by Devon Ellington

This article offers suggestions to those who are actively freelancing and looking for a way to work smarter, not harder. There are plenty of articles on breaking in to freelancing (I’ve written several dozen of them), putting together materials, and landing jobs. This is how to build on those skills and work towards financial independence and comfort.

Stay away from mill content sites/bidding sites/sites that charge for listings. You cannot make a living for $15/article without burning out in a matter of months. It’s less than slave wages. It’s one thing to take on a charity about which you’re passionate as a pro bono client. You’re both giving back to the community and building legitimate clips to vault yourself to a higher payment level. It’s quite another to be paid fractions of pennies per hour of work, have to work 90+ hours/week to pay bills while the mill content site continues to make ten times what they paid you on a consistent basis. You can get better jobs, better pay, and a better quality of client by doing a little legwork. Relying on job listings is only for the lazy or those who can rely on another family member’s income.

You’re going to have to market. A lot of people work for mill content sites because “I don’t have to market” or “I don’t have time to market.” Of course you don’t have time to market -- you’re being paid slave wages to churn out subpar content just to survive. If you took a couple of hours of that time and spent it marketing, you’d land decently paying work in areas you ENJOY. You could work fewer hours and have more time for both marketing and life, because you’re working smarter, not harder. How would you rather work? Smart and sane, or cheap and dumb?

Where are the jobs? Almost every business needs writing. If you logged every single piece of material you read in a day -- street signs, menus, begging letters, blurbs, store window adverts -- you have a considerable prospect list. Join your local chamber of commerce. Attend meetings. Meet people. Don’t just go with the intent to pass out business cards and land clients -- actually LISTEN to the other business owners. What do they need? Where are they struggling? How can you make their lives and businesses more streamlined -- for a fair price? Keep checking legitimate job listings by people who believe in fair pay for work (Anne Wayman’s list, Hope Clark’s Funds for Writers, Writers’ Weekly Market List), but look through the newspaper, pull out the phone book and go through it, taking notes.

Direct Mail. Create a prospect list. Write an amazing cover letter, letting the prospects know why they can’t live without you. Include a brochure about your services, and two business cards, which also has your website address. Yes, you need a website. Send out the materials. Follow up with a phone call in two weeks. Expect a 1% return on direct mail without follow-up, 3-10% with follow-up, provided you’ve tailored your letters to the individual companies, and your supporting materials are strong. If you have a personal meeting with anyone, send a hand-written thank you note immediately, whether or not you land the job.

Once You Land the Job. Always have a contract or letter of agreement in place BEFORE you start work, and make sure it includes a deposit. I don’t care if you’re working for your mother, put a contract in place. If a prospective client balks at a contract, walk away. Any professional business person understands the necessity of a contract. Spell out every possible glitch, and put a price on it. Once the contract is signed, stick to the contract and NEVER miss a deadline unless you’re dead. Seriously, it’s not the client’s problem if your kid got sick or the dryer blew up. You have to meet your commitments, or you don’t get hired again. Respond to emails or phone calls promptly, or, if you can’t, make sure there’s an auto-responder message stating when you will. Be pleasant, professional, stick to your boundaries, and deliver.

Keep in Touch. Keep in touch with former clients, checking in regularly to see how they’re doing and what they need. Send holiday greetings (I get an influx of jobs in January, a traditionally slow time, because people get my holiday greetings and remember how much they enjoy working with me). Follow up the direct mail lists with postcard reminders every three months. I generally get a 25%-30% return on the follow-up postcards, which is more than double the response to the original mailing, because the potential clients see I’m serious about courting them and working with them. Stationery and postage are tax write-offs. It’s worth the time and the effort.

Each Job is a Building Block to a Better-Paying Job. Look at every job as a building block and see what foundation that particular job sets so the next job you pitch is for a higher-profile company at a better rate. That doesn’t mean walking away from steady clients, but building your portfolio so each piece is stronger than the previous one. Every piece should be a challenge that furthers your ultimate writing goals. If you’re only taking jobs to do pieces you “can write off the top of your head” or “write in your sleep”, you’re not just cheating the client, you’re cheating yourself.

Keep Expanding Your Network. Whenever you travel, pick up brochures, community newspapers, business cards, flyers, everything. When you get home, go through all of it and create a new prospect list and do a new mailing.

Be a Friend, and You’ll Have a Friend When You Need One. You’re not in competition with other writers. You’re in competition with yourself. When your work is at its best, and you’re dealing with someone who genuinely wants the best writer for the job and not the cheapest price, you’ll get the job. You can afford, especially on an emotional level, to be generous with other writers. Don’t diss other writers to clients or potential clients. If they try to engage in gossip about someone they fired, simply say, “I’m sorry it didn’t work out. Here are my ideas for our way forward.” Engaging in gossip will bite you in the butt. Keep one or two very close friends with whom you can vent, knowing you won’t sell each other out, but don’t engage in gossip in meet-ups or at conferences or with clients.

Don’t Put Yourself Down. You don’t want to be arrogant, but know how to confidently express your skills. Every time you say, “It was nothing” or “I’m dumb” or any other negative comment about yourself, you invite the client to consider you in that light. Put out the negative, attract the negative. Put out the positive, attract the positive. We all have days when we lose confidence. The client doesn’t need to know about them, and it’s not the client’s job to boost your self-esteem.

Keep Expanding Your Skills. MAKE the time to add a new skill to your repertoire every two to three months. Everyone squawked about the need to niche until the economy tanked. Once it did, I (Ms. Anti-Niche) was the one landing the work, because I could do whatever type of writing was necessary. Some of it I chose not to do -- I’ve turned down high-paying jobs when I disagreed with the mission of the company. But I’m capable of writing for almost any industry.

Give Yourself Regular Raises. It’s fine to raise your rates, especially as your skills expand. Bring in new clients at the new rates, and phase new rates in with long-term clients over time. If the guys who drove AIG and the banks into the ground get raises, so can you.

Decide When it’s Time to Move On. A time will come when you need to move on from a client. You might outgrow their company -- chances are you’ll outgrow the pay scale. If you love working with a particular client, try to negotiate a smaller raise that works for both of you. Sometimes, I’ve hoped to turn off an aggravating client by pricing myself out of the client’s range -- if it doesn’t work, I have to seriously consider if the money is worth the trouble. Sometimes it is; in that case, you shut up, deal, and cash the check as quickly as possible. Sometimes, it’s not -- you either refuse the job or you complete the final assignment and refuse future assignments.

Go For the Jobs That Give You the Most Joy. If you’re working on a project about which you’re passionate, the passion will communicate in the writing, and you’ll land more jobs in that same vein -- jobs you love that pay well, too!

--Devon Ellington publishes under a half a dozen names in both fiction and non-fiction, in addition to providing a wide variety of business writing services for an international client base. To keep up with her work, check out her blog, Ink in My Coffee and on Twitter: @DevonEllington.

Monday, August 31, 2009

GUEST POST: That Whole Work-Life Balance Thing...

Mike Chen is not only a talented commercial writer and blogger, but he also writes a mean novel. He documents the process over at his novel blog, and when he's not doing that he's blogging about hockey. He's definitely one to watch for--both online and in bookstores.

That Whole Work-Life Balance Thing...
By Mike Chen

If you're reading this, then you know that Jenny's going on vacation. A real no-technology, no-communication, no-work vacation.

How many of us are envious? Ok, that looks like all of you.

How many of us feel like we can make that clean-cut not-even-mail commitment to time off? I'm guessing if you're like me, and if you're like Jenny, it's one of those wishful-thinking things -- and kudos to her for finally taking some time off.

I think the difficult thing with freelancing or contracting, whether you're a writer, graphic designer, web developer or whatever, is that there's no firm boundary between personal and professional. There's a thick blur between those two things because the professional affects the personal and vice versa. Got a last-minute emergency request from a client? Slap on the quick-turnaround fee and take in the extra cash, but cancel whatever plans you have tonight. Gonna take time off to trek across Central America? Well, you sure won't be getting paid during that time, so be prepared to work your tail off when you return.

The problem with going out on your own, at least for me, is that there's this constant anxiety that you could be doing something to help your business. "Something" can be anything from marketing to blogging to working on an actual project, and that's the real kicker -- "something" is so nebulous that you can't necessarily shut it off.

A few years ago, my wife-to-be and I had one of those, um, discussions about where those boundaries lie. It seemed like whenever I got home from an on-site gig, I'd fire up the ol' laptop and begin a remote freelance project. While I felt like I was doing something good for our pseudo-family unit, she felt like I was disappearing into Work World. This seems to be fairly common among contractors and freelancers of the creative sort, and I think part of it is that the natural creativity that powers our careers is something that we enjoy, even when it's for work purposes.

Still, there had to be limits to this. It got to a point where I'd use my phone to work on drafts while waiting for a friend or out at an event. The biggest lesson I learned out of all of this is that sanity is much more valuable than money. And to achieve sanity, I had to set my boundaries -- and stick to them.

I have a system of sorts now. My weekly hours are a mish-mash of on-site, remote corporate contract, and freelance. When I come home from the on-site, I tell my wife (and myself) what I have to do and roughly how long it'll take. When those goals are met, I shut it down. I might write for fun, but the work switch turns off. On the weekends, I know I'll dedicate about two hours on one morning to polishing projects or handling logistics like billing and emails.

I stay flexible with this. I think any good business person should. If I get a quick-turnaround request that is worth the money, I'll take it. However, before I start, I take a big-picture look at who or what it's going to affect.

I believe I've achieved a balance with this, mostly because I can work a somewhat predictable schedule (8:30 AM to about 6:30 PM) that allows for flexibility on either side. I have a graphic designer friend that tells me that she has trouble establishing those boundaries, and she'll often work into the AM while her husband is asleep. While that may be feasible for the short-term, that sounds like a slow descent into hell over a long period of time.

A wise person once told me that life will move forward no matter what you do. That little nugget of wisdom really hit home with me, because as important as my business was, it became more important to learn to detach from it. It's difficult when it encompasses so much of you; however, the rewards go far beyond the extra money you might earn from working ridiculous hours.

If you plan properly and remain flexible, those boundaries can be drawn and adhered to. Even something like Jenny's absolutely-everything-off, as much as the notion of that might induce fear of losing clients and destroying business, that type of vacation is possible. In fact, I'd say it's necessary.

Of course, I haven't done something like that in the past two years. But I think about it a lot!

Friday, August 28, 2009

GUEST POST: Advice from a Freelance PR Writer to Press Release Seekers

Over at her blog, The Irreverent Freelancer, Kathy Kehrli keeps deadbeats, low-ballers and scammers in line with her sharp-as-nails commentary on crummy job listings and unrealistic client expectations. Even the ballsiest lowball employers don't dare utter the phrase "easy job if you know what you're doing" in her earshot--and her flat-out refusal to be taken advantage of serves as an inspiration to freelancers everywhere.

Advice from a Freelance PR Writer to Press Release Seekers
By Kathy Kehrli

In my freelance writing journey, I’m often faced with press release clients who want everything but the kitchen sink tossed in to their media releases. In such instances, I always take the time to point out the error of their ways. If all reasoning fails, I proceed with incorporating the changes asked for, grinding my teeth all the while.

You can be sure, however, such press releases certainly won’t be added to my portfolio anytime in the next millennium. Why? Because they break way too many rules.

On that note, I thought I’d take some time to make an informative post about what a press release should and/or should not do. If it saves one press release writer from having to explain all these rules to a clueless client, then it’s well worth the effort.

1. A press release should not read like a sales pitch. The key word here is newsworthy. If all you’re trying to do is sell something, buy an ad.

2. A press release should have one clear angle. If you’re debuting a new product, aligning with another company, running a discount promotion, now shipping internationally, etc., etc., good for you. But don’t ask that a single press release cover all those topics. Not only does such a mish-mash of ideas turn off the media, it confuses anyone who reads the PR. Pick a topic, any topic, and stick to it. Want all these things covered? Then, don’t be a cheapskate. Pay a competent writer to craft you four targeted press releases, not one. The return on investment will make it well worth your while, trust me.

3. Do not use a press release to pick a personal bone. I recently had a client who wanted me to write her a press release about her argument with her son’s private school. I declined, informing her it left way too much room for personal litigation. Although I never heard back from her on that front, she must have appreciated my straightforwardness because she was back a few weeks later asking for a second corporate PR.

What are some of your pet-peeve press release experiences?

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

GUEST POST: So, What Commercial Writing Projects Are You Working On These Days?

A few years after I graduated college, a family friend gave me a copy of Peter Bowerman's book The Well-Fed Writer. I am not exaggerating when I say it changed my life. If you don't own it already, stop what you're doing, go over to Peter's site, and buy it. Seriously. You'll thank me. OK, all set? Good. Now on to the post:

So, What Commercial Writing Projects Are You Working On These Days?
By Peter Bowerman

Peter Bowerman here, "The Well-Fed Writer," taking Jennifer up on her invite to do a guest blog post while she’s away on vacation. Here’s an edited version of one I ran last year that got a lot of interesting comments. It was cool not only because it showcased the vast array of projects people were working on, but because, in the process, it provided people with a lot of ideas for different project types and industries that may not have occurred to you and me. Do check out the comments on the original post here.


I got a note from a new reader of The Well-Fed Writer recently, asking, “Curious. Are you mostly doing web copy in this day and age, or are you pretty much in the same industry as you started?” I guess the thinking was that the web has taken over the world and that, as such, that’s all we’d be doing. He IS new to the business. Obviously, there’s plenty of the traditional marketing communications pieces still being done out there.

But, it got me thinking about what people are working on these days. I figure, by sharing what’s on our plates these days, and how we landed it, it can showcase the wide variety of projects that make up the commercial writing sphere, while also giving us ideas about some new directions to go in, suggest to clients, hunt down, etc. And give any newbie lurkers some confidence that this gig truly IS for real (in case they’re wondering…)

Me? I’m working on a brochure for an online high school catering to home-schoolers. It’ll be used at trade shows or in other “leave-behind”? scenarios. That’ll be followed by a catalog for the school. A graphic designer found me somehow, asked if I knew a writer in his area (an hour away), nothing panned out, he steered his client to my site, she loved it, called me up, and we were in business.

(P.S. Since I finished the above project, I’ve done about 20K worth of work for that client (and her clients), and plenty more on the way.

I’m also working on a case study for a building materials company (my sixth project for them), originally landed through a speechwriter friend of mine (whom I thank with free lunches every few months for the many thousands it’s put in my pocket).

Also working on some copy for a menu insert for a well-known restaurant chain – pretty high-level demographics, psychographics, etc. Amazing how much agonizing goes into what people are thinking when they read a menu (personally, I think they could care less, as long as their meal is good, but hey, they want to pay me well to agonize, I’ll agonize).

Plus, some book titling and back-cover copywriting for three self-publishing authors through my coaching program. Fun stuff.

So, what are you working on these days?

How did you land it?

Noticing any uptick or downturn in certain kinds of projects?

Monday, August 24, 2009

GUEST POST: How Not to Pitch an Editor

I'm thrilled to have Deb Ng of Freelance Writing Jobs contributing a guest post to CatalystBlogger. If you're not familiar with this site, this is one you'll want to bookmark--Deb delivers dozens of freelance writing job leads several times a week, as well as tips on professional blogging, social media marketing, commercial writing and running a business.

How Not to Pitch an Editor
By Deb Ng

I’m buried under a pile of email. The amount of people wanting to submit a blog post for consideration for my freelance writing blog network is staggering. I don’t know if it’s because we’re a popular network or because we pay for guest posts, but I didn’t expect such a response to our seeking outside writers. Unfortunately, I will only be contacting a small number of the people who queried to ask them for more information about their pitches. Here’s why:

Not enough information

More than half of the pitches weren’t pitches at all. They were questions:

Dear Deb, How would you like an article about how to find a freelance writing job?

Sure…except we write about that every single day. How would this post be different from others? There is nothing here for me to go on.

On our “write for us” page, we list the types of blog posts we’re most interested in reading. We also ask that folks stay away from general topics or the stuff you find on every single other freelance writing blog.

When pitching an editor it’s best to include the slant of the article. For instance, if this writer told me she wanted to write a piece about how freelance writers can find work at writers conferences and list some of her tips for networking at these places, I probably would given the go ahead.

Not relevant

Before pitching a blog, website or publication, it’s probably a good idea to a little perusing. Not knowing anything about the market you wish to query is a freelance writing Cardinal Sin. I received pitches about gardening, web design, and iPhone apps. The thing is, these writers could totally have won me over with niche- focused pitches. For example, the iPhone writer could have discussed apps for freelance writers instead of his “How to Create an iPhone App” pitch. Instead of discussing tomatoes, the gardening blogger could have talked about achieving success by rocking one’s niche. Finally, if the web design spoke about how bloggers can benefit from strategic design instead of a post about where to find design jobs, he might have gotten a little more love.

Not what I’m looking for

I’m easy. I like a casual writing style and tips every freelance writer can use. Sometimes folks send in ideas for stuff I’m just not looking for. They might be the terrific writers, but their pitch didn’t grab me or it was a topic we just wrote about.

Editors want writers to look at the guidelines, read some of their past blog posts or articles, go beyond the usual and dare to be different. Editors aren’t only looking to fill space, they’re looking to enlighten, educate and stimulate. Don’t pitch the pieces that are easy to write – pitch the pieces you want to read.

Deb Ng is a freelance writer, professional blogger, social media consultant and founder of Freelance Writing Jobs, the number one online community for freelance writers.

Friday, August 21, 2009

GUEST POST: Freelance Writers: 3 Areas to Assess to Land More Gigs During the Busy Fall Season

Today's guest blogger, Yuwanda Black, is an SEO writer extraordinaire--and her blog, Inkwell Editorial, is one of the first resources I turned to when I was just launching my first site. She taught me a lot about article marketing and SEO writing--skills that ultimately got my business going online. These days she's also blogging at

Freelance Writers: 3 Areas to Assess to Land More Gigs During the Busy Fall Season
By Yuwanda Black

Did you know that freelance writing is a seasonal profession? It is. The seasons go something like this:

The busy season starts around the third week of August/second week of September. It lasts through mid-November. Then there’s a break for Thanksgiving. After this, there’s a flurry of activity for some businesses until about a week before Christmas. After this, it’s slow until late January/early February. Then, it picks up again through late May/early June. Late June through late August is pretty slow.

Knowing the editorial calendar (ie, busy seasons/slow seasons) helps you to do two things: (i) relax and enjoy the slow times; and (ii) prepare for the busy seasons.

Following are three areas to pay attention to during the slow season so that you capitalize on the busy seasons.

Your Website

Websites are like department store windows. They need to be refreshed to keep loyal customers interested and new customers coming in. When was the last time you revised your website? Have you been meaning to upgrade to a new wordpress theme? Want to add a blog? Been meaning to add more interactive features like video.

Now is the perfect time to do this before the busy fall season rolls around (and lord do I speak from firsthand experience here as I’m in the middle of a hairy wordpress design and host transfer – arrrggghhh, but I digress!).

What You Charge

Pricing is one of the first areas to assess in order to make more money without doing more work. Many freelancers forget that they are business owners. They are hesitant to raise prices because they fear losing old customers and not getting new ones. But in order to grow, you must.

If you’ve been freelancing for a year, for example, you probably priced your services below industry norms just to snag clients. In this time, you’ve gained a lot more experience – and skill. This means your value is higher. Don’t be afraid to raise your prices to reflect this.

Most clients understand. To make it more palatable, make it a small increase (unless you’ve been severely undercharging). And, give clients ample notice. You could send an email now that says something to the effect of, “Starting in October, our new rates will be . . .”

Lastly, assure clients that they’ll get the same excellent quality and will still meet and beat deadlines.

Note: It’s entirely possible that you’ll lose a few clients. BUT, you should never let that be a deterrent because what you charge should never be set based on how your cheapest clients will respond. This type of client (ie, price shoppers) will leave you eventually anyway.

Your rates should be based on the value you provide clients. And, this is determined by what your higher-end clients will pay because these are your “ideal clients;” your “money” clients.

Your Service Offerings

When was the last time you went over your service list?

Are some offerings more profitable than others? Have clients been asking for a service that you don’t provide? Are some services a pain to provide and not very profitable? Assessing what you offer clients goes directly to your bottom line.
By adding some services, deleting others and fine tuning yet others, you can increase your freelance writing income by 10%, 15%, or 25% or more.

By honing in on these three areas, as freelance writer, you can more accurately define your “profit centers.”

FYI, most freelancers never take an annual, proactive approach like this to their freelance writing business. By doing so, you position yourself head and shoulders above the competition – no matter what the season is.

About: Yuwanda Black heads New Media Words, an SEO Content Writing and Distribution firm. She also publishes two popular sites for freelance writers, and

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

GUEST POST: 5 Signs That This isn't the Gig for You

Today's guest post comes to you from our very own Urban Muse, Susan Johnston. Her blog combines practicality and professionalism to deliver stand-out business and writing tips for freelancers. Susan's focus is mainly on magazine writing, but the info she provides is often widely applicable to other freelance specialties--including copywriting.

3 Signs That This Isn't the Gig For You
By Susan Johnston

Since freelance writers are usually paid by the word or the project instead of by the hour, it behooves us to choose our projects carefully. I've been writing for several years, yet I still sometimes find myself slaving away on an assignment that takes twice as long as I'd expected or otherwise makes me crazy.
Often it's those assignments that editors dream up and graciously bestow upon one of their unsuspecting writers. It may be outside our comfort zone, but we accept it because we're so tickled to have an assignment that didn't require a query. Plus, it's good to stretch ourselves from time to time. But not every opportunity is a good one. Here are some of the signs I've learned to look out for:

  1. Hard to find sources. If the leading expert on your topic is retired or deceased, then that may be a sign that the idea is not as juicy as your editor thinks it is. You will eat up precious hours tracking down secondary sources, none of whom will be able to provide the specific information your editor wants. Save yourself the heartache and say no, unless it's a topic that you're dying to research for personal reasons.
  2. Mismatched scope and word count. Say your editor wants you to explain a complex concept that is totally new to your readers. She'd like you to include quotes from experts on both sides of the issue as well as examples and resources so that readers can find more information. Oh, yeah, did I mention that it's only 250 words and it's due by the end of the week? Run!
  3. Unusual ways of quantifying the project. I once had a client who only wanted to pay me for words with at least three letters (has anyone else encountered this? it was bizarre!). That should have clued me in that something was amiss. It didn't. In case you're wondering, MS Word does not have an easy way to calculate this. I checked. In future, if clients don't want to pay for "a" and "of", they should simply adjust their rate per word and let me focus on writing, rather than bean counting.
  4. Ethical dilemmas. There are enough writing gigs out there that you shouldn't have to resort to working for companies whose values do not align with yours. Say someone from Marlboro asks you to write ad copy and your best friend died of lung cancer after smoking Marlboros for years. Probably not the gig for you. There are more nuanced examples, but you get the gist.
  5. Dread fills you when you get emails or calls from your contact. When I get emails from certain people, I know it's going to be a long, confusing road ahead. Often I put off opening the email or I screen my calls, only to discover that it was actually a very simple question. When this happens, I remind myself to weigh the income versus the emotional costs. In one case, I decided that I could put up with a lot of s--- for $XX per hour, but I was secretly relieved when the project fell through. With that much baggage, I never should have agred to take it on!
Yes, many of these go back to the person's work style and temperament. But that's fodder for another post. For further reading, FreelanceSwitch had an interesting post a awhile back about when to say no. Monica Valentinelli also posted suggestions on how to say no. Anything you'd like to add?

SusanJohnston is a Boston-based copywriter and journalist who freelances for websites, non-profits, and other small businesses. Want to know more? Check out The Urban Muse or follow her on Twitter.

Monday, August 17, 2009

GUEST POST: Why Your Clients Don't Call You Back

I'm starting off the week with a guest post from one of my favorite bloggers, Lori Widmer from Words on the Page. She's one of the bloggers I visit every day sometime between my morning email check and my morning coffee. Lori's eminently readable blog covers a diverse range of topics from dealing with difficult clients (and I'm pretty sure she's dealt with every difficult client out there) to getting the most from your marketing.

Why Your Clients Don't Call You Back
By Lori Widmer

You’ve done the legwork, marketed like mad, and now you have some regular clients. Feels good, doesn’t it? But how good is it going to feel when their current projects are over and you’re sitting there like a wallflower on prom night, wondering why they don’t call? But you did a great job on the project and you received praise and accolades from the client. So what gives? Here are a few things that may be getting in the way:

Your clients have forgotten about you. It’s nothing personal. In fact, that’s the problem. You may have left a great impression, but did you go just one step further to make your relationship with your clients personal? Much of my own repeat business comes from people whom I’ve befriended. Mind you, it’s a fine line to walk, but a smile, sharing something personal (though not too personal), or just asking how that person’s day is going and really listening to the answer is all you need. People want to do business with people they like. Be someone they can like. They’ll remember you for it.

You haven’t kept in touch. More than anything, clients respond to you when you’re in regular contact. If you send them a quick email, a postcard, even a quick call once every month, you stand a better chance of having that client say “Know what? Maybe now’s the time to get that project off the back burner.” And if they have something ongoing that’s becoming too much, guess who will be on their minds when they’re ready to outsource it? It’s not enough that you’ve cultivated their business the first time – clients need regular reminders that you’re there.

Your clients have your old info. When you moved that email account, did you tell them? I had a client recently who sent a referral to the wrong address. Yes, I’d informed him of my email change ages ago and I’d updated my online sources. Luckily for me the referral was persistent. It happens that people just hang on to the old emails, though. However, if you’re emailing them once a month, your note should have a nice bolded reminder at the top prompting them to change their address books to your new address. Keep that reminder there for a few months. We’re all busy and we all forget.

You didn’t follow up. I hate to say it, but there may have been part of the project your clients weren’t entirely thrilled with. If you’d sent them a note or given them a call a few days after sending out the final and the invoice, you’d be able to ask if there was anything they’d like to change, any concerns, and any areas you might clear up for them. And you’d give them a chance to voice those concerns, which could possibly save your relationship. There’s also a good chance they won’t respond. People get busy and this is a low priority for them. My policy – ask twice, then let it go. You’ve done your best to please and chasing them down for a response could be interpreted as your wanting validation.

Don’t lose that momentum you have with those new clients. Make sure to get your name in front of them regularly, you’re connected with them, and they can reach you. And don’t forget to reach out after the fact to ensure everything’s fine with the outcome. It’s much easier to keep clients than it is to find new ones, and it takes just a little added effort to get them calling you back.

Lori Widmer is a freelance writer and editor who blogs about writing and marketing at