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.


Lori said...

Susan, your dude with the "article payment aversion" remains one of the classic cases of cheapskate behavior. I'm of the opinion that if he wants to exclude articles from the payment, HE can count the damned things.

Great post! I feel there's a longer story behind your second point, and I'm dying to hear it. :)

Thanks for the reminder that it's okay to turn down work that doesn't fit. Why should everyone suffer?

Dawn said...

I love your "point #5." All the rest aside, this is basically the key -- trust your gut instincts. Are you excited about this project (or client) or does it fill you with dread?

I do the same thing, say to myself, "I'll take the assignment if a certain dollar about is offered..."

But I've learned in the past few weeks that there has to be 3 Xs per hour in that number. ;)

Susan Johnston Taylor said...

@Lori: There isn't a *specific* story to go with point #2, but it was an ongoing issue with a certain editor I no longer write for. She'd assign 250 word shorts, then have a million follow-up questions about "What should you do if X?" or "How come you didn't quote Y?" Lady, come on! There's only so much information that can be squeezed into 250 words. I'm happy to field a few follow-up questions, but at the rate I was being paid, it wasn't worth it to dig up all this extra info that would never fit in the article (sometimes I sensed she was just curious and had no intention of adding it to the piece).