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.