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.


Paul said...

Came across this blog on a recommendation - good for you!

Let me add my two cents to this whole job board/proper day's pay debate that is getting some air time at the moment.

Some background first; I've been a copywriter now for 20 years (longer actually, deep sigh), the last 7 as a freelancer. I'm finally earning 6 figures and work in the DM/web site space. I've also published 4 books, one a ghost written one on Make Up, which as a male, was an entertaining experience.

Anyway; point No 1. Under no circumstances get work off a job board. These bottom feeder clients are a waste of your professional time. Leave them to the hobbyists and amateurs fresh out of some copywriter bootcamp thing. And if you're one of those amateurs, please go away. Calling yourself a writer in this space is like the mozzarella shaker at the local pizza joint calling himself a chef.

For the other genuine writers out there; Devon is right: build your business (after all, that's what it is, a business), market yourself, promote your reasonable rates and stare blankly when asked to 'review' them. (Do you ask your dentist to 'review' his rates?

My response to this request is generally something like 'I wish I could Jane but gosh, my phone rates/rent/materials and other costs are just as high as every other business and I want to remain in business for you and everyone else who uses me. Can we review what you need me to do - maybe there are saving there? Shall I let you think about it, then get back to me with your thoughts?'

There's usually silence, then a 'Oh, okay, well let's...'

I love my job, I love writing and love other writers - you can make a decent living out of this game. Just treat it as a proper business with an ethical, thoughtful approach and clients will come. And they'll return if you're good. Just leave the bottom feeder clients and their idiot uptakers where they are, on the bottom of the rung.

Can I also add the best two things for ongoing business that I've found is i) get professional office space (doesn't have to be pricey or in a spanky part of town). This pulls you out of the work from home/you must charge cheap rates syndrome and ii) join a networking group. I joined BNI and it gave me the two best contacts ever. I'll add iii) you must market yourself. No ifs no buts.

Yay professional copywriters! Stand strong against the barbarians.

devon Ellington said...

Thanks for stopping by, Paul. I agree with everything you said.

For me, personally, I work better at home because I like to pace and mutter and cook as problem-solvers; but for most people, I agree, it's better to keep the office completely separate.

If you work from home and can afford it, I suggest a separate phone line just for business clients.

Colin Galbraith said...

Great article and some valuable reminders in there for new starts as well as the established. Definitely one to refer to on a regular basis! :-)