Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Types of Beginnings

I was recently asked by a friend of mine how to get started in freelancing. This is such a common question--and, to be honest, frustrating to answer--because there are so many ways people get started. However, thinking about it, I realized that most people I know who are currently full-time freelancers got a start in one of four ways:

The formerly-worked-for-an-advertising-company freelancer. To a lot of people, those who start off in advertising seem to have the advantage. It's assumed they have lots of confidence writing copy, a great portfolio, and a whole bunch of contacts they can use to get their careers rolling. But bear in mind that a lot of copywriters who work for advertising firms have confidentiality agreements that prevent them from working for clients outside of the company for a set period, usually a year. Still, if you're in advertising and you want to freelance, there's no reason why your former employer can't hire you back as a freelancer--or you can't use contacts and friends who work in other agencies.

The formerly-exploited freelancer. Funny enough, several web writers I know come from this background--they're $5-an-article writers who have managed to move into copywriting that pays a living wage. Many of these writers start off with no clue about the value of their own skill--they just want to write, and the idea that someone will pay them anything seems marvelous. Until they find themselves in an article sweat shop. For enterprising people, though, a copy of Peter Bowerman's The Well Fed Writer is all that's needed to get them going.

The no-experience freelancer. This was how I started out. I had zero commercial writing experience, and pretty much built up my portfolio the traditional way--by doing work for free for nonprofits and friends. The difference between doing a few chosen pieces for free and working for $5-an-article, though, is that the free work ends when I get what I need--usable portfolio pieces. You can't really use keyword articles as viable samples. Anyway, I had the utmost confidence that I was a good writer--I'd been writing fiction all my life and majored in creative writing. But I had no idea whether I could do business writing.

The plenty-of-experience-but-not-in-writing freelancer. Some freelance writers come into freelancing from another industry--and can actually make that work for them in starting a career. If you have a background in technology, health care, publishing, foreign languages, sales, or some other niche, you can use that to market yourself to a specific industry--and set yourself apart from competitors. Freelancers like this often have an advantage over those who have a background only in writing.

How did you get started?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving!

I'm taking a break from work--and everything else--for the week of Thanksgiving. I'll be back next Monday. Hope you all have a wonderful Thanksgiving!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Things You Can't Buy for $5 An Article

No matter how long you've been a freelance writer, you will continually run into the client whose frame of reference for hiring freelance writers is the $5-an-article market. These clients expect you to charge less than nothing. They think it should take you mere seconds to crank out 500 words. And part of them doesn't really understand why they should pay for writing at all: after all, YOU should be grateful that someone is paying you to write anything--and giving you all that free exposure on top of it.

If you're only willing to pay a couple of dollars per page, you may be able to find some misguided people who will take that deal. There's always someone out there who will work for less. But there are a few very important things you won't be getting. These include:

Research. $5-an-article writers don't have time to research. Most of these articles are taken from the top of the writer's head or rephrased from existing articles. If I was writing for $5 an article, I wouldn't have time to spend clicking around Google to find out if what I was writing was actually true. I'd be too busy cranking out words to try to make a living wage.

Fact-checking. You may get a lot of factual errors with cheap articles. That's because you probably aren't paying a separate fact-checker to do it--and your writer isn't.

Originality. Don't think that $5-an-article writers are spending time researching your market, looking up what's already out there, and coming up with an original angle for your article. In fact, for dirt-cheap article writers, it's better to go for the tried-and-true topics. That way there will already be plenty of info out there to cull from quickly.

Interviews. Interviews take time. It takes time to find the right people, time to schedule an interview, come up with the right questions, and then sift through the results afterward. $5 an article just does not cover this amount of time. And it's too bad. Interviews with people in the industry or involved in the issue can make the difference between something of substance and keyword fluff--and don't think your audience can't tell one from the other..

Good grammar and spelling. It's tough to proofread your own work. Spell-check programs aren't dependable, and it's often hard to spot errors in something you've just done writing. If you're doing it yourself, it's best to give a piece some "sit time" for a day or so to read it again with some distance. But $5-an-article writers don't have that sit time. The name of the game in this industry is "fast."

If you're only willing to pay bottom-dollar for writing work, expect errors in spelling, grammar, and accuracy. And don't be surprised if the articles just rehash the same topics that are already out there. This type of article isn't likely to appeal to an audience or set you apart from competitors. If you want writing that does more than throw keywords at search engines, expect to pay more than a nominal fee.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

When Should You Stand Your Ground?

As a freelancer, it can be tough to stand up to a client who wants something unreasonable. And when you're starting out, you may not have the confidence to say when things are and aren't OK to expect. When I started out, I thought being "professional" meant saying yes to everything. Now I know it has more to do with knowing what battles to fight--and when to stand up for yourself, even if it means losing the job. Such as:

When the pay is too low. Once I was really excited to partner with an SEO firm. They knew my prices going in, and the plan was for them to sell my services along with theirs--for a markup. They would make money for essentially doing nothing, and I would have a flood of new clients. Sounded awesome--right? Except when the SEO company started pressuring me to lower my rates. They wanted me to compete on price with the $5 article people, and I found myself having to draw a line in the sand and explain the difference between my services and theirs. It turned out that although the SEO company was excited to be offering the best writing around--at that price point--their client base wasn't willing to spring for more. That partnership didn't work out.

When the expectations are unrealistic. Does the client want you to manage same-day turnarounds on edits? Expect you to be available for phone or IM chats all the time? Want to treat you like an employee, not a freelancer? Some terms are grounds for dismissal--of the client.

When what they want is less effective. Every so often, I've had to defend my copywriting choices. When a client wants a change that will make the writing less effective, I usually stand up for myself and state my case--once. If after my explanation, the client still wants a change, I make it--they're paying the bills, after all. I try to make sure the whole exchange and the suggestions have a paper trail--so the client can't come back later saying that I didn't do a good job because of bad results.

When the contract is unreasonable. Once I was handed a non-compete contract when partnering with a graphic designer--that essentially stated I couldn't work with anyone else who provided that type of service. I'm willing to sign some general non-compete agreements, but this was way too strict. Sometimes when the client gives you a contract, it's their own arse they're looking after--not yours.

What do you consider reasons to walk from a client?

Monday, November 15, 2010

When Expectations are Unrealistic

I've been running up against unrealistic client expectations lately. It can be a frustrating thing--especially when you don't realize how unrealistic those expectations really are until you turn in the first draft. When I first started freelancing, I believed that I should try to do whatever I could to satisfy client expectations. Now I know that some are just not possible. Here are a few of my favorites:

This copy will get a specific result. Whether it's supposed to out-pull the current copy or get the client an interview in one month flat, it's unrealistic to expect a certain result from any advertising or marketing effort. You can reasonably predict results, sometimes--but you can't state them for certain. All sorts of factors--from the job market to the reliability of the information your client gives you about the industry--can affect the results of a project, and many of those are out of the writer's control. Be careful about getting yourself into situations where you have to predict results for certain.

You will be available all the time. Sometimes clients misunderstand the relationship with freelancers. They think that because they've hired you, you're now their employee--and able to be available at their beck and call. Occasionally I've had to set firm boundaries about when I can take phone calls and do IM chats--and I try to set a precedent of keeping most correspondence done via email. Email is less intrusive and easier to deal with on a daily basis--and it also provides a record of what went on, just in case it's needed.

You'll get it perfect the first time. Occasionally a client will get upset because the first draft isn't exactly what he or she expected. Part of this is my fault--I failed to prep them beforehand to expect revisions. But sometimes you wonder whether these people ever submitted research papers in high school and college--and ever had to revise a paper. What happened to the writing process? Nobody's perfect, and nobody's understanding of another person's concepts and ideas will be flawless.

You'll guarantee your results. Very rarely, I've seen job postings that offer pay based on results. This is similar, to me, as asking for a guarantee of results--or the writer doesn't get paid. In my opinion it's an unrealistic and unfair way of paying for copy or any other freelance work.

What do you consider unreasonable expectations in freelancing?

Friday, November 12, 2010

Back After a Loooonggg Hiatus

So, I haven't been around for a while.

A lot's happened in my life. I met a fabulous guy. I traveled all over Europe with him--and went to Kenya. My brother got married. I finished a second novel. I started performing slam poetry in New York. And amidst all that, my freelance writing work suddenly tripled. It was a great run...and things are finally starting to slow down.

If I'd realized this was coming, I would have prepared better. But it was a case of not realizing I'd be too busy to post until I was...and once you start ignoring something (like your exercise plan, or your screenplay, or your blog) it gets easier and easier to keep ignoring it. So...sorry about that! But things are slowing down for me for a bit, so I'm finally coming back.

When I started this blog, I promised myself I wouldn't let it take over my life. My plan was always to keep it going for as long as it fit in my life, and not stress about it when it doesn't. Since then, there have been several points where I've had to drop out for a bit. I can't say when that time will come again, but I'm sure it will. In the meantime, however, hopefully I can get a good, consistent series of new posts up.

I hope you've had a fabulous few months, too!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Palm Readings and Popcorn

I just have to share this experience.

So I was walking down the street in the East Village the other day. I was on my way to see a movie with a friend, and I was late. And as I was walking, a guy comes up to me and starts walking alongside me. He says something, very fast, to the effect of:

“I’m a professional palm reader. I give Daoist, Taoist, Confucian palm reads in the ancient Chinese tradition. And I’d really like to give you my spiel today. Let me pitch you, miss!” (He really did say that.) And in this perky, peppy voice…

I’m from Vermont. I never evolved the thick-skinned, New Yorker ability to say “get lost” to people who come up to me and talk to me. I’m just not good at being rude. So I said something like, “um, OK.”

So the guy launches into a two-block talk about his palm reading and the traditions they’re from and the techniques he uses and the steps he takes, walking alongside me as I go to my movie. Then he starts going into the types of “packages” he has…and how much they cost. Really? He wants me to drop everything and get a $20 palm read, right there on the sidewalk? When I’m clearly on my way somewhere?

“…And you’ll be getting me at my best energy today,” he said. “I’m really fresh. Like popcorn! Where are you headed, miss?”

“Meet a friend,” I mumble.

“Oh, really? Is it a girl friend or a guy friend? Is it a date?”

“No, it’s a movie,” I say. Yeah, I’m awkward.

“Well, why not stop for a quick five minute palm read? It’s only five dollars—”

And then I did what I should have done the whole time, but didn’t. I turned to him and said, very clearly, “NO.”

And the guy gave me a disgruntled look and jetted off to go harass his next victim.

This ties into my post on Monday...about email marketers who won't go away unless you take the time to give them a clear "NO." Is this what we've come to? Is the market so saturated now that to get any business, we have to persistently bother people who clearly don't want what we're selling? I don't see how that's the case...personally I do just fine, and I will NEVER let myself become this person, either online or in person. But I've seen this kind of thing a lot lately...and I'm starting to think my "no"'s need to be more pre-emptive.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Email Marketing: What Not to Do

This has happened to me twice in the past few weeks. Someone sends me an email marketing message asking me to buy into something, promote something on my site, something like that. It’s not something I’m interested in. Since I get a lot of these emails, I don’t respond with a “not interested.” I just don’t respond at all.

Then, a few days later, I get another email. “Hey, I didn’t hear back from you about the email I sent earlier. Just wanted to see if you’d be interested in…”

Is this a new trend in email marketing—that if someone doesn’t respond to your solicitation, it’s an invitation to keep emailing them until they do? Generally, if I email message someone with some kind of promotional intent and they don’t respond, I assume they’re not interested. I might email them again in six months, in case things change—but I won’t expect their not being interested to be some kind of basis for a relationship-building exchange.

And it goes the other way, too. If I don’t respond, I’m not interested. And I get a lot of emails like this, so having to respond with a “sorry, not interested” every time I get one would take time out of my day that I don’t need to spend. And if I do respond to you with a “not interested,” it might be taken as a pretext for you to get back in touch and try to convince me, which I’d rather you didn’t do.

Do you take this tactic with email marketing? Do you have any luck with it?

Monday, June 21, 2010

In Freelancing, Can You Trust Anyone?

Once, when I had been in business for only a little over a year, I had a client I had worked with several times hire me for a small writing assignment. “No need for a contract,” the client said before we started, “I’ll just send over a check right now.”

Ordinarily, I’d never work with anyone without a contract. But this client was someone I knew—she had been referred to me by a friend. And we’d worked together several times before without a hitch.

So I did the project, the client was happy, and I hadn’t gotten my check yet. No big deal—sometimes the mail can take a little while. But weeks went by, and my emails to the client went unanswered. I didn’t have a contract—so I had nothing to fall back on to get the person to pay.

The bottom line? You never really know anyone—and you can’t leave your business decisions up to trust, even if you’ve worked with the person before. You never know what kind of financial pressure someone is under these days—pressure that could lead them to stiff you when they never would have before. Who knows? Get a contract. Just in case.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Reasons Why You Lost The Project—That Have Everything To Do With You.

On Wednesday I wrote about reasons why you might not hear back about a quote or proposal you’ve submitted to a possible client—reasons that aren’t your fault. But there are reasons you might not hear back that do have to do with you—and might be fixable.

You’re too expensive. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do about this. Your prices are professional but fair, and the prospect is just not used to professional prices. But if you get this feedback all the time—and from prospects you’d think could afford you—it might be time to take another look at your prices.

If you’re on the high end, it doesn’t mean you necessarily have to reduce prices. It does mean you need to be aware of that—and sell your expertise more aggressively to prospects to get them over the price objection. Are you charging a lot more than other writers in your field? And are you failing to sell yourself as worth every penny even if you’re way past the high end? Check your resources—your freelance writer buddies, the latest copy of Writer’s Market--to see where you are in the industry price-wise and if maybe you should think about reducing your prices—or doing a better job of selling them.

You didn’t listen. To give an accurate quote, you need to understand exactly what the client needs. Sometimes they really aren’t sure what they need—and the process of questioning to get at an accurate quote can help them define that. But misunderstandings are possible. Did you quote them a flat rate on ten pages of website copy when what they really wanted was an open-ended price structure to allow for a more flexible project? Even if this is easily fixed, the prospect may question your ability to understand their needs if you get it wrong the first time.

Your experience doesn’t fit the project. Maybe they were expecting a lower price from you because you’re not strongly experienced—or you don’t have a lot of samples in their industry. Or maybe, after weighing your proposal against others’, they chose to go with a writer who has expertise that fits the project better. This could mean you really do have to reduce rates to break into a particular industry—if you’re a beginner—or that your efforts would be more profitable if focused on a different industry altogether.

If you don’t hear back about a proposal after a month or so, it couldn’t hurt to ask why. The prospect’s feedback may help you identify areas where you can improve—and help you spot trends in the reasons why people say no. This could help you plug the leaks in your sales process—and ultimately land more projects.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Reasons You Never Heard Back About That Proposal--That Have Nothing To Do With You

t happens to all of us. You get really excited about a lead for a new project. You talk to the client at length, get to know their needs, spend all day crafting a proposal. Then you send it over and…nothing. For days. Weeks, even. Maybe you never hear back.

It can be easy to take it personally when you don’t hear back about a proposal. But there are plenty of reasons why that have nothing to do with you personally. Here are a few common reasons.

You’re too expensive. Yes, a lot of the time people never respond because you quote more than they were expecting to pay. That doesn’t mean that you’re charging too much. It could mean the prospect is inexperienced—they’re used to working with low-priced, inexperienced writers (or hiring summer interns or newbies to work for free in exchange for “exposure.”) Then they find you on the Internet or through a referral and fall in love with your portfolio and writing style. Having only worked with really cheap writing talent before, your realistic, professional price shocks them to the core—and you never hear from them again. OR, you hear from them months later—when they finally have the budget.

They’re trying to use your quote as leverage. Sometimes a prospect has no intention of hiring you when they ask for a quote. They’re planning to hire someone else. But they want to get a sense of whether that person’s price is realistic in the marketplace—so they gather a few quotes from other writers as well. If those quotes are lower than their preferred writer’s price, they might use your quote as leverage to try to talk him or her down.

They’re not ready. The process of gathering information for a quote can force a client to get really specific about what they want—sometimes before they’re ready. When you deliver a quote that’s based on, say, ten pages of web copy and two recurring blogs, they could see your price and decide they can only afford half that much work. Or, they could just not be ready to commit to that number of pages—just because they haven’t quite decided yet what shape the website will take. Sometimes a prospect asks you for a quote too early in the process.

A key person leaves. The person in charge of hiring freelancers on your prospects team might love your work and want to hire you. But if they leave the team suddenly, the person who comes in to take their place may have never heard of you. Or maybe they want to have the company handle the copy in-house. Or maybe they’re bringing their own stable of freelancers on board.

If you don’t hear back about a proposal within a week, it’s always a good idea to follow up with an email. You never know—a timely reminder that you’re still passionate about the project may just land you the job.

Monday, June 14, 2010

When The Price is Too High: How to Get The Job Anyway

“We’d love to hire you, but your price is too high.” It’s not an uncommon response from prospective clients. And I’ve let many exchanges end at that—even though I could have ultimately landed the job, if I’d known what to say next.

When someone says your price is too high, it doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t work with them. You will have to adjust your price down—but you can do it without compromising your overall rate. Here are a few things to try when a prospect tells you you’re too expensive.

Defend your prices. Before you offer any kind of cut rate for any reason, defend your prices. Explain that they’re not just getting “writing.” (Even though it’s a valuable skill, many clients see writing as something anyone can do—some of them are used to passing off marketing copy to their unpaid summer intern.) They’re getting your marketing expertise, research skills, years in the industry, sales experience—emphasize any value-added skills and experience you bring to the table that can raise the prospect’s perception of your value.

Offer a reduced rate for editing. It might cost too much to have you do the whole thing from scratch. But in some cases, it might be possible for you to reduce your rates if all you have to do is edit copy they already have. Be sure there’s a solid differential between your process for writing—which includes research and phone interviews—and editing, which includes nothing but re-wording the existing concepts themselves. If you feel that in this case the changes needed are so drastic that you can’t do a good job of rewriting copy if you can’t interview a client in detail and research competitive marketing tactics, for example, this type of compromise may not be the best idea for you. The idea is to reduce your amount of work along with your price.

Offer a reduced rate for reduced work. Maybe they don’t need as many pages as they thought. Maybe you can get away with interviewing two sources instead of five. If there’s room to reduce the amount of work done in a way that’s acceptable to the client, make the suggestion.

Ask about their budget. If they keep telling you what you’re offering is too expensive, ask them flat out—how much were you expecting to pay for this? Once you have that number, you can tell them flat out what you can do for them for that price.

Avoid cutting your hourly rate. All of the above tactics are designed to help you get the job without having to reduce your actual hourly or per-word rate. It’s never a good idea to start price negotiations with an offer to reduce that rate—always try to reduce the workload first. In general, I don’t offer to reduce my rate at all without reducing the workload.

It can be tempting to offer a reduced flat rate (which translates into a reduced hourly or per-word rate for you) in exchange for ongoing future work or large volumes of work. This is to be avoided at all costs. It sets up the expectation with the client that your quoted price is only a starting point that can be talked down. And it sets you up to get into an ongoing situation where you’re getting paid less than you want to be for a large volume of work. Which can lead to taking up time that could be more lucratively devoted to higher-paying clients.

Friday, June 11, 2010

On the Intersection Between Business Writing...and Poetry

This week I went to a poetry slam competition in New York City…and I won. Not exactly a professional success, but a writing-related one—and a lot of fun. I struck up a conversation with someone in the crowd before the event and told her about the business writing I do as a day job—and she kind of rolled her eyes. As if to say “it can’t possibly be good if it’s commercial.”

I disagree with that. I think commercial writing can be genius. I think there’s a lot of non-commercial writing out there that sucks. And I also think poetry and marketing copy have more in common than you’d realize. Here are a few intersections.

Every punctuation mark counts. I used to get annoyed with teachers who described poetry as an area in writing “where perfect grammar doesn’t matter.” Because it matters even more than usual. Poetry is a concise, meaning-dense form and if you’re going to break grammatical rules, you’d better be a grammar master who understands exactly the effect you’re creating when breaking those rules.

The same is often said of marketing writing. I hear a lot of “Oh, you don’t have to be a great writer. Your grammar doesn’t even have to be good.” I disagree. I think, as with poetry, if you’re going to make mistakes—like a sentence fragment, say—you’d better know exactly what effect that mistake will have on the piece. How it will affect the rhythm. And how it will help or hurt the tone you’re creating.

Every word should pull its weight. In poetry, you don’t have room to throw in words that aren’t weight-bearing. Same with marketing copy. After I write a first draft, I usually go through and eliminate every word that doesn’t add to the meaning. If the sentence still means the same thing without that word, it goes. This isn’t about whether long-form or short-form copy works better—this is about efficiency in all your writing, long and short. People don’t have time to wade through wasted words to get at the meaning.

A successful piece makes you think about things in a new way. A fantastic poem makes me see a subject—love, human kindness, loss, what have you—in a new light. It uses metaphor to create strong imagery that’s both original and resonating. Great marketing copy does the same thing. It makes me see a product or a company differently by using original expression to rephrase and re-present themes that the company’s audience identifies with. That’s the kind of writing that gets people excited about a company.

Poetry and marketing writing is an unlikely pairing. And I’m sure there will be plenty of poets—and maybe a few copywriters—who will disagree. But as a writer in both worlds, I see the similarities—and hopefully can make them work for me.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Would a Virtual Sex Change Help Your Career?

I think I was about as surprised as everyone else when I read that James Chartrand is actually a woman--and started using a male pseudonym to get freelance writing work. There's a tradition of this in writing--witness George Elliot--women pretending to be men so their writing will get the respect it deserves--and they'll get the pay they're entitled to. And it's led me to think about how I present myself.

I've occasionally had clients question my rates. Not often, and I usually take it as a sign I don't want to work with them. But I've had plenty of clients try to talk me down during the negotiating stage or tell me I'm too expensive--and I lose the job. I've had plenty of slowball clients. Overall, I wouldn't say I get a lot of revisions back on what I write--I hardly ever get to two rounds, and round-one revisions are most often minor.

But, I've started to wonder whether having a male pseudonym would open doors to bigger, better-paying clients. Would it be easier to break into big advertising and marketing firms if I were a guy? Would it be easier to quote higher rates? James's story suggests it would be.

The problem is that I'd have to speak to these clients on the phone at some point--if only to interview for projects. It's pretty clear from my voice that I'm a woman--and I sound much younger than I am. This could work against me, and I'm aware how important perception is.

Has anyone out there tried using a pseudonym--either different from your actual sex or not? How did it go? Why did you choose to do it? I would love to hear more of these stories.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Setting Business Boundaries

I saw a post on Words on the Page the other day about setting work boundaries. The post covers the line freelancers have to draw in the sand when they decide which projects to take and which to skip. I’ve been thinking of another sort of boundary lately—the kind you need to draw with existing clients.

Some clients need a little more hand-holding and “nurturing” than others. Sometimes you need to set boundaries clearly on what you will be happy to do, as long as you’re getting paid, and what you won’t do—for any amount of money.

For example—a graphic designer friend of mine once told me she used to have her address on her business cards…and of course, she worked from home. She’s since taken her address off. The reason is that once she had a client show up at her house, on a Sunday, while she was still in pajamas drinking coffee, and insist on going over some aspect of their project in person. Those are the kinds of boundaries I’m talking about. Here are mine.

Working on weekends. If I take on a project that I know will have me working weekends to make the deadline, I get that out up front—and I charge more for it. I don’t usually take client calls on weekends or respond to emails then. I just don’t want to set up the expectation that I’m constantly available. Plus, I need a break.

Web cam tracking. I’ve seen postings on job boards advertising hourly wages and requiring the writers turn on their web cams so the employer can watch them at work—and verify they’re working the whole time. Um, no. This is why I’m a freelancer and not an office worker—Big Brother makes me uncomfortable.

Constant availability online. I cannot be productive if I have to constantly leave up Skype, Facebook Chat, Google Chat, AIM or any other kind of chat program so a client can “check in” whenever s/he feels like it. I need to be able to get away from the chatter.

Come to think of it…constant availability, period. I don’t like to set up the expectation that I can be constantly available for phone calls. The reason is that, if a client mentions he’ll “call me tomorrow” about a project, I then have to center my day around that. And the problem with that is that I’m not an office worker and I don’t always keep super-conventional 9-to-5 hours. If I have to sit around and wait for a phone call, I can’t leave the office. Sometimes this can mess up my day. It’s much better for me to set a time for people to call—that way I know when to expect them and can plan my day accordingly.

What are the boundaries you draw?

Friday, June 4, 2010

On the "Theatre" of Freelance Writing

I had a long phone conversation with a client the other day. We were discussing our approach for an upcoming project and some revisions from a previous project. At the end of the conversation, the client said something that made me think.

He owned his own business and had clients of his own. He said the conversation we were having was priming him to love the writing I sent—it was the same way he operated with his own clients. And we had an interesting discussion about the “theatre” of freelancing. And this made me think…how much of my client interaction process is for my own benefit, and how much is to reassure or “prime” the client?

If everything were done just for my benefit alone, I would do pretty much everything via email for some projects--and keep it to a single phone interview for others. I wouldn’t need to have long talks in most cases. Everything I didn’t need would be trimmed in the interest of time.

But that’s not really providing the most effective service possible. In my resume writing practice, for example, I interview clients by phone. It would be much more efficient for me to have everyone fill out a questionnaire and send it over. If I ask the questions the right way, stress in the beginning how important it is to be thorough, and ask for corroborating documents such as old resumes, I get all the info I need. But the client wants to feel like they’re getting a document that reflects “them.” And some people won’t feel that way if they don’t have a chat. I’ve learned that most clients will be much happier with the final product if they feel like you’ve gotten to know them—and they’ve become invested in the process.

What’s your feeling on the theatre of freelance writing? What do you do in your process that’s more for your clients’ benefit than your own?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Is There Such Thing as Too Much Expansion?

I’ve written about this before—about the way most businesspeople want to expand, and I don’t. Oh, sure, I’d love to earn more. But I’m not wild about working 80-hour weeks—and when it comes right down to it, really what I’d like is to keep doing what I’m doing.

I occasionally get offers and ideas from others who feel they know what’s best for my business—and what I should want as a businessowner. Usually, they don’t work for what I’m trying to do. Here are a few ways I have no intention of expanding.

Hiring other writers. I remember writing here a while ago about a guy who owns an outsourcing firm in India. He was trying to sell me on the idea of outsourcing my entire writing business. Obviously that wouldn’t be a great decision for me, but I’m really not interested in taking on help in any capacity except when absolutely necessary because of serious time constraints. I don’t want to have regular employees.

Going beyond the writing. Every so often I get an inquiry from someone who thinks I also do SEO or web design or business consulting. I could have expanded into those areas, but really I would prefer not to. They don’t excite me as much as writing does—and since I can design my own business, I get to pick and choose what I want to do. IT’s a pretty nice life—and I keep my business focused on writing.

Being a “guru.” Sometimes I get ads from various places and individuals trying to sell me on becoming some sort of copywriting guru—you know, the guy who teaches all the other pros how it’s done, who writes the acclaimed how-to manuals and who’s hired to train employees at global companies. I’m not really into that. I’m perfectly fine not being famous for copywriting—as long as my business keeps humming along.

What expansion ideas are right out for you?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Maintaining Good Habits

I’ve never been good with developing positive habits. I could never get into exercise, for example. I had a few years’ worth of traumatic experiences with team sports as a kid, and I guess exercise is too closely associated in my mind with gym class. I just have no positive associations with the actual act of exercise to go on.

I have, however, started going to yoga. And, against all likelihood, I’ve started going at six in the morning. (I’m not a morning person either—did I forget to mention that?). At first I had to drag myself. This is the type of thing I would do once or twice, usually, and then quit. But I’ve been dragging myself every morning for two weeks. And lately I’ve discovered a strange thing.

If I skip a day, my body feels stiff and out of sorts. It’s not so hard to get up anymore, as long as I get to bed early enough. And my body feels really good when it makes those shapes. Is this how it always is with exercise? Is it only just because I never stuck with an exercise regime before for longer than a fortnight that I always hated it? Am I just now discovering something fitness nuts just instinctively know—that exercise is fun?

More to the point: is regular repetition really all it takes to develop these good habits? Does it really get easier?

I could see how this could apply to something like marketing. My marketing routine generally goes something like this: I do it for two weeks, get either the result I needed at the time or lose interest, then I wander off and do other things. Maybe if I stuck with it past that point of boredom, it would become a necessary routine—and not something I feel forced to do.

Maybe I’m learning this relatively late in my life. Maybe persistence really does pay off.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Plugging the Time Leaks

I often find myself glancing at my clock, realizing it’s the end of the day, and noticing that I got about half the things on my list done. Sometimes it’s not just that my list is too long. Procrastination is a problem for freelancers—we live and die by our own efforts alone. Procrastinating can keep you from working on your own business, marketing your services, and even doing as good a job as you could have on a client project.

I’ve been thinking lately about the types of things I do to procrastinate. One huge time sink for me is the Internet. Sometimes I need it for research—but much of the time I don’t. Most of the time I’m obsessively checking my email, cruising Facebook, and watching funny videos my friends send me on YouTube—just because I’m stuck on some project element and need a break. Of course, if I worked on whatever I was stuck on, I’d get unstuck in about five minutes. But I don’t. I go watch “Glee” reruns online.

I suppose I could start tracking where I lose time. Time spent online—time spent cleaning my house while listening to NPR—time spent taking walks and running errands instead of working. I could figure out where the time is going, and then I could plug the leak. I have zero willpower, so I literally have to remove the temptation—or remove myself from it. Recently I downloaded Mac Freedom, which prevents me from accessing the Internet for a set time (and just in case you were wondering, it works for PC’s too, despite the name). If I’m distracted by chores around the house or books or TV, I get out of the house and go work in a coffee shop. It does help. But it’s tough to maintain good habits.

I could write down what I do every day, collect the data, and assemble it into charts and graphs showing very clearly how I spend my time. But that would be a procrastination tool in itself. Wouldn’t it?

What are your most effective tools for dealing with procrastination? I need some help here.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Suppressing That “Nice” Reflex

I was negotiating a contract with a client the other day. The client sent me their contract, I looked it over, and found a term I wasn’t too comfortable with. The job was interesting and paid well, and I wanted it—but not with that term. This was someone I’d done business with before, and was on great terms with. But that one thing in the contract bothered me.

So I wrote a note mentioning it and asking if we could change the contract to eliminate that one thing. And immediately regretted it. It was kind of “mean” to do that, wasn’t it? I mean, this guy and I were practically best buddies! We’d gone out to drinks together! We’re friends on Facebook! If I make waves about his contract, won’t I look like a jerk?

Then the client got back to me and all was fine. We took that section of the contract out and the project went on as scheduled. If I had listened to that voice inside my head—the one that told me I wasn’t being “nice”—I would have been stuck with a contract I wasn’t crazy about.

Being nice is all well and good with friends and family. But when you’re in business, you can’t let it get in the way of your livelihood. People who are great friends of yours will take advantage of you—and as a friend, you’re supposed to let them. But in business, it doesn’t work that way—and that’s why it’s rarely a good idea to do business with close friends.

What’s your opinion on “nice” in a business environment? Does it get you ahead—or is it self-destructive?

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Bad Business Advice

I've gotten plenty of bad business advice--advice that would up holding me back, going down roads that didn't ultimately lead where I wanted to go, and feeling required to do more work on my business than might be absolutely necessary. Here are a few pieces of advice I've gotten over the years that sounded like they made sense--but didn't make sense for me.

You have to have six months worth of savings before you can quit your job to freelance. The conventional wisdom is that, before you can leave a steady job, you have to have enough in savings to live on for six months. I saved a lot in my steady jobs, but couldn't make enough to meet this goal. One day I sat down and calculated out how long it would take me to get there based on my current savings rate--and it was over a year. And of course, this wouldn't account for emergencies--car problems and other costly, unexpected expenses--that would occasionally come along and wipe everything out. I took a leap without the requisite amount in my bank account--and I haven't regretted it for a minute.

For some, this advice may make sense. For me, it didn't. One of the most important lessons I've learned in my twenties is that there's never a right time for anything. Not for quitting a job you hate, having kids or pursuing a dream. You'll never feel like you have enough money. With every big move I've made, it's always been the wrong time and too expensive. I did it anyway and made it work. Maybe you can, too.

There’s only one way to build a business. There are loads of different ways to get your copywriting business off the ground. Don't despair if you have no ad agency experience, no industry contacts, and can't stand cold calling. Try a lot of different marketing methods, and pick the one you can stick with as well as the one that works.

To get by, you have to market yourself constantly. Marketing is important and it's key to building and maintaining a healthy business. But I do it only as much as I need to. You might have to spend a ton of time at first developing a system, but once you have it running smoothly, don't sweat it--unless you want to grow your business.

You always have to think about "growing" your business. Speaking of--you don't have to get really big. Most people marketing services to business owners assume I want to "grow." I don't--not in the way they mean. I don't want to hire a stable of other writers. I don't want to build a big corporation. I just want to keep doing what I'm doing--and financing a life I love. Don't come to me with offers for outsourcing and off-site offices. I love keeping it small and in-house.

What bad business advice have you received?

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Promises, Promises

Over at the Well Fed Writer blog, I saw a post about an ad for a copywriting program that offers, well, let's just say pie-in-the-sky promises if only you'll pay for their class. This got me thinking about the copywriting career as a whole--and how we're prey to a lot of over-hyped marketing. People with experience just roll their eyes at this stuff. But some beginners may actually buy it. Which is why I feel it's my duty as an elder-sister-in-freelancing to some of you (even though I may not actually be older than you or your sister) to point out promises that you'll regularly see in these programs--that, trust me, are not true.

You don't have to actually know how to write to be a freelance writer! This is one I see kicking around sometimes. That you need only "simple" writing skills to make it as a freelance writer. I disagree. You're not writing novels here, true. But you do need to be a strong writer. You need to understand marketing and how to write in different tones to different audiences. You need to combine good business sense with good writing skills. And you need to UNDERSTAND grammatical rules inside and out to know the effect you're having when you break them--to get a more conversational tone, for instance. And you need to be creative to write catchy headlines and taglines. Granted, you won't necessarily have to write taglines in all jobs--but what copywriting project doesn't involve some kind of headline?

You can make a ton of money right away! This one is everywhere, and it always makes me laugh. Sure, there are plenty of copywriters who make a lot. But there are many more--especially in their first years--who don't make that much. The speed with which you find success depends on your marketing and sales ability, knowledge of your market, existing contacts, ability to differentiate yourself, and the market you're targeting--among other things. It's different for everybody. Granted, I was solvent a month after quitting my job--but I already had been freelancing part-time for a year before quitting and I had VERY low living expenses at the time and zero debt.

There are a ton of businesses just ACHING For a good freelancer! Yes, many different businesses need freelancers. But many of them need convincing as to why they should use a freelancer in the first place. There are plenty of companies who already use freelancers--and they usually have a stable of trusted ones they work with. Not to sound discouraging, but it will take some work to break into your markets. You might luck into a few clients--but the majority of your work isn't necessarily low-hanging fruit.

Work on the beach! Or in the park! Or in a coffee shop! Could you imagine actually taking your laptop to a beach? I'd be petrified the whole time. Of course, you can work in different places--as long as you can find an Internet connection or a plug-in for when your battery laptop dies. And working in coffee shops all the time will definitely run up your tab on lattes. Yes, you will have to worry--because you won't be making six figures in two months, no matter what that sales letter promised. Personally, although I love being outside, I usually find I get more done if I skip the commute and work at home.

There are lots of benefits to this business--which is why it's such an easy job to scam people into believing the dream. Some of that dream is true--but don't get sucked in by extravagant promises. If it sounds too good to be true--it is.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

When You Lose Your Savings—How to Deal

I saw a post at Words on the Page about how veteran freelancers handle the "feast or famine" cycle that comes as part of the job. One of the ways I get through that cycle is by having a nice cushion of savings to use in case of emergencies. Most people I know don't save to the extent that I do--but I've found it really necessary, and sometimes this close to life-saving, to have that cushion.

Of course, you can't have it all the time. My first full year in business, I didn't save correctly for taxes--and wound up owing a HUGE tax bill. I wrote the largest check I'd ever written in my life to the IRS, and boy, was I glad I'd had my savings--although I didn't have it any more. I felt naked without it. Vulnerable. Like if anything else unexpected came along, I would be done. I was pretty much in a panic til I managed to bring the savings account back up to pre-tax levels.

Since that year, I've depleted my savings again many times. Two moves in two years will do that. And sometimes I've just needed to get out of the country. I still hate to deplete my savings--I think if I didn't have an "only for emergencies" attitude, I couldn't make it in this business. But so far (knock on wood), the money has always come back.

Put a percentage of everything you earn into savings. This is the most pain-free way of saving I've come across. I put about 25-30% of every paycheck I get into a savings account for taxes, for example. And I never have trouble paying the tax bill, either quarterly or at the end of the year, because that money comes out of my paycheck before it hits my checking account. So I don't miss it. If my savings are depleted, I raise the percentage and put a little more into a separate savings account for emergencies or trips--set aside from the one I use for tax money.

Pay off your bills. Otherwise you get interest and penalties. That's bad for savings. Even if the bill is large and it hurts to pay it, I grit my teeth and do it--because I know I'll be kicking myself in the long run if I try to stretch out payments. I never carry a balance on my credit card, even in lean times.

Cut back. The big thing for me is eating out. It's easy to eat out five nights a week in New York City--plus drinks are expensive. I have one drink at bars and always ask about specials--and I cook dinners at home most of the time.

Look for work. This is also the time when I increase my marketing efforts. I network. I email old clients I haven't heard from in a while. I email new companies I'd like to work with. Whatever it takes.

How do you deal when you need to build your savings back up?

Friday, May 7, 2010

Get More Done. Get Offline.

Sometimes when I’m really feeling like I’m just not getting anything done, I leave the house and go to a coffee shop, park or library to work. Anywhere, really, where I CAN’T get online. It’s not that easy nowadays—especially in a big city like New York, even hotel lobbies and sandwich shops have wireless access. Sometimes I run around the city to find a place with no access as desperately as I do to find it when I’m on vacation somewhere else.

Getting offline is a very important part of my method when I play catch-up. Do you have any idea how much time we waste Facebookcrastinating (i.e., procrastinating on Facebook), writing long, non-urgent messages to childhood friends, poking around on other people’s blogs and incessantly checking our emails? And it’s not enough for me to just consciously forbid myself to get online. I’m compulsive. I can’t help it. So I have to find a place where I really can’t get online if I really need to be productive. And sometimes finding an Internet dead zone when you want one can be as hard as finding access when you need it.

Now I don’t have to leave the house to go somewhere there’s no Internet access. I’ve discovered Mac Freedom. It’s an extremely useful program that will block your Internet access completely for a set amount of time, up to eight hours. Mac Freedom won’t respond to pleads, bribery, or tantrums—no Internet til it says you can. One time I even got desperate and forced the program to quit, and it still wouldn’t let me get online. Now that’s resolution. And there’s a version for both Mac and PC users, so anyone can use it.

When I use this program, my productivity shoots through the roof. I get ahead on my blog posting. I finish edits and marketing projects I’ve been putting off. And I get time to work on my novel, too. It’s 100% worth the price—which is not saying much, because it’s free.

So what do you do when the chips are down and you need to increase your productivity?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Accepting Who You Are

Before I left on my trip, I was thinking about how to market myself—and I was trying a lot of different things, from cold calling to networking events. Trying different marketing and sales tactics didn’t gain me a lot of business right off the bat—although it did make me some contacts that seem like they’ll turn out to be useful. But it did teach me about what I like, what I’m good at, and the tactics I’d prefer to avoid.

When I started copywriting, I didn’t think there was any type of writing job I should avoid as a professional. I’ve written about this before—I thought it was somehow unprofessional to say no. I’ve since learned that in fact as you grow and become more experienced in your business, you learn what copywriting jobs are most profitable for you—and when to say no to things that don’t work for your talents or business model.

I think the same is true for marketing techniques. If you do your research, you’ll find self-proclaimed “gurus” promoting all kinds of different methods for marketing yourself. Not all of these methods will work for you personally—even if they work for others. You have to choose the methods that fit best with your talents and natural proclivities. I’ve become a proponent of working with the grain of my own personality and abilities, not against them. Here are a few things I’ve learned.

Cold calling just isn’t me. Neither is any kind of aggressive sales. Don’t get me wrong—I love talking about what I do, and realize that can naturally promote my work when the situation is right. But I’m never going to be able to consistently care about “closing” a sale or call businesses cold to promote myself.

I love copywriting—but I don’t want it to be my whole life. In Europe, I started to question whether I need to grow my business to the extent that I thought I did at all. While I love copywriting, there are other things I’m even more passionate about –and I’m much more of a “work to live” person than someone who wants to work sixty-hour work weeks. If I can take fabulous trips to Europe now, what more could I want? I started to question the whole idea of working harder—un-American though that might sound.

So that’s where I am right now. Of course I plan to continue with my copywriting business, and with marketing—it’s how I ensure my stability. I’m not sure I need to push myself to be something I’m not. In the end, it’s most important to me to know what kinds of work make me happy—and as much as possible, avoid the kinds of work that don’t.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Getting Back to Your Routine

It’s tough getting back to a routine when you come back from a trip. Even though I did do some work while overseas, I was still on a different routine. Before I left, I was marketing regularly and starting to build some momentum. Now, it’s tough to get the willpower to buckle down and keep working even after I’ve finished client projects.

Here are some tactics I’m using to try to force myself back into the routine.

Make lists. Whenever I feel overwhelmed, I make lists. And I get a perverse sort of pleasure from crossing things off the list. Even though the first list I made when I touched down still has items I haven’t completed, I feel more productive and organized when I’m working from a list.

Get out of the house. I have the hardest time concentrating in my own apartment these days. It’s helped me a lot to get out—just going to a coffee shop down the street helps me refocus my mind and concentrate on the task at hand. I try to pick places with no Internet connection so I don’t have the added distraction of checking my email constantly.

Take stock of your finances. There’s nothing quite so bracing as taking a look at your bank account and credit card bill after you’ve just gotten back from a trip. To make matters worse, I had to pay my taxes almost immediately after getting back to make the deadline. Knowing I have to work extra hard to get my finances back to the levels they were at before helps keep me motivated.

Plan your next trip. Of course, I don’t want to just scrape by. I want to go back to Europe. Or maybe go to Japan next time. Keeping short-term and long-term goals in mind also keeps me motivated to get back in my routine.

How do you stay motivated after getting back from a long trip?

Friday, April 30, 2010

Working Vacation: Do You Tell Your Clients?

I’ve been out of town for over a month. I spent some time in the Netherlands, Paris, Vienna, Prague, and London. It was an extremely memorable trip. But it wasn’t all vacation.

For several weeks during the trip, I was staying in a single place, more or less living a normal life. And that normal life involved working. During my vacation, most of my clients didn’t even know I was gone—I met my deadlines the same as I would have in the States.

There were some challenges, of course. I never had trouble getting an Internet connection—a rare thing on working vacations and one I’ve learned to expect. But the time difference was something I had to keep in mind; I was six hours ahead of most of the people I worked with, sometimes more.

And when phone conversations were called for, it was tricky. Phone calls to the States are difficult from overseas, even if you use Skype, unless the other person has it as well. I did one Skype conference call which went off perfectly fine. The next time I tried to talk to a client on Skype, the connection was terrible. I had to call her back on my European cell phone, and the minutes evaporated like an ice cube on concrete during a New Mexico summer. I finally had to make an expensive land-line call from my host’s phone, apologize and explain that I was in Europe. The client was very understanding, we finished the interview and the rest of the project went well. Looking back, I should have had an international calling card ready to use on the land line. Next time I have to make client calls from Europe, I’ll be better prepared.

I was reluctant to tell clients where I was—but when I ran into trouble because of it, it turned out to be better to explain things than to let them think I was a flake with a bad phone connection. What’s your policy when you’re on a working vacation?

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

When Your Personal Life Intrudes On Work

I work from home. Which gives me tremendous freedom--the freedom to travel and visit friends all over the world, get things done during the day, and organize my time the way I see fit. Well...kinda. The truth is that while the freelance way of life looks like it's 100% flexible all the time, those of us who are in it know that it isn't as free as it looks. Even so, friends and family members who come from the nine-to-five lifestyle see unfettered freedom in our lives--and sometimes look to take advantage.

I've had a boyfriend sign me up to drive a friend to the airport in the middle of a workday with a big deadline looming, because "I'd be home anyway." I've often been expected to pick up the slack for chores, housework and errands because I work from home.

And it can be even worse when it comes to travel or visits. I love to have visitors, and I love to travel. But when friends and relatives come to visit at a time when you can't take off, they often don't understand that you have to work and they might have to entertain themselves for some time during the day. If you had to physically go to an office, that would be one thing. But I've been in situations before where friends might have felt a little hurt because they thought I had more freedom to take time off whenever I wanted--and the timing just didn't work for me.

Full-time workers often get paid vacation time, as well--and might not fully grasp that when you take time off, you take an earnings hit. I've done many working vacations where I've had to juggle work and fun on a trip, along with others who were really on vacation. This worked out fine in some cases--especially with a bunch of late risers, where I can get up early and get most of my work done before lunch. But sometimes it's caused tension. I've learned that working vacations go much more smoothly when you're on your own and can set your own schedule.

These things have to be handled delicately. Sometimes getting out of the house--on any excuse--is a good way to draw boundaries. If friends and family see you're not home, they'll be less likely to try to distract you from work. How do you draw your boundaries?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Intermittent Posting

I'm currently traveling--working vacation--and will be posting intermittently throughout the rest of March. I'll be back to a regular posting schedule after April 11. Have a great few weeks!

Monday, March 8, 2010

How to Spot a Content Mill

I occasionally get emails from people who want me to check out a certain site and tell them if it's a legit writing opportunity or a content mill. Content mills aren't hard to identify. Here are a few signs.

They have a list of topics: you just write the article. Many content mills operate like this. They'll post up a list of desired topics and all you have to do is write something that goes under that category. Legit news sources don't operate like this. To become a writer for a legit news source, you have to pitch them an idea that their readers will like, and editors are quite picky about topics. They don't just publish a list of very general topics like "home improvement" or "dating tips" and then let anyone who feels like it write and submit articles for them.

Their editorial process is nonexistent. If they usually "accept articles straightaway" with minimal review, it's a content mill site. Some sites have editors and do have some quality standards, but in comparison to a real news site it's quite low. If you're encouraged to submit articles directly without querying an editor, it's likely a content mill site.

Their hiring standards are low. Does it look like the site takes just about anybody? Then it's likely a content mill. Content mills are playing a volume game; they are trying to boost the amount of content on their site for SEO purposes and under that model, more (and faster) is better. They want as many people writing for them as possible. They're not trying to compete with legit news sources for quality and timely coverage. A legit news source will set the bar higher for freelance writers: you'll never see the New York Times actively soliciting people to write for them online; well-paid legit publications don't have to advertise for writers. If they don't have stringent hiring requirements for writers, they probably don't care how well you write as long as they get in the requisite keywords--and they're willing to pay that way.

Their pay is low. Some sites will tell you what they pay up front, others won't. But if you're getting paid something like $10 or $20 for 500 words, or if revenue is at all connected to how many views your article gets, it's a content mill.

How do you spot content mills and other less-than-ideal writing opportunities online?

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Way We Work Best

I had this client once who was ongoing and ordered a LOT of work. The project required work and response almost every day, and it paid fairly well. It sounds like an ideal project. But the client was also very demanding, deadlines were short notice and everything had to be spot-on perfect on the first try.

I pride myself on perfection when it comes to things like grammar and spelling. But there started to be errors in some of the documents I sent. At first, I was mortified--how could I be making these mistakes? I had never made them in any other situation--and thankfully, haven't since with any other clients. It was out of character. Thinking about it, though, the problem was fairly clear. I realized that the pressure of the situation was at least partially to blame. Ordinarily I am careful and exacting. But when the pressure starts to ramp up, my attention to detail starts to flag.

The bottom line? I learned that I am not someone who thrives under high pressure. I need deadlines that give me room to breathe. I need to be paid enough to be able to afford to take this time. Exacting work requires mental time and space. Now I'm careful not to get into situations with clients where the work is very high volume and demanding, even if it's well paid--I know I'm not my best in these situations.

How do you work--and how have you learned?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Taking the "Free" Out of Freelance

Thanks to The Irreverent Freelancer for finding this interesting article in the LA Times about freelance writing--specifically how the wages for freelancers have been spiraling down and down recently.

The article discusses how publications--on the web but also in print--have been slashing their budgets for writing, asking for shorter and more superficial coverage of topics, and using language designed to get people to write for free--promises of "exposure" and an opportunity to "expand your brand." It documents how publications that pay $2 or $3 a word are hard to find these days, and freelance writers who used to make about $70,000 per year are now struggling to bring in half that. Is this what freelance writing has come to?

The thing is, there are two different types of freelance writers: freelance journalists and copywriters. Both are often referred to as "freelance writers" and sometimes they're lumped together, although their working situations and the types of writing they do are very different. And from where I sit, the situation seems a bit more dire for freelance journalists, because they rely on the news industry--which is changing drastically. Print circulations are going down, newspaper advertising is going down in favor of websites like Craigslist which are largely free, and websites are going up--even blog sites that don't pay their writers or pay them a pittance.

For copywriters, the situation is a bit different. We dictate what we make--in most cases, the client doesn't set the price. We're dependent on businesses, sometimes businesses in very lucrative niches, for income--not newspapers that are rapidly losing circulation and revenue. And we have something to sell besides our writing ability--which, although it's a valuable skill in my opinion, is somewhat harder to justify getting highly paid for when everyone and their mother thinks they could be a writer if only they could find the time to finish that novel. If you have something else to differentiate you, like a software or sales background or marketing expertise, clients are often willing to pay for that.

However, websites like Elance definitely set the pay bar low for copywriters as well as freelance journalists--go there if you want to get paid $50 to write someone's 10-page brochure. And I see ads all the time from a creative staffing company I belong to for freelance copywriters needed by top ad agencies--working at wages of $30 or $40 an hour. Not so great, although I bet it's better than the wages a lot of freelance journalists are seeing.

What do you think? Is the situation more dire for journalists than copywriters? Or are we both in trouble?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Back in March

I'm going to be in London starting today (!!) and going until March 1. Have a lovely week, and I'll be back soon!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Prequalifying Prospects

Not everyone is the right fit for your business. It's important to make sure the people you're talking to--whether you're cold calling or networking or sending a postcard campaign--are the right people. Here are the questions I ask when trying to prequalify someone as a prospect.

Do they have the budget? None of us--if we've been in business for more than five minutes--wants to be the cheap option. Of course, not every business will be able to hire you--but you only want to work with the ones who have the budget to pay your fee without trying to nickel-and-dime you, complain about deposits, or slow-ball your final invoice. (Of course, even companies who have the budget do this anyway. But still.)

When vetting a possible partner or customer, check out their business. You may or may not be able to find out directly what their budget for freelancers is, but there are some good signs that they aren't a broke start-up. How long have they been in business? Does their website look professionally designed or like the owner threw it together himself? What kinds of business do they go after--and how much is each contract likely to be worth? Do they have an address in a swank part of town?

Are they the decision-maker? Maybe the person you're talking to loves your work--but they have no ability to get you hired. It's happened to me before. Generally, these enthusiastic people get your hopes up--and then let them down when their boss nixes it. If you can, figure out who's nixing their projects and see if you can talk to them directly.

Do they hire freelancers? If the company has never hired freelancers before, it's not necessarily a bad sign--but you may have more hitches in your process than usual. You may have to educate the client about how freelance arrangements work, the fact that your fees aren't higher than usual, and that an up front deposit is the norm. Be prepared for some hand-holding.

Do they regularly need work like yours? Really, not a lot of companies don't need some sort of written marketing materials. But does this company use the type of marketing you specialize in?

How do YOU prequalify your prospects?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Lessons I Wished I'd Learned Sooner

I saw an interesting post on the Urban Muse about those lessons you wish you could have told your younger self, back when you were just starting out as a freelancer. I have a lot of things I wish I had known sooner--not just about freelancing, but about life. Here are a few.

Know the value of your work. This is so important. As a freelancer, I have marketable skills that others don't have. Marketing writing isn't something anyone can do--and it's not a job for your babysitter who's an English major or your summer intern. You need an expert. Charge like one.

You set the terms. You know what business terms work with your company. Even if a client gives you a contract, you can still modify it by introducing your terms into it and questioning points that don't work for you.

Preach to the converted. It is so much easier to sell your services to people who already know how to work with freelancers, understand the terms and expect your costs. Enough said.

It's OK to say no. You don't have to take every assignment. You don't even have to take every revision request--if what the client wants is wrong, it's OK to explain why you advise against that change. Most of the time, when I do this, clients listen.

What do YOU wish you knew sooner?

Friday, February 12, 2010

Should You Friend Your Clients on Facebook?

I have this come up every so often. Several of my clients use Facebook for business networking. Naturally, they want to network with me.

I use Facebook to keep up with my friends—so my Facebook profile is geared toward that. While there’s nothing on there that’s offensive or scandalous, I’m much more comfortable keeping my business and personal lives separate. On my Facebook profile, I like to be able to think I can be myself—post links to videos, update my profile, and post photos that show my goofy side, without worrying what someone who works with me would think.

In the past, I’ve allowed a few clients to connect with me on Facebook because I’ve felt it would be rude to refuse. With some clients, the relationship has transitioned easily to something more casual and I don’t worry about friending them. But with others, the relationship is much more formal—and it does feel a little strange to let them into my private life.

There are definitely times when I’ve thought twice about saying something on Facebook because of what clients and former clients might think. I’m of two minds about this, though. One side of me says I should be able to be myself on my Facebook page. Another side of me says that the things I put up on my profile will likely be up there for a long time—even if I delete my profile—and it’s good to have that check on what I post.

What’s your position on friending clients, your boss or others you know professionally but not personally?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Building Relationships, Building Business

So I was talking to a business consultant the other day, and he was talking about the importance of building a relationship BEFORE you ask for business. According to him, timing is everything--and in an ideal world, people would come to know and trust you and then offer you the business--without you having to ask. Of course, the world isn't perfect.

He had an interesting perspective. He told me that talking about business right away with some prospects is like talking about sex right away with a date. Instead of starting off with some basic conversation, getting to know each other and so on, it's like starting off with a "wanna go back to my place?" It's all a bit jarring--and it comes too soon, before you even know the person.

But building relationships does come with its problems. For one, sometimes you need the business now--not months down the road, after lots of coffee shop meetings and casual emails with interesting article links "just because." It seems like a good way to put yourself out there, but not the only way--and it takes the control out of your hands.

Also--and this problem isn't one everyone faces--but as a young single woman, sometimes the response I get when I try to "build relationships" isn't exactly the kind I had in mind. I think I'm asking a web designer out to coffee because I want to explore the idea of working together--but he thinks I have a more personal interest. This leads to awkward misunderstandings and situations sometimes.

Of course, you can build relationships in many ways. It's one thing social media marketing is supposed to do for you. I've done my best to do things for people without asking for anything back--I've passed on several referrals to people I'd like to work with, and I regularly pass on resumes of people I work with to my recruiter friends if there's a match and it's the right situation. Hopefully these good deeds will lead to business down the road, but you never know--and really, if you do this kind of thing just because you want something back, you're kind of missing the point.

Basically, I think relationship building is a good habit to get into--but it's tough to make it your primary business-building strategy. How do you build relationships--and what has it led to?

Monday, February 8, 2010

When It's Not About Them

I remember reading some reviews of resume writing services at one point as I got my own resume-writing business going. One person was describing their experiences with some resume writing firms something like this (and I'm completely paraphrasing here):

"I didn't like XYZ resume writing services because they didn't meet me in person. They didn't get to know me. And the resume they wrote just wasn't me."

This quote stayed with me--for how much it missed the point of what a resume is supposed to be. A resume, like a landing page or a long-form direct response letter, is a sales document. Its purpose isn't to encapsulate the essence of you. It's to get a hiring manager, recruiter or whoever to want to bring you in for an interview.

I see a lot of people adding gratuitous information to their resumes in the hopes that hiring managers, HR people, recruiters and others will think "gosh, this person sounds neat! I'd really love to meet them! Let's call them up for an interview!" So you see people highlighting their great massage skills, their volunteer time with the local soup kitchen, or the fact that they're married with two great kids--for positions that have nothing to do with these personal details.

But the thing is, those hiring managers, recruiters and so on are busy. They aren't looking to make friends with you. Most likely their job or paycheck depends on them finding the right person for the right job--and they're looking for what YOU can do for THEM. By which I mean, they're looking for resumes that highlight the exact skills the employer is looking for, so that they can be the hero by bringing in just the right professional for the job. Gratuitous personal details at best are unneeded--at worst they could make you look unprofessional, as well as the person bringing you in in some cases.

I don't usually meet with people in person to do a resume. I don't really need to talk to the person on the phone, as long as the questionnaire I send is thoroughly filled out and I have all the documentation I need. Usually when I do meet with someone in person, it's for them: it's reassuring to them, and it feeds their perception that I'm doing a thorough job. But it usually doesn't do more for me than a phone conversation and a questionnaire could.

Web copy is the same--many clients see the need to make it all about them, when it needs to be all about your customer--what they want, how they think, how you solve their problems. Business owners and jobseekers alike find more success when they stop making it about themselves--and start making it about their audience.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Freelancers vs. Salaried Employees

I've been getting a lot of inquiries lately from people who seem to expect the same thing from a freelance writer as they would from a salaried writer. While there are some similarities between me and the copywriter in the next cubicle over, there are also some key differences. Those differences show up in our contracts, the way we work, the sort of contact we have with our clients, and our fee structures. Here's an overview of why freelancers are different than salaried employees.

Freelancers have higher overhead--so you have to pay them more per hour. I've seen several ads for jobs lately at New York City marketing and ad agencies for temporary on-site freelance help--for as long as a few days to a few weeks. These are clearly freelance positions, but they're offering an hourly rate that's probably about the same as what they'd pay their salaried employees.

Here's why that doesn't work. As a freelancer, I'm paying all my own health insurance. I'm paying twice the Social Security taxes, plus other business taxes and fees. I'm paying for my own ongoing education, my own marketing, legal fees, collection fees, Internet fees, and so on. Our business has a lot more overhead than a salaried employee has. So, basically, I HAVE to charge about twice as much as you'd pay a salaried employee in hourly wages.

Freelancers can't be available 24/7. I've had requests before from clients who expect 24/7 availability and fast turnaround on projects. While I accommodate client needs as much as I can, I can't always be available--nor can I always offer near-immediate turnarounds. The reason is mainly because I'm running a business that has other clients as well, some of which were in line before you, and I have to treat everyone fairly. In addition, I sometimes have daytime classes to attend and client meetings to go to--so I'm not always in the office, and I prefer to have phone time scheduled so I'll know I'll be home.

Freelancers set their own prices and terms. I've seen a lot of clients offering work for $x per hour (and usually the "x" is lower than I'd prefer to charge). I've also sometimes used client contracts instead of my own. But in general, I set my prices and my terms--this is because I know how much I need to make every month to keep things going around here, and I know the kind of pitfalls my industry is prone to with clients--so I know how to protect myself. I accept client-picked prices when they jibe with my own, and I accept client contracts sometimes--but I make sure the terms that are non-negotiable to me are included.

Freelancers are cheaper in the long run. True, we have to charge more from an hourly perspective than a salaried employee. But you're also not paying our health insurance, sick days or vacation days, maternity leave, office space, and so on. When you can hire freelancers for as-needed help, you're saving your company a lot of money in the long run.

Freelancers are not necessarily desperate for work. Just because a freelancer isn't on a regular payroll doesn't mean we're hurting for work--and it doesn't mean we'll necessarily take any price you offer. I've definitely had encounters with people who don't understand how contract workers can live on the less certain prospect of freelance instead of salaried work--and try to enter into negotiations with the idea that we'll take anything.

Freelancers and salaried employees have different challenges, requirements and processes--and you'll work with them differently. Of course, there are pros and cons to working with each. But they're not the same type of worker--and clients do need to expect different business arrangements with each.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

On Giving Unsolicited Advice

I recently was approached by a potential client who wanted a landing page for a website. Sounded straightforward--until I got to the end of his request. He planned to use the page on numerous websites that are optimized for different keywords. What he basically wanted was a series of paragraphs that could be rearranged indiscriminately to fit different keyword combinations. Oh--and he wanted the page to sell as well.

Here's where I had to stop and think. The thing is, a sales document requires you to identify with your customers' problems and position your company as the solution. There's an order to the information that's supposed to appear. Persuasion is like a thesis--you have to prove it in steps. Those paragraphs in hard-hitting sales letters aren't interchangeable. If they were, they wouldn't just be ineffective--they'd basically say nothing.

I told the prospect my concerns and explained how I would do it--using other tactics to optimize the page for numerous keywords and choosing the most relevant keywords to include naturally in the copy, with the possibility of writing entirely new sales documents for different markets and products. The response I got was the one I expected--that at this point their budget didn't account for it and they were hoping to get a sales letter with interchangeable parts as a cost saving measure. On my end, it looks like by trying to cut expenditures they are shooting themselves in the proverbial foot. But I gave my advice--and hopefully they'll take it.

What weird requests have you received for writing projects? And how do you deal with them?

Monday, February 1, 2010

Finding Your Ideal Partner

One of my goals for February is to broaden my network of partner companies--web designers, graphic designers, and other professionals who work with clients who need regular work. I've done this in the past and for the most part it's worked out well, but it's always a risk getting into a partnership with another company--suddenly you have to deal with someone else's way of working. It's always good to know which hills you should and shouldn't die on.

I've got a few more networking events coming up, and here are a few things I'm going to be looking for when talking to new people to partner up with.

The type of clients they work with. Is the graphic or web design firm going after the cut-rate market, or do they work with a higher caliber of client? Do they typically work with clients who have marketing departments, or smaller start-ups and one-person businesses? How marketing-savvy are their clients--and do they know what copywriting is and its value?

The way they bill, the way they work. Some web design firms ask for only a small deposit up front and charge for the rest of the bill when the project is done. Considering the design phase could last longer than the copywriting phase, this could put you waiting for your entire paycheck for a long time--if you're going to be expected to bill like they do. You may have to negotiate terms that require your own payment schedule with the web designer--but this could be a drawback for them in hiring you if they have to pay you before they get their own paycheck.

Their willingness to sell you as a value add. It's great to have a web designer who offers to send work your way if clients ever voice the interest. But a designer who actively sells you is invaluable. I'm looking for people who see the clear financial benefits of offering writing services in addition to design--and who's willing to actively differentiate themselves to clients that way.

Their marketing mindset. The ideal web design partner for me is one that sees the big picture of online marketing for clients. They don't think just about the right colors to use and usability features, but also ways clients can easily deliver ezines, add content, and keep in touch with customers. And, of course, that's where I come in.

Who do you partner with--and how do you prequalify the best partners?

Friday, January 29, 2010

When Your Pitch Doesn't Line Up

I was at a networking event last week, and I met a guy there who ran an outsourcing firm with connections in India. We struck up a conversation, and he asked me what I do. I told him I was a copywriter who sometimes partners with web and graphic design firms. And for some reason--I'm not sure how--he got the idea that I was his ideal client.

He immediately launched into his pitch--really more of a speech--describing to me in impassioned terms why I should be outsourcing my writing work to India. "You don't want to be running a small business writing all your life? Right? You want to grow." He proceeded to describe to me how I could outsource my client work immediately, pay the writers a pittance while pocketing the difference, and just perform a "quality check" (he must have used the phrase "quality check" about sixteen times) before sending it back to the client.

Not once did he consider that marketing writing is a specialized skill--you can't outsource it to others who don't have that skill. It's really inadvisable in my experience to write marketing copy without having a direct conversation with the client. And not speaking fluent English is also a pretty big hurdle to leap. While his business model might work for some companies, writing is just not something you can outsource to low-paid workers in India if you want a quality product.

The thing is, he wasn't just wasting my time--he was wasting his own, when he could have been talking to someone who needed what he had to sell. So how do you tell if you're the Indian outsourcing guy trying to pitch to the copywriter? Here are a few things I can think of.

You aren't asking questions. Lots of questions. This guy heard that I "partner" with web design firms sometimes, and he was off and running. He didn't ask deeper questions about the nature of the partnership or the work involved. Before you give someone a pitch, prequalify them--for gawd's sake.

You aren't picking up the subtle hints. Is the person you're talking to looking at you with a glazed expression? Are they looking around the room for someone to rescue them or glancing surreptitiously at the wall clock? Are they not asking any questions themselves? Then they're probably not interested.

Do some research beforehand. Not everybody is your prospect. Think about how different kinds of businesses really work. Talk to people in those businesses to get honest feedback about whether they could use your services. Know who your ideal prospect is before you walk into a networking event.

A pitch should be short, and you shouldn't bring the hard sell into a networking event. You're not there to close deals--you're there to make contacts. This guy wasn't a match for me--but hopefully the next person he talked to was. If he'd been paying attention, he might have been able to get to that person just a little sooner.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Staying in Front of Clients

I read somewhere that it takes about seven impressions for someone to make a decision to hire you. That's seven times you have to show up in front of them, whether it's in person, online or through the mail. Of course, it's easier to get business from people who have worked with you before than with new clients--but even then, if you don't stay in front of people who hired you once or twice, they could forget you exist.

Staying in front of clients doesn't take a huge time commitment. Here are a few things I do.

Start an E-zine. I have an e-zine on my freelance writing website that offers web copywriting and business writing tips. I usually send informational articles rather than offers, and my hope is it will do two things: Showcase my skills and keep me in front of clients. Regularly showing your expertise in this way will help prospective clients get to know your approach and trust your skills--before they hire you.

Send out cards. I'm planning to get more regular about sending cards to prospects and clients. I'd like to have the discipline to send out a card mailing every three months or so--or at least on Christmas. It takes a long time for me to order postcards, print out addresses and send out a postcard campaign, however, and often I forget about it. But lately I've been looking into a company called Send Out Cards, which prints the postcard you choose and mails it for you--all you have to do is set up some campaigns with addresses and send dates. Theoretically, you could set your entire card campaign for the year on autopilot. I haven't signed up yet, but I love the idea.

Send the occasional email. Every so often I send a random email to people I've worked with in the past, just checking in to see how things are doing. Often I get a note back something along the lines of, "was just thinking about getting in touch--I have a new project in the works." It's always great to hear that, and I've landed thousands in extra work just from this simple step.

Send an offer. Every so often I'll also send previous clients an email offer--something like 10% off their first order for the month--to drum up business. It works more often than not, even if it's just a couple of small projects.

What do you do to stay in front of your clients?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Back to Blogging

So I've been missing in action for a bit. There's a good reason: in the past month I've moved to Brooklyn and set up a brand new office--there's a picture of it here. In addition to managing a regular work day and a few side projects, it's been a lot to deal with. But I"m looking forward to being back on a regular (or semi-regular, as my life is shaping up lately) posting schedule again.

A new office is like a new start in your work life. My office space isn't large, but it's enough space for me to organize my desk area, put together some storage units I'll actually use, and develop a system (I've already put together some postcard mailing campaigns I hope to make use of this year). I didn't realize how cluttered my old office space was--and how scattered I felt in it. In this space it's warm, inviting and well organized--which makes a huge difference.

I'll be back here three times a week for the foreseeable future, and I'm looking forward to 2010!