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!