Friday, March 30, 2012

Best of CatalystBlogger: Also, See You After April 9!

I've got a vacation planned--I'm heading to France for ten days, leaving...yesterday! If everything goes well, I should be arriving in Paris around the time this blog post goes live. I'm looking forward to passing a romantic few days in the City of Lights, roaming around the French countryside, and spending time with someone very dear to me.

In the meantime, I thought I'd leave you with a redux of some Catalystblogger posts you may have missed. Not my most high-profile posts, but ones I felt were quite strong and may not have gotten the viewership they should have. (My own fault--I did drop out for a whole year!). Anyway, I hope you enjoy--and I'll see you a bit later in April!

Things You Can't Buy for $5 An Article. In which I get into an over-excited state over the $5-an-article market--seriously, who hasn't gotten into this state at some point on their blog?--and talk about what you can, and can't, get for that price.

Suppressing that "Nice" Reflex. I struggle with this all the time--the tension between putting your business needs first and being "nice." It's why I'm not too comfortable working for close friends, unless under very special circumstances.

Forget Paying Your Dues: Why You Shouldn't Wait to Live Your Dream. This is a post from 2008--but I think it's quite relevant today. The longer I've been doing this--and by "this" I guess I mean living life as an adult, out of college--the more I've realized that there is never, ever a "right time" for anything. You will never have enough money saved up. You will never have enough experience. I think that yes, you do have to plan and prepare--but don't do it too much. No matter how much you plan and save, you will always have to take a leap to go after what you want.

On Being the Freelancer Your Client Calls in an Emergency. I've been thinking a lot lately about the difference in expectations between the corporate and the freelance world. The two operate very differently, and while they can work quite well together, there are also some clashes. This post addresses one facet of that--and I may write more about it when I get back.

I hope you have a wonderful week--and I'll see you soon!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

What's the Weirdest Place You've Worked?

I've been really, really busy lately. On top of a burgeoning freelance business--work has really picked up for me in the last few weeks--I'm finally starting to make some progress in acting (I originally started my freelancing business to have a flexible day job that would let me go to auditions--trying to earn a living while having an acting career can be brutal). I've been on a lot of auditions, photo shoots, and film shoots that have cut into the time I need to get freelancing work done. When I do have uninterrupted time at home, I have to fit in noveling too--I'm working hard to get one of my novels ready for agents this year.

So I've found myself having to snatch back work time when I can get it. Here are just a few strange places where I've managed to get work done in the past few months.

On the subway. If you live in New York, you know how much of a time suck the subway is. Depending on where you live, you might spend 45 minutes or more on the subway getting to your lunch date or dinner plans or meeting or whatever. That's valuable time you could use to be doing something productive. Believe it or not, I've actually gotten freelance writing projects done on the subway before--nothing complicated that requires a huge amount of concentration, but anything easy that doesn't require an internet connection.

In the doctor's waiting room. I saw a post on The Urban Muse the other day about working doctors' appointments around your freelancing. I take it a step farther: I work in the waiting room when I'm waiting for my appointment. Then I'm not fuming because of a twenty-minute wait--I'm still getting my work done.

At the park. My favorite place in Manhattan to while away that random three hours between my morning audition and my late-afternoon audition is Bryant Park. It's beautiful and sunny there, there are plenty of places to sit, and you can even pick up wireless internet in the park. I've heard of people renting office space for this type of day--when you have lots of appointments in the city and need to use the few hours between them productively--but I think Bryant Park is the best option, if the weather is nice--and there have been a couple of days in the city recently where it has been. If it isn't, the New York Public Library is right next door and it has quiet, Internet-connected reading rooms.

On a film shoot. Film shoots are kind of like war: 90% waiting and boredom, 10% excitement. Last one I did, I took my laptop with me. When the crew was setting up lights for the next scene or filming a scene I wasn't in, I went and found a quiet corner to work in.

What's the strangest place where you've gotten freelance work done?

Monday, March 26, 2012

Landing Ongoing Clients

Freelancing can be a feast-or-famine industry. Your earnings are great one month, not so great the next. Many people think the only alternative to that is a steady job. Not really. If you can land a few ongoing clients that give you steady work, you’ll have the best of both worlds. Ongoing clients give you financial stability similar to what you’d find at a steady job. And, true, you could lose any of your ongoing clients at any time—but you could lose your job at a company at any time, too. And if you have several, losing one ongoing client isn’t the end of the world—even if you’d rather not. So in a way, it’s more stable than working for a single company.

Here are a few ways to land those ongoing clients.

Get yourself out there. You never know who’ll turn out to be a wonderful ongoing client. I met my first one on Elance—I’ll always be grateful to this person for keeping me going when I got started. For several years, his paycheck covered my rent every month. I met another fantastic ongoing client just by checking out his website and emailing to see if he’d be interested in working together. I still work for this person today, and it’s been a blast.

Check in regularly. You may have some semi-regulars that could be turned into regulars, if you’re enterprising enough. Make an effort to make contact with the person once a month—whether it’s with a link to an article you think they’d like, a note of appreciation, or maybe even a discount on your services (I’ve done percent-off promotions for previous clients before on slow months, and it usually always brings in some business).

Know where the work is. Some businesses are more likely to need ongoing help than others. SEO companies can be great sources of ongoing work—but be sure you don’t fall into any low-priced article traps. So can marketing firms and web design companies—all those clients they design websites for will need copy, too. Resume writing companies can be a great source of ongoing income. So can blogs and online magazines, if the rates are good. And publishing houses that hire freelance editors and pay a decent rate for editing are also likely to need ongoing work.

Where do you go for stable, ongoing work?

Monday, March 19, 2012

Can Young America be Fixed?

Did you know that about 16% of America’s youth (aged 16-24) are unemployed? Compared with the national unemployment rate, which is at 8.3% according to the most recent data, that’s a high number. There’s no question that young people bear a disproportionate burden in a bad economy—as the least experienced, they’re often the last hired, the first fired, and most likely to be taken advantage of with ridiculously low wages and reduced benefits. Add to that a heavy student debt load, and it’s not looking like America’s youth is going to move out of Mom and Dad’s basement anytime soon.

I have a lot of anecdotal evidence about smart, talented, and driven recent graduates I know who are either still living in their parents’ homes a year or two after graduation or underemployed and struggling. I’m sure a lot of my readers do, too.

Last week, I heard about the Young Entrepreneur Council. Their #FixYoungAmerica campaign aims to raise awareness of youth unemployment—and build the case for stronger entrepreneurial education in schools and more support for young entrepreneurs after graduation.

This is a cause that’s pretty close to my heart. I’m especially in favor of encouraging entrepreneurial education in college. Speaking from the perspective of a major in a creative field, I can say that every successful artist in any genre must also be an entrepreneur—and when colleges ignore the real, practical demands of being successful in creative fields (or in any field), they do their students a huge disservice.

I was an acting and creative writing double-major in college. All I wanted to do was pursue my creative goals. After I graduated, I bounced around various office jobs for five years, trying to find something that offered the flexibility to work around my real goals and an atmosphere I didn’t find oppressive. It took me five years to figure out that no business was ever going to give me what I wanted—I had to make it for myself. I think if I’d been introduced to entrepreneurial concepts in college, it wouldn’t have taken me so long to get my life where I wanted it to be.

And I think in this difficult economy, students need this type of education more than ever. Artistic types who’ve been conditioned not to think of themselves as businesspeople need to learn that “business” isn’t a scary concept. It doesn’t mean selling out. And everyone needs to learn early that there may be no company around to take care of them when they graduate—and how to make their own way if there isn’t. Many students never think of opening their own business because it was never presented as a real option to them throughout life. I know that it would never have occurred to me in college.

I know there’s a debate going on in academia about whether college should be focused on job skills and vocational issues or learning and exploration for its own sake. Personally, I don’t see why these two things should be mutually exclusive. I think it would be great for entrepreneurial studies to be woven around any type of degree program, teaching students to apply what they’re learning to making a living in the real world—whether they’re in economics, science, the arts, or any other discipline.

Today, recent graduates aren’t just looking for a flexible schedule and a job doing something they love, like I was. They’re looking for a paycheck, benefits—the basics. In this economy, they might not even get these things if they don’t make their own way. And if they aren’t more supported in terms of loan forgiveness, access to low-interest-rate micro-loans, and other incentives and support.

#FixYoungAmerica is supporting the Young Entrepreneurship Act, a piece of proposed legislation that includes expanded student loan forgiveness programs for entrepreneurs, broadened access to micro-loans, and increased investment in education focused toward entrepreneurship. And you can learn more about #FixYoungAmerica here—and even share your ideas about what needs to be done to help America’s youth survive the recession. Maybe I’ll see you there!

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Blogs I Love

I was going through my blog roll today to weed out links to dead blogs as well as re-introduce myself to some of my older favorites. If you get a chance to skim through my blog roll, here are a few links you should definitely click on--these come highly recommended.

Words on the Page. This is one of the blogs I visit every week. Lori's posts are uniformly well-written and thoughtful, and her approach to the business of writing is firm, fair, and level-headed. She also really has it together when it comes to marketing--whether you're new at the game or experienced, there's a lot you can learn on this blog.

The Well Fed Writer Blog. Peter Bowerman is smart, talented, and entertaining--and his advice is always spot-on. Like many freelancers, he's also the person I credit with getting me started--with the eminently readable and practical Well Fed Writer. It's a classic and worth a look, especially if you're just starting out.

Men With Pens. What I love about Men With Pens is that it's a bit edgy. James Chartrand is never afraid to call it like it is--and the writing is always entertaining.

IttyBiz. IttyBiz is like your older (funny) entrepreneurial sister. This site always cracks me up. It's hilarious, it's no-nonsense, and it offers great advice. It's more geared toward business in general than to freelance writing in particular, but most freelancers run IttyBizes--so most of what you find here will probably be applicable.

What are your favorite blogs? Now that I've narrowed it down, my blogroll could use some fleshing out!

Monday, March 12, 2012

Things That Annoy Me on Blog Sites

So I regularly hang out at my favorite freelance writing blogs before writing my own blog posts--just to get a blogging mindset going and see what kinds of conversations are out there. There are so many blogs out there that I love, but sometimes I find myself getting annoyed while I do this--especially when venturing out of my trusted blog circle. Here are a few things that have me clicking the "back" button.

Anything that interrupts my reading. I tend to get annoyed when I head over to a blog, see a headline that looks fascinating, start reading--and an application pops up asking me to sign up for a subscription, fill out a survey, or something else. I find this pushy and aggressive and it really puts me off. I'm there to read--not follow the website owner's agenda. Leave me alone--if I want to sign up for a subscription, I'll let you know.

When it's difficult to find my way around. If I can't find your old posts, can't search topics, or can't find your blogroll--I grumble. I don't think every blogger has to have a super-fancy blog design--some of my favorite blogs are either on Blogger or are still very bare-bones. But I hate to look for things. If I can't find what I'm looking for, I probably won't come back.

Slow load times. Yeah, my Internet connection isn't noticeably slow--but I will never be one of those people who has the cutting edge technology and the up-to-the-minute browser. I get put off when a site is trying to do so much that it takes forever for things to load--video ads are the worst for this.

Aggression and snarkiness. I hate conflict. I'd just rather everyone be nice and treat each other well, even when they disagree. I understand that bloggers want to allow their readers to have their say--even if that say veers into snark territory--as long as it's not beyond the pale. But If I check out the comments section and there are lots of people spreading the meanness around, chances are I'll never comment myself.

What are your blogging pet peeves?

Friday, March 9, 2012

Do You Work for Friends?

I have a policy on working for family members and close friends. Only small projects, and only for free. I don't let close friends and family members pay me. That may be kind of a radical position to take, but for me it works.

The reason is that people expect different things from business associates than from friends. A good friend is supposed to always be supportive. When a friend doesn't pay you back, you're supposed to show some compassion and let it slide. That's not how business transactions work, however.

I've found that when money starts changing hands, friendships get weird--and there's all sorts of confusion in the business relationship that isn't there when there isn't a pre-existing friendship or family-member relationship. That's because you're taking a friendly relationship and putting it in a business context--but the friend still expects friend-like behavior from you. In some cases, the friend will use that expectation to take advantage of you--either deliberately or subconsciously. This is why working with friends in a business context makes me nervous.

I am usually not OK with doing any of these things when working with close friends and family members. But I think if you do work with them, you may have to be:

You have to be OK with giving up-front advice. I usually take advice and criticism more personally from close friends and family members (some exceptions, of course) than I do from people I'm less close to. And most people I know are the same way. I'm aware that as a friend, I'd have to be quite a bit more tactful about giving advice on existing writing and tactics I don't think are working well for someone--and that can get in the way of clear communication sometimes.

You have to be OK with nagging for payment. The absolute worst-case scenario is when a friend doesn't pay you. This kind of thing can wreck a friendship. We're supposed to be compassionate with our friends--and if I see a friend is really struggling to pay me something they owe, my instinct is to let it slide. Indeed, in a lot of situations, I'd look like a jerk for pushing for payment. But in business, you have to make sure you get paid--regardless of the other person's financial situation.

You have to be OK with using a contract. Using a contract does imply, at some level, a lack of trust. Not so much that it can ruin a business relationship--actually, using a contract often improves trust with both parties, signaling that both are on the same page and want to do things above-board. But with a friend, a contract can say "I don't think you'll do what you say you'll do, so I'm holding you to it." That can make things awkward.

You have to be OK with saying no. Does your friend need you to work all weekend to meet a demanding deadline? Switch the scope of the project without paying more? Do endless revisions past your usual mark? As a business owner, I have no problem saying no to these requests. As a friend, it makes me a bit uncomfortable. Especially when I'm working with someone who knows me really well--and knows I'm just saying no to that weekend work so I can chill out at home, not for any long-held plans.

When I work with close friends and family, I keep the transaction solidly within a friendship context. No money changes hands--although a trade might be OK. And I keep the project small so it doesn't become overwhelming--no regular work for free. How do you negotiate working for friends and family?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Everyone’s Marketing Fingerprint is Different

Over at Words on the Page, Lori Widmer brings up something I’ve been meaning to write about ever since I had a conversation with a friend about getting into freelancing—the marketing routine, and why it’s tough to tell someone else how to market their business. He asked me the best way to get started, but really, what he wanted to know was where and how to find work (which is a whole different question). I always have such a hard time answering that question. There are so many ways to market yourself, but what will ultimately work for you is a very individual thing. Marketing is a marathon, and you have to choose the route that works best for you.

As for me, I keep it simple. Believe it or not, I get a significant amount of business just by cold-emailing businesses I want to work with. I’ve landed several long-term clients that way. Others include in-person networking (but never at networking events; this only seems to happen at parties and places where I’m hanging out, relaxing, and chatting with someone who it turns out has some work for me); referrals from existing clients and writing colleagues; the random postcard mailer every so often; and website traffic. I’ve also gotten decent, well-paid work from online job boards and Craigslist, although the prevailing wisdom is that isn’t likely.

Here are my thoughts to people who want advice on where to find work and how to market themselves.

Marketing is an individual thing. Like Lori says, what works for me might not necessarily work for you. I got started with Peter Bowerman’s The Well-Fed Writer, which advocates—among a host of other marketing options—cold calling. I will never be good at cold calling. In fact, I probably hurt my business by doing it. You, however, might rock at it. It doesn’t hurt to try.

You don’t have to spend a lot of time at it. Like Lori, I’ve heard self-proclaimed experts in the field say that you have to spend several hours a day marketing. Personally, I haven’t found that to be true. I market pretty much when I’m hurting for work, and rarely when I’m busy, which is the majority of the time (knock on wood). So every few months I might market for an hour or so a day until things pick up again. You don’t have to do it all the time. Although, it might fit your routine, lifestyle, earnings goals, and so on better if you do. There’s no reason not to, except that it cuts into work time.

Try a lot of stuff. I can’t tell you what marketing tactics will increase your business. That’s an individual thing—and I have no magic bullet of advice that will replace just getting out there, trying a lot of different stuff, and keeping track of your failures and successes. That’s how I learned to do it.

There is no advice that will replace trying lots of different things—and failing at lots of different things—before you hit on a method that works for you. To anyone looking for marketing advice, I’d suggest picking up some books on the subject—Peter Bowerman is a great place to start—and try one marketing tactic per month, or every two weeks, or however long you feel it will take to start seeing results…until you hit on something that works.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Careful Who You Recommend

When clients come to me with requests for services besides copywriting, I don't recommend just anyone. Fair or not, I'm aware that who I recommend will reflect in some small way on me--and I wouldn't want to be associated with a negative experience in a client's mind, even if I wasn't the one giving it. I also don't want to look like I don't have the client's best interests at heart--it's possible the client could suspect I recommended someone inexperienced just to help them out, rather than pointing the client toward someone who would truly do a good job.

Here are a few questions I ask when deciding whether to recommend someone to a client.

What were my experiences working with this person before? I love to bring business to other people. And I frequently recommend clients of mine to others looking for certain services. I feel totally comfortable recommending clients I've worked with in the past, because I know how they work, I've seen how professional they are, and I know they'll do a good job for the person who asks me for the referral. Of course, not everyone I recommend is someone I've worked with in the past.

Do I like their work? The people I recommend to others all tend to be people I have a history with--even if I've never worked with them in the past. They're people whose work I've seen and respect, people who have clear experience in the industry and the area the client is looking for.

Are they courteous and professional? This is big. Even if they do great work, I'd have a hard time recommending people who seem to have difficult personalities--at least not without a huge caveat to the client. I'd also have a hard time recommending someone I know isn't that strict about deadlines or asks for extensions fairly regularly.

Do they have the needed expertise?When I recommend copywriters for a job, it tends to be for a type of copywriting I don't offer--and that I know the other person has specialized expertise in. The reason for this is that I'm a generalist, which means I'm not as picky about the assignments I take on as some others. This isn't to say I'm not picky, but I won't turn down a brochure project or a radio spot just because I don't do that type of copywriting. I don't, however, do technical writing, or pharmaceutical writing, or user manuals for engineers, or writing for a highly niche-educated audience that doesn't compensate adequately for the amount of research I'd have to do. I also am not crazy about doing press releases. I'll do them, but if I"m swamped, a press release job is something I'm likely to pass on to someone I know specializes in that area.

How do you choose your referrals?

Friday, March 2, 2012

Is Copywriting an Ideal Day Job for Creative Writers?

I was at a party the other night. Drinks were flowing, music was pumping…and I was talking to someone about my job. Yeah, I do that sometimes. I love talking about my job, even at parties when everyone else there is working hard at forgetting their jobs. This is what happens when you quit doing stuff you hate and finally (finally!) make money doing something you love.

I came to copywriting as a creative person looking for a day job. All I wanted was steady, flexible employment that wouldn’t put any unreasonable demands on me about being at the same place at the same time every day (to me, any such demand was unreasonable). I was an aspiring actress and novelist. I wanted freedom to go to auditions whenever I wanted and work on my novels whenever the mood struck me. I didn’t want a boss breathing down my back. Oh, yeah—and I didn’t want to starve. I didn’t see any glamour in living in poverty.

It turned out copywriting was the perfect day job for me. But it isn’t for everybody. Some people find that it’s too hard to stay inspired about their novels, poetry, or other creative writing projects when they’ve been writing all day at work. Others find it too hard to deal with the lack of a steady, guaranteed paycheck or health insurance. If those things would bother you, then it’s probably not for you.

But for me, it was ideal. When I was working in a cubicle farm, I was rarely inspired to write creatively—I was too psychically drained from working in an environment that wasn’t right for me, forty hours a week or more. Now I’m inspired all the time—I’ve actually established a very dependable creative writing habit. The copywriting work doesn’t detract from that for me—the jobs I hated were much worse for my creative writing.

Flexibility helps me with that. I don’t have to be in a certain place every day, and I don’t have to act busy. Whenever I feel like it, I can switch from copywriting to creative writing throughout the day. Usually I do copy til about two or four—depending on the day—and then work for an hour or two on a novel.

Also, I’m good at writing. One of the reasons I was so unhappy in previous jobs was that I wasn’t being paid to do something I loved or had any particular talent in. Some of the things I was being paid to do—such as waiting tables or anything technical—the companies would have been better off paying me not to do. But even if copywriting isn’t exactly the Great American Novel, I’m good at it. I take pride in it. I enjoy it. And even if my creative endeavors never blossom into full-time work themselves, I now have the joy of knowing that I’ve built a life that can make me happy—both creatively and financially.

How do you balance your creative work and your day job?