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Thursday, June 23, 2016

4 Things to Change Now to Improve Your Writing Career

What I'm listening to: Boulevard of Broken Dreams by Green Day

Wait -- isn't summer supposed to be the slow period? I can't breathe for the amount of work coming in. Yesterday, I was handed two more projects. That makes five projects on my schedule, and it means once more, I'm about to run when I was hoping to stroll.

I've not done any major marketing push since December. This is all organic. That doesn't mean I won't market. It would be foolish not to. So I've decided to start contacting new entrants into my specialty in hopes of building some new relationships.

As I was shaking my head over an encounter with a particularly confusing freelancer not long ago, I thought about all the ways a writer can sabotage their own career -- laziness, missing deadlines, not charging enough, you name it. Still, even the freelance writers who are doing it right can sometimes be doing things that aren't helping boost the freelance writing career.

I'm sure there are more, but I've found four things that I've changed at some point in my career, and each change made a big impact.

#1: Factor revisions into your pricing. Maybe you still make the mistake of assuming you'll need just one round of light revisions. If so, you've probably been caught in the occasional revision cycle that seems never to end. First thing -- write your contracts to include revision limits. Second thing -- assume you'll need that maximum when you're pricing the project.

#2: Plan your day in advance. Particularly when I'm busy, I'll map out my entire next day before I shut down the computer. It's easy. Just open your calendar app and make a bulleted list of the things you have to do. Then decide how much time you're devoting to each item. Schedule it for the next day.

#3: Follow up on one note or phone call. Following up is tough because you see yourself stuck on the phone or writing emails for hours. If you can't muster that much energy, start small. Choose one. Then pick up the phone or write a simple follow-up note. That's it. This gets you in the habit of following up, and you may find yourself thinking that maybe two notes are doable. Or three.

#4: Do something on your own. Look, sometimes the best lessons you'll learn come from screwing up. The next time you head to the forums or blogs for an answer, stop. Go instead to your search engine and research the answer for yourself. Break that dependency on getting approval before you try anything new.

Writers, what did you change about how you do things?
Were the results what you expected? 
What one thing do you think other writers need to change?

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

When Safe Freelance Writing Isn't Good Enough

What I'm reading: The Trouble with Goat and Sheep by Joanna Cannon
What I'm listening to: Blood and Guts by Middle Brother

There's nothing like a week that begins like a starting pistol at a marathon. That's how it feels so far, and it's only Tuesday. Yesterday I jumped among three projects, trying to make headway on all of them. It felt a bit more like I was running a marathon with one foot in a bucket. Today I'll be on a train to Manhattan, so at least I'll have time to get some work done during the trip.

It's been a few days of travel -- I was in western PA for Father's Day, and that's ten hours round trip (or 9 hours thanks to the increased speed limit). Once again, I'll be on the move today.

Last week, a quick project came in from a favorite client. They needed it by yesterday, but luckily I had some spare time on Friday before we headed west, so I completed it in a few hours. Looking at the project audience and message, I took a different approach than I normally do with their communications.

They loved it.

It was a gamble, but this time, it worked. They hired me to help them gain visibility and get their name out there. I figure I can't do that unless I up the ante a bit. There are a lot of messages floating out there, and since this was a social media-related message, they needed it to stand above the rest.

It's what most of us already do for our clients -- think beyond what's already been said and written. But it never hurts to remind ourselves that we are creative people. Our clients hire us for that creativity, and it's a damn crime when you see writers churning out the same crap an admin assistant with a few courses in Marketing could manage.

It's not good enough.

Here are some ways in which we freelance writers can be our clients' best asset:

Go beyond the formula. Just because everyone else is using the same type of formula to announce their new social media strategy doesn't mean you have to follow suit. It's better to create eye-catching content that stands out, right? Stop filling in the blanks. Start writing. That's what you're supposed to be doing anyway.

Lose the jargon. Please. If you start out that press release with "ABC Company has announced enhancements to its suite of internet solutions that combine robust, back-office technology with real-time data results" congratulations. You've just bored the hell out of your readers (and you've written a carbon copy of what every other schmuck thinks is what a press release should sound like). Instead, make it relevant. "ABC Company is now delivering more power to customers, who are now able to  search, retrieve, and analyze their customer sales data faster and with better results."

Kill the catch phrases. I refuse to write phrases like "leading edge" "premier" and "the best" anymore. Not only is it false in most cases, it's boring to read. Yet companies continue to use these phrases, much like they claim they have no competitors (right). Replace them with superlatives that actually work -- facts and numbers, for example. "The #1 company as voted by Forbes Magazine" or some similar fact does so much more to get the reader's attention than just parroting the same old schlock.

Pretend it's you reading it. What do you want to see? What would make you respond to the offer or react to the message? If it bores you, think how small the impact will be on your client's customers.

Boost their voice. Think about the tone they use, the medium you're writing within, and the message they want to send. If you tweak that message to be a little more personal, you could hit a home run. So instead of that stiff, corporate announcement that doesn't wash with anyone, try a "Here's what we've been doing" style that's slightly more relaxed (not too much), but conveys the message in a more compelling way.

Not all clients are going to love your approach. You're going to get some who push for you to use exactly the things that aren't getting them the attention they want. Explain cordially why you think your approach may help them, then let it go. Sometimes you win, sometimes you don't.

Writers, do you remember the first time you decided to go outside what's expected with a client? How did the client react?
What advice can you give other writers on how far to push it? Where is your own boundary with creativity?

Friday, June 17, 2016

Free Advice Friday: 4 Freelance Business Mistakes That Kill Your Career

What I'm listening to: Under Pressure by Queen & David Bowie

Wow. Friday already?

It went by a bit quickly. I have projects in the works, but until I get some interviews completed, I have some free time. I spent it working on two personal projects and trying to learn a new bit of Windows 10 functionality. No sense having technology if you don't know how to use it, I say.

I had time too to visit some forums, answer some emails, and have conversations with writers of various career levels. It's always refreshing to talk with successful freelancers -- these are people anyone can and should learn from. I know I do.

See, they get it. They've figured out that being a freelance writer is so much more than merely writing for clients. The attention they give to their entire business shows in the results they get. There are no shortcuts, but plenty of work, research, and learning to make a successful business grow.

That's why I was disturbed when I saw a course that promised to fast track writers into careers, skipping over the "unnecessary" stuff, and by interviewing successful writers and copying what they do. While I'm not exactly sure what these organizers consider to be unnecessary, there's an undercurrent to that message that I just don't like. It's this: You too can just ride the coattails of those before you.

Can that method work? For a while, yes. And maybe that's the point of this course -- to jump-start flagging careers and give these freelancers something on which to build. But to skip over stuff? I don't see that method sustaining any writer in the long term.

Yet there are freelance writers who need the guidance, particularly when it comes to running a business. They make mistakes -- non-writing mistakes -- that kill their chances before they get going. Here are some of the more recent issues I've encountered that can bring down your freelance writing business:

Using blanket queries. You know those form letters you get that you hate so much? Why would you think sending them to your prospective clients will net you any different reaction than your own? People do business with people. If all you're doing is filling in a new name and email address, you've failed to understand how to really connect with your prospective clients.

Putting that blasé attitude front and center. Plenty of freelancers would be surprised by how their actions are interpreted by others. Little things can wave big flags -- expecting your sources to contact you, missing deadlines, missing phone calls, making piss-poor excuses (any excuse is piss poor), not focusing on the task, putting other things in front of that thing you're not doing, even not taking seriously your next conversation. Any one of these can raise a flag. Any two or more can have that client running the other way.

Forgetting the business side. If you began your freelance writing career thinking you'd be doing mostly writing, you're going nowhere fast. You are a small business owner. You can't dabble in writing if you intend to make a living at it. That means you have to run your business wisely. Act professionally with clients and colleagues, form connections, nurture client relationships, focus on pleasing them and not your wallet, and doing the damn legwork it takes to be successful.

Looking for shortcuts. Seriously, don't you think if there were such a thing as a shortcut, we'd all have taken it by now? Here's a fact about freelance writing that will not change: It takes hard work to create a successful freelance writing business. So suck it up, buttercup. Time to work your ass off.

Writers, what were some of your early business mistakes that you've overcome?
What other mistakes have you seen freelance writers make?
How would you advise a new writer who's wanting to grow his or her career potential?

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Freelance Guide to Screening Clients

What I'm reading: Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson
What I'm listening to: Die Like a Rich Boy by Frightened Rabbit

I really thought this week was going to be slow. It's June, clients usually disappear until I decide to go on vacation in August....not this June. Currently, I'm working on two large projects that will both stretch into July. Plus, there's another dormant one that will wrap up, I hope, next week.

While that's not doing much for my June totals, I'm feeling really good about July's totals. Really, really good.

Time to market some more, though. Always.

A question I get a lot (as do most of my writer colleagues) is "How do I find clients?"

To which I say you should be asking a different question: How do I find the right clients?

By screening them, of course.

Ideally, you're going to go first to your regular clients and ask for referrals. Few referrals turn into problem clients. In my opinion, it's because like attracts like. These people have worked together already in some capacity. There's a trust relationship established, which is good for you. This referral has already proven their worth with your existing client.

But for those prospects who are entirely new to you, try these steps:

Attract them. The best way to do this is to offer something of value to the type of client you're trying to attract. A free report, a free webinar, a Twitter chat, or a newsletter aimed at things they'd be interested in. Other ways to attract clients: attend networking events, conferences, and show up on Twitter chats and industry forums (and comment regularly).

Look for similarities. You've worked well with that software company in the past. What attributes do they have that made it such a great experience? What companies appear to have those same qualities? Who else is working in that area or in a similar one? Not that you necessarily want to work with competing companies simultaneously (or at all, depending on your own boundaries), but often one company's culture, management style, or project needs are mirrored in another company. It's a good place to start, though know that the similarities may not necessarily mean the same type of success.

Find a home for your expertise. You're all about writing about horticulture. Which and what kind of companies also need your specialized touch? Start through the associations and the magazines. Who's attending, exhibiting, or advertising?

Qualify them. Ask how often they've worked with freelancers, what their immediate and long-term needs are, how they go about deciding to hire a writer, what things could get in the way of your working together, and what their budget range for such projects is.

Writers, how do you go about locating your ideal client?
What do you do differently that's resulted in quality clients?

Monday, June 13, 2016

How to Be a Trusted Writer in One Simple Step

What I'm listening to: Wake Me Up When September Ends by Green Day

Well my plan last week was to increase my marketing. However, that didn't happen. Instead, a client got in touch with me.

In fact, that's been my entire year so far. Every time I think about kicking my marketing into high gear, another client gets in touch. This time, it was a new client who was referred by a regular client
 That, my friends, is the sweet spot we all hope to get to.

Still, just because the work is coming in on its own, I have no illusions that this will continue, so marketing continues, albeit on a smaller scale. It's that marketing that secured the clients I have and started the referrals.

And I'm about to share with you the reason it happened, the one thing I did that made me a trusted writer and a go-to source --

I pleased the pants off the regular client.

Okay, not literally. But they were happy. In fact, my referral client repeated how happy the regular client was with what I'd presented, something the client had told me personally. That it was repeated by someone I don't know makes my day. That means I'm doing my job.

So how do you please a client to the point where they are happy to refer you? Here are a few things that I think contribute to their satisfaction:

Listen. And hear what they're saying. Active listening is the best tool you have for pleasing your clients. If you're listening actively, you're going to ask questions. You're also going to engage more in the project and the process because you're paying attention. It's not just helping them get their message out -- it's helping you feel part of the process.

Record. You'll please them by giving them what they asked for in the voice they use. The best way I've found to nail a client's voice, beyond reading what they've already written, is to record them. Yes, you can take copious notes (I do), but you're going to miss those nuances that make the clients read it and say "This writer gets me."

Repeat. Not sure you understood that last point? Clarify it. "Just so I understand, are you saying that your company intends to conduct security workshops for the technology teams of all companies, not just your own?" It doesn't make you look stupid or inattentive to clarify information. It makes you look careful and involved.

Copy. Don't copy off their paper, but, well, copy off their paper (just a little). If the project is one they put out regularly, such as an annual report or a white paper, they have a certain formula they're going to like. For one client, I asked to see a previous report. That helped me see what info they wanted and helped me focus my research and questions better.

Revise. I'm not talking about a second draft, either. Revise that first draft line by line. Make sure the first piece you send to that new client is as close to their points, voice, and goal as you can get it. It won't be perfect, but going over it once looking for each of these three things helps. Immensely.

Writers, how do you build that level of quality and trust with your clients?
What process do you use to make clients happy? How often does it result in referrals?

Thursday, June 09, 2016

Why Writing for Free Still Sucks

What I'm reading: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
What I'm listening to: The Loneliness and The Scream by Frightened Rabbit

It's been a busy week. It started with a client meeting in Manhattan, complete with writing an article draft on the train, and has been followed by article revisions, completion of a book editing project, client conversations, and today, interviews.

Is it Friday yet?

While the slower months are still ahead of us, I'm starting to see project frequency and volume winding down. The back-up plan (on today's agenda) is to get ideas out to publications. Even though companies may hold off on big projects until vacations are over, magazines still need content.

After I finished the book revisions yesterday, I took time to catch up on my blog/forum reading. And once again, I came away from the experience wanting to chew something in half.

For one more time, there were piles of advice for the freelance writer -- work for free and your career will be set for life.

Right. Set on fire maybe.

Why I hate advice like this:

It's too general. If you're telling other freelance writers the ins and outs of writing for no pay, you should also be instructing them on the ins and outs of doing so without bankrupting themselves. As you well know, exposure doesn't necessarily put gas in your car.

There's no exit strategy. Instead of "Here's a way to use one free project to grow a paying business", the advice is more along the lines of"Here's how to write for XXX and get a ton of exposure." As if it were hard to get a job that pays nothing.

It's rarely practiced by the people telling you to do so. I find that both ironic and a little disturbing. Ironic in that if it's such a great way to boost your business, why aren't you doing it? Disturbing in that there could be some twisted logic that more writers working for free means less competition for that writer. Is that the case? Don't know, but it's a bit odd that a writer who is probably doing well would lead others down the freebie path.

It assumes way too much. Not all writers are going to know how to make the leap from free to paid. Not all writers are even certain their skills warrant payment. By telling a new freelancer that writing for free is okay, you're assuming this writer is going to have the wherewithal to know where to draw boundaries and how to enforce them. It's a dangerous assumption -- well, not for you, but for the writer you're advising. You, on the other hand, get to live another day to tell even more poor souls how to ruin their careers by following your advice.

It doesn't help writers create value. And before you say it, I'll counter: it doesn't help writers evolve their skills, either. What it does is helps them develop a mindset in which the work they do holds no value. None. And that's just plain false.

It makes you look like a fool. That's right. One day, these very same writers will have their eyes opened. They'll realize that advice sucks, and they'll remember the schmuck who led them down the wrong path in the first place. That, my friend, is when the Karma bus will be making a stop on your doorstep. And woe to the writer who advises X today and Y tomorrow. People who have the good sense to read and remember aren't going to stick with someone whose credibility shifts as the Google ranking requires it to.

Writers, have you seen any advice pointing freelancers to writing for free?
What's the worst you've encountered?
Have you ever been successful in either convincing such people to change their thinking or helping another writer move beyond the free work?

Friday, June 03, 2016

Monthly Assessment: May 2016

What I'm reading: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
What I'm listening to: Thunder Road by Bruce Springsteen

It's been one busy week. It's not that there are a lot of projects, but that the projects I have are all due at the same time. I had wanted to go visit my dad for his birthday (June 1st he turned 82), but it will have to wait until Father's Day.

Now that another Writers Worth Month is behind us, it's time to concentrate on the business at hand. Well, it's always time for that, but now I actually have time to look at my business activity from the past month.

If you're new to the blog, here's the deal: I share the results of my month with you and you're invited to do the same. You don't need to go into dollar amounts -- percentages will do. But it's a time to look at marketing, results, projects, and particularly earnings.

I do it for one reason: accountability. I'm accountable to you, which helps me keep my eye on my target. I can't tell you how often I look mid-month at my results and think "Time to get more in." Before monthly assessments, that didn't happen.

So feel free to join in publicly, email me (or someone else) privately, or find some way to report your results in a way that keeps you always thinking ahead.

I'll start.

I sent no queries in May. Instead, the assignments came to me. That's a nice situation to be in, let me tell you. I can't really count the assignments as queries, so I won't.

I sent one or two, but no great push for them. The conference season is winding down, so now would be an ideal time (and it will be part of my summer marketing). I let the workload on my desk get in the way. It could be a mistake later on, but for now, I'm doing well with project flow. However, anyone who's done this a while knows today's client could be tomorrow's memory. Time to get moving.

Social media:
Despite having some great conversations about possible projects back in March/April, nothing has come of it. One or two of the contacts went silent, an indication we weren't a match either due to price or focus. Follow-ups weren't answered, so I've put them on my calendar for future notes.

Job postings:
I don't apply to job postings as a general rule. I'd much rather be dictating my own rate than accepting something that doesn't quite fit. That said, I'm part of two groups that send regular vetted listings. So far, none have met my price requirement, so I don't bother.

New clients:
I have one new client as of last week, and I'm excited. This one was a referral from a friend, and the work is interesting. The pay? Perfect. So I'm hoping the first project leads to several more.

Existing clients:
A newer client has me busy with projects here and there, as does a regular client who just sent a large project a few weeks into May. That one will wrap up in two weeks, so June is promising to be lucrative. Also, three other favorite clients handed over some smaller projects, so I was busy. Also, I reached out to about seven previous clients, and I'm hopeful with two of them that work will be coming soon.

I submitted to two journals in May, and I received a personal note from another journal. This one included the feedback from not just the editor, but the entire editorial team. While they didn't publish the poem, I found the feedback to be the real gift. I'm also working on a few more poems, so I'll be submitting this month.

Considering I was off for a week and a holiday interrupted things, I did okay. I'm at half my earnings goal -- not ideal, but there's one project that should have invoiced that would have pushed that total much closer.

Bottom line:
Now is the time for me to start marketing to the conference crowd while the conference is still fresh on their minds. I'm hoping to pick up some media kit work, thought leadership stuff, or possibly some ongoing ghostwriting. Also, I'm looking to reconnect with past clients in hopes of getting back on their radar. Plus, I'm planning ways to gain a bit more impact through social media connections.

How did you do last month? Were the results what you expected? 
What are you thinking to change?
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