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Thursday, March 05, 2015

Monthly Assessment: February 2015

What's on the iPod: Unbelievers by Vampire Weekend

So far, a really productive week. I'm writing this Wednesday afternoon as we wait for our "first significant snowfall" of the season, as they call it on the Weather Channel. I'm staring out at snow, which has been the case since what feels like January, so I'm not sure what they're talking about.

But I guess 5-8 inches is significant enough to talk about.

It's also why I'm writing this overdue monthly assessment a day ahead of when it's scheduled. See, we had an all-day ice storm on Tuesday. Now snow formed from what would otherwise be a really big rainstorm. Last time that happened, we were sitting in the dark for four days.

So I'm planning ahead. To do the post that's late in coming. My life is that kind of ironic.

For those of you new to the blog, feel free to share your own monthly progress on this blog every month. It's a great way to push yourself to reach those goals you've been talking about.

Let's get to it.

I sent out three. The result: two assignments that came in this month. The other one has me concerned. This is an editor I've worked with quite often. In the last eight months, she's not responded to any of my queries or follow-up notes. Must follow up by phone or at the conference. I hope she's okay.

Not as many as I'd liked to have sent, but I did send out 18 letters of introduction. I got three conversations out of the effort.

Social media:
I sent out a few invitations for conversations, but nothing yet.

Job postings:
Having found a more vetted source of job listings, I applied to one job that fit perfectly. And of course they immediately turned me down. That's why I hate job listings -- you're competing with way too many writers. Even a perfect fit gets lost in the crowd. Do I think they hired someone with less experience? Not necessarily, but in a traditional setting, I'd have been interviewed. It was that good a fit.

Existing clients:
I finished a larger project for a favorite client, started on a project for an existing client,, and wrote an article for an editor I like working with. The existing clients made up 80 percent of my earnings.

New clients:
Then there's the new client. I'm enjoying working with this one as he's very communicative and gives positive feedback. Most people are great at giving negative feedback, but forget the good stuff. Not that I'm craving it, but it's nice to have once in a while.

I set a goal to send out one poem a week and write at least three a week. I'm a little off the writing part as I've been spending a lot more time editing, but I'm on target with the weekly submission. Until I get a larger body of work, I don't want to overdo it with the simultaneous submissions. No acceptances yet, but I do have one coming out in published form this month.

I started February surpassing my earnings goal based on the projects sitting in my in box. I ended the month with all but one project (and naturally, the one that pays most) finished and invoiced. Since I count my invoiced totals, I just missed my earnings goal by $1K. It sucks that it's not done, but if I can get it completed by the end of this month, that will be a great boost to March's total.

Bottom line:
I've put a lot more energy into diversifying the projects I'm trying to win. It's worked. I'm going to continue doing so, and I'm continuing with a new letter of introduction approach. Also, I'm pushing hard this month to reach as many conference exhibitors as I can since I did manage to book my room and my flight for the show in April.

My goal is to continue marketing every day and increasing the number of people I market to.

Writers, how did you do in February?
What worked?
Where did things go awry?

How do you plan for work a few months out?

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

Technology Tuesday: Neat Word Tools

What I'm reading: Swimming with Crocodiles by Will Chaffey
What's on the iPod: I Saw a Stranger by John Gorka

I've had a good start to the week -- two new projects and a new client meeting scheduled for the conference. Today I'll be working on the new assignments as well as on a current project. Plus, marketing for the conference is continuing. Earnings for this month are looking very good already. I owe you all a monthly assessment. This week, I promise. But first, another Technology Tuesday.

Because we spend so much time using it, Word is once more our focus in this technology post. Back in 2005, I was hired to proofread and format a college course catalog. I took it on not knowing much about formatting, but figuring it couldn't be all that hard.

If you don't know what you're doing, it is. The formatting nearly sunk me.

But I learned as I went. Here are some neat tricks I've picked up over the years:

Moving footnotes to end notes. This just happened with a current client document. The client, maybe not knowing how to insert footnotes, created his own, along with his references, underneath what he was citing. That's fine, but for a website article, the less stuff interrupting the flow of information, the better. So, to move the footnotes to end notes:

Click on the footnote field.
Right-click and select Note Options.

In the Location field, click on Convert. Then make sure the "Convert all footnotes to endnotes" option is selected (it defaults to it). Click OK.


Using column breaks and kerning.
Let's use the college example. The course listings shouldn't be broken up from page to page. To get this to occur, column breaks and kerning were my best friends.

Here's the text we're presented with:

So let's fix it. Start with the Column Break function:

Place your cursor at the beginning of the last course description in the first column (AEDU 503).
Go to the Page Layout tab, click on Breaks, and choose Column,

This gives you one neat little column break. Now the content of that entire course description is together in the next column.

Repeat with each paragraph of your document in which you need to keep the entire contents together.

Kerning is just adjusting the spacing between the letters to help everything fit.
Let's say the section you're working on has one line that jumps to the next column, like this:

Note the section at the top of the second column (highlighted in gray). You don't want to make a column break for 20 lines of text to bring that widow under control.

That's where kerning helps. And with a little eyeballing, you can see opportunities to use it. For example, the actual description causing the issue is crammed full of characters. There isn't much chance to kern the text. However, the description just above the one in question (in the first column, AEDU 562) has a good bit of space on some of those lines.

Highlight that description.
Right click and choose Font.
Click on the Advanced tab.
In the Spacing field, it should say Normal (the default). Go to the "By" field to the right, click the down arrow once. That will condense the font.

The result: those widowed lines are now in the same column as the rest of that paragraph.

I left the text we've just applied kerning to highlighted so you can see the difference.

Kerning takes a bit of trial-and-error application sometimes. But if you just can't get the breaks to hit correctly, it's a great tool.

Writers, what feature in Word do you use most often?
What have you discovered in Word that has made your job a little easier?

Monday, March 02, 2015

Creating a Stronger Freelance Writing Business

What I'm reading: The Penitent by Isaac Bashevis Singer
What's on the iPod: Songs About Roses by Owl John

Another month, another new beginning. Do you look at your calendar and think the same thing?

For me, any new month (not just January) is a time to reflect on the last month, the month ahead of me, and how I can best capitalize on it. I'll be doing a monthly assessment like every month, but I haven't had time to add it up. I intend to take time today to go over the numbers in detail.

On Friday, we went over a few ways in which writers are digging their own career graves. Everything from inertia to accepting less than their market value keeps all too many writers in the low-paying rut. For every writer working their tail off to get great gigs, there are writers who are thrilled to score low-paying or worse, unpaid gigs in order to get clips.

Not good enough, is it?

Damn right it's not.

So here are a few ways to create a stronger freelance writing business:

Identify better-paying clients. Look where others aren't--right at the doorsteps of the companies and people you want to work with (one writer I know vets potential clients by the company's annual revenue). Suppose you write about organic gardening. What associations cover that industry? Who are the experts? The PR firms? What publications support the growers, suppliers, manufacturers, or organic landscapers? Go to the sources themselves with your pitch. Do your homework, write your introductory letter, and follow up in a few weeks.

Revisit your income target and accountability process. Do you have one? If not, decide how much you want to make annually, then break it down to a monthly figure. You can even track it weekly, but I found that to be too much of a micro-level look. Now that you have a target, get an accountability partner. If you don't have one, you're welcome to come here every month and share your results with the rest of us. (See the "monthly assessment" tag over on the right of this blog.)

Revamp your message. If you're bored with what you've been sending to potential clients, think how they feel when they have to read it. Get personal -- research them enough to know what their business is, what they focus on, if they have a blog, newsletter, case studies, etc. Shift the focus from "I" this and "I" that to "you." When you write that letter, try answering this question: "How will customers benefit by hiring me?" Sell the sizzle (the benefits to the customer), not the steak (you and your experience being the steak).

Carefully choose your samples. You're trying to win over organic gardening suppliers. So why are you sending them links to your health care writing? Where you can, make the sample fit the client you're wanting to win over. If you're trying to attract a client whose main business is creating training materials, look at what you've written already that might apply -- for example, a how-to article or a set of instructions. Or create a sample related to that business.

A note about samples: Maybe you don't have a ton of experience in the areas in which you'd like to be writing. Maybe you do. If you have clips already, great. If not, don't make the mistake of thinking you have to take low-paying or, heaven forbid, non-paying work just to get good clips. Instead, write them yourself. Create sample case studies, reports, press releases, etc.

Follow up. All those great pitches you sent out and those letters to new clients -- how many did you follow up on? Consistent marketing means you're not going to do the one-and-done email. You're going to get back in touch in two weeks to a month and see if there was a need. For anything but a "We don't ever use freelancers" response, you're going to continue to follow up. I like to get back in touch every three months. You decide what works for you.

Make good use of news and events. For me, it's an annual trade show. I use that as both my source of prospects and my reason for getting in touch (The "With the show coming in six months, I wanted to reach out..." type of message). Also, consider how the news can be used as a selling point. If there's some legislation or emerging trend in organic gardening, that's a great reason to reach out to your prospects with your own newsletter bringing them up to date on the topic.

Writers, how do you give your freelance writing business a boost?
Have you moved into new focus areas? If so, how hard was it and what methods worked best?

Friday, February 27, 2015

Free Advice Friday: Why Your Writing Business is Failing

What's on the iPod: Roll Away Your Stone by Mumford & Sons

After a long, somewhat disjointed week (is it finally Friday?), I'm looking forward to a few days off. On Tuesday afternoon, my newest bookcase arrived, so I spent the afternoon putting it together. This weekend, I intend to fill it strategically. There are books I keep wanting to read, but they're on one of the eight bookcases in the basement. Time to put them in full view.

I was rereading a post by friend and top-notch freelance writer Peter Bowerman. It was a post he'd written for this blog a while ago, and he repeated it on his own blog recently. In it, Peter addresses this attitude of "deserving" a freelance writing career to be handed to us. His way of breaking "deserve" down to market need is worth a read. And a re-read.

It also got me thinking about this mentality, and others, that have a huge impact on the success of our freelance businesses. I won't get into the bad habit of thinking we deserve better (because Peter's post goes over that quite well). Plenty of talented, experienced writers out there are struggling. Why? Maybe it's because they're committing one or more of these career-killing moves:

Accepting the status quo. Lord, it's tempting, isn't it? The work isn't rolling in, and there are so many writers lamenting the conditions. So that underpaid gig comes along and you take it. You have no choice, right? Bullshit. You do. You can change what the hell you're doing -- stop trolling the job boards for work. Stop accepting less because you're afraid it's all you can get.

Staying nice and passive. So the job boards have become a race-to-the-bottom feeding frenzy. Why are you still spending your time there? Where is the actual effort you should be putting into building a respectable clientele? Don't think your time spent cruising through job listings is "effort." It's not. It's wasted energy. Imagine you're trying to learn how to sew. The sewing machine is broken. But instead of fixing it or trying something else, you just keep stuffing that fabric into a broken machine with the same predictable result every time. That's what it's like to rely on job boards as your primary source of clients. Figure out a better way. The money follows the effort you put into your job.

Thinking you're set. You have those top-shelf clients and some of them are paying you retainers. You don't need to market anymore! Wrong. You need to market always. I've said it before on this very blog -- the set-in-stone agreements you have today are too easily turned into sand shifting under your feet tomorrow. It's happened to me and to plenty of other writers. Company needs change, projects end, budgets disappear, people move out of jobs, companies hire marketing teams....all are reasons why you shouldn't ever believe you're in forever. I remember losing three sure things in two weeks. I hadn't planned for it, either. Don't be like that -- always expect the job to be temporary.

Forgetting it's a business you're running. Your fancy degree, your 10 years of experience, and your mounds of talent don't mean shit to people who don't know you. Sure, those things will get you noticed easier, but you have to reach out to people, and you have to focus on what they need, not on how stupid they'd be to pass on you (they may be, but that cocky attitude isn't going to win them over). If you owned an ice cream shop and you wanted to be successful, you'd try to attract customers. You'd send fliers around, mail postcards, put up signs, and maybe show up at local events handing out samples or coupons. The same goes for your writing business. You have to raise awareness, show people you can help them, and make connections. If you can't do that, maybe you're better off being an employee.

Doing what others say they do. Every single freelance writer has his/her own way to run a business and make it work. It's okay to hear how someone else does it. But if you hear this bit of advice and race to the computer to try it, then jump instantly to another bit of advice from someone else, where's the "you" in that? Where's your plan, and how have you modified it to fit your style and your personality? The try-and-fly type of marketing usually means you're not following up and you're not anywhere near consistent with any method. Instead of trying to reinvent a wheel you don't have, get your own wheel. Stay in that circle until you're comfortable enough with yourself to know what works for you and what doesn't. And if you're paying for advice that's all over the Internet for free, that's up to you. But I suggest you insert skepticism in what you read, and do a little research before you follow blindly someone else's advice. I've seen a few pay-per-advice types who change their story to fit the service they're selling. Instead, seek out the company of other writers who are willing to share experiences for free.

Not believing in you. I remember when I started out eons ago that my biggest roadblock was my own fear. I knew I had talent, but there was that doubt that anyone would agree with me. It got in the way, and it caused me to make bad choices that netted me aggravation and low pay. Get used to knowing and owning your skill. The more you work at the job (and the more you advance your own education), the better you'll stand by your rates and your business decisions.

Writers, how do you keep your business healthy?
What were some of the obstacles/bad habits you had to overcome?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

4 Ways to Navigate Project Scope Disagreements

What's on the iPod: Sleep Like a Baby Tonight by U2

What a week. I started by spending what I thought would be ten minutes looking for a hotel room for the upcoming conference at the end of April. That turned into two days of hunting. No luck. I can get a hotel close to the convention center ($1,019 a night) or two miles away ($300 a night) or across a highway and not easy to get to from there ($189 a night).

Or I could stay home.

It's my big push for new client work, this conference. And judging by the number of sold-out hotels, it's going to be well attended. So I'll find a way. Even the B&Bs are sold out. It could be I'll be staying miles away and taking taxis.

Beyond that, I'm working on a number of projects for new/existing clients. I'm getting plenty of interest in my pitches and via referrals, so I'll spend time today and tomorrow trying to get commitment from some of the prospects.

In a client interaction recently, I realized the expectations they had of what I'd be doing weren't just a little off -- they were worlds different. So I had to reiterate what I knew to be the terms of our arrangement and do so in a gentle way.

That's a big deal when you and your writing client aren't on the same page or even in the same book. You agreed to (and priced for) X. They thought they were getting Y.

Time to introduce Z.

Navigating these sticky situations isn't tough, especially if you've left a paper trail. Still, it's one thing to know you're right and wholly another to point that out tactfully to the client who is wrong. Here's how I manage it:

1. Apologize for the confusion. I never assume someone is trying to pull a fast one on me. In most cases, it really is just a misunderstanding. Your client hires a proofreader, yet sends over a ton of unedited work. It could be as simple as they don't understand the difference between the two functions (most likely) or they don't know what they really need. Either way, apologize that there's confusion. Don't take the blame, but do say something like "I'm sorry there's some confusion here. Do you have time for a quick conversation?"

2. Repeat back the terms agreed upon. I've had to say "I must be confused - I thought you needed this....Are you saying you need that....?" No need to do a copy-and-paste of the evidence just yet, but I do refer to specific emails or contract sections in conversation.

3. Offer to revise the terms to include the change in work. I offer this up with a "Happy to take on that part, as well. Let me rework the price estimate and get back to you this afternoon/tomorrow morning." There's no reason why we can't come to terms that are agreeable to us both.

4. Give evidence when there's push-back. I did this once in my career (the client was changing the contract terms in her head), but it isn't something that's usually necessary. I don't like to wave evidence in front of clients. Instead, I give them the chance to save face first (and remember their agreement). If it does come down to someone adamant about what is expected, I would say something like "I looked at the agreement, and here's where I'm seeing our disconnect." (I didn't in that one case because that client was attempting to avoid payment.)

Writers, have you had to clear up any project misunderstandings?
What's your process?

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Technology Tuesday: The Word TOC

What I'm reading: The Woman of Andros by Thornton Wilder
What's on the iPod: Numb by The Airborne Toxic Event

So last week we took a look at how to create Styles in Word. This week, we're going to do something with them. If you think you'll have a need to create a table of contents (TOC) in your document, start with creating styles for that document. You may want to get in the habit of using styles in everything so you don't get 300 pages in and suddenly remember you need them. You'll find a style refresher here.

You have your styles. Now let's build a TOC.

Step one:

Between the cover page (and maybe dedication page, if there is one) and the introductory page, insert a new page. This is where the TOC will go.

If you've set up your styles already, you should be able to simply apply the TOC. Here's an example of a document that has styles applied:

For the sake of example, I put a solid line in between these sections to indicate a page break. You're looking at what would be two different pages.

From the blank page where your TOC is going, click on the References tab in Word. Over on the far left, you'll see Table of Contents.

From here, the easiest way to insert a TOC is by choosing one of the preformatted styles. Let's choose the first one.

Here's the result:

Easy, right? 

Ah, but suppose you have some errant styles that show up. What do you do then? Here's what happened when I first created this TOC:

It happens. Styles get applied accidentally (you hit Return without thinking and it applies going forward, etc.). You could just manually remove it from the TOC, but with each update, you'll have to do it. Better to get rid of the problem altogether. Here's how to find/fix them.

Click on the term you want to lose from the TOC. That should highlight the style it's defaulting to. If it's a style you're using for other things, simply assign it a lower-level style, or create a new one. If it's a different style, right click to modify:

Right there under the preview of your wording, you'll see values that are assigned. Here, this one is showing a Level 1 assignment. To change that, click on Format, then choose Paragraph:

From this window, you can see easily the level that's been assigned. Where it says "Outline level", make sure the window reads something other than the levels you have assigned to your TOC. This example shows the subtitle having been given the Level 1 assignment. I simply chose another level (I think level 9) since I knew I wouldn't be using that one. 

Click Okay.

Repeat this for all the errant copy you want to remove.

Now go back to the References tab and click Update Table. Choose Update Entire Table:

Here's your updated table:

You can create your own customized TOC, if you like. 

Writers, have you worked with a TOC? 
What are some of your best tips for writers trying to build a TOC?

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Successful Freelancer: Improving Your Client-facing Message

What's on the iPod: Misfits and Lovers by The Wallflowers

It's Thursday already? What happened to my week? I took Monday off for the holiday that everyone else had. Tuesday was a snow day for my daughter and when she's home, I tend to play hooky with her (bad habit, in fact). Yesterday I spent the morning finishing a small project and updating some blog content. Today, I'll continue marketing and get in touch with client prospects and some editors I haven't heard back from yet. Follow-up, to me, is the best part of marketing. You're not reinventing the wheel, but rather reminding them the wheel is turning.

About a year ago, I talked with a potential client about revamping a website. I knew I was in trouble when the initial phone call ran over an hour and I couldn't for the life of me get him to say in one or two sentences what his business was. When he sent over a client article to show me what it was, I was a bit flabbergasted. Shouldn't this be something the owner knows?

I did my best to improve what was there, but it was an impossible task. The client simply didn't know what he wanted, what he was about, or if he even wanted to attract new customers (he said it wasn't his goal).No amount of questioning helped him get to those answers, either.

A no-win situation for any writer.

Yet isn't that exactly how we freelance writers feel when we sit down to create our own client-facing materials? We either apologize for our existence ("Sorry to bother you" / "I don't know if you hire people like me") or we talk incessantly about ourselves ("I love to write, and I have over 10 years of experience in magazines and with clients" / "People tell me they love my work, and I'm in demand, so hurry and book your space with me now!").

Neither way is going to win over many clients. So let's rewrite the message so they'll listen, okay? Here are four ways to get their attention (and keep it):

Show them you know them. 
Probably the best way to get the attention of a new client prospect (and to keep the current clients) is to show them you understand what their goals/concerns/needs are. Here's an example of messaging that doesn't quite cut it:
I don't know if this applies to you directly, but I've helped a number of mid-sized businesses write marketing content. I have handled website copy, blog content, and newsletter copy. Maybe you want something like this?

Right. You lost them at "I don't know if this applies to you..."

Instead, try siding with the potential client:
As I was looking through the latest issue of your newsletter, I noticed.....
When you attend the Cardboard Manufacturers Trade Show in six months, consider revamping your marketing materials to get the most impact.

Both of these approaches show you've done some homework.

Stop talking about yourself.
Here's an example of talking at the client:
I built this business out of my passion to help others. I was a founding partner in the top local consulting firm, where I consulted with over 100 companies of all sizes throughout the country. My 20 years of experience includes serving on the board of a Fortune 500 company and handling marketing and sales for that company.

Asleep yet? You should be. That's all "I, I, I" talk, and it's not showing the client anything about why the hell they should care.

Instead, turn the focus onto them:
If you could easily retrain your entire company staff to put the customer first, why wouldn't you? Give your customers the benefit of a great customer experience every time. Let me help you retool your current business model into one that attracts customers and keeps them loyal -- all within your budget.

You've just appealed to people who want to make more money. Gee, how many do you think that could be?

Simplify the message.
Take this copy, for example:
The purpose of a business is to create and profitably serve loyal customers. We consult with business owners and help them gain clarity about the right things to do to fulfill this purpose and achieve the right results. 

The point is in there, but it's lost in too many ideas. Ironically, this company's message of gaining clarity isn't exactly clear. 

Instead, try this:
Want to improve business results? Start by clarifying your message and purpose. We train you how to get the most from your client interactions by revamping the way you approach your customers.

What's missing? All those ideas that really didn't speak to the customer's needs.

Stop writing laundry lists.
Here's the wrong way to present your talents:

I would love to help with your blog posts. Also, I have written plenty of newsletters, and I'm used to writing case studies. Oh, and I've written articles, which means I can ghostwrite for you, too.

Desperate much? Instead, find a way to say you have a wider range of experience without listing it all:

Whether you need a brochure update or an in-depth, industry white paper, consider the value that professional writing services can add to your next project.

You didn't list everything, but you gave the impression that there's a fairly wide range you can handle.

Writers, what's your favorite way to appeal to clients?
How often do you revisit/revise your messages?
In what ways are you getting your message to clients?

Words on the Page