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Monday, April 14, 2014

Organization Times Three

What's on the iPod: Sweet Child O' Mine by Guns 'N Roses

Weekends? Do people still have those? We are in full-blown wedding mode, and it's about to get nuts. Saturday we were in Baltimore meeting one bride's family. Sunday we were in Lancaster for another bride's (my daughter's) dress fitting. In two weeks we have the first of three bridal showers, two of which occur on the same day. I never made it to Connecticut to see my son, but I hope to get there this weekend, unless he's managed to get fitted for his suit without me shoving him toward the store. If that's the case, I can visit when things slow down.

So far, I've coordinated hotels for some guests, paid for alterations (nearly as much as the damn dress -- thieves), put my tax forms in order (not filed yet, but he's working on it), kept myself in the loop with what the bridesmaids are planning, and worked in the garden. That was yesterday. Saturday was all about Baltimore. We thought it would be a short trip. It turned into an all-day affair. We missed my husband's department cocktail party as a result, arriving home well after midnight.

I was thinking about organization skills as I watched two different couples planning their weddings simultaneously. Maybe it's the curse of being a freelancer, but I view the details each bride struggles over as things I'd have checked off my list quickly. One bride is clearly more prepared than the other, but there are different circumstances affecting each one. One's job is infinitely more demanding, so her details are nowhere near finished. The other one is hyper-organized and has evenings and weekends to get things finished.

People are different and operate under different sets of constraints. It's no clearer to me than right now, watching these young ladies pull together details for their big day(s). In my daughter's case, she has her mom to help tie up details, and she has a supportive bunch of bridesmaids (they deserve medals for how supportive they've been), and she started planning the instant the ring hit her finger. My future stepdaughter-in-law is a chief resident with no time, no fiance close by (he's a state away working), and is trying to please two cultures at once while staying true to herself. The help she's getting is most likely not of the same level as my daughter. Still, she's getting it done.

It's much like that in our freelance writing world, isn't it? Some of us are married to spouses with benefits, which lightens the load in a major way. Some of us are riding it out without insurance, fingers crossed. Some of us are paying mortgages, raising kids, caring for parents, replacing ancient cars or furnaces, etc. Each of us has a different set of circumstances we're bringing to the desk as we sit down to write.

What I admire about every one of us -- we take up the challenges and work our arses off to meet those obligations.

Maybe that's what frosts me when I see writers taking any old job, any rate, and any story a non-paying client will use as an excuse. There's too much at stake -- many of us have too much skin in the game to just accept things as they're presented to us (or demanded of us).

Like a bride trying to convince a caterer that the contracted price is all she's paying (and I'll be damned if they're going to get away with the "Other charges may be incurred and will be applied at the time of invoice" line -- you either tell me now what it costs or take it to court where you can explain why a signed contract doesn't matter), writers need to defend their boundaries, their businesses, like it's a matter of life or death. It's certainly a matter of life -- a successful, fulfilled life -- and yes, it can be death if writers allow themselves to be controlled and their business terms to be dictated to them by people who may have bad intentions.

But back to organization for a minute -- today, I'll be finishing one story, hopefully finishing a second story, conducting an interview, and finalizing another interview date for a third story. Plus, there's garden work to be done, my daily exercise regimen to fit in, and dinner. Then back to taxes.

An organized life, in my book, is an easier one to stand up for. If you know what your value is (and have the clients to show for it), you can turn down the offers that don't fit or walk away from the clients who aren't going to respect you.

Next month we'll be celebrating the 6th Annual Writers Worth awareness campaign. I went on a tangent back in 2008 about writers not understanding the value of their skills, and it's blossomed from one day to a month of motivation. This year, join us. Offer a guest post. Negotiate that higher rate. Reach out to higher-paying clients. Say no to what doesn't fit. Do something this May that respects you and your writing business. Organize your confidence around your career. Create and use those boundaries. Find some way to make yourself happy with what you do.

Who's in?

If you'd like to guest post, please send me a note at lwbean AT gmail.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Free Advice Friday: The Organized Writer

What's on the iPod: Corazon Espinado by Santana

I've had quite the busy week. I started out with four article assignments. Now there are six. Luckily, the articles are practically writing themselves. Still, one or two topics are proving hard to find commentary for. So I worked instead on those I knew I could get done right away as I tried to line up interviews for the others.

One deadline occurs right as my mom comes into town, so it gets priority. It also means I have to juggle the rest while she's here. That's the freelance writer's eternal struggle, isn't it? Clients and work never appear when we're sitting here with no plans. It's when that vacation is scheduled or that much-needed day off arrives that everything shows up at once. It's happened to me so often I've come to plan for it.

That's today's Free Advice Friday topic: organizing our writing lives.

Free Advice Friday: The Organized Writer
I'll confess right now that I'm hyper-organized by nature. I'm hard-wired to be on time, every time. My husband jokes about my need to be five minutes early or right on time to any event. He's not that way, and at times, I secretly appreciate his ability to drift in and out of punctuality. However, when it comes to my work life, I can't be so relaxed.

In truth, it's a great trait to have if you're self-employed as we writers are. When the work piles up at once --and you can count on it happening -- the more organized you are, the better.

Let's use my current situation as an example. Today I'm driving to Connecticut to see my son. Taxes aren't done yet, but I've left behind an itemized list of the information my husband will need to finish the taxes, complete with locations of all files in case he needs to go over utilities, expenses, etc.

I'm also in charge of a small list of items to finalize/buy for my daughter's wedding. And I'm in charge of cupcakes and flowers for the shower. Plus, my mom is coming for a visit. Add to that two deadlines before May 1st and one more that I want to finish now rather than later. Mom will be here the 23rd and staying until the following Monday. Those are three days I won't be working. I need to conduct interviews, research another topic, and clear the desk before May's projects (which are starting to pile up) come in.

Here's how I get organized. Feel free to copy verbatim or amend the way I do things to suit yourself:

Schedule interviews now. The minute the articles came in, I scheduled the interviews. Because I know whom it is I want to talk to before I send queries, that helps. But not all these articles were pitches -- a number of them were assigned. So that means I need to find commentary.

Segment your day. Mornings are usually an hour or two of writing and one hour for interviews. Afternoons are research, interviews with West coasters, marketing, and more writing.

Keep a running list of all current projects. Mine are printed out in front of me, and I've used my Sharpie to announce the deadline and word count for each one. I'm working on three simultaneously, so I keep those on top during the mornings, then shift to the others during the afternoon.

Plan out the personal time. Yea, Mom's coming on a Wednesday because I told her Sunday wasn't going to work. I need at least two and a half days to make sure those deadlines are met and the subsequent work is well under control. If I didn't need to visit my son this weekend, it would have waited. Alas, he's in his sister's wedding and he needs a suit (and a push toward the store)...

Keep copious notes. When I schedule interviews, it's really easy to get the wrong person talking about the wrong thing. So when I schedule, I put on the calendar the person, the topic, the questions (key if you're trying to juggle a ton of things at once), and the contact person should you need to reschedule. When I record calls, I note the folder and recording number on my notepad (I never work without a safety net). Then I upload the interview immediately to my hard drive should the unthinkable happen (tape recorders drop and break, recordings get erased accidentally...).

Think weeks out. None of this would work if I didn't have my eyes four weeks into the future. Actually, right now I'm two months out as my daughter's wedding is fast approaching. My mother's visit was planned months ago and was amended the minute the project deadlines coincided.

Time your schedule. When I'm completely overwhelmed (and yes, I'm close to that right now), I get the kitchen timer and set it for an hour. Then I write like that's the only hour I have. When it rings, I take a quick break, decide what I'm doing next (usually I have it planned out in advance), then set the timer for the next task. If you're like me and have a tendency to jump up from your chair and pace two rooms away, this is a good tool to keep you planted in that chair.

Writers, how do you organize a busy schedule? 
Where are your strengths? What areas could use some improvement?

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

10 Avoidable Marketing Mistakes

What's on the iPod: Late March, Death March by Frightened Rabbit

Piper welcoming us to the Tattoo
What a weekend. It's Tartan Week in New York City, and the festivities began Friday. We took part of the day off Friday and headed up for Saturday's kirkin o' the tartan and the parade, which we participate in every year. It was, per usual, a great time. We met up with people we see once a year -- annual friends, as it were.

Needless to say, a weekend in Manhattan equals a ton of walking. Saturday alone, we logged just under five miles on foot. Friday wasn't so bad, as we'd found a fantastic tapas restaurant within a block of our hotel. Sunday, we took the subway to meet his brother at the Harvard Club for breakfast, then walked ten blocks to Penn Station for the ride home.

A train ride is a perfect opportunity to tie up some work details, so I spent the ride up coordinating interviews and responding to important emails. On the way back, I caught up on blog reading and generally browsed the Internet. For every one good piece of advice (not advice labeled "MUST DO"), there are scores of lousy pieces of advice. What concerns me isn't that this stuff is floating out there, but that writers may be listening.

Here, in no particular order, are some of the largest mistakes you can make if you're a freelance writer trying to market your business:

Market to your entire customer list every day. Maybe you remember my encounter with a good friend who did just that. If you're in doubt about the message you're sending and whether it's too often, ask yourself how many emails of the same nature you read in a week. Right. I like to reach out every week or so to some of my potential clients -- for me, that's just enough time to let them know I'm there and to remind them of my background.

Hound the hell out of people via social media. We've all read the advice "Scan LinkedIn/Twitter/Facebook for clients." That's different than sending out mass mailings to everyone on LinkedIn, trying to sell to people the minute they view your profile, or setting up 20 Twitter blasts a day promoting your latest book or advertising your brilliance. Know those Twitter people or LinkedIn group people who put up promotion after promotion? Know how annoying that is to you? Don't be like that.

Adopt hashtag overload. While I don't believe there should be any hard-and-fast rules on how many hashtags a person uses, use your head. If four looks like too many, find a way to send the message out to those various groups in different ways. I use no more than three before I think it looks too unreadable. Pay attention to your message and your audience.

Argue both sides of the issue for the Google juice. Ho hum. How boring (and obvious) can you be if today you say content mills are the devil's spawn and tomorrow you advocate everyone try it at least once? Really boring. Inciting debates by purposefully flipflopping on an issue may get you instant traffic and blog followers, but what are the side effects of that? Lack of trust from your audience, clients who aren't sure you're able to be honest with them, followers unsubscribing, and your reputation taking a hefty hit -- just for starters. No website ranking is worth people thinking your not genuine. If I can't trust what you're saying, I'm going to stop listening.

Write a really long sales pitch complete with bold fonts and abundant exclamation points. Does this ever work? Yes, but writers and people marketing to writers have adopted what could be the worst possible approach for their audience. Maybe it's just me, but I was taught in J school to let the words do the work, not the punctuation. If you know how to write and your idea has merit, you don't need to resort to trickery. Also, be succinct. Tell us what you're selling, how much, and how it's going to benefit us.

Avoid controversial conversations. Be it on your blog or with your potential clients, don't ignore the pushback. In some cases, clients will get insulting -- that's okay to ignore (completely-- and lose their contact info). What isn't okay is to do what one former blogger did and delete comments that didn't support the blogger's own particular stance. Whether taking on a client's objections or conflicting beliefs or those of a blog community, be true to yourself and allow others to be true to themselves. You may never agree, but you won't lose respect by allowing others to have their say.

Insert your politics. I've seen an increase in politically charged notes in my in box over the last decade. In one case, I disagreed completely with what the colleague was saying and how he was presenting his political views to his customers. It had nothing to do with his business, so why did he think insulting half his client base was a good move? In another case, I agreed completely. Still, I was no less offended, because to me, Starbucks should be selling me a beverage, not stumping for a political party to its customers. They nearly lost my business on that one.

Lie. Is that webinar or e-course really about to sell out? Am I an award-winning journalist or did I merely win a contest? Have you really written tons of advertising content, or are you counting every line in that one press release as a slogan, caption, company profile, and announcement? Those who know me know I don't like absolute statements, but this one is one to live by: Never overstate your background. Instead, be truthful, but point out the similarities (if there are any) between the job required and ones you've completed in the past.

Tell your potential clients how great you are. It only matters a little who you are and what you can do. What's primary is how that benefits your clients. Do they care that you have six degrees from four colleges? Only if you show them how that background can make them money. Remove the "I" from your sales pitch and replace it with "you."

Apologize. Whether it's for not having the exact background they require or simply for bothering them with your note, your apology translates as lack of skill. Any writer worth his or her fee would approach a client with confidence, show them how their skills can translate into the best money that company has ever spent, and convince that client that they're capable of forging a successful partnership.

Writers, what mistakes do you see in marketing?
What methods work for you/appeal to you?
What doesn't?

Friday, April 04, 2014

Free Advice Friday: This Job, Not That Job

What's on the iPod: Middle Brother by Middle Brother

After a slow beginning, this year just became busy -- really busy. I spent this week working on two articles, scheduling interviews for a third, and researching a fourth. Plus, I did a good bit of marketing. I heard from a few regular clients about work that's coming in -- one gig possibly today and the other one at the end of the month. Work-wise, I'm set up well for May because the fourth article in as many weeks is due June 1st.

Also, an article I had a blast writing just appeared on the latest cover of Risk Management Magazine: Marijuana: The Implications of Legalization. It's a serious topic, but so much fun to write those subheads and inject those subtle puns. Tastefully, of course. Since this year's conference is in Denver, my pitch was right on target and at just the right time.

Besides the pitched stories, I've been getting assignments from editors, which is where any freelance writer would love to be. When they find you with the idea in hand, it makes your job just a little easier. But for every freelance writer who has built that kind of reputation, there's another freelance writer who's just starting out and hasn't a single clip.

Do yourself a favor: start your freelance writing career out right. Be choosy at the outset and learn to let your instincts have a large say in what you take on. That means learning to read every job offer, every advertisement with a jaundiced eye. As you read, you should be asking yourself "How many things are wrong with this offer?"

That leads us to this week's free advice: the return of my This Job, Not That Job series.

Free Advice Friday: This Job, Not That Job
This ad comes to me via Jenn Mattern of the fantastic site, All Indie Writers. Jenn found this "offer" and thought it would be perfect for this series. Jenn, thank you. It's a prime example of why writers need to vet every job listing carefully.

We are looking for an exceptional ghostwriters to create content for a very specialized new blog in the home care/ home healthcare niche. 

The flat fee for this project is $400.00 

For this initial project, I am looking for a writer to research & create 40 articles (10 articles of approximately 1000 words each and 30 short posts between 250 – 500 words each). These shorter posts/articles will simply cover the topics in the 10 longer articles in more specific detail. 

In other words, if you write one longer article on a specific topic, you will write 3 more shorter posts about that same article, only the shorter articles will have their own headlines and cover smaller pieces of the longer articles. These shorter posts are ultra specific in nature. 

For example: If one of the longer articles is about “3 things to consider before choosing a home care provider for a loved one”, then you would write 3 shorter and more specific posts that go into more detail about some of the points discussed in the longer article. 

Each of the 10 longer articles will have 3 ultra specific shorter posts that break down the info in each of the 10 longer articles in more detail. 

For this set of articles I will provide you with the topic as well as the keyword for each article. 

In order to submit: 

You must write “Home Care” in your response to be considered for this job. 

You must submit a sample with the below requirements. 


- Each of the 10 longer articles must be approximately 1000 words. 
- Each shorter supporting post should be between 250 -500 words. 
- Each article must be original and unique. 
- Each article must be informative & well researched. 
- Each article must be free of spelling mistakes, grammar errors and must be correctly punctuated. 
- Plagiarism is strictly prohibited. Articles must pass Copyscape test. 

Did they get your attention with $400? Sounded pretty good, didn't it? Why this job is such a dangerous one:

  • It's not $400 per article - it's $400 total for 40 articles and 30 posts. 
  • It's a specialty topic, which means they have to be well-researched (time-consuming) and you should have a solid understanding of the industry.
  • They want an unpaid sample before they hire you. Right. Show of hands--how many people believe they're using those free samples and not hiring anyone? (My hand is up.)
  • They're not editing --"free of spelling mistakes, grammar errors and must be correctly punctuated" -- ironically, they've just told you how perfect you have to be in a grammatically incorrect sentence.
  • "Original and unique." By whose standards, I wonder? A loophole to avoid paying you -- if, in fact, they ever hire anyone (remember those free samples?).
  • For $400, you get to write anywhere from 22,500 to 30,000 words. That's half a small book, people.
I can't go on. The evidence is making my eyes bleed.

There are other options. This is one:

NurseWeek (biweekly magazine)

Needs articles on nursing, specifically interview and personal experience. Looking for topics such as clinical care, health-related legislative updates, community health programs, professional development, new clinical care approaches, etc. 

Pays $200-800 for 900 words.

That's 900 words, not 90,000 words. On the surface, the pay looks like it could be lower ($200), but once you dissect the first offer, it's easy to see how much better this offer is in comparison. Plus you're getting a published clip from a legitimate publishing source, not one you've not heard of. While the rates still aren't fabulous, if you're starting out, these types of markets can help you get established.

Writers, what were some of your first legitimate gigs?
How many lousy offers did you fall prey to? 
How did you avoid the same traps going forward?

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Monthly Assessment: March 2014

What's on the iPod: How to Save a Life by The Fray

I don't remember blinking for that long. March is really over? Crazy, but here we are in April.

I spent the weekend driving back home (300 miles/5 hours each way) for a bridal shower, then driving back in a snowstorm that ended 100 miles from home. Alas, it turned into torrential rain for the rest of the drive. It wasn't until we got off the turnpike that it stopped. Since my daughter was with me and she doesn't drive my car all that often, I did the driving. Is there anything more exhausting that a five-hour drive that's extended to nearly six (thanks to lousy weather)?

Then there was the wind. I drive a heavy car -- a Saab. But a few times, the wind was so strong, I fought to keep it on the highway. One gust nearly pushed me into a car beside me. Not fun.

After all that, I'm back at it today. It's also a new month -- time for an assessment of how the business is doing. Let me get to it now and get it over with (does that tell you how it went?):

I sent out six. Of them, only one responded. I don't expect to hear from the others, but the ideas will be recycled in about two months. That's enough time to let the first contacts consider them. I don't wait for formal rejections because so few people bother with the courtesy anymore. They can't -- they're short-staffed and overworked.

I've sent out 48 LOIs this month, and received eight immediate inquiries. Usually on follow-up I get a few more conversations going, but eight responses is not bad for a new market. One conversation happened in email already (I suspect I'm not within budget), and a few more are about to occur.

Social media:
I made 20 new connections on LinkedIn. I may have said it before, but I don't push a sale when I'm connecting. I make a connection and focus on getting to know people. I consider this my relationship-building exercise. The more people you know, the better for all sorts of reasons, right?

Existing clients:
My tried-and-true clients kept me working this month. One long-time client sent projects my way and is talking about long-term, ongoing projects. I'd contacted five other existing clients to no avail (though there are two projects that should be coming in the end of this month), but something even nicer happened. Last week, a number of existing clients I hadn't contacted got in touch. Now I have more work than I could imagine going into this month - I have four new article assignments. My quota for April is already met, and I have work for June, as well.

New clients:
Aside from one inquiry yesterday, I haven't contracted with anyone new. Yet. Optimism is essential to freelance writing, isn't it?

Despite all the projects hitting my desk last week, earnings this month were dismal. My February marketing, which should have brought in work, didn't generate much. I'm about 40 percent off my goal. However, I think I'll more than make up for it this month.

Bottom line:
So far, the marketing focus in the new industry is showing promise, but nothing concrete. The marketing I'm doing is working, so I'll push forward with it. Also, I have a new marketing process in the works and as soon as I get time, I'll sort it (hopefully this weekend). For now, the article market is where the work is, but I'm seeing much interest in corporate projects again. That's good. By October, magazine budgets are scarce. Time to line up other avenues.

Did you do okay in March? 
What's your outlook for April?

Friday, March 28, 2014

Free Advice Friday: Working with Magazines

What's on the iPod: Take Off Your Sunglasses by Ezra Furman & the Harpoons

It was a heavy workweek. I have deadlines everywhere and plenty of assignments. I'd say TGIF, but there's a lot to do before 5 pm. I did finish one article, but have one more to complete and two more to start. Then there's the other client work that's about to hit the desk. Good thing I take vitamins.

Also, things on the personal side are about to pick up. My daughter's wedding is approaching, as is my stepson's wedding. A week apart - I know. It would have been nice if they'd shared each other's plans. April will be nutso-busy. I have one bridal shower, one visit from my mom and a related shopping trip, plus two article deadlines -- one coming the week my mom is here. My plan is to work like crazy ahead of deadline so I can take a few hours off here and there.

It requires a plan, which I have. I'm sharing it with you today on this Free Advice Friday. Thanks to a reader for asking the question and prompting this post. Many of you who are just starting out may have the same questions I've been getting from other beginning freelancers, so here you go.

Free Advice Friday: Working with Magazines
To learn how to query magazines, read Query Letter, Part One and Query Letter, Part Two.

The Right Idea/The Right Magazine
Before you get to the letter, however, you have to know if you're sending the right idea to the right place. You accomplish that by doing your homework.

Research. Each magazine, even ones that seem similar, has a particular voice and audience. There's one surefire way of knowing those attributes -- by doing your homework. Read the magazine. Pay attention to the headlines, the tone of the articles, and just as importantly, the advertisements. Ads tell you a lot about the reader, for advertisers aren't going to place ads for say a Mercedes in a magazine that's meant for teenagers. As for the articles, are they first person, second person, or third person? Are they conversational or authoritative? Are the articles how-to, trend pieces, investigative, or essay? What are the headlines on the cover? How do those headlines differ from another magazine targeting a similar readership?

Formulate your questions first. Before I write a single query, I put my curiosity to work. What do I want to know about this topic of mine? The questions are the outline to my query. They'll also help you nail down your topic most succinctly, and you'll be able to better focus on maybe one aspect of your topic instead of trying to cover it all.

Locate a few experts. No need to interview them or even talk to them prior to the query (unless your entire article is a profile of one person or relies primarily on one person's input) -- just find potential interview sources and make note of them.

Rough in a headline/lede.  Having a headline allows you to present the idea to your editor. Make sure to match the style and tone most often used by the publication you're targeting. The lede is the short summary right under your headline - that bit of italicized content that tells you what you're about to read. For example, an article I wrote on Detroit's bankruptcy was titled "A City Stalled" and contained the following lede: "After decades of decline, Detroit is trying to reorganize under the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in U.S. history. Is the city finally on the road to recovery?" You don't have to have your lede written at the query stage, but if you're struggling to nail down your focus, it can help. If you can't write your lede to match your idea, your idea is too broad.

Shaping Your Article and Query
Once you get all of the above accomplished, you're ready to query. Here are a few pointers besides those in the links provided above.

Write your hook. Your hook is by journalistic standards often known as a nut graph/graf -- short for the "nutshell paragraph"-- that's going to sum up what you're about to cover in one introductory paragraph. It's called a hook because it's going to "hook" readers into reading further. It's used mostly in newspaper writing, but it has value in the magazine world, as well, since most magazine articles are feature articles in nature. Good hooks include: anecdotes; facts or statistics (don't believe the old adage that statistics should never start an article -- if they're compelling enough, they work); a question; a simile, or; a quote. An example of a hook I used recently: "Transporting guns, evading cannibals and masking pimples are exposures that don’t usually enter the typical risk management orbit. Yet for some, such threats are just business as usual."

Use your editor as your first audience. Don't save it for the article -- you have to impress the editor first or there won't be an article. Everything you've just done to know your audience, narrow your focus, and get an idea on paper should be in your query. Pretend your first paragraph is for your article -- it may well be. The second paragraph explains the topic, including your title, and tells how you'll approach it. You'll mention potential interview sources and what you hope to ask them. The last paragraph will outline any experience you have and ask for the job.

After Acceptance
Once you get the assignment, you need to know what happens next. Typically, editors will assign a deadline (if not, ask -- sometimes they do forget), and they'll send over a contract.

Find out the process. Do you see galleys (pre-publication proofs)? If not, how do editors handle revisions? Most of my editors will send the article back with some comments in the text for clarification. Others handle them all without the writer's input. Either way, know that the final product belongs to the magazine. You have a certain amount of say in the article, but they know their audience best.

Be on time. If you expect to earn the trust of your editor and get future assignments, don't miss a deadline. If there are circumstances at play that may cause you to miss a deadline -- the one source of the article isn't available or cooperative, for example -- tell your editor immediately. If an editor knows enough in advance, he or she can find something to fill magazine space.

Handle disagreements professionally. Do editors make mistakes? Absolutely. In my career, I've worked with exactly two editors who introduced errors into the article or who over-edited to the point of killing the story's impact and drowning out my voice. You have to approach these situations with care and tact. In one case, I had the unappealing job of telling an editor one of his edits created a huge red flag for industry people. If the editor has messed up your content to the point you don't want your name on it, find a way to say "I'm not comfortable with these changes - can we address them together?"

Writers, what do beginning writers need to know about working with magazines and magazine editors?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Marketing Redux: SWOT's in it for You

What's on the iPod: I Will Wait by Mumford & Sons

Aside from yet another forecasted snow storm expected today, this week is shaping up into a great ending to the month of March. I'd been waiting for some promised projects. They're starting to come in now, as is new work I'd marketed for while I was waiting. After years of doing this, you know not to sit on your hands waiting for projects -- you just go about your business as though nothing is in the works.

I've been sharing emails with a new blog reader who is about to embark on a freelance career. I love being able to help someone at the very start of their careers because, as you know, there's so much to learn. It's always nice to get a leg up and avoid some of the early mistakes, if you can.

Since there are plenty of new writers out there, I thought it might be a great time to repeat some marketing advice. I do have posts from a few years back on marketing (just look for the tags over there on the right), but it never hurts to get a fresh perspective, especially in this age of misinformation.

Let's start at the beginning: the SWOT analysis.

I've talked about this in years past. SWOT is something I studied at length in college, and it's a fundamental part of any marketing effort. SWOT = Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats. If done correctly, your SWOT analysis can be a great tool in understanding what your obstacles are and how to overcome them. If not done correctly, it's just a wasted exercise.

To see how to complete a SWOT analysis properly, check out this post from 2012 or Cathy Miller's excellent guest post from that same year. Cathy's advice comes from her first career in corporate communications, and is a good example of what to focus on in your analysis.

To see how to misuse SWOT, read on.

There are plenty of ways to mishandle your analysis. The result could be you aren't prepared for what could be potentially door-closing events. Here are a few mistakes that one can make when putting together a SWOT analysis:

Blinders. I've seen many larger companies make this mistake, so it stands to reason writers could be doing the same thing. Don't underestimate your competitors' skills or value. For every company that has told me "We really don't have any competition because what we do is unique" there are as many announcements of those same or similar companies closing their doors. You may think your skills are levels above others, but be honest with yourself. What do other writers do better? There's your first goal -- finding ways to improve those areas.

Lack of specificity. It's one thing to say you're a little weak in client communications, but if that means you loathe sending emails or being "checked up on", you need to make note of that. Avoid glossing over facts; make sure you're honest with yourself. With areas where you're not sure what you're doing, acknowledge it.

Asking the wrong questions. If you're content to tell yourself you're a leader in your particular niche or industry, congratulations. You've just lost the entire point of the SWOT exercise. Don't use the SWOT as a means to pat yourself on the back. Instead, use it as a private tool to improve your awareness of your own abilities and needs.

Not recognizing your own bad behavior. You don't need a degree in journalism or communications to understand the ethical expectations of a writing career. If you use someone else's words, you attribute. If you don't, you get sued. If you're an advocate of rewriting articles from other sources and calling them your own, of stealing blog posts, of lifting content or of overselling your own accomplishments, you could be ignoring behavior that could shut down your business and land you in legal hot water.

Not asking for outside opinion. Even though yours is often a one-person show, it's imperative to get feedback from clients, colleagues, and family on what they see as your business approach, your weaknesses, and any other relevant information that could impact your plan going forward. Don't rely on your own voice to shape the image of your writing business -- the image you project is infinitely more important than the one you think you project.

Complicating things. Too often, writers and others putting together their analyses tend to overthink things. Make sure the questions you ask yourself are pointed and specific to your writing business. For example, you may not know what your market share is. Chances are you don't need to know, either. Since most freelance writers are not publicly displaying their revenue, you may have a pretty impossible time trying to find that out. Simplify it -- ask yourself if you've chosen an area of concentration that actually has enough of a client base.

Not doing anything. It's great to understand where you're weak and where your business is threatened, but if you do nothing to improve those areas, the SWOT analysis is a waste of time. Instead, use your analysis as a tool to build your professional improvement plan and your marketing plan. Learn the technology, take the courses, and improve the skills that will help improve not just your abilities but your own confidence level.

Have you ever conducted a SWOT analysis? Where do you think your strengths lie?
What weaknesses or threats do you hope to overcome this year?
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