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Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Ever wonder how to market yourself? It's essential to your business that you understand how to get your name out there. My good friend Kristen has just posted a fantastic article on just this subject--check it out at Inkthinker. Once you read it, come back here and we'll talk about setting aside time to market. Go on, I'll wait...

Now that you're back armed with some good ideas, let's get started. First question--how much time a week do you set aside for marketing?

That's where we writers fail--we don't know how to get beyond the writing and sing our own praises for a change. We're too busy singing the praises of others! It's maddening to think how many opportunities I've let go by because I've not set aside time to market.

You need anywhere from two to four hours a week devoted to marketing efforts. Mind you, as Kristen's article suggests you don't need to spend money. But you do need to build up your "face time" with clients and potential clients.

Try to make your marketing efforts occur during a part of the day when you're not wrapped up in other work. Typically, I save my marketing until after lunch and just before I quit for the day. That way, I don't feel guilty about looming deadlines or about spending a little more time than planned on my marketing.

Use your calendar to remind you of the times you've devoted to marketing. And have a plan before the time arrives. Are you wanting to send out an email newsletter? How about a postcard mailing? Are you going to send the "hey, how's it going...do you need help?" emails to existing clients? Or are you going to browse Writers Market looking for a home for that article idea? Whatever the plan, make one. Don't spend the time cleaning your desk or surfing the web. Know going in what your plan is and how you'll implement it. It's also a great idea to schedule a follow-up now, so you don't lose opportunities later.

If you're contacting folks via email, make doubly sure you have an "opt out" message at the bottom of your emails. It's required by law (anti-spam laws brought about the change a while ago). Now, make sure you get in front of your client list at least once a month. I would try not to make it too much more as your emails will soon become the nuisance instead of something to look forward to.

And your emails should be something to look forward to. Don't just send out the "I'm FABULOUS! Hire me!" email. Send one that gives back some value to your client list. For instance, I send out quarterly marketing email newsletters. Some of the topics include how to write a press release that gets attention, marketing basics, etc.

Another great idea for email marketing is to track the client's business progress. A PR coach once told me she watches the news regularly and when she sees her client's name appear, she jots off a friendly note and mails the news item to her client. She also knows her clients' needs, so if something relevant appears, say an article related to what the client may be thinking about, she sends it off with a "thought this might interest you" note.

Kudos to Kristen for writing such a great article on marketing! And kudos to you for taking your busines seriously and putting time aside to market.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

If the bad food, endless lines at security, and crowded seats aren't reason enough to avoid traveling by air, here's the best one - cell phones on airplanes.

Yes, the powers that be (and that would be Senators McCain and Kennedy) have decided that we haven't suffered through enough. We are now to be subjected to even more one-sided, loud and inappropriate conversation, only this time we get to be a captive audience.

It would be different if these conversations were short, quiet and unobtrusive. But anyone who has stood within ten feet of a cell phone user knows that there is a volume problem--the user, who can't hear the caller, raises his voice in order to compensate for his own lack of hearing. Those having been subjected to these users also know that the conversations held in public are often the same conversations people would hold behind closed doors away from the earshot of anyone. And these conversations go on and on and on.... I was waiting for a table at a restaurant once when the young woman next to me made a call. For forty-five minutes, I listened to her berate her parents' behavior to the listener on the other end. This was no teenager, yet I was left with the impression that she was a spoiled child. At one or two points in her conversation, she looked at me and gave me a glaring look because I was listening. Tough! If you start a cell phone conversation in public, you're foolish to expect that conversation to be private.

Another time I was lying by a hotel pool, enjoying myself. The man two lounge chairs over, a Brit, called a friend. During that conversation, I learned he'd been sleeping around with three women in town, one of which he'd apparently told he was much more interested in than he really was. He seemed quite pleased to share that information with the guests lounging nearby, including the young children of the guests sitting nearby.

So that's my gripe. If you're unable to carry on a G-rated conversation in an appropriate tone in public, then turn off your phone. The rest of us really don't want to hear it. And if this bill makes it through Congress and the President doesn't veto it, I predict a surge in violence on airplanes. Who wants to listen to that midair? Where can you hide from an obnoxious cell phone user if not at 30,000 feet? It's bad enough that these users have their phones turned on and they're talking as the plane is taxiing to the gate--please don't make us listen to how important they think they are by allowing these dolts to dial during flights.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Tax time! I dread this time of year--not because I pay through the nose, but because I keep lousy records. Oh, I mean well. I start out with the Excel spreadsheet each year, with my nice little columns for Project name, Client, Amount due, Amount paid, Billing date, etc. But somewhere between lean January work weeks to insanely busy summer months, I lose track. Sure, I keep receipts and check stubs. But even that isn't a foolproof system. I've been known to file incorrectly, meaning my check stubs end up in the folder with the bank statements, etc.

It unnerves me to be expected to be an accountant once a year. And each year, it's the same scenario. I start out with great intentions, a "foolproof" system and without fail, I foul it up. Every year I do my own return. Every year, the IRS has to correct it. Last year, they even sent me a condescending note--"Had you filed electronically, you could have avoided these errors." Sadly, I had filed electronically.

I'm starting to develop a real block when it comes to tax time. What I used to do every year without error is now something I do every year loaded with errors and stress. I've tried programs. I've tried asking for help. And I'm too embarrassed to go to an accountant and present my "system" for saving receipts and invoices. I need a twelve-step program where I'm taught each month one more thing that needs to be done in order to alleviate this problem again.

I'm getting better. I'm now reaching out. Friends have shared their systems. One or two may help, too. My better half has offered his template. I've accepted it with hope and with trepidation. What if even the most foolproof tools aren't enough for this fool?

The beauty of tax time is that it's over soon. The stress will end at midnight April 15th. Then I can begin a new fiscal year filled with hope and more than one floating receipt.

I hear it takes only nine months to become a Canadian citizen....

Thursday, March 23, 2006

My New Year's resolution this year was a simple one--I decided that I would try to gain one new client every month. I reasoned that finding new clients would be a bit easier to focus on than say bringing in a certain dollar amount. I figured that if the clients were there, the money would follow.

I don't know why I didn't think of it sooner, but guess what? It's working. I've managed to gain at least one new client a month so far. After fifteen years of writing, the lightbulb finally goes on.

I'm hoping that the money will indeed follow. At present, I have definitely billed much more this year than at the same time last year. In fact, I've billed the same amount this year as I'd made by October.

Money is certainly not the only consideration, but we who grind away at it daily have to make it a major concern. Our livelihood is driven by just how many weeks (or, heaven forbid, months) we go between checks.

The residual benefits of this plan, so far, have been the added time I've spent concentrating on marketing. I've made more contacts and approached more people, which may turn in to future clients.

Also, I feel more productive. I feel like I have less downtime and more time spent effectively. As a result, I feel much better about myself and about my business.

Try it yourself. Try to gain at least one new client a month. Then tell me it doesn't improve not only your attitude, but also your marketing and networking skills.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

3-22-06

Already this morning, I've had to deal with an email service problem, two phone calls totally unrelated to work, and I've had to search for things for other people while trying to start my work day. All of this and it's not even 9 a.m. yet.

Some days you just know nothing's getting done. Today may be that day for me, as I have a visitor arriving within the hour to pick up those things I had to search for. And that's a shame, because I have a ton of work to finish. I'm not the type of person who can be steered easily off track and away from deadlines, so this will be a source of irritation most of the morning, or until I can get back on track.

Interruptions in any workplace happen. But at home, you will undoubtedly be expected to drop things and lend a hand much more often than if you were sitting in an office or a cubicle somewhere out of reach. It's the bane of the freelance career--people assume that because you're at home, you're at their disposal.

I've had to pick kids up, drop kids off, run errands, head to the store, call different service people, make appointments, be home and available for cable and phone repair people, you name it. While the being home part was no great stretch, the rest of it is pure secretarial work. If I were a paid secretary, I'd have no problem with it. However, I'm a writer who's actually paid by others, not by the people around me who put demands on me (and you'll find the most guilty are your children and your partner).

If you find yourself in that position, like I do quite often, you have to assess the situation for what it is. Is the request for help something that will take five minutes of your time, or is it something that will require a half an hour or more? What's your workload look like? Are you able to grant a favor, or would it put you behind schedule? Also, are you the type of person who needs to stay focused? If so, you might want to deny most requests on days where you have work to finish (or start).

It takes a lot of internal discipline to work from home. Also, it takes external discipline--being able to say no--for those times when you know helping out will interfere and cause you added stress.

And speak up. I've had to defend my workspace on many occasions. I know that saying no once or twice won't stop the requests from coming in. But I know also that saying yes all the time won't allow me time to meet deadline or to locate more projects. Time is money. If you frame it as such, you'll have no trouble turning down the latest request to take the teenagers to the mall.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

3-21-06

During your work week, do you build time into your schedule for destressing? For some reason, we writers believe that we have to be working nonstop and at least twelve hours a day in order to be successful and happy. Not so. In fact, success comes more from effective planning of your work week, including allowing yourself time to unwind and breathe.

My typical day starts at 7:30 a.m. I boot up the computer, grab my cup of tea, and sit down to read emails. Because emails have a tendency to pull you away from your workload, I choose to answer them in the morning before most offices are open. That way, I've touched base in some way before I've even started my workday.

By 10 a.m., I'm usually ready for a break. I cruise the writing forums (my favorite being www.aboutfreelancewriting.com), swap stories with online writing buddies, share info with beginning writers, and generally gain and give support.

By noon or later, I'm ready to eat. But first, out to the park to walk and run and reconnect with myself. The fresh air and the exercise provides a great pick-me-up, and gives me enough energy to go back to work with a renewed sense of purpose.

After lunch, back to work. On slow days, I spend the afternoons searching various websites looking for contract work, or posting ads on Craig's List. If the day is really slow, I'll commit more time to answering emails, cleaning my desk, clearing up files, or contacting old clients with a quick hello email and a request that they contact me if they need a writer.

Notice that I have a routine that includes breaks? That's on purpose. It makes it much more enjoyable to sit down to work knowing that I've also scheduled time to myself. That's what you should be doing, too.

Don't forget that even good routines need to be broken to avoid boredom. Give yourself permission to destress. Allow yourself to get away from the desk and to reconnect with the outside world. I go out once a week to Starbucks and swap war stories with my writer friend. And when that desk chair looks as enticing as a torture chamber, I grab the laptop and move to another room just to break up the monotony.

Routines are a great way to discipline yourself and bring a more efficient use of time to your day. Just allow yourself to break from routine once in a while.

Monday, March 20, 2006

3-20-06

Recently, I had the misfortune of being contacted by a man who had done some work for me. It had been a year since we'd talked and since things ended well, I was shocked when a year later, he accused me of copyright violation and of various other heinous crimes, including being too stupid to understand technology.

Understand that this man was not a client. I was his client. He had performed a service for me. He was being paid by another party, so he and I had not standing contract between us. But that's not the issue here. The issue is how he, an alleged professional, behaved.

His email to me accused me of using his work without his permission. Yet emails I'd saved clearly indicated his implied permission. (Note: ALWAYS keep business emails as you never know when you'll need them) I had the evidence on my side. The situation has since been resolved, but my opinion of this man and his demeanor is irreparably damaged.

That brings me to you: yes, you. How are you approaching your clients when you have a disagreement or a miscommunication? Are you going in with guns blazing, calling your client names or accusing your client of criminal acts? If so, prepare for word to get around about how difficult you are.

If there's a disagreement, be prompt in bringing it up with your client. Don't wait a year or even a month. If your client is under the impression all is well, the lapse in time will leave him confused and wondering what your real motives are a year later.

Also, make sure you explain fully what you think is the problem. Be careful here. Don't blame, don't accuse and certainly never call names. State where the problem area lies. If you think it was a problem caused by poor communication, take responsibility for your part in it.

Once you explain the problem, ask your client to help you come to an agreement. Offer suggestions only if you know your client will be open to them. State what you hope to accomplish and how you would like to see the problem solved. In all cases, make sure your tone remains professional, open and approachable. Never ever accuse a client of something unless you're suing him. And even then, accusations belong in court papers, not in emails or written or spoken correspondence.

Let's now assume that your client is upset with you. How will you handle that? Your best approach is to shed the emotional response right away--emotion never belongs in business dealings. Read or repeat your client's upset until you understand what the core message is. Then and only then can you address it.

No matter how badly the negotiations turn out, always wish your client well and never ever resort to telling him how you really feel. You aren't representing your own personality--you're representing your business. Every communication you have should be professional and courteous, even if your client's just called you a no-talent hack. His opinion of you is just that--an opinion. It does not reflect your business.

Friday, March 17, 2006

What's the worst sin you can commit as a writer? Splitting an infinitive? Dangling a modifier? Using bad sentence structure? While all of those are of concern, especially if you call yourself a professional writer, the worst sin of them all is to devalue yourself.

And you do, you know. You look at those ads promising $100 for your articles, and you don't even care that it's $100 for 50 or more articles. You don't care that you're giving away your time, your talent and your soul for a mere 2 cents or less a word. You figure that a working writer will soon see more rewards.

Guess what? You'd figure wrong. If I had that same 2 cents a word for every writer who ever took that free job or allowed himself or herself to be paid less than a livable wage in order to "break in", well, I'd never have to work again.

Why do you do it? My best guess is you still haven't separated your self-worth from your craft. That's a very dangerous affliction, dear reader. If someone insults your writing, you are crushed. If someone suggests changes, you are hurt and indignant. Your fear of those very things happening is so real that you settle for smaller, lesser known jobs. It seems less likely to scar you irreparably.

I'm here to say stop it. Stop it right now. Start standing up for yourself professionally. Dust those footprints off your back and start treating your writing like a business. It is a business. You are an entreprenuer. You're selling a product. You're not selling your soul or your essence. You're selling words. Words on a page, not words that define who you are.

Let me tell you something else; the more you devalue yourself professionally, the more that hurts the entire profession. You hurt those of us who face new clients weekly and have to justify our fees to clients who point to other writers who have put in insanely low bids. (By the way, clients who argue your price too strongly are not a good match, anyway)

I'm not saying I don't sympathize with you. I do. I also was a young, insecure writer at one point in my life. I worked for cheap rates. I made the same mistakes. I understand very much how torn one can be when one's reputation (and ego) dangles in front of a tough client. But I learned long ago that ego doesn't belong in business. Ego is sure to kill nearly every business deal you allow it to enter into.

So, dear reader, I beg you to start today with your new attitude. Repeat after me: I'm a professional and I'm worth more than that. Repeat that phrase every time a potential client has a problem with paying you what you're worth. Stick to it. In no time, you'll begin to see the wisdom of your words.
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