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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Resolving Not to Resolve

I hate resolutions. Never has there been any other form of self-promise and goal setting that was doomed to fail at the outset. We make them and instantly break them. Why? Because we aim too high, dream beyond our own abilities, bite off more than we can chew (or chew more than we should - diets and all)...

I saw a few experts on the Today Show last week talking about why we're so miserable at resolutions. It's because we don't know how to narrow things down. We're so busy with the big picture - such as "I'm going to lose 20 pounds this year!" - that we never really get to the details that make it happen. It's why we fail and why I've stopped making resolutions altogether.

Those experts say that resolving to do something big is just pointless. Instead, resolve to spend one minute a day exercising. That's right - one minute. It's a little change, but it's one that sets you on a different course and gets your mind trained to think differently - even slightly - about the way you do things. One woman who vowed to exercise for a minute a day lost those 20 pounds. It's because a minute is do-able. A minute costs you nothing. A minute, while small, caused her to start thinking "Hey, I can do this."

That's how I approached my business last year at this time. I went over my big-picture plan - to earn more - and added monthly goals, and weekly benchmarks. I kept myself in line by making myself accountable much more often. It worked. I earned about 15K more than I planned to earn, which that number in itself was higher than I usually earned. All this during the Year of the Recession.

So how about you? Are you seeing a big picture only? If so, take some time today or tomorrow (or the next day or even next week - it's never too late) to determine how you're going to meet that goal and what it'll take from you monthly, weekly, daily to keep you on track. It's more than how much you'll need to earn monthly. It's about how to find your clients, how to score more work, how to pace yourself so that you can be cashing checks in the lean months....stick around. We'll talk about all this in the weeks to come. Meantime, tell me what worked for you last year. How did you reach a goal, a series of goals, and how can we emulate that?

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Honest Scraps

Dear blogging soul Lillie has awarded me an Honest Scrap Award for telling it like it is. In keeping with the rules of the award, I'm to share 10 honest bits from my life with you, as are all recipients. I've never been shy about laying everything out, so here goes. Interesting? You be the judge.

1. My biggest pet peeve in the world is unfairness or injustice. I get very heated and very vocal when I feel someone is treating me or someone around me unfairly. I have no idea why it sets me off, but it does.

2. I love being around cars and car repair talk. I love diagnosing. It's my secret wish to be a mechanic someday. Well, not so secret now, eh?

3. I love to fish. I've been fishing, and going to Ontario to fish (the ONLY place to catch respectable fish) since I was six weeks old. Well, the going part. Fishing came when I was old enough to hold the fishing pole. And I catch and release.

4. I will always regret how my divorce affected my children. Always.

5. I hate confrontations. Hate them. I don't avoid them as they tend to become larger problems, but I hate them. Asserting myself has often led to unpleasant situations, but not as much as avoiding addressing the problems firsthand. Need to work on that.

6. I was fired from a job I used to love but then grew to hate thanks to a change in management. I don't regret not being there. I sort of regret not approaching the boss more with my concerns, but knowing how he was when I brought up anything, I know it would've meant a faster exit for me. Refer to #5.

7. My best dog died 12 years ago, and I still miss him. Worse, he was the catalyst that started my divorce (strange, but the dog's death just opened my eyes). Even worse, I was the one who accidentally killed him. He walked behind my car as I was pulling out of the garage.

8. I hate the words "bulghur" and "house finch."

9. During my first marriage, I was invisible, even to myself. I had no idea who I was or what I wanted (besides writing). He didn't care as he was ego-centered and didn't see that I had no life beyond wife/mother, nor do I suspect he would've cared, figuring (rightly) that it was my problem to fix. And yours truly was shy - can you believe it?

10. This job is the best job I've ever had. Bar none.

I won't tag anyone for this, but if you feel compelled to spill your guts, you may do so here or on your blog. Consider yourself awarded.

What about you?

Monday, December 29, 2008

The Things You've Done Right This Year

Even if this wasn't the banner year you were hoping for, even if you never quite reached that goal you set, you did some things right this year that kept your career alive. Why else would you still be in freelancing? Here are a few things you've done that you can be proud of:

1. You kept at it. That may sound like a "duh" statement, but think about it in terms of just how much effort that little step has taken you this year. You had to find work. You had to take no for an answer sometimes, and you had to deal with unruly clients on occasion. But you didn't quit. Oh, you wanted to. But you didn't. That's a pretty big success in itself.

2. You remembered to market. The toughest part of the job, the one we most overlook, is marketing. But you did that. When you realized you were staring at the next four weeks without work, you got out there and put your name in front of people. Bravo. Now there are that many more clients who know you exist and that you do a good job.

3. You marketed when you were busiest. You scoffed when I first suggested it, but you did it, didn't you? And the result was you had work lined up for yourself once all that other work was completed. And now you're going to continue doing it because it makes perfect sense, right?

4. You planned ahead. Experience taught you that July and December are fairly slow. You realized that in order to glide through the lean times you had to work your tail off in April/May and September/October so the checks would be there when you needed them. And you knew that magazines need copy always, that there are no slow seasons for monthly pubs, and you scored some gigs to keep you working in those slow periods. Good for you.

5. You chased those invoices. Even the clients you've been dying to work for have troubles getting invoices paid. You developed a collection process and you made sure you applied it to every single client because you know that consistency is one of your weapons should you have to escalate to litigation. You've established a consistent pattern of collection and this client received the exact same treatment. Any judge would see you're the professional in the equation.

6. You backed away from work or clients that didn't fit. You realized that working for someone who's crazy or nasty isn't worth any amount of money, just as you realized that working for much less than the standard we freelancers charge isn't serving your career at all. You learned to discern. Amen.

What else have you learned this year?

Friday, December 26, 2008

Study Time

A few days ago we chatted about learning your craft (meaning your business, though not entirely ignoring the writing part). If there's a dilemma you're facing, there's a book written that will help. Here are a few that have helped me over the years.

How to Write Irresistible Query Letters by Lisa Collier Cool. This book taught me how to craft a can't-ignore letter asking for the job. First time I wrote one using this book's guidance, I got the job.

The Well-Fed Writer by Peter Bowerman. Read it. Commit it to memory. Follow it. This book tells you how to build a market for your skills and how to sell your services.

The Complete Guide to Magazine Article Writing by John Morgan Wilson. For anyone who's ever asked the question "But once I get the job, how do I write the article?"

Harbrace College Handbook. Here's your must-have grammar and punctuation book. I don't care how far along you are in your career, you'll always use this. None of us have all the answers, but we can have books that help, right?

The Chicago Manual of Style. Everyone needs a good style guide - this is the ultimate.

Associated Press Guide to Newswriting. While Chicago is the style Bible for the industry, most magazines operate on some form of AP style. This smaller, more manageable style book is essential.

What are your essential books?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Starting or Going?

I have a friend who is always starting. Since I've known her, she's talked about starting diets, starting career changes, starting dating, and starting all sorts of small projects. Trouble is she never really gets anywhere. Her planning never quite makes it to the action stage, which means fruition is a complete enigma to her. It's frustrating for me because I know she's capable of everything she dreams up. While her plans may be great, I know without some actual movement toward the goal, her talking about her latest plan will be just words echoing into space.

So is that how your career's been going? You know you can do it - the confidence is there. Or maybe you have plans that would certainly work, but you just can't trust yourself enough to pull them off. You're living in the safety of inertia because planning is easy. Talking about it is a piece of cake. But doing it? Ah, that means you have to get up, apply hard work, and risk small failures.

A confession - the beginning of my freelance career was just like that. I wanted to, I knew I could, but I was stuck thinking no one would take me seriously, no one would want to pay me money, and that somehow I'd botch it up. But after a few small accomplishments and a ton of reading and studying how others were doing it, I was smarter at my work and the confidence was shored up by some small paychecks.

If I can do it, so can you. But you have to be committed to really learning. I don't mean learning how to write (obviously the majority of you already know this), but a primer in grammar and sentence structure never hurt (numerous books exist - I lean toward college-level handbooks on grammar). More importantly, you need to get a handle on how to approach your business and what it will take for you to market for clients and actually put all those fabulous plans into action. And you have to be ready to screw up, fail in some cases, learn, and move on. Now's not the time to be feeble or apologetic. Now's the time to fine-tune that action plan and just jump in and do it.

So, with 2009 just a few days away, are you ready? Of course you are. But are you actually going to do anything about it?

Monday, December 22, 2008

Did You Really Mean That?

I'm officially on vacation until 2009, so why not put together a few posts meant strictly for entertainment purposes? This is one.

If you haven't heard me lament at least once about proofreading being dead, you're new here, aren't you? It's one particular drum I beat often, and thanks to the lack of said proofreading - and in some cases, editorial oversight - the world leaves me plenty of examples that back up my theory. Here are a few from all over. Mind you, these are excellent sources, excellent writers, and we all make mistakes, but they shouldn't make it into print.

An article on top-selling cars for 2008 - "Another 431,725 buyers drove off Chevrolet lots in a Silverado." Mind you, that's a lot of people in one truck. With that kind of hauling capacity, perhaps Chevy should be bailed out after all!

In a bird guide - "Juvenal." It's odd enough that I'm reading a bird guide. Odder yet that the writers weren't using the standard "immature." Even odder that they labeled a young bird after the Roman poet and satirist.

In a news story - "If it turns out that the heart came from an animal, it would not be the first time that someone has left animal parts at the car wash" Besides all the bizarre things wrong with that sentence, there's no end to it without punctuation. Or maybe that's what the writer intended? I guarantee I'll be thinking about this one for a long time.

Another new story - "But they are saying that no struggle preceded the murder and that the man with small ears may have known the person or people who snuffed him out." Snuffed him out? In a news story? Are you serious? And is it just me, or do you read "man with small ears" and immediately think of Curious George's man in the yellow hat?

What have you seen?

Friday, December 19, 2008

Ending the Work Week (and Year) on the Upswing

Hooray! The long-awaited, much anticipated, often doubted check has arrived! Woo! Just in time for the holidays! What's more, the rather large, cumbersome project has finally been approved. What with the shopping almost done and the house looking all decorated, just slap my back and color me festive!

Since the working world has already decided to take the rest of the year off, I'm following suit. I'm leaving a few errant posts here for those of you working through the next few weeks. Meanwhile, have a lovely holiday season if you're one who celebrates! If you don't celebrate any particular holiday, know that your presence here and in my life has been a blessing and I'm glad to know you. You know who you are. :)) Same goes for you celebrators, too.

That Freelance Career

I was reading chum Devon's exasperation regarding new writers asking old questions. I hear you, sister, and I feel your pain. Too often we working writers are asked by newbies how to get started. Only the question is just that - "How do I get started in freelancing?" It gets my blood boiling every time.

That, to me, is a lazy question. You want to know how to start a freelance career? Research any of the gazillion sites that have outlined step-by-step processes. Buy a book explaining how to do it. Hire a coach. But for the love of God, don't ask such a general question. Same goes for "How do I start writing for magazines?" While that one's only slightly easier to answer, it shows the asker hasn't really tried to figure it out. At this very moment, cyberspace is teeming with how-to guides, written for free, that tell you exactly what you need to do. All there for the asking. And all a newbie has to do is enter a Google search for "getting started freelance writing."

Look, I'm thrilled to help anyone who has a specific question, such as "How do I locate a specific magazine's information?" or "Do I need to learn Quicken or should I just hire an accountant?" If you've searched and read and really studied what's available or even plunked down money on a self-help book (which is tax deductible as a business expense, by the way), you're not going to need to ask such lame questions. You're going to have more pointed, detailed questions that will actually help you. You get out of your career exactly what you put into it. If you can't be bothered to do a little legwork on your own, it'll show in your paychecks (or lack thereof).

It's not like freelance writers are a community of tight-lipped folks who keep their secrets to themselves. On the contrary, we're pretty darned vocal about how we got where we are, and we're into helping other writers get there, too. What we don't enjoy is feeling taken advantage of, and for me, that equates to broad, general "Gee, how can I do this?" questions. On this blog alone I've told folks how to market, how to write a magazine query, where to find work, and how to deal with difficult clients. Just search, okay? Same goes for sites like Anne Wayman's About Freelance Writing, which is a treasure trove of advice and articles that'll get you going on the right track. Anne does one better - she actually takes time out of her day twice a week to search job boards and post a conglomerate of job listings, making it that much easier for you.

So do your homework. Oh, and if you have a question after you've done so, please ask. We'll help you. We're just not all that into doing the work for you. Beyond that, you can inquire about my upcoming e-book on how to get started, available for a fee, of course.

How about you guys? Do you get general questions that would take volumes to answer? How do you handle it?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Good, The Bad, and the Mediocre

It's a good thing my ego's tougher than it was when I started writing. There are days - and clients - that test the very mettle we're made of. Yesterday was a bit frustrating in that I've worked my heart out for one particular client only to have the project returned like a wayward boomerang. Each time I think "Finally!" I'm once again snapped back into reality. Some projects just won't die.

This one is particularly difficult, not by the work involved, but by the sheer size of it. It's a massive reordering, revision, and reconstruction that takes an insider's eye to understand exactly what needs to be where. I'm not an insider. Hence the multiple clarifications as we go along. In one instance, the communication was spotty (and naturally, that was the first communication), causing me at least one rewrite as a result. We are nearing the home stretch, but I'm like an aging thoroughbred - sweaty, worn out, and ready for pasture. This one took all the fight out of me (as it did last year). There has to be a better way, but I'm not able to suggest changes lest toes be stepped on. And toes would indeed be stepped on.

Like I said, if my ego were weaker, I'd be re-evaluating my career choice, for it might be obvious based on this project alone that I can't be trusted with big things. Luckily, I know better. In numerous other cases, I've managed even larger projects with little-to-no revisions or stress. Why was this one different? Miscommunication at many levels, including inside the client's office. This project languished for months before I managed to prod the client into resuming it. And yes, yesterday is the new deadline. I'd cry, but I've no energy left.

Luckily also, I had great feedback on an article I wrote. Amen. That's happened a few times - you get kicked on one side while being praised on the other side. It's yin-yang, balance, karma, or just dumb luck.

While praise is great, mediocrity is what I seek. How about a raft of clients who say what they want, mean what they say, and pay upon delivery?

Do you notice praise and criticisms coming in at the same time? And don't you agree that communication or the lack thereof is a major part of your client's project outcome? How hard have you had to bite your tongue when it's clear that the miscommunication is what's messing things up and not your skill level?

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Return of the Jedi and The Check's in the Mail

It's probably a good thing this is the slow time of year for me. Yesterday was awash in issues that had nothing to do with work. Run to the bank and deposit funds for one of the offspring (herein known as the Jedi), take another Jedi to the doctor, inch through an ice storm to get prescriptions filled (the doctor looked at my ear too and found the fluid was not yet gone - joy). Thank goodness yet a third Jedi didn't come home on the train at the same time. If I had been busy with work, something would have had to give (namely my last nerve). When they come home from college things become, well, interesting. December is not so much of a problem. May - it's a problem because I'm at my busiest.

I managed to get through a revision yesterday despite everything. And can we count this high? That overdue check I'm owed? Six months now. The litigation notice went out, causing the predicted panic and promises. A week ago I received a call asking to let the client know how long the check took to get to me because they're using a new check processing source. Do you mean the time it takes from the day you called or the time it's taken from the first invoice that went unnoticed? The fact that I received that call is a good sign that something is in the works (it wasn't provoked as the invoice had gone out two weeks prior). Good thing. We're just a few short weeks from another month overdue and I'm not going to hesitate to file in small claims court if the check doesn't appear before that date. I know where they live, so to speak. I'll file in their jurisdiction.

In fact, it may turn out to be my first litigation filing due to unpaid fees. Typically I'll give them three months, then I'll send out a litigation notice. This case was a little different in that there was a hiccup in the process when the client's client wanted revisions but then left us both hanging for a few weeks. One thing I'm sure I won't see - the late fees. I don't know why but in every case I've charged them, I've never received them.

To be honest, if we get to the point where multiple layers of late fees exist, I'm not going to want to work with this client again. Chasing those late fees after the main bill is paid is, at this stage, sending good money running after bad. In other words, until I find a cost-effective way of getting those fees collected, I can't afford to chase them. But the minute I figure out a way to do so, I'm doing it.

How do you feel about late fees? Have you ever been successful in collecting them? Is there a way to do so without causing yourself a ton of work?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Politics, Power Struggles and Personality Clashes

There are days I'm overjoyed that I no longer have to walk into an office, assess the environment, double check each word I type, triple filter what's in my head before it passes my lips, and generally watch my back lest someone higher up doesn't like the way I act, the way I dress, the way I work, or the way my aura glows. As I've mentioned before, the time and resources all these little struggles, political or otherwise, waste seems utterly pointless to me. It's why I never left freelancing after being thrust into it not altogether unexpectedly (a long story that involves all of the issues raised above). I saw it coming a month before and managed to have most of my personal effects removed from the office before the hammer came down. And as I drove home that day, I couldn't muster up tears or regrets. It's when I knew this was a move that would change my life for the better.

This month I've had a few client interactions that are, from their side, riddled with politics, power struggles and what appears to be at least one personality clash. Normally, this stuff isn't my problem. However, it is when the projects become embroiled in a "who's the boss" struggle. It's when I thank my Maker that I'm billing hourly, but it's frustrating nonetheless.

I have one ongoing client who's hired a project lead and some of the issues this person has with managing is spilling over into my otherwise management-free world. I love taking direction and receiving helpful criticism. I don't love being chastised openly for petty issues when I have a perfectly good explanation for my actions and would have offered it had I been asked first. It's growing quite apparent that this client's new helper is not a team player. Moreover, I feel I'd be thrown under a bus should one thing go wrong. Hence I'll be approaching the client and asking to move to a new project lead.

Another project had me going between two warring factions who were pretending to be on the same side. I hate to break it to them - they were transparent. They don't get along. They don't even work in tangent. And they gave me directions separately that are mirror opposite. I was smart enough to save every scrap of paper from the project to make sure I'm not caught in the crossfire, but it was exhausting. Not to mention time-consuming. I had to revise numerous times to suit one or the other. Finally one person moved off the project and it sailed through approvals. Otherwise I'd still be revising.

Have you ever been caught in an unsavory situation? Ever feel like the bulls-eye is painted on your own head? How do you deal with this stuff?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Claus(e) Time

Both Eileen and Kimberly asked what clause would go into a contract that effectively voided it should a project come up for third-party review. There are many variations on the theme. Many writers would argue that the absence of a third party's name on the contract and his/her subsequent involvement would be enough. I tend to agree, but that doesn't help you when you're suddenly faced with posses who think they know better who are influencing your client to take their advice over yours (and planting the seed of doubt in their mind, which is deadly to you and the part that really matters).

In email, I explain that because we (client and I) have had discussions that others have not been included in and because I've taken time to get to know this person's motivation, message, voice, and focus, the client should be listening to me primarily. Others mean well, or often their motivations are hidden (such as Joe's always wanted to write a book and he's damn well not going to stand by and watch Frank beat him to it). I would recommend you do this in email, as well. It leaves no doubt in anyone's mind and it's tough to miss if it's spelled out in "people speak" instead of legalese.

Here's what I put in my contracts that voids it upon the entrance of a third party -

"This agreement is made between the Client and the Contractor and all decisions and discussions of the project described herein will be exclusive of any third party not expressly named herein. Any review or input of a third party directly or indirectly in the writing and/or editing process by the Client without the written consent of both the Client and the Contractor will void this agreement and all fees contained in this agreement will be due the Contractor in full and immediately."

Mind you, there's a slight chance this clause could be translated to include any help you want to bring on board, so be careful using it. You may want to discuss with your client, and put it in writing, as well, that you reserve the right to hire subcontractors (if the project would require it).

My disclaimer -
Since I'm not a lawyer, run this past your legal counsel to make sure there's nothing here that could sink you. I make no guarantees on this clause - I've just recently added it to my own contracts and it hasn't been challenged yet. So don't just take my word for it! Get an attorney to look it over for you.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

My Utterly Crappy, Lousy, and Somewhat Not Nice Day

I should've known when the computer had to be rebooted what I was in for. Then the note from the client - more revisions on something I've revised to death. Then the daughter at college with her hand out for money. Oh, then trying to help my spouse understand my stance on clients introducing posses into the editorial process. Add a doctor's appointment, sinus infection, and prescription run (and my prescription card was expired, so we accept cash, thankyouverymuch) and it went from lousy to should've-stayed-in-bed very quickly.

My current third-party review/posse rule: I have a no-posse stance I strictly enforce. I'm happy to work with clients and any third party they designate at the beginning of our working relationship. I will not, however, entertain input from someone (or multiple someones) once the project terms have been discussed and the project is underway. My reasons are many and, in my opinion, are good reasons.

Let's suppose you are being paid by your Uncle Ned to paint his house. After multiple trips to Home Depot with you in tow, Uncle Ned has finally decided on the color. You pick up supplies and you arrange with Ned to get the job done. After taping and preparing, you start painting.

As you finish the third side of the house and are up on the ladder starting the fourth side, you notice a neighbor of Ned's standing on the sidewalk. You go about your business, but soon the neighbor is shouting, trying to get your attention. Soon you realize he's not saying hello - he's giving you advice. You're holding the roller wrong! You're using the wrong kind of roller! And that ladder - what are you thinking?! For the most part you ignore him because he's down there and you're up here doing what Ned wants you to do. But soon Ned comes out to find out what the commotion is. The neighbor pulls Ned aside and soon the two of them are deep in discussion, staring right at you. And pointing. Ned signals for you to come down.

With the neighbor interjecting with every other sentence, Ned tells you that the job you're doing, according to Bernie here, is sub-par. Bernie thinks your roller size is much too small. And the nap? Too thin - not enough paint going on the walls. Let's not mention that you have no clue how to hold it! And you're using a generic ladder when everyone knows Craftsman is the ONLY ladder for painting jobs! Mind you, the color is okay, though Bernie thinks it's going to look too harsh once the trim is finished. Not to mention he's never been a fan of Home Depot paint. Uncle Ned looks worried. Did we choose the wrong color? Are you sure you can get this job done right? Now you're no longer working for Ned - you're working to please Bernie, who has never really liked Ned's taste in paint, and who has never really painted anything other than a piece of trim for his bathroom. So Ned sends you back to Home Depot for the supplies Bernie has indicated, and he takes Bernie off to shop for paint with him, bringing back another color completely different than the one you first put on.

Up the ladder you go again (the Craftsman ladder this time - you stopped at Sears, too). Halfway around, Ned's other neighbor John comes over. Hey, are you sure that's not the ladder that's been recalled for safety issues? And what was Ned thinking with that color? By the way, your roller is a bit thick. Oh, and if it were John, he'd be using brushes on that surface. Again, Ned comes out. Again, he listens to his neighbor. Again, you're at Home Depot buying supplies and at Sears returning a ladder. John just finished painting his dog's house, so he has a bit more experience than Bernie, and Ned, who has never been great at making decisions, changes his mind to impress John. John has a boat Ned wants to borrow.

You present Ned with a bill, only now it's higher thanks to all the changes you've had to make and the extra supplies you've had to buy. Ned refuses to pay - you obviously don't know the first thing about painting, according to Bernie and John, and Ned only budgeted for the original amount. Sorry, but you get nothing more. In fact, Ned's not so sure he should pay you anything since these guys seem to know more than you do.

Posses in the writing and editing process are exactly like that. You don't know the person making the suggestions and you have no idea what their skill levels are, let alone why your client is so eager to take their advice. And since these people aren't coughing up any money, they have no qualms about wasting your time and your client's time chasing their ideas. My experience shows that 98 percent of people who are asked to read something and tell you what they don't like come back with changes to show their pseudo-expertise or to mark their territory somehow. I rarely take the advice of such "experts" seriously.

Not only that, now you're working for someone you don't know. You have to match the voice, taste, and desires of a person who wants a completely different product than your original client. You cannot please multiple people with multiple visions and directions on the same project at the same time. You just can't.

I don't enjoy being told how to run my business by someone who isn't in the same field any more than a mechanic would enjoy me being under the car telling him to check the tie rod or the rocker arm because I think the noise in someone else's car is completely unrelated to what he thinks it is. Clients cannot expect you to respond to a third party critique without it costing them extra. Frankly, even then I won't do it. Too often I've seen client messages watered down and lost amid waves of friendly advice and editorial. You have to stay true to your client's goal, even if they won't. It's a no-win situation. You end up out of the picture and the posse takes over. If a posse enters your client's project unannounced, make sure you have a clause in the contract that voids it at any change in the process, including a new person on that project.

Have you ever worked with a third party after a project has begun and done so successfully?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Quick Poll

For those of you who have worked with clients who have brought in another party somewhere in the middle or toward the end of the process - what's your policy on third-party review of your work? Is that a deal breaker or are you fine with it? Why or why not?


Where's Your Happy Place?

We were out to dinner the other night, driving back through town and apparently not doing it fast enough. The dude passed us on a double-yellow line at a four-way intersection, doing easily 40 in a 25 mph zone. The police were sitting two lights back directing traffic for the Santa parade in town. Naturally.

Maybe it's because I grew up in the country or maybe it's because I no longer want to waste my courtesy on stupid people, but that little move ticked me off no end. When stuff like that happens, I go through this pathetic little cycle - indignation, followed by anger, followed by wondering out loud how someone could be so stupid, followed by at least one "How rude!" comment, followed by wondering - again out loud - how someone becomes such a pushy jerk in the first place. I suspect this is what road rage in its early stages resembles.

But now I have a new process. When they do something dangerous/completely stupid, I breathe in and repeat out loud, "Going to my happy place." I start by thanking God I'm not related to that idiot, then I begin to do what the nuns taught us to do - forgive. Mind you, the nuns never taught us to forget and let go, so I have to invoke a few of my meditation incantations, as well. A Hail Mary for good measure and hey, we're back to normal. It seems to be working, though it's been just a few weeks. If you don't read about me in the crime section of the paper, that's a bonus.

It's sort of like that with clients sometimes. Oh sure, the majority of folks are great to work with, but there's always that one who tests you not just as a writer, but as a human being. There's the client who lies to get what he wants (had him - he's just posted bail, in fact), the client who ignores your freelance status and expects 24/7 service, the client who thinks of you in that clerk/typist way, the client who thinks of you in that saucy-vixen way (ewww), the client who wants the equivalent of War and Peace written for just under $200, the client who changes her mind several times but doesn't want to pay for the revisions, the client who gives you no direction and then is shocked and pointing a finger at you when it doesn't go her way, and .... you get the idea.

While these people don't come around often, they do come around. Their opinions of you do not define you or your professional persona - your reaction to their antics does. So what's the strangest/most annoying/stupidest thing a client has ever done or expected you to do? Where was your happy place? How did you take the high road? DID you take the high road?

Sites to Behold

I love finding new haunts, places that are in addition to my very favorite blogs. Here are two more that I cannot live without:

Sass Pants. I've always known Kristen has a spunky side. Now we get to see just how spunky she is. And we love her all the more for it!

Joan's Sling Words. Joan, I just love your voice and your underlying sense of humor. And any woman who alerts me to a heated keyboard is okay in my book!

How about you? Any new favorites you'd like to share?

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Phrases I Never Want to Hear or Be Forced to Write Again

Don't ask what set me off, but there are some business phrases that I cannot wait to bury.

Core competencies. Just say your specialties, okay? Otherwise, you sound like you're choking on consonants.

Value-added services. How about just telling people what you do. For instance, "We offer optional fries with every burger!" or "Every product comes with our money-back guarantee!" Those we get. When you say "value-added services" you make us feel too stupid to buy what you sell because we can't figure it out.

Mission-critical. Just say we have what it is you need in order to get your job done right the first time. Very few of us work for NASA, so leave all that "mission" crap out of it.

200 Percent (or any amount over 100 percent). Even a math dolt like me knows 100 percent of your goal is the best you can do. Goofy percentages like 137 percent just confuses the hell out of everyone.

Wholistic. First, get a dictionary. Second, stop making up words. You sound ridiculous. It's either "comprehensive" or "complete."

Leverage key relationships. Please. It sounds like you're hoisting up the back of a Dodge to change the tire. Yes, I know what you mean, but it sounds so cold and mechanical. How about "partner with companies" as a means to convince me that yes, you have some additional services to offer?

How about you? What phrases or words do you hope disappear from business usage?

Monday, December 08, 2008

Quality Time with My Stress

Just when you think stress will bypass you - bam. There it is in the form of an unexpected, weird little thing. Mine's called Verizon.

More than 3 years ago I added a little feature called Distinctive Ring to my service. That's my separate number for my fax machine. I got a note from a client yesterday saying he tried several times to fax an agreement to me with no luck. I called Verizon. I knew before I called, but it's just fun to listen to them try to explain what happened -

After a five-minute wait, Anna gets on the phone.

Me: Hi, Anna. I'm calling because I have a distinctive ring service on my account, but a client just called and said he couldn't reach my fax number.

Anna: Hmmm. That's strange. Let me look into it.

She typed around for a few minutes.

Anna: It seems you haven't had it since August when you upgraded to our bundled service.

Me: That's weird. Why would that be taken off?

Anna: Yes, it is. I really don't know why. But let me put that back on for you. (Anna's a rare Verizon employee - she doesn't try making excuses or guessing her way through it - she sees the problem, admits to her own limitations, and moves to correct it)

Type, type, type she goes. Then the typing stops.

Anna: I apologize. Our systems are still down. (This is disturbing on so many levels. Here's my phone company, cable company, and Internet provider and they can't keep their own system running.) However, we're open until 8 p.m. Let me make a note in your file exactly what you want so when you call back you won't have to explain it again. (wanna bet, Anna?)

Me: Thank you, Anna. I'll call back later.

I waited 2 hours and tried again. Once I selected my way again through the menu choices, I sat on hold (and through an acoustic version of Through the Years, among others) for 11 minutes. Luckily, Carli is another star Verizon employee, for she managed to get my fax number back and explain why on earth the damned thing disappeared in the first place. "When we sell bundled services, your current package is replaced and you lose all your added services unless we notice and add them back on for you. It was our mistake for not catching that."

AMEN. An honest employee who didn't try to make it sound like I should've caught this on my bill ages ago and shame on me. She actually said, "I apologize" and fixed it.

This time, I stressed out for little reason, though I'm still ticked that it inconvenienced me at all. It's so much nicer to receive customer service that actually helps you instead of service that makes you feel worn out from trying to get a straight answer. For that, I may actually forgive Verizon its past sins.

Raining, Pouring, and Assorted Forecasts

Since finishing (hopefully) a rather large, cumbersome project, I've had time to breathe. Only just though, for there was work pushed aside for these critical edits and revisions that had to be done. And naturally, I'm feeling a bit under the weather. What I suspect is a sinus infection or inner ear issue is causing multiple aches. I'm tired. Maybe the body's saying it's time for a small break.

However, despite the onset of Famine Season (otherwise known as December), I've had contact from two brand-new clients who both want some very large project work (books) from me. I've learned not to get excited - often price will get in the way or make them rethink just how much they need to have their projects completed. I predict one or both will balk at price or get cold feet, so I'm not panicking about having large projects to start, or stress over, for the holidays. Maybe it's the fact that I'm just limp with exhaustion and feeling a bit ill, but I need the next few weeks to be calm. I have a third client who's wanting a book as well, but I'm pretty sure she's not going to be in touch until at least January.

Why so many book projects now, I wonder? Moreover, I'm hoping to be able to work on these new projects simultaneously (not so hard to switch gears when you're sporting a dash of ADD) and continue with my regular projects. I'm organized, thank God, and I'm sure with some tight deadlines and a large whip, I can corral both projects and clients into manageable timelines. The only unknown, beyond the entire scope of both projects, is the clients' work ethics. How tight are their deadlines? Are they prone to slacking off or are they able to stay on deadline? I know I can handle these at the same time. What I'm not sure about is if I can handle any diversions from the schedules and maintain deadlines. See, I live for deadlines, even arbitrary ones.

Have any of you had multiple large projects at the same time? How did you organize your workload? What, if anything, did you forego in order to complete it all?

Friday, December 05, 2008

Why I Love Blogging for Pay (And Why I Probably Won't Do It Again)

Thanks again to Sal for introducing yesterday's post topic about blogging. I didn't expect the number of comments I got, and I'm happy to see some really thoughtful discussion about when to blog and when not to blog.

If you're new to writing, blogging can be a great way to build up some credibility and maybe even some expertise in a particular area. That's going to allow you to transition into writing articles about that area, and then you can use that experience to sell outside the comfort zone. Nice, huh? Blogging can be great that way. However, I won't be blogging anywhere but here (for free, mind you) any time soon.

The reason - I have a lot of work right now and I hope it's work that will continue. Whenever the workload grows, the need for the smaller jobs wanes. I gave up a blogging gig about a year and a half ago for two reasons - one was the company's sneaky way of cutting our workload (and our pay) without saying a word to anyone; the other was the amount of higher paying work that was landing on my desk. Time to go. Plus I'm in the fortunate position of being able to charge per hour what most blogs pay per month. If I were charging less, you bet I'd consider a blogging job.

For me the decision was made clear by the company's lack of communication and their arbitrary way of forcing you to accept new terms without any discussion. (In order to post and get paid, you had to agree to the contract or you couldn't get to the upload area of the site. Peachy.) For others, it may be a bit tougher to tell when to let go. I say the blogging job has worn out its welcome when any of these things occur:

- You run out of things to say
- The pay rate changes (and not for the better)
- New, higher paying projects are demanding more of your time
- You find it a chore to carve out enough time each day to post
- You just don't like the job any longer
- You don't feel you're gaining anything from having the job
- The traffic to the site has remained the same and no one seems to notice or care

How about you? If you have/had a blogging gig, what's your bottom line?

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Love it or Shove it?

On Monday's post, Sal asked about a blogging gig he has - "The blog job pays $5 a post for 200 words. I think it usually takes me about 10-15 minutes to crank one out. If that were the case for you, would you do it?" Damn good question, Sal. My short answer was no. I have other gigs that pay much more and honestly, I don't have a spare 15 minutes each day right now.

The longer answer, however, is it depends. Is that job getting in the way of other job opportunities? Given the amount of time he's spending at it, I doubt it. And Sal, correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm suspecting there's no research involved and it's a job where you can set up a week's worth of posts in one sitting. If that's the case, why not? It's five bucks more in your pocket each day. That's one Starbucks venti nonfat chai plus a tip for the barista. It's almost an entire Happy Meal. In other words, it's not going to make you rich, but it's pocket change that makes a small difference.

I don't know how you guys would approach blogging jobs, but I have some rules I follow. If the job is easy (they usually are), if I have the time, if the pay is decent ($5 seems low to me), and if there's a chance to get some real credit in a specific area of writing, I'd consider it. I did blog once. I blogged for a data storage blog. Knew nothing about it when I started, but people actually starting coming to me with questions. Not that I could answer them without looking it all up (and again, is the pay worth all that trouble?), but it was a sign that I'd managed to appear knowledgeable to someone in the field. A nice way to expand one's resume a bit.

What about you guys? Do any of you blog? What's the situation like? Do you feel it's worth it? Would you take a blogging job? Why/why not?

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Heady (and subheady) Stuff

Today's task is to weed through a few interview tapes and transcribe the pertinent info for an article I'll put together and hopefully deliver by 5 today. I've got a system, see, that I use to get my butt in gear and get the goods delivered. It's a finely tuned system that I developed when I realized I was the sole writer on the magazine staff on top of being an editor, and I was expected to crank out as much copy per month as I could (which usually amounted to two main articles and one or two up-front pieces). It's called Get It Done. Here's how I do it:

Write a headline. Mine's really intricate - if I'm writing about financial risk, the headline is Financial Risk. Brilliant, huh? Just put the topic on the page. It's amazing how this little reminder keeps you on track.

Subheads. Ooo, this is one exciting outline! I know, not exactly rocket science, but it's what you put that helps you write the article. I usually write how-to type of articles, but this works for trend articles and just about anything. My typical subheads include the Problem (name the issue you're addressing, such as how crabgrass is becoming the next kudzu vine), the Experts' Take on the Problem - usually a few subheads if they don't hold the same opinion (yes, it's a horrible plague versus meh, it's just a ploy to sell more herbicide), and then the Solution (natural remedies and effectiveness or herbicides and the-planet-be-damned approach). What I've found is that pinpointing your subheads is the best way to focus your writing.

When you label each section, you see what needs to go into that story, and that helps you in a number of ways. If you've not conducted interviews yet, it'll help you determine what you need to ask. If you have, it'll help you weed through the expert opinion and find those quotes that will bring the story to life. And it'll keep you from bringing up extraneous points, such as why herbicides have gone up in price (though this could be reserved for a sidebar) or why mowers make so much noise. It's an outline, but it's not a cumbersome outline. Think of it more as a short list of talking points. And yes, if you find that the story evolves into a completely different area, these things can be changed to suit.

What's your process? How do you organize and get the job done quickly?

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

She Has Heart

Sometimes tragedy gives way to miracles. It has in the case of little Zoe Tanner (whose blog you can reach by clicking on the link at the left of this page). Our 6-year-old wonder spent last night receiving the best gift anyone could give or receive - a new, healthy heart. For those who have followed this girl's experience on her blog or through her Aunt Nikki's blog, you'll know the struggles and the recent turn of events that made this a more urgent need for Zoe and her family.

What a horribly difficult situation to be in - to pray that a child receives an organ that she desperately needs, knowing full well someone has to die in order for that to happen. But somewhere a family who has suffered a tremendous loss took into account that a selfless act was needed in order to reach out and help a nameless, faceless stranger. To that family go my prayers for solace and comfort, and my admiration for making a damned tough choice in the face of the most awful situation any parent can face. Maybe that's why they made that choice - they knew what hell it was seeing a kid suffer.

In the past few weeks I've gotten to know Zoe's situation and read her mom and her aunt's accounts of her stay in the hospital, I've felt this odd sense of protectiveness come over me. It's as though Zoe became my kid, too. She became part of that quirky Internet "family" that integrates your "real" life to the point where you're praying for her at dinner and at bedtime and when that eyelash falls and your kid says "Make a wish" you instinctively wish for a new heart for Zoe, just in case that silly superstition has merit.

Yesterday was another day of such prayers. Today, however, comes the rejoicing and the loud whoops as we read about this kid's struggle being over, and about this new heart beating loudly inside her, making damn sure she's around to tell the world about the time when she only wanted to eat cantalope without being sick.

Congratulations, Zoe. You're one in a million, kid.

More Cash Cows

Don't you love knowing you're not the only one staring at a lonely month of little-to-no work? No, neither do I.

I'm not alone in my concern. My post of a few weeks ago on where to find work is a good starting point, but I love that other freelancers have even better ideas.

Take Susan Johnston's post on Creative Ways for Writers to Earn Extra Cash has some excellent suggestions. Even better - some have fast turnaround and fast payment. Amen.

Men with Pens' James Chartrand has a great article on How to Increase Your Rates For the New Year. While James doesn't say so directly, what better way than to frame it as though it's a sale?

Bob Younce, one of my favorite bloggers, has a great article on Finding Work. He starts with bidding sites, which goes against my particular freelance religion, but he's right - there are jobs and long-term clients to be found there. Just be discerning. Learn to say no to the crap.

Anne Wayman has been providing job listings and advice on her blog for as long as I've known her (and I've known her quite a while). Anything she provides at About Freelance Writing is worth reading. In fact, if Anne doesn't have an article up about it, it's not worth knowing.

How about you? Any tried-and-true cash cows you milk this time of year?

Monday, December 01, 2008

New Month, New Goals

I can't believe it's December. It seems like we've been living with the smell for months now, when it's probably been just a few weeks. The sewer folks were in - confirmed my suspicions. This is a dead thing somewhere in the walls, the ceiling, under the sink. I'm happy to report that the smell has dissipated to some extent. We opened the door to the powder room on Friday and no one gagged. Progress.

So this is officially the start of what we freelancers like to call the famine stage. December is, by most accounts, pretty slow. Work opportunities are lean at the beginning and dry up completely by mid-month. Good time to plan for 2009, don't you think?

Everyone has their own version of goal setting, but here's mine. You can use it verbatim or modify it to suit you.

1. Decide how much money you want to earn. Seriously. Get a number in your head. Write it down. Don't be shy - this is a goal, even if it's a six-figure goal.

2. Figure out how much per hour you need to make in order to reach that goal. I've often planned how much per month I need to earn - whatever works for you. Just decide over the course of the next 12 months, 52 weeks, 365 days what your billing rate needs to be so that you can reach that goal without killing yourself in the process.

3. Reality check - really decide if the goal and the billable amount are going to work. It's okay to say "I want to earn $500K this year." It's quite another to actually be able to by charging $100 an hour. For as you know, we don't always have the luxury of working 8-hour days every day of the year.

4. Modify the goal or the figure in order to match reality. I can say "Hey, this is my million-dollar year!", but am I really going to be able to earn $2,800 a day in order to get there?

5. Set monthly benchmarks. This is easier for me because I don't have time to watch my Quicken charts every week (I'm busy earning it!). I set a monthly goal, which is easy to run through the invoices to see if I've reached it. Most of us know what we've earned in a month. We should. And do we check to see if we've reached them? Hmmm?

6. If you don't earn enough in a month, do something about it. We set the goals just fine. What we don't do is look at our process for finding work if we miss those earnings goals. Think about where your work has come from. Same old places? Some new ones that didn't quite measure up? Then why aren't you expanding into new areas? Why aren't you looking for clients in different industries or at new publications?

7. Search for more (and better) revenue sources. Start with existing clients. It's okay to raise your rates once in a while, you know. If you charge them $50 an hour and everyone else is charging $100 an hour, what, are you crazy? Raise your rates! Yes, you may lose a client or two, but I've found that higher rates doesn't just scare off the low-price shoppers - it brings in the serious buyers.

How do you keep aligned with your goals? What's your process? Do you have a process?
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