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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Monthly Assessment - September

Here we go again - another month, another assessment of the marketing and business plan. And once again, I invite you to share your own results, be they good or be they not so good.

It was a bit of a transitional month for me. I had just returned from vacation two weeks prior and was tied up with a deadline on a large project, so my absence and lack of marketing in that time showed. Not much new going on at all until this week, when I was contacted for a new ongoing gig.

Queries:
I sent out six targeted magazine queries, none of which has garnered a response even to the follow-up email. I'm tempted to return to snail mail in hopes that someone will have the decency to at least send back a "No thanks" in the SASE. Since I shifted my focus from magazine work a few months back, this wasn't my primary marketing area anyway but damn, why can't editors at least say "No thanks" in email?

Job postings:
I applied for only those jobs that passed my stink test: no language that indicated low pay, no hiring "writers", no low-paying gigs, no high volume. That left just a handful, and of those only a select few were interesting or challenging enough. In all, I applied to four job postings. No results yet, either. No surprise.

Existing clients:
I lost a client by choice, and I don't regret it. Having freed up that time, I soon scored that ongoing job through a contact I'd worked with in the past. This has some decent earning potential, which is going to help next month's total look that much sweeter. Also, an ongoing client gig has seen an upturn in projects, so I was able to invoice a bit more this month than the last three. Thank God. I was beginning to wonder if the mall was hiring.

I contacted about five clients each week to say hello, to ask if there's help needed, to send along a news item, etc. The goal is to stay in front of them and top-of-mind should a project come up. Also this week, a small note on my availability I'd left on LinkedIn prompted a long-ago contact to reach out and say he'd be in touch. That's using social networking effectively!

Earnings:
I don't have the heart to tally it, but I can say it's dismal. In my head, I'm seeing half my targeted amount, which has been on par with other months post-recession. I won't use the recession as an excuse, however. It isn't one.

Bottom line:
I'm once more revamping my marketing approach. What isn't working will be cut back. What is will be stepped up. With three ongoing gigs, I'm less inclined to spin my wheels with magazines until their budgets return (if ever).

How was your September? What did you do that worked? What didn't?

Waving Goodbye

As I pull in a rather lucrative ongoing client project, I wave goodbye to one I'm glad to see going. (I have amended some of the facts so as not to embarrass those who are guilty, though I don't know why.) I took it with the promise from the client that related projects would pay much more than the main project. When the client began fussing a few weeks back about the already agreed-upon price of one of those related projects, I knew it was time to cut ties. I will not work for folks who change the rules as we're playing. No thank you.

The main project (Project A) was small. It required research and for what I was being paid (a shamefully low amount), it wasn't worth it. The only saving grace was the related project work (Project B), which I priced fairly and within standard market guidelines.

Here's where things got ugly, however. Three or four Project Bs in, the client, who didn't understand the intrinsic differences between projects, said he couldn't understand why Project B cost more than Project A, actually devaluing in very abrasive terms the time and multiple edits I had to put into each Project B. In the same breath, he said we'd have to correct the difference in price. No discussion with me. Just "Change the pricing."

Ignoring the contracted terms, in my opinion, is the instant death knell and the biggest no-no on the planet for any project. It made his next move - trying to disguise an obvious Project B as a Project A - almost expected. And I nearly laughed after seeing his posting for my replacement while I was still working on his latest project. Yes, work ended instantly. I don't work for people who pretend to be big-time players while arguing every penny they pay me, nor will I work for people who behave in an underhanded fashion or ignore contract terms because they decide they don't like them after all. If you don't want to pay my rates, say so and move on. Don't waste my time. You don't pay me enough to even want to pretend to play these games.

I bring this up publicly because I think there's a lesson to learn here. Taking on clients who don't value your worth is taking on a constant struggle. You will always have to defend your prices. You will always have to assert contract terms. You will never get what you're worth from someone who doesn't value your services from the outset. Bad client behavior aside, this client didn't want to pay what good writing is worth. He lost my writing (and he praised the Project A writing I did for him) and he's now looking for someone who will give him the moon for the price of a stick of gum.

Clients - if you want talent, don't be afraid to put money into that talent. This client will now search for someone who can write to his specialized niche audience, which will require an industry knowledge that some have, but that very few will be willing to utilize for such crap wages. I did it on the promise of other projects. The minute those project fees were called into question, I realized there was nothing more in it for me. The business relationship must benefit each person in that relationship. If your writer charged you $10,000 for a blog post, you'd feel cheated. Turn that around - if you pay $10 for a 10,000-word blog post, your writer would feel cheated. Act fairly and receive fairness in return.

Writers - just don't take the job if the client won't pay you what you're worth. Even if they dangle the carrot, know that they're going to rethink it later, for they're too cheap now to pay you fair wages - why should any other project warrant better treatment?

What job have you waved goodbye to lately?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Going to the Vet

Today I start work with a new client - ongoing work. Can you hear me cheering loudly? My goal has always been to work with at least two ongoing clients. Amen that I replaced the last one whose budget dried up. This work, for now, will be steady and lucrative.

Travis brought up an interesting point in the comments section of my last post. He said we should always vet our clients. I couldn't agree more, Travis. But many writers don't. Many writers, sad to say, grab anything going. They're chasing the check. I've been done doing that for years. No, now I hunt down quality and interesting topics. The money follows, as that is also part of the criteria.

I've preached this here before, folks, but it's time to revisit. You cannot build a lucrative, strong career based on hit-and-miss jobs. If you're taking those more often than you'd like to admit, you need to work on your business plan, for you're approaching your entire career on a hit-and-miss basis. And I'd lay odds you've not put one iota of time into building any business plan.

Every writer's business plan will be different. That said, I'll share the criteria that goes into mine:

My yearly income goal. Without this, I'm shooting in the dark. I settle on a figure based on last year's income and what percentage increase I need in order to meet other goals, such as saving for a house, retirement, business expansion, etc. And hey, a raise, because most employees get raises annually, right? Why not the writer?

Per-hour wage. The amount I want to make annually has to boil down to a per-hour rate. Otherwise, I'm not going to know how much to charge (simple, yet don't we forget to do this the most?). I have to know that charging $XXX will net me $YYYY each month or I'm just spitting into the wind and hoping it doesn't come back to haunt me.

Marketing strategy. Oh yes, I have one. Oh yes, it changes. These are the living, morphing entities within the business plan itself. This one plan-within-a-plan makes or breaks the career. It's the one I give the most time and thought to. And I revisit this every month (right here, too, when I share my monthly assessments) to see how my efforts match my goals. If it's not working, I revise. Often.

Targeted clients. Here's the defining factor. I know who I will work with and who I won't. Occasionally an unknown will enter the picture - unknown as in unvetted and untested - but generally I know my clients, even those I haven't worked with before, by knowing what they look like. It's like this -

the pay + the industry + the type of work + the workload = my client

I know my minimum acceptable rate. That's the first measure. The industry (and my knowledge of it or interest in it), the type of project, and how long they give me to complete the work necessary are all the deciding measurements once they make it past the price factor. And the price is key. I guess you could argue that I'm chasing price, too, but in this case, I'm targeting the rate I'm chasing, not just looking for anything. It's a calculated goal and one I'm not willing to compromise. Nor should you be.

So what goes into your client vetting process? Your business plan? How do you improve your game plan? What works for you?

Friday, September 25, 2009

An Open Letter

Dear Clients Who Want Me to Work for Nothing:

How do I say this? You know when you hired me you were getting the best possible writing out of me. I wouldn't give anything less. But lately I've had something on my mind, something that's uncomfortable to bring up, but I can't ignore it. Clients, we need to talk.

For as much as I'm extending myself to you professionally, I'm getting the sense that you're not really understanding the value you purchased. Yes, I'm a writer and to you writers can be had for pennies compared to my rates, but that's the thing. You can't have the same for pennies because no one has the same skills I do. And frankly, you get what you pay for.

I've worked myself up through the ranks. From newspaper work to some pretty high-end technical magazines, I've cut my teeth, learned different industries, and sharpened my writing and editing skills. In the corporate world, I'd be commanding some pretty high rates. But clients, some of you think the rates I charge are unjustified. In one case, you actually said you couldn't see the difference between one form of writing and another. Yes, you actually said it. No, I didn't go ballistic.

That's not how we professional writers behave. Instead, we tell you why we're worth more. We show you why prices, which are indeed set in stone sometimes, vary among projects. As professionals, we know how much work something requires.

Our profession - and make no mistake, this IS a profession, a career - has seen a lack of inflation that would have people from your line of work in shock. That rates haven't gone up in the 15+ years I've been at it - and sadly, well beyond that - shows how little value you place on our skills.

So I'm afraid from this point on I have to inform you that I'm vetting my clients. That's right. I'm working with people who understand that writing, like accounting, like construction, like any other trade is a skill set that's acquired through education, practice, and raw talent. I will not work for clients who do not understand that $20 per project is less than minimum wage. I will not work for clients who nickel-and-dime me, ignore contracted rates, try backhanded tactics to get me to write a higher-end piece for the lower-end price (and you thought I wouldn't notice?) while trying to position themselves as financial experts and industry leaders with tons of capital. I will not work for clients who are not willing to invest fair wages into a writer who produces targeted, compelling copy. I will not accept less for my work than I deserve.

I hope you understand, clients. I'm a business person. As such, I must follow my business model, which takes into consideration all my expenses, my profit margin, my skill set, and the industry standard for my skills. If your business model has not been built considering standard wages for each contractor you require, I suggest you revisit your business model, for mine has been carefully planned and I have no desire to deviate from it in order to accommodate bad planning.

I wish you luck. I also wish you the business sense to understand that value comes from hiring someone with knowledge and skill and paying a fair wage - it doesn't come from hiring the cheapest one you can find and working them to the bone. While you may believe that writing is "easy for the right person" or "simple," it takes only one encounter with a writer who charges much less to understand that value, sometimes, is in paying the going rate.

Best wishes,

Your former writer

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Upping Your Game

If you regularly work the $1-an-article jobs, ignore this post. Better yet, leave freelancing and get a "real" job that pays minimum wage - you'll be light years ahead of the game and we won't have to keep preaching to one more person why that kind of "work" is sucking the life out of journalism. No, this post is for serious writers intent on increasing their career potential. Unless you're up for some drastic change, just move along.

Sound harsh? Good. I've mamby-pambied you too long. I've held back telling you what I think for telling you what I thought would make you hear the message. Fact is you're not listening. Oh, you're reading, you're agreeing, but in the end, you're still letting other people dictate your pricing structure, aren't you? If so, this post will probably fall on the same inertia as any other I'd post begging you, cajoling you, trying like hell to convince you that you're worth more. You are, but if you're not ready to believe it, I'm wasting my breath.

For the rest of you, here's a checklist to help you find more value in your product and maybe more markets for your wares.

Identify your strengths. Good old-fashioned brainstorming here. Make a list of areas in which you feel especially comfortable/confident. Press releases? Copywriting? Book editing? Specialized writing? Pull from the experience and find something that could be your forte. You have one; you just may not realize it yet.

Write for yourself. Ever think "I can't get on the phone and market?" Perhaps if you write a script, you could. Or maybe write one of those brochures or postcards you've been meaning to get out. Write something this week that's a totally self-centered pursuit - write a marketing piece you intend to use to grow your business.

Contact seven people this week. Seven. That's all. You can talk to seven people, right? One a day, then three another day. Simple. If it's an existing client, send along an article that relates to their business. If it's a new contact, introduce yourself (soft sell here), your specialties, and offer to call at a convenient time to get to know them and their business. At this point, it's about meeting them and building a relationship - not entering into contracts and talking pricing structures. Oh, and follow up on each of these seven people next week, when you'll hopefully be contacting seven more people.

Become a detective. While you may think you know all the places you could send that article proposal, you're probably missing plenty of untapped markets. Search a key term on the Internet, sift through a Writer's Market guide, pay attention to those websites promoting "Free magazines!" for new markets. Likewise, compile a marketing list from searching company contacts in your industry specialty.

Ask for referrals. When you finish that job and the client's over the moon for your work, ask them in writing if they'd pass your name along to clients. Include a V-card in your email, which should be an email thanking them once again for their business. Or do it the old-fashioned way - send them a handwritten note with a few business cards/Rolodex cards for them to pass to friends.

Set your price. Lord, I don't know how we writers expect to get any street cred when we won't set our rates down on paper! Yet we don't, do we? We laze around with this number in our heads and the minute a potential client pauses, we're ready to drop that number in lieu of one that pleases a complete stranger. Try this - please yourself. Set your rates based on your intended income and your expenses. It's a business you're running, not a free-for-all. Write your prices down, print out a price list, and paste it on the wall. If clients ask, give them your price, which is the price. It's not the starting point. For you, it has to be written in stone or you're going to cave. Consider it an immovable object.

That's a start. Some of these things you may already do, but it's a matter of being consistent with yourself. If you put the mileage into it, you'll find your own surroundings looking better. Oh, and if you're one of the cheap-o writers who stuck with it and read through to the end, congratulations. There's hope for you yet.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Plagiarism Explained

The ad read:
"Seeking a writer to create 12 business start-up how-to articles. Articles target couples thinking of starting a business together, explaining everything from picking the right business to marketing and more. Articles should be approx. 3 pages in length."

I applied. The response came. It read:
"These projects pay $6 per page (approx. 420 words / page). As a guestimate, I may need 20 pages from you, but let me confirm this with the others first. In most cases, you'd need to Google to find source articles/posts to blend & rewrite to 60% original. Then you would add a few sentences you think will give the piece more quality thinking / a good flow."

I responded:
"While the payment is quite low and I wouldn't normally work for such rates, that's not the larger issue here. Revising someone else's work to "60% original" does not sit well. It's unethical at best and certainly rings of plagiarism. There's no mention of citing the sources, which is a big no-no, and according to the AP Stylebook, writers can use only a small portion of another's work, with attribution, without being guilty of stealing another writer's work."

The next response read:
"...nothing I do is plagiarized. If merely copying someone else's work was my goal, I wouldn't need to pay anyone else to get involved. I'm afraid you don't know the entire process, only the set up that I was asking you to handle. There's quite extensive work that I do to edit and improve what's you would have given to me. If you had re-worked it to the extent I asked, I then would have had something fairly unique with which to do my own deep embellishes and improvements. Nothing I consider a finished piece could ever be claimed by anyone else. I pay people to put enormous amounts of time into it, and I make in-depth quality changes and revisions myself."

It's still plagiarism.

And "enormous amounts of time"? For six bucks a page?

Right.

Does no one understand that if it's not yours to begin with, it's plagiarized?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Funky Town

I'm in a funk today. When work is completed and the desk is thin with more work, I get like this. But I'm not going to dwell on it because it's boring. Keeping it short today.

I saw my parents over the weekend and my mom was relating a story about someone from her class. At her reunion recently, this friend was listed as deceased. That troubled Mom, so she had me check the obituaries online. Nope, she wasn't listed. Mom worried it a bit until I suggested she just call. She did. Her "deceased" friend answered. Mom made like nothing was wrong so as not to embarrass her, but obviously someone got it wrong.

At the next reunion meeting, Mom was relaying the story to another classmate. Apparently the woman who'd listed her friend in the first place overheard and became adamant. "No, she's dead! I know it!"

Mom responded, "Well I just talked to her a day and a half ago. It may have been her daughter's obituary you saw."

At that point, wouldn't you say "I'm so glad" or "Oops" or anything like that? This woman said, "No, I know I saw her obituary. I know she's dead! She's been dead for five years!"

My question to you - when did people become so intent on being right? Here's a woman, faced with good news that also proved her wrong, and rather than be thankful a friend is alive, she argues it to save face. Did anyone care? Not beyond hearing the good news they didn't. It's like the guy who argued what my own name was - it becomes all about not being wrong and nothing about actual fact.

Anything weird like that ever happen to you?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Going Professional

Amie over at Written Expressions has a neat discussion going about talking about someone else's work in a negative light and getting called on it. We've all done it at some point, and some of us have lost jobs (well, there were other things going on there, but yes, I did lose a job), lost face, or dented the reputation a bit. People do remember the good things, but did you ever notice the one screw-up, the one thing you do that's out of your expected character sets you up for a long haul of making amends and erasing? That is, if you can erase it.

There was the encounter I had with a dude who did work for me. The arrangement from the start was I was to get the work for free and he was to bill a third party (a business association) for the work as they had contracted him. The work was done and it was great. But a year later, I got an email from him saying he'd seen my site. I sent him a note once again thanking him for all his help. The note back, well, it wasn't cordial.

He accused me of theft. I'd stolen his work because I'd never paid the bill, he said. Worse, he went on to trash my professionalism, bit by bit. He called names and he told me not to ever refer him because he didn't want my name associated with his.

What I did was what I was taught by this same business association. I called them, forwarded his email and let them handle him. I did send him a note telling him he was mistaken in who owed him money, mentioning also that I'd never received his invoice, and asking him why it took a year for him to alert me to it. I went no further. I sure as hell won't ever pass his name along, but not at his request. He acted horrendously for a so-called professional, and I never received any form of apology for his misunderstanding and aiming his anger at me. No way I'd subject anyone to that, no matter how good this guy was.

There's a man whose reputation will never be repaired in my eyes. But there are other encounters that have had some tension, some sort of bad behavior or missteps, that have turned out okay in the end. In most cases, I've continued to work with these folks, but I keep a sharp eye out for any impending issue.

My own reputation took a hit when I tried negotiating with a client whose pay scale suddenly changed. My congenial nature went right out the window, for we'd agreed to one price and he was now saying another price (thank God for contracts). In that case, my rep went south a bit as I asserted our contract terms and he got angry because I wasn't giving in. I was justified in sticking to my guns, but it still dented my rep, for he's sure to talk to his colleagues. That's why I keep emotion out of everything - if all they can say about me is I'm unreasonable because I won't budge on price, I can live with that.

My lost job years ago - long story involving several factors (including a heavy dose of sexism, in my opinion). But I did act badly in email (note: never vent your anger in emails. They live forever). That was the catalyst that allowed them to walk me out. That I had my desk cleaned out a month prior was an indication of the atmosphere and my knowledge that they were looking for excuses. But my rep there - gone. No way I'll recover from it, even if I wanted to.

So what about you? When have you lost a bit of reputation? How did you recover? Has someone whose worked for you lost some credibility because of bad behavior?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Banding Together

Some very interesting discussion is going on over on the Certified Professional Writers Association on LinkedIn. What options can we choose to help improve our profession and stabilize earning power among the ranks? I highly suggest you join the discussion (and the group - group leader Leon Sterling is a staunch supporter of protecting freelancers' rights and wages).

Part of the discussion revolves around how to receive respect among the business world. While talk began around unionization (no, we're not pro or con it - just talking about it loosely), it quickly morphed into developing an association that helps writers formulate pricing, tap into professional writers' experiences, and perhaps gives some type of certification process to bring more bang behind our titles.

I'm taking today off, but I'm looking for your opinions - what would you like to see in a writing association? This is a free group to join. What would you hope to get from a group as an added value to your career? If there were a certification process, what would you hope to learn? I guarantee any process I'm part of would have training in pricing, marketing, and conducting a business from a business mindset.

You? What would you like to see?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Client Boo-boos That Become Yours

I was listening to a friend lament about a client who is a blamer. Apparently this client, a woman, doesn't make mistakes, nor does she forget anything. My writer friend knows this because the mistakes and forgetfulness of this client are passed right down the food chain into said writer's lap. I sympathize. I've been there, too.

In a few cases, I've had concrete proof that my client was wrong. So I did what any professional would do - I sat on it, sucked it up, and moved on with the project. It doesn't matter if I take the blame for some minor mishap - a missing paragraph that wasn't sent, a missing chapter that again, never got sent to me, or even missing edits that are on my side, but not on the client's side. If the blame inflicted on me is not threatening the project or my status as the writer/editor, it doesn't matter. What matters is the missing or erroneous info is found and we move on.

That's because when I mess up, I don't want anyone making a huge deal out of it. Therefore, I don't, either. On a more recent project (another third-party one, so no one knows I was the writer), the client passed along word that she knows she'd already sent that information to me. She sent it, but not without the blame. Fine. I get where this woman is probably coming from. In her existence perhaps she has a food chain order and to remain in her spot, she's got to dodge a lot of political volleys. She's not unlike a number of corporate clients you and I have, I'm sure. For her, the blame has to be someone else's in order to survive and save face. For me, it's no big deal. If push came to shove, I could defend myself. But it won't because I didn't push back.

I mention the genders here because I do feel it's somewhat of a factor. Women in business are prone to needing to prove themselves not only to the men in the company, but also to the other women, who are also trying to prove themselves. Do I think it's solely a female issue? Hell no. I've had men do the same thing, but they do it with much less emotion attached. "You're wrong - get it right." Women are more likely to justify themselves. "You're wrong. I'm right. I did, you didn't."

No matter who's blaming you for what, try to take it in stride. Only those battles large enough to affect your reputation, your work status, or your client's project should be taken on. Who cares if something that's easily replaceable got misplaced? It may dent your ego somewhat, but consider your client's position - bosses, teams, customers all lined up ready to blame your client. Some things are much worse than taking the heat for one minor item in a larger project outcome.

Have you had to bite your tongue? How'd that work for you?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Using Scammers as Bait

My guest blog is over at Devon Ellington's Ink in My Coffee today. Go on over and check it out.

Here's a new one - I received a message on my phone last week, a bit convoluted, but basically the caller was asking about an organization I was part of (?) and mentioned he wanted to contribute. The only organization I could think of was the one in which the question of the legitimacy of my client reached legal proportions. Not wanting someone to travel down the wrong path, I called the number back. Before I did so, I checked the number out - a lot. I went into that call with a boatload of skepticism and suspicion. For all I knew, it could be the same dude.

I explained without implicating - the press release in question was for a now-defunct (thanks to legal authorities) foundation that may or may not have held a legitimate purpose, but under the guidance of someone with a rather questionable past and now an arrest record. I told sketchy details of the alleged activity, and started to thank him for calling. That's when he decided to start "selling" me on HIS foundation and HIS good deeds. Puh LEEZ.

It's a first. I do enjoy my work because of the firsts I experience, but some, well, I could easily live without. This one is in that "live without" category, for this guy was piggybacking off the "shameful" (as he put it) behavior of this now-defunct organization and yes, there he was, asking me to donate my time and money to his unknown organization. Sorry, pal. Your story, your pitch, was WAY too familiar and hey, I don't care about you or it. Do I sound heartless? Good. Perhaps then you and your kind will stop pestering me and wasting my time and worse, tying me into your schemes that smell badly from the outset. Want to know the best part? He'd forgotten that in his initial call, he asked to donate to MY cause (perhaps pay my bills? I don't know). That he quickly switched to how I could help him - yep. Red flag waving wildly in front of me. At this point, I was figuring him to be about as legitimate as crop circles.

To alleviate his talking, I had a phone meltdown - "Hello? Are you there? Hello? Hello?" Click. Yes, he called back. Several times. Thank God for voice mail.

So if you're reading, dude, prove to me you're legit and we'll talk. Until then, I'll wait. I've got nothing to lose by ignoring your urgency - your fire is not my emergency. Rather, your fire feels a lot like a third-degree burn you're intent on inflicting upon me. No thanks.

I knew that experience with the arrested client would eventually come in handy.

What lesson in your writing past has come in handy?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Value-added You

Maybe it's because work has arrived again. I went cruising a favorite job listings site yesterday, but I couldn't bring myself to apply to anything. In one job listing in particular where price wasn't mentioned, I knew by the wording that it would be a huge waste of my time to A) craft a solid query, B) hunt down and attach appropriate links to my work, C) price out the job based on two lines of copy, D) get the inevitable "Who do you think you are?" email when they get to the fee, and E) waste time educating one more business wanna-be who has no idea of the value of my services or that he/she is the one playing stupid games and wasting my billable hours.

Like I said, work has once again arrived on my desk. I finished a huge part of a large project, with only minimal amounts of work remaining to complete before that invoice goes out. Another project is finally at the payment stage, and I got a call from a long-time client yesterday wanting to talk with me at length about "a number" of projects and possibilities. These are folks I cultivated beyond any job board, so the projects are indeed paying competitive rates.

What both of these clients have said about my work and how I operate is my reliability and my professionalism. In one case, the work is specialized, so I received a few comments from this client that my work was in line with his client base. That's golden to me. My entire business model is based on gaining clients in my chosen area and delivering to them exactly what they asked for, only better than expected. That, friends, is my value-added benefit.

Value-added, like value proposition, is a buzz word. Anyone who knows me knows how much I hate buzz words, especially ones that suck the life out their own meaning. I hear them and I can feel my spine getting all contracted and tense, much like the reaction to nails sliding slowly down a chalkboard. But these buzz words are, unfortunately, acceptable descriptions of what we offer that's above and beyond that of our competitors. They are the gravy on top of our already tasty skill sets. (The trouble is you can't tell your clients "Here's my main dish and this is my gravy" without watching them run for an exit, but I digress.)

Each of us has a benefit unique to our business. Without naming names, one of you specializes in math. Another is a huge horseracing fan and writer. There's at least one former medical editor in our midst, and I'm sure I saw one of you who is a damn fine copywriter. Another could be a travel writer specializing in hotel operations. Still another...fill in the blank. What do you have going for you that no one else has delivered? Given my experience trying to hire a writer, I'd say you're eons ahead of the game if you can follow simple directions for submissions.

So what extras do you bring to clients? You've had to defend your price to those sleaze-ball job posters in the past. How do you tell your potential clients "Damn it, people, I'm worth it and here's why"? What's your why?

Monday, September 14, 2009

The New Etiquette

Maybe it's just rotten luck, that there are too many email filters, or that people move around more than their email accounts can keep up. There's a reason why my emails to editors with story ideas go unanswered. For every ten emailed ideas I send out that aren't used, I get zero responses. And it's beginning to tick me off.

Before email and Internet (was there ever a before?), the old protocol was you as a writer read closely the editor's requirements and met them if you expected your query to be considered. Everything from addressing the editor by name to including a self-addressed, stamped envelope had to be performed. For their part, editors would respond using the provided envelope, letting you know yes or no to your idea. It was a system that worked because everyone in the process did what was expected. If you didn't, you didn't get an answer. If the editors didn't, you were allowed by that same protocol to send them a follow-up or call their offices.

Where's the etiquette with today's type of correspondence? From where I sit, it's nonexistent. The only times I've had responses was when my idea was too interesting to overlook (or frankly when their budgets allowed them a freelance story or two). I send out my best, still following their rules, making it easier via electronic means. Nothing. Nada. Zip. I'd totally understand the lack of response if I hadn't sat on the editorial side of it myself. Yes, you're busy. Yes, you're overworked and doing the work of more than one former coworker. But it takes you all of one minute - sometimes less - to type a quick note saying "Thanks, but we can't."

It's not that there's an excessive amount of email queries. As a former editor at a trade publication, which are the publications I target, I got a small handful of email queries a month. I wasn't inundated with them. My managing editor probably got more, but she never indicated it was any problem. Trades just don't draw the masses of freelancers like consumer pubs do.

This is a new etiquette I don't like one bit. I take the time out of my day to craft a good query, hunt down appropriate clips, and address editors by name. They ignore the email. Miss Manners would be all over them for their lack of professionalism. They're probably saying "We're busy!" Well, since busy people can't seem to organize their own schedules appropriately, here's what I'm going to do.

I'm going to continue to follow the snail mail protocol they set up pre-Internet. I'm going to send emailed queries, follow up, and even call if they're not responding. Then I'm moving on. See, at some point when the recession ends, budgets may return (if the publishing world doesn't go entirely belly up) and these same editors are going to want some articles written by people who know their industries.

Think the balance never shifts? I was at a conference once in which risk managers were in the sweet position of hand-selecting their insurance companies, for the market had finally tanked and these same companies that had drawn strict lines in the sand and had cancelled or turned down business from this very crowd were in the unwelcome position of asking for their business again. I had to stifle a number of grins and a few guffaws while watching CEOs being taken to task by their former customers in one particular round table session. Their arrogance of just a year ago stripped away, the CEOs were jumping through hoops to perform some major damage control. So yes, the status quo can, and often does, alter to put the underdogs on top for a while. And underdogs, like elephants, have long memories.

It's a matter of professionals treating each other with mutual respect. While the editorial side of the equation may indeed by holding the balance of power, editors still need to rely in some small part on the writing community to fill pages and help sell magazines. At some point, I believe, this cycle will upend. Editors will have their budgets back. The only question then is will they lose great writing because they couldn't be bothered to build a relationship in the tough times?

Have you sent out email queries lately? What's been your experience?

Friday, September 11, 2009

How Low Can You Go?

Irreverent Freelancer Kathy Kehrli has found yet another Get-a-Clue Freelance Request, which offers a whopping $5 for a 500-word article. I don't know what's more disturbing: the offer or that Kathy's repository of lousy offers appears bottomless. She's been exposing these requests for years and each time I think I've seen it all, she brings us one just a little worse than the last.

Obviously writing anything for $5 is a lousy idea. But inevitably, we have to make a decision - how low is too low for us? Here's a no-nonsense way to gauge for yourself what your boundaries are.

Can you work for more elsewhere? For some reason, newbies especially don't make this critical calculation. Will you make the same or more per hour than you would working a minimum wage job? No? Then why would you bother? Let's understand that insanely low-paying job postings do not benefit you. Ever. Actually, it could tag you as an amateur, especially if you're relying on gigs like this as clips. Legitimate clients are not interested in working with a writer who has slapdash clips that are obviously churned out with no real purpose.

What are your counterparts charging? Look around you. Ask questions. Take the advice of working, respected writers. Emulate the very writers you envision yourself to be. Charge like you mean it. You'll lose the low-paying customers, but you'll gain real clients and a lot more respect.

Did you find the job or did it find you? It's the difference between being passive and proactive in your career. Usually (not always), when you cruise the Internet job boards (and don't you dare pay to view job postings), the employers are finding you, seeking the lowest price and the highest talent quotient. It's an uneven, unfair measurement of what you're worth. No employer should set your price unless that employer is giving you benefits. You are a business - you determine what you charge. Otherwise, you're giving control of your business model to someone else. Take charge of your own earnings - learn how to market yourself.

How do you determine your bottom line?

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Street Cred

I won! I won! Yay!

Thank you to Maria Schneider, her blog community, and you guys for naming this blog one of the Top 25! Head over to the Editor Unleashed blog and see the other cool choices. Many are new to me. One in particular is a favorite - The Urban Muse. Congratulations to Susan, too!

At our writer's group meeting last night, one of the writers mentioned her recent certification in an area in which she works. She wasn't required to certify, but she said in this market, she's not turning down any chance to look better to the next employer.

So that begs the question - what do we, freelance community members, get from certification? Should we certify? In what? And how much does cost factor into the certification? My thoughts:

Certify when it makes sense. If you specialize, certify. I say this and here I sit with one certification to my name in only one of a few areas of concentration. But it's on my short list of things I need to advance the career. If you're writing in a financial industry, why not be certified and trained? It gives you a notch or five more credibility when the clients come looking.

Certify if you can get mileage out of it. Here's my thought: If you can get one certification that applies to a number of areas, why not? I'm thinking of a risk management certification. That applies nearly across the board into finance, insurance, environmental, you name it, for all industries rely on risk management to identify and cover their loss exposures. So if you can get certification in fiction writing and you're interested in writing for children too, go for it.

Certify if you're willing to amend your resume. Not all clients care that you have a certification in employee benefits. If you're writing a story about fashion, best to leave that off your resume. Relevance will dictate who sees what in your background. The concern I'd have is being viewed as someone who jumps around too much. Frankly, we all know the nature of this business and we all have more than one interest area, but some clients can be fussy about it.

Certify if you want to build a network. What better way to meet like-minded clients than to attend certification classes, network events, and trade shows? Certification shows your interest in their business. From my experience, they love being around writers who know their industry and are just as interested in it.

Certify if you want to. Not everyone thinks it's a good idea to have extra training for one facet of the career. And unless you specialize solely in one area, you may use that certification sparingly. It's up to you.

What certifications do you think you need? Do you think it's important to have that additional credibility?

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Here Comes the Sun

It seems the work reappeared right when the school buses did. I'm inches from swimming in it again. Fantastic! Given the fact that I didn't get much marketing in, this is great. I now have three regular gigs and a number of others coming that are going to make it a nice fall/winter.

I was teaching my Vietnamese student English last night, as well. I found some great lessons on teaching meaning by using context. She was able to guess at all of the answers, which empowered her a bit. She felt smart. We all want that, don't we?

Too bad the woman working at the local Kmart didn't want to help someone feel that way. It was a minor thing to the rest of the world, but it really set me on edge. We were in the store waiting our turn at the customer service desk. She was waiting on a Spanish-speaking man, who had limited English skills (not uncommon in my area). He needed help with his lottery tickets. She didn't see her role as helper very well. As she grabbed the second lottery ticket from his hand, she said rather loudly, "Try learning some English."

I saw the look on his face. He understood that much. After he left, she turned to us and said, "I'm sorry, but if you're in this country, you need to speak English." My husband explained how difficult it is. I myself was standing there, mortified. Yes, I'd heard that complaint before, but not from someone working with a customer. If I were unable to speak at all, what kind of patience would she have with me? I mentioned that I taught foreigners English and it wasn't so easy to pick up a language. She actually said, "Yes, but if I'd go to their country, I'd learn their language." Would you? Would you really? Or do you take that cruise to Cabo and strut around their beaches expecting English-speaking people to wait on you? Please. Spare me your holier-than-thou attitude. Yes, Kmart received a letter. I suggested they put her through diversity training and perhaps start a program where their associates teach foreigners English.

Back to the teaching through context idea. If you had the chance to make your readers feel smart, wouldn't you try it? In my work with high-level technical terms and concepts, I've had to "dumb down" copy in the past. However, even this copy has to hold enough technical information to inform and teach. Adding terms that allow readers to understand it through the context in which you present it is a great way to bring them into the idea without confusing them. They learn a new concept. You become the writer they want to read. It's a win-win.

It's simple. One of last night's lesson sentences was this - "The girls couldn't have been more different in how they dressed. Patty didn't care how she dressed, but Paula was quite chic." My student learned what chic meant, and by using it as a multiple choice term, what stylish meant. Watching her figure it out was fun, because it was obvious to her what the answer was. When you're learning something new, it's great to feel some victory over it.

Mind you, teaching executives risk management terms requires a bit more complexity in the sentences, but you can use this technique just as easily to convey difficult ideas and bring your readers along with you.

Ever try it? Ever come across it? How often do you read something that teaches you by the context of what's said? Any other writing methods you like to use?

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Falling Short

Faceboook wisdom - sometimes no matter how hard you try, some people still suck and you can't please them. It reflects one or two less recent situations in which the client (a third-party client in these cases, so no worries of embarrassment) didn't care to instruct or amend or even help us understand. Instead, she insulted, blamed, and took part in a bit of virtual stamping around and pouting. The sum total of her efforts? Zero. All that fussing and fuming got her exactly to the same point we had her in the first place. It wasn't until she calmed down enough to answer very pointed questions that we made any progress.

A writer friend of mine commented that once he'd tried making an excuse for a boss who was acting up. As he made excuses, his coworker said, "Why can't it be that he's just an a-hole?" Why indeed.

I'm a big believer in people behaving a certain way at a certain time for reasons beyond our knowledge or control. I like to try understanding it. But there are some times when that gets me spinning my own mental wheels. Sometimes, people just enjoy acting like jerks. That's reason enough for me.

It happens - personalities don't always mix. Genders don't always mix. Communication styles vary to the point you'd think some of us are speaking in tongue. Sometimes clients just love to shout. It could be that as children, their shouting got them what they wanted, or maybe they were shouted at and think it's the only way to light a fire under people. Name callers are the worst - the minute you start that with me, buh-bye. I will not tolerate a client who will call me names or label me ineffective because the project's first draft isn't quite what they're looking for. In one case, the name calling and fussing and fuming - it was over one sentence. One. She practically broke blood vessels in both our craniums over it. Two pages of great copy torn to shreds over one sentence. And happily, she amended that one herself. I don't stick around when people are hell-bent on abusing others.

Damn the contract, damn you commitment to finishing what you started. It's okay to drop a client who can't act like a professional. But do yourself a favor - when you sever the relationship, give a clear reason why and do your best not to place blame or fall into that same pattern. For the woman who screeched, I told her I felt our communication styles were too varied to continue. Sure she insulted me, but that's taking business personally. I stuck to business, which was we weren't going to work together because what she told me did not equal what I gave her.

What do you do when a client acts up? What's the worst you've encountered?

Friday, September 04, 2009

Marketing or Content Dumping?

Good friend Kirk Petersen sent over a link to a blog post touting using one's blog to market. Great! That's what we do here every day, right? The difference? The blog post was paired with a photo of a woman who, if she's not careful, could end up with a major chest cold. Her attributes were apparent, as was the message. Or wait - was the message apparent?

It's a post about a lot of thrown-together ideas, one of which is paying writers to write your blog posts. Here's the post in its entirety, but Kirk had pasted the gist of it in his note. It reads:

"You may shy away from blog marketing because you feel that you might not be a good writer, or simply don’t like to write. This is understandable. But the truth is that many blog marketers nowadays don’t even write their own content. They pay someone else to do it.

"In fact, you can pay someone else to write dozens of articles to keep your blog going. You can come up with ideas if you want to, but you can just as easily give your writers a broad general topic idea and have them come up with streamlined topics for blog entries. The best course of action is truly up to you, but paying writers to craft your blog entries is not expensive and may save you trouble in the long run."


Let's just guess how much the person who wrote that gripping prose was paid. But the idea that you can get "dozens of articles" written and that the cost of a professional writer is "not expensive" irks me. Yes, I've known for a while that this type of marketing "strategy" is the reason the writing profession has taken such a deep hit in the pockets. But the thing that is escaping entirely those writers who take these jobs - who exactly is your client?

How many articles must you write for some dude who wants to make $50K a year on residual income before you realize he's making the money and you're not? This is someone who doesn't know good writing if it ran him/her over. The copy you're providing? Yea, that's not exactly clip-worthy stuff. It's not just the way in which you write - it's the topics about which you choose to write. That all matters to the legitimate client.

At the moment I write for four blogs. All are on specialized topics (not generalized schlock). I get paid quite well for three of them. One is, in my estimation, underpaid. But in all cases the topics are such that any future client would see them and know I'm capable of handling her project. And I've not been ashamed to use any of them as proof of published work.

How do you know a quality job from a lousy one? Start with the pay. If it's not enough to buy a pack of gum, it's not worth your time. Quality clients aren't looking for bargains - they're looking for someone skilled enough to get their project done correctly and on time.

Also, if the client is using the content purely as a driver for all the ads on his or her site, you're not exactly associating with Fortune 500 crowds. In this business as in others, it really is about who you know. Your client's intentions will reflect on your resume whether you realize it or not.

Artwork - let's just say the woman's photo on the blog post instantly categorized the content in the "believe at your own risk" column. Anyone using t-and-a to get their message across has a very weak message. Ironically, I did see the point the author and writer was trying to make (the editor in me rewrote the thing as I read). But the wording and presentation were enough to repel me permanently from believing this was anything more than cheap, lousy marketing bordering on a "become a slum employer!" message. Don't associate yourself with someone who resorts to cheesecake to get the message noticed. That's a person who won't show much interest in paying you for good prose.

Thoughts? What are your red flags?

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Gender Bent

Fun post today. A little break from the writing-related discussions we usually have. Well, sort of a break.

We were shopping for a microwave yesterday (and a hard drive, but this story is about the experience with the other necessity). The store clerk, a woman, greeted us, then assaulted us with reams of information. My husband, who can't stand excessive chatter (yet he married me?), halted her when she started reading off what the buttons on the microwave clearly said. "We're going to look around." We spent about 30 minutes in the store pondering and opening microwave doors.

At a few points, we had questions. Reluctantly, we approached Chatty Cathy. She gave us the information (and a bit more than we needed), but she directed her comments to me. That's fine, but I didn't ask the questions. This had also occurred before he had stopped her mid-sentence. Interesting.

We pondered it in the car. Was she guilty of gender bias? Was she seeking a connection with the only portion of the equation who hadn't put her off? Was she distracted by his good looks? That's what I thought. :) It didn't matter. The fact that she couldn't assess her client and adjust her pacing to meet his needs cost her a sale and left a him in a mood - one that will cause him to look elsewhere for the next appliance.

Devon Ellington is experiencing the opposite situation in her dealings with Apple over a faulty laptop. She feels her gender is getting in the way. The company seems less intent on solving the problem swiflty, instead possibly viewing her as a woman who has little knowledge of computers. If that's the case, that's damn disturbing. But it wouldn't surprise me at all. I've had the same things happen. The funniest (for me, not for the salesman) was when a 20-something Toyota salesman showed me the car and then said, "And look at the pretty emblem." I couldn't help myself. I said, "Yea, that's great, but what kind of torque does this engine deliver? What's the top RPM? Does it come in turbo?" It was a lesson he learned instantly - don't ever judge the abilities of your clients based on looks and gender.

I notice on this blog we have an uneven ratio of women-to-men in the comments. I wonder why. I appreciate all of you, but I'm curious as to why there are fewer male commenters. Any ideas? Men, feel free to enlighten us.

In my work, I have an equal number of male and female clients. I work equally well with all. And yes, I've had problems with clients in both categories. What I've never done is turn down work based on gender, even the dude who told me about the few years he decided to live as a female. (We turned him down because he was clearly breaking boundaries at the outset.)

I have had a few male interview subjects withhold a bit until they realize I know their industry. Is that gender or is that the insular nature of the industry? Hard to say. But it's refreshing when you can hear in their voice the recognition - hey, she gets it! Many an interview that started on shaky ground ends with conversations that veered off the immediate topic and bordered on industry gossip.

There will be times when all of us will be judged first (and maybe finally) by our gender. Taking offense won't help. What will help is acting professional and showing enough knowledge or interest to bring that client over to our side. Likewise, gender should not be the primary determination of how we approach our clients (though to some extent, don't we use it?).

Thoughts? How does gender affect your interactions? Does it matter? Do you find yourself treating men differently than women? How? Have you ever been treated differently because of your gender?

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Technology Bytes

It's a good thing I don't rely on my laptop as my primary technology. I turned it on over the weekend and out came this noise. It would seem the disk drive is dead. Now how it died while I was on vacation, no one is saying. I suspect it was dropped, but I'll never know. But there you go. First the microwave dies, and now this.

And only when it's gone do you realize how much you need it. Like right now. I have a large project that is quite portable. Yet I can't get up from the desk right now. It's substantial enough that I devote at least 5 hours a day to it and once you get going, you can't really stop. But again, I'm chained to the desk.

And the desktop? Yea, it's eight years old or older. It's great for the small stuff, but when I have a bigger document with formatting, the repagination function bogs me down - sometimes for ten minutes at a stretch. I've got a work-around that's saving me a good bit of time, but it's not the perfect solution. The perfect solution is a new computer.

Despite my wanting a new laptop, I'm opting for a more powerful desktop. The current laptop, in theory, can be fixed. For $200 I can have a huge hard drive and a whopping amount of memory. The laptop itself isn't four years old, so it's worth saving for the little bit of stuff I expect from it. I save ALL my laptop info to a memory stick, so nothing was lost, amen. Laptops, I've heard, are much more prone to dying faster than desktops. I don't know. I've had both go ka-flooey on me.

Amen that the info is on the stick. But sticks die too, you know? So how do you protect your info? An external drive is great, but if, as in the case of our own Inkthinker Kristen King, the laptop AND the external drive die at the same time (did one die of a broken heart? Hard to say), you're pretty much screwed.

I use an online backup. It's a 2G freebie from Mozy. For a few extra bucks a month I could upgrade to an unlimited amount of space. Maybe I will. The more places I have the critical stuff, the better.

How do you protect your data? What's your backup plan? And what are you - desktop or laptop?

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Losing Your Comfort Zone

In a weekend conversation, we were talking about the times in which we had grown in our lives and our careers. In his life, he took an interest and went after it. In my life, I went beyond my comfort zone into new areas. In both cases, we grew. In the case of careers, same thing. He and I have always agreed that in order to be a better artist or creative person, you have to extend yourself. Gather up those experiences like shells on a beach. You know, reach beyond what you already know.

How do you do that, you ask? For me, it took traveling, joining things, trying new areas, and reading like books were about to disappear forever. I moved (no, you don't have to), and I built a new base somewhere else. I built new friendships and found new hobbies. The travel was probably the most enriching, but not far behind was the volunteering at the food bank and the teaching of English to foreigners. If you don't want to/can't travel, volunteer. Nothing opens your mind to other worlds like seeing it through someone else's experiences.

While you're doing that (and enriching your life a bit), you're also building up a more interesting base from which to write. That's not important just for fiction writing, either. Nonfiction writers need just as big a well to draw from. But if you're not convinced or can't really see the correlation/opportunities, you may need a little more of the extending going on.

Try this - sit down today and find one area you've always had a fascination for and read something about it. Then think of how that could translate into an article. Don't search with the notion that this is something you have to translate into an article. Search with the mindset of "I want to learn more about this." That's all. If an article idea comes to mind, go with it. If not, you've just extended your knowledge base.

Same goes for writing for different industries. Often I'll see writers say "I never did that, so I had to turn the job down." My question has always been "Are you sure that was a good idea?" Sometimes the mental blocks we put up aren't valid. I remember my writing test for a magazine job I was sure I wouldn't get, sure I didn't qualify for. I thought "What the hell" and put together a quirky little piece on restaurant duct fires with info from a press release. I nailed it. I was hired and now I had to crank out articles every month on topics I'd never heard of. It's now become my specialty, and I can't tell you how it's made me grow as a writer to take on unfamiliar territory.

Some topics you'll never see me take on - hardcore math. I'm terrible at math. Three college tries, so to speak, before I could pass that class. But here I am, writing for CPA publications and finance magazines. Uh, have you guys seen my checkbook? It's because I don't have to calculate. I can understand the concepts just fine, and they're interesting. It's my way of tackling math indirectly. But that first job - yes, I was more than a little concerned about the outcome.

It's okay to know when something won't fit, but only if you've tried already and haven't really enjoyed the experience, understood it, or liked it. Don't say "It won't fit" unless you try it on. Seriously. You could be wrong.

So take a class, volunteer, join a writer's group, attend business conferences, go to that Twitter tweet-up, and expand a little. Pick up a habit, like going to the park/mall once a week and studying people's habits as they walk by. Read a new magazine - start with The Atlantic or The Economist - and delve into new subjects. Meet new people, interview old friends to learn more about them, develop a mentality of seeing all this great stuff outside your current comfort zone and wanting to try it. You won't fail - how could you? You ask questions of experts and learn from doing. Even if you decide it's not for you, you've already accomplished more than inertia will ever get you.

So how do you extend beyond your current boundaries? How have you taken interests and turned them into career enhancements?
Words on the Page