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Friday, January 29, 2010

Worthwhile Tip: Stop Apologizing

This week's worth-inducing tip attempts to undo what could be a genetic flaw, but that's never stopped me from trying. Too often writers, mostly those at the beginning of their careers, will insert an apology alongside a proposal. Raise your hand if you've said or typed any of the following paraphrased lines:

- "I'm sorry, but I have no published clips."
- "I know it's not my specialty, but..."
- "Even though I'm a beginning writer, I..."
- "There may be other writers more skilled than I am, but..."

If you have ever made an excuse for your lack of experience or lack of subject-matter knowledge, stop it right now. You're killing me.

True story - when I got my first editor position, I had no clue what I was writing about. My test involved translating a Technical press release into a 500-word technical article. When I handed it in, I didn't say to the editor "I really have no idea if I did it right." I handed it in, thanked him, and waited (okay, I was nervous as a cat in a crowd of dogs, but he didn't know that). Would he have hired me if I'd admitted my doubts? I don't know. I should ask him. But I didn't give him any reason not to. If he didn't like my writing, that's one thing. If he didn't like my self-doubt, that's just my stupidity.

So stop doubting yourself. You're a writer because you possess some skill and talent in that regard. Stop letting apologies cloud your brilliance. And for gawd's sake, don't let others define your value.

Do you still apologize? What's that look like? When was the last time you did? When did you stop?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Checks, Lies, and Silly Red Tape

Some of them are good - very good. I'm talking about the clients and pseudo-clients who cajole us into sticking our necks out or taking on work or working conditions that normally we'd run from. But haven't we all said, "But they were so nice!" Yes, they were. It's how they get you.

By investing in emotional language and pleas, these people can make the most ludicrous situation sound exemplary. Case in point - I was once asked by a very nice man to give him my bank routing number so he could deposit funds in my account on a regular basis. Lucky for me I'm a skeptic. He was sent packing, minus the info.

From negotiations to final drafts, we've heard it all, haven't we? Here are my favorites:

We really need this right away. Sounds fine, but it was delivered smack in the center of negotiating my fee, which they ignored. I don't put out fires without the proper equipment. It's not an emergency to me until I'm signed on to serve, you know?

I prefer to work without a contract. They're so fussy. Paint me a fuss-budget. I prefer to cover my arse. Put up with the fussiness or begone.

I'll pay you with royalties. No, you'll pay me with current cash, not pipe-dream cash. Next!

We need a sample of your editing skills. Edit this chapter. I bet you say that to all the girls. In fact, I bet you say that to everyone who applies for the gig. And I bet those chapters are all different and you're never really hiring an editor at all, are you? Scum.

We never received your invoice. Not any of the three times or even that one you acknowledged and claimed was being paid that week? Wow. Either you have a lousy memory or you're a pathetic liar. Guess which one I'm choosing?

Your payment is late because we've found serious errors in the copy. Oh really? Funny how in the three months after I'd turned over the project you failed to mention any issues. It's an old trick, client, and one I've heard to death. Pay up.

We need to change this part - my friends don't like it. Are your friends being paid to be your writer or editor? No? Then stop relying on nonprofessionals to advise you on a professional project. And find another writer, for you've just voided our contract (no posses allowed!) and you owe me in full.

What are some of your favorite lines?

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Partnering for Perfection

It's been a bit of an angst-filled week so far. One of my newer projects isn't going well, and it seems it's more a matter of I-don't-get-their-business-model rather than I can't please them. The client is hanging in there with me and giving me some additional attention, which is great. I love when we all step back, regroup, and try again. It gives me the chance to make them happy. But I can't help worrying about it.

That's human nature, isn't it? Worrying if you'll please, stressing over it, and pulling out your hair instead of stepping back, exhaling, and trying harder to get it. I'm opting for the latter scenario as stress has never been a good partner for me. And I'm giving this client's projects special attention because I want to please them. It's what they're paying me for. And the more I spin my wheels not understanding, the more billable time I waste. Best to take the time now to get it right.

I don't know if this will work out in the end, which would normally be enough to keep me up nights. And sometimes, despite all your best efforts, your work and your client's vision don't mesh. I would not recommend walking away at the outset, but rather ask better questions. Reach out and say "I need some help here understanding you." If you don't get it after that, it may not be working for either of you. But try. Harder.

I had a client once whose needs were XYZ. I delivered XYZ, or so I thought. The note came back "This is ALL wrong." Okay, so I asked more questions, including what the intended message was. I rewrote based on those answers. The client came back, "Not even close." Turns out their message was changing each time they talked to me about it. I wasn't going to please them. We parted ways, but not before their PR person called with an aside - "It's not you," she said. Apparently, I was writer #4. I said a silent prayer for writer #5.

Sometimes the problem is your interpretation. Sometimes it's your client's lack of focus. If you ask the right questions, you can get to the bottom of the issue much faster. That saves you both time and energy. Clients remember your efforts to please even if they don't get what they expected. Disconnects happen. Life goes on.

When was your last disconnect with a client? Were you able to solve it? What questions did you ask that made the difference?

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Myth Busting

It cracks me up to read writer advice columns sometimes. So many of them parrot what they think to be true without really considering if it holds up in practice. My least favorite: Write what you know. Considering that back a few decades ago when I first heard this advice I was living in the middle of a corn field and knew all about nothing, I failed to see the wisdom in it. That's because there is none, but then, who knew?

There are other words of wisdom being touted from print to blog and frankly, I'm growing deaf from the echoes of bad advice. Instead, let's insert some common sense and see what these myths look like in the real world, shall we?

Wrong way - Write what you know. Obviously if you have a limited background, you realize right away this isn't going to work. Instead, try this:

Right way - Write about what interests you. Always wanted to learn about bungee jumping? Me neither, but the point is something out there is catching your attention, be it the latest celebrity gossip or new barbecue tools for backyard chefs. Somewhere you're wondering where to get information on something. There you go - there's your next query.

Wrong way - Work for free to establish clips. Can you hear me groaning in pain here? Never, I repeat never work for free unless your mother's asking. There is no valid reason why you should give away your talent. If the client thinks enough of your query to hire you, he needs to pay you. So, try this instead:

Right way - Establish clips through credible sources. That does not include content mills. They're not credible. The measurement I use: if they have a defined audience and a real editor who expects good writing, they're probably credible. When in doubt, ask other writers. The bad clients get a fast reputation.

Wrong way - Start with the small markets and don't even think you can sell to big markets for XX years. Nonsense. Good ideas sell. Instead:

Right way - Fit the idea to the publication. This also banishes the myth that you should send the same idea out to twelve publications. Each magazine has a specific audience and slant. Your article on financial reform may fit into Time, but it's not going to fly with InStyle. Do your homework.

Wrong way - If you're not inspired, you shouldn't try writing. Obviously this was written by someone unfamiliar with deadlines. Some of my best work has come from my back being against the deadline wall. Instead, think this way:

Right way - write no matter what. My NanoWriMo experience this year is proof positive that blazing through the writing is a great way to inspire more creativity. If you have deadlines, you have no choice. You can't wait for your muse. You have to grab it by the legs and drag it to the ground.

Wrong way - Set aside enough time to write, or else don't bother. Please. I've written blog posts in ten minutes and have taken pieces of hours to get an article together. Instead:

Right way - Write when you get any time. 'Nuff said.

What myths are you scoffing these days?

Monday, January 25, 2010

Manic Mondays

So far this morning the power has gone out and with these high winds, I suspect it'll be more of the same all day. I'm fortunate that my deadlines are Friday. It's going to be a long day.

It was a long weekend, too. I was on edge - a client had written and expressed some concerns about a small project on Friday, but didn't go into detail. Per my nature, I let it eat at me all weekend. I think I know the problem and I'm sure I can fix it. But what if it's something else? Hence, the weekend had a cloud over it.

The prescriptions are finally working and last night I was able to sleep through the night, cough-free. I hope that's a sign that the week will go well.

I do see a sizable project stalling for lack of client input. So I wait and watch the deadline growing large on the horizon. And it will still need to be completed on time.

But that happens, doesn't it? Clients get too much going on and deadlines they've set have to be moved. Or do they? I've faced it more than once - details on the other side delay my ability to get things done, which means I'm facing a time crunch when things are finally ironed out. I let them know that the delay has affected my ability to finish things as planned. Most are understanding. Some are not and still expect you to meet the deadline. It may not be fair, but they have someone leaning on them, as well. But I try to eke out a few more days so that the work I turn in is what was expected.

What do you do when forces beyond your control push your back to the proverbial wall?

Friday, January 22, 2010

Worthy Tip: Stand Up

Welcome to Friday. If you're like me, you look forward to weekends during the busy times especially. Today I'm floating on the remnants of the wonder-drug codeine and its counterpart penicillin. I'll kill this sinus infection or myself. Either way, I'll not be sick much longer.

Today's worthy tip:

When dealing with client negotiations this week, next week, next month, stand up for yourself. I mean don't go into your negotiations thinking "I don't know what to charge and what if they think I'm crazy/unskilled/untalented/stupid/fat/ugly...?" First, yours is not to care what anyone thinks of you - you have to think you're worth it. If you wear that idea like the best outfit you've ever had, you don't need anyone else's opinion to define you.

But about the what-to-charge question: before you approach ANY client, know what you're charging. Notice I didn't say know what they're willing to pay. Again, that's not up to you. What is up to you is how much you need to make in order to earn a decent living. If you know the exact figure and you know going into a client negotiation that you're charging exactly what you're worth and what you need, you'll be more inclined to stand up for that rate if it's challenged.

And it will be challenged. This is where most writers get antsy, the resolve weakens, the fears chew away at the psyche and their prices drop like the stock market back in 2008. Ask yourself why you're giving in. Is it because you really think this client is right about your rates or is it because you don't want to be rejected? I'll bet it's the second one.

So this is a two-part tip, the second of which is this: don't tie personal feelings into your business. Your rate is not you. It's your business model. If someone doesn't like your rate, it doesn't mean you're unlovable. Love has nothing to do with business. It means you either need to negotiate if you're willing or bid that person goodbye.

So what if they're upset that you won't lower your rate? So what if they think you're a horrible person as a result? You know better because you're not going to let someone manipulate you with guilt trips or other emotional warfare. The price is the price is the price. You'd no sooner argue your grocery bill total than you should let someone argue your fee for services.

When was the last time you lowered your rate because of someone's opinion? How do you handle negotiations? Well? Badly? How can you do better?

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Say Aaaaahhh

This has been the best week. Yes, I've been miserable with this cold/sinus infection, but when I open my email in the morning, I don't tense up or stress. I smile. More signs that dropping those projects was a great idea.

Because I fulfill my obligations, I still have residual edits coming in from this particular job. Yesterday I faced the client who wants to be an editor. She argued that a sentence that started with a preposition was incorrect. The day before that it was the client who wanted me to reassure him, yet again, that his project looked fine. The day before that, the first client wasn't sure she liked a different section in the same project. Piecemeal editor and someone who needs coaching - we writers take on all sorts of challenges, don't we?

I was reading Susan Johnston's latest post on The Urban Muse yesterday. She asks just how free are we freelancers? And frankly, I'm glad she did. I'm guilty of sitting here 9-to-5 religiously, as though the world will stop spinning if I get up and walk away from, well, sometimes Facebook or Twitter. Not all these hours are productive ones, so why do I remain glued to this chair?

I know some of you don't keep set hours. You work when you want to. I'm trying to adopt the same mental attitude, for I think I'm chained here only out of some corporate-induced discipline that makes me think I'm more successful if I'm held captive. It's why I started taking Fridays off. It's why I'm going to get up and get out of here more often.

So what are your working hours like? Are you an over-disciplined corporate-style wonk like me? Do you work just mornings? Just evenings? How many hours do you put in? Is it working for you?

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


I'm not talking about my recovery, but yours. Mistakes, errors in judgment, bad decisions just happen. Sometimes it's because we're inundated with too much work, sometimes it's because we open our mouths and insert our foots, sometimes we take on something we're not sure we can handle. It happens to everyone. How we recover, well, that's the real trick, isn't it?

Last year at this time I was sitting amid six projects, five of which had two-week deadlines. At the same time. My days and nights were blurred, but I got the work done. I was concerned about the quality. Turns out I should've been - one client responded to my "Did it look okay? Does anything need to be revisited?" note with the dreaded "There were errors" reply. Worse, the client's client had caught it, hadn't liked the research I'd dug up, and was calling my client out for it. Ouch. I was sick about it. In this case, there was no opportunity to fix - the client had already sent it on and they'd dealt with it directly. It's one of those embarrassments I'll never recover from because had I not been juggling so much at once, I'd have caught the errors. And the client hasn't called back.

I don't care how far along you are in your career. When you screw up, it sets you back eons in terms of confidence. If it's not your fault - demanding clients, changing project parameters, unruly mobs of people all editing at once - you can shake it off. If it's you, you can't. But the doubt that creeps in needs to be replaced with a process for fixing your errors. If you know how to deliver satisfaction, you could well please your client in the end and give them what they want while salvaging a piece of your reputation.

Here's what I do after handing the project over:

Ask. You can't fix what you don't know about, right? You have to ask. Repeatedly, if necessary. I ask until I receive some response, but only up to three times. After that, I have to assume things are fine. Ask if it was what the client intended, and ask if there's anything more needed, such as revisions or additional information.

Offer. Their deadline was yesterday, but they told you today it's not right. Offer to fix it immediately. This is your reputation on the line - making sure that client is happy is your primary focus (or it should be). Drop what you're doing and get the job done right.

Ask again. Don't think because that second chance came that they're now thrilled with your work. Ask again within a day of the revisions if it's looking okay. If not, have a more detailed conversation with your client. State what you believe to be the project's direction as you interpreted it. Is it in line with what they want? And look at what's expected and the amount of space you have to meet that expectation. I had a project once in which the client expected a full-scale overview of the state of workers compensation - in 800 words. If it had been 8,000 words, I'd not have had the troubles I had. Needless to say that project goal wasn't met.

Be courteous. It could be that you're just not their writer. It could be that the mistakes you made were enough for them to back away permanently. Suck it up, apologize again (professionally - no groveling), and offer to help them find a more suitable writer. Grace under such situations is never misplaced, and that client will remember your gesture. Sure, they'll remember your mistake, but it leaves a better impression.

When was the last time you made a mistake? How did you recover?

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Thump, Thump, Thump

That's the beat hammering out in my sinuses right now. Having had little sleep last night thanks to the sinus infection that's taken over where the cold left off, I'm exhausted. I went to sleep with high hopes - I'd had a good day, little coughing, much healing. Then I made the mistake of lying down. Maybe tonight will be better.

The good news is January is poised to be a pretty terrific month. I've done little marketing because for some reason, the work is finding me instead of the other way around. I woke up yesterday morning and the weight that had been sitting on top of me was gone. The projects that used to suck up most of my morning are now history. Back when those projects were more lucrative, I didn't mind. But when the gig that used to deliver $2-4K a month turned into one in which I did what felt like more work for $1K a month, it had to go. Now I am blessed with time in the morning, my most productive time. So yesterday, I finished a small project and started in on two others.

Two queries went out in response to invitations to do so. I'm seeing social networking really paying off lately, and it's surprising me. I'm not the hard-sell kind of girl, so the fact that people read my blog posts or my tweets and remember little tidbits, again, surprises me. In fact, most of my newer work has come from Twitter or connections to others' blogs. That's sold me.

I have some invoices about to be paid. Good news since the youngest called from college with her hand out. The feedback for newer projects is finally rolling in, amen. I worry until I hear their honest appraisals, good or bad. I can't fix it if I'm not told about it. I had one editor write and tell me her needs for the next month, spell out her approach to articles, then added these delicious words: "The article you just completed is a good representation of this mission." Amen! I hit the nail on the head first time. With new-to-you magazines, you never know.

I will say the recession mentality seems to be shed and clients are starting to spend. Maybe it's the new-year budgets or maybe it's the feeling that holding off on marketing and writing is going to leave permanent scars. Either way, I'm looking forward to the next few months if January's this busy.

How is your January?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Politically Speaking

Maybe it's a new trend and I'm behind the curve, but I've been seeing a great deal of email correspondence, tweets, and bold statements lately from business colleagues expressing their political views in group emails or segmented business groups. Before you think I'm overreacting, know that these are people with whom I've worked but have no particularly close relationship with, nor have I discussed the topic with them at any point. I applaud anyone who has an opinion, for or against mine, but I really don't care. Topics like politics, religion, and stay-at-home status don't belong in messages to your network.

Let me explain - if you're doing business with me, I've formed an opinion and a relationship with you based on our interactions. You and I work great together, and we've found a rhythm that results in projects you're proud of. But wait! You now tell me, in a group email, that you're a member of an underground group that targets various ethnic cultures and singles them out for ridicule because, as you've put it, they're not up to your level of superiority. Sounds nuts, right? Well, that's how some people view the opposition to their own political or religious beliefs. What you may feel strongly about - and more power to you for your convictions - may offend me no end. And vice versa. Unless your market is political or religious or even stay-at-home, it's information that could cloud your client's judgment of you. And we're all judged. If I marketed myself to you as a working mother, would you think I'm capable of addressing intelligently the risk exposures of fiduciary liability issues in the financial industry? Yea, right you would. I am a mother. I do work. But people make instant, harsh judgments on those who cannot separate the two.

One client of mine was writing a political book - her account of her experiences while serving in the state legislature. It was an emotionally charged, balls-out account of her tenure. Not once in our three years together did she ever ask my political affiliation, nor would I have told her. I knew hers - it was in the title of her book. But for me, the politics didn't define the relationship. The politics served as the foundation of her story, nothing more. She never preached her cause to me, nor did we ever engage in political discussions. I simply shared her enthusiasm for getting a great story on paper. I was lucky - she wanted a writer, not an evangelist.

So before you send your impassioned notes soaked down with your viewpoints, think about who's receiving it. How many of your clients do you know will share your views? How many may think you're out of your mind, no matter how right you think you are, for thinking opposite their opinions?

Have you received or seen anything that's dripping in opinion and offensive because of the inappropriate nature of it? Does this stuff bother you, or is it just my personal peeve?

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Showing Up Sick

You may not realize it, but I've been sick most of this week. I caught his cold, which isn't fair - he flies home from warm places and I get to keep the germs he's shared on the airplane.

The last three days have been spent trying to keep my lungs from exiting as the coughs wrack the body. I feel cruddy in the way that coughing uncontrollably and taking too much medicine makes you feel cruddy. Feverish only when I breathe (which is obviously pretty often), but thankfully not stuffed up. Nevertheless, the cough and ensuing laryngitis meant I had to cancel all phone calls for fear of sounding like I was choking Kermit.

Usually if the symptoms are mild, as they are today and were for the most part yesterday, I'll work through it. No one here is catching it - he already gave it to me and the goldfish is immune, lucky bastard. But the laryngitis/coughing fits caused one client no end of upset. The client's client needed a call that day so we could wrap up a project. Sorry, but I can't talk to my husband without a five-minute round of Phlegm Wars. It wasn't happening and I told the client so. The client was upset. Sorry again, but sickness happens. I'd have been of no use without the power to interact or ask basic questions without breaking his eardrums coughing.

It's one of the oddest things we freelancers have to deal with. When we're sick at a 9-to-5, we stay home. Yet when we're sick and work from home, we try to press through. And clients sometimes don't care that we're sick. It can cause some pretty odd upsets and interactions when your physical health isn't regarded by your client. While I'll apologize for the inconvenience, I won't push myself beyond my own abilities. I know my limits. I honor them. Most clients will, too.

Do you allow yourself sick days? Sounds like a silly question, but I bet a lot of you don't. How do you handle your workload when it happens?

Worthy Tip: Finding Value

If you haven't gone over to Screw You! and read Kathy Kehrli's account of her Demand Studio experience, please do so. It's insightful. It's also a balanced report, one in which Kathy herself is upfront and makes no judgments based on anything but her personal experience. It's a good read for new writers faced with making the right choices.

And the right choice is often an elusive thing. Every writer faces the choice whenever he or she faces a new client opportunity. How do you know when a project or a client relationship is valuable enough to warrant your time and energies?

The hours required match the pay. Forget promises of "the sky's the limit!" payment. Figure out how much work you can accomplish per project, without killing yourself or sacrificing quality. Compare that to the fee. Does it pay you more than minimum wage? Does it help offset your healthcare, IRA, savings, or business insurance costs?

The pay rate is your idea or negotiable. If the fee is non-negotiable, that's your first red flag. And it's your first lesson - don't allow clients to dictate your price to you. With the exception of magazine work, you should be the one determining your hourly rate. You're running a business, not becoming someone's pseudo-employee. Business people don't have their prices dictated to them. Would you dictate the cost of your brokerage fees to Warren Buffet? Would you tell your contractor that you're only paying X for your kitchen remodel? Then don't let anyone tell you what your fee should be.

The client is willing to sign a contract that suits you both. Read that again: it suits you both. If the client supplies the contract or if you do, you have to be satisfied with all the terms, not just the idea that this person is going to do right by you. It's a cold fact: some people don't want to do the right thing. Don't sign it if there's anything in there that concerns you. Instead, contact the client right away and discuss it. Negotiate it. If it's still not satisfactory, walk away. There's one person looking out for your interests - you. Act accordingly.

The client values your time and efforts. Disorganization happens. Some clients are just terrible at coordinating. If you're okay with being the one organizing and your client is willing to let you and pay you for it, then it's worth your time. I have had a few clients like this. They're good people, but bad planners.

It becomes a problem, however, when your clients demand instant accessibility or immediate turnaround on projects, but won't pay rush fees. That's the quick way to build resentment, not collaboration. Also, if you've spent months or years with this client and you've yet to hear one good thing but tons of bad things about your work, rethink how much that relationship means to you.

All signs point to a collaborator, not a control freak. You'll know this faster than you think. If there's more talk about "I want" and avoidance or dismissal of any talk of your rate, you'll know. If the sweet voice on the other end of the phone is saying "I'm in such a rush - I need it by Monday" and it's Friday afternoon, you'll know. If the client dictates to you on your first meeting how things are going to work (including your own work process), you'll know. You'll know to walk away.

What are your signs?

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Saying When

No one likes to drop a client, especially when that client has been a steady source of work and income. But we outgrow each other, we move in different directions, and dare I say we bore of each other? By the end of this week, I will have ended a long-term client relationship for numerous reasons, the most disturbing being the sudden expectation of instant availability. It didn't help that the rate was slashed in half without warning, either. I stuck with it through the holidays, but I'm ready. It's time.

We've talked about it before - sometimes we have misplaced loyalties, misguided notions of how important such projects are, and - here's the big one - fear of dropping a sure thing for the unknown. But if you drop a client whose business model or projects don't match yours, you'll not regret it beyond that first sucking in of your breath as you sever the ties.

Here are some signs that it's time to break up:

A significant change in project scope. It used to be such an easy job, wasn't it? However, it's suddenly become a job that requires the sign-off of twelve people or reams more pages than you originally wrote in that first project. Either revisit the contract or say goodbye.

A change in pay without warning. Yea, not cool at all. Even contracted writers get stung by this one. How did the client in question do it? Simple. They introduced "new", slightly different projects, promised less work for less pay, but delivered the same old, same old. So not cool.

More demands on your time. It's okay for a client to have really important projects that require more time and effort. It's okay for you to be compensated for that extra effort, or at least be rewarded in some fashion, such as a contract for more projects. It's not okay, however, for the client to expect hours more time from you for that same lower rate. Something has to give, and it's on the client side that the giving should be expected.

Loose boundaries and gray areas. One thing that struck me in a few previous working relationships is how quickly some clients will blur the lines between contractor and employee. Also, some will insist you work weekends because A) they have too much work and can't get through it all, B) they didn't plan far enough in advance, or C) because they do and so should you. Let me repeat - you are a freelancer. You have an obligation to give your client the expected results on deadline. You are not obligated to work specific hours or give up your free time because someone can't plan or thinks they've just bought a slave.

Options that become requirements. Odd, but true. Twice, I had one particular former client offer up optional additional work. When I didn't bite, I was told that I would receive fewer projects as a result. Does that sound like an option to you? No, not to me, either. Buh-bye.

When do you say when?

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Limbo, Then Sprint

No, I'm not talking about my exercise program. I'm talking about short deadlines that are made shorter by lack of contracts or lack of something on the client side. Currently I'm sitting on two projects, both of which have an end-of-the-month deadline, both of which are at this moment uncontracted. I have notes to both parties reminding them of the current status. Why? Because I don't press forward without written confirmation. And I can't guarantee delivery dates if these clients choose to wait until a few days before the delivery date to send the contracts.

That's not being stubborn. That's sound business practice. Too often writers will think "Well gee, she's nice and she really needs this now, so I'll go ahead without the contract." If you're tempted to do that, don't. See, without the contract or even email confirmation of the terms you've both agreed to, it quickly becomes your word against your client's. Without proof of fees, proof of scope, or proof of any kind of arrangement, you're pretty much dropped on your backside should the work be completed and the client not pay.

If that's too hard to wrap your mind around, pretend the job is a 9-to-5 for a minute. If you were interviewed but no one said outright "You're hired", would you show up at that office and work? If you said yes, there's no hope of helping you here. But if you said no, then consider that your contract is the "You're hired" part of your business relationship - because it is. Without it, you shouldn't assume or be prodded into completing anything. And while the majority of clients understand and respect contracts, there are a few bad seeds who'd love to guilt you into getting their work done and then not pay you.

Have you ever been expected to, or coerced into working sans contract? Did you? How did it turn out? Did anyone ever burn you on payment because there was no contract in place?

Monday, January 11, 2010

More from Less

The news this morning about the jobless rate and the predictions going forward were less-than-inspiring. Ten percent is bad. Worse, jobs aren't just drying up temporarily - they're never coming back or they're moving overseas. Fewer people are doing more work, and it's a matter of time before the collective meltdown of overworked Americans occurs.

As freelancers, we're fortunate in that we can take the load off our corporate counterparts. Because we don't cost the companies benefits, we can get a higher rate. Since one employee can cost a company hundreds per hour in benefits alone, it makes sense, right? So why are we settling for less?

The goal for me, for all of us, is to find work that allows us to work a 37- to 40-hour week or less and still meet our financial goals. So the obvious path is to choose clients whose projects pay us more for our time and talent. If you can secure three clients paying you your rate (which should be figured based on the amount you're hoping to earn this year), you can drop projects whose pay rates are well under what you need to survive. We all have one or two that we do because the work is steady or easy or both. It's up to you to determine if those jobs are worth keeping.

Thanks to more projects coming in this month than I could have hoped for, I'm about to drop a client whose projects went from well-paying to half-pay without warning. Because the work was easy enough, I continued. But it's no longer cost-effective for me. While this may not seem like good client loyalty, you have to understand that loyalty goes both ways. If the client had been loyal to me, I'd have been told the pay was about to drop or had some communication regarding it. I wasn't.

What job do you perform for a client or clients that is lower paying than what you're otherwise willing to take? Why do you stick with it? Is it worth your time and effort? What other benefits do you get from the relationship?

Friday, January 08, 2010

Transitions and Friday Stuff

I don't know if it's the Windows Easy Transfer app or my husband I have to thank for it, but the transfer of all my stuff from the old computer to the new one was so freaking easy it was silly. I have to install programs, which I'm doing in order of priority, but I practically danced when I downloaded/installed iTunes 9 and up came all my music files AND my folder labels. Wow! I thought it would be treacherous given copyright concerns and protected data files. Not so. There it all is. Amen. I'd downloaded three new CDs a week ago. I was worried.

The only real resolution I've made this year (I know, I know, I hate resolutions) was to take control of my time and mental well-being. For that reason, today is a day off for me. It's easier coming back off a long vacation if I pace myself, and that's what I'm doing. I've been busy this week, but I've made sure not to kill myself to get it all done in one day. We have relatives staying overnight tonight and I'd much rather spend the day with them than worry about yet another deadline.

It's been a good week in general. Work has started to appear without my seeking it, amen. And projects long held in limbo are beginning to roll. I suspect the next few weeks will be busier. There's breaking that recession myth to bits!

How's your week back been? Anything new to report? Any concerns you're trying to beat down? What's the climate at your keyboard?

Thursday, January 07, 2010

The Best and Not-so Best

Great day yesterday. I love when I can say that. I made good progress on some ongoing projects, and I'm enjoying very much the work. I got a link to one of my articles and was asked to write two more. Also, a collaboration is shaping up and I'm exciting to be moving into new areas for me. For a Wednesday, not bad.

Today will be spent working on a few new client projects and transitioning all my files from the old computer to the new one. After about eight years, the Dell was outpaced finally by technology needs, but no shame for it. Eight years is a long time for a computer to serve - even with a bigger hard drive and more memory. I need something faster. So files are being transitioned and I'm hoping by the weekend I'll have all my programs on the new computer. I'm excited to transition also to Windows 7 and Office 2007. With just a little time spent on Word 2007 on the laptop, I think I'm going to love it once I learn it.

I will say a rather large, red-faced thank you to Microsoft, which has been the subject of many a rant here. Their Easy Transfer program has just saved me countless hours of physically walking files from hard drive to hard drive. For what seems like the first time (to me, anyway), the company anticipated that people would rather buy a new computer than perform the upgrade to Windows 7. This transfer app was waiting when I went looking. I'll still have to reinstall applications, but the data's there waiting. Amen. I may end up actually liking the company again. Pinch me. I'm still not sure it's this easy.

Since this is one busy Thursday for me, I thought we could get reflective for a moment. So tell me this - what was one of the best decisions you made last year? I'm talking business decision, but if yours is a personal decision, those are welcome, too. Conversely, what decision did you make that you'd take back if you had the chance? You can list a few in each case, if you like.

For me, my best decision included saying no. One client had to be told no because the price I was working at was suddenly called into question - not because of my work, but because of their budget. I walked away. I didn't want to, but I shed my personal feelings for the clients (I really like them) and made a business decision. I didn't regret the decision, especially when they came back a few months later, now willing to pay my rate due to what they couldn't get at the old price.

One of the decisions I'd take back was ever expressing my opinion about content mills. You know how I feel, and have known for a year or more. I should have left it at that. Instead, I opened this place up to scrutiny by those who staunchly support it. That was okay, but what ensued is not. I've been called elitist for wanting writers to expect more from themselves and their clients. That indicates to me that I've not clearly expressed my desire to motivate and inspire others to try harder for themselves. And I let a little too much "They're killing all of us" into my posts. Yes, I'd take that back.

What about you? What were your bests and not-so-bests?

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Freelance or Full Time?

This is not a post about whether you should be in freelancing or stick with full-time work. This is a post about how to tell if your client is paying for a contractor but expecting an employee. I've had it happen to me a few times. My guess is so have you. Here's what your clients can or cannot expect of you, the freelancer:

Clients cannot expect constant connectivity unless you've agreed and been compensated for it. On a few client projects, I've been told I have to be available from "9 to 9", by instant message, Skype, cell phone, and I must be able to respond instantly. That's not a freelance job, folks - that's serfdom. No thank you. If you agree to such nonsense, make sure the payment matches the inconvenience of taking a lengthy call during your daughter's ballet recital or your son's wedding. Or better yet, don't.

Clients paying hourly can expect you to provide time tracking for their projects. I volunteer this for my clients paying hourly. It's one more layer of accountability I can give to them. When I'm working on large projects, I will insist on tracking time. It protects their investment and helps me to better allocate my hours in future projects.

Clients do not need visual proof of your attention to their projects. Strange as this sounds, a few freelancers I know have had clients watch them via their computer screens to make sure they're working on their projects and to track their time spent on each project. Let's forget about the Big Brother implications here and focus on what's important - you are NOT, repeat NOT a full-time employee. If you complete your client's project on time and within that project's scope, that should be enough. Any client unwilling to trust you to get the job done is not worth your time and effort. And to watch anyone, employee or not, that closely is just creepy.

Clients can expect you to meet deadlines. Yes, you're free to set your own hours and your own working conditions. But if you've agreed to a deadline, you'd better meet it. Arguing after the fact that the deadline wasn't realistic or that you had things get in the way is unprofessional and smacks of amateurism. Deadlines are your bread and butter. If you need an extension, don't assume it - ask for it in advance. Well in advance.

Clients cannot demand exclusivity in all cases. Here's where some of us freelancers will part ways. I'm of the very strong opinion that noncompete clauses for freelancers are impeding our right to earn a living, but that there are exceptions. For example, saying you can't write for competing magazines is a ludicrous demand if the company making the demand is not willing to give you ongoing assignments as a result.

However, in some cases you may want to exclude yourself from working for competing companies to avoid any conflict of interest. I won't work for competitors if the work I'm doing directly affects any of my clients' interests. It's rare such a situation presents itself, even within my specialty, but I have turned down clients for that reason.

For instance, I can write for two competing magazines since most magazines don't share identical visions or slants. However, I will not work for Company B writing marketing pieces that depict my existing client Company A in any disparaging way. I'd much rather refer the job to someone else than call into question my integrity with my current clients.

While clients may agree to the initial rates/working conditions, they cannot change either arbitrarily. Oh, haven't you had this happen before? You're steaming along per usual on a client project when the client says, "Great work, but I'm not able to pay you per our agreement." Tough beans, client. If that client agreed in writing to your rate, that client owes you that amount and nothing less. If the client wants to renegotiate future rates, fine. But no take-backs on the current rate. That's something even an employer can't do to an employee.

The same goes for clients changing the project scope. If you're contracted to write a news release on the latest upheaval in the financial market and after you deliver it, your client decides he'd much rather have a release on the importance of estate planning, that's a new project. You are owed for the first one. The second one is now up for negotiation on a new contract. Seriously, do not allow clients to change the parameters of your project and not pay you for another project. If you do, you set a dangerous precedent. Imagine writing six different releases on six different topics for one price because your client can't decide what news is most important. Often, clients are used to working with staffers and changing things as they go. It's up to you to educate them that each new idea requires a new contract.

Has any client crossed the line either on purpose or inadvertently? How did you handle it?

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Turn the Beat Around

There's an earworm for you. But it's something we should all remember, for I'm about to go out on a limb and make a prediction. I predict that within the year, content mills will lose a lot of business - so much so that many who own them will see the futility of the business model.

It's simple math (coming from someone for whom the words "simple" and "math" don't quite go together). Mills use their reams of content to increase page rankings in search engines. That's a pretty good model, right? Only the more content mills that enter the competition, the more their content cancels each other out. Floods of articles on things like how to get paint fumes out of a room may put your content mill on the first page, but given the content I've seen coming out of those searches, we surfers aren't sticking around to click on your ads. (As an example, that article on paint fumes had the uber-useful advice "Some people say using coffee grounds or vanilla will take the smell out, but I haven't tried it so I don't know." At least everything was spelled correctly this time.) It's a waste of time and after enough times being burned, we surfers learn your URL and avoid it.

Should you believe my predictions? Sure, why not? It's not about any ability I might have to predict the future -it's about you buying into the outcome you want. When you believe it, you tend to remove it as an obstacle or aim for that particular outcome. Try it.

With clients returning at my rates (and yours) and with more people considering quality over price, I believe things are about to cycle back. It's that belief on which I will base every client interaction and project fee. Inserting confidence can only benefit the bottom line.

What signs of turnaround have you seen?

Monday, January 04, 2010

Your Learning Curve

Kimberly Ben over at Avid Writer has a great post up about the stability of a freelance career compared to a 9-to-5 job. In the comments, Kim said something incredibly insightful: "... if it weren't for freelancing I wouldn't have half the skills I've developed over the past two years." Ditto that.

As freelancers, we're thrown into the business of writing and/or editing, but also into the business of running a business. We learn everything about business. Here are some of the take-aways from my six and a half years at it:

Dealing with all sorts of people. Good, bad, nasty. They've all crossed my in box and I've become a stronger business person as a result. I've learned there's no substitute for a professional demeanor no matter how hostile, difficult, or insulting the other person gets. You can't replace your professional attitude once you drop it.

Building business plans and goals. It's possible to conduct business without a plan or a goal, but it's not possible to grow a business unless you define it and assess it constantly.

Taking care of taxes. Yes, I hate them. Yes, the IRS amends my returns regularly. But I've learned to start with Schedule C every year, to keep detailed records, and to pay quarterly taxes only after I've calculated my actual earnings that quarter.

Saying no when I need to. I have turned down about one-fourth of the offers that have come my way. I've not regretted it in any instance. Staying true to my instincts and my personal limitations has helped me avoid potentially awful situations.

Protecting the business revenue. The hardest thing you'll ever learn to do is stand up for your rate and protect it like it's your child. But in order to conduct a viable business, it's a must. Setting a rate and sticking to it means saying no, means looking for clients who aren't afraid to put quality ahead of price, and expecting to be taken seriously. That last one's the tough one - you have to take yourself seriously enough to expect your rate in order for others to take you and your rate seriously.

So what has your career taught you?
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