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Friday, February 26, 2010

Monthly Assessment - February 2010

Wow, short month! Here we are again, baring our souls and our progress together. It was a very busy month for me despite my dropping a long-time client last month. The income I thought I'd miss was quickly replaced with better-paying work and much better working conditions.

Here's how my month shaped up:

One. Seriously. I sent one query at the request of the editor and scored the job not on that query, but on her "What about this instead?" response. It's a lucrative one, too. Amen.

Job postings:
Haven't even looked at these. I had one sent to me, which I'd seen circulating, so I didn't bother.

Existing clients:
This is where the bulk of my work is right now. I have four regular clients needing ongoing work. That's amounting to nearly half my monthly earnings target. I had a long-time client get in touch and I dashed off a quick project.

Also, this is the month the past clients are reconnecting. Two or three more dropped notes saying business was picking up. One said, "Keep your phone line open." I love it.

New clients:
I found two new clients - or rather, they found me. One was a quick resume job with a very nice person. It was a pleasure making him look good. Another was a potential source of ongoing work. One was a referral from a friend, the other a Twitter connection. Again, I'm loving Twitter.

I talked with a potential client via phone about a project, then had some email conversations this week about the same project, but no formal offer yet. I'm not sure there's one to be made. It's a weird situation in which I think I'm considered the adviser without actually having anyone say "We'd like you to be our adviser." Note to self: clear that up with the client before it goes too much further.

For the first time in a year (I checked) I reached my earnings target. Correction - I surpassed my earnings target. I refuse to play catch-up on last year's earnings losses (that's old news). I'll keep looking forward, trying to improve each month.

Bottom line:
Despite doing no active marketing, I have plenty of work. Word-of-mouth is bringing in work, and Twitter continues to impress me in how much work has come from it.

I need to market more (read that again, at all, etc.). Though I have plenty of work and little idle time, I'd like to increase the per-hour rate and be more selective with my projects. The plan includes emails to clients, Twitter mentions, LinkedIn conversations, and some actual magazine stumping.

How was your February? What worked for you? What do you need to improve?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Raindrops on Roses?

When Julie Andrews sang that song in Sound of Music about her favorite things, it's obvious her character wasn't a freelancer. Either she's an eternal optimist or she's never waited months for payment.

And while there's a place in the world for optimism (a very large place), there's also room for a little skepticism and, dare I say, cynicism. For any of us who have freelanced for a while have heard any number of excuses or promises that turn us cold.

My least-favorite things include:

We need your W9/Social Security number/employer ID in order to cut the check. And you waited a month to tell me? Do you realize that one's been told to me so often I volunteer this now at the outset? And that your accounting department has had that for three weeks now? Pay up and go away - in that order.

Invoice? What invoice? Client, you make me laugh. After the third one hits your in box with litigation notices, you paint that innocent look on and feign surprise that you never received it. A hint - that would work much better if you hadn't acknowledged the first two.

Write this sample for us and we'll decide if we want to use you. Really? Just give you an unpaid sample that's three to ten pages long and you'll think about hiring me? How about thinking about paying me for the sample? Or why not accept one of the hundreds of samples I have on hand? We writers are on to your kind - you're never hiring anyone because you'll just use all those samples and walk away. So just do me a favor - walk away now.

Why did you email the invoice? I was expecting it in the mail! This one made me laugh hysterically, client, because it was your response to my emailed invoice with the litigation notice attached. Funny how you saw that one but not the other two? And since we did ALL our business in email, why would you assume the invoice was coming snail mail? And you thought I'd feel guilty for not reading your mind. I did read your mind, and it told me you were stalling.

We've decided we'd rather not pay your original price for that. That's interesting. You asked for it, you signed for it, and now when the bill shows up you're refusing to pay. It's great that you can make such managerial decisions, but your contractual decision overrides any "rather nots" you can come up with.

It's an easy job for the right person. So that's why the price is so low? Wow. I was wrong about you, client. Here I thought it was because you were cheap.

If I like what I see, you'll be paid. How about this - you pay me for the time I put into it? See, if you really did intend to pay, you'd like what you see because you'd vet your writer, communicate your needs, and take time to work with the writer to get it right.

It's a great job for students and stay-at-home moms. Thanks. Thanks for insulting everyone in that sentence, along with a bevy of writers. You're implying that students and moms don't deserve decent pay, and by advertising in the writing section, you've insulted writers by saying you deserve no more than a kid looking for an internship does.

What are your least favorite things?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Quelling the Beast

What sends fears, chills, and anxiety right into your bones? For me, it's when a client wants to talk about my project results, but not the same day. It's not even that they say it's bad - it's that they say nothing. That's when the voices in my head scream "They hate you! You suck!"

I've had occasion to have a client screech at me "I hate it! It's nothing like what I'd asked for!" Those situations, oddly, don't bother me. Usually the hate turns to love by fixing one or two sentences. Seriously, the more they freak out the less I do. But the nondescript request to talk gets my brain traveling into those places I'd thought I'd buried. You know, those places where I can't do anything right, where I'm sure I'm a big poser in the writing department, and where I don't deserve to hold a pen over a birthday card let alone type anything I get paid for. It's what Lisa Gates calls our harpies - those internal bugs that crawl into our brains right about the time we were feeling pretty good about ourselves.

So how do you extract the doubts from your brain? For me, I try to realize that: I complete a lot of good projects in a month; I can't hit a home run every time; No one is perfect; I can't please everyone. Pick any mantra.

Another way to overcome self-doubt - I open up one of my more successful projects and review it. Also, I'll read thank-you notes from clients, or I'll give myself a "You're good at what you do" pep talk. Sometimes it actually works.

How do you tame the beast?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Stepping Back

I had an interesting interaction with an interview source recently. The project the source was helping with belonged to my client, whom the source knows quite well. Maybe that's where communication went wonky.

There was an issue after the interview that I referred directly to the client. The solution was worked out, or so we thought. I had sent the source a note thanking said person again for the time and extending my delight that things were ironed out. The note back caught me by surprise. Apparently, they weren't. And the source's company was now wanting me to talk with the client on where they think I need to go with the story. And they had a list of people from other companies whom they expected me to interview instead.

I don't see this ending well for said company, for this is not their product and despite their concerns, there's no reason they need to be dictating the scope or direction of the client's product. Nor can they tell me who I need to be interviewing. But this demand (I can't even call it a request) went the same direction their last concerns went - straight to the client.

There are some things that occur on client projects - such as sources wanting control or real concerns about how someone's quotes could be taken out of context - that don't warrant your involvement. When things like these come up, assess your role in the project, not in the issue. For instance, if you're hired to interview people and write Story A for your client and the interview source is getting nasty because you won't write Story B, get the client involved. In this case, I went to bat for the source in order to allow that person a larger role in reviewing the quotes. But it ends there. When the source or the company wants more input than your client wants, step back and let the client deal with it. It's up to you to reiterate the client's approach. It's not up to you to decide for the client or run interference.

When was the last time you had a source or someone you were working with on behalf of your client raise concerns or create issues with you? How did you or your client handle it?

Monday, February 22, 2010

List Maker

Last week was pretty busy thanks to lots of ongoing work and a larger project due. This week is a little better, but one ongoing client is now sending two projects a day instead of one, which makes payday that much sweeter. And it makes a list almost essential for me.

I'm busy today, so here's the list of how my week's shaping up:

- Project 1 (two items) for Client A
- Project 2 (one item) for Client B

Those come first because they get published immediately and in Project 1, the client staggers the publishing.

- Project 3 (three items) to Client C
- Project 4 (two items) to Client D
- Project 5 (9 items) to Client E (these are due every day)
- Project 6 (2 items) to Client F by end of March

If I didn't make a list, I'd go crazy trying to keep up. My new HP computer has a neat "sticky note" feature that lets me post little notes on my desktop (in different colors even) so that I stay on task. I didn't think I'd use it, but that program is almost as awesome as Outlook's calendar function.

I use calendar reminders, too. I'm obsessed with meeting deadlines, so on top of the sticky notes I set calendar reminders to prompt me a day or two before the deadline of some of these projects. With so many things going on at once, I can't imagine trying to remember it all without help.

How do you organize your work?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Hourly or Not?

I make my living writing, but I should get paid for talking. I do a lot of it. One freelance friend and I commiserate regularly (yes, that's the right word) on the ills that befall the profession. We also chat up ideas and tips, including this most recent one - don't quote an hourly rate.

Honestly, I'd never heard this. Yet there it was apparently in some magazine or website post. As he read it, I scratched my head. The notion, according to what he'd read, was that quoting an hourly rate gets clients in the "justify your time" mode. It seems like a pretty logical leap from hourly to that, doesn't it? But in practice, that's not happened to me.

I won't say entirely. Some clients are concerned because they don't have a lot of budget to work with. If they want to hold onto the purse strings a bit, why shouldn't they? We've already had the discussion and talked about their ceiling prices. If they want to forgo this for that, fine. But in cases where this is a new-to-me client or project, no way I'm quoting a flat fee. Let me tell you a story:

Once upon a time, Lori took on a juicy new project. She was to create instructional content - a set number of study hours, which totaled a set number of pages. This was new content, and the client was assuring that the resources were readily available and the work was easy.

You see where this is going already, don't you? Not only was the work nowhere near easy, the resources were like the Mojave - dried up and barren. And the page count? Yea, that wasn't for your "standard" page. No, that turned out to be for a page that equaled 44 lines per page. Check out Word. Single-spaced pages are 36 lines each. And getting 44 lines on that page? I don't know about Word 2007, but Word 2003, if it had referenced it at all, would have referenced something like "What? Are you joking?" Much of my time, my otherwise billable time, was wasted trying to figure out how to manage the impossible. And that was for the content too, mind you. The sources that were so plentiful were outdated.

So that project that I estimated would take 4 months to complete took 8 months. I hired on other writers to help. In the end, I don't think I broke even. So no, I don't think quoting a flat rate is a great idea. Not in this case, anyway.

It's true that sometimes we can make a good estimate on project length and our costs. But it's not always so. My rule has been if I haven't worked with them before, if their project scope isn't easy to determine from one or two conversations, I'm quoting hourly.

Which do you prefer? How have clients responded?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Worthy Tip: Man Up

Ladies, this post is for you. I'm about to give you a novel piece of advice that could save your business reputation - man up.

Here's what I mean. We women tend to be - how shall I say it? - a bit weak in several business areas. Negotiations get us clammy and worried. Client upsets cause us sleepless nights. We get indignant, we fume, but we remain stationary and generally let the clients lead us. Before you know it someone dictates a price to us and we take it without looking back. Take a lesson from the men; that's no way to run a successful business.

I'm not saying we suck as business people. I'm just saying some of us could use a little more work in convincing ourselves that we're worth what we're asking. Our male counterparts already assert their abilities without apology. That's a lesson we should adopt without question.

The most successful women I know understand how to remove emotion, attachments, relationships, and unnecessary fears from their business dealings. In some of my more successful negotiations, I've screwed my confidence to the highest notch and took charge of the conversation, first showing how I know the topic, how I approach it, and what I charge. The last part is as matter-of-fact as the first two parts. It has to be. The minute you waffle when giving your price, they smell fresh blood. Don't start a feeding frenzy. Assert your price.

Show of cyber hands - how many of us have had a client storm onto the scene, dictating our working conditions, telling us what we're getting paid, pushing us to work when we're not able to, and generally running a bit roughshod over us in some form? My hand's up. I've had clients come charging in questioning my rate AFTER having signed the contract. That's not how professionals do business. Since I'm a professional, I'm not accepting that kind of behavior. Nor should you.

It's already tough enough in the market. If James Chartrand's story showed us anything it's that gender bias is alive and rampant. As women, we may have to work harder in order to define, protect, and defend our businesses. So be it. We're tough when we need to be.

So let's pretend emotions don't matter when it comes to our business because hey, they don't. Emotions have no business being IN business. And if you're earning money for your writing, you're in business, so this applies to you. If you have to, adopt a male persona in your head. Pretend you're Thor the Avenger - no wait, that's mine. Would Thor accept $5 an article? No he wouldn't! And neither will you.

I'm kidding about the male persona, of course (unless it works, then it was all my idea). Better is to emulate a strong woman you know. The point is bring more professionalism to your business and less waffling. You're fantastic. Now convince yourself of it and get earning.

Do you feel confident in your negotiations, pricing, business practices? Where do you feel a bit weak? What's your strongest asset?

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The BS Litmus Test

I slept in this morning - for me that means getting up at 7:30 instead of 6:54 (I'm punctual even in my sleep). It felt great. But it was a sleep loaded with odd dreams - foreign countries that looked like my grandparents' backyard, school buses, Indians in saris, friends shouting, toilets, ex-husbands and guns. Just weird. Maybe it was the pancakes we had for dinner - it was Pancake Day yesterday, you know, so we loaded up on banana pancakes. Now I'm rethinking that decision.

Jennifer Williamson has a great post on her site about the things you wish you knew before that you know now. Shared credit to Susan Johnston at The Urban Muse for kick-starting this idea. But Jen said something that floored me - "Preach to the converted." Amen, sister. Those clients who get your business model, who have worked with freelancers successfully in the past are the ones who will hire you and understand how to work well with you.

While it's a fantastic marketing idea, we all know that's not always possible. Sometimes we're taking on the clients who are new to freelancers or any form of outside help. It happens when our converted preach to their friends about this great writer, or when a new client finds our website. In those times, we need a way to vet the clients to make sure we're not landing in something unsavory. Beyond intuition, that lovely gut feeling that this person's going to be great or this one's just nuts, I dissect the conversation and measure against my own goals.

The Project - Is it something I believe in? Can I get excited about it? Is it worth taking on as described?

The Goals - Does the client have a handle on what he/she wants? Can I get the client's goal down to one or two sentences? Does it make sense? When I repeat it back, does the client agree?

The Communication - Does it take a week to understand what this client wants? Can the client answer my pointed questions in a way that I get what he's trying to do?

The People Involved - Can I get a verbal, and then a written confirmation of the involved parties and what their roles are? Is there a sense that this person will drag in a pile of people in the middle of the project that I'll be expected to answer to?

The Payment - Has the client asked "What's your rate?" or said "Here's what we're paying you"? If it's the former, he's in. If it's the latter, it could be a deal-breaker.

How do you measure the client against your goals?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Erasing and Starting Over

I'll admit it - last week was less than stellar for me. It seemed every time I typed a sentence, I mucked it up. Not major mucking up, but enough that by Friday I was afraid to write on a birthday card. I missed a spell-check-induced error, which switched an acronym to a word, which in turn sent the client into a short tizzy. Feedback from another client was that my submission rambled a bit. One client has been incommunicado for a few weeks and I'm more than a little concerned as to why. But I'm sticking with my rule. I ask three times for feedback, then I surrender it to the editorial gods.

Another client issue had a quoted source in trouble - the oversight he thought he had (and I thought he had) suddenly didn't exist and his professional reputation within his company was poised on the brink as a result. I don't care what protocol is for clients - I don't ruin careers because of them. So I spent a few hours modifying the end product in order to save his neck and make my client happy. It worked out, but it was tension I didn't need at the end of a long week full of little tensions.

I had a weird phone encounter at the end of last week in which the caller said his name - twice - but wouldn't spell his last name for me. He's a potential client interested in hiring an editor for a confidential project, so his avoidance of his name, while it put me off at first, made sense after I'd thought about it. While I know next-to-nothing about his project, I know a lot about him. First, he respects other professionals. He asked me what my rate was - he didn't dictate the "We're paying this" line. He asked for estimates based on hypothetical projects, and he guarded the secrecy of his project (and possibly his client) well. That speaks to good character, in my opinion. If he calls back, I'm interested. But that the initial weirdness of the call came as I was trying to slough off a bad week sort of emphasized the heightened level of craziness I'd been dealing with all week. Not that he was crazy - that my week was crazy.

So after my emotional meltdown Friday night, I decided I wasn't carrying that noise with me into the new week. I went about erasing my mental chalkboard and getting rid of the bad stuff. First, I meditated. Nothing settles my brain like a release of the tension, pain, fears, anxieties, and stresses. As I sat there, I envisioned the week I wanted to have this week - I filled my head with confidence, smiles, competence, and attention to detail. Also, on Sunday I attended a baby-naming ceremony in Maryland, which was full of more meditation and singing/dancing. The beauty of that ceremony was the punctuation I needed at the end of my new sentence. This week is better - so far, so good.

So what do you do when you have a lousy day or a lousy week?

Monday, February 15, 2010

Flipping Off Our Favorite Excuses

Anne Wayman had a great post on her About Freelance Writing blog last week about letting excuses go. Her excuses were ones she'd made in just that week, and they showed just how easily we put excuses in the way of getting something done.

And we do that in our careers too, don't we? We stay in that safe little box we've built for ourselves because it's easier than breaking out and taking a chance. We can't do that! We might fail! Yes we might, but we might succeed, too. Why don't we ever focus on that side of the equation?

So let's do something fun. Let's list our favorite excuses right here. Then let's flip the equation and rewrite them. I'll start:

1. I can't finish those book edits because by 5 pm, I'm wiped out.
Flipping it: I have plenty of time after 5 pm to play with my book's characters - I wonder what they're up to these days?

2. If I sent out marketing queries now, I'd never be able to finish all the work!
Flip: I could send queries out now stating that in a few weeks, I'll have some free time and this client could have dibs on it.

3. If I state my rates and stick to them, I'll lose business.
Flip: If I state my rates and stick to them, I'll draw in serious clients who value my skills.

4. I can't write about that - I don't know enough about the subject.
Flip: My lord, how much fun would it be to learn about that and get paid to do so?

So what are your favorite excuses? How would you flip them?

Friday, February 12, 2010

Worthy Tip: Show Enthusiasm

I'll be the first to admit the thought of writing one more workers compensation article appeals as much as root canal without pain killers. But it's information that people in the industry in which I specialize need pretty badly. So I get enthusiastic about the topic. What about workers comp is interesting enough to become party banter?

Okay, not much. But the point is in order to write about something somewhat dry (huge understatement), you have to find a way to make it interesting to you. I do that by finding a new angle, a new topic and a new way to present it. And I get interested in the topic. If I write something I don't want to read, why would anyone else?

I think the same should apply to your interactions with your clients. In fact, this week's worth-inducing tip is to show your client your enthusiasm for his or her project or industry. Talk a little shop. Send a link or two of interest. Thank them again, adding how glad you are to tackle the subject or the project. Don't lie. If you hate the work and are in it for the check, clam up. But if you want to make an impression, reveal that little bit of info on how enjoyable, fascinating, or intriguing the project or subject is.

I had a conversation like that a few weeks ago with a client. We talked a little shop, batting ideas back and forth and generally allowing each other the space to talk high level without worrying about the deer-in-headlights effects the topic normally induces. Yesterday, I get a note out of the blue - "You're a pleasure to work with." That, my friends, is making an impression by taking an interest.

So what are you working on now? How can you show your enthusiasm to your client?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Snow Day

Yesterday was my snow day. It was a day spent shoveling, trying to keep ahead of the storm that didn't want you to win. When we dug from the garage to the road, we turned around and dug back.

Clients were around, but the majority I deal with currently are on the eastern seaboard, so there was a nice lull. I took it as a chance to take care of snow and unwind and regroup a bit. It felt good.

Here's a picture of the view outside my front door. This is around 1 pm before the heavy stuff started to fall. Note that there are hedges buried. The hedges come up to my armpits in height, around 4 feet or better. And where all that snow is in front of it? That's our front walk.

Isn't it gorgeous?

Did you have a snow day yesterday? If not, when did you allow Mother Nature to slow you down?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Ownership Rights

It's uncommon, but it still happens occasionally. I'm talking about sources for stories taking control and giving their version of what's newsworthy or worse, thinking it's up to them to approve the story before you print it. Neither of these are very helpful to writers. In fact, it can become a royal pain in the backside to have to wrestle with third parties for ownership of your article (which technically is your editor's story, but is yours until the bill is paid).

The REAL Story
Those who suggest or insist your story take a different path sometimes mean well, but they defeat the entire purpose of your conversation, rendering it an entire waste of time. Most often this happens at the source-gathering stage, which makes it easy to weed them out. Still, there's the occasional source who answers your first question with "Here's the real story" and then has to be cut off at some point in the monologue to get him/her back on track.

Recently, I did have one PR contact send me his client's info complete with this line: "We need to go one step further in this article and focus on...." Really? You've talked to my editor? She's okay with that? Honestly, my first reaction was to check the name and email address of the sender. The tone was so authoritative I was almost convinced this was my editor's boss. When I realized it wasn't and this was someone wanting to steer the conversation in order to impress his clients, I deleted it.

Worse is when the source himself tries to get you going in the opposite direction. Early in my career I had the displeasure of being held captive by a source who answered my very pointed question with "Here's what you really need to be talking about..." After a few minutes of indulging him and trying to glean future ideas from him (no luck), I interrupted. Or tried to. He raised his voice and sped up his cadence. I tried again. Again, the decibel of his voice went up and he talked faster. By the end of 45 minutes he was shouting and rattling on like a freight train with no brakes coming down a mountain. Eventually he took a breath. It was all I needed. "Thanks for your time, I really must go." I hung up.

The Seal of Approval?
Others have said either at the beginning or end of the interview that they expect to review the article before it goes to print. While most who ask this are content with simply vetting their quotes, one or two others have pressed the point to ridiculous levels. One in particular said "I really can't approve this article for publication unless my legal department gets to review it." Really? So if we print it, it will be without your approval? Works for me. Her insistence on having complete control soon escalated to the level where I gave the editor a call and he dealt with her. He was livid because she'd agreed to the interview and had made no mention of any "condition" prior to the interview. It was after that she decided control was hers to dole out. She found out, from him, how wrong she was.

Who owns your article? Your editors do. In a case where the source expects or demands approval rights, it's your editor's call, not yours. And while technically it's not theirs until they pay for it, in my opinion they own the rights of ownership for the content. That means no matter who's asking, demanding, or threatening, that copy goes nowhere else but between you and your editor unless your editor says otherwise.

And when your source goes off topic, put aside all the etiquette your mother taught you about interrupting people - interrupt. Tell them you can't talk about that because the editor needs this instead. If they insist, it's okay to say you think perhaps they're not the person you need for this particular article. If they keep insisting, interrupt, thank them, and hang up.

Have you had a tussle over ownership? How did you handle it? How did it work out?

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Works Well With Others

Back in the day, I remember having what can only be described as an unhealthy fear of editors. Between my first published clip and me was that editor, faceless, nameless, looming like an evil force with a red pen, just waiting to impale me on my own prose. Yes, it was a pretty deep fear.

Funny what time and experience can do to the attitude. Having been an editor, I now understand what goes through the minds of some editors (I won't claim to know how all of them tick). Editors, especially editors with strapped budgets and barely a staff, want someone to make their lives easier. And we writers are well positioned to be a trusted partner. Here's how we can do it:

Suggest a few ideas. Sometimes editors like options. If you approach them with one idea that doesn't fly, it's okay to hit them with another, but why not offer up two at once? It shows the editor that you understand the focus and the needs of that publication. And it helps the editor to see you're not a one-trick pony.

Get it right the first time. That may mean asking a few more questions up front, but make sure the questions aren't of the "Whom should I call and what should I ask?" variety. Rather, ask if there's a particular contact the editor would like to see quoted or if there are any questions the editor would like to see answered by the article. If you've framed your query correctly, the last question may answer itself, but it's not uncommon for editors to put their own spins on your idea. That's when you

Go with the flow. It's not about proposing an idea, etching it in stone, and guarding it like your firstborn. It's about cooperation and collaboration. If the editor comes back with a twist on your idea, take it as a chance to open a dialogue and do a little brainstorming or quick discussion, letting the editor take the lead on the conversation.

Share additional ideas. Show your editor you're on top of it by sending an interesting link on the subject. I do this sometimes AFTER the article's been published. It works the other way, too. When editors send links for you to consider, comment on them. Recently a client and I had a nice conversation on a link he'd sent. It gives you both a chance to talk shop and it gives you more credibility when you pitch the next idea.

How do you work well with others?

Monday, February 08, 2010

Lessons from the Dark Side

I just realized the other day that I've been in business for myself - freelancing - for almost seven years now. Funny how time flies when you're busy.

And it's amazing the lessons you learn as you go. As I cruised some weblogs last week, I realized there's some reaaaaallly bad advice circulating out there, much of it surrounding content mills. Too many glowing reports of how fabulous it is to make $5 or $10 always makes me suspicious. Are these people telling the truth, kidding themselves, or being paid to tell us that particular version of "truth"? There are other yucky things on blogs - everything from "Hey! You can make five cents a word! Isn't that great?" to "Residual income is the BEST way to make extra money!" To which I say, yea. Right.

But there are some things I'd like to clear up. These points are based on personal experience, not on a rehashing of someone else's idea of what writers and writing are all about.

Residual income is just that - residual. Think in terms of sludge. Know that muck that's left after you drain your hot tub? Yea, that. Residual income can be that unsightly. I put up Google AdSense here (yes, it's here) in 2007. My total income from it in that time? $6.19. Quite a haul, isn't it? Mind you, I chose to keep ads small and unobtrusive. Nothing bugs me more than going to a site so littered with ads you can't find the content. For that reason, the two little ads I have here are probably all you'll see. Maybe I just don't know how to play the residual income game, but then again, my focus is on content. And residual income does mean more than just ad income, but if it means I have to write a 2,000-word article in hopes of posting it somewhere and earning $20, I'm not interested.

After a year of mucking it out, you should be making more than ten cents a word. Let me rephrase that - if you've sold a few articles to credible sources and you've got some clips to show your talent, you're ready to ask for more money. Don't stay in a long-term situation making less than you're worth. It's okay to move on. If you like the clients and the work is easy, sure. Keep doing it. But you should also be looking higher up the food chain. Also, you should know when to walk away from that lower-paying job. If it gets in the way of you earning more money, cut the ties.

No matter how bad your math is, content mill work will always pay less than selling an article on your own. If you cannot add $10 times anything and realize how much harder you're working for it, you're either paid to stump for the company or you're deluding yourself. I've seen people claiming to make $40K or $50K, even over $100K a year doing this. My question - why? It stands to reason that turning out more product means more work. Why not pitch a story idea you're interested in and get paid a LOT more to write it? If you're about to argue how clueless I am, save your breath. My reality is a lot easier to maintain than the one you're trying to sell.

Clients who start out dictating your fees to you are going to control your work process, and they're going to hate any feedback. One dude I worked with early in my career said, "You need to be writing all this down." Imagine my surprise, because what he was telling me was what he'd learned from other people's books. Turns out that's what he wanted to write - everyone else's ideas. He controlled everything, which made it impossible for me to give him the product he wanted. In the end, you guessed it, he hated it and we parted ways in a rather unfriendly fashion.

Working without a contract is like breathing without oxygen. You'll never value the contract you sign until some fool tries to screw you over. I've had a number of contracts save my fee - literally. One dude had forgotten he'd signed it and started to lower my fees arbitrarily. Another decided he'd much rather have his friends help him after all. In both cases, my fee was saved thanks to that piece of paper I'd insisted on.

Lowered priced clients beget lower priced clients. They like you because you're good AND cheap. They'll tell their friends and colleagues the same thing. Price higher and you'll be surprised how the debating of your fee decreases and the nickel-and-diming becomes rare. That's because clients willing to pay more understand that good writing isn't cheap.

What lessons have you learned the hard way?

Friday, February 05, 2010

Worthy Tip: Staying Professional

There are days when I wish like mad I could drop the professional demeanor and really speak my mind. It's on days when clients change contract terms randomly, promise "royalty" payments, expect 50-percent drops in fees, or make you jump through a dozen hoops just to find out the job pays a whopping penny an article. If you're like me, you've had plenty of opportunity, thanks to the proliferation of ridiculous to non-existent business practices of others. Don't bite. As much as they dangle the carrot, attempt to incite argument, don't bite.

Remove emotion. They called you what? Unless they've come to your house and set you on fire personally, don't respond to emotional ploys to get you entangled in a bitter war of words. Extract the emotions. Focus on the facts. When the emotional crud escalates (and it will, for all emotional control games escalate when the target won't play), repeat the facts. ONLY the facts. If it continues and it's clear to you that things are over between you, don't respond. Envision that client as the flame on the end of a welding torch. You'd not stick your hand over that, would you? Don't burn yourself over a stupid, fruitless disagreement.

Suck it up and say...nothing. I'm not saying if your client changes the payment terms you should smile and accept it. I'm saying state your terms, firmly if you have to, cite chapter-and-verse of your contract, and clam up. Just as you're not going to accept an emotional argument, you're not going to create one, either.

Don't fall for the nicey-nice. All about emotions today, isn't it? Well, that sweet client who can't seem to remember to pay your invoice is using emotional blackmail to keep you from sending out that litigation notice. Again, remove all emotion - you're running a business. I don't care if she's your new best friend. She owes you money and she's your client. Act accordingly.

Reiterate your terms. It doesn't matter that your client's just offered you royalties and that's all they have to pay. If that's not in line with your billing process (and it damn well shouldn't be), restate that your fee per hour/project is X and that royalties are not accepted. Don't respond with the "Are you JOKING?" line you're dying to use.

Sleep on it. Many's the client curve ball I've been tossed that had I responded instantly I'd have fouled out on. When your client blindsides you with something unacceptable or just plain crazy, walk away from the computer. If you're on the phone, excuse yourself by saying you need to consider what's been said and refer to your files before responding, then hang up. Don't answer when your emotions are high. Let it sink in, consider your options, then find the best way to respond that sticks to the facts and asserts your own boundaries.

When, if ever, have you dropped the professional demeanor?

Thursday, February 04, 2010

The Payment Plan

Lorraine Thompson has a great post up about the pros and cons of long-term projects on her Market Copywriter blog. She does a great job showing it from both sides.

We talked a bit in her comments section about the other issue with long-term projects: payment. It's not about making sure to get it, but moreover when you'll get paid. Sometimes a project, even one you know is going to take a while, stretches on endlessly in front of you. Having had that happen to me twice (one project went on for two years), I now include specific payment dates in my contracts. Here's how it works:

Ask for a portion of the payment due up front. If you're charging per hour, figure ahead of time your expected final price. Cut that into thirds and bill the first third at contract signing. That gives you some financial cushion should this project monopolize enough time that you can't take on more projects.

Set a midway point. Forget about page count or word count - set a calendar date. If the client expects the project to take about four months, set your invoice date for the two-month mark. Again, put it in writing.

Set a clearly-defined expected delivery date. Again, if this is a projected four-month project, bill that final installment at four months out. This does one of two things - it secures the payment you're due up to that point, and it helps keep your clients' eyes on deadlines. You're only as fast as their responses to your edits sometimes.

Spell out any final payment arrangements. Sure, the project ended in May, but here you are, toughing it out in October. If the clients have been paying you hourly, then it's not outside of reason for them to pay you on a monthly basis any additional work you need to complete beyond that deadline - that is if you're not billing in lump sums and the additional work wasn't already part of your original contracted total.

Some quick notes: Make sure whatever payment arrangement you have includes limits to your time invested or else is billable at an hourly rate. I had one heinous project that was expected to last two months. It lasted ten. I lost plenty of money on it as the contract was a flat fee with no maximum hours attached. The simple solution: quote your flat fee and the maximum rate that applies to, and add that any additional hours worked will be billed hourly and invoiced monthly. If the client balks, offer to renegotiate once the maximum hours are reached.

What's your worst payment arrangement? Any particular nightmares you've had in terms of collecting on a long, drawn-out project?

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Is Mediocrity the New Benchmark?

By now you know how much I hate a typo in a published work. Just visualize any scene involving Linda Blair and a spinning head - that's me when I encounter the little devils. Typos online - in conversations such as these, there's a level of forgiveness. But in books, magazines, advertisements, or anywhere a client has plunked down good money for an editor? Not acceptable.

I was at Borders on Saturday. I picked up a book about the history of the Pittsburgh Steelers. I was thumbing through it when I saw a caption. I slammed the book shut and re-shelved it. If you can't spell the name of the river along which the team has its stadium, give up now. For the record, it's "Allegheny" NOT "Allegany." That just hurts.

He's amused by my rants, and he counters that perhaps in a more culturally mixed society, we have no business arguing for writing perfection. He cites the various foreigners in his company and the emails that are a result of a English-as-a-second-language workforce. He may be right about work settings. But in Borders? I expect more for my money.

I've found typos in my IRA financial statements, in reprinted classics (I nearly teared up when finding one in "East of Eden"), in print advertising, in television ads, in stores, in newspapers, and yes, I found one in The Atlantic, which sent me into a complete tizzy. To the credit of the folks at The Atlantic, I've subscribed for years and this is the first I've found, unlike Time, which I finally had to give up because I couldn't get past the first page without finding at least half a dozen mistakes. And I'm less picky than most people.

Some of my more enjoyable finds:

- The errant "r" that replaced the "l" in the word "election" in the local college course catalog (I removed it in edits)
- A resume client who typed that he received a "premonition" and subsequent raise
- "I dreamed I ate a marshmellow..." - on the wall of the bedding department in Bloomingdale's

What do you think? Is bad grammar ever acceptable? What's your own personal threshhold for typos or bad sentence structure? Where do you draw the line? And what are some of your funniest encounters?

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Listen Up!

Don't you hate when you give advice to someone - advice that you have a particular expertise in giving - and they look at you as though you've grown three heads? But it happens. Despite our best efforts, some of our clients are going to think we're nuts or worse, that their friends' advice is better. And for the most part, there's not a thing we can do to help them at that point.

A while ago I had a client's client come to us for help. I returned a document to him that was concise and explained his particular expertise well. He sent it back with revisions, as the clients will often do (I rely on their help to get things accurate). Only his edits? They consisted of stuffing in every single fact available, relevant or not. That's fine, but his goal was to capture the audience's attention, not overwhelm and bore them. I explained to him that less is more, that I did X to net Y. I wrote A, B, and C because to add D, E, and F would confuse. Alas, he came back with his edits - including those of his friends. In the end, he got all the wordiness he wanted plus a healthy dose of my concerns and reasons why I didn't feel his choice would help him reach his goal. At the point when friends enter the picture, clients go deaf to experienced, paid advice. My goal at that point shifted from helping him reach his goal to damage control for when the project bombed miserably. My concerns were on record. And when he comes back, he gets it done my way. That may sound harsh, but I'm paid to do him right. That means doing it right sometimes to his objections.

But posses, those are a different beast. There are times when common sense defers to pleasing the crowd. I have a "no posse" rule with my direct clients - if a third party becomes involved and I'm expected to answer to it, the contract is voided and I'm due payment in full. I believe very strongly in this - too many times have I wasted precious time and overshot my project fees because someone thought that their squash partners or their office mates knew more than I did. Fine. Hire them. I'm a professional writer with experience talking for me. They're your friends and don't know your market. You choose. But know this - I answer to paying clients, not friends, friends of friends, or relatives of paying clients.

Yet there are times when I can't control the third-party input, nor can I change the client's mind on specifics of the project. In those times, I give those clients very detailed reasons why my approach was chosen, why what they're doing probably won't work, and why I advise they stick with the original plan. After that, they get exactly what they want whether it's good for them or not. I can only warn - I can't lord over them or mother them.

Have you faced a situation in which your client's gone deaf? How do you handle it?

Monday, February 01, 2010

Monthly Assessment - January 2010

Wow. Another month gone by. Can you believe we've got one under our belt for this year already? For me, it's been a busy January - happily so. After a December that was busier than expected but still weak, I was glad for the extra work. Just in time for April's taxes. Joy. Freakin' joy.

Taxes aside for now, it was a month where the business took on a new complexion. Last year at this time I was focusing on magazine work, client copy, and finishing up an unwieldy catalog job. This January, I'm the blog queen. I now put together seven of them, and I love every minute of it. Fun work, great clients, and neat topics.

One of the best things I've done this past month was part ways with an ongoing project that had turned into a huge time sink and decreased pay. There were other things going on that were unacceptable, but those two were enough. Because it offered steady income, I was reluctant, but when I really looked at it, I realized it was well past time. No regrets, either.

So let's get to it:

I've sent out three this month, all to different publications. No answer on two, but one didn't quite make the mark. The editor is new and is still getting her footing, so I hope to work well with her once she's up and running.

In general, I did little proactive marketing. You'll see why in a minute. But that's something I'm hoping to pick up on in February despite the many projects going on.

Job postings:
Right. I don't even look anymore. But I did run across one someone had sent me and applied. Despite having the criteria for the job, no response. I suspect their price didn't match my expectations. C'est la vie.

Existing clients:
Favorite clients were back with neat projects. They came to me, which is wonderful when that happens. It shows we have a good rapport and we understand each other. Had one quickie project and promises of a few more as their budget sees daylight again.

Also, ironed out a brief misunderstanding with a new client, one that had me a little frustrated, but one that was fixed with patience on both sides. Amen. That's opened things up for both small and large projects from this one.

And I now have a signed contract from a long-time client that gives me weekly deadlines and frequent larger projects. I love working with this client, so that was a bonus.

Had a contact from years ago get in touch asking my price and my current status. He then said I'd be contacted because his company is looking for writing help. I'm so thankful he thought of me. I've always admired him and his company's work. Fingers crossed.

And darned if Friday didn't bring one more ongoing project from an existing client. Mind you, the job hasn't been formally offered, but I'm hopeful. It would put me squarely in the middle of my specialty and make me happy as a clam.

Still not up to last year's benchmarks, which are this year's benchmarks, but January is typically slow, so I'm not worried. My targeted goal is just under $2K away and if the above-mentioned projects get going, that will be reached easily.

Bottom line:
Like I said before, marketing was passive this month. That's changing as of today. One thing freelancing has taught me is that the financial picture is built on a soft foundation. You never know when one or more ongoing client projects will disappear.

As with last month, Twitter and LinkedIn continue to be the best source of marketing successes right now. I say right now because as you know, what works today may not work tomorrow. Like never putting all our client business in one client, we shouldn't put our marketing efforts into one area. Just saying.

So how was your January? What was strong for you? Where can you improve?
Words on the Page