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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

What We Don't Do

An open letter to clients -

Dear Clients:

We writers love you. We appreciate the trust you place in us every time you hand us your projects and agree to pay for a higher level of service. We do that, too. We match your project needs with your voice, your intended message, and your audience. With your help, we're able to give you what you need.

However, there are limits to what we can do for you. Let's talk about those for a minute.

We don't design. I know it's sometimes tough to separate the fact that writing and design are separate - they appear together on the same document. But my expertise is crafting your written message. I can't design your brochure, website, newsletter, or billboard. I just can't. And believe me, you don't want me to. My design skills haven't progressed beyond stick figures. What I can do is recommend a few good designers. Just know that my invoice for my work has nothing to do with the designer's invoice for their work. Two separate businesses, two separate invoices, no mixing of the two. Unless the writer advertises as both a writer and designer, it's not happening.

We don't help publish. Again, the expertise here lies in the writing and editing. If we're editing your book, that's enough work to keep us more than busy making you look good. If you ask us how to publish it, we're going to point you to the Internet. While we can educate you on the different types of publishing approaches, we can't make that decision for you, nor can we do the actual submitting of your book to any publisher. Again, writer/editor, not agent or publishing house.

We don't renegotiate. We writers believe strongly in the contracted assignment. If we've signed an agreement with you (and we will insist on it), we'll deliver what we promised when we promised it. Your job is to make sure your vision was properly conveyed and let us know right away if there are changes. Your other job is to make sure you pay us what you promised in writing. We don't accept arguments such as "Well, it's not exactly what I expected, so I'm only paying you half." The law and the contract language is on our side.

We don't work for free. I know our titles say "freelance" in it, but that doesn't translate to mean free work for you. It means we're free to work for many clients. Please don't attempt to avoid payment by telling us we should be happy to get the practice or the "exposure." We're likely to tell you some things you won't like, too.

We don't wait around for work to appear. We know you say it should be "easy" for us to crank out your copy same day, but you're forgetting something - you're not our only client. Our time is already scheduled by someone else when you call expecting your project done in one day or less. We can do it in some cases, but we charge extra for that, mainly because we have to work late in order to catch up on projects we promised to others. It's not fair to them that you can't plan ahead.

We don't have control over editorial decisions at publications. Here's the thing - if you agreed to the interview and suddenly you decide you'd rather not be in print, there's very little we can do. The articles we write are the product of the publication. That means those people are calling the shots. Telling us you need to review the article prior to print is also out. Editors are pretty picky about interview sources telling them how to do their jobs. It's called a conflict of interest - no self-respecting editor would ever allow a source to dictate the direction or content of a story. It's unethical.

We don't answer to everyone you know. We know the temptation is to show all your friends your book manuscript and ask for feedback, but consider this - you wouldn't pay a hair stylist hundreds of dollars and then let all your friends cut your hair for you, would you? Then why would you pay for professional writing/editing and then let friends do your editing? Most of us writers have clauses in our contracts that void the contract the moment anyone not listed in the contract becomes involved. Imagine owing us full payment on a project that's not yet finished because you couldn't help but let your best friend make revisions you expected us to complete. We work for one person, not several. It's called herding cats and we're contractually averse to it.

We're here for you, clients. Our goal is to provide you with superior service at a fair rate. Just understand that we're writers and editors, not miracle workers.


Your writers

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

From the Ashes

It's quite a coincidence that I live in Phoenixville, a town that celebrates the legend of the Phoenix every year. A coincidence because the freelancer's life is a lot like that. No? You've never lost a client only to gain a better one or have a new opportunity arrive at your doorstep? I bet you have.

I've seen many a client disappear unexpectedly (and even expectedly) over the last seven years. What continues to amaze me is that no matter how bleak it looks sometimes, the career seems to rebound and reinvent itself. I won't say without effort. If I didn't put any work into it, there would be nothing here. So let's say that thanks to marketing, things rebound and reinvent easier.

I've also seen my own ability to hold firm in my needs and those of my business. I let a client go not long ago because they started arguing the price. Not only did they come back - they have not balked once at the price, and they've funneled more work my way. From the ashes of disagreement on price came a rebirth in the relationship. They tell me often they love my work (their other attempts with lower-priced writers must have burned them badly), and they gave just a minimal pause on my most recent price. They know they're getting quality. It's reaffirming to me that my setting and defending my boundaries was the right thing to do.

It takes a few things for this to happen:

- The ability to let go of a bad thing
- The sense to trust your gut
- The strength to do what's right for your business
- The perseverance to market continuously and to always look for better opportunities

So how do you feel like a Phoenix rising these days? What have you lost lately that has opened doors?

Monday, March 29, 2010

Averting Tension or Disaster (or both)

The top stressors in life: marriage, divorce, death, moving, new job, new baby, loss of job... Then there are the small stressors - an April 15th deadline for not one, but four related projects (one rather massive) and relatives appearing the week before and staying for an unstated amount of time. Oh, and let's just toss in that 1040 and Schedule C while we're at it.

I have one week in which to interview nine people for various newsletter articles and deliver a nine-page project, plus two press releases. I said the deadline was the 15th, right? More than a week. However, with company coming and staying, I have no idea how much time I'll have to work on said project. So guess what? We're doing it now while we have guaranteed time to do it. Did I mention it's a new client?

Let's just toss in those taxes, too. I mean, while I'm having so much fun, why not? I'm glad now that I took time this month to rough them out on paper. I need one figure to get them completed. And pay. Oh boy, will I pay.

I have another project due May 1, but I've got to arrange four interviews for that between now and then. I have one lined up. That's less of a priority, but it needs to be done soon. Also, I have an online writing business course I'm developing and that needs to be finished (the details will be posted here soon, I promise).

Tension aversion is possible with organization and prioritization. I have daily deadlines I have to meet. I have one weekly deadline to meet. Those come first - always. Then the nearest deadline is given priority. All related work comes before the project with the longer deadline. It gets worked in after the rest is handled for the day. The course? I write that after everything else is on its way. I have it mapped out, so the work left is the filling in.

In the past, I've had projects go horribly wrong when I've tried to fit too much business and personal in together. Hence the reason I work harder to get the projects completed ahead of schedule. Not that it's foolproof - clients could go over the project and have strong objections or major changes that could have me working long hours after company retires. The only process that makes me feel even remotely at ease is to organize, prioritize, and check each thing off the list after giving it ample attention. So this week is a long week.

How do you handle when you're about to take time off? What's your method of getting it done without losing five years of your life span?

Friday, March 26, 2010

Planning for the Obvious

This month, two clients dropped projects that netted me over $1K monthly. I saw it coming, too. No, they never said they were thinking about it, but the vibe was there.

You know that vibe - it starts with communication waning or disappearing altogether. Emails go unanswered. Same with phone calls. Invoices get paid, but not acknowledged. Or maybe they go unpaid and your attempts to get payment go unanswered. No feedback on work. No questions acknowledged or answered. Nothing. It's as though their offices packed up and moved in the middle of the night.

In an attempt to reconnect, I asked direct questions, inquired on other projects that were mentioned earlier, and tried to engage the clients. Silence. I'll be honest - I knew at the beginning of this month that both clients were going to be gone soon. So how do projects disappear when the ideas were so solid and the writing up to what was expected? From this chair, it's because often clients don't understand or know how to work with outsourced help.

Things for both gigs became shaky at the beginning. Since they were both online projects, someone had to actually post the projects. Let's take two ultra-busy clients and add one more thing to their lists. That's where both projects went out of control. Neither client wanted to relinquish the keys to the online kingdom, so to speak, so I was left meeting weekly deadlines for work that's still not posted months later. In both cases.

This is one variable we cannot change. Clients want to work with you but don't understand how much time is involved on their side. Or they're so into control you'll never be trusted to help post. I offered help. Nothing doing. Both wanted to do it themselves, one insisting on vetting and tweaking. Perfectly acceptable practice, but at what cost to your investment in the writing? I know there was at least $3K in work I'd performed sitting untouched on the other side of the email.

This post, I guess, is more for clients. When you start working with contract workers, consider just how much time you'll need to invest in that collaboration. Is there a way to give your contractor access and a modicum of control without giving away the company secrets?

And writers, how do you help overworked clients when it's clear they don't want that level of help? Short answer - you don't. But you can plan for the obvious, which is what I did. I had both gigs replaced before they disappeared. I hate to say it, but it was almost a relief because I was tense waiting for it to happen and I'd taken on a bit more work than I could handle.

Are you able to see things like this coming? What are some of your experiences?

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Worthy Tip: Know No Limits

Avid Writer Kimberly Ben blogged about taking on low-paying work and then never letting go of it. Urban Muse Susan Johnston blogged this past week about the steady freelance gig. Both ladies came to the same conclusion: the steady paycheck is not always the mother lode we think it is. I agree totally.

I had a steady gig for four years. Great job at the beginning - it paid a lot per hour, required just an hour or so of my time each day, and was a guaranteed check each month. Flash forward four years to that same job, now paying half the original amount, requiring more output, and more time spent on revisions than the steady check justified. To compensate for the lower price, I took on double the work. The stress far outweighed the check total. I waved goodbye and haven't looked back.

But it's not always that easy to let go, is it? It wasn't for me, either. But I did it because I got to a point where the "free" in freelance was beginning to look like a misnomer. There were other factors at play, but the crux of it was the job wasn't worth the time or the effort or even the steady income.

The job you take today with the "just until something better comes along" attitude quickly turns into that crutch you lean on, that time sink you can't escape because in your head, it's still a good deal. So you continue because this job takes up so much of your time you're just too tired to market. Or you think the loss of that one steady check will cripple you financially.

So this week's worthy tip: stop chasing the check. Stop limiting yourself to the steady check syndrome. It's propping you up too much. Instead, find better-paying work from credible sources. I'm not saying all steady work is a bad idea, only that some of the projects we continue aren't to our financial benefit. So look at your ongoing gigs. Are you getting paid what you're worth? Has the workload increased but the pay has remained the same? Did you accept it at a rate much lower than what you should be getting? Is there any chance of raising the fee?

What trap are you caught in at the moment? Have you ever waved goodbye to an ongoing gig because it just wasn't worth it anymore? How fast did you replace that income?

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Writing Chameleon

This is going to sound like really strange advice coming from me, the proponent of finding your voice and refining it to its own uniqueness. Yet it's advice that may save your career someday - Mock your clients.

I don't mean point, laugh, and tell them their mothers dress them funny. I mean get inside their heads and understand them. Understand their goals, their publications' angles, their focuses, their audiences. Then adapt your voice to fit.

We do this to some extent already (that is, if we understand that no two clients or publications are alike). But what about those times when our copy needs to be homogenized, stripped of any distinct personality? What about when you need to give just a smidgen more than the facts in order to meet your client's requirements?

I was talking with a writer friend yesterday about this very thing. He writes for a well-known national magazine. Part of the requirements include capturing the tone, voice, and style of said publication. He said it was quite a learning curve. We're taught in J school to develop our personal style and let our personalities enhance the writing. Yet there are publications and companies that need one voice - some have gone to great lengths to create and maintain that voice.

The smart client will tell you that up front. However, there are times when it's not readily apparent, times when you're going to go in circles trying to figure out why your client isn't happy with what you've done and keeps gashing away at your copy. In those cases, stop. Ask if the tone of the publication is to be consistent with all other content. Ask if there's a specific voice you need to maintain. Then if you're still confused, ask for help in reaching it.

Most of us work for clients who have companies or corporations. There are often distinct tones companies adopt. For instance, you wouldn't go into MorganStanley SmithBarney, where you "eeeeeehhhn" your respect with a stiff upper lip and a string of important-sounding names trying to sell them on an eTrade type of marketing approach. You'd match your writing tone to the expectations of the senior management and the clientele.

When was the last time you had to provide a specific tone or homogenized copy? Did the client tell you or did you have to figure it out on your own? Were you even aware it was a requirement?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Finding the Right Experts

A treat for you guys today: our own Dr. John Peragine gives us a primer in where to look for expert sources and what the experience has been like for him. Thanks, John!

Finding the Right Experts

As a writer, there are times when you will need to seek an expert to help you with a piece you are writing. If you have never done this, it may seem a little overwhelming, but in truth there are many resources out there that can help you. Many experts want to do interviews because it increases their exposure and their credibility, so don’t be shy about asking someone no matter how “important” they may seem to you.

When I was creating my books 101 Recipes for Making Wild Wines at Home: A Step-by-Step Guide to Using Herbs, Fruits, and Flowers and The Complete Guide to Making Your Own Wine at Home: Everything You Need to Know Explained Simply, I decided to contact some winemakers to add some professional expertise to my book. I make my own wine but I wanted to include some really credible people in the book and needed to find winemakers to interview.

I use HARO (HELP A REPORTER OUT). If you don’t know about this site and have never used it, open up a new window and sign up right now. I posted a request for assistance from winemakers and immediately received replies from all over the world.

I went through my email and focused on the responses from wineries that I was really interested in and sent back replies. Many of the larger winemakers had publicists that I had to go through, but that was actually less intimidating. I threw them the pitch for my book and let them know what I would need from their client.

The results were outstanding. I was able to secure 1-2 hour interviews with some of the most influential winemakers on the planet. I wrote 20 questions ahead of time for each of the interviews so that I was prepared. During the interview, I allowed the winemakers to talk about their winery and their impressive credentials, but I always brought them back to the questions I needed for the book. I also made sure that they signed a release so that I could use the interviews and photos in my book.

It was tricky at times because these were business people who were primarily used to marketing their products. I was interested more in their winemaking process and what they had done to make their businesses so successful. I recorded each of these sessions with their permission so that I could have a conversation with them and really concentrate on what they were saying instead of being restricted by my own framework.

One of the best contacts and the highlight of my interviews was the opportunity I had to speak with John Langley, the creator of the television show Cops. He is an awesome guy. He owns and operates a small winery in Argentina called Urraca wines with his children. I could have talked to him all day. I was so nervous before speaking with him, which was complicated by the fact that I had to reschedule the interview with his publicist three times because of his production schedule. When we finally did connect it was like talking to an old friend.

The biggest perk of these connections was that the publicists all sent me cases of wine and champagne so that I could sample their wines. This was a writer’s dream!

Check out my wine books; 101 Recipes for Making Wild Wines at Home: A Step-by-Step Guide to Using Herbs, Fruits, and Flowers and The Complete Guide to Making Your Own Wine at Home: Everything You Need to Know Explained Simply (Atlantic Publishing). They can be purchased through my website.

So writers, how do you find sources? Anyone else have a great experience with HARO? Do you use unique ways of finding sources?

Monday, March 22, 2010

Going the Distance

I was pondering a vacation home (I dream big) over the weekend. Where would I want it? If I were to invest in property, what view would I want to wake up to? He's land-locked with his job, but I'm supposedly free to move about should he want to pick up and go somewhere else.

Or am I? We say we freelancers aren't hampered by location, but I wonder if that's true? I used to live in the middle of nowhere. I got work, but I hustled hard for it. I didn't have the level of work I do now, but there are several reasons for that - A) the Internet hadn't really gotten up and running yet, B) I didn't have the experience under my belt in my specialty, C) I was a young mom with limited time, and D) I had no idea what I was doing or how I should be doing it.

I moved to the coast. I got the job that got me the specialty. I lost the job. I was a single mom with no income beyond unemployment. So I freelanced. Desperation is a great motivator, because in that first week of unemployment, I scored three writing gigs. I was so desperate to cover the rent I pushed aside the grief and the fear and convinced three people I was their writer. It was in that specialty, too - the specialty I formed after moving to a more populated area.

I wonder a lot how I would be doing if I'd stayed where I was. What would my career look like? Would I have a freelance life? It's a fair question. I was newly divorced and living with my parents and my kids. The urgency of income may have pushed me in a different direction.

I contend no matter where you are, you can make a go of it. Clients these days don't seem to care where you are unless they're of the meet-and-greet-and-oversee variety. I can count maybe two clients I have currently who wouldn't be there if I lived elsewhere. But what other clients might I have found instead?

How has your location influenced your freelance career? Do you think it's necessary to live in a heavily populated area in order to be successful? How have you made the most of where you are? And more to the point, how has your location affected your rates?

Friday, March 19, 2010

It's About You

Here's an interesting thought - can your business survive if you do all your marketing virtually? That's what Kimberly Ben at Avid Writer ponders this week. Here's the link. Short synopsis - a writer who markets face-to-face claims she knows why a writer who doesn't is struggling. She thinks with no direct contact, the writer will never survive. Hmm. Tell that to thousands of successful writers who never meet clients in person.

But we do get these notions that our marketing or self-promotion or networking is of the tried-and-true-and-you'd-better-do variety. Coaching careers and best-selling books have been built on this method, that method, or the latest career-transforming guarantees. Not that everyone who sells fantastic books or coaching courses is saying you have to do it this way or no way at all, but that we consumers build these methods up into the only way it can be done. We are the ones putting the emphasis on "That's how it has to be done", not the folks who share their methods. (It's also why I love Peter Bowerman's books and blog so much - he doesn't tell you how you should be doing it, but how it's worked for him.)

I mentioned on Kim's blog my thoughts that the difference between how writers market themselves is personal choice. You know what? It is. Like every other business and every other business owner on the planet, we writers have our own individual styles. What works for me may knot up your stomach and how you operate may make another writer envision large wastes of time.

Example - I think email, Twitter, and LinkedIn marketing works great. Because I enjoy banter and have a long track record of working with various clients, it does work for me. Would it work for Jane or Alan who are new to freelance writing and have no contacts or track record? It could, but since they're new, they may not be focusing on marketing. They're focusing on writing. So to drop writing in an attempt to locate people and shmooze them with tweets could be scary or tough. Would it work for Sue who's not someone who enjoys pithy snippets of conversation but rather a more focused, professional email? Probably not.

What marketing method or methods are you most comfortable with? What has worked well for you? Do you change it up occasionally? What will you never do no matter how many "experts" tell you otherwise?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

What's the Buzz?

That would be my head.

If I could've made up a great St. Patrick's Day celebration, it would've looked a lot like yesterday. Gorgeous sunshine, warm, and the car didn't break down (it's the little things). He came home from work and met me at the bottom of the driveway. I jumped in and off we went to Molly Maguire's. Why there? Because the owners are brogue-laden Irish. Where else? And they've created something I thought was next-to-impossible in a large town - a community. Plus they had bands from 8 am on and the Guinness flowing like holy water. Three floors, four bars. Oh yea - there's a good time.

There's something about St. Paddy's Day and people in a packed pub. Instant friendship, connection, and camaraderie. You share the common thread - you're there to enjoy being Irish, enjoy being around Irish, and enjoy having fun. No kidding, we went in alone and came out with half a dozen new friends - among them our new friend Eamon, who moved here from Tyrone and compared freckles with me. When describing heritage and how it shapes us even today, he poked my Scottish husband in the heart with his finger and said, "The sod's in you here. It never leaves you."

The band played Celtic tunes and even The Who and Neil Diamond. There was plenty of dancing. And I don't have to mention the Guinness, do I? I sipped his, but I downed three cosmos. I had to pace myself - one an hour. That last one - let's just say somewhere around 3 am the tide in my head stopped rolling.

I missed every relative now gone. I think that sort of happens when you've had a bit much and you're around Irish blarney and wit anyway. I could've wished it better with them all present, but weren't they anyway?

Today, back to work. I was handed another assignment yesterday - I love this reverse marketing when they come to me. I have a small project this morning and I'll be finishing up a blog post and an article this afternoon.

Did you celebrate yesterday? How's today looking for you?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Happy Anniversary to me.....

That's right - today is my fourth anniversary here at Words on the Page. It's totally appropriate (in my opinion) that I chose one of my favorite holidays to build a blog. It was unintentional, but subconsciously? Who can say?

Four years. Wow. I thought I'd run out of things to talk about ages ago, but I should have known better. Rare is the day I can't find something to go on about, and I'm thankful for every one of you for tuning in to see what Lori's going on about this time. Every one of you who comments and helps build this little community - thank you. All 121 of you over there in the Followers section - thank you. Every one of you who lurk, read occasionally, get the feed, and share links with me - thank you. I couldn't do it without you. Well, technically I could, but what's sadder than the sound of a woman talking to herself all the time? I'm grateful for your friendship, contributions, debate, and continued support.

But I'm not one to look at something and declare it done. I may feel I've accomplished something here today, but we know how tenuous tomorrow can be. Time to reassess this blog and how you, the reader, react to it.

So what's working for you here? What posts are the ones that bring you back? Is it a topic, a feeling, a need you can fulfill here? Tell me how I can bring you back every day. What do you want more of? Less of?

And while you're thinking of your answers, think how those same questions can help you reexamine your business practices and client interactions. If you were to ask your clients those same questions, what would you hope to hear in return? What are you likely to hear? How would you use that information?

Happy St. Patrick's Day, everyone. It's my own personal holiday, so I'll be off this afternoon enjoying a Guinness (or a margarita - too early to tell) and some homemade Irish stew. You?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Making Time

I spent Friday afternoon with my tax forms. It's grim, but not as grim as last year, so I'm getting a little better at both the forms and the payments. The first forms are always done in pencil, and I don't commit to ink until I've located every possible deduction. Even then I have him check it in case I've missed something (he has mad math skills and a sick love for the 1040).

I made time for that. April 15th is this looming, dark cloud that I feel compelled to clear up early. If nothing else doing tax forms early gives me an idea of how hard I have to work until that check gets mailed. Nothing jump starts your marketing like a large impending bill.

I had to push back a deadline, which is today's deadline, but I have my schedule in a sweet place at the moment. I turned down offsite things in February that allowed me the time now to get the much-needed accounting work done. I have time built into my schedule right now for a few more Fridays off. It won't affect my earnings goals, either.

How do you work time into your schedule? Time is our constant battle, isn't it? Here are a few things that worked for me:

Secure better paying work. It makes sense that the less you make the harder you're working to reach your monthly goals. By seeking out clients and projects that pay at or close to your hourly rate, you'll be able to take on fewer projects for the same payout. Or if you're a workaholic, you can take on more higher-paying projects in that saved time and surpass your goals. Either way.

Schedule. Every week I have a schedule. Daily deadlines first, weekly deadlines second, one-time or special projects next. I map out my workload based on deadline and hours it will take to complete each project. The easy stuff comes first, then the harder stuff. The mapping out, by the way, is done in my head so no, you don't need a schedule on paper unless you want one.

Schedule the day off. If you can't wrap your head around taking time off, make it part of your schedule. Put it on Outlook, inform the masses, etc. I did this at first, but now I just eyeball the week and decide what day I want to keep for myself.

Turn off the computer, leave the house. What good is a day off if you're still sitting in that chair? Plan something! For me, it's escaping with the laptop to the coffeehouse or the mall. On gorgeous days, I'm going walking. My days off have included shopping, lying on a blanket in the park, sitting in the coffeehouse on a snowy day editing my book or surfing Facebook, meeting friends for both breakfast and lunch...

How do you make time for you?

Assessing the Need for a Client Meeting

Susan Johnston had a great post on making the most of client meetings. It came at a time when I'd just turned down a client meeting that would've sucked up an entire day (travel time and meeting time). Her tips once you get the meeting scheduled are super, but if you're on the fence about the importance of it, consider a few things first:

Do you know the client already? If you do, you can assess the value to you of the meeting. If not, you should ask the client plenty of questions about the impending project, including budget.

How much are they paying you for that meeting? Yes, if you're going hours out of your way, I think you should be compensated. I'm a fan of giving a free consultation, but usually I limit those to the phone. If you are meeting with a client, you're taking time from your other projects to do so. Set up a consultation fee upfront. Let them know you charge $XXX for two hours of your time. Even if a project never comes of it, your time isn't wasted.

What's the potential for actual work? Just because the client is dying to write a book doesn't mean one will ever get written. Too many times I've traveled an hour or more out of my way to meet with someone who then says "Yes, I'll pay you in royalties once it sells." No you won't. You'll pay me in cash once I deliver your manuscript. I have no idea how much of a marketer this client is or isn't, nor should I have to take a loss should this person decide he's no longer interested and is now on to his next pet project.

Does the existing client pay on time? I turned down a meeting recently for a number of reasons. The travel time was one, but the larger issues were the sporadic nature of both the projects and pay I'd received to date, and the fact that the client was prone to making, then forgetting appointments. I wasn't too confident that my time was going to be spent fruitfully. I turned the meeting down. A month later, the work dried up as I suspected it might. I have every intention of meeting the client at a later date, but when it's convenient for me and I'm in the area. I'm not sorry and no, I don't think for a moment my declining the meeting impacted the workload. History suggests otherwise.

Does the client understand your terms and his project? I met with a client once whose project as described had me a little concerned. Once we met in person, he described a different project, which was even less appealing, and then announced to his colleague, without one word to me, that I was being paid in royalties. That was the day I decided no more free consultations onsite. Also, it was the day I decided to have a much more detailed payment and project conversation with the client over the phone or in email prior to any meeting.

Clients often suggest meetings onsite because it's convenient for them and may be how they're used to dealing with new people. But it's so much easier for everyone if you have a phone conversation. You can gather the information you need before deciding if the meeting is even necessary.

How often do you meet directly with clients? How often has it been necessary? How many of these meetings could have been handled over the phone?

Friday, March 12, 2010

Feels Like the First Time

Thanks to a car that decided not to start at the grocery store yesterday, I'll be a little preoccupied today. But since it's Friday, let's have some fun.

Random questions:

1. What was your first freelance sale? How much did you earn?
2. What one grammar rule do you most often break? Is it intentional on your part?
3. What's the funniest client encounter you've ever had?
4. What's your favorite website for when you're taking a break or winding down?
5. What's the best book you read last year?

I'll go first:

1. My first "sale" was winning the Pittsburgh Press Sunday Magazine Bad Writing Contest. Yes, bad writing. I earned $50, which I thought was a fortune back then. Also, I won a tacky trophy that's still somewhere in the house.

2. I use prepositions at the beginning/end of sentences. I thought Churchill had cleared this one up ages ago, but still I get clients fuming over my use of these. Writers I've talked to consider it acceptable use now. Some non-writer clients do not. It's intentional because to me, often the sentences read much better that way.

3. The funniest client encounter: maybe it was the guy who felt I needed to know of his life as a cross-dressing woman (his words). Or maybe it was the resume client who answered the "How did you overcome your job challenges?" with the phrase "staying alive." (he was a forest fire fighter)

4. Right now, my favorite unwinding site beyond Facebook is Clients from Hell.

5. The best book I read last year was The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. Terrific story of the Dust Bowl era.


Thursday, March 11, 2010

Random Thursday Ramblings

We had a bit of a full house over the weekend - all but one kid came home. At one time, all bedrooms were full and there were phones ringing all over the place. The last one left yesterday. When they're around for a short amount of time, it makes for some disjointed work schedules.

I'm a creature of some habit. I like to sit down before 8:30 and get up around 5:00. Yesterday, I sat until 10:30 then ran to the mall. Enter college student - exit Mom's money. She needed a suit for her internship interviews. I look at it as an investment in her future. But there went the morning. The afternoon fared no better. She wanted my attention and she'd just driven 300 miles to get it.

She left before noon. That made it possible for me to get a call in with a client (and score another ongoing job, yay!). Then one of the other kids called - can you meet me at the station? He'd forgotten a laptop charger. Off in the afternoon for an hour, waiting through three trains before he appeared. I came back to get some work done. Blog posts. That's all I could squeeze in.

Yet as I said, I did manage to score some new projects. I'm glad for it because I was struggling in the morning with an idea and where it might find a home. I had several markets considered, but in reviewing what they were publishing, it was clear the idea wasn't going to be an easy fit anywhere. So back to pondering the angle again.

I thought the day was a wash, but as I looked back on it I realized just how much I managed to accomplish. No, I didn't give it 8 or 10 hours of constant attention, but the little attention I did give paid off.

I think John mentioned here a few days ago that things like haircuts just don't happen for the average freelancer. It's not because we don't think we need to be presentable. It's that we're really that busy sometimes, and not always with work. I will say I work harder for myself than I ever did for employers, and I gave my best in the 9-to-5 jobs. It's that I'm invested in the end result. Don't you find that to be true, too?

Now I'm considering working on some projects with longer deadlines today, freeing up tomorrow to cry and moan over the first attempt at Schedule C. It's never too soon for tax torture. Don't recommend products - I use electronic ones and after having tried several, I still find I get a better result working it out on paper first. Generic electronic questions aren't explanatory enough for me. I think last year was the first in ages that I didn't get a "No, your totals are wrong again!" note from the IRS. I would hope at the very least my returns entertain them.

How has your week been? What's on your desk?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Terror in the 'Burbs

I sat there yesterday morning avoiding email. I'll be honest - I was a bit terrified to see who was bitching about what given the last few weeks I'd had. I thought I'd exorcised the agony twice, but when the agony returned three times, the temptation was to throw up the hands, wave the white flag, and apply at Starbucks.

I've been having quite a run of "What the hell were you thinking?" notes - some justified, many not. In one case, a dude was livid because the project I wrote for him, as he put it, was very similar to what he'd provided. I panicked thinking I'd sent the wrong file. No. I pored through the one I'd written, comparing it with his - I resorted to keyword searches in each document. No. Very much different. Then it hit me. He was reacting to the format. The format I used was a more polished version of what he'd provided. But this set him off so much that he called my client's client and bitched. Easy fix for me, but now I have to wow him in order to calm him. It was a pile of unnecessary stress on top of client notes questioning my skill level. I sucked it up, loaded up on caffeine, and pressed on.

I don't mind someone pointing out that there's a problem. Oddly, the ones who go ballistic are usually reacting to smallish, fixable things. But ballistic isn't something I can filter easily. Worse is when it comes after I attempt the impossible after informing the client full score that it's impossible. I had one of those last week, and let's just say the client's response confirmed what I tried to convey. No one can rewrite two large pieces complete with new interviews in two hours. Something will, and did, get overlooked.

But when it comes to it, we are the last link on the food chain, the bottom wrung of a shaky ladder. If something at the top goes wrong, it's all spilling down on us. It's why I document and make sure I communicate my express concerns the minute they crop up. I've had my backside singed far too many times by people pinning blame and yanking payment for situations far beyond my control. I won't have my income suffer for someone else's wild notions or misguided expectations.

I've also been known to press back. Think of a cornered animal - yes, just like that. I take it when I have to, but when it's clear that it will jeopardize my reputation, I pull out the ammo (documentation).

So how to you overcome lousy runs of luck, client complaints, and unjust blame?

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Worthy Tip: Time for Service

The message came onto the display panel of my Saab yesterday - "Time for Service." Since cars have somehow become smarter than people, I took it seriously enough to look it up online. Seems the car has been pre-programmed to give service notices at particular mileage or date points. Since we just turned over 56K, that corresponded with what Saab's website was saying. I was glad because it meant I didn't have to crawl under the hood and locate, then replace whatever cable or part was giving me fits.

Wouldn't it be nice if we came with these notices? Our cars, our homes, our kids, our pets all get regular attention and care. Our businesses? Ourselves? Not so much. If your business had a "time for service" notice, what would it be reminding you to do? Most likely it would be a marketing reminder or a reminder to chase down those overdue invoices. And your personal reminder? When was the last time you took a week off or even a day off? When was the last time you read a writing or grammar book, taken a class, or improved your business in some way? When was the last time you applied any of the Worthy Tips I've put out here?

Time for service, folks. Here's a suggestion - open Outlook, Lotus Notes, or Mozilla's calendar function and schedule your own maintenance. Pick a day to take off and enjoy yourself. Choose a deadline for sending out XX marketing pieces. List a week's worth of clients to contact personally, spreading them out over an entire week (yes, type their names into your calendar).

How to you maintain your business and your sanity? What regenerates both areas?

Monday, March 08, 2010

Saving the Project

We spent the weekend in CT with family, sharing stories of a wonderful life - that of his uncle Ted. While I'd met him only once, I came away from the memorial, which was a six-hour storytelling and singing, seeing several sides of this remarkable person - good and bad.

It was time also to shed last week's frustrations. I want to thank every one of you for such words of encouragement. It was the cumulative effect of a week's worth of challenges that had my resolve crumbling at the edges - challenges that all worked out thankfully. I think it's human nature to doubt - but sometimes the doubt is a sign of a no-win situation in which the problem isn't yours to fix. Let me explain.

In a few cases, I've worked with folks who aren't necessarily fantastic at their jobs. I'm not always, either (though I hold out that I've had my fabulous moments). But when they're not necessarily adept at their jobs and you are, what do you do? It's a real dilemma for freelancers and staffers, too - been there in both situations. If you're a new freelancer, there could be no way of knowing if you're that bad or they are. But there is a fix, as a freelancing friend once told me (thanks, Bob).

It's this - ask for help. Go right to that client whose requirements you can't seem to meet and express your desire to please. That's right - please. In the end our reputations and our sanity hinge on our ability to adapt and respond to our clients' needs, not the other way around. And by asking you get the client on your side. Now you have a partner in the project. You have insight into the client's thought process, and you may have tapped in to some additional client patience as you find your way.

It's not foolproof, but it's a good method to unraveling a client's project, which can help you deliver, please, and cash the check. In fact, I suggest any time a project starts to go awry, ask for help. Clients often see their vision and for some reason, you're unable to. Get more pointed in your questions, ask more questions, and really listen to the answers.

When have you had situations in which the client is either not up to par, communicating improperly, or hasn't quite decided what he or she wants? How did you handle it? How could you have handled it better?

Friday, March 05, 2010

Fridays, Dark Clouds, and Weekend Redemptions

Let's just say this week has not been the most inspiring or motivating for me. It started out shaky with some project-related tensions. Though the project was completed successfully, it was an exercise in patience as things went from odd to completely bizarre. Another project seemed poised for disaster, as well. Still another jolt came this week that has me trying very hard not to question my abilities. Tuesday and Wednesday were my good days, and thank God for them. I received positive reinforcement in a few areas, which kept me away from tall bridges and cliffs. I'm staring at the weekend with anxious anticipation. Yes, anxious. It can't come fast enough.

The worst part - no one to vent to. It's obvious each time I have a crumbling kind of day that the solitary writer working at home has but pets to vent to and pillows to scream into. This week, I'm thankful for an attentive goldfish and Ikea pillows. I will say it's ramped up my kickboxing and exercising, though. But there should be a writers' vent group - a virtual team of email, phone, or anonymous online supporters and fellow venters who can share intimate details (we can't give out details online lest we embarrass clients or ourselves) of the troubles they're dealing with in exchange for a sympathetic shoulder to whine on. But I'm getting a bit dramatic.

Still, it's pretty obvious that barring friends who write for a living and spouses who haven't heard enough already, we writers are pretty much on our own in terms of dealing with job stress. We're not just writers - we're business owners. Everyone we talk to who isn't a freelance writer or editor (or other contract worker) understands frustration from an employee perspective. Who understands what we're going through?

We do. So we need not just accountability partners, but a support network. Who is your first choice when you have a problem and you need to talk it out? Is it a good idea to talk things out or is it a waste of time and energy? What do you do with those feelings of frustration? What's the best way you've found to recover from a less-than-wonderful week?

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Guest Post: How to Succeed in Business Writing

Usually by Thursday I run out of things to say. Oh, I can vent until the cows come home, but I mean things to say about writing that's new or unique. Lately I feel spent because of the "luxury" of having a lot of ongoing work. While normally creativity is inspired by lots of writing, I'm in some technical areas. I'm more inspired to write about the risks of writing - ooo, good idea! Maybe tomorrow.

Today, I'm happy to post an article by Anna Miller. Anna contacted me a few weeks ago with her generous offer to provide a guest post here. The only thing she asked for was a link to her site and a byline. I can't argue with that.

10 Tips to Succeed in the Business of Writing
It’s a business that is worth considering, especially if you have a way with words and good research skills. The business of writing is not exactly lucrative, but it’s not too bad with the financial rewards either. So if you’re a writer who’s looking to make this craft your full-time job, here’s what you need to do to achieve success in the business of writing:

1. Focus on quality: No matter how much experience you have or how well established you are in the business, you must never compromise on the quality of your work. When you fail to maintain quality and start to take on more work just to make more money, you are laying the foundation for failure.

2. Honor deadlines: One of the golden rules to becoming a successful writer is that you must never promise what you cannot deliver. When you fail to meet deadlines or give the client what you said you would, you lose credibility.

3. Honor commitments: Never go back on your word, no matter how hard it is to keep it. When you promise to complete an assignment in a certain way, don’t renege or twist words to get out of the deal. If you’ve promised a certain number of rewrites, don’t refuse to do them just because you’ve already been paid and have nothing to lose in the process. Rather, when you go back on your word, you lose your integrity and reliability.

4. Don’t ape others: Develop your own style and enhance it as you gain experience instead of copying what others do. As a writer, you must strive for originality among the thousands who do the same job.

5. Stay relevant: Although your job involves sitting behind a computer screen for the better part of the day, take time to enhance your knowledge by browsing the web (other than for entertainment), meeting new people, and gaining new experiences, all of which augment your writing and keep you current and relevant and able to keep up with the times.

6. Broaden your horizons: Don’t spend all day cooped up in front of your computer – rather, get involved in other diverse activities like the arts, sports, gardening or anything that interests you. The more people you meet and the more experiences you gain, the better you become as a writer.

7. Charge according to market rates: If you charge much more, you’re unlikely to get as many projects as you would like. And if you charge less, you’re going to be compromising on your worth and also not making enough money. In general, set payment based on your experience, the nature of the work, and the time involved. Don’t rook clients because of their ignorance or get taken in by false promises of large sums of money for a simple task.

8. Maintain an effective network: If you’re a freelancer, you need to maintain a network that comprises clients and fellow writers because your next assignment depends on both the quality of your previous work and the kind of recommendation your prior client provides.

9. Respect your peers: If you own your blog or write for someone else, don’t belittle or denigrate fellow writers even if they throw the first stone. When you maintain decorum, it’s easier to stay focused on your work rather than get into a dirty fight.

10. Be financially savvy: And finally, don’t blow all your money on frivolous expenses – get into the habit of saving a part of your income and also learn how to use credit cards wisely.

This guest post is contributed by Anna Miller, who writes on the topic of online degrees. She welcomes your comments at her email id:

Personally? Number 10 is going to be the toughest for me (I love shoes). Which of these do you practice regularly? What are you success tips?

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

On Shaky Ground

Today's a vent day.

I swear this week New Orleans has nothing on my career when it comes to that sinking feeling. By six pm Monday I was emptying a bottle of Chianti. It wasn't just work related, though that was a large factor. It was also Tivo related. Damn thing has a broken hard drive. The options are - buy a new one from the company, wait 7 days, then ship back the old one and get a refund; return the old one and wait for the replacement (14 days); or take it back to the store. No Best Buy here carries it any longer. Great. I wanted to watch Holmes on Homes or even What Not to Wear, but I would wait ten minutes for it to reboot only to see 3 minutes of television before it cut out again. Time to read.

Did you ever get that feeling that you're about to lose a client? Try two. It's not that the projects are going badly. It's that the communication and the sense of an end has entered the picture prominently in one case, hazily in another. It's why I'm glad I have a bunch of clients right now.

One is a funding issue - a perennial funding issue. That one will die of monetary consumption soon, no doubt. The other is a lack of response to direct questions on project particulars. The subject is avoided. I brought it up three times. That's my limit. From there, it's up to them to tell me what's going on. I can't let intuition and a dose of paranoia make me out to be a stalker.

Another project has turned from annoyance to frustration and right on to Lori's Latest Nightmare. I won't go into detail, but let's just say there are too many hands on the final product, which is causing endless revisions and confusing messages among the various factions. Here's where I will repeat the sensibility of quoting an hourly rate - I did on this project, and thank God I did. The time I've spent on this is double what I'd originally expected. And I will stress one more time that the more people jumping in on the editorial side, the less likely you as a writer will please any of them.

Luckily, other projects are going beautifully. I'm enjoying the work and the clients are super to work with. Fingers crossed that continues.

The latest unsteadiness in my client list tells me one thing - time to market. If I get busy finding more work now, I'll be less affected should one or both of these clients disappear. I started last evening and will keep digging and tweeting and linking in to see who's looking for help.

How is your week going?

Tuesday, March 02, 2010


I remember my first "real" magazine gig. It was for Highlights for Children and it was a piece I was writing on spec (for those new to freelancing - that's a piece you write that the magazine reserves the right to reject without pay). Not the best solution for breaking into "the big time" but acceptable given my beginner status.

Since then, I've been asked to spec one or two articles for new-to-me publications. Frankly, unless it's a topic I've not handled before, I won't. I have over 200 published clips by now and if my clips don't prove to the clients I can write, we're not compatible. At some level in your career, you should assume that barring any new or unusual subject matter, you shouldn't have to prove yourself beyond your track record.

My reasons why:

- The scum who create chaos. Unfortunately, there are a few pseudo-clients out there whose sole intent is to trick you into doing the work for free. Too many of the "edit this chapter" or "write us a brief, 12-page article on this topic so we can gauge your writing ability" requirements clog the bandwidth. No one is ever getting hired for those jobs as everyone who applies and is uninformed on how these jerks operate will supply a very specific sample, thus negating their need to pay any writer for any work.

- The background I have already. I have a lot of experience writing in several industries. I've never written for say construction directly (indirectly, yes), but the technical background I have makes it pretty darned easy for me to transition to a new area. If a construction client can't view both my environmental construction articles and my work with new builders and see that I get their industry, they're not going to trust me.

- The time it takes away from ongoing work. Time is money to a freelancer. If I have to give up 15 hours of my time for a well researched, interviewed article, I need to receive payment. I can't afford not to.

- The pay involved. If they expect a full-length, unpaid article, the pay had better be worth it in the end.

Will you work on spec? If so, what's your limit? If not, why not?

Monday, March 01, 2010

Sending the Wrong Mesage

I saw an ad recently - in the mall - that was just plain insulting. I won't name the company, but the banner ad hanging prominently in the mall said, "Surf the Internet while your wife buys you slacks." What's wrong with that ad?

I counted a number of sins in that one sentence. First, slacks? Are you serious? Anyone under the age of 40 doesn't use that word. Worse is the assumption that a man needs a woman to buy clothes for him, or that it's a woman's job to do so. What I gather from this one line is that the writer is over 55, male, and either chauvinistic or just plain clueless. Or, gawd forbid, this is an older woman who thinks it's up to the rest of us female types to dress men.

Until that point, I'd considered that particular company as an option. I'd seen other ads for their service and was intrigued. That one line turned me off completely. This isn't a company that's modern or one that understands me - that's the message I drew from it. Is that really how that company wants to be known?

It's amazing to me how many marketing messages miss the mark. My better half found one in a magazine. He pointed to the ad, which showed a lovely 30-something woman in upscale casual clothes, barefoot with a fresh pedicure, staring off into space dreamily in her posh, modern living room. The copy that accompanied it was her "thoughts" on how her investment portfolio might be doing and that someone was making money, but not her. Husband said "A man wrote that. No way a woman would phrase it that way."

Then there was the full-page ad, for an upscale jeweler, that appeared in The New Yorker that read "In a league of it's own." Someone should be fired for that.

Who's writing these things? Are they not considering who their clients' customers are? Do they understand the demographic? These are highly paid advertising firms. And they're not getting it right.

Are you getting it right? Are your clients receiving copy that reaches their audience and compels, not repels? How do keep your copy relevant, not dated?

What's the worst ad you've ever seen? Why?
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