Why Getting Paid with Stuff (Instead of Money) is Like Having a One-Night Stand

Bloggers: Don’t trick yourselves into thinking companies value you if they’re paying you in merch

I have a friend who makes stuff happen. She’s been interviewed on TV at least a gajillion times in the three years that I’ve known her. One of her pieces for Huffington Post has been on shared on Facebook 58,933 times. (When I said “gajillion” I was exxagerating. When I said that last number I was not.) She also has a regular blog column with a major, big-time national publication, founded a non-profit, and published two books.

But this friend (let’s call her “Sarah” because that’s her name) has a problem. While Sarah is awesome at getting exposure for her writing, she’s not awesome at getting money for it. Most of that stuff up there? Unpaid.

While she has managed to nab a couple sweet paid gigs this year, my girl is still struggling to make the rent. That’s super unfortunate because she happens to be a born-and-raised Brooklynite, and she reports that it now costs $25 just to walk out her front door in her neighborhood.

She recently called me to ask for help nailing down a paid monthly writing gig … and I failed her.

Why Buy the Cow …?

A few years  ago Sarah did a giveaway for a T-shirt co. She did it because she wanted a free T-shirt. She’s pretty crafty about getting free stuff that way.

The other day she called to say that she’d been emailing with someone at this company, and she wanted to know if I’d help her put a proposal together for a monthly blogging contract. She and I played phone tag for a bit and then finally ended up talking while I was in the car between appointments. We figured out a price and a scope of work with possible adjustments up or down based on what the company needed. Sarah was excited to send it over to them.

The company got back to her right away. Their response basically boiled down to “We dig your writing, but can’t we just give you another T-shirt?”

I wanted to kick myself. Of course they didn’t want to pay for blogging. Why would they, when they could get plenty of exposure by sending out a few T-shirts? That little detail that I had failed to internalize while I was multi-tasking was the only one that really mattered.

Sarah is a smart chick. But she fell into a trap that a lot of good writers fall into — especially bloggers who write a lot and are trying any which way to “monetize” their blogs. They often find that the path to monetization wasn’t as easy as they were told it would be, so they figure they might as well get some free stuff if they can’t get actual dollars.

Will You Be My Boyfriend?

Getting cool stuff without paying for it … well, that’s nice, isn’t it?

Except it’s not really free is it? Of course, there’s the obvious cost of giving away your time and your audience for the cost of a Tee-shirt.

As we discussed in the last blog post, you teach people how to treat you. You just taught this company that they don’t have to write you a check.

Even worse, you just taught yourself that you don’t deserve one.

Let’s equate this to sex and dating. As Hollywood has told us time and again, you can’t rewind and start dating after you’ve had a one-night stand with someone. (See how I attributed that to the movies so no one feels slutty? You’re welcome.)

It’s the same with clients. You can’t give up the goods for free and then later expect a company to take you home to meet their parents, er, pay you.

Stephen Pressfield, author of The Legend of Bagger Vance (which was later turned into a movie starring some guy named Matt Damon) also wrote a must-read book for writers called The War of Art. In it, he talks about going pro. “Professionals get paid,” he says.

Agreed.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Freelance shouldn’t be free.

If Sarah is going to plug a company’s product, she deserves a paycheck for it. So do you.

We haven’t done this in a while. Maybe it’s time to recited the PAYlance Pledge again? Stand up with me, boys and girls. All together now:

I hereby promise that I will no longer de-value my time and my skills by applying for jobs that pay a lower hourly rate than that received by fast-food workers. I will not write in exchange for ‘exposure’ unless I have solid proof that the website is going to build my professional credibility in a way that will eventually lead to dollars in my pocket. From today on, I will honor my skills and my talent by only conducting business with people who see my worth.

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3 Signs Your Writer is Phoning It In – And What You Should Do About it

Lazy writer sitting on the couch.

How to get your content people to step up their game

One of my favorite phrases is “You teach people how to treat you.” I don’t know who’s responsible for this little advice nugget … seems like it could be Dr. Phil, or Oprah, or your grandma’s neighbor … maybe I should just look this up? Hold, please.

Apparently it was everyone. Everyone said that. (It’s possible that Tony Gaskins said it first, but I can’t be sure.)

In any case, this little phrase is true in life and in business. And since my business is writing, lemme tell you a little something about writers: IF YOU ACCEPT BORING COPY FROM YOUR WRITERS, COUNT ON ALL OF THEIR FUTURE COPY TO BE FLACCID AND FLAVORLESS.

If you have to hire writers, I offer my condolences. It’s hard (unlike the above-referenced copy). Even with the advantage of being a writer myself, I have still messed this up. Not only do you have to assess skills and chops and work ethic … you have to try to sort out the very subjective question of whether or not someone’s talent is a match for your business goals.

So companies end up hiring adequate writers who do adequate work. Hence, the Internet is full of so-called content marketing that is perfectly pleasant, even though it doesn’t engage, it doesn’t teach, and it doesn’t make anyone understand why they should give a crap.

The question is, what should you do if you’re the poor schlub who hired these jerks? Fire the bastards!

Just kidding. Don’t do that.

Instead, I challenge you to take a new approach with your writers. Let’s talk about how to turn your so-so writers into the beacons of genius you hoped they’d be when you decided to hire them.

What the Real Problem Is

Many writers today fall under what heading in the corporate structure? Marketing.

This is a problem … not because marketers aren’t smart, but rather because they don’t know how to inspire the appropriate levels of fear and loathing from their content people.

The best writers I know are the ones who were forced to toil in the permastink of their grumpy editor’s coffee breath while doing yet another rewrite of a piece that was due two hours ago. Holding up production over your shitty copy is a valuable learning experience, as is hating your editor. (I once rear-ended someone on the way home because I was busy wishing death upon my boss over a nit-picky revision she was insisting on.)

You know what I’m going to say now, right? Thank God for every editor who has ever sent me back to the drawing board. Because anyone who makes a writer think critically about what they’re putting on the page is doing a valuable service. Even if the feedback turns out to be crap, at least the writer had to think about WHY and HOW they presented the material.

So if you’re a CMO or a marketing director who has the unhappy task of supervising writers who haven’t already been properly abused broken in by someone who knows what’s what, YOU are going to need to be that person.

Assessing the Damage

I know, I know. You’re not a writer. You’re not an editor. But chances are, you’re also probably not an idiot. I’m going to give you a little cheat sheet on what you should look out for.

  1. Generic headlines. Good Gawd Almighty, is it possible to overstate the value of headlines? (No. It isn’t.) Generic headlines are dangerous. As we have well established above, the days of newspapers and magazines are over. People don’t just happen to read a story. If someone doesn’t go “OMG I MUST READ THAT RIGHT NOW!” then the piece was a waste.
    Some examples: “How to Make Great Content.” “The Changing Customer Experience.” “Successfully Navigating the MarTech Landscape.” “3 Easy Ways to Make Money Online.”
    Note: I would argue that “easy” should never be in a headline. Things that are supposedly “easy” rarely live up to the promise. Don’t sell your readers short.
  2. The tra-la-la lede. Yes, that’s “lede” and not lead. The lede is the opening section of the story. Because of our ever-shrinking attention spans, ledes now have a helluva a lot of work to do. It is the lede’s job to reach a virtual hand out of the reader’s screen, grab him or her by the collar, and proclaim “THOU SHALT PAY ATTENTION TO THIS.” Any post that takes too long to get to the farking point, or at least entertain or engage the reader in some way, is going to lose more readers with every worthless line.
    These posts often have opening sentences such as “Summer is here!” “Fall is here!” or “Winter is here!” (Yes, spring is just as guilty.)
    If the reader isn’t laughing (“Funny!”), nodding (“They totally feel my pain!”) or going What the eff? (“I don’t know what’s happening here but I can’t stop reading!”) in the first few lines, then the piece is not doing its job.
  3. The perfectly pleasant post. It’s on time, it’s grammatically correct(ish), it gives you exactly what you asked for. But it’s completely forgettable.
    Useful content should be more than just words that fill a space.

What You Can Do

Have I made you hate your writers a little bit? Well, I hate to break it to you … but you’re part of the problem, too (we’ll get to that in a minute). There’s plenty of blame to go around for everyone! #togetherness

Now let’s talk about how to fix this mess. Break out your red pen and slap a sneer on that pretty face of yours. It’s time to indulge your inner editor. Here’s what you need to do to whip those scribblers into shape:

  1. Do not rubber stamp anything. The content machine is hungry all the time. You gotta get stuff out the door. I get it. But if you are not reading over your writers’ work with a critical eye and asking questions, you’re going to end up with lazy writers who are going to save their best stuff for their social media accounts.
    Condition people to expect questions about their content. If you do, you’ll find that they’ll soon start anticipating those questions and putting a little more blood and sweat into their drafts. That’s how you encourage writers to think about what they’re writing instead of just regurgitating their research or the interview they just did.
  2. Take them off the leash sometimes. Writers are smart people but we’re often put in the position of being told exactly what to do, especially in terms of marketing and content. We quickly learn that people want us to use our brains, but only so much, lest we veer from a pre-ordained objective on someone’s spreadsheet. We get used to dialing things back.
    As a freelancer, I’ve had the really excellent experience of working with people who have let me stretch my wings. Now I approach all writing from a “better to ask for forgiveness than permission” standpoint. I listen hard to what people tell me they want … and then I give them what I think they need instead. And you know what? Nine and a half times out of ten, people go nutty for it.
    Dare your writers to impress you. Have them go all over your organization and sniff out the stories that are worth telling. No, you don’t have to throw away your objectives; instead, challenge your writers to create narratives around them. If you give them room to surprise you, they just might.
    [WARNING: The next bullet point is the one you’re going to hate.]
  3. Hire an experienced editor.  I’m so sorry to break this news to you. Really. But in the age of content factory farming, there’s so much emphasis on production and not enough emphasis on craft. If you really want great content that’s going to make your organization stand out as a thought leader, you need to to hire an editor.
    Think of it this way: Any business that’s doing content is now a publisher by default. If you were a magazine publisher, you’d have an editor handling the nuts and bolts of the content. Your blog, your social media accounts, every bit of content you’re putting out in the world … it’s got to gel. It’s a big mother of a job. If you’re the person in charge of marketing, you’ve got to run campaigns, establish branding, cut deals, and look sharp in a suit while doing it. Hire someone fantastic to oversee your content and get that stuff off of your plate.*
    My prediction: We’re going to see more and more companies with executive level positions just for content. And when that happens, perhaps marketing and content will find a way to live happily ever after.

*I know you won’t listen to me on this. No hard feelings. I still think your suit is pretty snazzy.

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Building Rituals: The Dilbert Guide to Managing Life

Clocks with gears coming out of them.

(Image by Gerd Altmann on Pixabay)

Every day when I make a cup of tea in the microwave I think of my Aunt Klara.

While staying at her house in New Hampshire years ago, I dropped a tea bag into a cup of water and put it in the microwave. “No!” she (very nearly) shrieked. “You have to microwave the water without the tea bag!” And then she said why … and I think it was something to do with the microwave making my teabag radioactive or something like that. I can’t quite remember.

I keep almost looking this tea bag issue up, but I’ve enjoyed the mystery for more than a decade now. Why spoil it? There’s a small part of me that hopes one day I’ll go retrieve my tea cup from the microwave, only to find that the tea bag has grown arms and legs and a face, and is banging on the inside of the microwave door demanding to be let out.

I don’t make my mind remember that trip to Aunt Klara’s house or wonder why my tea is trying to murder me; it just happens. The act of making tea is a trigger.

Every night, I set up the coffee pot for the next morning. That way, all I have to do is come downstairs and hit the power button. I don’t have to remind myself to do this; the act of closing up the house for the night is a trigger.

Every morning when the kids are here, I get out everyone’s vitamins, the (miracle drug) Flonase (that has nearly obliterated my and Megan’s severe sinus issues — ask me about this if you have sinus problems), and whatever prescriptions Benjamin is on at the moment (reflux, asthma … sigh). I don’t think about getting this stuff out; the act of starting breakfast is a trigger.

When the kids aren’t here, I often forget to take my vitamins and my Flonase. If they’re gone for multiple days, I’m likely to get a sinus infection. Without the appropriate trigger, the ritual falls apart.

Triggers and thoughts. Triggers and rituals. These things are on my mind at the moment.

Dilbert Made Me Do It

I bought a secondhand edition of Tony Robbins’s Personal Power series years ago. (On cassette, no less.) In it, he talks a lot about setting yourself up for success through triggers. The idea is that you can train your brain to feel empowered or focused or virile like a young, sexually mature lion (pretend I said in a growly voice) by hooking up physical triggers. I haven’t listened to this in a while (cassettes!), but I believe he said he hooked up a trigger so that if he touches his left shoulder he immediately sprouts a cape and is able to scale tall building in a single bound.

I goofed around with the idea of creating physical triggers, but like most self-improvement techniques that require focused attention or (gawd forbid) homework, I never really followed through with it.

But I was recently reminded of a workaround for all of that self programming. I can just do what Dilbert does. Or the guy who created Dilbert anyway.

You remember Dilbert, right? Maybe, like me and half my coworkers in the late ’90s and early aughts, you had the Dilbert desk calendar, where you tear off a page a day? (Do they even still make those? Give me sec. Why yes they do. Forgive me. I’ve been out of the office world for a long time.)

Anyway, Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, was recently on Tim Ferriss’s podcast (which is consistently interesting for anyone with a vastly curious mind). Adams was discussing all kinds of things I never knew that he knew about. Dilbert is just a small piece of this guy’s existence.

It turns out that Adams is very into creating systems for success. A lot of those systems are built around what he refers to as systems, which are basically schedules and rituals that cut out decision making. For example, he eats the same protein bar for breakfast every day. That way he’s eating a healthy breakfast automatically.

We’ve all heard that Steve Jobs had 80 gajillion black mock turtlenecks so he didn’t have to think about what to wear in the morning. There’s science supporting the idea that people suffer from decision fatigue, so removing decision making from certain parts of your day can boost your overall efficiency. That is, you only have so many smart decisions to spend in a day, so you should ration them and not burn through them standing in your closet in the morning.

This is not a new concept for me … but I just forgot about it in the daily grind of getting through my days. As a person who works from home, scheduling daily life can be really frustrating. If I’m not careful, I can find myself sitting in my PJs at 2:00.

And this year, my kids’ new school starts an hour later than their old school. So I’m starting work later … and I still want to find time to exercise, meditate, and do the kind of writing that I love on top of doing my paid work. Oh yeah, showering and all the grooming that goes along with being female should happen somewhere in there, too. That’s a lot to fit into a day.

So now I’m looking at how I can build in rituals triggered by regular daily events. For example, I was already walking the kids to the bus stop. Now I put the dog on the leash before we go, and right after the kids get on the bus the dog and I go for a two-mile walk. I break a sweat, the dog gets a walk. I’m sleeping much better at night and I feel more energetic. Wins all around. However, if I have to go back into the house for something, it’s too easy to get distracted and go do something else. The key is to make sure I have my phone, the poo bags (bleh), and my sneakers. We even go in the rain.

Now I want to work on coming back and immediately doing some light weight training. (I love 8 Minutes in the Morning by Jorge Cruise. I just do the exercise part — in 6 days, you work through all the muscle groups.) I want to do this every day. I don’t. But sometimes is better than no times. Like I said, I’m working on it.

This also works in the reverse. A few years ago I did a fast (with mixed results). But one thing I learned is that I had built a ritual of stopping for coffee nearly every time I got in my car. And then sometimes I’d get a doughnut or something to go with it. Quite an awakening.

One last thing: After listening to Scott Adams on the Tim Ferriss podcast, I bought his book How to Fail at Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life. So far it’s a pretty good read — would recommend for anyone who needs a jolt of inspiration in going for those big life goals (except that Adams will tell you not to shoot for goals, and what you should do instead; spoiler alert: the answer is above.)

Have some pointers for building productivity or health rituals? I’d love to hear them. If you know the answer to the tea bag question, though, don’t tell me. I’m enjoying not knowing.

This post was originally published on my personal blog at AccordingtoTrish.com.

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How Sex Offenders Could Be Ruining Your Content Strategy (Yes, Really)

Creepy Guy

A cautionary tale about content gone horribly, horribly wrong

Normally I write for writers on this site, but today I want to switch gears and write for the people who hire writers. (But if you’re a writer, feel free to eavesdrop … and you should, because this post is a hoot.)

I just recently saw the most hilarious content backfire ever.

Want to see? Sure you do. Check out this paragraph from an article describing why Drexel Hill is one of the top small cities in Pennsylvania:

This is also a very safe town. While there are some registered sex offenders in this town, 21 to be exact, there is actually only 1 per 1,406 people in the town. Actually, only one area where safety is regarded as a concern in this town is in regards to the weather. There are more than average tornados and earthquakes in this city.”

What is the reader supposed to take away from this passage? I’m not entirely sure but here are my guesses:

  • If you want to move to Drexel Hill, keep your kids in the house and check into some property insurance riders.
  • Don’t be too concerned about the perverts because you’ll probably die in a natural disaster anyway.
  • You ‘ll only have to deal with sex offenders 6.23 hours per year because the rest of the time they’ll be busy with the other 1405 residents they’re assigned to.

But wait! Before we get all Armageddon up in here (WHERE is Bruce Willis when you need him???), the article says we should also know this about Drexel Hell, er, Hill.

A very good thing about this though is that there is a hospital in the town, Delaware County Memorial Hospital. This is much better than some of the other small towns that do not have a hospital as you do not want to go far when you need emergency medical services.”

Thank you, blog author, for pointing that out. I SO do not want to have to go far for emergency services, especially when I’m unable to make it to the storm shelter because I’ve been derailed by my friendly neighborhood sex offender. It’s like you just know me, you know?

Another town, Willow Grove, was lauded for being a “very traditional town where 53% of the households are married couples and only 10% are single mothers with no husband or male figure in their homes.”

As we all know, single mothers who are unable or unwilling to get laid are a scourge on all of our lives. Thank God at least some of the single mamas in Willow Grove had the good sense to insert a dude into their domiciles. We need to keep that situation contained.

Someone make it stop

One of my pet peeves lately is overuse of the word “epic.” But this mess? You can say it with me: epic content fail. 

So, yes, this was an extreme example. But you know what? There’s still a lot of terrible copy out there on the Internet and somebody, somewhere paid money to put it there.

Maybe even worse: There’s a lot of mediocre copy out there that’s not even worth reading. At least the bad stuff is entertaining.

How does this happen? I’m not telling you anything earth shattering here, but the way I see it, there are certain conditions that create bad or offensively mediocre copy:

  1. When companies look at content as words to fill a space. It’s all so much lorem ipsum as far as they’re concerned. This is usually related to  …
  2. When companies want to cheap out content. Bargain basement content is so dangerous. Why? Because anything that goes on a company’s website is the face of the business as far as the customers are concerned. These companies might as well hand a megaphone to the intern and ask him or her to give the keynote at the industry conference.
  3. When companies think of content as a box to be checked. “Are we doing content?” “Yep.” “OK, good. That’s important. Moving on …” Content is not a set-it-and-forget-it thing. Content can live on the web forever. It can take on a life of its own (for better or, more likely, for worse) if companies don’t pay close attention to it.

Of course, if you’re reading this, I’m probably preaching to the choir. Hopefully your content is the kind that inspires your customers to open their wallets instead of girding their loins.

Have an example of deliciously terrible copy? Send it to me! #guiltypleasure
I’m at trish@writeworks.co

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My BIG problem with the blogosphere’s biggest conference

Why the Blogher Conference consistently shatters my dreams

Quiz question: How do you know you’re moving in a week?

Answer: You find yourself sitting on a lawn chair in your living room, drinking wine out of a coffee mug.

That was me at the end of last week. Today I’m sitting at my cluttery desk — one of the few areas that remains unboxed — and mentally finishing packing while simultaneously working.

But before all that goes down, I wanted to talk a little bit about what I’m doing next week. I’ll be at the Blogher Conference in New York City. (Like to go? Click here to get 30% off a new registration.) Yeah, I’ll be doing my session right after Gwyneth Paltrow speaks. So no biggie.

I’m super psyched about this conference because I’ll be leading a Business Intensive session on how to set rates for writing. As you may know, this is a topic that I’m extremely passionate about — hence this website that, oddly enough, has been in desperate need of updating because I’m too busy implementing the strategy that I’m trying to teach other writers.

They say that the son of the shoemaker has no shoes … to that I add a hearty “no shit.”

But while I’m excited about Blogher, I also have a serious problem with this conference. Let me explain.

My big problem with Blogher

I’ve been to the Blogher Conference many times. I’m always blown away at the incredible mix of bloggers and companies in attendance. I often leave SO FIRED UP to go out and put my own big, messy stamp on the blogosphere … but that feeling is also accompanied by a few other less-than-pretty feelings.

Being in the presence of so many women (and men!) who are out there making a killer living through their blogs or making a name for themselves with their writing can be pretty intimidating.

When I get home and sit back down in front of my computer, I find myself thwacked in the face with self-doubt (so-and-so had such great ideas … my stuff feels lame in comparison), frustration (I’ve been at this so long … why am I not making any money yet?), and overwhelm (there is SO MUCH to do to make a dent … why do I even bother?). 

So if you’re going to Blogher, I want to share a dirty little secret: You CAN make money blogging — and you don’t need to get a sponsorship or land a book deal to do it. Yes, even YOU, the person who just likes to write about her kids and her messy house and who has no prayer of ever launching a “lifestyle” blog … and you, the person who likes to curse it up over the latest drama going on in your life … and you, the person who just really digs writing and loves the “therapy” that goes along with blogging.

You can make a full-time income blogging — you just may need to rethink your approach.

Come to my session and we’ll talk about how you can confidently charge what you’re worth — no more getting “paid” in premiums or as a percentage of clicks. We’re going to talk about how to charge $50 per hour, $60 per hour, and even more than $90 per hour for your blogging work and get a predictable monthly paycheck at the end of it.

Even better? You can make money without selling out your own blog.

If you’re already a professional writer and you’re not making enough money (which you probably aren’t, because, HELLO, YOU’RE A WRITER), come to my session and find out what you should really be charging for your work.

Disclaimer: My session is a “no gimmick” zone. If you want to make this kind of money, you’re going to have to work hard and you’re going to have to challenge yourself to go beyond your comfort zones. Asking for money? It’s an uncomfortable skill to learn. Knowing that you deserve the rates that you’re asking for — and you WILL — means that you may need to up your writing game.

The good news? If you’re blogging consistently, you probably already know more than you think you do. 

This session is a roundtable format, so come prepared with questions — or don’t, and join us to hear what other people have to say.If you can’t go, leave me your questions in the comments section and I’ll try to answer them here. Hope to see you in New York!

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Do you stink at asking for money? I’ll show you how to do it right

Do you love the idea of getting paid for writing but can’t figure out how to set your rates? Do you suspect that you’re being underpaid for your professional writing?

I have soooo been there. But then I got over it and learned how to confidently ask for the cash that I deserve.

Let me show you how.

Next month, I’ll be at the Blogher15 Conference in New York City, where I’ll be running a workshop on how to set rates for your writing. My session takes place on Friday, July 17th at 2:00.

Do I know everything about this? Hell no. But after years of being underpaid, I figured a lot of things out the hard way. Come and learn from my mistakes — and start making real money.

Hope to see you there!

The Art of the Schmooze: Why Freelance Writers Are Horrible at Networking

networking

The big, important thing freelance writers always forget about making new connections

Hello, lovelies! Apologies for the delayed post. Been busy with expected and unexpected family stuff, a work trip, frantic and sudden house hunting … and oh yeah, I got engaged. So there’s that, too. :-)

But we have important freelance writing things to talk about, so let’s dig into those, shall we?

Why you stink at networking

Are you getting enough work? If you’re not, there may something that you’re doing wrong. Did you guess that I was going to say “networking?” You’re so smart.

Here are two ways to know if you’re not networking effectively:

1. You never leave your house.

2. Your networking game plan largely consists of tweeting at strangers until they notice you.

Right now, I can hear a bunch of you going “I became a writer so I don’t have to leave my house! Plus, aren’t virtual connections are just as important as in-person connections these days?”

To that last bit, I say yes and no. (Free free to read that “no” as NO, YOU SILLY FOOL.)

People hire people they know

Last year I was at the Contently Summit in NYC. During happy hour, I was chit chatting with the lead talent manager. He said something like “We have so many people looking for work. I’m much more likely to place someone I’ve met in person and had a beer with.” (Paraphrasing, obviously.)

As I’ve said before, I don’t know everything there is to know about freelance writing, but I do know this: Many of my most-substantial, long-term gigs have been the result of a face-to-face connection with someone somewhere along the line.

What you need to do (or) what’s worked for me

That doesn’t mean that I’m out rubbing elbows all the time. In fact, I only get to networking events or conferences a couple times a year. I’m a single mom. I have two kids and I have clients that expect me to, you know, produce stuff for them. Also, I live in the suburbs and I just can’t easily get into the city all the time.

So here are some things that I do that have worked out well. You may already be doing some of them, but if not, give ’em a shot.

Keep in touch with everyone you ever worked with. Easy enough through LinkedIN or Facebook. Hopefully you’re doing this already.

Go on writer dates. If you make a connection with a writer person who’s in your relative local area, ask him or her to meet you for coffee — even if the person is younger than you and less-experienced than you. Why? A few reasons:

1. Karma. Perhaps you’ll be able to help this person and that’s a nice thing.

2. You don’t know everything. There’s always something to learn from everyone if you keep an open mind. And I promise you, this “kid” knows stuff about content and digital media that you don’t.

3. This person may not have experience now, but remember: People love to hire 20-somethings over 40+ -somethings. This “kid” could be a powerful connection someday. Or tomorrow.

4. If you’re the “kid” in this scenario, asking someone to meet with you shows confidence and initiative.

Go to stuff — but not just writer stuff. Sure, there are a gajillion writers’ conferences. Some of them are good. But if you’re trying to get work as a freelance writer, is hanging out with a bunch of other struggling writers a great strategy?

Probably not.

That’s why it’s a good idea to get out of your house (and yes, out of your pjs) and hit up some events in industries you’re interested in writing about.

I’m lucky that Philadelphia is right down the road. Sometimes there’s a lot going on, like this week’s Philly Tech Week — which on the surface is about technology, but which also attracts bunches and bunches of media types and companies who need writers.

Because here’s something important you need to know if you don’t already: the writing world and the digital world are converging like crazy. Don’t be afraid of technology or you will make yourself obsolete.

We also have a great Content Strategy Meetup group, run by a guy named David Dylan Thomas. This dude is fantastic about creating events that relate to current trends in content strategy. I don’t always get to everything, but even just cyberstalking the speakers he has lined up is often a great way to keep on top of what’s going on.

Don’t overlook the obvious. Guess where you can make a lot of great contacts if you’re just starting out? Your local chamber of commerce.

A colleague suggested that I go to a networking event there months ago and I was all “Why didn’t I think that of that???” Everyone had to get up and give a 30-second pitch about what they did. When the event concluded — no lie — there were five people waiting to talk to me. They were not all the right clients for me, but it really opened my eyes to the fact that people are desperate for writers.

So what about you? Have any other networking tips? Let’s hear ’em.

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3 Mistakes to Avoid When Setting Freelance Writing Rates

Money tree

When quoting by the hour can work — and when it can backfire

Today I have a guilty confession for you. Or actually two, depending on how you feel like slicing it.

I also want to let you know about an insanely useful tool that might change the way you set your rates forever.

But let’s get the guilt outta the way first, shall we?

I let you all down

I’m going to put forth a new axiom. Let’s call it Sammer’s Law, because why not take the opportunity to name something after myself, right?

Sammer’s Law: She who fails to consider subtleties and exceptions shall be swiftly forced to confront them.

To put that somewhat less-succintly: The principle that the act of pontificating about any one topic, especially on a blog, and especially using the words “always” or “never,” will be closely followed by the appearance of evidence that weakens the point you just spent 1000 words shooting your mouth off about.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I caution against working for hourly rates.

So guess what I went ahead and did? Yep.

Twice. <wince>

The time that the bad thing turned out kinda good

Things worked out really well with one quote and … uh, as for the other one … well, you’ll see.

So here’s what happened. Two pretty sweet potential clients showed up on my doorstep. Unsolicited work? Hell to the yeah.

Company #1 has some very important but very outdated web pages they need rewritten — actually, a little more than rewritten. They need them re-imagined.

But there’s a lot of info to go through. If information were laundry, it would be like someone dumping 10 loads of clothes on your floor and asking “How many outfits can you make out of this?”

Obviously, I can’t know that until I dig in. Also, this company is not accustomed to hiring professional writers. The person who was going to hire me thought it would be an easier sell on her side if she could quote an hourly rate. Since she’s an old friend/former colleague, I wanted to make it easy for her.

So I created an hourly rate with the help of the AWESOME TOOL that I mentioned above. My friend got approvals, the company agreed to a fixed amount of hours and now I’m tasked with getting through as much that laundry pile as I can. Pretty painless so far.

Score one for the hourly rate method.

The time that the bad thing didn’t turn out so good

Then there’s Company #2. Sigh. They are doing some really awesome things. I want to do awesome things with them.

But to make a really long story short, let’s just say that if Company #1 has 10 loads of laundry, Company #2 has 100.

At first they wanted to me to do one specific project — in laundry terms, they wanted me to concentrate on the whites. No problem. I wrote them a proposal and gave them a project rate to do the whites.

But then they said, “Hey, can you do the brights, too?” There were a lotta brights. And some of them were dry clean only. And some were hand-wash and some were cold-wash. And did I mention there were a LOT?

With a shifting scope of work, a massive assignment, and the wild card of getting through their corporate approval process — which could be easy or could be the opposite of that — quoting a project rate felt like taking a shot in the dark. If I ended up miscalculating, I could end up working well below my targeted rate.

So I thought, “That hourly rate thangity worked pretty well with Company #1. Maybe I’ve been wrong all this time! Let’s see if it would work again!”

They were game … but … (you knew that was coming, didn’t you?) they also wanted an estimate of how many hours I thought the project would take from start to finish.

I thought we were getting married!

We’d come this far. I’d already spent about seven or so hours meeting with them, getting familiar with their content, and writing a very, very detailed proposal. I was invested. So I went back to the drawing board to see what I could come up with.

But here’s the thing: There were probably over 100 completely unique pieces of content to go through. Some would’ve taken me 20-30 minutes to rewrite. Some would’ve taken me four hours. I went through what can accurately be described as a “shitload” of documents, trying to find something to hang my hat on — some way to quantify or group content so I could look at it as a whole.

It was an impossible task. In laundry terms, I was going to have to read every label on every piece of clothing in those 10 loads of laundry.

By that point, I’d easily spent about 10 hours on their material.

Finally, I ended up back where I started: I proposed a monthly retainer to get started on the project.

They’re kicking it around. We shall see.

Life is one silly teacher, yes?

It’s entirely possible I won’t get that gig. And if so, oh well. That sometimes happens in Freelance World. I didn’t need the job, although I sure would’ve liked it. In any case, those 10 hours I spent sweating over proposals for them were certainly instructive.

Let’s break this experience down into some handy “lessons learned” bullets, shall we?

  1. Time box proposal time. Yes, do your homework and let your effort show in your proposal. But keep in mind that that time may never have an ROI. Decide what you’re OK with.
  2. Don’t work for free, even if the work is fun. Did I give away too much in the proposal — like, stuff that I probably should’ve charged a consulting fee for? Maybe. (Or “yes.”) But to be fair: They did not specifically ask for all of the information that I gave them. I got excited about the gig and went to town on it.
  3. Don’t get pressured into saying how long something will take. Keep in mind, I’m not saying this as a way to get something over on a client. Rather, I’m saying that freelancers need to protect their own interests. It’s all too common that a job that looks very simple on the surface is a lot more complicated once you dig in. Clients will want to know turnaround times. Stick to ranges and be sure to explain that turnaround times may be heavily dependent on the availability of source material/subject matter experts and especially on approvals.

The amazing tool I promised you

One other valuable thing I learned from this experience is that WRITER’S MARKET IS THE BOMB DIGGIDY. Someone mentioned it on LinkedIN, and I was blown off my rocker to find that this really useful book contains pages and pages of rate comparisons for different kinds of writing work.

And my downtrodden little writer friends who think that my post on charging $67 an hour was nuts … well guess where the rates in this book land? #justified

We have a lot talk about the next few posts, including:

  • A big pep talk from your friend Trish (hey! that’s me!) on why you probably need to charge more — and how you should go about it
  • How to construct a monthly deal with a client, including determining scope of work and monthly fees
  • Why ghostwriting is such an incredibly valuable skill to have in your pocket — and how it can take your writing career to the next level
  • How to network without feeling like an idiot
  • Answers to your important questions

Your homework for this week: Send me your questions at trish@writeworks.co.

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The life of a working freelance writer is fraught with peril

Hi all! Sorry for the extended hiatus. The life of a working single-mom freelancer requires a certain amount of precision to keep pace — and February/early March messed with my shit big time.

These people who swear that they’re my children had school for about a total of an hour and a half during the past six weeks. On top of that, I had two (really exciting) potential gigs pop out of the woodwork and I went deep into proposal-writing mode. And then, you know, I had all my regular paid work to do.

What can I say? I flat-out ran outta hours to write here.

Hang tight, chickadees. I haven’t forgotten about you! I’m working on the next post and promise to have something up on Monday.

In the meantime: SPRING! Woot!

How to Set Your Freelance Writing Rates: The (Only-Slightly Painful) Guide

If-you-think-its

Let’s see if I can start this post without triggering a panic attack for any of my fellow writer peeps …

Please take out your math homework.”

I know. <shudder>.

Did you do your homework assignment from last week, in which you were supposed to figure out how much money you need to make to survive every month? If you didn’t, no worries. Once we dive into this week’s lesson, you’ll have a pretty strong incentive for figuring out that number.

Monthly money goals

Last week I spelled out a bunch of reasons why charging by the hour is a bad idea, but there’s one I didn’t mention. That is, if you really want to do this freelance writing thing full-time, it’s a helluva lot easier if you can have a targeted, predictable monthly income goal in mind. Why is that? Because it can give you a benchmark for deciding which jobs are worth taking, and which are going to be a costly distraction.

So right now we’re going to walk through how to set some monthly revenue goals. This may seem like a lot to take in, but I promise I will hold your hand and we’ll get through it together.

In any case, it’s really important to DO THESE STEPS because they will be invaluable in figuring out how to set your rates:

1. Figure out what you need to make every month. Multiply this by 12 to figure out what your yearly income must be.

Don’t forget to add in health insurance — because you’ll be paying all of it if you’re a full-time freelancer. As a point of comparison, my insurance is about $400 per month for me and one kid (I have two kids but one is on a separate policy). That $400 includes the tax break on the healthcare exchange.

2. Get out some tissues for your tears, because I also need to remind you that if you’re self-employed you’re on the hook for paying your own taxes.

Yes, this is such a pain in the ass, but don’t be scared of it. People way dumber than you have managed to handle their own tax payments without having an employer to act an insulator. You can do this.

I’ve never found a great equation for figuring out estimated tax percentages. In general, though, I assume that 30% of anything I make is going to taxes. That may be a little high, but I’d rather overestimate. If anyone has better insight on this, please email me at trish@writeworks.co. I’d love to have better calculations.

3. Figure out what you’d like to make every month. Go ahead and multiply this by 12 to see what your yearly income would be if you could pull this off. (And hopefully you can — we’re going to talk about how in a bit, so hang tight.)

4. Now figure out how many hours per week you would like to spend working for clients. That includes writing, researching, interviewing, and communicating with clients via phone, emails, and in-person meetings.

5. Keep in mind that you’ll need some time for general business stuff as well, so set aside some hours for bookkeeping, prospecting and pitching, networking, marketing yourself, and doing whatever it takes to stay current in your skill set. When you’re a freelancer, no one is paying you for that stuff so it falls into a little category called overhead.

Now pull out that calculator.

Determining your target rates 

Let’s work with some round numbers here so the math-challenged among us (holla!) can stay on track.

Say you want to bill $100K this year — with about $30K going to taxes, you’ll have about $70K to live on.

To hit that target, you’ll need to bill around $8333 per month, or $1923 per week if you’re working 52 weeks per year.

But wait! Do you want two weeks vacation time? No employer is paying for that, either. If you want to build that in, let’s re-calculate based on a 50-week year. $100,000 per year divided by 50 weeks is $2000 per week.

*Note: A serious downside of Freelance World is that true vacation time can be hard to come by. Unless you negotiate that into a client agreement at the start, clients will probably expect you to produce the same amount of monthly work every month, whether you’re on vacation or not.

Remember all that talk about hourly rates …

So how do you get $2000 a week?

Remember how I told you not to charge by hour? I still stand by that. However, you should have a target hourly rate in your own mind to help you set prices.

Let’s assume you want to work about 30 hours for clients and leave 10 hours for all the other bullshite. Based on a 50-week work year, you’ll need to bill about $67 an hour to hit your target. [That’s $100,000 / 50 weeks to get $2000 per week; then $2000 divided by 30 hours.]

When evaluating a new job, you can then figure out about how many hours per week (or month) the job is going to take you. For example, something that’s going to take you 4 hours per week should be billed at at least $1200 per month. [That’s 4 hours x $67/hour x 4.5 weeks.]

To hit your target, you’d need about 7 similar gigs per month.

However …  seven gigs may feel like a lot to juggle every week.

In that case, you might want to shoot for more substantial jobs and have fewer clients.

I find that I like having a mix: a couple small, reliable contracts balanced by a few contracts that require a bigger time commitment. Having to switch gears between different clients can be a brain drain if I have to do too much of it.

Not all work is the same

Does every client get quoted the same rate? Hell no. You should figure out your target rate and then slide up or down from there depending on the work. With your target rate in mind, you’ll have a better idea of where you want to land going into each new job — and you can say no to the jobs that just aren’t in your ballpark.

I just got into a great discussion about this on LinkedIn yesterday. To paraphrase what I said there, different clients get different rates not because I’m trying to be sneaky or because I’m trying to squeeze more money out of them, but rather because one hour on one project may not be equivalent to an hour on another project.

That is, some work is going to require me to break a sweat and some isn’t.

For example, I just finished a blog post on technology solutions for monitoring underground pipelines. That project forced me to get quickly up to speed on an unfamiliar topic so I could write about it in an authoritative way. Plus, it required me to apply my acquired knowledge of technology solutions — which has taken years to amass. One of the reasons I was hired for the job was because the client had the expectation that I was coming in with a certain level of experience, and that I could handle tackling a new and intense subject.

On the other hand, I also just wrote a blog post about February being children’s dental hygiene month. The hour or so it took me to write that didn’t require nearly the effort that an hour on the other post did. Therefore, it got charged at a lower rate.

Of course, theoretically, you could  decide to take only jobs that you bill at your highest hourly rate. There’s nothing wrong with that if you can pull it off.

As for me, I find that spending all my client-work hours in intense-research-and-concentration mode can be fatiguing — but my kids are getting off the bus at the same time every day*  — I like to have some mental juice leftover to be mom.

*Except for the month of February, when they’re home three days a week.

For a more in-depth discussion of this, please check out Laura Shin’s excellent article in Forbes. She does a great job of crystalizing exactly how this works.

How will I ever make my number?

Right now I can hear some of you thinking something along these lines:

The number I came up with for my targeted hourly rate seems HIGH. Can I really get anyone to pay me that?”

Or maybe you’re thinking:

Wait. Didn’t you mention something about blogging for businesses? So what exactly am I selling to these clients for those rates?”

Those questions, my sweet little muffins, are the topics we are going to cover in the next few posts. And remember: I promised there would be NO GIMMICKS in this series so prepare for some straight talk about assessing your skill set in relation to what the market will bear. Some of you will be ready to go get some work right now and others are going to have to ramp up — but if you’re willing to work hard and turn yourself into a writing ninja,  all of this should be attainable.

And really, isn’t that the secret to everything in life? Just be a ninja. Duh.

This week’s homework: Keep working on your numbers.

See you next week!

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