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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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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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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How Much Should I Charge for Freelance Writing? (And Other Questions No One Wants to Answer)

invoice

Stop flying blind and start getting strategic to make a steady income from freelance writing

Who wants to talk about how much they charge for freelance writing work?

Anyone? <crickets>

If it’s one thing writers hate, it’s talking about money. We all want to work and we all want to be paid well for it, yet most writers I know approach money talks with about as much confidence as a dog skulking toward an owner who happens to be wielding a rolled-up newspaper.

I just want to play ball with you … please don’t hit me too hard first …

I admit, I have done this. Even now I sometimes find myself reverting to the fearful pooch position when talking to a client. And then I grab a rolled-up newspaper and thwack myself with it.

Because here’s the thing: If you’re any good at what you do, there’s no need to work for peanuts. (If you’re skeptical about that statement, I insist that you pause and go recite the PAYlance Pledge right now.)

And here’s another thing: You don’t have to be desperate for work because there’s lots of work out there.

And here’s yet one more thing: If people don’t want to pay you what you’re worth, you can always say no.

YOU are a business

I think it’s fair to say that a lot of writers are shitty business people. It’s not our natural skill set. We tend to value ideas over numbers and experience over creating our own business plans. And there’s nothing wrong with those things, except for the fact that it keeps us from approaching our freelance work in a strategic way.

So now I’m going to ask you to suck it up and pretend that you have a business. In fact, you ARE a business. That is the mindset you need to have when setting rates and talking to clients.

Why is there no magic formula for setting rates?

Today we are going to start assembling the building blocks you need to determine your rate structure. If you’re looking for the shortcut, quick-and-dirty, ultimately definitive answer on how much to charge, I can’t give it to you. The fact is, determining your rates depends on a LOT of things, including your experience, your revenue goals (yes, you need to have some), the kind of work you’re doing, and the companies that you’re doing it for.

But chillax, boys and girls. I’m going to walk you through how to put all this together in a way that hopefully will not make your head explode (too much).

A tale about why you shouldn’t charge by the hour

As I mentioned in a previous post, I do not charge by the hour and I don’t think you should, either. One of my clients told me the best story the other day that perfectly illustrates why:

A nuclear plant was having critical errors that were likely to cause a meltdown. They hired a consulting firm to come in and assess the problem. After spending days at the plant, the firm was unable to figure out what was wrong. They later sent a bill for $20,000.

The folks at the nuclear plant then contacted one of the leading experts in nuclear energy and asked him to have a look. The arrived at the plant and spent five minutes walking around. He then took a Sharpie out of his pocket, walked over to a pipe, and drew an X. “There’s your problem,” he said, and walked out. He later sent a bill for $80,000.

The powers-that-be at the nuclear plant were none too thrilled about paying $80K for five minutes of work, so they asked for an itemized bill. The nuclear expert complied. He sent back a two-line bill that looked like this:

  • $1.99 for Sharpie
  • $79,998.01 for solving your problem and diverting a nuclear meltdown

The point: Charging by the hour, the word, or the cubic ounce de-values writing and all of the accumulated experience you bring to the table. (And if you’re a beginner, don’t despair — we’re going to talk about what you should do to get started in a later post.)

You are a knowledge worker, not a factory worker

Remember that content is not a commodity. We’re not assembling stuff at a factory, we’re using our brains and our talent to create something that’s going to further someone’s business interests so they can do what? Say it with me: Make money.

If it takes you five minutes to write something but it makes a company a million dollars, that’s where your value is. (I believe I’m ripping off that idea from boyfriend, who ripped it off from Book Yourself Solid. Credit where credit is due, y’all.)

If someone just wants words to fill a space, that’s fine — they can go hire one of the many content factories to poop out some product for them. If they want someone who’s going to come in and learn their business, who their audience is, and what their business goals are — and then figure out how to put all those things together in a compelling, relatable message, that’s where my value comes in.

And ultimately, that is what  you should be selling.

Hourly schmourly

Beyond that, there are some other, very practical reasons that I don’t like charging by the hour.

  • Not to get all cosmic about it, but writing is a weird beast. Sometimes things go really fast … and sometimes they don’t. If I get stuck staring at my screen a little more than usual on a given day, then so be it. I don’t want to have to justify why a piece took three hours to write instead of two, or worse, as if I should subtract time from my bill because I couldn’t wrap my brain around something at a particular moment. It takes as long as it takes, and as long as I meet my deadlines, it’s no one’s business how much or how little I’ve sweated over something.
  • Getting paid by the hour feels like I’m playing beat the clock all day, every day. I don’t feel like working under that kind of pressure.
  • If you’re working for the same clients over a period of time, you’re going to get faster because you’ll know more. If a company found a way to produce a product more efficiently, would it charge less? Hell no. And neither should you.

Do I really have to do math?

Now that we’re all hopefully in the right mind set, I have some homework for you:

  1. Grab a calculator and figure out how much money you need to make every month. Multiply this by 12 to figure out what your yearly income must be.
  2. Start thinking about how many hours per week you’d like to devote to freelance work, whether that’s full-time or part-time.

You will need all these numbers for next week, so put a little time into this. See you then!

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