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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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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How to Get Paid to Blog for Companies: The No-Gimmick Strategy for Serious Writers

NoGimmicks

You can make a living as a paid blogger (spoiler alert: but maybe not in the way that you think)

Believe it or not, making money as a blogger is probably easier now than it ever was.

As I mentioned in my last post, where I told you how to take charge of your pathetic freelance writing career, regular monthly blogging contracts are how I make my baseline income.

I’m very, very happy to share with you how I do this. But first, let’s be very clear about what kind of work we’re talking about here and what kind of work we’re not talking about.

It’s time for some tough love from one writer to another.

We are not talking about you pursuing your dreams of creative writing while companies and/or your adoring public send you money every month for the pleasure of reading the words that you’ve strung together in only the way that you can. (Patrons of the arts can be hard to come by in the digital world, yo.)

Rather, what we’re talking about is you showing up like a grown-up professional person, learning someone’s business, and then creating content for them in a way that solves their business needs.

What we’re talking about is you becoming a business person.

But I don’t have business skills!

I know, I know. You’re a writer. You’re creative. You’re not a business type. You just want to write and get paid for your talent. Is that too much to ask?

Well for right now, yes, it probably is for most of you. Because no one wants to pay you to wax poetic about your morning meditation — that is, unless doing so can accomplish a business objective.

And therein lies a big key to what we’re going to talk about: Finding the intersection between what you already know about/are passionate about and what someone will pay you to write about.

How to match your skills to business needs

The 30,000-foot view is this: You pick something you’re interested in and then find someone to pay you to blog about it.

So let’s go back to that morning meditation for a sec. If that’s something that really interests you and you’re spending a lot of time thinking about it, I’d tell you to go find a yoga studio that needs a blogger.

Interested in holistic health? Find a healthfood store or a company that sells herbal remedies.

Interested in beer? Blog for a company that sells home-brew supplies.

Easy enough equation, right?

Now let’s drill down a little bit …

Did you do your homework from last week? That is, you were supposed to make a list of all the seemingly worthless knowledge you have and every industry you’ve ever worked in.

If you haven’t already made your list, make it now. Here are some things you should include:

  • Every industry you’ve ever worked in
  • Any topic you consistently google just for the fun of it
  • Any volunteer work you do/have ever done
  • Any sort of business that you feel you understand well, because you patronize it, grew up around it, or follow it for another reason

This is your starting point. Pick an industry associated with something on your list and start checking out websites. Notice which businesses have really great blogs, which ones have horrible blogs, which fall somewhere in between … and which don’t have any blogs.

Spend some time determining what separates the good from the bad.

Which ones are more fun to read? Which ones are a chore?

Which blogs seem more likely to build trust with current and potential customers?

Which blogs seem to have a personality behind them?

The upshot is this: That list is full of a number of opportunities that you could pursue.

However … I must caution you before you start pounding the cyber pavement too much.

Not every opportunity is a good opportunity

Once I realized that companies would pay me to blog, I saw opportunity everywhere: from the coffee shop down the street to any business owner I’d interviewed for stories or rubbed elbows with in the past year.

However, it’s really important to remember that all clients are not created equal. You want to build your client list with a certain amount of precision. Otherwise, you’re going to end up with a roster of clients that are going to waste your time and drive you nuts.

So how can you narrow your focus and decide who to approach?

Go back to your list and ask yourself if you have any specialized knowledge about any of the industries listed there. Because while you could probably write about any category on the list, you’re going to make a whole lot more money if you have something to offer that other writers don’t have.

What this looks like

As one example, I was the editor-in-chief of an employment law newsletter for 10 years. Blogging for an employment law firm makes a lot of sense for me. I’m already intimately familiar with employment law so I’m able to fill a need that other writers just walking in off the street might not be able to meet. I’m valuable to my client because I can come up with story ideas, do research, and write blog posts with very little input from their side. Basically, I’m saving them a ton of time that they can then use to work on their core business.

But I don’t just blog for them. I also blog about technology and higher education — both fields that I’ve written about in other capacities over the past few years. The knowledge base that I’ve built up means that I can ask for more money than a writer who isn’t familiar with those fields because I’m bringing more value to the table.

Separating the good and bad clients

Once you have an idea of what industry you’d like to target, go back and check out the websites associated with that industry a little more. You can save yourself a lot of time pitching clients if you’re strategic about who you want to work with.

Here’s what I do: I look for the company that’s already blogging, but is doing a poor job of it. Usually that means they’re not posting regularly, what they’re posting is poorly written, or the content is too high- or low-level for their potential client base.

If I see that, I can surmise a few things:

1. They understand the value of blogging enough to have given it a try, so I’m not going to have to sell them on why blogging is important

2. They’ve probably already figured out that blogging is more work than they thought it would be, so they may be frustrated enough to consider farming it out

Avoid these companies at all costs

Never, ever, ever pitch a company that has never attempted blogging. Even if they understand the value of blogging, they’re likely to be so far behind on the technology curve that they’re going to ask you to do all kinds of things you shouldn’t be doing. Next thing you know, you’ll be re-writing their entire website and trying to hunt down designers and programmers to fix all the other little issues they don’t like about their site. You’re there to write, not to be the website handyman.

I also avoid big companies because I assume they have writers in-house or that I won’t be able to get to the right decisionmaker. Pitching can be time consuming, so I want to focus my energies where I’m more likely to see a payoff sooner.

Yes, you have homework

It may be a snow day here in the greater Philly area, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have homework, suckas. (And you have to do it because I wrote this with two elementary school kids vying for my attention — you kind of owe me now.)

Your assignment: Take the PAYlance Pledge if you haven’t already done so! Then, dig into your list and start researching companies you’d like to blog for. Next week we’re going to talk about how to approach these companies so they’ll not only meet with you, but they’ll see your value.

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See you next week!