November 27, 2014

Where my freelance writing clients come from

In anticipation of the New Year, I’ve begun looking at new goals and strategies for 2015. One exercise I did was to list all my clients for 2013 and 2014 in Excel (I already have a list of invoices in Excel so this was fairly easy to do). I added a column indicating the ones were already generating ongoing work (my regulars), which ones had the potential to generate repeat work (time to pitch a new idea, perhaps?) and which ones were likely just a one-off project. I then added another column explaining where that client came from. Here’s where it gets interesting, so I thought I’d share my findings.

First off, I should note that this is not based on revenue, so for simplicity’s sake, every client was given equal weight even though a repeat client paying me thousands of dollars per year is clearly more valuable and takes up more of my time than a one-off project. Even so, perhaps you’ll find this interesting and maybe it will inspire other freelancers to post their own findings.

UPDATE: I did this same exercise several years ago and just stumbled on the post that outlines those findings. Here’s a look back in time if you’re curious how it compares then and now. 

Sources of Freelance Clients, 2013-2014

Sources of Freelance Work

Contacted me via email – 21%

I’m fortunate to write for several high-profile websites, so new clients often read my published work and email me offering new projects. Clients who contact me through Contently or MediaBistro would also fall into this category, as would editors who move onto another publication and ask me to write for them there. It doesn’t always work out (maybe the pay is too low, the topic isn’t a fit for me or the timeline is too tight), but when it does, this is a great source of work.

Pitches – 21%

Emailing pitches is another major source of work for me. Here I didn’t differentiate between blind pitches that I send to a new-to-me editor and pitches I send to an editor I’ve already worked with, but in most cases the initial pitch was sent without a prior introduction. The key with blind pitches is finding an idea that’s really targeted to that publication (check the archives to make sure they haven’t covered it recently) and explaining why you’re the person to write it.

Referral from another writer – 19%

Again, I’m fortunate to have several writers and editors in my network who’ve referred me to new clients (and several people have referred me to multiple clients – thanks, guys!). The best referrals are often the ones where a writer refers me to an editor or client they’re currently working with, because that gives me assurance that the client treats freelancers fairly well. In some cases, when a colleague passes on a project they don’t want it’s because the client has an unreasonable timeline or budget. Thanks, but no thanks. (This was an even bigger source of work a few years ago.)

Letter of introduction – 12%

I love letters of introduction (or LOIs for short) because they’re much simpler to write than a full story pitch. However, they tend to be more effective with trade publications than consumer publications. That’s because trades often generate ideas in-house and assign them to writers, while consumer pubs expert writers to generate their own ideas.

Email listserve – 7%

I subscribe to several email listserves (including UPOD, which I highly recommend, and a local email list as well). When someone posts about a project that perfectly fits my expertise, I’ll throw my hat into the ring. This has worked several times!

FreelanceSuccess.com – 5%

FreelanceSuccess.com is a wonderful online community for freelance writers and it’s directly resulted in at least two client relationships. However, I’ve also met many wonderful colleagues through the forums and that’s led to many more indirect opportunities and lots of great advice.

Craigslist – 5%

Yes, there are tons of low-paying clients on Craigslist, but if you’re patient, you can find a few gems too (the clients I’ve landed send me checks for at least several hundred bucks each invoice). I don’t actually troll Craigslist for freelance opportunities, but when I see a link elsewhere and the opportunity sounds like a good fit, I’ll apply and see what happens.

In-person networking – 2%

In-person networking has indirectly led to several opportunities, but there’s one project in particular that was a direct result of networking. I brought a Groupon for a local hair salon and the owner asked what I do for work. I told her I’m a freelance writer and she hired me on the spot to update her website copy and create bios for her new stylists.

LinkedIn.com – 2%

Honestly, I expected this number to be higher, but I did have a new prospect send me an InMail (LinkedIn’s messaging system) that led to several assignments. I also use LinkedIn for finding hard-to-reach sources and staying in touch with past or current clients and colleagues.

Problogger – 2%

I added Problogger jobs to my RSS feeds so new opportunities show up in my Feedly account. Lots of blogging gigs are low-paying, but I responded to one ad that sounded like a good fit and landed a gig that paid several hundred bucks per piece. I only respond to ads that include enough detail for me to know that I’d be the perfect person for that project. Otherwise, I don’t bother because it could be a sign that the client doesn’t even know what they want.

The Productivity Secret Every Non-Fiction Writer Should Know

ID-10046323By Bryan Collins

You know it’s not fair.

How can top bloggers write several quality blog posts a week while you struggle to produce just one?

Why are you finding it so difficult to research and finish your first book when other authors are releasing lengthier works every year?

What are your peers doing to become more productive than you, even though you know you work harder?

Writing is a difficult profession and it’s natural to feel frustrated (and even a little jealous), when others appear to accomplish more than you and with less effort.

Don’t worry.

There’s a simple but effective secret to becoming a more productive writer. Copywriters, authors and successful writers all keep a personal library. The good news is you already have the skills to create one and it doesn’t take a lot of extra work.

1. Create a Commonplace Book

Commonplace books were a personal, pre-internet repository of letters, medical information, quotes, facts, experiences, anecdotes and histories. They were also a way for families and communities to sort knowledge about their lives.

Historical figures, authors and poets like Marcus Aurelius, John Milton and Thomas Jefferson kept commonplace books. More recently, the author Ryan Holiday described how a commonplace book helped him write The Obstacle is the Way, saying:

“The purpose of the [commonplace] book is to record and organise these gems for later use in your life, in your business, in your writing, speaking or whatever it is that you do.”

Holiday prefers a paper-based system for his commonplace book, but you could use digital tools like Evernote or Simplenote. Whatever your choice, in your commonplace book record:

* day-to-day knowledge and wisdom

* quotes

* anecdotes

At the end of the week review your commonplace book and see if there are useful ideas you can extract and turn into something fresh.

This way, the wisdom you’re gathering will sink into your writing projects.

2. Use a Swipe File

In the season 7 premier of Mad Men, Don Draper tears a car ad out of Playboy and puts in his pocket. His wife tells him not to not ruin her magazine, but what the episode doesn’t show is the moment where Don takes this ad and puts it in his swipe file.

Don knows it’s better to build on what’s already out there than it is to reinvent the wheel every time (how else could he spend his time drinking, sleeping and hooking up?).

A swipe file is a place where you store facts, figures, headlines and ads relating to your industry. It’s a repository of information which, if it’s not relevant to your current writing project, will be of use at some point in the future.

Copywriters and advertisers use swipe files to keep ideas, research and information that they can use for future campaigns. A swipe file differs to a commonplace book in that it’s less about you and more about the work of your peers.

You could swipe:

* Headlines and first lines

* Inspiring videos and pictures (Pinterest is a social swipe file)

* Compelling emails

The copywriter and salesperson Dan S. Kennedy writes about swipe files in The Ultimate Sales Letter, saying that his huge “idea files” of “themes, words and phrases” helps him write sales letters.

Every productive non-fiction writer can make life easier by swiping and remixing old ideas to inform their work and to avoid burnout.

3. Have a system for annotations

If you’re a non-fiction writer, then you’ve had the frustrating experience of having to stop writing, look for a book and find a quote or fact to back up your work. This interrupts the process of writing.

You can get around this problem by annotating what you read, and then storing these annotations within your commonplace book or swipe file.

I annotate books by highlighting passages on my Kindle. I also record observations in Evernote, using Michael Hyatt’s method.

There’s nothing wrong with annotating books with a pen either. You could use color-coded stickies or Post-it notes so that these annotations are easy to find.

Prior to making annotations, I used to spend time searching old books for quotes that I half-remembered and points I wasn’t sure about. Now, when I’m writing an article or blog post, I return to my annotations for inspiration, for advice to back up a point.

Annotations will also get you to consider what makes a great sentence or argument, what makes a poor one and how accomplished writers succeed.

What you need to do next

Becoming the type of writer who comes up with an idea, puts it on the page and then finishes what they started is hard work. When you picked this craft for a profession you knew this, but you also know it’s important work.

If you want to become more productive, write an observation about an article you read in your commonplace book. Take a headline from a blog post you like, and put it in your swipe file. Finish that book you picked up about copywriting, and annotate the best bits.

Then, go out there and finish something.

BC-Headshot-264x300 Bryan Collins is on a mission to teach people how to become writers and finish what they started with A Handbook for the Productive Writer. He makes his online home at BecomeAWriterToday.com.

Upper photo from Arvind Balaraman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

7 Writing “Rules” You Should Break (and 3 You Shouldn’t)

ID-10046515by Mridu Khullar Relph

Writers, generally speaking, are rule breakers. We don’t like conformity and therefore, we write. Yet, by our nature, we’re insecure little things and like to be told little rules that we can follow to achieve success in our chosen paths.

Contradictory? Welcome to the life of a writer.

The problem, unfortunately, is for those amongst us who like rules and lists and systems, there are far too many out there that not only stand in the way of our success, but also limit our productivity and the risk-taking that is so essential to success in any writing career.

That’s why I’ve come up with a list of the seven most damaging rules that are going around that I assure you, you’re free to break. And three that I highly recommend you don’t.

Writing Rule #1: Write 1,000 words a day

Why you should break it: While this is a good goal in itself, setting a goal of writing 1,000 words a day can be detrimental to your productivity and your self-confidence if you have only, say, an hour a day in which to do your writing. We’ve all been there. By the time you’ve returned from that part-time job, cleaned the house, fed the kids, put everyone to bed, had about four cups of tea, and decided to sit down to write, you’re wiped out. A thousand words then is a goal so big that it’s almost unattainable. So you shut down the computer and go to bed. You’re not going to hit 1,000 words tonight, so why even bother, right?

What to do instead:  Instead of a word count, give yourself a fixed time slot in which to do your writing. In the days when freelancing took up my entire days and I felt I had no time or energy left to give to my novel, I’d show up at my desk every evening for half an hour. Sometimes I slogged through that half hour and wrote about 10 words, but there were other days when I easily touched 1,000. It didn’t matter how much I wrote, however, as long as I showed up every day for that half hour. I finished that novel a couple of months ago.

Writing Rule #2: Aim to earn $1 a word

Why you should break it: The difference between a freelancer and an author is simple: The author does the work once and gets paid for it repeatedly since the book is the product. But when you’re a freelance writer, you are the product. What this means is that you can’t scale up. Your hours are limited and therefore you need to earn as much as possible per hour if you want to make a good income.

What to do instead: Focus on your hourly rate. Whenever you receive an assignment, figure out how long it’s going to take you to do and then divide the total payment you’ve been offered by the number of hours it’ll take you to do the assignment. What’s your per hour rate? Is it something you’re happy with? Could it be better? Do this for every assignment for the next three months and you’ll start seeing patterns. You’ll figure out your hourly rate. And you’ll be able to work your way up more easily.

Writing Rule #3: Don’t burn your bridges

Why you should break it: This is generally very good advice and I’ve followed it in my career, but you know what, it’s not a rule because sometimes you just need to burn some bridges and be done with it. Like when you encounter abusive and nasty editors (it happens), when clients who owe you thousands of dollars refuse to answer your emails and take your phone calls, or when you’ve become part of relationships with editors and other writers in which all you do is give, give, give, and get nothing in return. Burn those bridges. You’re probably never going back over them anyway.

What to do instead: Build relationships with people you like, respect, and trust. You became a freelancer partly so that you wouldn’t have to deal with shitty bosses and crappy colleagues. So don’t.

Writing Rule #4: Don’t mix business with pleasure

Why you should break it: Um, so I suppose now is the time to tell you that I married my editor. We met to discuss work and ten hours later, we were still talking. Not really about work. The thing is, freelancers spend a lot of time inside our own heads and our own tiny offices talking to strangers on the Internet. The only people we see, meet, and often get along with? Other writers and, of course, our editors. It’s not surprising to see how a romance would flourish. In fact, I know two couples that each hooked up on the job. All four of those people happen to be my editors.

What to do instead: Be open to getting on with people, to falling in love, to living life. Just make sure that when you do marry someone you’ve worked with, either set ground rules or take work out of the equation altogether.

Writing Rule #5: Always get a contract

Why you should break it: This is one of those rules you’ll always hear American freelancers say, but if you have clients in Asia and Europe, I’d say there’s no need to be so anal about it. Your email conversation acts as a contract, and let’s face it, if you’re doing business internationally, you’re not going to be taking someone to court for that $1,000 they never paid you. It simply isn’t an efficient use of your time and resources and not only do you know that, but your clients do, too. A lot of business in Asia and even in Europe is done over a handshake and formal contracts only serve to take more rights away from you. (Most publications outside of the US only want first rights, so why complicate that?)

What to do instead: Make sure your e-mails are specific and that you’ve discussed rights, fees, and deadlines before you start work. Even better, do a bit of research on your clients before you start writing for them—ask other freelancers, for instance, about their experiences getting paid and how much time it took.

Writing Rule #6: You Need to Be on Social Media

Why you should break it: So last week a writer told me how she’d been interacting with an editor on Twitter for the last three months and yesterday, she finally pitched him a story idea in a tweet and he accepted. I’ve worked with this editor, as it happens. I don’t like pitching over Twitter. I’d sent him your plain old traditional query letter and landed an assignment. Same result, but two very different techniques. Should you have to choose one over the other? I don’t think so. I’m not comfortable pitching editors over Twitter, partly because I simply don’t like communicating with my editors publicaly but also because no matter how hard I try, I can’t fit my story ideas into 140 characters. So I am on social media, but not much, and certainly not with the intent of getting work. Nor should you have to be.

What to do instead: Figure out the modes of marketing (be that to editors or readers) that work for you and that you’re comfortable with. There’s no point being arm-twisted into having a Twitter or Facebook profile only to find that you resent having to talk to people through it. Find a method of connecting to your audience and your clients that you like, figure out the best practices of that medium, and then use it frequently.

Writing Rules #7: Give your client exactly what she wants

Why you should break it: I’m a journalist at heart, which means I don’t take orders very well. As it happens, I’m also a journalist who lives in countries far, far away from  my editors and that means I’m the person who’s closest to the stories and the sources. This means that if my editor comes to me and asks for a story that she thinks exists but that doesn’t, I have to not only not give her what she wants, but… and more importantly… give her something she doesn’t know that she wants.

What to do instead: Talk to your editors. Don’t just take their notes and their ideas at face value. Investigate them. See if there’s any meat to them. It’s great to be handed stories, but in the end, you’re the person reporting them and therefore, the person responsible for verifying that they’re valid. 

And the three rules you shouldn’t …

On to my favorite bit, which is the three rules I never break in my writing career and that I think you’d benefit from never breaking, too. Ready for them? Here goes…

1. Say no

My rule is that I should lose at least one out of four assignments offered to me because I’m too expensive. In my opinion, if you land every job you’re offered, you’re either not charging enough or you’re irresistibly charming. Either way, ask for more.

2. Don’t promise what you can’t deliver

I’m a huge fan of taking on new challenges and saying yes to opportunities, even when I’m not confident in my abilities to do them because I know I can learn. But I’m always wary of over-promising because under promising and over delivering is better than over-promising and failing to deliver.

And finally,

3. Don’t work with people you don’t respect

I learned early on in my career that the people I choose to work with will influence how happy and fulfilled I felt in my career. And so I make it a point to work with people I can respect and look up to.

What are the rules you follow in your freelancing life, and which ones are you happy to break?

mridukhullar2014 (1)**

Mridu Khullar Relph is an award-winning freelance journalist who has written for The New York Times, TIME, CNN, ABC News, Marie Claire, Ms., and more. She runs The International Freelancer website (www.TheInternationalFreelancer.com) and will happily share 21 of her best query letters with anyone who signs up for her free weekly newsletter.

Do Writers Really Have to Learn All That (Yucky) Grammar?

grammarBy C. S. Lakin

In a word, yes. In two words: absolutely yes.

I hear groans. I hear protests. You hated English Comp in school? Old, crotchety Mrs. Snigglegrass made you dissect sentences and name the parts of speech? You got a what as your final grade?

I feel your pain. Who ever makes grammar fun and easy? Learning grammar, to some people, is as much fun as getting a tooth pulled. Or having to memorize the multiplication tables or the capitals of all the countries in the world (remember when they never changed?). Terms like dangling modifiers, predicates, participial phrases, and subjunctive mood give some people the chills. Did you have to conjugate verbs back in junior high? Do you know the difference between the past progressive tense and the past perfect? No? Do you care? More than likely, you don’t.

Every Vocation Requires a Knowledge of Tools

But how in the world will you be a proficient handler of the English language if you don’t know anything about the tools of your trade? What would you think if you brought your ailing car to a mechanic and he didn’t have any tools in the shop? Or he had a box full of tools but hadn’t a clue how to use any of them correctly.

For some reason, many writers feel they should get to “pass go” and proceed to “the bank” without having to do the hard work of learning to write well and become a master (or mistress) at handling language. I often wonder about the logic of that.

I work on about two hundred manuscripts a year—critiquing and editing—and I’m astonished at how poorly written some are. I’m not talking about novel structure, which is difficult and tricky to learn. I’m talking about very basic grammatical issues—punctuation, spelling, sentence structure. Granted, many writers send me a rough draft to work on, so I don’t expect them to have edited it to perfection. But what I see a lot is a lack of understanding regarding so many of the basics of good writing.

A Time to Gush and a Time to Polish

Some of this is just sloppy or lazy writing due to hurrying to slap thoughts on the page, and I get that. I encourage writers to gush and let their prose flow in their first draft. But I would expect they would then follow through by rereading at some future date and cleaning up the mess. And more importantly, knowing how to.

I’m not saying every writer must have super editing chops and spend months memorizing the Chicago Manual of Style. Just as we don’t expect all doctors to memorize Gray’s Anatomy. (Should we? Do they?)

I’m afraid, though, that many writers haven’t a clue how to clean up their messy manuscripts. And even worse, many don’t really care. They think it’s their editor’s job to transform the mess into perfect prose. And we editors often do that; maybe you think I should be grateful for the job security. But, speaking for myself, I would rather work on a draft that’s been carefully edited and shows the writer not only cares about what she’s written but has a respect for the English language (or whatever language she writes in). The way some writers mutilate language makes me wonder if they have a love-hate relationship with writing.

A mechanic or building contractor will take good care of his or her tools, learning to wield them correctly, and will choose the best tool for the specific task at hand. Words are the writer’s tools. Shouldn’t writers treat words similarly? We expect that anyone wanting to become a teacher, nurse, commercial truck driver, or plumber has to hit the books and learn their vocation. So why do so many people feel that being a writer exempts from having to take the time to learn proper grammar? Who started that lie anyway?

Proficiency Leads to Competency and Confidence

One morning I asked my surgeon/author friend to describe how he prepared for each surgery. He went on to explain how he filled out a “menu” of the surgical instruments he would need, which varied depending on the type of surgery he was about to perform. He would put a check mark next to numerous scalpels and other items (which I wouldn’t know what to call) and then turn in his menu. When he entered the operating room, he’d find his requested instruments and accessories neatly lined up waiting for him. With those specific tools, he could perform his surgery efficiently, competently, and confidently.

Well, no one is going to die if I don’t have the exact grammar tools or know all the rules when I sit down to write my novel, right? (you may be arguing). True, although I’ll be daring enough to say if you are lacking a lot of those proper tools, the patient (read: your novel, story, article, or post) may die a slow (or quite fast) and painful death. Which could have an adverse effect on your career as a writer.

You want your writing to shine. You want to show the world you are a terrific writer. Well then, Physician, know thy tools. Then you can perform your writing “operations” efficiently, competently, and confidently. And let me just add this: when you have the right tools and know how to use them, it always makes a job so much easier than if you don’t.

The fun thing about being grown-ups is we can decide how, when, and what we want to learn. The challenge is to erase the bad associations we have with certain subjects we suffered through in school (such as English Comp?) and find a new joy in the learning. It may sound trite, but it truly is a matter of attitude. Make the decision to adopt a healthy attitude about learning grammar. Set aside some time each day or week to dig into books or websites that can teach you what some of those yucky things are all about. Who knows, you may even learn to love those dang(ling) participles or misplaced modifiers!

Lakin

C. S. Lakin is a multi-published novelist and writing coach. She works full-time as a copyeditor and critiques about two hundred manuscripts a year. She teaches writing workshops and gives instruction on her award-winning blog Live Write Thrive. Her new book—Say What? The Fiction Writer’s Handy Guide to Grammar, Punctuation, and Word Usage—is designed to help writers get a painless grasp on grammar. You can buy it in print here or as an ebook here. Connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.