October 20, 2014

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?

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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.

5 Budgeting Tips for Freelancers Living on an Inconsistent Income

freelance incomeEd. Note: Most freelancers don’t get holiday bonuses or annual raises, so we have to budget carefully to ensure that we have enough moola to cover holiday gifts, extra expenses for travel and other costs, and of course run-of-the-mill costs like car repairs or medical bills. I recently reviewed The Money Book for Freelancers, Part-Timers, and the Self-Employed, which covers some strategies for smoothing out the financial ups and downs of freelancing. Here’s another take on this topic. 

By Jim Vela

If you’re a blogger like I am, you already know the many benefits of a full-time freelance career. You can generally set your own hours, work when you want, how you want, where you want, and enjoy a number of other freedoms that traditional jobs don’t provide. With all the perks, however, come a few necessary evils, one of which is an inconsistent income. Unless you’re one of the select few who has significant assets to fall back on, you likely face lots of financial ups and downs. Despite the precarious nature of your freelance career, there are ways to overcome it. For some helpful guidance, read on.

  1. Create an Accurate Budget
    Your first step is to make a personal budget. Detail all of your fixed expenses, including your rent or mortgage payment, utility bills, phone, cable, transportation, and food costs. Most of these expenses are either fixed or close to it, so you can give yourself a benchmark that you know you have to meet each month. The challenging part is estimating a variable income. Either calculate your average monthly income over the course of the past year, or, to make your budget virtually bulletproof, base it off the worst month you’ve had recently. Whichever income-estimating method you use, the goal is to get your monthly spending under your income, so if it’s not there on the first draft of your budget, it’s time to cut some costs. Be sure to include a budget line for taxes, which in most cases you’re going to have to pay quarterly. Estimate your tax obligations and always set aside at least that amount as soon as your money comes in — don’t fool yourself into thinking that money belongs to you. Dealing with your expenses as a freelancer is challenging enough, you don’t want to burden yourself with the consequences of failing to pay your taxes on time.
  2. Religiously Save Money on Expenses
    You can save money on just about every expense under the sun, if you know how. Start with food costs. Clip coupons to save on your groceries and look for restaurant discounts on deal of the day websites like Groupon and LivingSocial. Request an audit from your home energy provider to discover ways to shave utility costs. You may be able to reduce your bill by more than 30 percent. Bundle monthly services like Internet, cable, and cell phone under a single plan, and you could knock $10 off each service. If you can get by without a home landline, drop it. That move could slice another $500 off your annual budget.
  3. Curb Spending
    Resist the urge to purchase the latest electronic gadget and instead keep that money in your pocket. Remember, your income is never guaranteed, so you want to establish as much of a cushion to fall back on as possible. For every big purchase you forego, that’s another handful of dollars in the bank to help you sleep easier at night. When you’re faced with a potential purchase, ask yourself if it’s something you truly need or simply something you want. Cut back on the wants as much as possible so you ensure having enough money for the things you need. Train yourself to understand the difference between the two.
  4. Limit the Celebrations
    If you have a great month, be sure to reward yourself for it, but don’t splurge. If you end with a surplus, set some of it aside for the leaner months, or use it to pay down your current debts. You could also beef up your retirement contributions or boost your emergency fund if necessary. Always feel free to spend something on yourself, but remember the importance of staying one step ahead of the financial game whenever possible.
  5. Commit to an Emergency Fund
    An emergency fund is essential for anyone with a fluctuating income. 9-to-5 workers have a steady paycheck to rely on – you don’t. Create an emergency fund so your finances aren’t thrown for a loop whenever your car breaks down or you get sick. Shoot for the recommended 12 months’ worth of living expenses as your eventual goal, and get there by contributing to it every time you earn a paycheck, even if it’s just a few dollars.

Freelancers, what budgeting tips would you add?

Jim Vela is a freelance writer who enjoys sharing his experiences and tips related to business, personal finance, frugal living, and travel.

Photo courtesy of sakhorn38 / freedigitalphotos

7 Ways to Turn Gigs You Already Have Into More Writing Income

freelance money

Ed. Note: As 2013 draws to a close, it’s time to look back over the past year and consider how to better our freelance businesses in 2014 and beyond. If you’re trying to increase your income next year, then read for tips from veteran freelancer David Geer on using the writing gigs you already have to generate more income. 

By David Geer

It is often easier to draw more income from the freelance writing assignments and projects that are already coming in than to gain new customers. Here are some tips on how to make that happen.

  1. Ask for a better contract.
    Ask for a better contract when you’re giving up too many rights without receiving additional pay, when you can’t figure out what or when you’re getting paid , or if you are an authority or have a demonstrable specialty. Ask for more money when the rights they want seem excessive such as all rights. Better contracts can also ensure you are better paid over the long haul by establishing exactly how much you are to be paid, and how and when you will be paid, in case you want to negotiate for more money or quicker payment terms or simply want to ensure that you will be paid what you agreed on together.Finally, if you are an established writer, use this to your advantage. Published rates are often for new writers whereas rates for veteran writers are seldom published since not everyone can expect to receive those rates. Ask for a better rate than is offered in the first contract you receive.  In a specific example of the latter case, I received almost double the advertised pay rate simply by asking. This happened with a technology publication I ended up writing for for many years.Just ask, “Do you have a better contract?” Let them ask you why you want it. Be prepared with an answer. They may not ask. They may ritually give better contracts only to those who ask. I have had this happen on several occasions. I think some publications respect writers for knowing enough to ask while others may want to save themselves from being reputed among established writers for dolling out bad contracts. In either case, they will give better contracts, but you have to ask. It can be as simple as that. If the contract still doesn’t measure up, negotiate further.
  2. Get reimbursed for expenses.
    If you see an expense reimbursement clause, use it. Adhere to the publication’s instructions on how they will reimburse you and what charges they will reimburse. Items they take seriously may include phone charges for interviews or research (I have read lists of acceptable reimbursements from specific publishers that include phone charges); postal mailing charges; travel expenses (discuss before signing) and costs for other goods or services vital to the assignment. Ask for a list of the kinds of charges they will reimburse . There may also be a total amount they will reimburse. Don’t forget to invoice separately. And if the publication does not reimburse for certain charges, consider taking a business expense tax deduction for those charges.
  3. Ask for a raise after four articles? Maybe not!
    In an exchange on the topic among established freelance writers on a writer forum, the consensus seemed to be that if you have turned in about four acceptable pieces without a hitch, you have just become a known quantity, a measurable asset, and you are probably worth paying more to keep. In my experience, however, that has seldom worked in actual practice.I then decided that if I expected a raise as a freelance writer, I might want to negotiate the terms and conditions under which a raise would occur and how much my pay would be raised up before I ever started writing for a publication. Otherwise, I might never see a raise. Again, in actual practice, that theory seldom held water for me either.Here’s what did work. I decided to bid the highest rate I thought I would ever get from the publisher right from the start. Once I determined an amount, I bid that. Sometimes I got the work and sometimes not. Later, as my work and relationships improved, I was able to ask for more from the start and get it. Often this was from new clients who typically paid more anyway. That was one form in which a “raise” actually came. In other cases, if people gave me a raise, they just gave it, based on my work and not based on me asking for it. That also came later in my career rather than sooner, but I would try these approaches.
  4. Pitch a follow-up or series.
    Be aware of related stories that break just as a publication is publishing your piece or thereafter. Get the story and pitch a follow-up or series, first to the same publication, then as a scoop on that publication to their competitors if they reject the idea. In your query, cite not only the first article but also its popularity by sharing reader mail. When writing the piece, compare information from the first story – this will enlarge the readership for both.
  5. Turn interviews into profiles.
    You take an interview for an assignment. You already know a lot about the person. Depending on their import, fame, or popularity, you may be able to publish their profile in a national magazine. If not, you shouldn’t find it difficult to publish in a smaller magazine (try the alumni magazine at their alma mater) or better-paying newspaper. When you write them properly, profiles stay fresh, requiring only occasional minor revisions. This is a built-in “freshness guarantee” that means you can pitch profiles endlessly until someone publishes your profile and pays you!
  6. Keep a journal as you write.
    By keeping a journal of your professional writing life, you store up a slew of material for courses on writing, or even a book! More than memoirs, you can turn these slices of your writing adventures into articles, features, fiction, or meat for your bio or query letters. Journaling is impassioned, eager writing about what you know well. You generate twice the material without doing any additional research.  Then you cherish it, learn from it and people pay you for it too!
  7. Tap into editors you know.
    Current work can lead to new customers too. On one occasion when calling an editor who I really hit it off with, I got a lead right away to write adjacent material for the editor’s friend! Another time I queried an editor who, unbeknownst to me, happened to work in a building full of editors in a publishing district. She gladly volunteered to give my information to all the other editors in the building! The lesson here is to be proactively personable with editors.

David Geer is a 13-year veteran technology writer, journalist and content producer whose work appears in numerous publications, such as CSO (Chief Security Officer). Follow David @geercom on Twitter or find him on LinkedIn

Image: Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Book Review: The Money Book for Freelancers, Part-Timers, and the Self-Employed

MoneyBookCover_FinalMost personal finance advice assumes you’re bringing home a steady paycheck so you can predict your income week to week and automate contributions to retirement or short-term savings goals. But for freelancers and others with not-so-regular jobs, it’s not so simple. We might have a $9,000 month after finishing a big project followed by a $2,000 month in which an invoice gets lost or an anticipated assignment falls through. Yet we still have to pay fixed monthly expenses like the mortgage or rent, the electric bill, and those self-paid health insurance premiums. And we know we should be saving for retirement, since there’s no employer to set up a 401(k) for us.

In their 2010 book, The Money Book for Freelancers, Part-Timers, and the Self-Employed: The Only Personal Finance System for People with Not-So-Regular Jobs, freelance journalists Joseph D’Agnese and Denise Kiernan tackle these and other challenges associated with irregular paychecks. I’ve been freelancing full-time since 2008, so it’s surprising even to me that I’m just now reading The Money Book.

Up to this point, I survived the feast or famine cycles of freelancing by maintaining a cash cushion and living well below my means (I can be pretty darn frugal at times). In fact, a few months before I left my full-time job, I completed a month-long spending fast where I only paid for the barest essentials like groceries and rent, forgoing new clothes, books, restaurant meals, lattes, and all other frills. It helped boost my cash reserves before I went out on my own and also proved that I could drastically cut back my spending if needed.

But, of course, it meant missing out on a lot of social outings and delaying purchases I otherwise would have made. I survived the month without any major cheats, but I don’t recommend a winter spending fast because the weather is already pretty brutal and there aren’t nearly as many free activities as there are in the summer months. And while spending in moderation is a good thing, freelancers especially need to get out of the house every once in awhile, which makes that $10 glass of wine or $5 latte more worthwhile.

D’Agnese and Kiernan, in contrast, take a more moderate, sustainable approach to spending and saving rather than the all-or-nothing experiment I did. Instead of cutting out all discretionary spending as I tried to do, they suggest taking a percentage of each freelance check and immediately transferring it into sub-accounts for retirement, taxes, emergency savings, everyday spending, and savings goals. They even suggest (and I love this idea) giving each account a name that gets you fired up like “Experience Fabulous New Wines Account” or “Cabin in the Woods Account.” The idea is to fund each account instead of having one big pot of money and stealing from your emergency savings to pay your taxes (umm, not that I’ve ever done that …)

I’m still tweaking the percentages but here’s my plan (that cushion mentioned above is now emergency savings rather than an all-purpose pot o’ money):

  • Tax Fund – 25%
  • Retirement* – 10%
  • Susan’s Condo Fund – 10%

*I have a SEP IRA and used to transfer one lump sum per year after my accountant ran the numbers and told me how much to contribute. But now I contribute monthly to take advantage of dollar cost averaging. The Money Book doesn’t mention DCA but it explains the ins and outs of various retirement savings vehicles for the self-employed.

The remainder is for rent and other expenses. Their plan makes a ton of sense for those with irregular paychecks, in my opinion.

Overall, I’d recommend The Money Book to newbie freelancers or more seasoned freelancers who want a better way to manage their money. I did have a few minor quibbles, though (and this is the personal finance writer in me):

  • D’Agnese and Kiernan suggest using cash to become more mindful of your spending and avoid credit card debt. That advice makes perfect sense for people who are digging themselves out of debt or can’t seem to rein in their spending. But cash and even debit cards don’t have the same protections as credit cards so if your wallet is lost or stolen you’re SOL. And cash doesn’t earn rewards points or miles. Rewards credits cards don’t make sense for people who carry a balance, since they typically carry a higher interest rate, but for people who are disciplined about paying off their balance each month and not over-spending, rewards credit cards can be useful.
  • It doesn’t mention mobile check deposits, since they weren’t as popular in 2010 when the book came out, but I think they’re a huge boon to freelancers like me who get a lot of paper checks. Instead of running to an ATM, now I can deposit checks from my phone! If there’s a new edition, I hope they’ll include information on that.
  • The book has lots of advice about cutting back on non-essential spending and understanding wants vs. needs. But while prioritizing expenses is helpful, so is making more money. Undercharging is often a bigger problem than a Starbucks habit. Unlike salaried employees who typically have to wait for a promotion or annual review to make more money, freelancers have a lot more control over their income. The second to last chapter includes basic tips on asking for what you’re worth and building client relationships, but that information is so fundamental to freelancing, I would have liked seeing it earlier in the book and in more depth.