October 23, 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.

News from the Muse: Generating Ideas, Writing Product Descriptions

PRN-ConnectChat-Susan-Johnston-ts.20130919155653It’s been a busy summer and now an equally hectic fall. Be sure to check back next week for an excerpt from Linda Formichelli’s forthcoming ebook, Write Your Way Out of the Rat Race…And Step Into a Career You Love.

In the meantime, here are a few writing-related projects I’ve been working on:

#ConnectChat: How to Generate Story Ideas: A few weeks ago, ProfNet hosted me for a Twitter chat about generating story ideas, dealing with an idea drought, and sourcing ideas on social media. (The photo at left is from ProfNet promoting the chat on a billboard in Times Square – how cool is that?) In case you missed the chat, click the title to view the recap.

10,000 Hours in 10 Minutes: Susan Johnston on Writing for a Living: Self-serve content engine MediaShower interviewed me about how writing has evolved, staying prolific, and my wackiest writing assignment. I’d love to get your thoughts on these topics so click on over and leave a comment.

5 Tips for Meeting with and Impressing Editors: Grabbing coffee or lunch with an editor is a rare chance to build rapport and get to know him or her on a more personal level. Late last year, I met up with an editor while I was vacationing in New York and that conversation sparked ideas that generated over a thousand dollars worth of freelance articles. Not bad for a half hour meeting, right? For an article in Contently’s Freelance Strategist, I talked to several veteran freelancers about their in-person meeting strategies.

Writing Product Descriptions for Clients: I always look forward to listening to Ed Gandia’s High Income Business Writing podcast, and earlier this summer, Ed hosted me on the podcast to discuss product descriptions. Many copywriters may not have considered this niche but there’s a lot of demand for short, punchy product descriptions, especially as the holidays approach and retailers ramp up their inventory.

How to Tell if an Online Publication Pays Well

Websites that Pay WellA few months ago, I discovered the Tumblr blog Who Pays Writers?. It’s a fantastic anonymous resource that offers the inside scoop on pay rates at dozens of publications including Glamour, The San Francisco Chronicle, and Parents.com. (NOTE: Organizations like Mediabistro.com, FreelanceSuccess.com, and ASJA also make some similar information available to paying members but it’s sometimes outdated or not as complete.)

By checking Who Pays Writers, I can see if it’s worth investing the time in a pitch to Magazine X or if I should try to negotiate a little more money from Magazine Y because I know other writers get $1/word. Granted, lower pay doesn’t automatically mean I won’t pitch that publication. And at some publications, certain writers command higher fees because they’re a big name or have a longstanding relationship with the editor or the publication. Still, it’s nice to have a ballpark figure on what to expect paywise.

The website or blog’s funding sources can also offer hints at the potential freelance budget. Is this a major brand hiring a custom publisher to manage content? An established financial institution investing in content marketing? Or a self-funded startup with big visions but little cash? These can also help you estimate potential pay rates. (Of course, as this Australian woman’s story shows, a big name doesn’t always mean big paychecks.)

In talking to a colleague recently, I uncovered another strategy I’ve been using for awhile but haven’t fully articulated. Let’s call it the Blog Test. Now, I know of blogs that pay well and websites that pay peanuts, but generally speaking, when an editor or client says they want contributors to blog for them, they’re expecting bloggers to dash off something snappy in about 30 minutes or less and get paid $15 a pop, maybe more if they’re lucky. In some cases, they might even expect the blogger to write for the sole pleasure of links and (empty) promises of fame. In a few rare instances blogs pay real money but that’s often the exception and not the rule.

When an editor or client says they want journalists to write articles for a website (and the distinction between a blog and website is often murky at best, maybe even a semantic difference), they’re likely picturing something longer and more developed, often involving real reporting, expert sources, and more complex topics. In many cases, they understand that this type of writing takes time and that solid reporting is worth paying more than a few cents a word. They care about quality, not just quantity.

Now, I can already hear some of you protesting that you’re really efficient so you can crank out at least two $15 blog posts an hour and still earn a decent living. But think of how many $15 blog posts you write per year to cover your rent (or mortgage), your computer, your health insurance, and your Starbucks habit. Think of the extra time you take on each post, not just writing but finding appropriate royalty-free images, resizing those images, formatting the post in the client’s content management system, tweeting links to your blog posts, responding to comments, keeping track of invoices, and who knows what else? I’ll sometimes do these things for articles, too, but since the pay is often higher, I don’t mind the extra work.

I’ve done the $15 blog post gigs, and I can tell you that things are a whole lot rosier on the other side. Nowadays I get most excited about new potential gigs when the client refers to their content as articles rather than blog posts and their online home as a website rather than a blog. It’s a subtle distinction but in my experience, it often means more money in my bank account.

What about you? How do you decide if a publication (online or otherwise) is worth your time? Have you noticed this phenomenon too? Leave a comment and let me know!

Guest Post: Essential Legal Resources for Freelancers

Unless you happen to have a J.D. yourself, you may not know about the legal issues that could effect freelance writers and self-employed workers. It won’t take long for you to realize that having contracts is an essential part of contract work, at least if you want to get paid. But even then it could be like pulling teeth to get your clients to hand over a check for services rendered.

The long and short of it is that running your own business means wearing a lot of hats, and you simply can’t do everything on your own. Luckily, there are plenty of resources out there that can prove handy for whatever your legal needs. Here are just a few to help you out–before you get into hot water.

Writing Resources

  1. Creative Commons. This service provides free tools that let you easily secure your creative work and assign the freedoms you want it to carry. The service and software are simple to use and an essential site for any creative professional concerned about protecting their work.
  2. Legal Guide for Bloggers. For you bloggers, the Electronic Frontier Foundation provides a comprehensive summary of blogging and U.S. law. Issues ranging from fair use to free speech and privacy are all covered on this thorough site. With the Legal Guide for Bloggers bookmarked you can cease to wonder whether a blog post will get you into trouble and focus on producing content. They help you with content too, even provide information on utilizing the Freedom of Information Act to gain access to buried information.
  3. U.S. Copyright Office. Another website every writer should get to know. Your writing is copyrighted the minute you release it in a public form, but the U.S. Copyright Office is where you can, for a fee, register for further protection on your work. However, the FAQ is free and remains the best tutorial around on copyright law.

Freelancing Resources

  1. ContractPal. This online service is one you’ll definitely want to bookmark in your browser. While contracts for your type of job can be as simple as a work order from the company that’s contracting with you (specifying the basics like work to be done, time of delivery, and amount of payment), many contractors like to have their own legal documents in place to protect them from issues like liability and non-payment. This business process-outsourcing site allows you to go paperless and send documents quickly and securely so that you can focus on work.
  2. Docracy. Not all independent contractors have cash just coming out of their ears, so you may be on the lookout for a services that provides cheap access to legal document templates. Docracy is that resource, and in truth, all of the templates on their website are free. All you have to do is download the consulting or sale document of your choice, alter it to reflect your personal needs, and you’ve got your basic contract. It may not be as ironclad as having something drawn up by a lawyer, but for most freelancers it will be sufficient to get the job done, so to speak.
  3. SBA.gov. Many independent contractors decide to form LLCs (limited liability corporations) as a way to protect themselves and their personal assets from business-related legal issues. If you opt to go this route, you may want to pop over to the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) website. Most people view this site as a good resource for small business grants and loans (and it is), but it also has information on taxes, labor laws, social security, and more.
  4. Business attorney. As an independent contractor working from home you’re unlikely to need the services of an automobile, accident, or injury attorney. But you may need a lawyer at some point, and you want to make sure you hire the right kind. There are all kinds of specializations within the legal community, and you’ll need to find someone who is not only a business attorney, but who is familiar with your particular type of business. This will ensure that you have the most targeted legal services available.

Leon Harris  is a contributing writer for Hornsby Law, the premier Atlanta injury attorney.