September 16, 2014

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 (NOTE: Organizations like,, and ASJA also make some similar information available to paying members but it’s sometimes outdated or not as complete.)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. 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.

Guest Post: Top 5 Ways I’ve Found Freelance Writing Gigs

handshakeBy Denene Brox

I’ve been a freelance writer for six years and in that time I’ve tried a lot of marketing tactics. Some have been successful and some haven’t worked so well.

One thing that trips up many new writers is looking for that one perfect way of marketing their writing. Another bad move is to focus all of your efforts bidding for low-paying jobs on freelance bidding sites and/or writing for content mills. You’ll be so wrapped up in low-paying work that you won’t have time to go after higher-paying jobs.

I’m going to share some of the top (and sometimes surprising) ways that I’ve found freelance writing gigs (hint: no freelance bidding sites!). Some of these methods are definitely tried and true while others are random things I’ve tried that paid off.

  1. Letters of Introduction (LOIs)
    I’ll start with the tried and true because LOIs are really one of the best marketing methods if you want to write for trade magazines. Most of my clients have come from sending out simple letters of introduction to editors. I write a lot for trade magazines and LOIs launched my magazine writing career. It really is the easiest way to find trade magazine clients. My trade assignments bring in between $.40 and $1 per word and all it took was an introduction.
    Take Away: Be sure to combine both LOIs and query letters into your marketing mix. Also try mentioning in your LOIs that you’d be happy to send story ideas too to let editors know you’re willing to brainstorm article ideas.
  2. Cold Calling
    I’m not a phone person. So cold calling isn’t my favorite way to market my business. But on some occasions, it’s necessary. I picked up the phone when I couldn’t find any contact information for a career website I wanted to write for. I got in touch with the editor and to my surprise he was looking for a writer with experience writing about minority career issues — experience I had. I went on to write many articles for him over the next few years netting me $300 per 500-word article (much higher than the content mills).
    Take Away: Pick up the phone to connect with editors.
  3. LinkedIn
    I randomly decided to update my LinkedIn status one day to announce that I was now providing blogging and tweeting services. One of my contacts sent me a message requesting more information. A few emails and an in-person meeting later and I had a regular blogging and tweeting gig for a local college. This job lasted for six months and resulted from an innocent LinkedIn status update.These types of copywriting gigs allow you to name your price (versus accepting whatever a magazine pays per word). You can quote an hourly rate (like I did) or use a flat rate.
    Take Away: Be sure to keep your social networks informed about your current projects and services.
  4. Craigslist
    Craigslist has a bad rap when it comes to freelance jobs. So I decided to post my own ad. I was shocked when an Internet marketing agency in New York responded with an offer to blog two times per week for one of their clients. I got $30 per hour to blog. Not bad from a free ad.
    Take Away: While all the other writers are replying to ads, try posting your own. My ad included a short bio, a list of writing credits/specialties, and a link to my website. You will no doubt get some spam and/or job offers that sound less than appealing. But you never know unless you try.
  5. Regular Job Ads
    Even though you’re a freelancer, periodically keep your eye on “regular” job boards for freelance opportunities. I landed a major freelance copywriting gig with a non-profit by applying to an ad on a local employment website. Again, with copywriting gigs the great thing is that I was able to name my price. So whatever your current copywriting rates are, you can use those when quoting the project.
    Take Away: Don’t dismiss regular job boards. You may just find a great freelance job.

Denene Brox headshotDenene Brox is a freelance writer based in Kansas City and specializes in career development and health topics. She is also the webmaster of, a site that teaches beginners how to get started in freelance writing. Read more of her tips for finding freelance writing gigs. She blogs about career and personal development at

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