Seven Secrets to Writing Success: A Writer-to-Writer Letter

A guest post by Angie Mangino.

Dear Writer,

I write to you today to share seven secrets that I have learned over the course of my writing career.  They have helped me, and I hope they will be of help to you.

  1. Always believe in your writing and in yourself.  Before others can believe in you, you have to believe first.  Stepping out in self-confidence goes a long way in opening many doors.
  2. Learn everything you can about your craft.  Then use what you have learned to write, re-write, and write again, to perfect it to the art that good writing is.
  3. Network with other writers, and learn from their experience, as you share what you may know.  There is no need for us as writers to re-invent the wheel.
  4. Listen to advice, but only follow the advice that resonates well with who you are, and with what goals you want to achieve.  Each writer’s definition of success is personal and unique.  Don’t ever forget that, or you’ll be overwhelmed and lost along the way.  Know yourself, be true to yourself, and define your own success.
  5. Once you achieve a little success, please don’t think you know it all.  There’s something to learn every day of our lives if our writing is to be up-to-date, strong, and effective.  Being rigid in one’s ways is how ruts begin.  Change is not a bad thing.  It can rejuvenate and inspire us to new heights.
  6. Read, read, and then read some more.  Read everything and anything you can get your hands on.  Good writing will teach you.  So, too, will poor writing, where the faults will instruct you as to where not to go in your own writing.   A writer who doesn’t read is starting down that slippery slope of thinking one knows it all.
  7. Other writers are not the competition.  Compete only with yourself to improve yourself with each new piece of writing.  Over the years, I have made some very strong connections where I learned from, and received help from, so many other writers.  I try to pass it on to other writers whenever the opportunity arises, as I am doing now by writing this to you.  If ever there is a way I may be of further help to you, know that all you need do is ask.

Wishing you every success,


Angie Mangino, a freelance writer since 1995, has published articles on a variety of subjects, essays, and book reviews.

She networks on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, and is always open to meeting other writers, firmly believing writers have so much to learn from, and to share, with each other.

ABCs of Freelance Writing: R is for Retainer

I’ve only needed a lawyer once in my life. When I met her the first time to discuss my problem, I decided immediately that I was going to hire her. She explained that she thought my particular problem would take about $800 to sort out, and that she needed to collect that amount as a retainer to get started.

I signed a contract and wrote a check without squawking, because I fully expected to pay up front.

She started work and billed me against the retainer I’d already paid. Time elapsed. The hours racked up. And, as it turns out, it took about $3,500 to sort out my little problem. (Don’t feel bad for me; it was worth every single penny.) Luckily for both of us, the contract I signed covered what was expected if it appeared the work would exceed the estimated hours.

I got billed again. She got paid again. She did more work.

How Retainers Work

Retainers are just a type of contract. The consultant, or freelance writer in this case, agrees to do work for a client who pays in advance. The specifics of each job are determined later.

So, you might know you’re going to be given a certain number of blog posts to write, for example, but you might not know the topics until the client calls you up after the weekly marketing meeting.

Retainers Work for Freelancer Writers

The retainer contract works to your advantage as well as the client’s, so don’t be afraid to try it just because it’s something the fancy lawyers do.

When working on retainer you still have the freedom to set your rates by the hour, by the day, or by the project’s clearly defined deliverables.

For example, you might receive a retainer of $600 to produce 3 articles each month. If the client has a particularly busy month and needs another article, this can be billed separately. (If the workload increases on a regular basis, consider upping your retainer.)

This set-up is win-win because you know you’ll have steady work, and the client knows he won’t be scrambling to find a writer.

Retainer Contracts and Client Expectations

Here’s the thing about a retainer: clients will expect you to prioritize their work. And with good reason! They’ve paid you upfront. Just keep in mind that if you take on retainer work, you need to be totally dedicated to communicating with your client and delivering on time. Put off returning calls or emails, and you could lose a client.

Helpful Links

  • Here’s a sample Contract of Retainer that was posted to a LinkedIn forum if you’d like to take a peek.
  • Guys and fellow childless women, forget that this article is posted on a “Mom” site, the information in Writing a Monthly Retainer Proposal is legit.
  • Liz Craig discusses retainers and the “down payment” vs. “signing bonus” in her post Freelance Copywriter in Kansas City: Retainers.


Reader Q&A: Health Insurance for Freelance Writers


Wade Finnegan asks:

How do freelance writers afford health insurance? Are there group plans for freelancers?

I’ll be honest, the high cost of health insurance here in the States is one of several reasons why I keep a full-time corporate job in addition to my freelance writing business. While some freelancers have the luxury of getting insurance through a spouse, the rest are left to make some tough decisions.

Plenty of freelancers opt for high-deductible plans that really only cover them when things turn catastrophic.  Going this route can make monthly premiums manageable, but it’s not terribly helpful or reassuring.

There actually are some group plans available if you’re affiliated with the right organizations and you’re lucky enough to live in the right state.

The Freelancers Union offers some group health, dental, disability and life insurance plans. They even offer 401(k) retirement options for members. The details vary by state, though. For instance, a group health plan is not available for me in Indiana at all, and dental premiums in my state would run me more than $50 per month. That’s way more than the cost of 2 regular check-ups and x-rays if you do the math. So if I was shopping, I’d be inclined to just go without unless I was planning some major dental work. And even then, “major services are not covered for the first 12 months you are enrolled.”

Addy Dugdale (who’s not from the U.S., by the way) wrote an interesting article for Fast Company almost two years ago now about freelance health insurance. In it she interviews five different freelancers in America about the state of health care for the self-employed, each freelancer with a different perspective. So far, things haven’t changed a whole lot on the health care front, and the article is still relevant on so many levels.

It’s a frustrating situation for a lot of freelance writers, and it’s one more reason why setting the right fees for our work is so important.

If you’re a freelancer, how do you handle the health insurance conundrum?

Should You Try Resume Writing?

For many freelance writers, the key to a consistent income is diversification. Maybe that means authoring articles, blogs, and web copy. Or perhaps you do copyediting, ghost writing, and brochures or newsletters for small businesses. Whatever you do, you probably put the proverbial iron in a couple of different fires at one point or another to keep your writing business thriving.

One often-overlooked area of writing that can net writers a decent income is resume writing. As boring as it sounds, for some writers, a resume is the perfect blend of creative writing, technical writing, and problem solving. And since most people either despise writing their own resume or are simply clueless about how to put one together effectively, paying a good writer to create one is a worthy investment that many people don’t bat an eye at.

I got into resume writing around the same time I started copywriting. It had occurred to me that writing blogs and articles might not be enough to carry me through the slower freelancing periods, so I took two online courses to learn how to write copy and resumes. It was a wise career move; now I enjoy doing both so much that I focus most of my freelance energy in these two areas.

There are simple ways you can add resume writing to your revenue stream, too.

Do some research first.

Before you start offering resume writing as one of your freelance services, make sure you know how to build a great resume. It may seem basic, but there are a number of ways to make a resume stand out… and there are even more ways to send one immediately to the rejection pile. Learn how to do it well and you’ll have clients referring you to everyone they know.

Don’t undervalue yourself.

I wrote a handful of resumes for friends and family for free when I first was building that area of my business. I was able to get some practice and earn some testimonials for my website this way. While it’s fine to work for free occasionally if you’re comfortable doing so, make sure you price your services appropriately. Do some homework and find out what local resume writing services charge. You might be surprised to see how much money people are willing to pay for a well-written and effective resume! From there, price your services according to your level of experience and your income needs. And don’t lowball yourself.

Offer other job-related services, too.

People need cover letters as well as resumes, and they’re likely to get both from you if they’re already paying for one. As with resumes, make sure you understand what makes a cover letter work (it is, after all, a strategic piece of marketing for your client). And you can charge for either one general cover letter, or for a number of letters tailored to the jobs for which your client is applying. It comes down to what your client needs and is willing to pay, but if they understand that it’s an investment in their future (which it is!), they should have no trouble trusting you with the task and paying you for your hard work.

Fitting a new revenue stream in with your current work.

Maybe you freelance part-time after your day job. Or perhaps you’re an established full-time freelancer who needs extra income. Whatever the case may be, it can be tricky adding an extra service to your schedule. The best way to incorporate resume writing into your writing life is to practice, practice, practice. Once you know what you’re doing, you’ll be able to quickly whip up amazing resumes and cover letters, which will earn you more money in less time. It starts with research and practice, though. Once you’ve done that, you’ll be ready to diversify your writing business and increase your earnings. There truly is no shortage of job-seekers in need of a resume revamp, so it’s the perfect addition to any writer’s arsenal!

 Kristin Offiler is a freelance writer in Rhode Island. She has an MFA in Creative Writing, and when she’s not writing copy, resume, or articles, she’s working on her fiction. She can be reached at or follow her on Twitter @KristinOffiler.

ABCs of Freelance Writing: Q is for Quote

Whether you’ve been approached by a potential client or you’re bidding on a freelance writing job posted on a site like Elance, Craigslist, or oDesk, at some point you’re going to have to prepare a freelance writing quote (or estimate or proposal—whatever you like to call it).

And then you’ll wait.

With fingers crossed and teeth clenched you’ll wonder if you picked the magic number—the one that says to the world, “I’m affordable, but I’m no word whore!”

Once you’ve delivered your quote one of three things will happen: the client will accept or accept conditionally, the client will decline, or the client will leave you hanging with no response at all.

Yeah, sometimes people bail without reason or warning immediately following your quote submission. You should be prepared for that. You should also understand it’s not you; it’s them. In every single case it’s them. Because—even if they think your prices are exorbitant and ridiculous—it’s on them to say it.

Tips for Preparing a Quote

  1. Do the math, and charge a respectable wage. Use your brain to calculate a competitive rate. My personal philosophy is that it doesn’t matter how you structure your fees. Charge by the word, the hour, the page or whatever. Just make sure it’s respectable. If you think there’s a chance the client could go either way, you’re probably in the target range. Oh, and be prepared to lose the contract, okay? Make yourself comfortable with that idea right now. Because if you’re willing to win at all costs, it’ll be ramen noodles and tomato soup for you from here on out.
  2. Spell out the particulars. Let’s say your quote includes a flat rate for professional blogging. Then you need to be clear about what that includes. Will you format the article for HTML? Will you upload the content? Will you be responsible for selecting topics, or will topics be provided to you? Don’t even talk about fees until you and the potential client are on the same page about the scope of the project.
  3. CYA. Be clear about the payment terms too. If you charge late fees, require an upfront payment, or have a returned check fee, list it in the notes. You look pretty damn professional when you cover all the bases.
  4. Nail the presentation. If you’re submitting a quote on a gig site like Elance, this part is pretty much handled for you. If you’re writing your own proposals, you can use something as simple as a Microsoft Word template. Since I invoice through Freshbooks (that’s an affiliate link), I use it to send my quotes too. It’s pretty darn simple, showing me when a quote has been viewed by a client and allowing her to accept with the click of a button.

If you have a specific question about preparing quotes or a question about another freelance writing topic, contact me or leave a comment.

National Book Foundation: Oops Our Bad, Now Kindly Withdraw

Turns out I’m not the only one eating my words these days, thanks to the folks running the National Book Awards. Did you hear about this? YA author, Lauren Myracle, got THE phone call. She was notified that her book, Shine, had been nominated for the National Book Award.

Then they called her back five days later and were all, “Oops, no it’s not! But we’ll keep your book on the shortlist anyway. Our bad.”

Here’s a snippet from the NY Times:

Lauren Myracle, an author of young-adult literature, was named to the shortlist last Wednesday for her book, “Shine,” a novel about the experience of a gay teenager who is the victim of a hate crime. Shortly afterward the National Book Foundation corrected itself, saying that Ms. Myracle’s book was not meant to be a finalist but that it would stay on the five-book shortlist anyway.

You’d think that’d be the end of this odd little story, but it’s not. The National Book Foundation then asked her on Friday to withdraw Shine to “preserve the integrity of the award and the judges’ work.”

Heh. Wonder how that’s working out for the people at the NBF. Way to put the onus on the author there, NBF. Classy!

They were mum to reporters about the whys and hows of the original mistake of including the book on the list, and they’re equally tight-lipped about why they asked her to withdraw, reversing their original decision to let the nomination stand.

As far as I can tell, Myracle has been nothing if not magnanimous throughout the ordeal. As reported in the article, she even got the National Book Foundation to make a $5,000 donation to the Matthew Shepherd Foundation.

That’s why yesterday I bought her book for Kindle.

Reader Q & A: Is This Freelance Writing Job Legit?

Stacia asks for some freelance writing advice about a job ad that caught her eye. Submit your own question.


A freelancing question, because I’ve been trying hard to get somewhere (anywhere) with making some money on the side.

How do you feel about this kind of gig?

“The rate of pay starts at 50 cents for every 100 words, or $1.00 per 1k characters. An average order could be 5 to 15 posts, with 100 words each describing photo galleries, site or product reviews, profiles, and product descriptions.”

In this case, I turned it down because a) I feel like I’m worth more than that and b) it was writing primarily adult content and c) I want to build a portfolio and this was all anonymous work, which is probably just as well since it’s adult content.

Have you addressed this on your blog (or elsewhere)? I wasn’t able to find anything. I thought that selfishly, I’d ask because it benefits me, but also it might be something your readers might be interested in hearing about.

Thanks – this freelancing thing is tough. My husband uttered the words “seasonal retail” and I’m finding myself really frustrated with what seems to be out there. I’m planning to reread your freelancing series from the start next week. Thanks!

Stacia @ girlyfight

About Crummy Pay

My first reaction is to beg you to please, please, please never accept pay like that. First, it undermines rates industry wide. Second, I’m familiar with your writing, and you’re right to think you’re worth more than that. To call it demeaning is an understatement.

To put it in perspective let’s think about this pay scheme in terms of an hourly wage. Let’s say you were able to write 500 words in an hour (and many writers would consider that a real stretch!), you’d be making $2.50 per hour. Would you work as a janitor for $2.50 an hour? Would you work as a cashier for $2.50 an hour? Would you work as a graphic designer for $2.50 an hour?

Despite my gut reaction to your question, I can’t judge anyone for accepting a job like this one. We all do what we have to so we can make ends meet or break into a new field. If you were excited about this opportunity, I’d encourage you to pursue it. But you’re clearly not, and that speaks volumes. So I’ll just make a few points about the other issues you raised for future reference.

On Writing Adult Content

As for adult content, I’ve never written it. Mostly because I know my limits, and erotica is so not my thing. But I’m liberal enough that I can’t imagine telling someone not take a gig just because it’s adult content. My reservation about writing it stems from the fact that you can never be too sure who will appreciate seeing adult writing samples–aside from other adult content curators, anyway.

Ghostwriting and Your Portfolio

Finally, I just want to clear up any misconceptions that new writers might have about using anonymous or ghostwritten material for writing samples. While it’s a pretty bad idea to plaster that kind of content on your website’s portfolio page, you may still be able to claim it as your work. (You’ll have to work out these details with your client.) Assuming it’s a go, you can simply list it as a writing credit on your resume or you can send the writing sample privately as an email attachment or link explaining that it was ghostwritten for another client. To back up your claims, simply ask your client to serve as a professional reference should the potential client ask for verification.


Are Writers Righter?

A guest post by Lindsey of Campfire Song.

What defines a writer?

Anyone who writes? Someone who’s been published or gets paid to write? An “author”? A teenaged girl who keeps a journal?

I recently attended Writers’ Week, hosted by Emily. I read all of her posts, checked out the resources she offered to help budding writers, won a style guide (a what?) and even entered the contest.

Half the time I spent participating though, I felt almost as if I shouldn’t be there.

Like an impostor.

And that I’m not a writer – I’m a blogger.

So far I know very little about freelancing. I don’t make a living from what I write. At this point my blog is a hobby and therapeutic and includes everything from my views on life to something funny my kid said at breakfast this morning. I don’t even really associate with a niche. My blog design might look different three times per day as I mess around with its layout – I don’t have a paid custom design because I’m still trying to figure out my focus. Although writing paid posts is definitely something I’d consider, I’m not a professional at this.

My entry to the Writers’ Week contest was a huge step for me. I decided to write fiction, which is something I’ve never done on my blog. As a child I always claimed to have no imagination, and I’m not much more creative in the tall tale department now than I was at eight years of age. I wanted to push myself and try something new, and this seemed like a great place to do it.

Linking up my entry I was terrified, as I had read all the posts before mine. People entered chapters of their short stories or excerpts from their “latest” novels, their Twitter bios boasted their “writer” status while mine reads “unprofessional mommy blogger”. My posts are conversational and sometimes I can have one up – from conception to “Publish” – in twenty minutes.

But am I a writer?

I don’t love my work any less than a labour of love that took its bestselling author years to perfect. I still feel that “writers” are better than “bloggers” – anyone can start up a blog, but it takes talent to be a good writer, right? Are the popular, paid bloggers considered writers?

Or maybe I’m selling myself short.

I asked on my Facebook page what the difference between blogging and writing is. Someone reminded me of the movie Contagion, where blogging is defined as “graffitti with punctuation”.

So technically it’s still a form of art then, right?

I’d totally settle for “artist” if I can’t have “writer”. Then at least as I find my way, nothing I write could ever be considered crappy.

Lindsey blogs at Campfire Song. She’s a SAHM to nearly four and writes about the insanity that molds her existence as a twenty-something mother, Army wife, Christian, conservative common-sense advocate. She’s on Facebook and Twitter.

Five Dances With Death

For the record, this is a free book review. I even paid for my copy of Five Dances myself. For an explanation of why I agreed to do another free book review after vowing not to do them ever again, read yesterday’s post, “Words are Yummy.”

Five Dances With Death: Dance One. Austin Briggs. 2011. Helvetic Press.

If stories of human sacrifice and Aztec magic are your thing, then I recommend Briggs’s work of historical fantasy, Five Dances With Death, without reservation. Go and buy it now. If you’re not necessarily into that sort of thing, you might want to reserve judgment until you’ve read the full review.

Five Dances tells the story of the protagonist, Angry Wasp, a warrior of a small Aztec nation searching for his kidnapped daughter while his people are being threatened by both the arrival of the Spanish and the stifling reign of Montezuma.

An integral part of the storytelling in Five Dances revolves around Wasp’s wife’s expertise in black magic. She teaches him to navigate the Void, leading to several out-of-body scenes in the book. If I’m honest, these scenes were difficult for my brain to process. Rather than take them for what they were and maintain my reading momentum, I’d get hung up on the allegory asking myself, “But what does it all mean?” And though it may well have been that way by design, I found it slightly discouraging. I felt a little lost at times—not a feeling I particularly enjoy as a reader.

That said, I was always relieved to return to the more straightforward narration, and I found the bits of action enthralling. Sacrificing humans to appease the gods? Cutting out their beating hearts? That’s some fascinating stuff, folks, and Briggs writes the blood and gore very well. Without being too over the top, his depictions made me wince as I imagined what it must have been like to have lived in that place at that time.

Which brings me to more praise for Briggs’ work. If you visit his website, he explains that he spent “10 years researching the history of the Aztec Empire and the Spanish conquest.” I totally believe it. Five Dances illustrates a mastery of historical context.

(A quick aside: while I was gathering affiliate links to include in this post, I noticed one Amazon reviewer mentioned a glossary at the beginning of the book.  It would have been nice to know that before I started reading. The Kindle apparently skips forward beyond this section. So, Kindle owners? Turn back a few pages when you open the book. You’re welcome.)

A final word. If you know me at all, you know that I’m rather vocal about my loathing of self-published works. They are notoriously full of typos, sport atrocious cover designs and commonly lack substance. Not the case with Five Dances With Death. I mean, I did notice a typo, but it’s nice to be able to attribute that to inevitable human error rather than absolute carelessness for once. And, yeah, I’m looking forward to Dance Two.

Words are Yummy

If you’ve never seen my Twitter bio, it reads thusly: Freelance copywriter sharing, selling, and sometimes eating her words since 2003.

People think I’m just being funny with that whole eating-my-words spiel, but I do mean it. And really, I don’t mind eating them every now and again. Just to prove it, I’m going to chew a few right now.

The Backstory

Remember that time I got myself all worked up into a book reviewer’s huff because a few authors—or perhaps the PR hacks they hired to manage their social media accounts (one can never be too sure these days)—had the nerve to keep asking me for special favors?

Well, my Crank-O-Meter™ went off the charts when that one lady asked me to take her self-published book about racing to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, snap a fan girl picture of myself with the book, and then follow up by posting said photo on Facebook in addition to reviewing her work.

Typing that out just now? I still can’t believe it.

Anyway, after that I basically told all authors—even the good ones who respect my time—that they could say goodbye to free book reviews on my blog. All because a few bad apples had spoiled the bunch.

Here’s where I start masticating.

Tomorrow I’m going to review a book.

For free.

I know, I know! But I have good reasons for making an exception this time. (The general policy still stands, however. Don’t press your luck people.)

What It Takes to Get a Free Book Review

So what did the author of tomorrow’s book do to merit a coveted free review on Suess’s Pieces? I’ll tell you.

  • He never asked me to read his book. I had been to his website and blog, decided odds were good that his book was totally worth the $.99 Kindle price, and read the book without being pitched by the author or a PR rep.
  • He did me a solid first. I asked him to help judge Writers’ Week entries last month, and he said yes.
  • He understands how the world works. I don’t get many cold calls these days, but I do get more than enough cold emails from people who want something for nothing. It’s refreshing to be approached by someone who actually took the time to read my content and engage in the conversations that take place here on my blog first. This is real online social engagement*—something a lot of authors and even a few self-proclaimed PR “gurus” just don’t seem to get.
  • He said thank you. When I finish Kindle books, I use the nifty little share button to Tweet my accomplishment. He saw that little announcement, Tweeted back, and followed up later with an email politely asking me whether I would consider reviewing his book, since I had already finished it. He thanked me for my time, no matter what my decision.

As I explained to Austin Briggs, author of Five Dances with Death, the book review fees I posted are really just bad book repellant. They’re designed to pay for my time reading books I might not otherwise pick up. Since I read his book for leisure, it seemed skeevy to charge him for the reading part ex post facto.

So all of this is just my terribly long-winded way of telling you that tomorrow I’m going to review his book, and he didn’t pay me to do it.

*I could write an entire novel about the shady, inconsiderate PR industry, but I won’t because The Bloggess seems to have covered that whole mess quite eloquently already.

Photo credit: Cjcj

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