ABCs of Freelance Writing: V is for Volunteer

As a woman who pays her bills with actual money and not goodwill, I am hesitant to recommend volunteering as a way of breaking into the business as a freelance writer. But, as a woman who believes that good things happen when people stop being selfish, part of me also wants to urge you to volunteer your writing services because words have the power to make the world a better place.

I guess I’m a little conflicted.

I firmly believe that all work should be adequately compensated, and that you should never feel guilty about earning a fair wage for your labor. Yes, even if you enjoy writing.

Nonetheless I understand that volunteering can help you gain the confidence of potential clients and make it possible for you to start or enhance your portfolio. I also understand that like the teenager lectured on the wonders of abstinence, many new writers will be so eager to pen anything at all they’ll volunteer anyway. So let me say this: if you’re going to be a volunteer, at the very least protect yourself.

I offer you two rules to live by.

Always Volunteer on Your Terms

Let me tell you a little story. Last September a local business owner found me on a search for Indianapolis freelance writers. He emailed me about his pet project, he left comments on my blog about it, and he left posts on my Facebook page begging me to write a story about his non-profit (which, by the way, seemed a whole lot like a for-profit to me to me). Anyway, his “non-profit” was so awesome and had such a fantastic mission that he was sure I’d want to write about it for free.

I assure you, I didn’t. So I emailed him back, saying:

Thanks for getting in touch. I’m sorry, but at this time I am unable to take on another project. As you may have seen on my website, I’m running Writers’ Week along with a writing contest and working diligently to maintain the Suess’s Pieces blog. I also work a full-time day job and freelance part-time for other clients. And at some point I just have to say no. Not because I don’t like helping out, but because there just isn’t enough time in the day.

See how I was trying to be diplomatic?

Honestly, if he’d taken two minutes to read a couple of my blog posts, he’d have probably realized that his mission and my personal convictions were a mismatch at best. But he didn’t. He just kept harassing me.

Truth be told, maybe I was overly diplomatic with my email response, because he didn’t let up. He left me another comment, and I reminded him about how I’d already said no. I ended up revoking his permissions to make posts on my Facebook page. It got that bad.

The point is, don’t ever let someone badger you into writing for free. And permanently blacklist anyone that doesn’t respect you the first time you say no. Writing on a volunteer basis requires mutual respect. That’s why I recommend you proactively volunteer for causes that interest you. If someone comes to you asking for free copy, odds are his expectations aren’t anywhere close to reasonable.

Make Sure the Project is a Good Match

You may love the organization you’ve volunteered to write for, but be wary of taking on work-for-free assignments if the assignment seems tedious to you or you’re unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the scope and responsibilities. Botch a project because you’re bored or incapable, and you might as well hand out a business card that says, “I produce mediocre work.”

When you express interest in writing for someone on a volunteer basis, use plenty of qualifiers. Be specific about how much time you can devote to the assignment and what jobs you are volunteering to help with.

ABCs of Freelance Writing: U is for Upfront Payment

I’ve written about the sticky subject of collecting money from difficult clients before. In an article I wrote for Small Business Bonfire, I shared some ideas I had for getting deadbeat clients to pay up. But today I’d like to talk about one way you, as a freelance writer, can avoid dealing with deadbeats entirely.

It’s called an upfront payment.

And it’s glorious.

Tips for Collecting Upfront Payments

Create a fee schedule for your most popular services.

First things first, establish freelance writing fees so you’re not wasting time debating what to charge. Most of my pre-pay clients are in a hurry to get a job done, and having a rate sheet expedites the process.

Choose between full and partial upfront payments.

When it comes down to it, you have a couple of pre-pay options: you can bill for a fraction of the invoice upfront, or you can bill for the entire cost of services. I’ve done both, but I tend not to split invoices under $200.

Explain your upfront payment policy.

New clients may need to be reassured that you’re not going to leave them high and dry after you’ve got their money. Explain your entire process in writing (preferably in a contract) before any money changes hands. Confirm your commitment to the deadline and be clear about what happens if the customer is not satisfied with the work or requests revisions.

Offer immediate Payment processing.

I bill with Freshbooks because it enables me to send invoices and statements immediately via email. I can collect payments through my PayPal account, making it possible for me to accept a job, bill the client, receive payment, and begin work on a project in a matter of minutes. Freshbooks even has an arrangement with PayPal where you can opt to waive the standard PayPal fees and select a flat rate fee per transaction for $.50. That’s pretty sweet, because those percentage-based PayPal fees can seriously eat into your profits if you use it a lot.

Never miss a deadline.

The thing about charging for work upfront is that you have to be able to deliver consistently. If you aren’t committed to delivering the finished product when promised, you’ll have a hard time maintaining a solid business relationship with your clients.

Deliver your best work.

Think of the upfront payment scenario like a transaction at your local electronics store. As a customer, you expect to walk away with a solid product that lives up to the claims on the packaging. Your clients feel the same way about your writing. When a client pays upfront, there’s a greater expectation for you to get the job done right the first time.

ABCs of Freelance Writing: T is for Trade

Trading (or bartering) is a legitimate way to do business for some freelance writers. Instead of working for money, you can do work in exchange for things you need to grow your business.

For example, I once made an arrangement to write several blog posts in exchange for some behind-the-scenes work on an old blog template that was giving me fits. The miracle worker I worked with got some great content, and I got a more functional site. It was a total win-win situation.

The more veteran the freelance writer, the less likely she is to rely on trading or bartering services. However, it still works out from time to time, and it’s a great way to build relationships with other small business owners. Before you barter though, beware!

Tips for Trading or Bartering

  • Work with someone you trust. I don’t suggest finding a barter partner by posting anonymous ads or anything. Work with people who have a solid reputation in their field—whether they’ve established their reputation online or through real-life professional networks.
  • Agree to the terms before the work gets started. It can be a little tricky trying to determine what’s a fair trade. Is writing worth more per hour than logo designing? It’s not always cut and dry, particularly when you consider the differences in experience levels. Work out the details of your arrangement before anyone starts work. No one wants to feel like they’ve become an indentured servant.
  • Don’t trade for things you don’t need. Remember that your small business is supposed to make money. Politely decline an offer that doesn’t make good business sense. Trading limits you because you can’t, for example, pay the light bill with a new blog template. When money is what you need, take bartering options off the table.
  • Know your worth. The most important part of setting up a trade for services is to understand what your services are worth. Stand your ground, because trading is a lot like negotiating. There are plenty of people out there looking to get something for nothing.



[stextbox id=”grey” caption=”About Word Carnivals”]This post is part of the January Word Carnival — a monthly group blogging event specifically for small business owners. (It’s the most fun you’ll have all month!) Check out the rest of the fabulous carney work here. [/stextbox]

ABCs of Freelance Writing: S is for Self-Discipline

Sometimes when I tell someone I’m a freelance writer, she’ll respond, “Oh, I could never work freelance. I just don’t have the self-discipline for it. I’d want to goof off all the time.”

I usually respond by saying that she’d be surprised how much she could accomplish—if only her next meal depended on it.

It never fails to get a chuckle, but it’s true. Some of the most free-spirited, schedule-hating people I know are fantastic freelancers because they know that buckling down for a few hours every day will get the bills paid. And acting like they’re self-disciplined for a while is usually more appealing to them than bending over backwards for The Man.

How to Master the Art of Self-Discipline

(Or better yet, how to wing it and get the same results.)

  1. Know your strengths and weaknesses. When you know what you’re bad at, you can beat yourself up about it compensate for it.
  2. Understand that creative time equals work time. Don’t mistakenly think that watching a cartoon can’t qualify as work. Sometimes it’s not so much about self-discipline as it is seeking out projects you are sure to enjoy. If the next article you write requires you to know Bugs Bunny inside and out, awesome! Put “watch cartoons” on your day planner.
  3. Use lists. Know what you need to get done every day, write those things down, and then start knocking them out one by one. You don’t have to tackle the list in order. You don’t have to finish all the tasks in one  sitting. And you don’t have to tell your client that you played Skyrim for 30 minutes before you did the final edits on his web copy. You just have to get your taks done  (and done well) when it counts.
  4. Have a mantra. My personal favorite is, “If I don’t work, I can’t buy things.”
  5. Have a plan. If you do goof off every once in a while or veer off course a little, it’s nice to have a plan to reference and get you back on track. Whether it’s a business plan or a list of goals write ’em down’, type ’em up, or tell your digital recorder all about it.

Are you a freelancer? What tips and tricks do you use to help you stay on task?

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.


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.

ABCs of Freelance Writing: P is for Pitfall

Notice the title isn’t “ABCs of Freelance Writing: P is for Pajamas.” Okay, now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s prepare other freelance writing hopefuls for some of the perils of choosing such a career.

I’ll start by creating a list of bad things that can happen to a freelance writer—a list born of my own trying experiences—and the lessons I learned as a result.

Consider the comments an open thread for discussing your own trials and tribulations.

Freelance Writing Pitfalls

The Disappearing Document: More than once I’ve lost entire documents and have been forced to start over. I have MS Word set to save backup copies. I use Dropbox for remote storage and access to my files. I save religiously as I write. And yet, I can think of at least three times in the last year that I lost a document. No warning, just poof! When it happens to me now, I give myself 30 seconds to whine. Then I take a big breath, and start writing again. Because a deadline’s a deadline.

Lesson: Sulking won’t bring your words back.

The Phantom Dry Spell: Sometimes legitimate contact form submissions get lost in the ether. I was down on myself for weeks because no one was asking me for quotes on their writing projects until I discovered several website queries had not been forwarded to my Gmail account (they were hung up in my domain’s hosting webmail mailbox thingy*) and a few others had been sent directly to my spam folder. Funny how three weeks later, those people had already found another writer.

Lesson: Check under the hood every 3,000 emails.

The Burnout Bitch: Churning out 25 plus 500-word articles in a week for a single client while you work full-time and maintain other projects can be done. But I dare you to pull it off with a smile on your face. I double dog dare you to pull it off without disrupting your sleep cycle. I triple dog dare you to do it without threats of break-up or divorce from your S.O.

Lesson: When you have money for movies and concerts and fancy-ass dinners, no one is willing to hang out with you.

*I know! I’m so technical.

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ABCs of Freelance Writing: O is for Organizations

Joining a writers organization can help you boost your career. Every group offers something different, so I recommend doing a little research before blindly joining any of these programs. Some are free, some require membership dues. But all require your time if you’re going to get much out them.

Joining organizations is a great way to extend your professional network. Don’t be surprised if, by joining one of these groups, you find opportunities to collaborate with other freelancers, learn more about how laws affect you as a freelance writer, and expand your business through introductions to new clients in new industries.

National Writers Organizations

National Association of Independent Writers and Editors: This organization will accept international members too. It pretty much covers writers in every field—freelancers, magazine writers, editors, business writers, writing teachers, and the list keeps going.

National Writers Association: I have to say that this organization could use a few more chapters across the United States. If you’re looking for something local, you might need to step up and spearhead the launch of a chapter in your area.

American Society of Journalists and Authors: This organization has been around since 1948. It’s headquartered in New York City, but there are also regional chapters if you want to get involved. One of its primary functions is to serve as a spokesperson for independent writers.

Women’s Writing Organizations

International Women’s Writing Guild: The IWWG was founded in the mid-1970s and touts itself as a personal and professional network for women writers. The group is open to all writers regardless of their portfolio.

National League of American Pen Women: The NLAPW is a 501 (c)(3) that promotes the creative works of women in “art, letters, and music.” You can participate through an active, associate, or student membership.

Unions for Freelance Writers

The Freelancers Union: This union acts on behalf of freelance writers as well as designers, consultants, etc. I’m a free member of this union, and have found the info in the organization’s newsletter alone is well worth the few minutes it took me to sign up.

National Writers Union: The NWU “represents freelance writers in all genres, formats, and media” and focuses on campaigns involving copyright defense, legislative action, freedom of speech and censorship.

Want to share your experience with these or any other writers’ groups? Leave a comment below.

ABCs of Freelance Writing: M is for Myth

This post is part of the ongoing ABCs of Freelance Writing series. M is for myth.

Author Solutions and iUniverse posts notice: This post was imported from Suess's Pieces and may contain broken links and missing images

Freelance writers that pretend the business is impossible to break into are full of it. My guess is they’re probably just worried their clients will like you better. That, or they’re afraid they won’t be able to sell you a spot in their next tell-all webinar if they let on how, you know, possible it is to write for money.

Thankfully, most freelancers are supportive people who don’t mind sharing what they’ve learned along the way. Despite this openness, though, I still find that many wannabe freelancers believe things about the biz that just aren’t true. If you’re hesitant about breaking into the wonderful world of freelance, I hope this post is just the kick in the tail you need.

Common Freelance Writing Myths

You might as well believe in gnomes as believe these myths. Seriously.

Freelancers need a second degree in accounting. I’m not a numbers girl, but I do my own taxes with nothing more than an English degree and some user-friendly software. Keep track of your income and expenses as you go, and life will still be manageable at tax time. Plus, you can always hire a tax expert if you’re too terrified to go it alone.

Freelance writers must have a niche. I’ve been at this part-time freelancing thing for years, and I still don’t have a niche. Now, I’m not saying that a niche wouldn’t help me some, particularly if I wanted to take this full-time. But you can keep your options wide open and still be a successful writer. Don’t sit on the sidelines because you don’t know what your specialty is yet.

Freelancers have to be topic experts to land jobs. I want to tell you a little story. It’s a really short one: I don’t have kids, but I have written numerous articles on potty training. If you can research a topic, you’re in good shape. In fact, you’re more likely to write a better piece when you’re not mistaking what you know for common knowledge.

    So that’s it, common freelance writing myths debunked. Have you heard any other freelancing stories that you suspect aren’t really true? M is for myth.

    ABCs of Freelance Writing: L is for Letter

    In my not-so-humble opinion, freelance writers need to master writing a few things right out of the gate: the query letter, the letter of introduction and the cover letter. No, you won’t necessarily use all three of these things all the time. But when it’s time to whip one out, you don’t want to be fumbling and bumbling all over yourself.

    Every freelancer needs to reach out to new clients from time to time. It might be to replace income lost from a project that’s ending. It might be to find higher paying gigs to make ends meet. Or it might be to to build a more impressive resume and break into new industries.

    Each of these letters gives you a different way to approach a potential client. Just pick the one that’s right for the client you have in your sights, and send it along posthaste. The thing you don’t want to do is get hung up on writing one of these letters when you still have projects in the queue for current clients.

    Time is money, let’s not get in the habit of wasting it, m’kay?

    The Query Letter

    Querying in a nutshell: The query letter is a brief proposal or pitch you use to try and sell your writing ideas.

    When to use the query letter: Most of the time you’ll use query letters to solicit magazine editors and literary agents before you write an article or book. This query process can be extremely beneficial for writers. Why? Because if you don’t get any takers, you don’t waste otherwise billable hours writing a piece you can’t sell.

    To get started: View a sample letter on How to Write a Query Letter and read Janet Reid’s list of query no-nos.

    The Letter of Introduction

    Intro letters in a nutshell: The letter of introduction (LOI) introduces you to an editor or client, highlighting the awesome reasons why they should come to you every time they need a freelance writer.

    When to use it: Write LOIs when you’re looking to get your foot in the door with a new client. The major difference between the introduction letter and the query letter is that in the former you are touting your general awesomeness while in the latter you are touting the brilliance of a specific idea.

    To get started: Learn why the letter of introduction matters to freelancers and learn how to use  templates while still ensuring your LOI doesn’t read like a form letter.

    The Cover Letter

    Cover letters in a nutshell: A cover letter is used to clarify or explain other supporting documents. For freelancers, the cover letter highlights important details included on your resume and introduces your supporting clips.

    When to use it: Send a cover letter with your resume and writing samples (if requested) in response to an advertisement for a specific freelance writing job or project.

    To get started: Scour the Cover Letter Clinic posts and comments for useful information on improving your freelance cover letters. (Because it’s hard to navigate the entire clinic from the actual site, you might want to use these follow-up links: Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5, Day 6, Day 7.)

    If you use templates wisely and fine tune all three of these letters ahead of time, you can send them out without disrupting your workflow. They key to attracting new business without losing valuable time is streamlining the process.

    Photo credit: dancerinthedark

    This post is part of the ABCs of Freelance Writing series. See the full index of posts here.

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