Being great at what you do doesn’t always equal success as a freelance writer. In fact, good writing is only part of the formula. Today I want to share what I feel makes a freelance writer successful as a business owner - meaning steady work, happy clients, and a comfortable income.
Maybe you already know how to write, but do you know how to work as a freelance writer? Do you know how to manage your clients, report your taxes, and invoice properly? Do you understand how to write for websites and to optimize content for search engines? Do you know how to format a press release?
Step one is to educate yourself. I highly recommend reading some books on the business of writing, my favorite of which is The Well Fed Writer by Peter Bowerman. You can visit his website here. Other good reads are The Anti 9-5 Guide by Michelle Goodman and An Insider’s Guide to Building a Successful Consulting Practice by Bruce L. Katcher, Ph.D. Any techniques that you are unfamiliar with, like SEO or press releases, can be learned via the internet. Just do a quick Google search and you will be ready to meet the needs of all of your potential clients.
If you want to be successful, you have to stay organized. Find a way to manage your work and clients that meshes well with you. I personally rely heavily on a CRM tool (I chose Salesforce.com) to manage my clients and marketing efforts, as well as a physical day planner, an electronic calendar, and Excel.
It’s also a good idea to get a filing system in place so you can organize your projects while you work on them. I have a manila folder for each client or project, and two separate filing spaces – one for current projects, one for completed projects. Successful businesses of all sizes have processes in place, and your writing business should be the same way.
Have a Portfolio
Every writer needs a portfolio even if it’s a small one. If you don’t have samples, get some. Today. Well, yesterday! One sample of each type of writing you want to do is enough. Remember that if you’ve done it once, you can do it. Sites like Elance, Freelancer or Guru are good starting points if you just need to get something published, but I wouldn't stay here long. You can't live off what they pay on those sites.
I find that online portfolios are used 99.9% of the time. I have mine on a tab on my website, but you can also build a portfolio using a number of websites. One example is Contently. Personally I like to have my portfolio available right there on my website so potential clients can see everything in one place. Do you need a physical portfolio? Yes, for those just-in-case scenarios. I have used mine only once, but I sometimes bring it to meetings with new potential clients. It should be professional, but doesn’t have to be expensive. I simply printed text on really nice letterhead, put them in paper protectors, and assembled them in a matching binder. Instant portfolio.
That whole “you snooze, you lose” concept really applies in the freelance world. You have a lot of competition so if someone reaches out to you via phone or email, respond promptly if you want to win the job. Very few businesses have the patience to deal with a writer who is unresponsive or hard to get a hold of. So when that phone rings, answer. Because that may be your one shot at the project.
So if I had to list out my rules of availability, the first rule would be to answer emails quickly. I try to respond within 2 hours during regular business hours, and sooner if possible. Second, pick up the phone when it rings. Answer even if you don’t feel like talking, because they might not call back. Third, be responsive. Don’t let clients ever feel like you are a black hole reincarnated on the earth. And finally, provide good customer service. This means being available to answer questions, being on time for calls and meetings, and proactively updating clients on status.
Market Yourself – Constantly
Many writers dread the idea of marketing because so many of us are introverted by nature. But the deal is, if you want to get clients (and eat and have electricity) you have to go find them. And this means marketing.
Do you have to do cold calls? No. So if this doesn’t appeal to you, don’t do it. But you do have to reach out somehow, whether it’s through emails, direct mailings, networking on sites like LinkedIn, or applying to freelance postings. You can’t just sit back and expect projects to drop into your lap. The books I mentioned above provide some good tips on marketing yourself and finding new clients. So check them out, and do some research. Find what works for you.
Find a Niche
Yes you can be a jack of all trades writer. And maybe you are. But it’s to your benefit to find some sort of niche and try to develop clientele there. You will be able to command higher fees for something you specialize in, and eventually your network will broaden because like-minded individuals like to collaborate. And part of that collaboration might just be passing your name along to a colleague.
I don’t think you have to limit yourself if you truly enjoy writing about lots of things (like I do), but I do think you should find a niche to serve as your primary source of income. Then you can supplement as you want with interesting projects. So for example, my specialty is commercial writing. My niche within commercial writing is IT. But I also have a consumer magazine I write for, and a dental chain. So I don’t limit myself but I do try to focus most of my work.
Have a Contract and Deposit
Nobody wants to be the writer who is staring at their mailbox waiting for an overdue payment. The solution? Have a contract. You are a business so treat yourself like one. You can likely find samples of contracts online (this is what I did) and then tweak your favorite one to your liking.
Always get 50% payment up front and have stipulations around meeting cancellations, project cancellations, and overdue payments. It’s not being tough, it’s just a fair business practice. Will this prevent all unpaid invoices? No. But at least you’ll get some of your money by requiring a percentage up front, and will have some recourse if you need to take the client to small claims court.
Speak professionally, interact professionally, but don’t be afraid to have some fun with those clients who have a sense of humor. Be real. You are a human and so are they. Bringing humanity and a personal touch to the job will help set you apart from the rest of the writing masses.
Is Your Freelance Business Ready?
Once you have properly established your business, if you can produce exceptional work (on time!) then your client list will flourish and your income will grow. Great writing is essential, but running your operation as a business is the key to success.
I was recently negotiating with a prospect who was trying to start a company and he wanted some web copy created. His first request was this: "I want you to write a 200 word marketing piece for me based on the product description I give you." If you got that request from a prospect, how would you respond?
Well, here is how I responded. I politely said that I do not do work for free, although I do provide a free 30 minute consultation and I will happily send him some proprietary writing samples that are very similar to what he is wanting. I said that I also have testimonials and an extensive portfolio, and that this was all I could offer. I said that if he wanted a free writing sample then it would be best to look elsewhere, as I have sufficient samples to more than showcase my abilities.
He accepted the samples and agreed to continue with the consultation, during which he asked me to include in the project quote two random web pages with an undetermined definition or scope. I said that because those pages were undefined, how about we work with the pages that are defined and I can give him a quote, and once he defines the other two pages we can go from there.
He agreed, I created a quote that clearly outlined the 6 pages of content and how many revisions were included, and sent it off. The next day he declined the quote and said that he was uninterested, as the price was fine but in his opinion I was not willing to work with him. Was I surprised? Not really.
So I sat back and thought about these types of requests and what they mean, because honestly most of my prospects are large clients and do not conduct business this way. And what everything boiled down to was this: because I didn't provide free work or agree to a set price for work that had not been scoped yet, I was labeled as a bad businessperson.
And what I would say to that accusation is that it's actually the opposite. If you're a good businessperson, you value your time. You have sufficient samples to show your skills and you have people to vouch for the quality of your work. And you don't work for free. And similarly, you don't expect others to work for free.
That would be like going to a job interview where they tell you that while they appreciate that you have great experience and samples, they want you to create some marketing collateral for them before they will consider hiring you. And it's on some products that currently do not have any marketing content. So this honestly means that they can turn around and sell the free work you perform for them. And if they were really shady, they could bring people in for "interviews" and slowly get all of their marketing work done this way for free.
That doesn't sound ethical to me. Does it sound ethical to you? So why expect a freelancer or consultant to do the same thing?
Which brings me to my final thought on the subject, which is whether or not there are any situations where I would write for free. The answer? Maybe. Working on spec is much more normal for publications and books. And if I had a prospect that I was really interested in and I didn't have relevant work samples that fairly illustrated my abilities, then yes maybe I'd write something. But it would only be a few sentences or a paragraph. I'm not going to write a 200-300 word document for them. If I was being considered for an instructional design project, and they asked me to provide feedback on some scenarios and how I would design them (and it was clearly a "test" and not materials yet to be developed), yes I would do that to an extent. But beyond those things, my working for free stops there.
So let me ask you. Do you write for free? What are your thoughts on the subject?
So it's been a while since I wrote a blog. Today I wanted to talk about the benefits of hiring an independent professional, because we all need to know why we're doing what we're doing, right? If you find a good one, you'll reap some serious benefits and set up a mutually satisfying long-term relationship. And in time, that relationship will help your business continue to grow at a lower cost than you may have thought possible.
So think about this:
You need some communications work done. Or maybe you need some training programs developed and rolled out. Or maybe you need a help system built, or some media work completed like press releases, blogs, articles, and social media content. Or maybe you're not quite sure if your website is working.
You have three options at this point:
So where am I going with this? Well, I'm going straight to this message:
A skilled consultant/freelancer can provide professional quality work for a fraction of the overall cost, and can dramatically increase your business and profits through an as-needed expense rather than a daily one.
Think about the thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of dollars you could save and re-invest in your business. It's all about return on investment. Pay for what you need, when you need it, knowing you will get the same professional quality you would get if you hired a full-time employee. And pocket that money you would have paid on a salary, taxes, benefits, bonus structure, computer software, training...the list goes on.
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