The Well-Fed Knowledge Base
Over the years, I’ve answered a LOT of questions from readers on many aspects of the commercial writing business. All those contacts ultimately spurred me to start my one-on-one paid mentoring service (http://www.wellfedwriter.com/mentoring.shtml), as I found I just didn’t have the time anymore. In one of my better moves, I saved a lot of those commercial writing-related Q&As and here’s the result. However long or short it is now, it will keep growing over time. Just click the thumbnail descriptions below to go to the full text further down.
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Q: As a custom publisher, I work with clients who complain that an article or some other piece of writing isn't "right" but can't make any suggestions as to what's wrong. I verify that content, quotes, etc. are accurate. “What exactly don't you like,” I ask? “Well, I'm not a writer,” they say, “you're the writer. Just fix it!” Have you any experience with that?!
A: Yes, I've occasionally run into that, though most clients I work with on the corporate side know they need to give you a little more to go on than some vague, nebulous sense that it's "not quite right" minus any specifics.
A good question I always ask is, "What's missing for you?" AND/OR, "If you had this piece side by side with one that you indeed thought had hit the mark, what would be the difference?" I realize these are all ways of saying the same thing, all ways of trying to quantify the missing element, but sometimes it just takes a different approach. Try to get them to show you a piece that DID work for them and figure out what's different. Go through the list of possible culprits. Is it tone? Flow? Readibility?
Most importantly, and I feel very strongly about this,
if they refuse or are unable to give you any specifics while at the
same time confirming the accuracy of all the content, it's not my
problem any more. If I've made an extra effort to zero in on the
problem and they've not been helpful at all, then it's about their
laziness, not my lack of effort. I realize that we have to make the
client happy as our first goal, but what else can you do at that point?
You might say, "Mr. Client, I really want to get this right. I pride
myself on doing just that consistently with all my clients, but I'm not
a mind reader. I've been doing this for a long time and this piece is
typical of what I write for the rest of my clients, who have been very
happy with my work for many years. I really don't know what else to do
at this point."
Q: Is it important to get permission from clients to use
samples in your portfolio? If so, is it equally necessary for
both paper copies and online portfolios? If a client says
‘no’, is there any way around this (removing their
names from the writing samples, etc.)?
A: Bottom line, for the most part, this is a non-issue.
It virtually never comes up and rears its ugly head. NEVER has for me.
Nor has the issue of using earlier versions.If a client gives you a
sample, that’s an implicit understanding that
they’re giving you permission to use it as well. No other
permission is necessary. With ads, you ought to be able to get "tear
sheets" from the agency which are essentially printouts of the ad. If
you know the designer who's working on the ad, let's say, ask him or
her to print you out a few color copies of the ad. The only exception
to the above is if the piece is “internal”
communications – only for the eyes within the four walls of a
company. In those cases, be sensitive to material that could
be…sensitive. In those cases, if you want to use it,
you’ll likely only be able to use the raw text, and then only
after you’ve “sanitized” it of all
Q: How do you deal with a client who refuses to pay the total amount agreed upon in the contract? (i.e., you receive a check upon agreement of your contract for a 1/3 of the amount and in the end that's all they decide to pay you - saying they feel you've charged them too much)
A: If you're dealing with good, established companies,
and you should be and I did from day 1, it should NEVER happen.
Reputable clients just don't pull garbage like that. More importantly,
if it does happen, then you’re partly to blame for not
covering yourself with a bid letter (brief one-page
“contract” outlining terms of a project, what
you’re charging and what they’re getting for that;
see pp. 135-6 of TWFW). If it DOES happen, keep pushing and if they
refuse to budge, threaten to put the word out in the community that
they stiff their writers. But if you pick your clients well and cover
yourself with a contract, it should
Q: What do I charge a not-for-profit (NFP)? I've read elsewhere that halving your normal hourly rate is appropriate.
A: I typically don't discount much if anything at all
for NFPs. “Not-for-profit” is an accounting term
which generally has little to do with how much money they do or don't
have. Take the Red Cross or United Way. Sure, they're called
non-profits but they're rolling in cash. If on the other hand, it's a
small local organization who obviously doesn't have a lot of money,
then you make the call. I wouldn't halve it though - maybe 25% less, if
that. I just finished a ton of work for a worldwide charity and they
didn’t balk one bit at my healthy market rates. More
importantly, they got excellent work at a fair and competitive rate,
work which undoubtedly boosted their contributions FAR more than what
they paid me.
Q: Is a commercial writer responsible for doing the
layout and graphic design as well?
Sure, if you know you’re only going to be dealing with small and relatively undemanding (aesthetically speaking) clients, and you want to learn some basic design to be able to lay out simple brochures, newsletters, and ads, fine. Knock yourself out. If, however, you’re planning on playing in a larger market, with bigger clients, don’t bother. You’d be much better off forging alliances with good, established graphic designers, and working together to bring “turnkey” (a.k.a. “end-to-end”) solutions to your prospects than trying (futilely, I might add…) to compete with these often-20-year-plus veterans.
I recently mentored a couple starting a commercial
writing business and they excitedly told me that were planning on
getting up to speed on graphic design (which they‘d be
learning from scratch) so they could be a total solution for their
clients. And my response was, “Why? Why would you want to put
yourself through this?”
Q: How do I know how many words it’ll take to fit in, say, a trifold brochure? Does the client give you a word count? Do you just guess or do you have to meet with a design person first? Because of the variables, determining length of copy could be difficult. For example, a trifold brochure might be in any combination of font styles and sizes with varying leading, etc.. How can you guesstimate a job without specifics? (And I hate to even admit this, but how do you calculate word counts in MS Word?
A: Word counts are one of those things that seem like a
big issue now, but it really isn’t at all. Play with formats
a bit to get an idea. For a trifold brochure, for instance, in Word,
lay out a piece in landscape format, 3-columns, and put text in and see
how much it takes to fill up the space. Or find some brochures out and
about in the world that are done well, and actually sit down and count
the words. Word counts are something you get a sense for after awhile,
once you know the space you’re writing to. Rarely will the
client give you the word count. Again, as a rule, you’re
working closely with the graphic designer.
should I quote this particular project?
Q: I read all of the display ads in my local paper for
leads. I consistently find ads that, while the content is pretty good,
have grammatical errors. How would one approach such businesses to
offer his/her services without offending them?
Q: PB Note: I was recently steered to a reader’s site and her writing business used a word that looked like a misspelled version an every day word. I pointed it out, to which she replied that the word wasn’t in fact misspelled, but was a variant of the word. I’m not ashamed to admit that I’d never heard of the variant, and she had nothing on the home page explaining that it indeed was a variant. My reply follows…
A: Then you need to spell THAT out. I had the same
conversation with a writer whom I was mentoring recently. His web site
had a theme, which was very esoteric and at the end of one page, he had
this very cryptic saying. I asked him what it was all about and he
explained that it was part of a larger theme. I said that given that
most people won't be familiar with the theme at all, it’s
entirely wasted there, and all it'll end up doing is confusing people
– NOT the state you want your prospective buyers to be in.
to quote a book ghostwriting project
Q: All my life I’ve been told that I was a great writer. I’ve gotten tons of feedback over the years from people all across the spectrum, though little of my writing has been for pay. I truly do feel I have a natural gift for the written word. That said, after reading your book, I’m just not sure I have what it takes. I’m not very good in negotiating situations, and often get flustered when put on the spot, and it seems that I might find myself in plenty of both in this field.
Q: I've just visited your website, The Well-Fed Writer. No offense, but a friend of mine has unequivocally declared your book to be a scam. However, I find myself intrigued. You haven't promised to make me rich beyond my wildest dreams, which seems to be the hallmark of the scam artist, and I find that reassuring. And I have some questions…
First of all, I do not have any sort of a degree. It seems just a little unlikely that anyone would be willing to hand over a writing project to someone who is (let's be brutally frank here) under educated by today’s standards. Second, I am currently serving in the US Navy. What happens if I do actually have a project on hand and my sub is unexpectedly deployed? Would that destroy my credibility? Or is there some way I could work around that, say by a referral to another freelancer?
A: As for your friend's assessment of this opportunity as "an unequivocal scam," well, believe me, I don't take offense. I may have at one point, but now comments like that just amuse me and I try to just have fun with them! How exactly do people arrive at such conclusions? What exactly is scam-like about this? Does he not believe the field exists? Do he not believe the hourly rates are legitimate? Can he not fathom that corporate America would go outside their hallowed halls to get help?
As you point out, if I WAS a scam artist, I should be promising a lot more than I am, which is that it's NOT a get-rich-quick scheme, that one should count on six-to-twelve months gear-up time, that you do have to be a decent writer, etc. VERY scammy. Hmmmm, maybe, I'm a scam artist with a conscience and I just can't bring myself to make outrageous claims, so I tone them down somewhat. That could be it... :)
Rest assured, it's for real and there are tons of folks out there proving it every day (and who, incidentally, are profoundly indifferent to those out there who believe it ain't legit...).
As for your questions… While one can never know what any given client is going to ask on any given day, I've NEVER been asked where I went to college or even if I DID go to college. It's just not an issue. Sure, people may assume that you have, but the point is, it's not germane to the issue at hand, which is: Are you a decent enough writer to handle the writing project for which I am considering hiring you? Frankly, that's all they care about. If you have a decent gift for writing, and that comes from nurturing it and reading a lot, NOT higher education, that's all that matters. That’s one of the nicest things about this field: it’s very democratic. You’re hired based on your performance, not your history (sure, if you’re writing in a technical field and you have that background, either through education or work experience, that WILL count for something).
As for your deployment scenario, how often would that
come up? If it's a few-times-a-year possibility, that in essence, would
only impact a small number of clients (maybe just one) at any given
instance, don't even bring it up as a possibility. Cross that bridge
when you get to it and yes, having another writer in the wings (and I'd
have a few) to jump in and finish the job is a very feasible strategy.
I assert that the key in the client's eyes is not that it might or
might not come up. It's, "How do you handle it if it does?" And if
you're professional and diligent, that's the key thing. They just want
their project done.
Q: I’m trying to find some information about
those free informational booklets you frequently see handed out at
doctors’ offices, business fairs, nature centers, and other
places. They’re often “public service”
booklets that don’t “sell” any particular
business directly, but provide relevant and useful information, e.g.,
“What Really Causes Clinical Depression?” or
“20 Fire Safety Tips for Suburbanites.”
(in foreign country) quotes fee, gets no reply, wonders
(PB Note: This strategy obviously would work on a book
ghostwriting project as well, where the true parameters of a project
are uncertain. While in the project above, you might suggest this idea
as a way to make the client feel more comfortable about moving forward,
in the case of a ghostwriting gig, the writer might want to suggest it
as a way of protecting his or her interests. It’s sometimes
difficult to know how labor-intensive a book project is going to be (or
how high-maintenance a client will be!). Best to do a chapter or two,
see how it goes, and then adjust terms accordingly based on what you
Q: I’m a college senior who picked up TWFW at the bookstore one day and found it absolutely intriguing. Writing for me, is like wrapping myself up in my favorite soft-worn blanket, inside; it’s a place of comfort, warmth, reflection and adventure--a feeling of belonging that really can’t be described. Making this blanket a financial security blanket would be a dream. Your book has made me seriously rethink my future career path.
Though I noticed your little enticing blurb to recent college grads about making a living from something you love, I also realized that most of your advice directs those who are currently employed or who are looking for some change in the direction of their more experienced life. For me, as a soon-to-be college grad with little to no serious corporate experience, I am a little leery about jumping right in and rubbing shoulders with the big-boys. Can you give me more details on building a portfolio? How exactly did you start doing pro bono work? Phone calling? I volunteer regularly, but never thought to solicit my volunteer sites for copywriting opportunities. What is the exact procedure when doing so? At what point would I be ready to start “hunting” for opportunities? Will employers take me less seriously because I am so young and inexperienced?
A: There is no “right” way to get pro-bono jobs. Just ask. And re-read the section on the topic in the book (pp. 46-50). Don’t think there’s some mystical process to all this because there simply isn’t.
Obviously, make sure you’re a decent writer and get input on that point from people who are not emotionally attached to you or to protecting your feelings. Hunt up a few creative professionals in your community who’d be the kinds who’d hire commercial writers and who’d know what’s needed, and get their input on your skills.
And sure, someone with no experience (and pro bono work can address that) will not be as attractive to a prospective writing-buyer as someone with the background and experience, but again, use pro bono work to beef up a portfolio. What better time to do it than now, when you’re a student? Also, I have found that universities often hire freelancers to create materials in marketing and publications departments in different areas of a campus. Make some calls or drop by some departments and find out. What do you have to lose? Might just find some juicy opportunities.
Offer to write a piece or two for free (or even as a “parallel” project - your take on a work that’s already been assigned to a paying writer - that way, there’s no risk to them). And do it with the understanding that if they like your work that they may hire you for pay down the line.
Don’t expect to get the same rate as an experienced freelancer. But if you can negotiate, say $20-30 an hour, I’m guessing you’d be pretty happy. Beats slinging hash. And graduating with a respectable “starter portfolio” and a few bucks in the bank would be a pretty cool thing.
Again, I don’t know that it works this way
everywhere, but if there’s one thing I want people to take
away from my books, it’s that there are no rules on how to go
about it. Try anything. Ask anywhere. Be curious. The worst someone can
say is no, and it’ll give you some great real-world
experience. This book should be one big thought-starter, NOT the last
word in “how’s it done.”
Q: In my quest to attain new and interesting projects
I’ve been solicited by this company looking for authors to
write 45-55 minute instructional audio books on CD/Tape, but
Q: If all they’re offering is potential royalty for your writing time, I’d run. Fast. This is a
business we’re in, not a speculative venture. Especially when
you have to rely on their marketing to make it happen. Forget it.
Q: I’ve got a client who’s hired me to do several straight copywriting projects, along with editing of some lengthy manuals. They want to tighten up the copy in advance of reprinting them. There’s also some brochure copy they’ve already written that needs cleaning up. Do I charge less for editing than for copywriting?
A: In the larger writing world, editing does command
lower rates than copywriting, usually $25-45 an hour, depending on
one’s experience (vs. $50-125 an hour for copywriting). That
said, if I’m being hired to do various copywriting projects
and editing is part of the mix, I don’t charge less than my
normal rate. And, more importantly, I’ve never been asked to.
Chances are as well, that while they say it’s just editing,
you’ll be doing a bit of restructuring also, and then
you’re back in copywriting territory. In my experience, once
I’ve established my value with a client, they’re
happy to pay my rate across the board, and never, NOT once, has the
issue come up of charging less for different writing-related
type not sure he can hack the “corporate big-wig”
A: Well, you could try and build it using email marketing, which is becoming more and more legit as a way to reach prospects (esp. if you’ve got a web site you can link them to with your samples, etc.) but I still believe that the face-to-face thing is key. People are simply more likely to hire those they’ve met.
More importantly, I say you want to shift your thinking about this. I’m not sure what you envision when you say “corporate bigwigs” but I’m guessing that it’s different from the reality. These are just regular folks, not super-stuffy as a rule, and especially if you end up getting a lot of your work from MM clients, like design firms, marketing companies, etc (like I do), the crowd is even more laid-back, funky, creative, etc. And they don’t expect their writers to be suited up. You’re a writer, not a corporate wonk and they know that. It’s pretty casual. They DO expect a good job and on deadline and within budget and all that good stuff but don’t sweat the image thing.
And funny you should talk about the “peon” thing. Paradoxically speaking, it’s in the corporate writing arena where, I say, writers actually get a lot more respect. Certainly implicitly through much higher wages, but from a professional standpoint as well. Not in all cases and not by everyone (there are still plenty of clients who view writers as “the help,” but when I’m making $125 an hour, they can think anything they want...).
Contrast that with most other writing gigs (like
magazine writing, for instance), where writers are generally treated
like you-know-what, not only in how little they’re paid, but
in having to chase down their money, etc. More food for thought.
that only take resumes/job inquiries through email or their web site
A: I can’t recall the last company I dealt with that operated like that. If you run into that, try to figure out how to get around it. Go to the web site and/or call the company and look for/ask for the marketing or marketing communications department and then call them directly. I’m guessing they wouldn’t freak out to hear from a writer :).
I’m also guessing that if a company is really
in the market for writing services, they’d make it easier to
get to those folks who need those services. So, if you’re
getting shlepped off to HR or have to go through a formal process,
chances are, those aren’t your best prospects. As I mention
in my book, sending your stuff through HR or some other
“employment” department is the single best way to
have it held up for the longest period of time. Bottom line, I
wouldn’t send ANY marketing materials out unless
I’ve confirmed with someone in that company that
they’re in the market for writing services, and
they’ve said they’d like to see something. That
said, you’re better off just setting up a web site, and
steering prospects to that, and dispensing with the whole assembling of
marketing packages thing.
Q: I was hired by a small agency to write a CD-ROM
script and now the owner wants to take me on a fact-finding meeting
where I’ll have to drive a total of 3 hours (RT). I
offered in our initial meeting to sit down with him and this client,
but didn’t negotiate the driving. Is this a billable expense
or something to swallow since it’s a first time client?
Q: A local PR agency wants to talk to me about doing press releases on a freelance basis. They would assign clients to me, and I’d get paid once a month based on the number of releases I did the previous month. They pay $25 per release. That seems awfully cheap. At the same time, I’d probably do well, maybe generating a couple hundred a month that I wouldn’t get otherwise. What say you?
Q: I’d turn it around on you and ask,
“Do you think that’s too low?” And the
only way to answer the question is to figure out how long it would take
you to do one. If you do one in, oh, 15 minutes or so, that could work.
But, coming back down to earth, I’m guessing that between
digesting the info necessary to write it and then writing it,
you’re looking at LEAST two hours. So, you tell me. I say
that’s criminally cheap. Not to tell you what to do but they
clearly don’t value writing skills. And it’s
dangerous to set such a precedent. One man’s opinion. All my
commercial writing colleagues would laugh over the phone and hang up.
And still be laughing the next day… :)
with a client who thinks you have more relevant experience than you do
I have six months of a locally published column, a massive project plan on opening hotels and some pro-bono work I did at my daughter’s school’s newsletter. I am in the process of writing another newsletter for a charity organization to build up my portfolio, but other than that, that’s it! No video or scriptwriting experience.
Do I just take a few deep breaths and try not to look or say anything totally ignorant, with a quick Hail Mary for good measure? As this will be my first official meeting with an actual client who might actually pay me, I must get my breathing back to normal without hyperventilating prior to Monday.
A: Careful what you ask for, right? For starters, what’s the worst thing that could happen? You don’t get the job because, in their opinion, you’re not experienced enough. End of the world? Hardly. Just be okay with that and then you won’t come across as desperate. Also, you need to be making a massive number of contacts so that any one particular one won’t hold some power over you (as this one is obviously doing...).
All you can do is the best you can do right now. You can’t fabricate a portfolio between now and Monday. It’ll either be good enough for them or it won’t. If they’re specifically looking for video scriptwriting work and you have none of that to show, then there’s a good chance they won’t feel you’re qualified enough to help them out. And that’s life. Find people who ARE comfortable with where you are right now, get work from enough of those and you’ll have a good enough book to get hired by most anyone.
Be honest with them. Tell them you’re starting out in this field. But be confident and enthusiastic. Tell them you know you can do the work. And then, it’s out of your hands.
You might also want to double check with them as to the kinds of work they’re considering you for. If it is indeed scriptwriting and they’re thinking you DO have all this experience and then you show up Monday with none, it could make for, at worst, an embarrassing waste of time and at the least, a garden-variety waste of time. If indeed they ARE considering you only for script writing, you might want to clue them in in advance to save major irritation on their part.
If nothing else, and regardless of the outcome, I hope
this experience at least opens your eyes to the fact that, lo and
behold, people really do hire freelancers out there and
where’s there one, there’s a whole lot of others.
Q: One of my clients is a print broker with his own
writers, designers, and pre-press people, who is happy to give me work when his in-house staff
is too busy. My dad (in the retail business) suggested I might offer a
different rate for someone like that because a middleman like this will
be able to give me access to far more clients than I would be able to
meet on my own. He compared it to his shop getting a discounted price
from a manufacturer because he’s a reseller and they know
he’ll be a lot more product than a regular customer.
A: You’re right, the analogy isn’t quite the same, but there’s a grain of validity in his assertion. For starters, who says a middleman client can give you access to far more clients than you’d be able to meet on my own? Not true. You can pursue end-user clients all day long. More importantly, in our business, middlemen clients don’t need writers in most of the business they generate for themselves.
Now, while I don’t charge less to middlemen, but many freelancers do charge a bit less because that middleman is marking them up to the end client and the MM doesn’t want to price themselves out of the market. But one-third? ($25 vs. $75) Not a chance in the world. Maybe $65 vs. $75 or at most $60, but I wouldn’t offer unless they ask (and by ask, I don’t mean, “Do you have a different rate for MM?” to which you should say no. But more like, “Would you discount your rate a bit for us if we can turn you on to steady work?” Then you can talk about it.
Minus a contract, no one can truly promise you steady work, but if someone is, and you don’t have to do anything to get it, then maybe that IS worth a financial concession. It’s a very similar dynamic to the one that occurs when a commercial freelancer takes on writing subcontractors. They pay the sub less, then charge the client their normal rate, and pocket the difference. That sub is thrilled to get the work without having to hunt for it, and as such, is delighted to charge far less than their boss is making. Just know that, like most things in our business, there are no hard and fast rules about it. Go with your gut. If you feel you’re going to lose the deal if you don’t, then do what you have to do.
Q: I went on Elance.com and there were great jobs paying two cents a word—well, okay, four for some of them. The writers bidding for them offered LESS! And they had amazing credentials and years of experience.
How can I find out what the market is like right now? Maybe it's changed since you wrote your books. Maybe writers are accepting a pittance because of the "economy slump," and they're starving. I want to not agree, not agree, not agree, but I need some guidance.
A: First, check out Back For Seconds.
In Chapter 4, where I address a bunch of questions raised since writing
the first book, I tackle the issue of the online job sites. Look it up.
Q: There is a company in the fitness equipment business that advertises on TV, and I’ve noticed a selling point they’re not using that I think could increase sales in a major way. Do you have any ideas as to how I can inform them and be paid for doing so?
A: There's no surefire way to approach them and ensure
that you'll get credit (and payment). Obviously, you can tell them you
have an idea that can improve the "value proposition" of their product
(but not tell them what it is) and ask to get together to discuss it.
Whether they'll be interested is another issue. I suppose it depends a
lot on how well the thing is selling already.
Q: Presently I am employed by a nonprofit. I write appeal letters, grant proposals, brochures, etc. I love the work, believe in the mission of the nonprofit, but the pay is terrible. I'm good at what I do and wonder if I could make money doing the same for other nonprofits. Is this feasible? Do you know other writers who have started their own well-fed businesses as "specialist" writers for nonprofits? I really like helping good causes prosper, but I'd like a bit of prosperity myself.
A: Yes, of course, you can make a living as a writer for
NFPs. You might find that you start there, and branch out to FPs as
well (or the other way around). This year, I just did a BUNCH of work
for a local chapter of a global NFP with thousands of chapters
worldwide. I probably averaged $125-150 an hour for the work I did. And
interestingly enough, when I was bidding on the work, we (myself and a
graphic designer, an alliance I'd highly recommend you forge before
going after this or any other avenue of work) were up against an agency
that had as its focus, NFPs. And I promise, they were charging very
Q: I submitted my invoice to my middleman, waited 30 days, then re-sent it with a polite question about when I might expect payment. The reply I received said, "When our customers pay, we pay our vendors. It is nearing net 30 for the customer, so we are getting close to paying you." This is different from what I was figuring, but I'm still learning the biz. I'd appreciate your input as a more seasoned freelance professional.
A: Unfortunately, it sometimes goes that way. It's a BIG complaint amongst copywriters, who generally feel that we should be paid when we're finished, NOT when the designer gets paid, but many play that game, and they often ARE wrestling with cash flow issues as we are. Just the nature of the beast. So, yes, it's not at all uncommon. And if you can get paid in 30-45 days, that's not bad either.
Q: I would like to write articles for a comic book site
focused on a particular super hero with no pay being offered (it would
be great practice). The requirements are as follows:
I don't have any of these comics at all, yet I am willing to read anything I can to catch up to speed. How would you handle this situation and present yourself as a ready, willing, and able contributor despite ignorance of the subject?
A: Frankly, I'd bark up another tree. The idea of having
to jump through a bunch of hoops JUST to get to a point where you can
write for nothing is a very foreign concept to me. What's your goal? If
it's to launch a commercial freelancing business and do it as
reasonably expeditiously as possible, this doesn't sound like a good
Q: PB Note: I received an e-mail that closed with the
signoff “Sincerely in Christ”. This can be a
sensitive topic, and one I was hesitant to address, but I think
it’s important. My reply about the signoff follows:
Some people might appreciate seeing it, but it's all the
others who wouldn't and might not tell you why they've chosen to hire
someone else who are the issue.
Q: I'm just about ready to launch my new website. I have
a clear idea of how I'm going to market myself and am excited about
getting started. I now have a healthy, worst-case-scenario,
6-month-supply of expenses saved up. Now that freedom is in sight, I'm
wondering what to do. Do I quit now and go for it? Or, quit now and get
a part-time job to cover the bills so I can ease into it? Or, stay at
my job another six months to give me a full year of generous living
Q: One of my clients is a new day spa, and they wanted
some brochures on their different services. The project manager wanted
to keep an educational tone with the selling part as secondary. I
created drafts based on this and needed a little more info, so she
referred me to the COO. The COO looked at my drafts and told me that he
wanted the brochures to brand and sell, not educate.
A: That's EXACTLY what you should do. If indeed the first manager you met with and with whom you discussed the project agreed to a certain course of action, you had to assume that she had the authority to make that decision, and no reason to believe that decision would be questioned by someone else. Hence, it becomes the equivalent of a direction change and hence, you're back on the clock for the amount of time it takes to course-correct. Needless to say, make sure your initial contact is in agreement with the change, and if there's any question about that, make sure she and the COO get it settled between them before you proceed.
Q: I am actually a darn good health writer of both clinical and consumer information. Here's my problem: I can't seem to reel in the steady clients. Instead, I get a project for a couple of thousands dollars, and then I'm sitting there. I can never get the retainer client or the big project. Half the time I can’t even get the client to agree to a meeting, but even when I can, I can somehow never nail down the project. They either decide not to proceed, or it goes to someone else. Can you advise me as to what my next step should be? I'm doing something wrong, but I’m not sure what.
A: There's no magic formula for client loyalty other
than making yourself so indispensable and bringing so much added value
to what you do for them that they can't imagine going anywhere else. If
you can figure out what their "pain points" are—the things
that keep them up at night—that they spend a lot of time
thinking about and working on, and if you can do something to take the
pressure off them in those areas, you can work towards that added value
Q: Article writing is my strength and I enjoy it more than any other type of business writing. I'm beginning to make the move from full-time staff writer to freelance writer, and I'm hoping to eventually make an annual income of $120K. My question is: Can I be successful—and make the income I want—by specializing in articles for company publications (e.g., intranet newsletters, online publications, employee magazines)? Or is this focus too narrow to achieve my income goal?
A: I'd never tell anyone they couldn't do something, and sure it's possible. It can be more difficult because you do have a narrower focus, but you can also do better because you're specializing. I'd try to go after articles in trade publications, because when you get to know a particular industry well, you can command higher rates for specializing—and start getting into $1.50-2.00+ /word kind of rates. I'm no expert on the article end of things, so I'm afraid I can't offer much more than that, but I do know that the more general you are, and the more mainstream the publication, the less you'll probably make (except of course if you get to the major national weeklies/monthlies).
Q: Most of the big boys (ACT!, Goldmine, etc.) have more functionality than a one-person writing shop needs, and at roughly $200, it’s more than I’d like to pay. Do you know of any inexpensive contact manager programs?
A: Here is a very brief review of Kurlo, courtesy of a beginning prospector:
I have used it as a blank slate to create sub-groups of contacts as I add them. I used The Well-Fed Writer as a guide for creating new entries. For instance, I have these groups set up:
Creative Recruitment Agencies
There are customizable fields I can create in each group, so I've created a field for the date I last contacted the prospect, as well as the date I'd next like to follow-up (these were suggestions from The Well-Fed Writer as well!). When I open Kurlo, it alerts me of any important dates, such as dates I have set to follow-up with prospects, or client birthdays, if I've entered them.
Kurlo has an e-mailing function that allows you to easily create a bulk e-mail that you can send to multiple recipients in a group or sub-group. Then you can either send the e-mail right from Kurlo or transfer it over (once addressed) to your default e-mail application.
I've been using the "notes/comments" section to jot down the nature of my conversations with prospects and any important details I want to remember. This is great because with one click I can see all the important details about any specific prospect. I'm finding Kurlo very easy to use, and I appreciate that my copywriting contacts are all in one place.
Q: How do you feel about hourly vs. flat-fee work? I tend toward flat-fee myself; I feel like the aggravation factor of having to track my hours is annoying. And I think clients like a flat fee because it helps them budget. But what do you think? Which is better?
A: In the overwhelming majority of cases, you really don't have a choice except to go with a flat fee. Very few clients say, "Just keep track of your hours," unless you've had a long-term and predictable relationship with them. And as you point out, they want to be able to budget. With those flat fees, you're still basing your calculations, obviously, on your hourly rate, but that's hidden from the client. So, it's rarely a case of being able to decide, which is better; you'll usually be forced to go with the one.
Q: A local company has asked me to write copy and provide ongoing marketing advice and direction. After our meeting today, she asked if I would give her a flat rate to cover six months of part-time hours that would include every aspect of my services (copywriting, creative, marketing advice, and ongoing consultation) instead of paying my a la carte fees for each service I provide. I can't find anything that addresses this kind of arrangement. How should I handle this?
A: This is more like a long-term retainer. And these can
be tricky. The key is to hammer out strict parameters in advance. As
in, figure out how many hours per week you are committing to for a
certain fee. If your hourly is, say, $75, then you might choose to give
them a break on it given the big chunk of hours they're offering. But
say, it's 10 hours a week that they want to get you for, then that's 40
a month x whatever hourly rates you've chosen to go with. And you get
paid that at the beginning of the month. And typically, you'll get it
even if they DON'T use all the hours they contracted for, but you'll
charge more if you go beyond that. If they balk, too bad. You can't
have an open-ended situation where they pay for X and get X+Y+Z, ad
Q: On request, I recently did a sample script-writing
piece to go with a PowerPoint presentation for an insurance training
company. Their editorial committee approved my work (I qualify), and
they want me to be available for what might be a steady stream of
additional paying projects. In their response, they stated
matter-of-factly that they pay $20 per hour for this
work. Because I am typically getting $80/hour or more with
most of my clients, I am hesitant to devalue myself by accepting this
client. On the other hand, because the work is really pretty
easy, for $20/hour, maybe I could justify it as fill-in work when I
don’t have other main-fare stuff happening.
A: I'd pass in a heartbeat (and would have asked before
I submitted to a test), but that's just me. Even as fill-in work, it
just sets a bad precedent in your mind.
Q: I have an offer to write a nationally read (12,000 or so readers) wellness newsletter. While I do have copywriting and newsletter experience, I do not have any recent experience. I will need to put together a proposal for this guy next week. He is looking at about 10 or so hours per newsletter twice a month. He asked my hourly rate and said he would like to pay a flat fee for each newsletter. Since I am just getting back into this, what is a reasonable amount to charge? This may evolve into something more full time, and this is a great opportunity. I am a good writer, but a bit rusty, so I don’t want to charge too much, but I don’t want to discount my abilities either.
A: Did you ask him what his budget is? As I talk about
in my book, you should always try to get the client to speak first and
tell you what they had in mind (i.e., very innocently, "Have you given
any thought to what you'd like to keep this to, budget-wise?") so you
have a sense of whether you guys are in the same ballpark, and maybe
he'll be offering more than you thought. They may want you to talk
first, for the same reason, so they don't offer more than you're
willing to do it for.
Q: I was wondering if you have a good set of questions to ask on a phone appointment for potential clients. A friend referred a potential copywriting client to me and after wasting an hour and 20 minutes on the phone, I had no idea what she really wanted. Do you have any specific questions you ask that can cut the time wasters off in 5-10 minutes?
A: Whenever talking with new prospects who may or may not have a sense of how you work, money-wise and otherwise, you need to get that out of the way at the outset.
You need to let them know upfront, what your hourly rate is and if they're OK with that, then ask them what kind of project they're trying to get done. If you'd asked that right up front (maybe you did and the only thing missing was the money end of things...) along with a heads-up about the cost, you could say, "Well, a typical _______ can run anywhere from ____ to ____ depending on the complexity."
Of course, that can sometimes backfire in that, if they latch onto the lower end of your range, and theirs ends up being more complicated, they may come back and say, "I thought you said you could do it for ___ (the low end of the range)." But at least you're going to figure out very quickly if you're even in the same ballpark.
As for questions about their project itself, there is a "Discovery Questionnaire" on p. 38 of Back For Seconds (and also in the Tool Box; http://wellfedwriter.com/toolbox.shtml).
But the money questions you HAVE to get out of the way upfront. I never have issues like that anywhere because all the clients I'm working with either come by referral or are in a corporate realm where they've bought copywriting before and know how much it costs.
Q: I have a new client who wants me to research and ghostwrite a 5-month series of columns, 900-1,000 words each, for a printed industry trade publication. The articles will also likely be picked up, at least in part, in an e-newsletter. My usual fee—which most of my clients don't blink an eye at—is beyond her budget. She's told me that her parent organization pays just over half of what I quoted her to the FLCWs they hire.
I'm looking for some stats to help me justify the higher fee, and then I'll negotiate a compromise so I can do the work. I do want to do it, for a variety of reasons, but not at the low rate they usually pay.
Do you have any current stats, or could you point me to some, that would help me? The most recent I have are from 2000—TWFW and "Freelance Writers' Guide" from NWU.
A: Most rate guides aren't worth a lot as they offer ranges for individual project types that often render them virtually meaningless. So, not sure where to steer you for that. But, truthfully, your search for "justification" is really besides the point and just muddies the issue. Bottom line, you get what you get because you're a good and talented writer. If you're offered a job paying a lot less, as I see it, it's pretty simple. It's either far less than what you usually get and so you pass. Period. OR, even though it's far less than what you're ordinarily get, you have reasons for wanting to do it that outweigh the lower fees (desire to break into a new market and build a portfolio, personal interest in the subject, etc.)
So you either decide that those factors still make it worth doing, OR you decide that even with them factored in, you still pass. Why do you need to find justification for it? You know what you charge (AND get) for a similar piece. All that matters is what YOU are willing to take and WHY. For experienced writers, rate guides are pointless in the big scheme of things. Remember, for every project out there, there are writers earning fees all over the map, so who's to say what the "typical" is? It is what YOU say it is.
Q: I was hired to do a quick job for a small agency, and I got the below e-mail from them. (Don’t you love the typo in the greeting?)
Dear perspective copy writers:
_________ is seeking bids for copy writing assistance when building business identities. In all situations (except #4, tag lines) _______ will work with the client to draft an outline. We will count on the expertise of a copywriter to refine and strengthen the copy.
_______'s potential clients range from pro sports teams to small startups and everything in between.
If you are interested in offering your services please submit a separate bid for the following:
1. Vision statement - A business's guiding image of success. It is a statement that elicits a visual image of the company's destination.
2. Positioning statement - An internal document used as a guideline for judging the appropriateness of all marketing programs.
3. Mission statement - A business's guiding principles that state their goals, values and direction. It defines the overall plan.
4. Tag Lines - A single statement that creates a first impression. (We will require a list of up to 20 tag lines).
I asked for clarification on what they’d like to see in the bid (Estimate of charges? My process in coming up with the items requested?), and I got a vague e-mail back that said, “Always assume about 4 rounds of changes. Your job is to enhance supplied copy.” Nothing else.
I’m still not quite sure what to give them. I’m not against doing a little work to send them a bid, I guess, if it lands me the job, but I don’t really know what I’m supposed to send here! Am I an idiot, or should “bid requests” be somewhat clear?
A: This is one reason I don't like working with ad agencies. I think it's way too vague. My questions would be: How much source material or meetings or background reading will be needed to create one of these? There's no such thing as a "typical" ANYthing. In the case of the positioning statement, again their description implies that everyone knows exactly how long a "typical" positioning statement should be.
It sounds like they're looking for cheap creative labor. Given that they just want you to review what is already written or offer "up to 20 tag lines," they're hoping that they might get lucky with someone. I'm guessing they'd hire several writers on each project and see what comes up (I could be wrong), but I know a large corporation that used to do that—they had enough money to hire a bunch of agencies who, in turn, would hire a bunch of writers (cheap, of course) and maybe some of the mud thrown up against the wall would stick.
I'd ask for clarification, and don't let them bully you. Tell them that different terms can mean different things and have different parameters to different clients. What are THEIR parameters? If they balk or act irritated, walk. It's not worth it.
AND, at the risk of contradicting myself, there's no rule saying you shouldn't work for them because of this. Might be an interesting learning experience and if you ultimately don't care too much about the outcome (a good place to be), you'll have less stress and anxiety throughout the process. As long as it doesn't take you away from better paying work.
Q: I live in a foreign country and while there is certainly a market for commercial writing in English here, I think that I would still like to work with companies in America as well, either to supplement my work or as the bulk of my work. Your tips are good for US residents, but do you have suggestions for non-US writers? Since you constantly discuss the importance of face-to-face meetings in the book, do you have any suggestions for someone in a remote location? Is it feasible to build new clients without meeting them in person, and if so, what is the best way to do this?
A: While you can certainly shoot to work with companies in the US, if you feel there IS a good amount of work in your own country, why bother? I say that because it WILL be a lot harder to work remotely with companies. You'd have to be just as good as any US writer, and just as available, yet given the time difference, you'd be up in the middle of the night! Your best bet would be to try to apply the same principles in your own country. No, you may not make as much money that way, but it would be more feasible. Another idea is to approach US (or other English-speaking) companies in your country looking to market to people there and help them craft marketing materials in your native language. OR target companies in your country looking to market to English-speaking countries and wanting materials written in proper English.
While it's true that face-to-face meetings are becoming less important, it will always be harder to build up a clientele away from your geographic area, and certainly in a foreign country. There are no magic formulas for landing work overseas—a lot of contacts, a lot of follow-up and working hard to make the experience indistinguishable from working with someone locally, for the client. And that's the tough part. You have to ask why they would work with you if they indeed have more accessible resources. Either because you bring a special expertise to the table, you do amazing work that they can't get elsewhere, they just don't know of any other writers, or because you DO make it so that they can't tell the difference between working with you and working with someone locally. Given the difference in time zones, that can be tricky. Not impossible, but more difficult.
Q: My only writing experience came from advertising/marketing agencies; therefore, my only portfolio samples are ones that I did while employed at those agencies. Does this pose a problem in terms of conflict? I'm not making any claims that the clients are clients of mine as a freelancer; I'm simply displaying work that I've written.
This question came up because I saw that someone with a client I did work for at my last agency visited my website today. It made me a little nervous thinking I might get in trouble for having that client’s samples on my site. Is this just me being paranoid, or is there something legal that they could do to me for posting those samples?
A: It shouldn’t be a problem, unless the material was internal and proprietary in some way. Your samples from the agency are YOUR work, so why in heaven’s name shouldn't you be able to show them? (the previous caveat notwithstanding). As for the client, again, if it was B2B or B2C (publicly disseminated), there shouldn't be a problem. And even if a company does have an objection, I’d wager good money that their first move would simply be to ask you to take them down as opposed to hitting you with some lawsuit.
Q. A local husband and wife lawyer team forwarded a letter regarding elder law that contained some good “points,” but lacked spark along with misprints, poor punctuation. How do I kindly point this out and perhaps offer a rewrite?
A. Just approach them and be upfront, yet diplomatic. ”Got your letter and it looks like a great service you’re offering. And I know your goal of sending out such a piece is to drum up business, and as a professional marketing writer, I couldn’t help but notice some ways to really improve on it, which in turn, could really increase your response rate, and ultimately, your bottom line. I’d love the opportunity to discuss this with you...” etc... It’ll either fly or not and if not, nothing ventured, nothing gained. You could do it by mail or email - your call.
Q. I was hired by a recruiter for a hi-tech PR firm. The job was – at first – suppose to be full time, but dwindled to an ‘on call’ situation. I had told recruiter what my fee was and was told PR firm could only pay little more than half of that. I verbally agreed because the potential for ongoing work was there and I was told (by recruiter) that we could revisit my rates once I had established myself with PR firm. Two months go by before I receive my first assignment from PR firm. I contacted the recruiter to let her know and she asks what I’m charging. HUH? I should have quoted my usual rate!
My take on it: Recruiter is scrambling to find a way to make $$ on the deal, since the per annum arrangement didn’t work out. She wants me to accept below-standard rates so that she can still make $ and not price her/me out of PR firm’s range. I need a going-rate reality check - am I correct in thinking $250 is low for this caliber of work? We’re talking a 4-6-hour job here, and I’m no newbie. Should I stick to my $400 guns? I’m tempted to contact PR firm directly and explain that this arrangement is jeopardizing the quality work I could be doing for them. If they’d pay her a fee for her time, we could move on to the business of making their clients look good. What’s your perspective on all of this?
A. This is a very convoluted situation, and I’m not sure I get all the details, but here are a few things that occur to me. I would NOT go around the recruiter to the company directly. Regardless of what you think of her, and her relative worthiness to get a piece of the action, SHE was the one who brought you to this party. If you want to approach the company directly, at the very least, talk to her first. Do it without her knowledge and you will not only piss her off (if she finds out, which is likely), but the company itself might think less of you. All we have is our reputations, and that one is a BAD one to get. Especially if this client turns out to not be that much of a steady client anyway, which certainly sounds possible...
As for the price, if you’re used to getting $400 for a PR in that market (as in, steady track record of billing and receiving that amount), then you don’t need to ask me if that’s the going rate - it obviously is. And NOT to pick on you here (and I’m smiling as I write this...), but I get a kick out of it when people ask me if THIS amount is the going rate in THIS market/industry for THIS project type. As if I have all that data right at my fingertips. You, as a writer of that project type in that industry (for years, I presume) are in a FAR better position to know the reality on the ground than I would EVER be.
Same thing with the question about whether you should stick to your guns. I don’t know - should you? If you can get $400, why not ask for it? If it’s getting harder to get that amount, then maybe you revisit your fee structure. $400 sounds on the high end of a press release, but if ones for this market indeed take 4-6 hours, then it doesn’t sound excessive to me. All of which is irrelevant if the market won’t bear it.
Q. The reason I’m emailing is because I want a job in Commercial Copywriting, to be more specific, a job in anyone of the following industries: Travel & Leisure, Entertainment & Arts, Food & Beverage, Automobile, Sports, Sex, Health & Fitness or Self-Help. My question for you is what are the steps I should take in pursuing these jobs? I recently read David Ogilvy’s book “Ogilvy on Advertising”, which was a great read; in the book he stresses the point of anyone pursuing a job in copywriting should start in direct mail. Is this true?
A. To be honest, I have no idea how to find a job in those industries, because I’ve never tried to find a FT job as a writer. Just do some research, compile a list of target companies, pick up the phone and call up some of them, and ask. I’d guess that if there are inside copywriting jobs (and many places won’t have staff writers - they’ll hire freelancers), they’ll be in the marketing department, so you might start there.
So, if you want to go into AD copywriting, yes, maybe direct mail makes sense because in both you have to create a hook and really draw the reader in. But in general copywriting - it’s a place to start, but not the only place to start.
Q. I am trying to break into the business of writing for advertising agencies. Script scenes, taglines, etc. I am also trying to work in the greeting card market. I really need some advice on how to begin, if possible?
A. My expertise isn’t focused on writing for ad agencies or just writing taglines. What I DO know is that, unless you’re unbelievably talented, you’re not likely to pick up work writing for ad agencies freelance. They often have (the big agencies, anyway) in-house writers. If you’re talking about becoming one of those in-house writers, I know even less about that (not my path), but again, what I DO know, is that you’ll start at a low salary and work long hours for several years, if you can even land a job. Writing for greeting cards isn’t in the same ballpark. Lots of companies solicit greeting card writers and pay, typically $50-100 per idea they accept. Just Google related terms and see what you come up with.
Q. I just created a corporate slogan for a marketing agency, and they love it. The trick now is to determine how to bill for such an important thing. We had no firm arrangement up-front. This was part of several projects I was working on simultaneously. Re: the other projects, I’ll pretty much adhere to an hours-put-in formula (for writing a direct mail letter and some other collateral). How the hell do I bill for something that will be part of their very identity as an organization?
A. I hate to say it, but NEVER, ever, put yourself in a position where you’re negotiating a fee AFTER you’ve done the work. You lose a ton of leverage that way. I know you said this was part of a larger body of work, but you should know that a tagline/slogan should never be lumped in with a bunch of other work. It’s a very specific kind of project, and it demands some focused attention and a more than average fee.
I get $750-1500 for a tagline. I could be wrong about this, but it sounds like you got lucky on this one, in that it doesn’t appear that you spent TONS of time on it. But, I’d ask for $500 at this point.
Q. How much do you normally charge for proofreading someone else’s copy? I have a client that wants me to look at a 16 page brochure before it goes to press, along with 6 email newsletters. It’s actually part of a larger job, so I just need to figure out how to price it. What makes sense? Like $40-50 a page?
A. Whenever I’m asked to do something out of the normal scope of commercial writing, I never charge less than my normal hourly rate. That said, $40-50 a page sounds really high, compared to going rates for proofreading. The way you described it – they just want you to proof it before it goes to print, I could be wrong but it sounds like they’re thinking of it as more of an afterthought and if you come back with a $800-1000 bill, they’ll likely freak. Here’s a few links I found on a quick Google search, one for proofing and one for: http://www.theproofreaders.com/pricing.htm and http://forum.rpg.net/showthread.php?t=317404.
If you have to really drop your rates for this kind of work, to something closer to the prevailing rate, obviously, at some point, it makes more sense to refer them to someone cheaper for work like that. That lets you find better paying clients for yourself and makes you look good in their eyes, as a trusted and valued resource – and one who’s looking out for their bottom line. And I promise you, that always will endear you to a client.
Q. I’m interested in your thoughts about a billing policy. You do go into some detail in the book (Chapter 10), and in this situation the client represents repeat business. However, I have to wait sometimes as long as two months before I get their “okay” to send them the bill. Right now (Jan 16), I’m waiting for their ok to send the bill for work that was given to them on 12/14. Their position is that they must get feedback from their client first (e.g. the final brochure or sales literature that uses my copy). I’m afraid that without establishing a firm policy on how soon I mail the bill after delivering the work, things could get out of hand. Any advice?
A. If two or three weeks go by and I haven’t heard back, I will bill someone and they always understand that I shouldn’t have to wait because they or their client hasn’t been able to get around to reading it. What they’re essentially saying is that our attachment to our business process trumps our concern for our vendors. Fortunately, this situation doesn’t crop up too much, but I’d definitely come up with a firm policy saying that if X# of weeks go by without feedback on copy submitted, you have the right to bill for all work done up till that time.
It’s bad enough when smaller clients say they’re holding up paying you until THEY get paid by THEIR clients, but at least in that case, there may be a legitimate cash-flow issue. I still think it’s not the writer’s problem, especially if it drags on for 60-90 days, but at least, I understand the rationale. This one? They’re getting away with it because they can.
Q. First of all, I have found the advice in your books to be valuable and informative, but the thing I’m missing is the “how”. What I mean by that is that I don’t really know how to write all of these business documents like brochures and manuals. I feel that I am a talented writer and could be successful as a copywriter, but I don’t know the first thing about writing for businesses. I was an assistant editor for a small-town weekly newspaper, and I wrote most of the articles, but that’s really the extent of my writing background. Maybe I’m just missing it in your books, and if so, feel free to bonk me on the head and call me a dunce. Also, I have been to numerous websites trying to find some concrete examples of what I’m looking for, and all I’m finding are classes taught by other copywriters for huge amounts of money. I don’t want to pay that much for something I’m not sure is going to help me.
I guess what I’m asking you is this: Is there a place where I can learn exactly how to write these types of documents, and can I succeed as a copywriter without maintaining an instructional website for other potential writers?
A. I’d reread the “What Will You Be Writing” chapter in TWFW, also visit my copywriting site (NOT like the ones you mention) at www.writeinc.biz and study the portfolio. Also, Bob Bly’s book, “The Copywriter’s Handbook” is a great how-to (write the different kinds of projects) book. And stay tuned to the ezine. I will be rolling out a teleseminar program a bit later this year - four sessions over a month where we study 12-15 samples of different kinds in depth for copy, flow, design and more. And I’ll be limiting each teleclass to no more than 15 people so there will be lots of personal attention.
But you’re right - there aren’t a lot of resources out there to help you with the how-to, and virtually all of the copywriting sites you refer to are about the long-letter direct response type of writing, which I actually do very little of. Mine’s all corporate stuff.
Q. Is it wise to accept a job offer from a client? And if you decide against it, how do you decline the job, but keep the client? Worse yet, what if you’ve taken the job, become miserable having given up the FLCW lifestyle and dynamic, and want your boss to be your client again?
A. Not sure if I have anything specific about that anywhere, but there’s my thinking: they guy must LOVE you if he’s willing to hire you full-time. And I could be wrong, but he’s probably thinking it’s a long-shot that you’d even accept. But regardless of whether or not that’s even the case, for him to think enough of you to want you around all the time, I find it almost impossible to believe he’d toss you aside if you declined. The only reason for him to offer you the job is so that he can have your PROVEN expertise all to himself - expertise you no doubt developed over time working with him, and which now makes you quite valuable to him. All which explains both the job offer and the reason why he’d want to keep you close by, regardless of whether it’s in a freelance or employee capacity. You sure you realize your worth to this guy?
If you seriously are considering the job, then you need to sit down with him and explain that you’ll do it on one condition: a three-month trial period, at the end of which you both decide if it’s working. And let him know, that you love the freelance lifestyle, and you might very well find that the 9-5 is too confining. In which case, you want to be able opt out AND keep the relationship as a freelancer. But DON’T take the job b/c you’re afraid that if you don’t, he’s somehow going to dump you. I don’t see that as happening, and if it does, then it would likely have happened at some point anyway.
Q. For a long time now, I have been “stalling and not calling” and I know it is from fear. Not fear from cold calling - Back for Seconds took care of that nicely, thank you. What I’m really afraid of is that I won’t know enough. I haven’t done any regular writing since college, and I want to be current enough to provide professional service. My main question is, how on earth do you keep on top of all the copywriting industry information out there?
I know that you can make excuses to put off just about anything, and I don’t want to do that. I want to get going. But this issue is a real concern for me. I’m going to start doing pro bono work next week, but I’m not sure how much I need to know before I can start prospecting for paying business. Can you give me any advice, please?
A. I think you’re WAY over-thinking this. If you understand the basics in the WFW books, I’d also read Bob Bly’s “Copywriter’s Handbook,” which gives a lot of how-to for actually writing the different projects.
As for “All the copywriting industry information out there”? What exactly are you referring to? All the so-called gurus hawking their must-have-or-you’ll-fail programs? I truly am not sure what you’re referring to.
Bottom line, I don’t see that there IS a lot to keep up with, except reading some books on marketing from time to time so you’re aware of the thinking out there. Anything by Bob Bly is good. Ditto Steve Slaunwhite. And white papers - I don’t know much about white papers either. I may have venture into at some point, and there IS good money in that arena of writing, so if you like the idea of writing what are, in essence, “articles on steroid,” it might be an arena worth looking into. Mike Stelzner, the WP guru (www.whitepapersource.com) is a good friend of mine, and offers a lot of resources for those interested in that particular project type.
All that said, don’t feel you have to become some expert on ANY project a client might conceivably ask you to do. This is where you should develop alliances with fellow writers, to whom you can refer projects that you don’t want to do. Certainly, if some type of project appeals to you can research it and see what it entails, but don’t worry. Did I know how to do all these projects when I started or even know ABOUT them? Absolutely not.
Q. I had a question about your experience with face to face meetings, or lack of them, with new clients. Has it been a hindrance when you are too far away to meet clients face to face, in terms of landing them, or, is it just more crucial to have a good portfolio, and good phone skills to get your point across?
A. My experience has been overwhelmingly with local clients. I have had plenty of remote clients over the years, and as time has gone on, the distance factor has become increasingly less important to clients. Even with my local clients, I do less and less face-to-face work, and so, for all intents and purposes, for those clients, I could be in Fiji for they know or care. I think you’re right on target in assuming that for most clients, it’s the ability to get the job done - your fundamental competence as evidenced by your portfolio, testimonials from satisfied clients, your phone skills, and your ability to jump quickly into new projects, and get up to speed fast and work autonomously, that will carry the day. And realize that the whole remote client thing is a self-selecting process. If you do a bunch of marketing to remote clients, those for whom your lack of geographic proximity is an issue simply won’t respond. Those for whom it’s a non-issue will.
Q. I just read the stories about commercial freelance writing. At the end you recommend putting a portfolio together. Do you have any recommendations on where I could find information on how to best organize a portfolio for web communication?
A. There’s no ONE way or RIGHT way to do it, per se. Just think about it logically. What would be the most expeditious way to have a prospective client get a good sense of your work quickly and without having to jump through a lot of hoops? If you’ve done entire web sites, then provide the links to those sites. Or perhaps do screen captures of several of the pages and put them on your own web site. Programs like SnagIt can capture those pages for you. To directly answer your question, no, I don’t know where to look for that specific information. Do check out my books on getting a FLCW business up and running (http://wellfedwriter.com/books.shtml).
Q. For 10 years, I’ve written, edited and laid out newspaper “advertorial” features. It’s part of the growing “niche publications” as we like to call them. As I’m reading this, I’m thinking, I can keep my full-time job, but parlay these skills into a lucrative side business. However, I’m finding it hard to network and find the clientele. Any suggestions on ways to prospect? I am reading that portion of your book, but is there an email network, bulletin boards or online sources that you can offer up?
A. I wish I could help you out but your question is so broad and simply doesn’t lend itself to an easy bullet point answer. And if you’re reading my book (both TWFW and the companion volume, TWFW: Back for Seconds), you’ll find tons of stuff on “Where’s the Business?” It would take me forever to provide what’s already in the books. I don’t recommend online sources (IF you’re talking about online job boards): too many writings bidding on too few jobs, driving rates down to nothing. Just not a good strategy. And know that this is not a get-rich-quick proposition. It takes a lot of hard work, but you can make a lot more $ than the typical “freelance writer.”
If you think you want to pursue a certain type of work (say, advertorials), then just think logically. Look at the kinds of companies who do these pieces, contact them and find out what they’re looking for, if they hire from the outside, etc. You could find out more about it in one morning of calling than I ever could share with you here.
Q. Have you ever thought about posting a job board on your web site? If not, where can I go to find good industrial writers? I’m not looking for a superstar like you or Bob Bly; just someone who I can hire to help out on occasion without breaking the bank. Any ideas?
A. I have considered this idea once or twice, but it would be a pretty huge effort for a dubious or unclear return. Not sure I want to mess with it. In the short term, you might check out the Find a Freelancer section of The Freelance Forum web site, which is a local Atlanta freelancer’s organization. www.freelanceforum.org.
And of course, you can always check out sites like elance.com or guru.com, which can be good places to find cheap help (though generally NOT good places to find good jobs), but you might have to wade through a lot of dreck. You might also check out www.washwriter.org, site for Washington Independent Writers, a DC writers org. Not sure if they have a similar function, but you might poke around. Good luck!
Q. I have devoured your book and am eyeballing the second book, on my way to starting my own writing venture, but I have reached a bit of an impasse: does this kind of thing get harder if you’re starting in a smaller area and a smaller marketing pool? Or does that make it likely that you’ll find easier going in an area without the monstrous ad agencies that predominate in the urban areas?
A. TWFW: Back for Seconds does in fact have a chapter on small-market business building that can definitely give you some ideas for maximizing what IS there. You are right in both assertions - it can make it harder being in a small town but you will likely have less competition - both from agencies AND other writers. But even both those realities are losing their relevance in this wired world of ours. More and more, writers are working with clients everywhere, and those clients care less about where someone is based than they do about what that writer can do for them. Check out the second book at http://www.wellfedwriter.com/bfs.shtml (btw, it ships on my dime, and you get an eBook bonus as well).
Q. When identifying a contact, how senior should you go? I’ve run into top names CEO, VP’s, but no marketing or creative names. It would seem that the most senior people wouldn’t be the one handling freelancers. Even an Exec VP of Marketing probably hands it off to an associate. I don’t want to bother the person for whom finding a good freelancer isn’t a headache. But is it worse than going in without a name at all?
When cold calling, do you ever find yourself asked about your familiarity with the company? It’s something I’d more than bone up on for a face-to-face, but it’s too time consuming when I’m trying to burn through a list. Then again, if I get questioned by a potential client, I don’t want to come up empty.
A. I wouldn’t worry about having to drill down to the exact right person initially. As discussed in the books, ask for "Mar-Com" or corporate communications in big companies, marketing departments in smaller one and go from there. Only if you’re doing REALLY targeted calling in one certain industry should you worry about getting so micro. As you mention, you don’t have time to do all that research if you’re trying to get through a list. Which is the answer to your second question as well. You don’t have time to delve that deeply into a company before calling them. And no, I don’t often get asked if I know what their company does, though if I was, I’d a) probably have some idea from the name, 2) if not, just say this is a preliminary call to determine if there’s even any potential needs for what I’m offering.
Q. How long would you recommend that I do pro-bono work for charities until I build up a heavy portfolio? Do you recommend starting to look for writing gigs while I am writing pro bono?
A. It’s always a good idea to at least have your radar up for paying work, or even be actively seeking it - while doing pro bono work. There’s no set time on how long you should do “charity” work. NO real set rules at all in our field. It’s more about your own comfort level with what you can show a prospective client.
And remember, you can also create a portfolio from scratch, in addition, ideally enlisting the pro bono services of a designer perhaps also just starting out who needs samples for their book as well. You do the writing, they do the designing - you both benefit. And as discussed in the book, you can find these folks at art schools and even vocational schools (often identified by ____ Technical Institute at the end of their name) that teach design.
Q. My partner and I have read your books and are both interested in attempting to begin our careers as freelance writers. We were wondering, however, whether it would be useful for us to both form a single company or whether each of us doing it on our own would be better. The main consideration in forming a single company for us is that we will be working out of the same address and are planning on working with the same graphic designer. So, my main question is (a) do you think it’s a good idea, and (b) if we were to form a company, should both of us tell any potential business we cold-call to about our company, or should each of us only advertise ourselves?
A. There’s no real right answer here, but in my experience (as in, what others have shared with me), where the potential problems lay are with how the responsibilities are divided and what happens if the relationship has problems.
When you’re both doing the same thing (as opposed to partners where one is writer and one is a designer, and the roles are clearly delineated), there’s a certain amount of work that needs to get done (marketing, bookkeeping, prospecting, etc) and so, by definition, it lends it self to score-keeping. And if one side or the other perceives that they’re the one doing more than their share of the workload, it can become a breeding ground for resentment - NOT a good place for a business to be.
Plus, what if you have a falling out with the partner? Now, I don’t know if this person is a romantic partner or just a business partner (NOMB), but in either case, if things should go south for any reason (but obviously, especially if there’s romance involved), it can get messy. The old adage about how you shouldn’t go into business with a good friend was created for a reason.
Q. I read your book, “The Well-Fed Writer,” and one thing I was looking for answers on was who were the best people to contact for the work you talk about. If it’s writing a speech for a company, what’s the title of the person to approach? If it’s a brochure, is it the same person? If you’re contacting an ad agency for copywriting, what’s the title you need to get in contact with?
A. I was looking through the book just now, not actually believing that I wasn’t clear about that, but you’re right! I’m currently working on the updated version of TWFW, which will combine both it and TWFW: Back for Seconds.
To answer your question, in big end-users, starting the marketing communications department (a.k.a. corporate communications is the best route) and with that department, there’s no one person who’s best. Anyone in the department - and they’re usually not THAT big - can help you get to the right place. I mean, you could ask for the director of marketing communications, but the assistants would be just as good.
Guess what I’m saying is that in some cases, if you asked for the director, and that person wouldn’t typically field calls from writers, you might not get anywhere, whereas if you just explained to whoever answered the phone what you were up to, you might get farther. The point being, that there ARE no hard and fast rules for ANY of this... With smaller end-users (i.e., NOT Fortune 500 companies), your best bet is the marketing director.
For Middlemen clients (MMs), you’d usually ask for the Creative Director or Assistant Creative Director. The latter is usually a better bet, as the CDs stay so busy they won’t likely take your call. What’ll usually happen is that when you ask for these people, they’ll ask you what it’s in regard to and then you’ll either get through or you won’t. With smaller MMs, the staffs are often so small that anyone can help and they’ll just steer you to the right person.
Q: My business requires that I create a monthly newsletter for my clients. My goal is to create a professional looking newsletter that I can send in PDF form, but which cannot be edited by its recipients. What is the best way/program to use in order to do this?
A: Microsoft Publisher is a good program for newsletters, brochures, etc, that you don’t have to be a professional designer to figure out and use. You might also Google “shareware desktop publishing programs” or similar, in case there are some simple ones at no cost that’ll meet your needs. If you’re going to be doing a lot of PDFs over time, you might want to invest in Adobe Acrobat (~$300) - worth having. If you think you’ll only need to create the occasional simple PDF, use free programs like www.cutePDF.com or www.PrimoPDF.com.
Q. I have been following the advice in your books about starting my copy-writing business. I may be going overboard on this (engineers tend to do so) but I’m looking ahead to see what other things I should be doing to help me build a list of potential clients - besides cold calling and letter mailing. You have an ezine and I understand you have recently started a blog. I’m wondering whether I need to start thinking of these. Of the two which do you believe draws more potential clients, the ezine or the blog.
A. Both my ezine and blog I do for my readers, not my clients, so I don’t get clients from that. In Back for Seconds, there’s the story of Lisa Sparks (p. 99; or p. 166 in the updated edition of TWFW), who built her copywriting business around her ezine. That’s a good model to follow if you want to go the ezine route. Just remember, in either case, it’d better be good and relevant content if you want people to subscribe and STAY subscribed. I’m not convinced a blog is necessary starting out unless you have a particular niche and you’re going to, again, provide, good relevant content to those prospects and practitioners in your field. If not, you could spend a whole lot of time talking to yourself (the story of most blogs...).
Q. Should writers still primarily target local markets or has the Web changed that? Having seen all of this take place, what advice would you give a new freelancer who has some published clips and wants to start making real money? Stay local or storm the World Wide Web?
A. I say you’re confusing two things. Forget the online writing sites, if that’s what you mean by “Storming the World Wide Web.” Overwhelmingly, they’re a waste of time, IF your goal is to maximize your income. Yes, the Internet has neutralized geography, so absolutely you can market everywhere, but what I’m talking about is commercial writing (marketing brochures, ad copy, newsletters, web content, case studies, white papers, etc.), not articles (except maybe trade articles).
I still stick to the local market for most of my work, but that’s less a strategy than a logical thing. As you say, it’s easier to build closer human relationships and hence, long-term clients, face-to-face. There’s plenty of work here for me, so I don’t need to go all over the country. Fact is, I have worked with plenty of out-of-town clients over the years (and am doing so now), but they’ve come to me; I haven’t sought them out.
If you’re specializing in a particular industry, then any given geographic area will likely only have a limited number of prospects in that industry, so in those cases, it makes sense to expand to other markets. That would be effectively targeting.
And just a P.S. about your comment, “A few published clips.” What I talk about in my books has nothing to do with writing articles. If that’s all you have, you’re not going to find many commercial clients who’ll hire you. You need to beef up your portfolio with more commercial clips before those kinds of clients will take you seriously. The only exception is if you focus on, say newsletters, trade articles, case studies, or white papers - all of which are, in a sense, derivatives of The Article.
Q. I followed your example and started clarifying on my job proposals a list of what my quote includes. One of the specifics I list is “two rounds of revisions.” Do you also have a set fee if the client asks for a third revision?
I’m working on a book right now for a client who just finished reviewing the second revision and wants “just a few” changes. He thinks they are small changes, but I know they are more involved than he realizes and will take me a couple hours of work. If I add $100 or more to the price we agreed on, I don’t think he’ll see the value of what he’s getting for that. He asked me what this third draft would cost him, and I told him I would take a look at what’s involved and get back to him with a quote. Any advice on the best way to handle this?
A. I’m not picking on you when I say this, because I hear a lot of similar stories, but… Don’t. Be. A. Doormat. Seriously, in my world, if the scope of a project changes beyond what it was originally promised to be, I’m back on the clock. Period. End of discussion. Do NOT let a client drive that.
No, I don’t have a set fee for a third round of revisions, because there’s no such thing as a fixed “third round of revisions.” Think logically. A third round of revisions on a book will obviously be totally different than a third round on a brochure. I’ll charge my hourly rate time how ever much time it takes.
As for your statement, “If I add $100 or more to the price we agreed on, I don’t think he’ll see the value of what he’s getting for that.” Why do you say that? I’m assuming that $100 is based on some calculation of estimated time you think it’ll take times an hourly rate, no? If so, why wouldn’t he see the value in that if he’s seen the value in all the other work you’ve done?
UNLESS, of course, you’ve trained him to think he can keep adding work to your original plate and get it for the same price, and you’ve done nothing to disabuse him of the notion. Not trying to put you on the spot, but why are your skills to be valued far less than his feelings or his appreciation or his regard for you? You’re so worried that he think well of you that you forget about YOU. And the irony is, as long as you take that approach, he won’t have any respect for you (deep down), but as soon as you look out for YOU, and expect to be treated like a professionally, you’ll earn his respect and admiration, along with more money. And $100 for a third revision of a book? You’ve GOT to be kidding. Even if it’s a few things, as long as you put no parameters on it, I PROMISE you, he’ll keep working you as long as he darn well pleases.
Q. Do you have a blog for your copywriting clients? Have you or anyone you’ve known successfully leveraged a blog to position him/her as an expert to the point of it generating business? I recently tabled my website replacing it with a blog because I thought the regular entries would show readers 1) expertise and 2) that I was current, rather than a website that can go forever without activity. I figure there is a reason why you blog and send newsletters to other freelancers, but not to your clients.
Has the percentage of copywriting clients vs. freelance writer clients changed for you over the years as you’ve become well known by both?
A. Here’s the thing, and I hadn’t really thought about this before you asked, but I do my blog for writers because, a) there are FAR more of them than clients, and more importantly, 2) by definition, I can consistently come up with relevant content for THIS audience far more easily than I ever could for very savvy successful businesses that span the spectrum (i.e., my clients), because we’re all in the same business. What could I write about for my clients that would engage them ALL enough to have it be of value consistently? I’m sure there’s probably something, but I’m not willing to work that hard to figure it out with no guarantee it’ll go anywhere. There are far too many blogs and ezines already. Am I really able to come up with something so new and so different and so great? Not sure I can.
But with my FLCW audience, ANY experience I have in the course of my business that I learn something from becomes potential fodder for either or both. NOT true for my clients...
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