Why I’m Leaving The Freelance Life

Photo: Scott Chan, freedigitalphotos.net

Photo: Scott Chan, freedigitalphotos.net

Something new officially starts for me today.

That new thing is a new job, and that job is with someone else’s company. I accepted an offer from this fantastic group two weeks ago to become their Senior Copywriter, and I couldn’t be happier.

Whoa, I know. Let me explain.

Ever since we became permanent on the West Coast, the tug to join a collaborative team has grown stronger. Now, for the first time in three years, our decision to remain in California meant I’d once again have a choice between full-time work with a creative company or continuing to pursue the freelance course I’d charted out for myself several years ago. The occupational pendulum has swung in the company direction, so here I am, up again at 5:45, writing in the dark before I take on the commute, just like the old days.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been busy getting my occupational and personal house in order:

Wrapping up freelance assignments, sharing the news with supportive colleagues and clients, scrubbing my house down, arranging care for our pups who are still too big, young and feisty to stay home alone, figuring out what a gal on the upside of 30 wears to work these days (my last ‘first official day’ doing company work was in my mid-20s) and generally preparing my mind and body for the new routine.

Oh, and we bought a home, so there’s the escrow process. We close this week. After ten years of writing about and coordinating the photography of other people’s houses, I finally get to devote attention to mine. Dream, fulfilled.

I can’t express to you how excited I am about all of these new changes.

But one thing won’t change: Though I’m taking down my shingle, I’m continuing this blog. As of January, its title will become “A Writer’s Life.” I’m still a full-time writer, just a different kind. And I expect to be busier than ever. So, I still want to talk with you every week about stuff writers talk about. Now more than ever, as my daily pace ramps up, I’m that much more committed to staying healthy while working well. So I’ll keep reporting on the things, people and processes that help me do that. And there will be something new, too: A section devoted to thinking and talking about the current media climate, issues that face media quality and survival and the — dare I say — disruptive forces that are changing the way we communicate.

I hope you’ll continue to read, write and chat with me on this blog. Thanks for your support over the last three years. See you next week!

K, I just got choked up. I think I’ve been watching way too much Newsroom.

Seeking creative freedom? Think twice before freelancing.

Photo: Pat Pitchaya, freedigitalphotos.net

Photo: Pat Pitchaya, freedigitalphotos.net

There’s a common narrative surrounding freelancing that goes something like this:

“I quit my job to be a freelancer in order to achieve more creative freedom.”

Sure, that’s true in some ways. But in some ways, it isn’t true. The fact is, unless you enjoy the upper echelon of commercial and critical success as a fiction writer (and maybe not even then; those guys and gals have editors, too) or you’re independently wealthy and don’t need to consider your financial resources, audience or clients when creating your passion project, you’ll have to answer to someone, somewhere, along the creative path.

When considering a freelance career, I think the real question is, ‘who do you want to answer to, and how?’ The answers will help you determine whether or not the type of creativity you want to nurture is best cultivated within a company setting or the comfort of your own home office.

Everyone’s experience with the transition to freelance writing is different, so I can only offer insight into my own foray.

In my experience, here are the ways in which freelancing helps to foster creativity.

You can diversify your subject matter.

As a freelancer, you can decide what types of things you want to write about and pitch articles according to those interests. While you might be able to write stories on one particular subject you’re interested in when you’re employed full-time by a publication, you’re not likely to pursue a diverse set of interests in that setting. As editor of a homes magazine, I wrote stories mainly about home décor and remodeling. As a freelancer, I can write on homes, but also farm equipment, kids and nutrition, plastic surgery, military lifestyles and personal finance, sometimes all in one week. That’s fun.

You can pitch stories you care about.

For example, if you read this blog regularly, you know I love to geek out on listing software and personal organization techniques. While large publications may not be devoted to these topics, as a freelancer, I can pitch the occasional story to media outlets concerned with that type of stuff and write away, blissfully, on the merits of color-coding, box-checking and getting things done using apps and programs that help readers prioritize.

Once, the designer of a listing software program I use daily and swear by, noticed me blogging my love for their product all over the place, on my own time. So they approached me and asked to try out a new version of the software and then write about it on their dime. Um, yeah, are you kidding? Of course I said I’d do it. I’m a freelancer, so I can say yes to basically whatever I want to write about.

Here’s how freelance writing does not foster creativity:

You’ll still be writing for someone else.

Be it a magazine, a newspaper, a Web site, a blog not run by you or a business looking to reach clients, each media outlet has a specific editorial voice and story angle in mind. The piece you’re hired to write will be informed by that, and you’ll be expected to write according to the outlet’s specifications.

You’ll be edited.

Some of your most creative prose, maybe the stuff you were most excited about adding to your story, may edited out. You may also be asked to add things to your story you may or may not agree with adding. But in the end, you’re being asked to write for a client, so you need to be editable. And that means compromising your own creativity from time to time in order to help achieve the publication’s goal for the article you’re producing.

You’ll be edited.

If you’re writing for multiple publications, no two editing processes will be alike, and neither will your editors, so you’ll have to be flexible. I have editors who edit heavily, editors who edit lightly, in-between editors and those who edit not at all. I have equal admiration and respect for each one, and am willing to work with them on various levels to do what needs to be done. Are you?

You’ll have to run a business.

That means you’ll have to do stuff like sales, marketing, networking and PR when you’re not being creative, in order to keep the creative work going. If you’ve never learned how to do those things, you’re likely to encounter a difficult, but not insurmountable, learning curve. I knew nothing about these parts of running a business when I began freelancing, and I had to spend a lot of time figuring it out. (True confession: I discovered I liked it.)

So, here’s the thing.

I believe there’s no “creative freedom” litmus test for freelance writers. There are no set criteria we can all use to decide if it’s the right way for each of us to explore creative expression. Instead, if you’re considering a freelance career, I suggest analyzing your own creative goals. Do you want to write on various topics, or just one? Are you interested in learning how to run a small business? Are you open to different kinds of editors and editing, and at different levels of intensity? Does all of that sound better when done independently as opposed to with a company?

It helps to gain insight from other freelancers before taking the leap, so I hope this article has helped you, even in some small way, decide if a freelance career is right for you. Sure, freelancing is a creative choice, but it deserves a measured approach.

P.S.: While we’re on this topic, I should probably tell you that some exciting change is afoot for me and my own creative work life. I’ll have more on that next week.

Why you should stop apologizing for your work. Yesterday.

ID-100261180

Photo: freedigitalphotos.net

I want to share something very personal with you.

In addition to the YouTube videos I watch about how to rid my computer of malware or how to set up a portable air conditioner, I also watch videos on health and beauty stuff, like how to bump out my hair (yep, that’s a thing) or to create a natural-looking full eyebrow.

I’ve noticed a particular theme in the beauty videos. Many of the narrators serve as effective demonstrators and some have developed a cult following. People watch them, trust them and do what they say. Judging from the high number of views these videos get, I’d guess that their content is useful to hundreds, if not thousands.

Yet, so many of these narrators feel the need to begin their videos with, or interject with, and apology.

As in, “I’m sorry the video quality is so poor today” or, “I’m sorry I look so tired today” or, “Sorry my voice sounds so ______ (choose one: raspy, quiet, loud) today” followed by an explanation.

I’ve been guilty of the exact same thing.

In the past, when handing in an assignment, I’ve caught myself beginning the accompanying email with something that goes like this:

Dear ________,

Here’s the latest draft of the _________ story. As you can see, it’s a bit long, and the tone might be a bit too heavy …

We must do ourselves, our readers / watchers / listeners and our clients a favor and stop apologizing for our work. Yesterday.

Here are two ways to kick this nasty habit:

1. Revise, don’t apologize.

It has taken me a long time to realize that, if my work warrants an apology or disclaimer of some sort, it means it wasn’t ready to be packaged and sent off to begin with. The word count may indeed still be too high or the tone might very well be missing the mark. Whatever it is, it’s not my client’s job to fix, it’s mine. After all, they’re paying me to do the work as specified. So, my advice to you is, if you ever find yourself apologizing for your work on submission, hold back. Re-work it until it no longer needs an apology. Then, it will be worth your asking fee.

2. Ask yourself: What if this work were food?

I’m serious! Say you’re at a restaurant and you’re about to shell out for an expensive meal. Hey, any meal. You order, the food comes to you, and as the server hands it over, she says, “Sorry, this smoothie may not taste like it should. I used way too much agave.” Or, “I know you wanted that steak medium, but mid-well is the best I could do. Let me know how it tastes though, ok? [smile] I’ll remake it if you want me to.” It would be a total career killer for a chef or restaurant proprietor to deliver her creations with a smile and an “I’m sorry.” No one would take the time to taste the supposedly subpar stuff and wait (and then pay!) for the better stuff to appear. Don’t diminish your own work’s value before others have the chance to draw their own conclusions.

You must first create quality work worthy of no apologies. Then, be confident enough in its effectiveness to serve it straight up.

Grow Your Business: The Three Elements of a Great Query Letter

Photo: bulldogza, freedigitalphotos.net

Photo: bulldogza, freedigitalphotos.net

So, you’ve built a solid prospect list and maybe you’ve even made a few cold calls. Perhaps you’ve promised a prospective editor that you’d have a few great story ideas in her inbox very soon. Good for you!

This week, we continue our Grow Your Business series with some helpful hints on how to write a great query (pitch) letter.

Here’s why you should write formal query letters.

I firmly believe that formal query letters get more attention and garner more business than one or two-sentence story idea descriptions embedded in the body of an email. The problem with firing off a short list of topics in an email message is that, just like lots of other content, your ideas are likely to get lost in the barrage of emails editors receive each day.

Instead, I prefer writing my queries in a separate word document and sending them as an attachment. I figure, if the editor or content manager is invested enough to open my document, she’s likely to sit with it for a while and read it all the way through.

When I first started writing, I had no idea how to structure query letters. But after doing a little research, I was able to begin writing them with success. My single, most beneficial, source was a little ebook by writer Linda Formichelli called “Query Letters that Rock,” which features examples of actual query letters that resulted in the writer of the letter getting the assignment. If you’re not sure where to start with regard to querying, you must get this book. I’ve modeled my query letters after the ones featured in Formichelli’s dynamo piece for the past three years and they’ve worked wonders for me.

“Query Letters that Rock,” or another book like it, will likely be your most important tool. However, to get you going, I want to list a few elements every successful query letter should have. Here goes:

1. A great query letter reads like a mini-story.

Begin with a catchy introduction or lede. Draw the reader in with a sentence or two explaining a recent experience you had or a problem you encountered that your story is likely to solve for readers. For example, if you want to write a story about the trend toward soda-fountain craft beverages, tell a story about how you came upon the trend. Were you walking through town and happened to spot signs advertising soda drinks everywhere? If you want to cover a vintage store that regularly supplies to big-name movies and TV shows, consider beginning with an anecdote about the proprietor helping to outfit one of the show’s main stars. Be interesting from the start, and your story idea will pique the editor’s interest, too.

2. A great query letter proves the story’s relevance.

If possible, provide links to other research, books or consumer media outlets, especially authorities on the subject or in the industry, that support your assertion that your idea is, indeed, worthy of a story. For example, in the aforementioned vintage clothing piece, track down pieces national affiliates or industry publications have written that feature similar businesses. The editor needs to know that your writing will either announce a current trend to a larger audience or introduce the reader to a new piece of research or product. Make sure you prove your idea is relevant and timely by showcasing other coverage in the area.

Note: If you find more than three pieces that have already been written on the subject matter you wish to cover (especially if all three of those pieces are in publications that cover a broad audience), it’s likely the trend has tipped, and is no longer worth announcing. When pitching stories, you’re looking for little-known but corroborated issues or story ideas, not stuff that people have been talking about for a while. As Sandra Rinomato of HGTV’s “Property Virgins” once said, “Think, up and coming, not been and gone.” It’s hard to strike this subtle balance, but do enough research and you’ll get the hang of it.

3. A great query letter marries the publication to the idea.

You may have the best story idea in the world up your sleeve, but if it’s not right for the outlet you’re pitching to, it won’t matter. At the end of your pitch, you’ll want to briefly explain exactly why your story belongs in your target publication. In our vintage-clothing store case, something as simple as, “I think your readers would be surprised and delighted to know that one of HBO’s most exciting and popular shows is being outfitted right here in our little town of Mayberry” is a great way to marry publication to idea. If you’re pitching to a local media outlet, your story must have a sense of place and local relevance, and a unique local spin, even if it describes a nationally-relevant idea. If the publication or Web site is national, or even worldwide, in scope, you must be able to show how your story is different from the other stories the publication has written in the past, or how it is a continuation of ideas the publication regularly covers. No matter what, you must be able to tell the editor why the story is the right fit for her publication.

Tell me about your querying process. What querying techniques have you used successfully? What didn’t work for you? Drop me a comment.

Grow Your Business: How to Approach a Potential Client

ponsulak

Photo: ponsulak, freedigitaphotos.net

Hi, there, writing pals. I hope you’re getting ready to release those overworked digits from the keyboard soon and embark on a truly fantastic Labor Day weekend. I know I am. But before I do, I promised you another post in my “Grow Your Business” series. So here it is!

Last week, we explored how to create a prospective client list. This week, we’re going to look  at how to actually approach those newly minted prospects.

I think most of us can agree that approaching anyone out of the blue is nerve-racking. After all, the person on the other end of the phone line is busy and absolutely not expecting your call. They’re not seeking you out (or at least they don’t think they are) and have no idea what services you have to offer or how those services will benefit them. And they don’t have that much time (if any time at all) to hear about it.

Thus, when you pick up the phone for a cold call, it may seem as if the odds are stacked against you from the start. However, I maintain that an introductory phone call, not an introductory email, is the best way to start a relationship with a potential editor. That’s because emails come fast and furious all day long, and your all-important “Hi, my name is _____ and I’d like to write for you” message is likely to get lost in the inbox shuffle. Another bonus: In the age of digital technology, introductory phone calls are becoming all the more rare; all the reason why yours is likely to be more memorable.

So, I say, make the call. But when you do, be sure to keep these rules in mind:

 

1. Keep it short and sweet.

When your prospect picks up the phone, introduce yourself right away. In one sentence, state your name, your company name (if you have one) and your specialty. In sentence two, explain why you’re calling. (Ex: “I found your company online and I’ve been researching your work and I think my services might be a great fit for you.”) In sentence three, ask if the company is currently accepting pitches / queries / story ideas from freelance writers. If the reply is “no,” followed by a reason, politely let your prospect go. If the “no” answer has to do with current budget constraints or something else that might change, make a note on your spreadsheet of this fact and plan to follow up again in an appropriate amount of time (several months, perhaps). If the reply is “no, never,” go ahead and cross the prospect off of the list.

2. If the editor is currently accepting queries, say [almost] no more.

Many editors have a revolving door policy for queries, meaning they’re always taking (and rejecting) them. Other editors only take queries during specific times of the year. Usually, the editor will specify this. Once you receive an answer to this question, end the call. Tell your prospect you’d be happy to work on some queries for them, and in the meantime, let them know that you’ll send them a few links to your online work samples or portfolio. Note: If your samples are still entirely on paper, consider finding a way to get them up online, possibly by creating an online portfolio. Most editorial prospects expect to be able to find you on the Web. Then, thank the editor for his or her time and say goodbye.

3. Send an email after, and only after, you’ve made your initial phone call.

After hanging up, send a follow-up email, briefly reiterating your specialty and how / why you believe that specialty fits with your target media outlet’s communications goals. You might want to mention a few other media outlets, similar to the one you’re prospecting, that you’ve already written for. Then, include your portfolio or work sample links, links to any social media you maintain, blogs you write (if applicable) and anything else you feel will help your prospect get to know you and your work better. Close your email by reminding them that you’ll be in touch within a short amount of time (I recommend 5 business days) with a list of queries for the outlet.

4. Start pitching!

Media outlets rarely hire new writers after visiting porftolio sites. In fact, your prospect may not even visit your portfolio site or look at your work samples until you’ve created and sent at least one query. Most don’t have time to investigate a new writer unless given a reason to do so. And that reason is often your compelling story idea. So don’t expect your prospect to think much about you until you follow up that phone call and email with the queries you promised to send. Instead, get to work on some fantastic story ideas for the publication and get ready to send them off.

Next week, I’ll tackle the querying process. (Don’t worry: When I started my freelance business, I had absolutely no idea how it worked.) In the meantime, I want to recommend that you visit Linda Formichelli’s Renegade Writer blog for more info on pitching. She’s the maven!

Have a wonderful, safe and memorable holiday weekend. I’ll be back with more in a few days.

Grow Your Business: Who do you want to write for?

Photo: pakorn, freedigitalphotos.net

Photo: pakorn, freedigitalphotos.net

Happy Friday, everybody!

I’m not writing from my air mattress today. We’re still living in an unfurnished house (our stuff arrives in another week and change). But since I last posted,we’ve found some lovely patio furniture and I’m outside. Turns out, California mornings are nice and cool and great for patio dwelling, even in the heat of August.

So, from the red Sunbrella couch comes the first post in my new “Grow Your Business” series:

Who do you want to write for?

Prospecting and courting potential writing clients is like any other sales process: It takes tons of time and perseverance. So, you don’t want to waste your time prospecting editors that aren’t a good fit for your strengths and areas of interest.

Here are my top tips for prospeting effectively:

1. Don’t get stuck in a content mill.

We’ve all seen them. Big, homogeneous Web sites, such as about.com, ehow.com and wikihow.com, designed primarily to pop up quickly in google searches. While it may be relatively easy to get a gig with these companies, they pay terribly low rates ($15 per article according to some recent reports) and eat up your time. Sure, you’ll be able to say you’re a “published writer,” but let’s be real: These sites are rarely, if ever, the most trusted sources out there for the subject matter you’re interested in writing about. Know what your time is worth and don’t settle for less.

Carol Tice, at Make A Living Writing, wrote a fantastic blog post on this topic, in which she featured lots of testimony from content-mill writers. It’s worth a read.

2. Aim high, but start in the middle.

If you’re relatively new to the industry, it’s important to structure your prospects accordingly. Many budding writers make the mistake of pitching only to small, local media outlets believing that larger national publications with broader readership are out of their reach. Make no mistake: If it’s a good idea, the big guys want it, too. However, if you don’t have lots of previous work to show a national editor, a national publication isn’t likely to take you on. You’ll need to establish some history first.

I suggest applying a two-pronged process when identifying prospects. Approach high-quality local publications in your physical area (an established city or regional magazine, for example). You can also approach midrange and top Web sites and blogs in your area of expertise. Begin pitching to those outlets right away. Choose a few more with national and global reach and begin establishing relationships with their editors at the same time. Once you build your portfolio base with high-quality work at the local and / or regional level and online, those national prospects will already be familiar with you and they’ll be more likely to give your pitch a second look.

3. Find good matches.

Don’t make your prospect pool too broad. Instead, make sure you’re targeting publications that specialize in content that also falls within your areas of expertise. Choose the subjects you’re most interested in and that you’re also most skilled at. The more you specialize, the easier it is to find good media matches.

For example, I specialize in family life, agricultural equipment, ecofriendly living, home decor and pet care. I’ve written extensively on solar technology for residential applications in the past. I’ve also done some work in the personal-finance area. When I prospect, I choose publications, blogs and Web sites that specialize in these types of content.

If you’re into emerging technology, vintage car restoration or triathlon training, don’t bother yourself with an article on makeup application or how to find the right pair of jeans for the price. You’ll be a better, more effective writer (and be likely to get more jobs) if you stick to what you love and what you know. Bonus: If you’re into something super esoteric (like residential solar) you’re probably one of few. Use that fact to your advantage!

4. Find your magic number. Then create a spreadsheet.

I get it. You’re not a spreadsheet person. You’re a writer. Why deal with the drudgery of organization and administration? The answer is, because getting clients requires a certain amount of hardcore sales and the sales process is built around method and repetition. Once you’ve done your research, decide on a master list of prospects you plan to approach. There’s no magic number. Rather, the number of people you contact will be based on the amount of time you can spend prospecting, the size of the pool of media outlets in your interest area, and the amount of time you plan to spend writing.

In my experience, for every ten editors I approach, I’m likely to start one good relatioinship. So a prospect list of 100 yields me about ten clients per year. While that sounds defeating, it’s really not. Ten clients per year can keep me working more than full-time.

Once I have my prospects identified, I create a spreadsheet, complete with contact names for each publication, phone numbers, emails and Web sites. I leave plenty of room in the sheet for entering in status updates every time I contact the potential client. It’s an ultra-methodical approach, I know. But it’s designed to keep me on top of my process and it works for me. Sure, there are other ways to do this, so if you don’t like the idea of a spreadsheet, feel free to work with some other sort of method. If you’re interested in the spreadsheet / 100 prospect model, you can read much more about it in The Wealthy Freelancer.

Note: I know the previous tip advises readers to hone in on a few areas of expertise and that can limit your prospect pool to less than 100. But I’ve found that, even with the few areas I cover, I’ve been able to discover at least 100 local and national outlets to target. There’s more media out there than you think!

Follow these four steps and I promise you’ll feel great about your prospecting plans. That’s all I’m going to cover for this week. Trust me: setting up your prospect list will take you at least a week if you do it carefully and thoughtfully. So good luck! And please let me know if you have any questions. I’m here for you.

I’d also love to hear your prospecting advice. What techniques have you used to plan your pitch list?

Have a fantastic weekend, everybody. I’ll be on the red Sunbrealla.