AWP Panel: Making Money as a Writer, Part 2

In this second installment of my presentation from AWP, I’ll discuss corporate communications, what that means, and how you can get involved. (See this previous post for information on good starter markets for new freelancers) I learned all of this information through loads of help from local writers and folks at my university. Before I say anything further, I need to really emphasize that personal relationships are vital to making any sort of money in corporate communications, because a lot of these opportunities come up in verbal discussions rather than posted job advertisements. So make sure you are spending a lot of time talking to people about your interests in writing for a living! With that important business aside, the next question you might have is what the heck is corporate communications and how could I ever become qualified to do something like that? Simply put, corporate communications is just fancy talk for writing you’d do for a business. This can look like any of the following: newsletters, text on menus or placemats, press releases, grant proposals, website copy, etc. It’s sometimes also called public relations writing (sound familiar?) or marketing copy.

The answer to the second half of the question is that if you’ve come this far, you’re definitely qualified to do this kind of writing. A lot of it is desperately unsexy. I started by writing a newsletter for a seafood company. I’ve also written presentation packets for mechanics, web copy for chiropractors, and how-to manuals for nonprofit boards of directors. The key is to give every client your best effort at crafting a narrative that sends the appropriate message in an artful manner. So, where do you get started with this kind of work? There’s no easy way to answer that. Usually, you’ll see a gig posted on craigslist or hear about something through your contacts at the alumni magazine (remember, those are usually published through the public relations departments of universities!). You could try cold calling or writing to local businesses, offering to help spruce up their newsletters or print materials. You could ask around to everyone you know to see who might need a press release or help writing the “about us” section of their website.

Something helpful I did was link up with a graphic designer and programmer who is a wonderful website-maker, but doesn’t have the time/interest in writing copy. If a client needs help wordsmithing, I’m just an email and estimate away. Which brings me to an important distinction: Corporate communications differs slightly from, say, magazine or general interest writing in that you usually bid for the job. Instead of sending a pitch letter to an editor, you send a proposal to a project manager. This generally begins with a introductory note to the project manager, unless you already have an established relationship with the client.

When I was just starting out, I’d emphasize that I was an MFA candidate in nonfiction writing. I felt like this showed I was a creative writer, yet my status as a graduate student demonstrated that I was a hard worker and a serious student of writing. I started emphasizing my experience working with public relations writing (having a major university as a former client can never, ever look bad, right?) and talked about how I work hard to shape my writing to meet the specific needs of my audience. Suddenly, all that practice tweaking my 250-word stories until they matched the look and feel of specific publications seemed super useful and important. By emphasizing these things in my “application” note, I was skirting around the fact that I have no experience in business and no experience in the specific industry at hand. Which doesn’t matter anyway, right? As writers we all know how to research and master the unfamiliar. This finely crafted note will most assuredly lead to a face-to-face discussion (if not for your first application, surely eventually) where you’ll get to learn more about the client’s needs, talk about rates (more on that in part 3), and submit an estimate.

An estimate (also called a bid or proposal) is just like any other proposal you learned about in your business writing class in college. They can vary drastically in length and amount of detail, but you will essentially discuss your qualifications, identify a timeline for the project and what this specifically includes, then give a rate. It is VERY IMPORTANT that you are specific and not cloudy about what your bid includes. One round of revision and discussion with the client? Do you bill for meetings or phone calls? Do you charge for research interviews? (you should do this). A quick google search of sample proposals could be very helpful in showing you some standard wording and what to include, depending on your project or client. In terms of estimating your time, when you first get started you probably have no idea how long it takes you to do something.

Hopefully, you’ve been keeping track of your hours for your other writing gigs (see part 3 discussion of writing as business) and have a good guesstimate. A great rule of thumb is to think of how many hours something will take, double it, then multiply by your hourly rate and bid this to the client. If you really have no idea how long something will take, you can propose to bill hourly, keeping the client informed of the cost along the way in case you skirt a “do not exceed” amount. Once your proposal gets the greenlight, you’ll be sent away to get cracking.At this point, it’s just another writing assignment you’ll devote your best effort into. Only you most likely won’t get a byline.

Important note: Just because you don’t get a byline on a piece of writing does not mean you can’t still submit it to editors/potential clients as a writing sample. Even if the text contractually belongs to the client, it’s still your writing and you should feel proud to brag that you penned your corporate copy. Stay tuned for the next installment, where I’ll talk about how to think about your freelance writing as a business and discuss some of the basic logistics of that (setting rates, invoicing, taxes, etc.).

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2 Responses to “AWP Panel: Making Money as a Writer, Part 2”

  1. Em Says:

    How do you determine a rate, though? Does it depend on your experience, or the difficulty of the work, or the prestige of the employer…?

  2. katy Says:

    good question. initially, you have to set a base rate. one of my panelists disagreed with me here, but i feel that you need a rate below which you will not work. you must keep in mind that, as a writer, much of your work is unbillable. you don’t get paid to invoice, do paperwork, email people to set up meetings and interviews, drive to the post office…

    so you have to first figure out your monthly expenses, multiply that by 30% and add that on top. remember, you lose 30% of everything to the tax man right away. or tax woman. i like to pad on 10% for incidentals. when you divide this number by about 24 hours per week x 4 weeks per month (remember, 16 or more hours will be spent doing unbillable things), you will get your bottom of the barrel rate.

    goodman’s book talks about rate setting at length. you should probably never work for less than $20 per hour to start out doing corporate communications. that would be a rate that someone with little to no experience in graduate school should get and be a bargain for the company.

    when you start dealing with really wealth clients, and have the portfolio to back you up, you can command a higher rate. mediabistro has great articles about the high and low ends of the spectrum. you are obviously going to get more money per hour from someone like Gerber than a nonprofit or a mom and pop company. but you should never go below your base rate.

    **an exception to this is work you think of as volunteering or work you feel certain will lead to other opportunities. for instance, i feel passionately about rugby and have worked for free or very little money to promote the game/a team.

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