Posts Tagged ‘awp’

AWP Presentation: Making a Living as a Writer, Part 4

In this bonus, fourth part of my presentation, I’ll talk briefly about ways to maximize your earnings as a freelancer. To read more about the earlier presentations, click here (where I discuss good venues for beginning freelancers) or here (where I do a quick primer of corporate communications) or here (where I talk about the crucial importance of making writing your business).

So, by now, you’ve read a lot and worked really hard to develop yourself as a writer who takes the business of writing seriously. You ask and receive a good per-word or hourly rate in exchange for your work. Wouldn’t it be great if there were ways to get even MORE money for the same (or similar) amount of work?

My greatest piece of advice as a freelance writer, which I would love to pass on, is to reshape and then resell your story ideas. Let me elaborate. When you write about a topic for one magazine, you should try to think of another one that would run a similar story about this topic, but from a different angle.

Here is an example. I got an assignment from one outlet to write a story about a really cool, eco-friendly pizza joint. I researched the story, wrote the draft, and sent it in. And then it ocurrred to me that a local tech mag might be interested in some of this pizza joint’s technological innovations. I was right! In the end, I did the research once, wrote two drafts, and got two paychecks with little more than a follow-up phone call.

Ever since, I’ve made it my point to reconsider each and every assignment, no matter how wee. Even when I write for corporate clients, I try to find a venue for a creative piece about each topic. Maybe there is an alumni magazine from a key player or a hometown monthly glossy interested in a profile!

The point here is that no idea should be finished just because you’ve submitted your draft. This is not cheating or (likely) breach of contract. You are not submitting the same material to the new venue. Rather, you are writing a whole new story with a different spin or focus. You’re just not repeating the research part of the work.

Which leads me to my second piece of advice. Find a niche. Find a few areas you love to research and write about those repeatedly. I resisted this at first. I thought, heck! I’m a generalist. I can write about anything and fake writing about the stuff I know nothing about. And this was ok for awhile.

But then I started taking more and more assignments related to environmental sustainability and parenting. Each time, I had to do less work before the interviews because I already knew what questions to ask and had something smart to say on the topic. I also enjoy writing about these topics because they mattered to me personally, and I like getting to say I’m an expert in these areas.

My initial fear in choosing a niche was that it would limit my opportunities. I had this fear that all sorts of opportunities were going to come my way and I’d have to turn them away or something. In reality, I get more work in these areas because I am beginning to establish myself as a motherhood/mother nature writer. Niches open doors rather than close them!

Those years spent as a generalist were not for naught, either. The editors I already know come to me with the same sorts of assignments we discussed before. Plus, I write about all sorts of stuff in corporate communications gigs (bounty hunters, even!).

As a parting word of wisdom, this job is all about hustle. Daily, daily hustle even in times of feast, because you need to make sure you have work in times of famine. And there will be famine! There will just be less of it if you are maximizing your profits.

Posted by on April 11th, 2010 2 Comments

AWP Panel: Making Money as a Freelance Writer, Part 3

In this installment of my AWP presentation, I’ll talk about conceiving of your freelancing writing as a business, which it most certainly is. Check out part 1, where I discuss some good starter venues for freelance writers, or part 2, where I talk about corporate communications and briefly outline ways to get started in that field.

Once you have attempted a few freelancing writing projects or corporate communication gigs, been successful, and decided you want to do this again, it’s really time to learn about the business of writing for a living. Even if you only earn a few hundred dollars a year, failure to organize and “businessize” can create nightmares for you along the way–definitely at tax time. I had absolutely no idea how to do this when I started out, which is why I relied (and still heavily rely!) on MediaBistro and freelance writer/guru Michelle Goodman’s book My So-Called Freelance Life.

MediaBistro is a members-only, online space where you can find job leads, articles discussing stuff like how to pitch editors, how to delve into new markets, how to use social media…anything writing related. Also? The site has a directory of mastheads complete with contact information, articles about how to pitch specific publications (which detail exactly what the mags are looking for and what specific person to contact). Bottom line, this will be the best $49 you’ll spend each year. I have earned that cost back every single year and then some. Plus, it’s a business expense. More on that later.

The other source, Goodman’s book, is subtitled, “How to survive and thrive as a creative professional for hire.” That pretty much sums it up. Goodman walks you through everything you’ll need to set up a business plan, set your rates, calculate your budget, pay your taxes…all kinds of stuff you never imagined you’d have to think about.

Essentially, you should stop reading this blog, go buy the book, read it, and then go forth and write for a living. But if you want a quick and dirty low-down of essentials to writing as a profession, you’ll need to do the following:

1. Buy some good freelancing software. I use a program called TaskTime, which is for Mac. It keeps track of all my clients, all my projects, and what phase each is in. Have I got a deadline coming up? Is an invoice past due? Have I invoiced a client yet? When precisely did that company pay me? TaskTime tells me all this stuff. Then, each quarter, it tallies what I’ve earned so I can figure out what I owe the tax man. TaskTime makes wipe boards and scraps of paper seem dingy and antiquated in comparison (which they are). A crucial feature of TaskTime is that it tracks how many hours I spend on specific tasks and projects. When I’m done with an article, I know just how many hours I spent researching, organizing notes, revising, etc. Granted, much of my more creative writing happens in the shower or the wee hours of sleeplessness, but for the most part I get a good picture of my time allocation.

2. Set up a savings account for your tax money. This might not be news to you, but you don’t get to keep all the great money you earn as a freelancer. You will have to give about 30% of it to the government. My practice has been to open a separate savings account. Then, immediately upon getting paid, I transfer exactly 30% of the check into that account. It’s not ever my money so I’m not ever tempted to spend it. When I have to file my quarterly taxes, I don’t have a stroke when I see the red number I owe Uncle Sam. I just breathe easy knowing that dough is safely stashed in my tax account, as I call it. The piddly interest it earns just helps me feel more confident in case I have underestimated.

3. Get yourself some folders and learn to use Excel. You’re going to need to keep track of all your expenses. If you are going to be a freelance writer, you need/get to write off expenses like Goodman’s book, MediaBistro subscriptions, new laptops, TaskTime software, the miles you drive en route to a meeting with a client, etc. You must keep fastidious records and save all your receipts. If you don’t like having physical folders, buy yourself a scanner and make virtual ones. Then save the receipt for the scanner and mark the purchase on your spreadsheet as an expense.

4. Figure out your bottom line rates. Whether it’s a per-word rate or an hourly rate, you need to figure out what rate you can’t dip beneath. Then, once you’ve figured this out, you must NEVER work for less than this. To do so means you are paying to work. Many people don’t consider that you will not get paid for any of the time you spend pitching, setting up interviews, filing an invoice, scanning receipts, etc. In any given week, you’ll do about 14 hours of this “business” stuff. That adds up over the course of a year! Your rates need to reflect this if you want to live above the poverty line.

Disclaimer: I have strong, strong negative feelings about those bottom-of-the-barrel writing gigs you see plastered all over the internet. Taking those gigs does all writers a disservice because it encourages clients to think this is what writing costs or should pay. Do not work for a rate less than your bottom-of-the-barrel rate.

Here is an example. I was recently offered $75 to write a mid-length piece for a magazine. If I were to take this sum, I would immediately lose $22.50 to my tax savings account, meaning I would earn $52.50 for my time spent writing. It will certainly take me at least one hour to do unbillable things, like schedule research interviews, file paperwork, track expenses, etc. Probably I’d spend 5 or more hours researching and writing the article, then a few more hours revising. That means, for $52.50, I’ve worked 8 hours (minimum). After paying my babysitter $80 for that time I worked, I would have paid $47.50 to write that article.

Setting a minimum rate per word or hour in exchange for your time spent writing does not cheapen the art. Rather, it is business. You are doing this for a living. It is your profession and you need to be compensated for your work. Never work for less than your minimum rate.

What is this rate? Goodman’s book, MediaBistro and lots of other freelance writing resources offer great equations and help in determining this specifically based on your expenses, etc. In general, as a graduate student with little to no experience, you are worth at least $20 per hour for writing. At least! Remember: writing is indeed an art and it’s challenging and not everyone can do it. Value your skill. Make it your business to earn money writing.

Posted by on April 10th, 2010 1 Comment

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.).

Posted by on April 9th, 2010 2 Comments