Great guest post from Matt Seidholz, a freelance healthcare content writer in Omaha, Nebraska. Hats off to Matt for having the courage to admit some of these classics, but I’m certain each of us have our own “Really??” stories from our early days that we’re not too proud of. But, we learn, correct and move on. Thanks, Matt!
When I started commercial freelancing, I was so desperate to leave my day-job. I hated it, and thought copywriting could be my way out. Can you relate?
That desperation was wonderful fuel for my fire. It’s what got me on the phone, every day, trying to drum up commercial-writing clients.
But it also pushed me to do some very, very dumb things—things that pushed away potential clients, and hampered my copywriting business for months. I still cringe at the memory.
Here are the four dumb things in all their client-repelling glory, and what I wish I’d done instead.
This one started with a cold-call to a marketing manager for a large medical manufacturer. Big fish for a new guy!
Imagine my delight when he said he might—just might—need some help. “Check back on the first of the month,” he said.
Oh, I wouldn’t miss it.
The first came around, and I called. No answer. Waited an hour. Called again. Voice mail. 15 minutes later, tried again. Nothing.
So I called again. And again. And again. And again. All told, I called this guy thirteen times in one day.
Clearly, I’d put way too much stock in this guy’s “maybe.” Of course, he never called back.
LESSON: Show restraint, not desperation, when selling yourself!
2) “Look at how smart I am!”
Another textbook foul-up.
I was browsing a company’s sales brochures, trying to get a feel for their work. Good idea, right?
But as I read their material, all I could think was: “I can do so much better!” I attacked their brochures with a red pen, hacking, slashing, underlining away. Then I wrote a new one, with “improved” copy.
Unsolicited, I mailed the edited version and my new work—with business card—to the company’s marketing manager. I was so proud of myself.
A week later, the manager emailed me himself, saying, essentially, Thanks for your edits on my copy. But we’re happy with what we’ve got.
Oof. Only then did it dawn on me how insulting I’d been.
LESSON: Check your ego, and offer help, not insults.
3) It’s a Man’s World – Isn’t It?
Yet another unforced error.
On another cold-call, a marketing associate at a hospital asked me to send her my information. “That way I can send it up to the VP of Marketing.”
Should have been an easy win, but I blew it.
I wrote back: “Thanks for the connection. Please relay my info to your boss. If he likes what he sees, we should chat on the phone!”
A subtle, but obvious mistake. The associate sure caught it, and less than half an hour later, emailed me back: “Our marketing VP is a she.”
That’s it. No signature, no “call us back,” no nothing. And I never heard from them again.
LESSON: No matter your gender, race, creed – stay professional, and be careful about the biases you communicate.
4) Jumping the Gun
This mistake actually happened after I landed a gig. Or, at least, after I thought I had.
I was speaking with a marketing director at a surgical center. She mentioned that she wanted to publish an article about a new device.
Oh boy, did I jump at that.
This was at the very beginning of my writing career. I was trying to build up my portfolio. Our conversation went like this:
“No problem, I’ll do it for free!”
“Uh, are you sure? It’s a lot of work.”
“Absolutely. I’ll turn it around for you in two weeks.”
Elated, I was in a hurry to hang up and start writing.
Notice: No intelligent questions from me, and zero enthusiasm from her. I took her tentative yes for a “full-speed ahead.” Bad move.
I took to the project with rabid intensity. I read up on lymph-node biopsies, found technical manuals for the machine, and was just so darned excited to use words like “pneumothorax” and “endobrachial ultrasound.”
I liked what I wrote, and I was expecting effusive praise when I delivered it.
Instead, I got this: “This wasn’t what I had in mind. Please don’t spend any more of your time on this.”
LESSONS (two of them):
1) Never write for someone that doesn’t want you. Incredibly obvious, right? Sure, but a desperate novice will try anything for a quick win. Don’t. Get an enthusiastic “Yes!” before you ever pick up your pen.
2) Make sure you understand the job at hand. I dove into this project without knowing what this manager wanted to achieve. So how was I supposed to help her? Ask questions, so you can deliver something your clients can actually use.
3) (PB Addition): Don’t work for free! I understand pro bono work to build a portfolio, but if you’re going that route, keep your time commitment reasonable, and, of course, make sure you’re following Matt’s first two lessons above (including making sure the client knows you’re doing it to build your portfolio).
Yes, these were stupid, embarrassing mistakes. But things turned out okay for me.
These days I’m writing and thriving—plenty of money coming in, more business than I can handle, with new clients cold-calling me all the time.
My secret? Persistence. I chose to see my screw-ups as growing pains, and I got savvier with time.
It happened for me, and it can happen for you. After all, you can’t possibly screw up worse than I did!
(If you’re willing to admit it), what’s the dumbest thing you’ve ever done in dealing with a commercial writing client?
How’d you recover? Did you try to pursue these clients again?
What do you think is the worst mistake a rookie can make when they’re starting out as a commercial freelancer?
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