Why Commercial Writers Earn More Than Regular “Freelance Writers”

When I first wrote the original piece noted below, it struck me as a subject on which I’d love to get some feedback from you guys. Look for other such posts (I know, recycling content, but all for a good cause…;)

In the November 2013 Well-Fed E-PUB, my Appetizer course shared a recent client experience that underscored for me why good commercial freelancers generally make a lot more money than regular “freelance writers.” Here’s that piece (adapted and slightly edited)…

Got an email from a client of mine a few weeks back, needing a little editing work on a project her designer was working on for her (i.e., combo brochure/direct mail piece she’d be giving away at trade shows as well as mailing out to prospects).

While I can’t make blanket statements, I’d wager good money that had she simply contacted a “freelance writer”—someone charging quite a bit less than I do—with the same request, she’d have likely gotten just what she’d asked for: edited copy.

However, I took a look at it, and gave her my thoughts: she didn’t need the thing edited. She needed to trash what she had, and start all over again both with the copy and design (and, while she was at it, replace her newbie, “moonlighting-college-student” designer with one of my trusted design partners).

While the existing design was quite creative—a main panel with all sorts of other panels that folded in on it—I looked at it through a far different lens. I listened to what she said she was going to do with it. I looked at what she was selling—a service that needed to have a “case built” for it, and in a logical, sequential fashion.

Her existing copy didn’t begin to build that case (and given the design, the requested editing wouldn’t have allowed me to expand it to do so), nor did the existing design framework even remotely facilitate the proper persuasive unfolding of that “story.”

Doing good copywriting work for her for years has her trust that I know what I’m doing. So when I suggested a totally different layout (still quite creative), new designer, expanded copy and a far higher fee than originally envisioned, she quickly gave the green light.

She’s the ideal client: someone who understands that the ultimate effectiveness of a marketing piece always trumps cost (within reason, of course). So, I’m being paid far more, largely because I’m providing a level of expertise that straight “freelance writers” wouldn’t.

If you know how to write, and even tell a good story, you’ll only be able to command a certain fee (given how many other writers have those same skills), but if you can, indeed, “build that case” for a product/service in a logical, creative way, and can think strategically about copy, and—when necessary, about physical layouts that facilitate that “case-building”—watch your writing income rise.

On this piece, I averaged roughly $120 an hour, not as much as I’d like, but not bad for fun work. And I made more than a regular “freelancer” because I know both how to write AND organize what I write to fit a certain layout (which in this case, I suggested, further increasing my value).

My goal with this post (and hopefully, the ensuing comments) is NOT to discourage non-commercial writers from our business. Anyone can learn, through experience and practice, the craft of good marketing copywriting and the strategic planning side of it. But, I did want to highlight that it IS a different set of skills, and for a businessperson, they’re worth more, and hence worth learning.

And, in all fairness, we commercial copywriters get paid a lot more than regular freelancers, in large part, because the business arena in which we’re operating pays higher rates than say, magazines, newspapers, or content mills.

So, it’s the setting as well as the good skills, but being in the “high-rent” district will only get you so far without the skills.

What do you feel good commercial freelancers bring to the party that regular writers don’t?

Can you share a specific moment/project when you realized you truly had far more marketable skills than the average writer?

Can you share a moment where a business client had an epiphany, as they realized how much more you were able to do for them than a regular writer did/could?

Can you share a moment when your ability to think strategically about copy or layout, set you apart from other writers?

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.

Here’s What Long-Term Freelancers Do to Stay Disciplined. You?

More often than not, when I tell someone (say, at some social or networking event) how long I’ve been a commercial freelancer, people are impressed, often saying, “I could never work for myself; I’m just not disciplined enough.”

Course, my standard answer (somewhere in my book as well) is something like: “Once you get a taste of how great the freelance life is, staying disciplined—at least for me—isn’t all that hard, because you’ll do anything to keep such a sweet gig going.”

Yet, thriving as a freelance commercial writer over the long haul—especially with the numerous economic ups and downs of the past several decades—ain’t easy. So, if you’ve pulled it off, for even the past 5 years (heck, especially the past five years), take a bow. You’ve clearly got strong stuff.

This whole idea of discipline came to mind again as I ran a tip in the November Well-Fed E-PUB last week, from Pittsburgh, PA FLCW Jeff Durosko, about what he does to stay disciplined. Jeff’s in that “strong-stuff” category of folks, having been at it for eight years.

A few of Jeff’s ideas for keeping the rigor in his business life, and most importantly, to treat his business AS a business:

I get up, get dressed (not dressed up, but not in sweats or pajamas either) and get ready just as I did when I worked in the corporate world.

I go to Starbucks after dropping off my daughter at school and head straight back home to my dedicated office where I work through the morning. Having a dedicated office with a door that closes is key to keeping one’s routine. While I may “reopen” that door late at night when the kids are in bed, I don’t let it consume my life.

I must confess, I DO work in my sweats, but then again, I didn’t come from the corporate world, so I’m not trying to emulate that setting. I’m not at my desk at oh-dark-thirty, being more of a 10:00-10:30-ish to 7-ish kind of guy (with a walk or sometimes a bike ride worked into the day somewhere; I intend to enjoy the “free” in “freelance” whenever possible). But, I’m serious about my work, and let my work earn me my breaks.

I could be wrong, but I suspect a lot of folks who say, “I’m just not disciplined enough to run my own business” say that, not because they truly lack discipline (heck, they’ve gotten up every morning and made their way to an office for years, which sure looks like discipline to me, though perhaps it’s just fear…), but because they just haven’t had much practice at it, nor the tools—many of them mental—to stay on track.

Something else I’d say to them: You’ll get used to anything. The idea of freelancing may be new and foreign to you, but once you do it for a while, if you enjoy some success, it’ll quickly ratchet up your belief level in the overall viability of the enterprise—and that’s a HUGE step to transforming that initial success into a more enduring variety. So much of success as a freelancer is mental.

Do you agree (that much of freelance success is mental), and that most people could pull it off if they shifted their thinking?

If you’ve had some long-term freelancing success, what would you tell someone who’s not sure they have the “right stuff,” to make it seem more doable?

When starting out, if you doubted your ability to make it work, but still made it happen, what changed for you?

What strategies, approaches or tips have worked to help keep you on track and thriving over the years?

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.

Do You React Like This When You See Something You Wrote Years Ago?

So, a few weeks back, I get an email from one of my favorite graphic-design partners*, asking for a favor. This is how we roll, by the way. We trade out services: she designs my book related business cards, flyers, and even some of my sites, and I do copy for her sites and promo materials. It’s worked out wonderfully.

Anyway, she was putting together a proposal to a prospect, and wanted me to tailor a cover letter I’d written for her some years back to accompany an earlier proposal. The letter outlined her capabilities, strengths and background, and how all of that translated to benefits to the client.

She sends the letter, I read it, and I’m shocked (shocked, I say). Seriously, I’m asking myself (out loud, if memory serves), “Did I really write this?” Apparently so.

Because, wow. It was wordy, verbose (see, there I go again!), uber-flowery, etc. All this grandiose copy that was, frankly, far more than necessary for this proposal, the earlier proposal—heck, any proposal.

So, I took out my razor-sharp, double-edged editing pen, and went to work. When I was done, it was probably half its original length, far more succinct (by definition, I suppose), but still covered the same ground. Whew.

So, it got me thinking. Clearly my writing skills had evolved in the past 3-4 years, and for the better. And from when I started in 1994? Suffice to say, every now and then, I pick through pieces of commercial copywriting I wrote way back when. While a lot of it is perfectly serviceable, it’s often unpolished (and sometimes just laughably mediocre). Every bit of it, I’d put through another pass or two.

But, I don’t beat myself up much. Fact is, at some point that pile of copy served its purpose (that original letter, was, in fact, part of a successful proposal; she got the gig, and told me she regularly pulls pieces from it for ultimately successful proposals).

A lot of what I’ve written over the years (brochures, newsletters, case studies, web content, even some ads) doesn’t lend itself to clear “conversion” metrics like, say, direct mail would. But, bottom line, my clients were happy, so it got the job done. And you can always get better.

Have you had a similar “Aha!” like mine above?

Have you seen your writing improve over time, and if so, in what ways?

Put another way, what bad writing habits have you managed to break yourself of over time?

Ever had a long-time client comment that they’d noticed your writing had evolved or improved over time?

DesignerIconMinusText(*Speaking of designers, “Profitable – By Design!,” my popular ebook for commercial freelancers looking to create lucrative partnerships with designers, is on sale through the end of October for 25% off. Details.)

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.

How Do You Deal with the Unimaginative Client?

Got the following note from a reader and fellow commercial freelancer:

I wrote a website recently in which I dropped the reader right into the environment of the business and took them on a tour of the facility, while describing their experience of the place. Nice flow, lots of mental imagery, etc., if I do say so myself. The client changed it all to “the purpose of,” “We do this,” We do that,” on and on. Read like a drill sergeant. Frustrating to say the least. Ever had a similar experience?

To which I replied:

Yes, we’ve all been in that frustrating place. Clients without vision and imagination are everywhere. All you can do is make your professional opinion known, but ultimately, they’re the boss, and they get what they want. I’m always prepared with an “I-did-it-this-way-and-here’s-why” rationale if they suggest changing it, and I will push my case strongly (and having been at it for as long as I have, I might push harder than someone newer to the biz). But, again, that’s all you can do.

Sometimes our job as commercial writers is just a job. You do your best, you put your best creative foot forward, hope for a client with an open mind—willing to embrace a bit of creativity—and make a strong case for your approach if they balk. But, in the end, if the client’s narrow perspective wins out, and you end up simply being paid well (even if you don’t end up with a copywriting sample worth showing), c’est la vie. There are worse things.

If they keep doing it, you need to make a decision: stay, hold your nose and collect your money; or let them know you can’t work with a client who won’t let you do your job. Guess what you’ll do depends on how much you need them…;)

It always amuses me (used to make me angry, but I’ve mellowed…) when clients hire me to do something they presumably don’t feel they have the skill to do, and then change what I’ve written to something of their own creation that isn’t nearly as effective. I could understand it better if I were being paid $25 an hour, in which case they’d consider me little more than a stenographer. But I’ve had clients who were paying me $125 an hour do it as well.

And in the example above, how our friend crafted the piece is a wonderfully effective way of doing it: making it real, letting the reader “test-drive” the experience of a product or service. Why clients can’t see that an approach like that is more engaging, and hence, more effective, is a real head-scratcher.

I suspect it’s more of a comfort-zone thing. They’re so used to thinking about business in black-and-white terms, and they’ve worked hard to carve out some market share, so they’re afraid of somehow alienating their customer base by communicating to that base in a “voice” that’s more colorful than their usual. Just a theory.

With bigger companies (smaller companies are typically far more willing to be creative), the fault can be laid at the feet of legal departments, which, trained as they are in imagining every possible worst-case scenario for every piece of material they disseminate publicly, will predictably nix anything out of the ordinary.

I talk in TWFW about a project I did many years back for that Big Soft-Drink Company here in Atlanta, working through a design firm. It was a promotion geared to their bottlers, and linking one of their products to a big golf tournament. I filled the piece with all sorts of fun, golf-related double-entendre-verbiage: “Drive for the Green!”; “An Opportunity that’s Dead Solid Perfect;” and more.

Some months later, I saw the final product. Every single one of my clever little bits of color had been sanitized out of the piece, replaced with bland, snoozer copy. Oh, well.

Why do you think many corporate copywriting clients resist more creative approaches? Have some shared their reasons?

Have you had client push back on a creative/interesting approach, and if so how did you handle their resistance?

If you were able to sway them to your point of view, what did the trick?

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.

Why Aren’t You B2B Writers Doing More of these Lucrative Projects? (Guest Post)

PB Note: Gordon Graham is the reigning guru of white papers, and he sent me this great overview of the craft (and its exceptionally promising potential). Seriously consider picking up his brand-new new book, “White Papers for Dummies,” an excellent soup-to-nuts primer that’s been called a “must-read that contains priceless information you just can’t find anywhere else.” Take it away, Gordon!

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It always surprises me that more B2B writers aren’t doing white papers.

As you may know, white papers are fact-based marketing documents used by B2B vendors to generate leads, build recognition, and nurture prospects through a complex sale. They typically run six to eight pages plus front and back matter.

If you’ve done any journalism, a white paper is much like a feature article for a magazine, only it pays 3 to 10 times as much.

In fact, the “average” fee for writing a white paper today is $4,200. Typical fees range from $3,000 to $6,000. Writers with domain knowledge or experience writing white papers routinely charge $5,000 to $7,000—or about $1,000 per page.

Why do companies pay so much?

1) B2B buyers expect them: Survey after survey pegs white papers as the #1 or #2 favorite content that prospects look at.
2) The competition has them: Any vendor that doesn’t can be out of the running for a million-dollar sale.
3) They work: White papers help B2B vendors sell billions of dollars worth of products and services every year.

All these factors add up to an unquenchable demand for these documents, which are now a standard part of the toolkit for any B2B marketer.

But writing a white paper can be challenging. It requires an unusual mix of writing to explain and writing to persuade. It demands that you find and assemble a mass of impeccable facts, figures, quotes, anecdotes and rhetorical devices into a compelling argument.

Not many writers know how to do all that or have had enough practice at this format. But any experienced business writer has all the essential skills it takes: researching, interviewing, writing smoothly, meeting deadlines, handling comments from reviewers, and so on.

A white paper is essentially a long-form, fact-based piece of marketing collateral. To write an effective white paper, you and your client need to identify a compelling topic, pinpoint a specific audience, gather persuasive proof points, construct a logical argument, and spin all this material into a 6- to 8-page narrative that holds readers’ attention and compels them to take the next step in the sales cycle for the associated product or service.

To do that effectively, you need to leave out any hype, buzzwords and marketing-speak. Focus on providing useful information, not a sales pitch. Help your readers understand an issue, solve a problem, or make a decision. Stick to the facts or to well-argued logic. Given today’s jaded prospects with their finely-tuned radar for hype, this low-key or “educational” approach can actually help “sell” a prospect far more effectively than outright promotional copy. This is why well-written white papers are crucial marketing tools for many B2B companies.

Okay, but how many clients need white papers anyway? Aren’t they all in software or some technology where you have to understand gobbledegook to get work?

Yes, white papers are popular in technology firms, but they’re now used in many other sectors. I’ve done them for clients in advertising, construction, healthcare, insurance, printing, sports—even children’s toys! Any B2B company selling something relatively new, relatively complex, or relatively expensive could benefit from a white paper.

Being extremely conservative and counting only the traditional users of white papers—B2B equipment manufacturers, software companies, and scientific and technical services—I found 454,244 potential clients in the U.S. alone. Adding in other countries from the developed world that use English—like Australia, Canada, and the UK—that climbs to more than 600,000.

I know for a fact that many of these companies are desperate for a writer who can help them tell their stories. I hear from one almost every day.

How can you learn more about writing them?

1. Go to websites of companies in your B2B specialty, and find half a dozen white papers to download and study.

Chances are, you’ll soon be thinking, “I can write better than this!” You’ll see how most white papers are not nearly as persuasive or compelling as they could be. That’s a great confidence booster when you’re starting out.

2. Visit my website to see dozens of free articles about every aspect of white paper writing.

3. Check out the free cheat sheet for my book here and a lot of extras here.

4. Join my LinkedIn group “Get More From Your White Papers” and post your question. The group members will do our best to answer you.

If you’re an experienced business writer or a laid-off journalist, give white papers a try. You’ll find a ready-made demand with high fees, and lots of interesting work to be done.

Have you done some white papers? If so, what was your experience like?

Did you find them to be easier or harder to do than you’d originally thought?

Have you been surprised at the quality (or lack thereof) of the samples you’ve seen?

If you haven’t yet tried doing white papers, what’s stopped you?

GordonGrahamPicGordon Graham (a.k.a. That White Paper Guy) has written more than 175 B2B white papers for clients from Australia to New York City, on everything from selecting enterprise software to designing virtual worlds for kids, for everyone from tiny startups to Google.

GordonGrahamWP4DummiesCvrCheck out his new book White Papers For Dummies