Why Estimating Copywriting Projects Is Like Learning to Play Tennis…

I got an email from a commercial writer recently voicing a common concern:

The one sticking point I keep running into is not knowing how many hours a project will take me to complete (and the obvious quoting struggle related to that). Do you know any resources where I can find that information? By trolling other writer’s sites, I can sometimes assume an average if they list their hourly fee along with project fees, but it’s not always consistent from writer to writer.

Project estimating. A common dilemma, no doubt. And a serviceable analogy is learning a sport like tennis. If you ever started taking tennis lessons when you knew very little about it to begin with, there seemed to be all these things you had to remember: foot placement, keeping your racket level, stepping into each shot, keeping your eye on the ball, following through completely, and about 10 more.

To a beginner, it all seemed overwhelming. How in the world am I supposed to remember all this, much less do them all well? But, if you stuck to it, it all became second nature, automatic.

Same thing here. You’re new at commercial writing. How can you expect to be an expert at it right out of the gate? It’s like a tennis novice wanting to know the “secret” to being to do all those things perfectly the first time he sets foot on the court. Just not realistic.

I DO touch on some nuts-n-bolts about this in The Well-Fed Writer (p. 173). Here’s the Cliff Notes version (and DO check out the passage for a more detailed version):

Break a job down into its component parts: research, background reading, travel, meetings, brainstorming (a.k.a. “concepting”), interviewing, writing, and editing (you won’t have all these in every job). Then assign a time figure (i.e., X hours) to each category. Then multiply the total number of hours calculated by your hourly rate to get a flat fee estimate (which can be a range that varies by 10 to 15 percent—e.g., $1,500–$1,700, $3,600–$4,100, etc.).

(NOTE: What should your hourly rate be? Arrive at that number based on your experience level, and by asking fellow writers in your market what they charge. Or by calling ad agencies and design firms, which routinely hire copywriters, and as such, will have a very current idea of what writers in their market charge. And while you’ve got these folks on the phone, ask what they look for in a writer they pay X$ an hour.)

Don’t know how much will be involved in each component part? ASK the client. You can’t know how many meetings until you ask (OR until you make your preference known for, ideally, one, which is all you should need). You can’t know how you’ll be gathering your source material until you ask. You can’t know if there will be any interviews, background reading, or research until you ask. No one expects you to be clairvoyant.

Furthermore, no two brochures, direct mail campaigns, newsletters, case studies or web sites (or any other project) are the same. Take a marketing brochure. How many pages? What format? How will you get your source material? Every one is different. And questions are the only way to get accurate parameters.

Bottom line, learning accurate estimating is a function of both asking questions and gaining experience. Questions will only take you so far. Sure, you can break down a project into its component parts, and figure out exactly what will be involved, but assigning an amount of time to those individual components takes practice.

Just know you’ll probably get it wrong in the beginning—shooting too high or low, and hence, losing a bid, or eating hours on a project you do land. But, in time, with more and more projects under your belt, you’ll get good at it.

And a note about posting rates or a price list on one’s site. Neither ever struck me as a particularly good idea (but that’s just me). Posting an hourly rate—especially if it’s reasonably high—can scare off clients, who don’t have a sense of how many hours a given project will take, and may imagine the worst-case scenario.

Sure, you want to run off the wrong kinds of clients (the ones who want that brochure for $150), but listing your hourly rates can give pause to legitimate prospects as well. And here’s the clincher: good clients don’t expect to see rates posted.

Ditto for price lists. The kinds of clients we want to work with know that every project is different so posting a list of prices for different project types isn’t necessary. And as I note in TWFW, because you know that every project is different, you’d have to provide such a wide range of prices (e.g., “Marketing brochures: $500-$2500”) as to render that list pretty meaningless. I suggest skipping it.

What estimating advice/tips can you offer to those starting out?

What’s the process you follow to accurately quote a project?

Are questions as crucial in your estimating process as they are in mine?

Do you include a price list or hourly rate on your site? If not, is your thinking similar to mine? If you do, how has it worked out?

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

5 Reasons Why You Aren’t Where You Want To Be as a Commercial Freelancer (Guest Post)

If you listen to the news media, we’re living in “tough economic times” right now. But, if you keep listening to the same outlets, when aren’t we (according to them)?

You however, and of course your writing business, don’t have to suffer through the “tough times” the media prescribes. In fact, you should completely ignore this so-called “trend” for small businesses altogether.

I’ve identified what I think are the 5 primary reasons you aren’t where you want to be as a freelance commercial writer (FLCW). Work to improve these and your writing business will improve right along with it.

The first couple are fairly obvious, and written about quite a bit on this blog, but the last three, well, from my experience teaching younger copywriters…not so much.

1. Inconsistent marketing (not marketing in the down times and the good times).
You know you need to be marketing your business whether you “need” clients or not. But most FLCW’s don’t. Why? Partly human nature (we get lazy), and partly due to our inherent need to make the task of marketing our business harder than it is.

Getting business as a FLCW boils down to getting consistent in making contact with the people who can assign you projects within an organization (see Chapter 5 of Peter’s book). It’s really that simple, but we tend to bog down the simple process of contacting people with complicated “what ifs” and self-imposed obstacles.

In short, we market when times are tough, when we “need” clients, but not when we should be marketing… when times are good.

2. Poor mindset (the economy is bad; no one is paying our rates, etc…)

This is a big one.

As noted above, the news media can be pretty influential. What makes headlines usually isn’t positive… and, cumulatively, it can affect how we think and act. This information enters our subconscious even if you claim you don’t “really” listen to it.

For example (and I’ve seen variations of this on this very blog in the comments):

“Magazines aren’t paying our rates/good rates.”

(I know this isn’t a FLCW’s main business, but the same principle can apply to our business)

To which I say… so what?

Subscribing to a trend completely out of your control shouldn’t even be a part of your mindset (yes, easier said than done). But let’s just say it’s true that magazines (or businesses, publishers, whatever…) weren’t paying the rates they used to.

Do you really want to tie the success and/or failure of your entire writing business to a trend completely out of your control? I’d rather adapt, learn new skills, change my marketing plan, etc., and try to make the best of the situation. If this means you stop writing magazine articles because the pay doesn’t match your business needs, then do that, and develop a different part of your writing business.

The bottom line is this: there is and will ALWAYS be a certain market for writing services that will pay premium rates, period (until Armageddon that is).

3. Lack of proper systems (such as a system for gathering referrals)

Most all successful businesses are systematized, and a freelance commercial writing business is no exception. You have to set up systems within your business, and adapt those systems as your business grows or changes.

One of them is a system for gathering referrals, which allows you to land new clients much more easily. Not to mention, it helps avoid the well-chronicled famous “feast/famine” scenario.

Keep this referral system simple.

For example, as part of my own referral system, I make referrals a condition of doing business (learned from Jay Abraham). I tell a potential client: only when they are more than satisfied with my work and results, I would like the opportunity to speak with three of their colleagues or friends about the possibility of working with them. At that time, and again, based on their satisfaction with my work, I will have them get their address book or contact manager out and provide those three referrals.

Sometimes, when the client was satisfied with my work and it came time to provide referrals, the client actually called the referred potential client themselves… and “pre-sold” them on working with me.

It’s not a perfect system, but it has worked very well and made it very easy for me to keep a steady flow of new clients coming into my business. This isn’t the only system I have set up in my writing business either… but I do think for all of us a solid system for referrals is a good one to implement.

4. Lack of good health (get out and walk/exercise for at least 45 minutes a day, this is a solitary business so network etc…)

This is one I didn’t follow fully myself until almost nine years into my business as a freelance commercial writer and consultant. I was a solid networker, but the health part, well, that didn’t happen fully until 2010 when I encountered some health issues.

But know this: both person-to-person relationships and your health are SO important to the success of your writing business.

This is a solitary business for the most part; there isn’t really a “water cooler” to hang out at offline where you can shoot the breeze with other writers.

So you have to devote an amount of time (even if it’s small at first) to connecting with your fellow writers and consultants and talking shop, developing friendships, and just hanging out sometimes. You’re NOT alone, you don’t have to do this alone, and you don’t want to.

On to your health… Don’t take it for granted. I did, and in 2010 found myself in a state of poorer health. Nothing drastic mind you (thankfully), but I had taken my health for granted.

In 2011, I decided to do something about it: a challenge was issued to me by my body, and I accepted.

Fast forward to today. I’m walking 2.4 miles every day, drinking plenty of water, and moderating my plate size and portions. I’m also getting better sleep. The result? I lost 67 lbs. in 2011 (from Jan-Dec), and I feel like I can take on the world. My life has new, fresh perspective and I can do things I wouldn’t have thought possible two years ago.

Don’t get me wrong, it was hard work, and I went through hell developing the habits required to maintain my new lifestyle. But we’re only on this Earth an average of 75 or so trips around the Sun. How many do you want to have left?

But, there’s a good business reason to do all this…

When you’re healthy and social, it shows to your potential clients. You radiate confidence and discipline, and quite frankly, there’s a shortage of both in most business arenas (not just writing). Finally…

5. Lack of a money-management discipline.

If you’re making money, but you’re spending more than you make… you’ll be poor. If you make more than you spend, you COULD be rich.

Now, I’m not a financial advisor, and this is NOT financial advice, but you need to develop a money-management discipline of some sort (outside of “generate income, pay taxes, pay bills, have entertainment money,” etc…).

What do I mean? Talk to a financial person (someone who specializes in working with small business people or writers). Get a plan together, and follow it.

If you can’t afford it (I think you can’t afford not to), at least research and learn about the subject. A good book I can personally recommend: “The Money Book for Freelancers, Part-Timers, and the Self-Employed: The Only Personal Finance System for People with Not-So-Regular Job”

Can you think of any other reasons you aren’t achieving your goals as a FLCW?

Do you have a personal story that might benefit anyone who participates in this discussion (e.g. personal successes, failures, etc…)?

Any other books you might recommend for further reading?

Any stories about personal interaction with someone that changed your view of this business for the better?


Since 2001, Joseph Ratliff has been a direct response copywriter and marketing consultant for small businesses. He irregularly blogs at The Ratliff Report™. You can download some success-oriented articles and reports on the “free resources” page on his site. If you’re new to the writing business, you can check out his 17-page essay for new writers (titled “The Writer’s Lifestyle”) on the Essays section of his website.

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 Still Working with that Client from 2008 (or Earlier)?

I recently heard from an old commercial writing client for whom I hadn’t worked in probably five or six years. She had a small copywriting project, along with a vague “and we’ve got a few other things cooking we might need your help with.” Always a nice treat when old clients surface, but there’s always a bit of a nagging voice that comes with it…

“How come you stopped working with them in the first place?”

The easy answer? Well, the project you were working on for them ended, you both got busy, and the old “out-of-sight-out-of-mind” thing took over. Never sounds very satisfying, because it points to laziness on my part in the follow-up department. It’s like the natural order of things is that YOU should be contacting them and discovering they have a job for you. NOT them having to reach out to you.

The latter seems to imply that there might very well have been many other commercial freelancing jobs, big and small, you could have done for them in the ensuing years, but you missed out because you weren’t top-of-mind when those gigs came along. And not being top-of-mind also means missing out on possible referrals as well. Sigh.

As confirmation (the self-flagellation now begins in earnest…), she said she was reaching out because the copywriter she’d been using just wasn’t getting it done. Sheesh. And it gets worse. She says, “I need a writer who can write like only you can.”

You know, like he did on that flurry of work five years back, all of which they loved, and after which, he just vanished. What was I thinking? That that would be all they’d ever need? Turn that knife.

I have a dear friend—and fellow commercial freelancer—here in Atlanta who’s been working with one client steadily for about five years. Seems, every time we talk, their name surfaces as part of the “what’s-on-my-plate-now” conversation. They’ve made her multiple offers over the years to come onboard full-time. But, she’s resisted. Hey, why buy the cow, etc., etc.

She gets constant work from them because she knows their business inside and out, is a great writer, incredibly thorough, knows PowerPoint like the back of her hand (along with several other programs; no, you don’t have to be so technically inclined to succeed as a commercial freelancer, but it doesn’t hurt). In short, she’s incredibly capable and versatile.

So, when the workload with a client is steady and ongoing, as it is with hers, it’s easy to not lose touch. But clients like that (i.e., providing a virtually unbroken streak of work) are most definitely the exception, not the rule, in this commercial copywriting business of ours.

Now, I’ve been pretty good at keeping in touch with most of my clients over the years, but if I’m going to be honest here—and Exhibit A above makes it hard to come to any other conclusion—there are a handful of clients who would have been turning to me far more often over the past years had I done a better job of keeping in touch.

Recently, thanks to that blast-from-the-past client call, I reached out to a bunch of those “fell-through-the-crackers.” While nothing’s come of it yet, I’m back on their radar, with an OK to check back in on X date, so that’s all good.

Yes, as we all know, there are a lot of reasons that have nothing to do with us, why we might stop working with a client: company goes out of business; our contact leaves for another company, and the new one has their favorite writer; company hires an in-house writer (or just dumps the writing off on that overworked admin), etc.

But, that’s not the whole story, and we all know it. As the marketing truism reminds (uncomfortably, perhaps?), “It’s far easier to get more work from an existing client than to land a new one.”

Have you had an old client get back in touch after several years, making you realize you’d done a sorry job of regular follow-up?

How do you ensure good clients, even those without steady, ongoing work, keep you “top of mind” for when they do need a writer?

Have you had a steady client that’s hired you for at least 3 years? If so, what do you do (besides write really well) that keeps them coming back?

Have you just thought of a few clients you lost touch with? And what are you going to do about it? 😉

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 I Get Copywriting Clients Through SEO: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Guest Post)

I don’t quite remember when I stumbled upon commercial writing as a viable freelance profession, but as soon as I did I was sold. My background was in event marketing and sales, which I enjoyed but wasn’t necessarily passionate about.

I have always loved writing and I knew I wanted to do something using my business background, so combining the two was a natural fit. Although I didn’t have any professional training, I decided to make the leap to starting a freelance copywriting business in January 2010.

I did two things from the start that have been game changers for my business: first, I put up a website on WordPress, an incredible website content management system; second, I took the time to optimize my new site for the search engines (a.k.a. Search Engine Optimization or SEO), even though I really didn’t have any idea what I was doing at the time.

After getting my site up, I hit the pavement hard trying to land those first few clients. I networked like crazy, attending any free or low-cost event I could. I also spent a considerable amount of time reaching out to my network and getting involved on Twitter and LinkedIn. After a few short months, something interesting started happening. I started getting emails that looked like this:

Slowly but surely, SEO overtook networking as my #1 method of developing new business. Pretty soon I stopped going to networking events, slowed down my social media activity and stopped marketing almost entirely because I had so many projects lined up from clients who had found my website.

Now that 2 ½ years have passed since I started my freelance business, I’m astounded by how a small investment into learning and applying SEO has had such a profound effect on my business. Although most of my experience is positive, I do have some warnings about SEO, which I’ll share in a moment.

How I Optimized My Freelance Copywriting Website
I want to explain exactly how I used SEO effectively to drive traffic and prospects and ultimately convert web visitors into paying clients. I did the following six activities, which contributed to my current page-1 Google ranking:

1. Identified and selected my keywords using Google’s free keyword tool
2. Wrote keyword-rich title and description tags for my primary website pages
3. Blogged and kept blogging using my keywords a few times a month for the first two years
4. Promoted my blog posts on Twitter and LinkedIn
5. Learned to love Google Analytics as a way to see what keywords people used to find my site and other key metrics that helped me refine my strategy
6. Used WordPress to update my pages and keep my site fresh with new, timely content
7. Slowly started getting backlinks due to securing speaking gigs and workshops and through meeting other bloggers at networking events

The Effects SEO Has Had On My Business
While SEO has been incredible for my business, I’m the first to admit that it’s not for everyone. And despite its obvious benefits, I’ve allowed it to unfortunately limit my business. Here are my insights into the good, the bad and the downright ugly effects of SEO:

The Good:

• I rarely find myself in a bidding situation. For some reason, maybe because I’m on the first page of Google, when clients reach out to me they’re ready to do business immediately.

• I’ve met some incredible contacts through people finding my site: direct clients, referral partners (tons of website designers), marketing consultants, colleagues who recommended speaking gigs for me, fellow writers I’ve hired for overflow projects, and even an intern.

• Getting on the first page of Google happened very naturally for me by doing just the few simple, but consistent, activities I outlined above.

The Bad:

• SEO does not necessarily manifest the clients you want. Renowned copywriter Bob Bly has said that potential customers who find his website via SEO are never his best prospects; they require too much education, hand holding, and aren’t as willing to pay his fees as customers are who buy his information products or hear him speak at an event.

• SEO is not for everyone. Some copywriters might not need to spend time optimizing their site if they’re able to generate business through, for instance, books, speaking gigs, repeat clients, referrals, etc. Spending time optimizing their sites may not be the best investment if they’re staying busy thanks to other lead-generation efforts.

The Ugly:

• SEO has made me a very lazy business owner because I’m now used to prospects coming to me. It’s caused me to commit the cardinal sin of running a business: I have almost entirely stopped proactively marketing my business.

• SEO does not consistently bring me high paying prospects. It’s so easy to work with clients who approach me, I know I’m losing out on higher income clientele by not proactively pursuing those who might have more money or bigger projects. It’s rare that a corporate client will find me via SEO….most of the time my traffic is comprised of web designers with referrals, micro-business owners, service providers or solopreneurs.

• Ever since I landed in the top spot on the first page of Google, I have to work hard to maintain my ranking. It’s made me slightly obsessed with SEO since I have other business owners and freelancers constantly nipping at my heels for the top spot.

While SEO does have its downsides, the good has far outweighed the bad. Succeeding in SEO for my own site has led me to writing my first information product, garnered me a slew of speaking gigs, and might someday be a good niche for me, even though now I’m very much a generalist.

Weigh In On Your SEO Efforts…

What has held you back from getting started with SEO?

If you have taken the time to optimize your site, has your experience been similar to mine?

Any do’s and don’t’s you can share from your own experiences?


Jenny Munn is a passionate freelance copywriter in Atlanta who blogs about DIY SEO strategies for non-techies and small business owners. She’s the author of How to SEO Your Site: A DIY Guide for Small Business Owners, and offers a free keyword research report, 7 Simple Steps to Effective Keyword Research, at www.jennymunn.com.

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

Are You Striking a Balance Between a Serious Writing Business and a Generous Spirit?

I landed a new commercial writing client some time back – a graphic designer a few states away who’d found me via the web. His freelance copywriter had walked out the prior week and he was stuck with some looming deadlines – one just 24 hours away.

When I gave him a quote (with a 20% additional rush charge) for the hot job – two concepts for a direct mail postcard (front-side headline and reverse-side sub-head and body copy), it was obviously more than he’d hoped for.

He started thinking out loud on the phone, finally concluding that, with 24 hours till showtime, he was nervous about entrusting the project to an unproven (to him) commercial copywriter, and risking his deadline with a good client.

His solution: he’d concept the headline and I’d do the back cover copy. I’d start on my part and could adjust the tone to fit the concept he’d send me the following morning. Fair enough.

After we got off the phone, my mind just started working on the uncontracted headline portion. Not wise, but I couldn’t help myself. This kind of work is like a game to me – BIG fun. I spent no more than 30 minutes at it, but came up with a few pretty good ideas.

A few minutes later, he called about something else, and at the end of the call, I explained what I’d done, adding, “If you decide to use one of them, technically, you don’t owe me anything, but rather than be stingy, I’ll share and let the chips fall where they may.”

Well, turns out he loved one of them saying, “I know a good headline when I see one,” and then asking, “If I were to use it, what would you charge? I don’t believe in people working for free.” Do you love this guy or what?

My reply: “You already know what I’d normally get (important to establish your regular rates if you ARE going to take this approach), but in this case, if you want to throw me an extra $100-150, I’m happy.” Him: “I’ll absolutely pay you $150.”

Okay, so what that I didn’t get my usual commercial freelancing rate? I wasn’t going to anyway on this job. I got $150 extra for 30 minutes work and came up with a great headline that allowed him to spend his evening with his family, not holed up in his study, concepting headlines.

I made a great first impression, establishing myself as a talented and generous writer who thinks like he does, and can come through in the clutch.

Some may say, “Tsk. Tsk. You set a bad precedent.” I disagree. He acknowledged that a headline would normally be worth far more, and in the future, we’ll come to a number that’ll work for both of us, (or, I suppose, we won’t). Either way I’m not concerned.

I’m not suggesting you always play the “give-it-away-for-peanuts” game; in this case, it just made sense to do it. I AM suggesting that, as long as the client knows what your normal rates are, you come from a place of generosity and abundance.

And by coming through on no notice, he starts seeing why I charge what I do. I gave a little, got a fair return, ended up looking really good in his eyes, and nicely set the stage and his expectations (both work- and money-wise) for future work. Win-win.

As I see it, as commercial freelancers, we need to strike a balance between expecting to be paid well for our skills, and having a little elasticity in that policy. Certainly, if you could only be one way or the other, the former is clearly better than the latter.

Too much of the latter isn’t good for building respect on the part of your clients, nor cultivating the internal variety. But, if you do too much of the first, taking, say, a “I-don’t-pick-up-a-pen-for-less-than-$500” approach, being a commercial freelancer becomes largely a clinical and left-brain exercise.

Allow yourself to have your moments of spontaneous, unscripted generosity, minus the fee minimums and clock-watching. They’ll make doing this job of ours more fun and joyful, you’ll build stronger, more enduring relationships, and (as I was able to do here), they can clearly convey why you deserve to be well paid.

Have you had a similar scenario?

If so, how did it unfold and where did it lead?

Do you watch the clock closely or are you less manic about time?

Where have you drawn that line between running a serious business and having a little flexibility in your time policy?

(NOTE: I was serious about loving the short-copy stuff: taglines, company/product naming, headlines, book titles, etc. If you run across such work, and it’s not your thing, think of me (and I’m happy to pay a finder’s fee). Samples here, then “Naming/Taglines & Slogans…” And here for book titles…).

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