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How Long Did It Take You to Become a Profitable Commercial Writer?

So, I recently got the following email – similar to many I’ve gotten over the years from what I affectionately refer to as “shortcut-hunters.” Can’t blame them – we all want the path of least resistance as we build our commercial writing practices. He wrote:

I have been working as a freelancer now for a couple of years, and during that time I have pretty lucky in being offered work with little or no marketing effort.

The work has been relatively low-paid, but enough to keep me afloat. I’ve been planning to follow your guidance now for some time, but I have always felt too busy with work and family to extend my reach.

Recently a long-term client told me he’d hired an in-house copywriter and that he’d be in touch if and when the company needed to outsource. This has left me in a serious bind as that work constituted a large part of my income. Today, I’ve been cold-calling per your instructions in TWFW, and called 23 marketing agencies.

I got the usual gatekeeper responses (even when calling between 4:30 and 5:30), and I have been given a lot of email addresses of those in charge of marketing to send along my resume, etc. I’ve emailed them, and given them my website address and resume in some cases, but it feels mostly like I’m wading through mud.

What you recommend should be the course of action for someone like me who is a decent copywriter, but needs work quickly?

My reply:

I wish I could give you some magic solution, but there really isn’t one. If there truly were a shortcut to landing high-paying commercial copywriting work faster than normal, everyone would have figured it out by now, and, on the heels of that, no one would be making any money anymore…

I’m afraid the commercial writing business doesn’t really lend itself to fast ramp-up times to profitability, unless you already have a pretty sizable pool of existing contacts that you can tap.

What you describe (calling 23 agencies and getting people asking for you to send info, but nothing right now) is VERY typical of how prospecting in our business goes. In most cases, one has to make many hundreds of contacts, and then nurture those contacts over time in order for things to ultimately pan out.

As I note in TWFW, any business that can pay the wages commercial freelancing can, is going to take a healthy amount of ramp-up time. You just can’t expect it to happen fast. The only fast jobs in writing are the ones that offer lousy pay.

AND, the more calls you make, the better your chance of finding that client who does need something NOW, but you can’t count on that.

While I felt for him (sorta), my evil, snarky twin wanted to say, “Where did you get the idea that this was an easy business? And hello? One client who makes up a BIG chunk of your work? That’s a crisis waiting to happen. AND (echoing a line from my note above), if it were really that easy to earn $50, $60, $80, $100 an hour, how long would that window last, before the low-ballers entered the ring, and crappy rates became the norm?”

As I’m fond of reminding people, the commercial freelancing field pays well precisely because it’s not easy. It’s a bona fide opportunity precisely because you’ve got to bust your butt, and often for a long period of time before you make decent money, and that there are precious few shortcuts.

It’s precisely because it can take a long time to get profitable, that when it does, it’s likely to be a more enduring profitability. And chances are excellent that’s the case because you got into the right habits early—habits that ultimately led you to healthy profitability. Amazing how that works.

In 1994, it took me four months to hit financial self-sufficiency as a commercial freelancer, which is fast. Though, in all fairness, I’d scaled down my expenses, and hit it very hard. Count on longer these days. Put another way…

Anyone who promises you fast riches as a writer is jerking your chain. Period.

With any luck, this piece and the soon-to-appear comments below will provide a good reality check to those starting out or early on in the business-building process.

How long did it take you to get to comfortable profitability?

What advantages/disadvantages did you feel you had compared to others starting out?

If you made it happen fast, what do you think the key was?

If it took you longer to become profitable, why do you think that was?

Any advice to give to someone starting 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.

From What Background Did You Come to Commercial Freelancing?

One of the things I love about this field of ours is that there are few backgrounds one can’t leverage into a freelance commercial writing career. Over the years, I’ve crossed paths with commercial writers who started out as doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers, engineers, bankers, software salesman, PR people, undertakers, farmers, accountants, scientists, and many more that elude me right now.

It’s always interesting to me to see what fields someone can parlay into commercial copywriting career, and that they can parlay that field successfully.

Of course, it’s no surprise the commercial writing field is so accommodating to most any background. After all, every business needs a healthy volume of writing, and who better to deliver that writing than someone who hails from that field?

Obviously, as most of you know, I turned a 15-year sales/marketing career into a future as a commercial freelancer, and someone who understands sales and marketing is going to get the attention of many a prospect.

But I’d love to be able to share with readers of this blog who are considering a jump to our field, the various different paths that have led to it, to prove to them that, in fact, virtually any field one comes from can be a good starting point. With that in mind…

What was the background that you brought into commercial writing?

How did you leverage that background when you started out?

And if you did leverage it, what did that background mean to the people who hired you?

If you didn’t leverage it, was it harder to get started?

Any other comments?

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.

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.

Trying to Make the Transition from Employee to Full-Time Commercial Writer? (Guest Post)

Great guest post from fellow commercial freelancer (and fellow Atlantan), Don Sadler. Don’s carved out quite a lucrative niche in his area of specialty, and how it all came about is a good story. I hope it can serve as a good discussion catalyst, and can spur others who’ve either been there as well (or may be in the future) to weigh in! Thanks, Don! Enjoy!

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It’s probably the most challenging (and scariest) part of becoming a freelance commercial writer (FLCW): Making the transition from a full-time job, with a regular salary and benefits like health insurance, paid holidays and paid vacation, to a full-time freelancer — with none of the above.

I made this transition myself almost four years ago. I wish I could say that I was fearless and brave and decided to make the jump on my own, but that’s not what happened. Instead, I got the dreaded layoff call, letting me know that my position as an editor with a major custom publishing company “was being eliminated.”

Not exactly the best way to start your weekend! But now, nearly four years later, I can see that it was actually the best thing that could have happened to me professionally. I had wanted to strike out on my own as a full-time commercial freelancer for a while, but the (apparent) comfort and security of the salary, benefits, etc. were tough to give up. And I had a pretty good job, so there wasn’t a lot of urgency to jump ship.

What follows is a brief account of how I made the transition from full-time employment to full-time freelance. Everyone’s situation is unique, so my intention isn’t to provide a step-by-step “here’s how to do it” guide. Rather, I hope that by reading my story, you might pick up a couple of nuggets that could help you make the transition if this is something you want to do. Or at least be inspired that it doesn’t have to be as terrifying as it seems!

Going Back to the ‘80’s
My first professional job out of college (where I majored in Journalism) in 1985 was as a staff writer with a newsletter-publishing firm in Ft. Lauderdale. I worked there for 12 years before moving to Atlanta to work for another publisher in 1997, which in turn was acquired by another custom publisher in 2005, for whom I worked until early 2009.

So, I had about 24 years of professional experience as a writer/editor before going full-time freelance. But the biggest factor in the success of my transition was this: I had spent pretty much this entire time specializing in a couple of content niches: business and finance. As a result of this specialization, I was able to immediately “brand” myself as an expert when it came to writing content in these areas. This turned out to be huge for two reasons:

1. There is a high demand for freelance writers who can tackle these subjects without having to be brought up to speed on basics like the difference between defined contribution and defined benefit plans or the nuances of various banking and financial products and services.

2. Therefore, these freelance writers can generally charge relatively high rates for this type of writing.

The second thing that helped me make a successful transition fairly quickly was the fact that I started doing freelance work “on the side” long before I ventured out on my own as a full-time FLCW.

One of the first things I did when I moved to Atlanta in 1997 was start looking for freelance work. It didn’t take long to land gigs with a couple of business magazines, from which I was able to get pretty steady assignments. Over the decade-plus that I did freelance work on the side, I built up a nice little freelance clientele that eventually formed the foundation for going full-time freelance.

In addition to providing a little “mad money,” this part-time freelance work was invaluable in helping me get my feet wet and learn about how the freelance world worked. Just as importantly, it gave me a sense of “entrepreneurship” and what it was like to look for and gain clients on my own. I found it tremendously exciting and rewarding to land new freelance clients, make them happy and get paid for doing it!

What Should I Do?
Due to these three factors—my long history of experience as a professional writer/editor, albeit as an employee; my well-established content niches of business and finance; and my 10+ years of on-the-side freelance experience—I was about as well-positioned as you can be to make the transition to full-time freelance. And since I kind of saw the layoff coming for at least six months, I had even started to think about what I would do if and when I lost my job: Try to go full-time freelance or look for another job?

I got my layoff notice at 4:00 on a Friday afternoon (which is by the corporate textbook, by the way). Since I was a remote employee and worked from home, I immediately fired off emails to two of my freelance clients letting them know what happened and that I was available for as much freelance work as they could send me. They both replied before 5:00 and said they would have work for me Monday morning.

I took that as my sign that I should give full-time freelancing a real shot before looking for another job. And by the end of my first year of full-time freelance, I was consistently meeting or exceeding my old monthly salary.

Are there other challenges to being a full-time freelancer beyond just landing clients and generating income? You bet! Health insurance, for example, is one of the biggest, but that’s been discussed in another post on this blog. But in my experience, if you can get the freelance ball rolling down the hill, it tends to pick up speed if you are diligent and work as hard at building your freelance business as you did working for an employer.

Lay the Groundwork Now
Like I said, I didn’t write this with the intention of providing a step-by-step guide to transitioning from full-time employment into full-time commercial freelance writing. I realize that not everybody out there has more than two decades of professional writing and editing experience as an employee, or has been able to cultivate a profitable content niche like I was fortunate enough to do.

But if going full-time freelance is something you think you’d like to do one day, I encourage you to start laying the groundwork now. For me, success as a full-time FLCW was far from “overnight”; it was actually more than two decades in the making!

The best advice I can offer is to start doing freelance work on the side from your regular job now. This will help you learn how the freelancing world works and start to build up a small clientele that you can expand when you devote your full-time energy and effort into your own freelance writing business.

Oh, and buy The Well-Fed Writer! I read it about three years after I struck out on my own and I can’t imagine a more practical, hands-on guide to getting started as a freelance commercial writer. Peter confirmed some of the things I was doing and offered some great new tips and insights I hadn’t thought of.

And no, Peter didn’t ask me to say that—it’s really that good!

1. What has held you back from making the transition from an employee to a full-time FLCW?

2. If you’ve made the transition, what are one or two tips you can offer to others who hope to do the same?

3. What is one mistake you made during the transition that others should guard against?

Don Sadler is an Atlanta-based freelance commercial writer specializing in the areas of business and finance. He writes content for all different types of media, both print and electronic, and in all different formats — print and e-newsletters, magazines, search-engine-optimized websites, white papers, blogs, ghost articles and books, etc. Visit http://www.donsadlerwriter.com to learn more.

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