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Even After 22 Years as a Copywriter, I Still Wrestle with This One…

So, I’ve been dealing with several cases of “scope creep” of late: when a copywriting project goes beyond the agreed-upon (in writing) parameters. We’d like to think it’s pretty cut and dried: If the project scope goes beyond what you contracted, they pay more. Period.

And, sometimes it is easy, and the client “gets it,” and you get your extra money. But as I’ve discovered, it’s a heckuva lot easier to talk tough when you’re discussing the idea in the abstract vs. being in the middle of a real-world situation and about to have an uncomfortable conversation with a commercial writing client. Especially if it’s your first gig with them. You want to stand up for what you’re owed, but, sometimes, you have to give to get.

(NOTE: You see my “(in writing”) bit above? Do not even think of moving ahead with any commercial writing project without some sort of written agreement (even if it’s just the simple one-pager I discuss in TWFW). I can’t believe how many commercial freelancers have sent me “What do I do now?” emails over the years, because what they discussed (i.e., as opposed to put in writing) with their client as far as a scope has now expanded, and the client doesn’t want to pay them any more. And while I’m sorry they’re going through that, they only have themselves to blame. ‘Nuff said.)

So, I had one of those gray-area projects recently. I was working with a graphic design team on a commercial project for one of their clients. After meetings with the end client, we submitted a creative brief to the client, outlining our proposed direction. The client signed off on the direction, and I came up with a first draft.

My design client loved it, and felt it nailed what the client said they wanted. But, after we submitted it, the client said, “Now that I see this, I realize that that (i.e., the concept that the project was based around, and which they signed off on) just doesn’t really capture what we’re all about. We’re really about this.” Pretty straightforward, right? They changed direction, so we renegotiate, right? Well….

So, he wanted us to rework the copy with a new direction. And not having worked with a creative team before, he just doesn’t get that he can’t just change direction in mid-stream, and expect that there won’t be a change in fee. Plus, they’re a non-profit and with a tight budget. And, stickiest of all, he’s such a nice guy, and so sincere and earnest (and yes, clueless in his way), that it’s just really tough to say, “No can do.”

So, I discuss with my design clients, and while we both agree that it’s not right for the client to do this at no additional charge (and, this means more work for me, not them, since we’re not at the design stage yet), I make a decision. I say, “Listen, we’re right; they’re wrong. But, I’m happy to do another round if it makes them happy.”

And I arrived at that decision after a simple calculation, and after looking at the big picture: How much work this design firm has given me over the past 2-3 years, how they never haggle over my fees, how they look out for me, and how hard they work to make my job as hassle-free as possible.

Viewed through that lens, it’s a pretty easy decision. Sure, if I stood my ground, they’d have totally understood, but by taking the high road, I absolutely endear myself to them.

They’re delighted and relieved that I’m willing to “take one for the team,” and they agree with me unequivocally, that if the client pulls this again, they’re putting their foot down in no uncertain terms.

This commercial freelancing business of ours is so great largely because we get paid very well, and by clients, who, overwhelmingly, know how the world works, and don’t play games over fees. And for every deal like this, where you eat some hours, inevitably, there are those gigs where you quote $4K, the client says, “Let’s do it,” and the project takes, only, say, 21 hours.

So, it all evens out in the end. Not necessarily with the same client, but across your client base as a whole. As such, you’ll ensure your happy longevity in the business by taking that long view, and knowing that while you may have to give here, you’ll get it back over there. And if, in the process, you can make solid money, and enjoy your work on most days, and, on your lifestyle terms, life is pretty good.

What’s your philosophy on projects that go beyond scope?

Do you take them on a case-by-case basis or stick to a firm policy?

Have you had a similar situation to the above, and if so, how did you handle it?

Any other comments or insights to share?

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 Writers Don’t “Deserve” to Make More than $5 to $10 an Article…

Something a little different for a change… This post originally appeared on Lori Vidmer’s Words on a Page Blog during “Writers Worth Week” in May of 2012. When I first sent it to Lori in response to her invitation to submit something for WWW, I thought it might be a bit…blunt, but she loved it, saying…

“That is one of the most honest, transparent, and spot-on posts imaginable! Fantastic! I agree 150 percent (if that’s even possible). I think you’re going to find a good bit of support for your point.”

And judging from the comments it elicited in its original appearance, it apparently did strike a positive chord with many readers.

Now, I know that most of my “regulars” here—commercial freelancers who routinely get healthy rates for their writing—don’t need this reminder, but I suspected you’d enjoy it nonetheless.

And for those regular readers who are still working the low-pay sites discussed here, I figured you’d appreciate the confirmation that you indeed have options when it comes to where you seek your writing gigs, and that there’s a whole other “well-fed writing” world out there.

Regardless of who and where you are, if you enjoy it, I hope you’ll spread the word by forwarding this link to anyone you feel would benefit from the message, tweeting it, Facebooking it—whatever and however you’re moved to share it. Enjoy!

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Question: Do you consider yourself to be a smart shopper? When buying something big or small—flat-screen TV or a loaf of bread—do you try to get the best price (i.e., watching the sales in the case of the TV or clipping a coupon for the bread)? If you’re like most people, of course you do, right? Okay, file that away for a moment…

Over the past few years, I’ve seen any number of articles and blog posts attacking people who posted ridiculously low-paying writing gigs on online job sites. Yet, as I read these pieces, and the ensuing comments, I’ve been a bit troubled—and perplexed—by the stance taken by some. No, these pathetically low-paying job listings aren’t a positive thing, but they don’t happen in a vacuum. The target of the anger and frustration (i.e., those listing these sorry offers) was the wrong one.

One commenter (Mike) hit the nail on the head when he said, “If you don’t like the terms, then don’t apply—simple. You see these ads over and over for one reason and one reason only—they work. I don’t like them either, but I simply ignore them. No amount of complaining is going to stop them.” But alas, his voice of reason has been all but buried under a mountain of righteous, if misplaced, indignation. How dare they? How can a writer make a living? Who do they think they are?

Frankly, it all smacks of victimhood. In blaming the job posters themselves, who are highly unlikely to change their tune any time soon (and we’ll get to why in a moment), you give up control of your financial future and put it in their hands. Imploring them to change their evil ways assumes writers play no part in this unfolding drama. Wrong.

Say you were looking for some folks to crank out some writing (whether for a content mill or even any one-off project someone needs to have written). And say you didn’t know what to offer said writers. What next? You’d go to some job sites and see, 1) what your fellow posters were offering, and 2) more importantly, what writers were accepting. And when you see listings offering $5 or 10 an article and a long scrolling list of writers responding with various and sundry versions of “Me! Pick Me! I’ll do it for that! I’ll do it for less!” well, you’ve got your answer.

If that same poster went to a bunch of sites, and found nothing but writers saying, in essence, “I won’t write your 500-word, keyword-rich article for anything less than $250,” again, he’d know the going rate. And in that case, think he’d dare post a job offering $5 or $10 for that same article? Not bloody likely. The cyber-hills would echo with laughter.

Of course, that $250 response is a fantasy; it’ll never happen on job sites like these. When supply (writers) outstrips demand (jobs), the reality of competition driving rates down to nothing is as predictable as the sunrise. Econ 101.

But, let’s use the argument many make: that this is even driving down rates respectable entities are willing to pay. Maybe, but here’s what’ll happen. All excited that now they can get the writing that used to cost them a LOT more done for peanuts, they hire some of these writers. And soon discover they can’t cut it. If you pay a bargain-basement writer, and then have to hire another writer to redo what they couldn’t do, it’s no bargain.

One comment read: “This vile writing segment gives professional writing a bad name.” Why should it give professional writing a bad name? Does McDonalds give the Four Seasons (or substitute any top-tier restaurant here) a bad name? Does the No-Tell Motel give Marriot a bad name?

Within many industries, there are different levels of practitioners, serving different client segments and for different rates. If it’s not your segment and not where you make your money, then what do you care what they do?

So, let me address a writer outraged by the folks placing these listings. I realize there are more issues than just price, but that seems to be the biggie, so I’ll focus on that. So, you believe you deserve to be paid more than $5-10 an article, right? Okay, fine. Question: Why do you think that? As I see it, and correct me if I’m wrong, there are only two possible answers to this question and only one with real-world validity:

1) Writers deserve to be paid a fair wage, and $5 – $10 isn’t a fair wage.

2) I deserve to be paid more because my skills are worth more than $5 or $10 an article.

#1? Sorry to say, but no writer deserves to be paid any more than the going market rate for a particular skill set, and that rate is determined by a back-and-forth process between buyers and sellers over time. Pretty much like anything else that’s bought and sold on the open market—anywhere, anytime, any place, since the beginning of time.

And the key here is “a particular skill set.” Which leads to #2: that your skills are worth more than $5 or $10 an article. Well, in the case of those running content mills or any other low-paying writing operation, they only need a certain level of writing – and no better. And guess what? Thousands upon thousands of writers have the skills to write at that modest level.

Translation? That level of writing has been “commoditized.” Think gasoline. Or milk. Or sirloin steak. There’s so much supply, and so little difference between brands, so assuming it’s not some special variety (organic milk, grass-fed beef, etc.) prices will all be roughly equivalent. Same with this level of writing.

That being the case, if those job-listers have literally hundreds of writers lining up to bid on their projects at those crummy rates, then why on earth would they need to pay any more than that? They don’t. And they won’t.

And please don’t say, “Because it’s the right thing to do.” That sounds really nice, and warm and fuzzy and all, but you don’t really believe that. Not if you indeed agreed earlier that you were a smart shopper. With rare exceptions, you won’t pay any more for something you want than you have to, and will often take time to ferret out a lower price on a particular item. Why should you expect different behavior from these job-listers?

Here’s a serviceable analogy: McDonalds, again. Okay, so McDonald’s pays burger-flippers, say, eight bucks an hour. And given the relatively low complexity of that task, there are tons of folks out there who can do an admirable job at it. Now, clearly hypothetically, let’s say a world-class chef strolls into McD’s one day and says, “I’d a like a job flipping burgers, but given my formidable culinary skills, I deserve to make $80 an hour, not eight.”

To which, the hiring manager at McD’s is likely to reply: “Well, Chef Pascal or Luigi, I’m sure your skills are amazing, but the fact is, I only need $8 an hour, burger-flipping skills. I’m happy to have you—geez, times must be tough, huh?—and I’m really sorry about this, but I can only pay you eight an hour.”

Same thing here. Content mill operators don’t need anything more than $5-10/article-writing skills. So, if you think you’re a world-class chef of writing, or at least a mid-talent short-order cook of writing, then stop applying at the McD’s of writing outlets, and instead go where the work pays far better, so your skills will, deservedly, be rewarded commensurately (like the commercial writing field, for starters).

And as many have accurately pointed out in countless posts in our industry, those higher paying writing gigs are almost never advertised or posted online. You have to dig them out, which is why they pay far better. And those freelance writers making the highest wages out there are usually those with a special skill or niche. In another words, there are far fewer writers out there with comparable skills. Just like our world-class chef.

If you decide not to bother seeking out better work (and it’s tough to retool your business, no question), thanks to inertia, uncertainty about next steps, or, let’s say it, laziness, that’s perfectly okay. But then stop complaining that these evil job-listers won’t recognize and appropriately reward your stellar wordsmithing skills—skills which, like that McD’s hiring manager, they’re happy to have—heck, why not?—but don’t need, and hence, will be unwilling to pay for.

Oh, and as for other crazy conditions some of these listers ask for (e.g., free samples, on on-call 24/7, etc.), can you blame them? Given that writers, in droves, have already established their willingness—heck, eagerness—to be abused financially, it’s only natural to assume they’ll happily prostrate themselves again and again.

No, that’s not exactly enlightened behavior on their part, but they’re simply reacting to the prevailing reality. In other words, in this scenario—no one abuses you. You allow yourself to be abused. And frankly, the sooner you realize and internalize that, the sooner you’ll be making the money you feel you truly “deserve” to make.

Yes, I know there’s been some “rate fallout” in better-paying segments of writing, but I hear daily from writers having great years, some their best ever, and getting rates well above $100 an hour (and even more getting $75+). Bottom line, if you want to believe the whole industry is in the toilet, that’s your right, but it’s not the truth.

That’s my take. What’s yours?

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 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.

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.

Instead of Just Sharing “What You Do” with Clients, Share “Who You Are”…

I went to a networking function recently, and struck up a conversation with a middle-aged gentleman who’d recently moved to Atlanta from Minneapolis. He offered event-production services including light/sound design, DJ’ing, and more.

Since his business often involved subcontracting—especially his DJ business—we got to talking about his experiences hiring people in Atlanta versus the upper Midwest. He said he found those he hired in Atlanta to be less professional and reliable than those back home (something I’ve heard many times before). At my prompting, he shared an example…

He’d hired a guy to handle one of his DJ gigs (a wedding reception) since he had several going on one night. At the initial meeting with his client, she was clear that while she was open to all kinds of danceable popular music, she wanted no rap music with vulgar lyrics. He spelled this out to his sub and figured that was that. Well.

After the event, he got a call from the client explaining that, while generally speaking, the evening had gone well, exactly what she didn’t want to happen, happened: his sub had “gone rogue” and played a few offensive songs. When he confronted the guy—with whom he been crystal clear—the sub had no good excuse beyond a lame, “I didn’t think it was a big deal.” Huh?

But it was what he did about it that spoke volumes about who he was. After his client explained what happened, he apologized profusely and told her he was immediately, and with no questions asked, refunding her entire fee for the service (which she hadn’t asked him to do).

When he spoke to the sub, he told him that because of his actions, he’d returned the client’s money in full, adding that he’d never be hiring the sub again, but that he was going to pay him in full, just so that he couldn’t say—to anyone who’d listen—that he’d been cheated.

His telling of the story was delivered in a steady, low-key, matter-of-fact tone—free of theatrics and with little emotion. Just the way it was. In the wake of it, I found myself racking my brain to try and think of ways to hire this guy for something—anything—or to steer work his way.

We’d actually gotten into very little detail about the services he offered, but it didn’t matter. Something told me—as I’d wager it would tell anyone—that if this was an example of his business ethics, his actual services would be top-notch as well.

In revealing how he conducted business, he made an infinitely more compelling case for hiring him than a pitch about his services would ever have accomplished. Which, of course, got me thinking about how this maps onto our world of commercial freelancing—or that of any other free agent out there.

Yes, any prospective commercial copywriting client needs to know what you do, how good your copywriting skills are and how you work, and those things by themselves have been enough to land many gigs for many commercial freelancers.

Yet, seeking opportunities to share who you are and how you conduct yourself as a businessperson—in that same low-key, matter-of-fact way he exhibited, as opposed to grandstanding—can quickly move a future client from pondering taking the next step to putting you to work as soon as possible. It’s in the details about you, your life, what you believe, etc., that people get the chance to “take your measure.”

Arguably, this is another example of features versus benefits. Explaining what you do, how you work and even how strong your skills are, is all about you: features. But, sharing who you are and how you conduct business is benefits: it shows the client exactly what they’ll be getting—someone in whom they can trust and have confidence. That’s pretty powerful stuff.

This can be tricky to pull off, of course. He’d never have shared what he did—and thereby reveal his immense strength of character—had I not prompted him with my questions. But realizing what a powerful reaction I had to it, had me think of ways to harness this idea.

In many ways it’s nothing more than just being and sharing yourself, but given our natural human tendency to compartmentalize—business here, personal there—it can be challenging. But, I say it’s worth exploring.

1) Have you had similar experiences, where you were able to share yourself with a commercial freelancing prospect and have that seal the deal?

2) OR, through a similar character-revealing experience, were you able to take the relationship with an existing copywriting client to a much deeper level of trust, confidence and more business?

3) What are some ways to pull this off in a genuine way, so it doesn’t look like it’s being done for affect?

4) Any other thoughts ideas or 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.