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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.

Got a Guest Post for The Well-Fed Writer Blog? (Now Three Years Old!)

Okay, so I tried this waaaaaaay back when, shortly after the blog’s launch – asking for guest posts. Got a few submissions from my fellow commercial freelancers, but after a while, things sort of fizzled out. And yours truly had to load that big blog burden back on my shoulders. I know, get out your violins, right? 😉

But seriously, I’d like to revisit this idea. Why? Because over the past three years (almost to the day – we launched on 3/30/08), we’ve developed a pretty extraordinary commercial writing “master mind” here. I’m happy to say, this blog has made its mark in that time, and has enjoyed great participation, with an average of ~25 comments per post! Compared with typical copywriting blogs, that’s a smokin’ number. So, thanks to all of you!

I’ve kept the blog frequency low: about twice monthly (heck, it usually takes 7-10 days to work through the commentary on any given post). That said, I’d love to start posting weekly, and to do that, I really need your help.

After all, The Well-Fed Writer approach has always been collaborative. My books, ezine, knowledgebase, the new Partner Pantry, and yes the blog, wouldn’t have been possible without the countless stories, insights, inquiries and experiences from commercial writers across the country and the globe. I’m just one guy, with one limited set of commercial copywriting experiences. What could you share?

Perhaps a prospecting strategy that’s borne some serious fruit over the years?

An unusual market (if you’re willing to reveal it)?

A particularly great success story – with a lesson attached?

A fabulous tip that’s made you more efficient, better networked or more profitable?

An insight into the business that’s made a huge difference for you?

Anything else to share that can help commercial writers make more money, have greater professional fulfillment, or enjoy a higher quality of life?

And keep in mind, you don’t have to be a seasoned freelance copywriting veteran. Had an experience that taught you something and enhanced your career in some way – something that others would benefit from? I don’t care if you started your commercial freelancing career a few months ago; let’s hear it!

Guest posts should be 400-800 words. And you know our drill: real-world stories and experiences are best. And of course, please include questions at the end to turn it into a subject with “legs” – one that can spawn a rich discussion.

What’s in it for you? Besides the warm fuzzy feeling you’ll get from helping your fellow commercial freelancers? Not enough? How about raising your profile in the eyes of your peers? More? Geez, tough crowd… 😉

Seriously, if you’ve got a book, ebook, ezine, report, program, service, blog or web site you want to promote, I welcome your promo copy at the end of the piece.

The first three years have been fabulous – yielding a mighty impressive body of work covering subjects across the commercial writing spectrum. I’d love to see where we can take it during the next three years, and beyond.

Got a blog post idea? Post the particulars here, as a comment, or email me at peter at wellfedwriter dot com.

An Ode to “Good Clients” (i.e., Virtually All of Mine…)

I just got off the phone with one of my favorite commercial writing clients – someone who embodies what I like about most of my clients: she always thinks of me first when writing comes up (who wouldn’t love that?); values my contributions; respects me and my process; gives me enough time, attention, and input to do my job well; never balks at my project bids, and makes sure I get paid promptly.

And yes, most of my clients over the years have been like her. Sure, even the greatest client has their quirks and minuses. After all, we’re still dealing with human beings here. One is hard to reach and often doesn’t return calls. Another can be a bit of a micro-manager, though backs down graciously when it’s gently pointed out. Yet another may be a little scattered in meetings. But, all in all, small stuff.

So, needless to say, I was a bit taken aback by an email I got recently from a budding commercial writer recently, discouraged about this commercial writing field of ours. Based on what he’d read on the blog, he wrote:

“The message I get is more or less as follows: “Yes, you can make great money, there’s plenty of work, but most of your clients will suck – kind of like the so-called ‘colleagues’ you have if you’re employed full time.”

Hmmmm. Never really considered that the blog was presenting, perhaps, a skewed perspective of our business. Though, as I explained to him, by definition, the blog addresses issues and challenges common to commercial freelancers, and as such, often focuses on the “problem children” amongst our clients. After all, people don’t need much help dealing with ideal clients, or all the things that go right.

Yet, the blog’s often-necessary focus isn’t The Story of the copywriting field. At least, it’s not been mine. And in the relatively rare cases when my commercial copywriting clients haven’t fit the above description, some haven’t hired writers before, and perhaps I’ve failed to communicate properly, or clearly outline terms and expectations. Sure, we’ve all had a few jerks, but for me anyway, those types have absolutely been the exception, not the rule.

The fact that, overwhelmingly, I’ve had good clients, is largely a function of this commercial freelancing field of ours. Assuming you’re targeting the right prospects, you’ll be landing a higher-caliber breed of client (than say, the clients I often hear about from my magazine-writer friends), and that’ll yield good client experiences.

Case in point: in my 18+ years as a copywriter, I’ve never once been stiffed by a client. Not ever. And I can count the slow-pay episodes on the fingers of one hand. I’d challenge any non-commercial writers to make the same claims. We’re just dealing with a better class of client (or probably more to the point: corporations have healthier budgets than publications do, which makes payment challenges a non-issue).

So, who are the right prospects? They’re professional, busy, high performing and exacting. They intimately understand the difference that professional copywriting can make in their messaging, their value proposition, and ultimately, their bottom line. They have the resources to invest, and – this is key – for them, the right outcome trumps price. And when you find them, this business can be a lot of fun.

And yes, I DO know that when you’re starting out, sometimes you have to put up with more…stuff (though still less than other writing avenues) than later on. But if you’re in that place, know that as you become more established, the quality of your clients will rise – mainly because, at that point, you can afford to cut some loose.

So, I want to hear your stories of great clients – to underscore that they’re the norm, not the anomaly. I want to hear about those people who make this business worthwhile, challenging (in a good way), enjoyable, and rewarding – both creatively and financially (okay, we don’t always get creative fulfillment, but I’ve found it happens far more than the uninitiated might imagine…).

If your situation is similar to mine, good for you. If, however, most of your clients make you crazy; don’t give you the respect and consideration you deserve; haggle over fees and need repeated reminders to take care of invoices, know that that’s not typical. AND, it might be time to consider a phased “house-cleaning.”

Tell us about your favorite client(s). What do you like about them?

Do you have a favorite “Clients-Behaving-Wonderfully” story?

Do most of your clients fall into the “good-guy” category?

If so, how did (do) you make sure that’s the case?

What’s a Commercial Freelancer to Do about Health Insurance?

After getting yet another email a few weeks back from a reader, suggesting a post on health insurance for freelancers, figured it was time. I know this is a hot button issue for any commercial freelancer, often looming as one of the key issues giving salaried employees/aspiring commercial writers pause when considering the leap to self-employment.

If you’re single and in good health (like I am on both counts), health insurance really shouldn’t hold you back from the commercial freelancing life – psychologically or logistically. As I see it, there are far bigger boogeymen (usually imaginary if you’ve planned well) facing free agents like us. Will I go broke? Will I lose my house? Will I be reduced to standing on a corner with a “Will Write Copy for Food” sign? Nonetheless, it’s still one more thing to consider.

Since 1997, I’ve used Kaiser Permanente. I rarely step foot in the place (but you’re paying for peace of mind), but over the years, have been pretty impressed with their offering, services and thoroughness.

I’m not crazy about the fact that, like clockwork, my premiums go up every year by roughly 15+ percent, but all in all, I still pay a not-unreasonable $325 a month. Co-pays for doctor visits are $30, and a surprising number of other services are covered or subject to co-pays (as opposed to coming out of pocket to satisfy your deductible).

Women will typically pay more for health insurance than men of the same age, but depending on the plan, and the deductible and co-insurance level chosen, a single person of either gender can generally find a manageable plan out there.

And with some of the new clauses of the healthcare bill, you’ve got more protections than may have been the case in the past. And do NOT try to drag me into a debate on THAT issue; ain’t gonna happen. I will ignore you and delete your comments. No hablo ingles…;)

For those pondering going without – a temptation for singles in good health and feeling bullet-proof, I wouldn’t even consider it. Not worth it. One accident or illness and you’re in deep doo-doo.

And yes, if you have a family, it’s going to cost a good bit more. Not every freelance commercial copywriter has a gainfully employed and benefits-laden spouse to cover that base. But a quick look at Kaiser’s plans turned up plans in the range of $600-800+/month for a family of four, depending on options chosen (don’t take these figures to the bank; that’s Georgia. Your mileage may vary, etc, etc.).

Not great news, but not necessarily a deal-killer, either. Remember, stay in a job you hate, just for the bennies, and your health will likely suffer. Sort of defeats the purpose.

For the uninitiated, here’s a basic overview of an HMO. As a member of Kaiser, getting insurance on my own, I’m put in with a certain group of subscribers. I have no choice in the matter – that’s the nature of the HMO model – and I don’t know who they are (i.e., we don’t catch up for coffee…).

The nice thing about the HMO group model is that individual consumption of services doesn’t directly affect one’s rates. That’s good news and bad news. Good news: if you use a lot of services in a given year, you won’t be singled out for a skyrocketing rate increase. Bad news: even if you don’t use it at all, your rates will still go up every year.

A few resources:

For more information on health insurance (as well as life and disability insurance), click here.

To find a health insurance agent in your area, click here.

For insurance plans for creative folk, click here.

Assuming you don’t have a spouse with benefits, what do you do for health insurance?

If you have a family and had to get insurance on your own, how did you go about finding the best deal?

Any good health insurance resources you’ve come across for the self-employed?

Any strategies you’ve employed to get the most from your health care dollars?

This Writer’s Landing a Ton of Work Doing What So Many Companies Need…

Caught up with a commercial writing chum of mine on the West Coast recently (we’ll call him Joe). He told me about all the work he’s landed with his latest client. So many good lessons for commercial writers in his story, I just had to share it.

Joe landed the client through a friend. Do your friends know what you do and your specialties within your profession? If not, they should…

Anyway, a marketing director with a one school of a larger university system (yes, I’m obscuring some identifying details) mentioned to a mutual friend that she needed some proofreading and editing done, and Joe’s friend suggested him. Joe and the client spoke, hit it off on the phone, quickly realizing that he lived in the client’s hometown. The proofing/editing gig ending up falling through, but the good rapport they’d developed had the client call Joe back when some new work came up.

It’s important to note that her hiring Joe was arbitrary and based on little more than he was a writer she’d crossed paths with and with whom she’d hit it off (Remember: clients don’t want to spend a lot of time hunting for a writer). But, much to the client’s delight, Joe’s background – which they hadn’t previously discussed in depth – was a perfect match for the new gig: helping with their new content marketing strategy, to which they’d committed a healthy budget. CM is becoming a popular approach for companies trying to position themselves as “thought leaders” in a particular industry.

Here’s how it works… It all comes down to searchability: helping people find you via Internet searches. You start by determining what kinds of information people are looking for via Google searches, in the relevant subject areas (in this case, information related to the school’s mission). Then, by crafting and posting high-quality content that satisfies those searches, the school draws a steady stream of traffic to its virtual doorstep, and in the end, helps support the school’s goal of increasing enrollment.

Joe’s content-generating efforts are going well enough that the university’s now pondering duplicating the strategy in several other discipline-specific schools in their system. And Joe’s in the wonderful position of recommending friends who are subject-matter experts in those arenas. Given the trust the school has in him (coupled with the desire, as discussed, to quickly identify resources) his fellow writers are basically shoo-ins.

Do fellow commercial freelancers know your strong suits, especially when they differ from theirs?

And to get your wheels turning a bit, what’s cool about a content marketing strategy is the broad array of businesses for which the approach would make sense. In addition to educational institutions of all stripes, how about medical/health practices of every kind (GP’s, veterinarians, chiropractors, alternative health practitioners, massage therapists, acupuncturists, nutritionists, etc)? How about law firms, financial advisors and accounting firms? Which just scratches the surface…

Interior design firms, flooring companies, landscape architects, plant nurseries, building contractors – heck, we could be here all day. Every single one could boost their search-engine rankings and marketplace stature above their competition, by creating solid, relevant content related to what they do, and for which they’ve determined people are searching, and which will bring those people to their door.

You can probably think of a handful of companies in your area that are doing this already? Who else could be a candidate?

Any current or ex-journos out there? Content development could be a wonderful avenue by which to transition to commercial copywriting (if that’s your goal), or at least help craft a healthy mix of editorial and commercial work. It’s not straight editorial; it will usually have a soft marketing slant, but truly soft.

Oh, Joe told me he also landed, thanks to a basic familiarity with social media marketing (Facebook, Twitter), a $1200+/month retainer to execute those components for the school. He’s the first to say he doesn’t consider himself a social media pro, but given how few writers out there today can claim to be, his skills are more than adequate.

Finally, in a serendipitous twist of fate, in the midst of all this, a government agency put out a report about the future of the field for which the school trained graduates. One of their recommendations? More education for those considering the field. Could there be a more perfect dovetail with the school’s mission?

Joe came across the report in his research, and suggested he do a four-part summary of its main points, simplifying and encapsulating the highlights, and have the school post it on their web site. The school loved the idea, and he’d just landed another roughly $1500 worth of work. So, he saw an opening for work that the school hadn’t considered but was happy he’d brought up, and more than happy to fund.

It gets better. Related entities and organizations found this solid summary on the school’s site, ended up linking to it, further boosting the SEO love coming the school’s way already. Over time, the school earns a well-deserved reputation as that thought leader, and a gateway to high-value content on a particular subject.

Getting any ideas from reading this?

Have you picked up any content marketing work?

Can you share how it unfolded, and/or general thoughts on the strategy?

Are you seeing more call for content development amongst your clients?

Ever “suggested” your way (as Joe did) to additional paying work, not on a client’s original to-do-list?