Posts

“Hire Other Writers! Make $25-50+ an Hour for Doing Almost Nothing!” (if you’re really lucky…)

A month doesn’t go by that I don’t get an email or two from a (clearly marketing-averse) commercial writer proposing, in various and sundry versions, the following:

“Since I’m sure you get plenty of overflow commercial freelancing work (not really, actually…), I’m wondering if you’ve ever thought about farming it out to others for a lower rate than you charge, and keeping the difference. If you do anything like that, I’d love to be considered…”, etc., etc., etc.

Ah yes, subcontracting. I’ve never gone down this road, but when I focus on the best possible outcome (i.e., solid, reliable subs, steady work, and $25-50 an hour for every hour they bill, with minimal work on my part ), it can sound awfully tempting.

Though, it’s when I think of the worst-case scenario that I come crashing down to earth: Flaky, unreliable subs whose work you have to redo, and for that same $25-50 an hour. AND, in most cases, you’re handling all payments—from clients and to contractors—and all that entails). Makes me tired thinking about it. Pass.

I know it can work out well. The key, of course, is to find those totally “count-on-able” resources happy to work for less (and often far less) than the going rate in return for steady work they don’t have to chase.

In TWFW (p. 230), I share a cool story of a freelance commercial writer out in Montana who did subcontracting right, waking up one day and realizing she’d just made $4K off her subs in the prior month. Sweet.

Recently, got this email from a reader:

Thank you again for your book and the regular encouragement you send out. My writing career has really taken off, and I’m faced with a (good) dilemma.

I’ve found my commercial writing niche. I have regular clients I ghostwrite for each week, and they’d all like more of my time. I only work part time, as I have school-age kids. But, I hate to keep turning down steady gigs!

What are your thoughts about subcontracting out ghostwriting gigs (i.e., ghostwriting for a ghostwriter). Given that I’ve signed NDA’s (non-disclosure agreements) with most of my clients, I can’t see how this would work. Just wondering if you’ve have any creative solutions or ideas.

I wrote back:

I don’t have a lot of experience with subcontracting, so I can’t give you first-hand advice here. That said, your situation may not be as hopeless as you think.

If you were upfront with the client about how you were thinking of taking on a few writers to help you, ones you’d be personally overseeing every step of the way—they may not have a problem with it. Course, if they’re very attached to YOU and your skills and expertise in particular, it could make it trickier.

But again, make it clear you’ll be keeping very tight control over the creation of the content, and it can go a long way to easing their concerns. Also, if you couch it with the verbiage like, “I’m toying with the idea of…”, it gives you room to back-pedal, if indeed they express serious concerns about it.

And I really don’t think the NDA’s would be that big a problem. You could simply have your contractor sign them as well while explaining to the client that you will make it very clear to them how important non-disclosure is in our industry.

Subcontracting can be a tricky proposition, no question. It can also work out really well, if you find really good talented and reliable people to work with. If you don’t, obviously you can end up spending more time doing the same work than if you’d done it yourself.

Have you ever subcontracted out work—on a small or large scale?

If so, was it a good or bad experience?

What lessons have you learned from doing it?

Any other thoughts?

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 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.

Living This Crucial Sales/Marketing Principle Will Make You a Better Copywriter

I ran this piece below as a feature this month in the March edition of The Well-Fed E-PUB. But I wanted to also post it here, so I could get feedback from all of you (and partly because I’m on an extended trip away, and want to make my life easier…;) Would love to hear your thoughts!

Websites that are wildly unclear about what the company does or sells. How-to guides that assume far too much knowledge and understanding on the part of the reader. Brochures and sales sheets that leave the reader with more questions than answers. Emails that have you scratching your head as to their meaning.

Pretty much every day occurrences for all of us, right? And at the heart of all of them—and many other scenarios—is a principle so important, I unhesitatingly add it as #4 to the big three of sales/marketing (IMHO, anyway): “Who’s the audience?”; The Features/Benefits Equation (arguably, this new one is related to these first two); and USP (Unique Selling Proposition), all outlined in detail in Chapter 3 of The Well-Fed Writer.

What is this foundational principle? The Curse of Knowledge.

While I first encountered the idea of TCOK in the wonderful book, “Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die,” (Chip and Dan Heath; buy it), according to Wikipedia, “The effect was first described in print by the economists Colin Camerer, George Loewenstein and Martin Weber, though they give original credit for suggesting the term to Robin Hogarth.”

Its definition (also from Wikipedia)? “The curse of knowledge is a cognitive bias, according to which, better-informed people find it extremely difficult to think about problems from the perspective of lesser-informed people.”

Understanding and deeply internalizing this principle will pay huge dividends for your commercial writing practice (or any business you’re in) in how you present your business to the world, how you interact with clients, and how you help clients market their businesses.

Why? Because the effect of this principle is at the root of so many poorly executed communications materials, as well as marketing/advertising campaigns in general.

It can potentially rear its ugly, clueless head in:

1) How you showcase your own copywriting business on your web site, or in your marketing efforts—whether direct mail, email, cold calling, etc.

2) How you communicate with clients and prospects while working on projects.

3) How your clients communicate with their prospects and clients, with you potentially aiding, abetting and exacerbating the problem with your copy.

What’s the magic incantation to lift this curse? Simple. Not easy, but simple. Any time you need to successfully convey information to someone else (i.e., in all the scenarios described above, and, for that matter, any other time you’re communicating with anyone else for any reason), ask yourself this question:

If I knew absolutely nothing about this subject (very possible), was in the middle of doing something else when it crossed my path (highly likely), and had a short attention span (a given), would I “get it” quickly?

And if not, rework it until you can say yes.

And no, your audience won’t always be totally lacking in knowledge about a subject, and may in fact, be able to devote more than a miniscule sliver of their attention to the piece of writing in front of them, but it’s far wiser to assume they’re ignorant and distracted than the reverse.

It’s not easy to put yourself in a position of ignorance when, in fact, you are so close to something, but it’s an exceptionally valuable skill to develop.

Can you share any real-world examples you’ve seen of TCOK in action?

Any tips on cultivating the ability to view all writing with “fresh eyes”?

If you’re familiar with TCOK, how have you put it to work in your copywriting practice?

If you weren’t familiar with it, how can you envision applying an understanding of it to your business?

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.

Can You Share Some Examples of *Useful* Commercial Freelancing Jargon?

Got an email recently from a budding copywriter with a big worry. She wrote:

What is the language of marketing? What kinds of jargon can I expect when I talk to marketing execs? I am concerned that in meetings or conference calls, I might find myself up against a foreign language of sorts because I never worked in a corporate marketing environment.

My first inclination was to simply say, “Not really a big issue in freelance copywriting. It’s not really like a different language, so don’t worry too much about it.”

But then, I got to thinking about it and realized that, when you’ve been in the middle of a particular world for 20 years (this month, in fact…), it’s easy to imagine that it’s not all that complex. And bottom line, it really isn’t that terribly complex, but it’s not completely transparent, either.

And right about the time I got that question, I received an email from a new commercial freelancing client, with the background information on a new project he wanted me to quote. And in that email, he told me what files he’d attached, which included “the wires.” Commence head-scratching. Huh? Wires? What are the wires?

He was with a marketing/design firm, and after clicking through the source material, I realized that one of the documents was a line-drawing mockup of the website they’re creating for their client, and for which they need new copy. That six-page mockup with all the little boxes, arrows and greeking*—is known as the “wires.”

*(Oh, that’s placeholder copy a designer inserts in spaces where copy is needed, but hasn’t been written yet. It usually reads, “Lorum ipsum dolor sit amet…” and a bunch of other, well, Latin, actually. So, the name’s a misnomer, but it’s still “greeking.” And two Latin-to-English translation sites are telling me that the five-word phrase above means…well, “Thong team…” Hmmmm. No clue. Remember, it’s placeholder copy.)

So, “wires.” Learn something new every day. So, maybe there’s a little more to the jargon in the commercial copywriting business than I’d like to believe. Of course, a couple of standard phrases come to mind: collateral, for instance: the term for various and sundry marketing communications pieces beyond ad copy that are part of a larger campaign—things like brochures, sales sheets, case studies, etc.

Then there’s the “creative brief.” Meaning, the document you’ll receive from clients (i.e., an agency, design firm, or the marketing department of the end-user themselves) describing the scope of the project in question, what the objective is, what the deliverables are (there’s another word: “deliverables,” meaning the final end products that need to be created, and which you’ve been entrusted to write), the timetable, contact people (a.k.a. “subject matter experts”—a.k.a. SME’s, and yes, actually pronounced “Smee’s”—yet another term!), etc.

All that said, I still maintain that, even if you come from a background completely different from commercial writing, that it won’t be anywhere near the same as, say, visiting a foreign country where you don’t speak the language.

Over time, I learned all these (and many other) words by osmosis, but my overriding recollection is definitely not of one embarrassing moment after another as clients exchanged looks, loosely translated as, “Where did this guy come from?” Not so.

So, that’s a few that occurred to me off the top of my head, but I’m sure there are a ton of others I’m missing right now. So let’s help out this nervous newbie, and share some of the jargon you’ve come across in your freelance commercial writing travels.

And, for the record, I’m not talking about the silly jargon that’s the brunt of jokes about “corporate-speak”—things like mission-critical, value-added, at the end of the day, outside the box, leverage, etc.

Yes, our fledgling freelancer should familiarize herself with those as well (here’s a pretty good list), but I’m talking about the useful terms native to this field of ours.

What are some of the terms, phrases, jargon, that you’ve encountered in the course of your copywriting practice?

In your opinion, how hard is it for a newbie to get a handle on all the vernacular? Did you feel at all confused or out of your depth when you first started out in the business?

Are you aware of any resources/glossaries listing a lot of these terms (I know, I should know some…)?

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