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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.

Ever Landed Copywriting Gigs in Unusual Ways (Like These Folks Have)?

In the November E-PUB (here and adapted below), I wrote a piece about finding commercial writing jobs in unlikely places. Thought I’d make it blog post, in order to collect your stories about landing copywriting work in cool and unplanned ways.

I love it when work comes from unexpected directions. In The Well-Fed Writer, I talk about picking up a big marketing brochure after chatting up a guy over chips and dip at a party.

And a few years back, I landed a year’s worth of commercial freelancing work from a big charity (probably $10K, all told), after a serendipitous chat I had with a friend in another social setting. We knew each other, but not professionally, and once she discovered what I did, it was a few short steps (and yes, beating out the competition) to a pile of work.

Back in the June E-PUB, I ran a fun piece about a commercial writer making contact with a prospect while playing online Scrabble!

I recalled all this when I got a note from another freelance copywriter, who wrote:

On and off, I erroneously get phone calls meant for another local business. Today the sales/marketing person called me to see what could be done to resolve this. As we were talking, I asked him what their business does. They do tech stuff: web design, databases, maintenance, support, etc. I have a lot of tech writing experience, so I told him a bit about my freelance commercial writing business. He said they’re always looking for good writers, so I’ll be staying in touch.

You just never know when you might run across a potential lead, even in an unconventional way! It’s good to think outside the box and always be open to opportunities that might randomly come along. I was reminded today that potential business really is everywhere around us, and that when we just put the word out about what we do, the work somewhat easily comes our way (assuming we have good writing skills, of course…).

And while it hasn’t turned into work for her yet, to find, through a wrong number, a prospect who regularly uses copywriters? That’s not only a real long shot, but a golden lead as well, and one well worth following up on.

And she’s right. We often get so focused on prospecting only in the “right” places, that we overlook opportunities right under our noses. Doesn’t mean we should turn into obnoxious self-promoters, aggressively hitting up our friends at every turn. But keeping our radar up for opportunities in non-business settings, is never a bad idea.

Have you picked up work in unconventional ways? If so, can you share some stories?

Do you keep your radar up when you’re in non-prospecting settings?

Have you landed work from someone you’ve known a long time, but never in a professional capacity? (friend, relative, someone at the gym, a club you belong to, etc.)?

Any strategies you’ve used to keep you alert to hidden opportunities?

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 Guilty of “Esoterrorism”?

Got this great guest post from Wisconsin FLCW Clayton Grow. Great message certainly for all the commercial freelancers writing for technical clients, but really applicable to ANY of us. Every industry has its jargon and corporate-speak, and even if it’s not technical, it can still be just as incoherent to an uninitiated reader. And that’s the key – always know who the audiences are – all of them. Many may be fine with “inside” language, but if others will be reading it who aren’t, you need to factor that in. After all, the whole point is to make things clearer, not muddier. Or as the tongue-in-cheek saying reminds, “Eschew Obfuscation.” 😉 Enjoy!

Winning the War on Esoterrorism:
One Writer’s Efforts to Stamp Out Excessive Cleverness

When I suggested adding a sentence to a press release to explain why boiler short-cycling is such a bad thing for a hot water heating system, my commercial writing client looked at me a little dumbfounded. He said that any HVAC technician would know exactly why it’s a bad thing, so why should we waste our word count? Then we talked about how the readers of these press releases aren’t exclusively HVAC techs; they are also building owners and building operations committees. We agreed that all parties involved in the equipment purchasing process should be educated (or re-educated) on the urgency of installing equipment to prevent boiler short-cycling.

Engineers pride themselves on their ability to use appropriate jargon. If you’ve ever walked into a conversation between two engineers working in the same field, you might get the sense that they’re from a different planet. They use terms like “modulus of elasticity” and “liquid desiccant dehumidification” in places where most people would use words like “bendy” and “deodorant.”

This esoteric style of communication (a.k.a. “esoterrorism”) directed towards those “in the know” worked well for me as full-time engineer. But when I became a freelance copywriter, I quickly came to the realization—with the help of our very own Peter Bowerman—that most people that read my stuff don’t care how many fifty-dollar engineering terms I know. They need to grasp the details of my piece quickly and clearly, without having to pull out their engineering pocket reference guide.

So I made a personal pact to obliterate the obscure references in my work and directly demonstrate my intentions using clear, concise, reader-friendly language. To remind myself of my new resolve, I made myself a little motivational sign at my work station.*

This sign has helped me put myself in my readers’ shoes and stop trying to be the cleverest cat in the room. I write mainly for the engineering and construction industries, so my audience consists of building owners, contractors, developers and city officials, as well as engineers. It’s safe to say that a large majority of my audience is better off without the jargon and engineering humor, so the more I strive for clarity, the more effective I am as a writer.

Esoterrorism may not be a problem for most freelance writers, but I’m certain there are many writing for technical fields that may benefit from being constantly reminded to “be clear, not clever.” This new labor for limpidity has helped me to come up with new ways to improve my clients’ more technically dense material. When working on technical documents, I’ve suggested brief definitions to accompany some of the lesser-known terminology, and these suggestions have been welcomed and widely implemented.

In a proposal I edited and re-wrote for a wind farm contractor, one of the steps needed to attach the wind turbine base to the foundation read simply “torqueing and tensioning.” Because the gentlemen who provided me with this section of text had been erecting wind turbines for many years, he, of course, knew exactly what “torqueing and tensioning” meant, and felt no need to explain it further on the proposal.

But then we talked a little more about it and concluded that not everyone reviewing this proposal has witnessed the entire construction process of a wind turbine, and may have no idea what “torqueing and tensioning” is. So, I added a sentence explaining that proper torqueing and tensioning of the anchor bolts was critical to ensuring the concrete base didn’t crack under too much tensile stress. It didn’t make the proposal any more interesting, but it conveyed the contractor’s thorough understanding of wind turbine technology to the developer.

People working in specialized fields often forget that their knowledge is unique, and often needs to be explicitly explained to many of their readers. These readers are potential customers, who will be grateful for the information we impart.

*I actually put this sign up well before the recent news of events overseas, but I figured I’d jump at the chance to blend current events with some writing advice.

What are some examples of clarity you’ve suggested to your clients?

Do you have a unique way to remind yourself to be clear?

Has anyone personally thanked you for clarifying a challenging concept in a piece you’ve written?

Have you been guilty of “esoterrorism” in your writing?

About the author:
Clayton Grow put his engineering stamp in the drawer to help explain the world of engineering and construction to engineers and non-engineers alike. More info about this freelancer’s fight against esoterrorism at www.TheWritingEngineer.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.

Ad Agency’s Solution to Client Pulling Work In-House Sounds Like the Freelancer Model…

It’s inevitable in an economic downturn. Clients using pricey creative agencies dump them and pull the work in-house. OR outsource it, as we’ve happily discussed in this forum (and elsewhere: check out the GREENS course at this link) to a more economical, low-overhead writer and designer team.

Well, thanks again to commercial freelancer Robin Halcomb (who steered me to a cool resource I included in a comment on my last post) for bringing a most intriguing article to my attention. Entitled “In-house and Outsourced Aren’t the Only Options for Your Clients,” and penned by Sharon Napier, the piece first appeared in Advertising Age on 11/2/09.

The premise was simple – and one with all sorts of positive implications for folks like us. Napier, an ad agency professional, established the challenge:

Losing business because a client takes its work in-house can be a very frustrating challenge for a shop that’s put its heart and soul into coming up with innovative ideas. But what agency folks sometimes forget is that a client’s decision to go in-house usually isn’t driven by creativity or quality of work, but instead by the need for a new operating model, lower costs or faster turnaround. We didn’t want to stand by and watch our clients take that work in-house, nor was it in their best interest for us to try to force-fit it into our standard agency model.

Now, read this next part about her proposed solution to this quandary, and tell me if it doesn’t have a familiar ring…

So, a few years ago, we created a second model, one we call the “in-house outsource,” or studio model. How does it work? Like a traditional model, the clients have a dedicated team to serve their business, one that’s steeped in the client’s brand guidelines, process and work flow. However, for the studio model, the process is streamlined.

There are no account executives or trafficking positions; clients work directly with a designer who is responsible for every aspect of the project, from the first request to the work getting out the door, much like having an on-staff designer. The studio team works as an agency within an agency — it has its own leader, its own process, its own job description and career path.

Sounds a whole lot like a simple freelance copywriter/graphic designer team, no? Napier describes a model that meets a client’s need for lower costs and faster turnaround – something many clients in our world have been getting from talented writer/designer teams for a long time.

So, these creative pros know what clients want and have started bending their business model to deliver just that. With us? No bending required. That’s already who we are. And this new evolution on the part of agencies just reaffirms – in case you had any doubts – the fundamental legitimacy of the freelance model.

Of course, Napier’s premise appears to cover several scenarios: 1) clients pulling in-house ALL the business they’re doing with an agency; or 2) clients pulling certain pieces that many agencies long ago deemed not worth pursuing.

As I’ve pointed out in The Well-Fed Writer, while we commercial writers are unlikely to pick up the high-profile branding work from Fortune 500 firms that’s been the domain of Big Advertising (mainly because, let’s face it, the typical writer/designer team can’t deliver everything a full-service ad agency can…), we can certainly cover the, 1) the “collateral” projects agencies don’t want or aren’t set up to handle; and 2) branding work for relatively smaller firms with the bucks to hire that agency, but which are now tightening their belts.

Of course, Napier’s unspoken message – one that can’t help but elicit a smile – is this: Given the client exodus many in our industry have experienced of late, we can’t afford to be as elitist as before. Translation: We need to figure out how to hang on to this business we previously turned up our noses at. And give them credit for adapting successfully, as Napier’s firm certainly has.

Though you have to wonder whether Napier’s clients, once they get a taste of the lower-priced, streamlined business model on some of their work, don’t start wondering – however illogically, perhaps – why that same model can’t be applied to their other work. Something we commercial freelancers, given our cornerstone value proposition, will never have to wrestle with.

Have you run into a similar scenario with your business?

Have you benefited from a client’s belt-tightening to replace a more expensive creative resource?

Have you approached creative firms (e.g., ad agencies, marketing design firms, etc.), to pick up work they don’t want to deal with (and haven’t adapted to be able to handle)?

Is this giving you ideas you hadn’t previously considered?