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This Fallacy Trips Up a Lot of Writers (and Limits Their Income…)

I got this email recently from a newly-minted commercial freelancer:

I recently quoted a tri-fold brochure and three cover letters for a local university. I gave a range of $650 to $735 for the project, but my proposal was turned down because of budget. Could you offer any advice about pricing writing jobs that fit with the going rates in a particular area (we’re a smaller market than Atlanta).

Okay, several points worth making here:

I don’t think she can come to any conclusions about the opportunity, try to imagine “what I could’ve done differently,” or alter her pricing strategy, based on ONE possible gig. If anything, $700-ish for that scope of work seems on the low side to me.

She (or anyone starting out) needs dozens of situations like this to gather any useful knowledge. One is meaningless, except as a single brick in your wall of experience as a commercial writer. One has to make a TON of contacts to get to critical mass and have things start happening.

But for today’s discussion, here’s the most important point…

There’s no such thing as some set copywriting pricing for all copywriting clients; that implies all clients are reading off some “standard price sheet,” and of course, they aren’t.

Yes, it’s good to have some idea of ballparks when quoting rates in a particular market, but know there are different tiers of freelance commercial writing clients, all with different fee thresholds. Our not-easy job is to find those willing to pay the good rates (and that’s more likely to be in business than academia).

The discussion of “going rates” in any given area is related to my last blog post, “There IS No Copywriting Industry.” I’d planned to include this with that post, but felt it deserved its own dedicated post.

I routinely get asked about “going rates” in the commercial writing field. If there’s a “Copywriting Industry,” then there’s some “going rates” for that industry, right? Sure, what a commercial writer can command in NYC is likely more than they’ll get in Peoria, but the longer I’m in the business, the more subjective I believe rates to be.

Add in a wired world that invites us to prospect anywhere, and it makes the idea of “going rates” even more irrelevant.

Most importantly (see the sidebar, “Debunking the Myth of “Standard” Writers Rates…” on p. 171 of The Well-Fed Writer for the fleshed-out version of this idea):

Following some “industry pricing guide” or the anecdotal advice of other commercial copywriters (even those in your area) will give you, at best, only a partial view of the rates-picture in your area.

Just because a copywriter or guide says you can “expect” to make $ ___ per hour—given a certain experience level or geographic are—while useful as a ballpark guide, does that mean that’s all a copywriter can hope to earn at those levels, and in that locale?

Absolutely not. ALL it means is that some copywriters are making those rates, and some clients are unwilling to pay more. Sure, many clients think $50 an hour is too much to pay even a pro, but there are also plenty who won’t flinch at $125 an hour. And I’m working for a bunch of them.

What’s sad is that tons of talented commercial freelancers (and yes, you need to have the chops to be able to consistently land high rates), are making pathetically low hourly rates for NO other reason than that’s what some guide told them they can expect to make at their experience level, and because they’re working for clients who pay no more than that. Just because it’s your world doesn’t mean it’s THE world.

Meanwhile, other writers who never got that memo (like me when I started out, and perhaps those who read my books), and don’t realize that they shouldn’t be able to command higher rates, are doing just that. All because they looked in different places, believed different people, and found those willing to pay more.

Heck, land a few entrepreneur-type clients with big budgets—which I’ve happily done quite a bit over the years—along with big egos that drive them to pay high rates for “the best,” and all discussions of “standard rates” go out the window. When people like that routinely pay, say, $400+ an hour for legal services, $125 an hour for a professional writer will make them downright giddy.

One caveat: Someone starting out with little experience and armed with the concept of “going rates” can end up deluding themselves into thinking they should be able to ask for and get the “standard rates,” when they’ll likely have to work up to them.

Sort of a “Duh,” but more commercial copywriting experience (in general) will boost what you can ask for, and more industry-specific writing experience will boost it even more (assuming you’re pursuing work in that industry).

Just know that the concept of rates is far more fluid than we’re often led to believe, and sticking to “conventional wisdom” can limit income potential significantly.

Have you ever used others’ guidelines to determine your copywriting rates, only to land a client that defied rates expectation? In other words…

Have you ever had an “Aha!” moment when you got far higher than you expected to, and henceforth rewired your thinking about what you could ask for?

Have you had a sense that you’re shortchanging yourself when it comes to rates?

Any other thoughts or ideas on the subject?

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.

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.

Why Estimating Copywriting Projects Is Like Learning to Play Tennis…

I got an email from a commercial writer recently voicing a common concern:

The one sticking point I keep running into is not knowing how many hours a project will take me to complete (and the obvious quoting struggle related to that). Do you know any resources where I can find that information? By trolling other writer’s sites, I can sometimes assume an average if they list their hourly fee along with project fees, but it’s not always consistent from writer to writer.

Project estimating. A common dilemma, no doubt. And a serviceable analogy is learning a sport like tennis. If you ever started taking tennis lessons when you knew very little about it to begin with, there seemed to be all these things you had to remember: foot placement, keeping your racket level, stepping into each shot, keeping your eye on the ball, following through completely, and about 10 more.

To a beginner, it all seemed overwhelming. How in the world am I supposed to remember all this, much less do them all well? But, if you stuck to it, it all became second nature, automatic.

Same thing here. You’re new at commercial writing. How can you expect to be an expert at it right out of the gate? It’s like a tennis novice wanting to know the “secret” to being to do all those things perfectly the first time he sets foot on the court. Just not realistic.

I DO touch on some nuts-n-bolts about this in The Well-Fed Writer (p. 173). Here’s the Cliff Notes version (and DO check out the passage for a more detailed version):

Break a job down into its component parts: research, background reading, travel, meetings, brainstorming (a.k.a. “concepting”), interviewing, writing, and editing (you won’t have all these in every job). Then assign a time figure (i.e., X hours) to each category. Then multiply the total number of hours calculated by your hourly rate to get a flat fee estimate (which can be a range that varies by 10 to 15 percent—e.g., $1,500–$1,700, $3,600–$4,100, etc.).

(NOTE: What should your hourly rate be? Arrive at that number based on your experience level, and by asking fellow writers in your market what they charge. Or by calling ad agencies and design firms, which routinely hire copywriters, and as such, will have a very current idea of what writers in their market charge. And while you’ve got these folks on the phone, ask what they look for in a writer they pay X$ an hour.)

Don’t know how much will be involved in each component part? ASK the client. You can’t know how many meetings until you ask (OR until you make your preference known for, ideally, one, which is all you should need). You can’t know how you’ll be gathering your source material until you ask. You can’t know if there will be any interviews, background reading, or research until you ask. No one expects you to be clairvoyant.

Furthermore, no two brochures, direct mail campaigns, newsletters, case studies or web sites (or any other project) are the same. Take a marketing brochure. How many pages? What format? How will you get your source material? Every one is different. And questions are the only way to get accurate parameters.

Bottom line, learning accurate estimating is a function of both asking questions and gaining experience. Questions will only take you so far. Sure, you can break down a project into its component parts, and figure out exactly what will be involved, but assigning an amount of time to those individual components takes practice.

Just know you’ll probably get it wrong in the beginning—shooting too high or low, and hence, losing a bid, or eating hours on a project you do land. But, in time, with more and more projects under your belt, you’ll get good at it.

And a note about posting rates or a price list on one’s site. Neither ever struck me as a particularly good idea (but that’s just me). Posting an hourly rate—especially if it’s reasonably high—can scare off clients, who don’t have a sense of how many hours a given project will take, and may imagine the worst-case scenario.

Sure, you want to run off the wrong kinds of clients (the ones who want that brochure for $150), but listing your hourly rates can give pause to legitimate prospects as well. And here’s the clincher: good clients don’t expect to see rates posted.

Ditto for price lists. The kinds of clients we want to work with know that every project is different so posting a list of prices for different project types isn’t necessary. And as I note in TWFW, because you know that every project is different, you’d have to provide such a wide range of prices (e.g., “Marketing brochures: $500-$2500”) as to render that list pretty meaningless. I suggest skipping it.

What estimating advice/tips can you offer to those starting out?

What’s the process you follow to accurately quote a project?

Are questions as crucial in your estimating process as they are in mine?

Do you include a price list or hourly rate on your site? If not, is your thinking similar to mine? If you do, how has it worked 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.

Speak Up and Grow Your Commercial Writing Business…

About a month and a half before my holiday trip to Ohio this past December to visit family, I Googled “Ohio Writers Groups,” and found one right in my kin’s neighborhood, Western Ohio Writers Association. Shot an email to the executive director of the group (Gery Deer, also a commercial freelancer), letting him know I’d be in the area for the holidays, and would he be interested in exploring the possibility of an event. Absolutely, he replied.

(Funny sidebar if you’ll allow me a vanity moment: In my initial email, per my custom, I didn’t assume he knew who I was, introducing myself as the author of The Well-Fed Writer, etc., etc. Apparently unnecessary. He wrote back saying his wife had recently bought him my book, and he’d been carrying it around with him like a bible since then. Okay. That saved some explaining time…;)

Anyway, in fits and starts, the thing came together. Gery even tapped his long-cultivated network of local contacts and got me five minutes on TV on Dayton’s News at Noon show (slow news week, apparently…). We had 30+ in seats come show time, and all went swimmingly. Sold a small pile of books, possible commercial writing coaching business down the line, and left some goodwill in my wake – always the goal.

Sure, it’s easier for an author of a book targeted to a specific audience to put on events like this (especially with such an involved local ally as I had in this case). But remember this: what we commercial writers do – help businesses boost their bottom line through more effective marketing and communications materials, amongst other things – is something every business potentially needs.

By extension, any business/civic organization made up of businesspeople would be a good target for a speaking offer (though don’t expect to be paid). Kiwanis, Rotary, local business associations, Chambers of Commerce, industry-specific associations, are all good candidates.

Once there, any number of topics could strike a compelling note with this crowd. Right off the top of my head (and depending, of course, on your areas of expertise…):

“The 7 Most Common Mistakes Companies Make with Their Marketing Materials…”

“Five Ways Social Media Can Boost Your Bottom Line (and a Few Ways It Won’t…)”

“The Powerfully Effective Marketing Tool You’re Probably Overlooking…” (about case studies, white papers, etc.)

“How to Do Your Own Writing for Your Business (and Why That May Not Be Wise…)”

I’m sure you could come up with a bunch of others with a little thought. All designed, of course, to showcase your knowledge of commercial writing, marketing communications, and marketing in general (and your readiness, willingness and ability to execute the aforementioned…).

Most importantly, make it Job #1 at any speaking gig to offer truly valuable content, NOT pick up business. Provide enough practical information that audience members could put your ideas in action without your help. And therein lies a seeming paradox: the more you give away, the more of your beans you spill, the more likely many will be to hire you.

By being generous, you accomplish three things – all good:

1) You showcase your expertise in implementing what you’re discussing

2) You get people thinking, “If he/she is willing to give away this much, they must know a whole lot more.” And…

3) You establish yourself as the “good guy” interested in making them more successful and profitable.

Get an okay in advance from your contact person to offer a brief “marketing minute” at the end of your talk, explaining what you do, letting people know you have business cards, and perhaps offering a free consultation, top-line business analysis, report, etc.

Truth, be known, while I’ve done a ton of speaking related to my books over the years, I’ve done very little of the business speaking described above. But a healthy number of commercial freelancers I know do, given its effectiveness as a lead-generation tool. If the idea calls to you, start with some of the ideas above – or brainstorm your own.

Put your storyteller hat on, breathing life into talks with anecdotes and success stories from your own experiences (or those of other writers – with attribution, of course). Or even made-up “picture-this” scenarios to get them thinking about their own businesses.

Just remember, as you put any talk together, always imagine yourself as a businessperson in that audience, and keep in mind what’s most important to them: profitability, competitive advantage, industry reputation, etc. Benefits, not features.

From what I’ve heard, neither the bar nor audience expectations in general are set particularly high for civic/business group luncheon speeches, so don’t imagine it’d take more than you’ve got to make your mark.

Shy? Introverted? Don’t let that stop you. I read a great piece of advice about public speaking once that went something like this: While having good nuts-‘n-bolts speaking techniques down is always a good thing, the two most important attributes of all good speakers is, 1) they’re experts on their subject, and 2) they love sharing it with others.

Some years back, I watched author Malcolm Gladwell (Blink, The Tipping Point, Outliers), speak at a local Borders about Blink. Obviously shy and egghead-ish – wild hair and all – you could tell speaking wasn’t something natural for him. But, because he knew his subject intimately (AND used lots of great anecdotes), and was obviously passionate about sharing it, he had the standing-room-only crowd captivated for well over an hour. Food for thought…

Have you done this kind of speaking, and if so, how did it turn out?

What approaches/strategies have worked for you in the speaking arena?

What types of groups have you found most receptive?

If you haven’t done this kind of speaking, are you getting any ideas from all this?

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