The Adult Conversation About This Business…

Some months back, I got an email from a guy relatively new to the commercial writing field. He’d done a bit of work in one particular niche, liked it and was making a few bucks. He continued with this:

“However, I want to go after the money, in whatever form is most easily gotten in terms of getting the work and getting paid, so I would love your input in where that might be and how to get the work.”?

I always have to smile when I get notes like this. “Short cut hunting,”? I call it. I wrote him back:

“I’m not picking on you here, because a lot of people ask this. But, I’m afraid it just doesn’t work that way. If there were indeed a place where it WAS easy to get work that paid well and fast, in this wired age of ours, do you really imagine it would stay a secret for long? Everyone would be flocking to it, and in short order, rates would drop to nothing. Like any other business, it takes hard work and persistence to make it happen.

“There really aren’t any shortcuts, unless you count experience that you bring from another industry that you can leverage into writing for that industry. In that case, you WILL probably be able to get in the door faster because you have some value you’re bringing to the table. That’s the key: things can be easier when you have an advantage of some sort that others don’t.”?

In a perverse sort of way, I’d like to think this reality check would be of comfort to people considering the business. Knowing that it’s NOT a cakewalk should banish any lingering suspicions that I’m selling snake oil here – promising riches with little effort. After all, we’re big kids. By this point in our lives, how many times have we heard, “If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.”? Knowing that the effort required needs to be substantial lets you know that the rewards are real. And they are. Not just financially (you can make money in any decent J-O-B), but far more importantly, in the heavenly, oozing-with-freedom lifestyle. Trust me. You want this. Can I get a witness?

Know that if you DO build a successful business, you will have accomplished something big – something the seasoned practitioners already get – in spades.

So, what advice/warnings/admonitions would you give a “short-cut hunter”??

22 replies
  1. Trisha Bartle
    Trisha Bartle says:

    It seems that everyone everywhere in the world would prefer the shortcut. I think it’s human nature. Gosh I wish I could just get an overweight vaccine and see all the fat melt away with no effort. It’s a real punch to the ‘gut’ when you realize that anything good in life comes with a large amount of work.

    Darn reality!

    I guess, the best thing about working hard to get where you are is that you feel a lot more accomplished when you get there. A victory doesn’t seem nearly as sweet if you took a short cut.

  2. peter
    peter says:

    Yeah, doncha just hate it? Of course, most of us would prefer to just sit around in our underwear and write poetry all day for $100K a year. Yeah, take a number… 😉


  3. Kelly
    Kelly says:

    My “shortcut” suggestion is: read every book on marketing, sales, and copywriting you can get your hands on. Put yourself in isolation for a couple months and read, read, read. Then, if there is a faster, smarter way to do something, you’ll be in a much better position to know what it is and to put it into action. But most likely, you’ll end up knowing a ton of things your clients don’t, and that will increase your value to them, in whatever field you’re in. You shorten the sales cycle and you charge more because you know how to help them. You’re not just thinking about copy. I’m happy to be getting paid to do the one thing that makes me lose track of time. Yes, hard work is involved. But I’d rather work hard for myself than for someone else.

  4. jill gormley
    jill gormley says:

    Actually, I think there are at least a couple of shortcuts–one of my first freelance jobs was writing a compliance newsletter for hospitals, and I had to talk to a lot of lawyers and hospital personnel around the country in the course of that project. I picked up several regular clients among people that I initially contacted for interviews for the original client’s newsletter. I made no effort to market myself to these people; it occured to them at some point during our interactions that they needed the service I was providing to someone else, and they asked if they could have some, too. Definitely a short cut to new clients–but of course, if I hadn’t been professional in my dealings with them, they wouldn’t have requested my service.
    The other obvious shortcut, but one I underutilized at first, is to let everyone know what you do. I’ve picked up well-paying work from my accountant, the sister of a college friend, a neighbor, my chimney sweep, and one of his neighbors—just because I explained what I’m doing while sitting at home all day. In several cases the client didn’t realize there were people out there doing what we do…

  5. peter
    peter says:

    Excellent comments! As Kelly points out, reading is a great shortcut. In the absence of actual experience, it’s the next best thing. And Jill’s comments underscores several lessons – being professional, keeping the radar up for opportunities, and letting the world know what you do. Great stuff. And once you do all those things, maybe, Julie, your reputation WILL precede you (of course, I know that at this point in your career, yours already does!) Thanks to all!


  6. Rick Middleton
    Rick Middleton says:

    It seems that lucrative gigs are a combination of dedication, skill and knowledge development, and being in the right place at the right time. For the last 12 months I’ve given about 90 percent of my freelance time to one Fortune 50 client, which is a great gig, but I never would have gotten it if I hadn’t put out my freelance shingle two years earlier. No one ever says, “We have tons of work — could you quit your full-time job and come do it?” No, they look for people who are already out there and immediately available. And that might mean you went through some lean times (which I did) while you waited for that gig to materialize.

    My concern now is that I have all my eggs in one basket, so I’m going to need to attract a few more clients in some specific areas. And to attract them I need some more specialized knowledge in a few key types of writing. I’ve gotten into a generalist rut and I really need to develop some specialized skills that will attract the type of client I need to get to the next level.

    I guess my advice to the original question would be to remain open, available and also grow your skills. And try to identify lucrative areas of writing that you want and then work toward getting a foot in the door.

  7. Karen Denovich
    Karen Denovich says:

    Just like any business, the toughest part is hanging in there long enough for the business to come back to you. I see merchants on my local town square go into a location, spend months and much money renovating. When they finally open their doors, they expect the rush of business to compensate them for all the money they have invested. Fortunately and unfortunately, it just doesn’t work that way. You’ve got to get out there and meet as many people as you can and yes, Peter, tell every one of them what you do.

    It is not the easiest money I’ve ever made, but you will definitely get an “AMEN” from me for the benefits. Recently, one of my daughter’s teachers told me how “lucky” I am to work at home and be there for her. I laughed. Lucky, yeah I’m lucky. It’s a choice I made, in large part, for my daughter. And yes, most days I’m very lucky and on others not so lucky, but I wouldn’t trade it for all the tea in China!

  8. Tanisia Mooney
    Tanisia Mooney says:

    I’m just at the beginning of my journey to becoming a FLCW. What strikes me in the middle of my “cocoon” process is that my frustration-tolerance level is pretty low at the moment. I remember reading one of Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad books about becoming self-employed, and one of the criteria he cited to have (or develop) as a self-employed person is a high frustration tolerance level.

    I see what I want, I want it to be a reality NOW, but in order to get to that NOW stage I have to put in the work. As everyone else has said, there is no other way to that blissful freedom-filled high-earning self employed state but through hard and persistent work.

    It seems to me that a new proverb is needed for this type of effort, in this day and age of “instant everything”: He who works gets the reward. He who wants it now, without work, will wait forever.

    Or something like that.

    Off to do more reading and writing. Thanks for the new blog!

  9. peter
    peter says:

    Thanks Tanisia,

    I like the new saying – it’s absolutely right. And none of this is new, but it’s always worth repeating. And you can map it onto a lot of things in our society at large. For instance, the whole trend in schools toward both grade inflation and having everyone “win.” In many school settings, there are no losers, for fear of damaging someone’s self-esteem. AS IF, building up a kid’s self-esteem with empty accolades is any kind of substitute for the real thing – earned through hard work and accomplishment. But, don’t get me started… 😉 Thanks for the contribution!


  10. Mike Klassen
    Mike Klassen says:

    The thing about the “short-cut” question is often the unspoken part of the question… “and how do I take this short-cut without spending much (or any) money?” lol

    In addition to what Kelly said about soaking in information by reading (which I try to do every night before bed…this week it’s a Jay Abraham book), I have what can be an expensive suggestion: hire a mentor.

    What to look for in a mentor is a whole other topic, but I sank some bucks into a mentor a couple of years ago and it was the greatest “short-cut” money could buy. When you have a great mentor, they’ll answer questions (including some you never thought to ask) that will shave a lot of time off your learning curve.

    Not only was working with one of the best in the business the greatest learning experience I could have, my name got passed around a bit and I landed some jobs that might have been impossible or would have otherwise taken longer to reach. Also, just the fact that I studied for a short time with this person let others know that (a) I was serious about my new career and (b) if I mentored with this person, I must at least have some skill that clients would appreciate.

    Of course, you can be “mentored” by reading and attending seminars (online or in person), but there’s something special about working one-on-one with a recognized expert in your field that does serve as a type of short-cut.

  11. Kara Gray
    Kara Gray says:

    Forgive the cliche, but for me, the old adage that money can’t buy happiness holds true here. I LOVE what I do, and not just for the freedom, but I love making my clients sound good and making them happy. I have the coolest job in the world, and oh yeah, I get paid pretty well for it too. Sweet! Not many people can say that.
    I wouldn’t care how much I was making — if I had to drag myself to the keyboard everyday because every moment was torture, I might as well go back to cubicle hell.

  12. Brandon W
    Brandon W says:

    The closest thing I’ve had to a “shortcut” has been to attend the Schmoozefest meetings for the local economic development council. Naturally I’m an extrovert. But I keep it simple. What do you do?..”I’m a writer. (pause for effect). I write strong promotional pieces that help businesses connect with their customers. Things like ads, brochures, and newsletters. That’s it. No hard sell. I’m just here to meet people and get free pizza.” And then I smile and quit talking. After a moment, they usually fill the dead air with something like, “That’s really cool. You know, our brochure sure needs some work…” I leave them with two of my business cards.

    I’ve landed two jobs in the past month that way, and I received a new email 15 minutes ago from someone I met there who is in need of two press releases. For some reason, the low-pressure I’m-here-when-you-need-me approach catches people off-guard and makes me memorable.

    A self-employed professional needs to promote themselves in a variety of ways, not all of them pleasant. But getting free pizza and cookies while I promote myself is definitely one of the better ways. As a free bonus, I get amusement out of watching the anxious over-promoters tripping over one another.

  13. peter
    peter says:

    Great stuff, Brandon,

    Thanks for the contribution! And for all those reading this, notice how “soft sell” Brandon’s approach is. Who says you have to be some hard-core salesperson to make it in this business? In fact, the hard-sell approach, as Brandon points out, simply doesn’t work.


  14. Erika K
    Erika K says:

    Hi Peter,

    I’m a regular reader of Deb Ng’s FWJ blog, so I thought I’d come over and see what all the hub-bub is about. Looks great so far! I’m relatively new to writing, but have sought out some gigs who might want my expertise (as a mental health counselor). I found a great one that gives royalties (small, but consistent). I was nervous about putting myself out there as I had NO professional writing experience at that point.

    My master’s degree gave me great credibility and I’ve had the opportunity to niche myself as an semi-expert in a whole new area (not related to my professional counseling practice). They’ve also asked me to be a part of a bigger project (also royalties) that is challenging my socks off as far as writing speed, organization, etc.

    My master’s degree is my leverage, so I’m trying to stick with that area of expertise as I build my career and learn more about the bones of making a viable writing business. I’d love to branch out a bit into a few other writing disciplines and topics I have interest in but not as much expertise (no shortcut there!). I’m OK taking it slower (though sometimes I feel the itch of better money, too – I want to pay off that credit card NOW!) – I’m learning so much now I’m not sure I could soak up a whole lot more if I wanted to.

    In counseling, there’s a phrase I’ve learned to understand and love – trust the process. I think this applies well to freelance writing as well.


  15. peter
    peter says:

    Welcome Erika,

    Thanks for stopping by! And hope you find the blog (and site) of value… Appreciate the comment – you’re doing it right – leveraging what you know, which is definitely a short-cut in itself! All the best!


  16. Erika K
    Erika K says:

    Actually, as I wrote the above post this morning I received an email offering me a great gig in the mental health field (really, I got finished with this post and checked my email-there it was!) It was from someone who hired me for a regular gig in Februrary, but it unfortunately got cut short last month.

    Now, there’s another long-term well-paying gig, and since they were satisfied with my previous work I guess I was right on the tip of their mind again. It’s the same rate of pay as the previous gig but four times the frequency = higher paycheck. I just accepted!

    *A Good Reputation* can be a shortcut for gigs you don’t even know are coming your way. 🙂

  17. peter
    peter says:

    Hi Erika,

    Absolutely right – a good reputation is always the best short-cut of all. Congrats!


  18. Diane Eats the Elephant
    Diane Eats the Elephant says:

    Great comments all around! (Congrats on the start of a great blog, Peter!)

    Brandon’s comments I love – I was recently (but not too recently) involved with the Communications Director (Director of Propaganda as he said) for a mortgage company and got to know which of the sales people were their top folks. Brandon’s soft-sell idea was what made some of the sales folks come across to buyers as unsophisticated in the sense that they were “safe” – they just seemed to be “more like us” and weren’t pushing anything. Thanks, Brandon, for sharing the benefits of free pizza and cookies!

    The mentoring aspect might even work well for someone who is looking to expand into areas of writing in which they have little expertise, by allowing them to work under a mentor who has gotten the work and “outsourced” it to the newer, less expensive, writer, who builds experience but is “supervised” during this apprenticeship-like relationship by the mentor, who is then paid by the difference between what the newbie costs and what the end product is worth to the client. I’ve thought of outsourcing (once a sizeable clientele is built up) as another way of earning dollars, but isn’t that how a business grows naturally? First, outsource what you can’t do in-house, then hire as the need reaches the level where in-house is less costly than outsourcing (if it ever does in this global market).


  19. Jennifer Allan, Author of Sell with Soul
    Jennifer Allan, Author of Sell with Soul says:

    As a writer about real estate, I get asked this question all the time. Oh, not always in those exact words, but basically the same question – “How can I get my first paycheck before I starve to death?” Real estate is a tough business right now and they say that 95% fail within the first two years…

    My advice to the struggling, impatient newbies is to GO LEARN SOMETHING. LEARN your market. LEARN your systems. LEARN your contracts. Be competent so you can be confident. Get to the point where you can hold your head high, shoulders back and announce: “I’m a real estate agent and it’s the coolest job in the whole world!” Once you can do that, business will flow your way without your even asking for it. How long will it take? Guess that’s up to you/them!

    Any self-employed person should spend some serious time mastering their craft before drumming up business. If they can’t afford to take that time, then maybe NOW isn’t the time to be self-employed…

    Great blog, Peter!

  20. Eileen Coale
    Eileen Coale says:

    Ditto to what my good buddy Mike Klassen said in comment #11. When I wanted to move from becoming a generalist to a specialist, I had trouble focusing and found myself second-guessing myself too much. So I hired a coach, and it was worth every penny. He helped me choose my niche, get my new website going, and get a marketing plan underway. It worked! My transition from generalist to specialist was seamless, and happened much faster than if I’d tried to do it on my own. Having said that,I wish I’d have done it years earlier.

    If there was one “do-over” I could have, it would be to choose my niche much earlier in my career. That in itself, choosing a specialty, is a great short cut. While I certainly liked what the experts had to say about being able to command higher fees (it’s true), I didn’t quite believe them when they said it would be easier to get clients, not harder. They were right.

  21. Casey Hibbard
    Casey Hibbard says:

    Amen to what Eileen said. Specializing has been my biggest shortcut as well. The growth of my business has corresponded proportionally to narrowing my focus on case studies. When you specialize, you become an “expert” in an area, so when you meet people, they don’t just remember you’re a writer, but that you have specific expertise in white papers, direct response, newsletters, medical writing, education writing, etc. And they remember you much more clearly. People remember specifics like that, especially if they’ve met 5 copywriters at an event.

    You probably have to do everything for a while to pay the rent, but increasingly specialize and it will pay off. Just make sure it’s a focus you love!


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