What are the biggest mistakes you’ve made as a writer?
Too many to list, but I narrowed it down to nine.
- I spent too much money. All you really need is a laptop. Instead, I bought thousands of dollars on info products, coaching, overpriced tools I didn’t need (like Scribe), tools with free alternatives (like AWeber), joined membership groups, etc. The ROI on almost all of these was nil. Now I am far more selective about what I will buy (even though my income is a lot higher.)
- I charged far too little. Now I turn away work that doesn’t meet my standards, and specifically target clients who can pay me my hourly rate (or close to it).
- I negotiated when I didn’t really mean it. In my swing in the opposite direction, I’d ask everyone for more money. When they’d say no, I’d immediately have to start backpedaling. I now only ask for more if I’d be willing to walk away if I didn’t get it. (YMMV.)
- I made rookie contract errors. I signed bad contracts (one article of mine was reprinted as an ad), I didn’t get contracts (which is part of why I had to take a client to small claims), and I didn’t negotiate unfair terms in contracts.
- I priced all wrong. On one instance, I really overpriced because I tripled my rate since it took three times as long to set up the project as I thought it should…and I assumed the work would also take three times as long. I was wrong. But for the most part, I underpriced, or underestimated how long it would take me to do certain tasks. I also wrote on topics I didn’t know well, this killing my pay per hour. (I now think twice before taking on work about topics I really don’t know, unless I am very up front about it.)
- I wasn’t clear with copywriting clients about what the editorial/revision process looked like. I forgot that they really didn’t know how things work, and have unstated expectations. I also didn’t explain what ‘discount packages’ entailed as clearly as I could have. People ask for lower rates and I offer reduced services, but I didn’t realize they wouldn’t remember the latter unless I spelled it out for them.
- I scored a lot of intermittent work and didn’t focus on repeat clients. Now I specifically target sites and clients that are looking for something ongoing. It doesn’t always work, but it’s worth a try.
- I ignored my intuition and worked with some people I should’ve walked away from.
- I stopped marketing when I got busy, and assumed deals would be a go without a contract. Never again. Now I market every single week, no matter how busy I am.
What are the best moves you’ve made?
Whew. I get to talk about the good stuff, too. 🙂
- I worked hard on constantly improving my craft. This is ongoing. I do everything I can to exceed people’s expectations, and pay close attention to where I come short.
- I did a lot of networking. This includes meeting editors at conferences and events, but also helping other writers whenever possible. It also includes being very knowledgeable in specific industries, so that you can write intelligently, but also accessibly. Knowing where people get stuck or have trouble understanding what’s going on is gold for a service writer.
- I started focusing on dollars. That means asking for higher pay, sure, but also taking on lucrative work (ghostwriting, test item writing, SEO work, etc.), diversifying (editing, and proofreading for me, as well as social media marketing), and teaching workshops. It also includes getting anchor clients. Other creative approaches: selling reprints, syndicating a column, etc.
- I joined professional organizations and online groups like Freelance Success. These have helped me make friends with other writers and find opportunities as well.
- I set higher standards for my clients. I can say I love every single person I work with. Some have their quirks, and some are more challenging than others, but they all have a net positive impact on my world. I couldn’t have said that three years ago or even three months ago.
How important is it to follow their voice versus providing your own voice? I know you want to fit into their style, but part of your value is providing a specific voice to the article. How do you find the balance that works?
I think the best answer to this is to pitch publications that are similar enough to your voice that it won’t be too much of a stretch. The biggest difference I see is being aware of who the reader is, and focusing on the specific components a reader would be interested in. I recently reviewed an app for a men’s site and was told not to focus as much on the interface and other geeky things. So I remembered the audience wouldn’t be interested in that, and rewrote the piece to focus on the parts they were into. It’s sort of like how you’d tell a story differently to two different groups of people.
How do you come up with article ideas?
There are two ways to do this. The first is to just go about your day and find things you’d love to write about, and then match those things up to a magazine or website. The second is to specifically look for ideas that would fit a publication. Both strategies require spending a lot of time looking. I also read a lot and keep an eye out for anything that seems unique or relevant. And sometimes I com up with variations on things that were already published, if I sense a theme.
How do you space out your deadlines, so you don’t have to do too much work at once?
I have really struggled with this. At first, I would do as much as I could in advance, and then just suck it up and work 12 hour days, taking a break the following week. But then things got busy and I realized the great opportunities kept coming! I started estimating the length of projects and only scheduling eight hours of work in a given day. If something else comes up, I shift work to other days to make up for it. Charlie Gilkey has some free planners on Productive Flourishing, and I’d recommend the “Freelancer Work Week” planner with anyone struggling with this issue.
I live in Minneapolis. Where can I learn more?
You’re totally in luck! I’m teaching a class on August 10th on breaking into freelancing. It’ll be at Open Book/the Loft Literary Center from 9 to 1. See you there!