freelance writer

Before You Sign the Contract: A 3-step formula for evaluating assignments

Source: womenontheirway

Source: womenontheirway

When I started freelancing, I had a “never say no” philosophy about assignments.

Taking every assignment that was offered helped me build my career. It also established a bad habit – one that has taken me years to break.

The default “Yes” response when an editor called or emailed to offer an assignment meant that I never considered whether I had time to squeeze in more work (leading to a “no sleep, no problem” philosophy that defined the first several years of my freelance career) or whether taking the assignment was the best career move. As it turned out, cranking out articles about a local puppet theater and the opening of a new restaurant meant that I didn’t have time to pitch stories I was excited to write.

Since I’m a girl who loves a list, I came up with three questions to help me evaluate whether to accept an assignment.

1.    Will it help me meet my income goal?

You could argue that every paying assignment puts me one step closer to my income goal. I know from experience that attempting to cobble together a living wage by cranking out articles that pay $50 is impossible. Before accepting an assignment, I consider the fee that is offered and estimate the time it will take for research, interviews, writing and revisions.

In asking this question, it’s become clear to me that an impressive-sounding fee is not a sure path to meeting my income goal; I often earn more per hour for assignments that pay a modest rate than those that pay $2/word because of the amount of work and number of revisions involved.

2.     Is it a magazine I want to write for?

If I want to break into a new magazine, I’ll take an assignment even if it’s not a topic I’m super excited about or the article is a quick turnaround FOB. (BTW, I know some writers shun short assignments but I never balk at writing them, especially for magazine or editor I haven’t worked with before. I believe it gives us a chance to see if we work well together).

3.    Is it a story I want to write?

You know my three-legged stool analogy includes writing articles for the sheer love of the topic or organization, right? If I am offered an assignment on a topic I’m passionate about, I’ll make time in my schedule to take it on. A caveat: Every story can’t be a story you really want to write.

I know some writers will try to convince themselves that they really want to write an article/accept an assignment because they want/need the check that will arrive in the mail when the assignment is complete. Been there, done that. Now, I do a gut check: “Is it worth it to take on this assignment when I’m not excited about the topic?”

I’ll accept if it’s a magazine I want to write for or the fee is too good to pass up. If the topic is boring, the magazine is ho hum and the fee is abysmal, I pass. I’d rather focus my energy on pursuing assignments that meet at least two of my criteria.

My track record isn’t perfect.

In 2013, I accepted a few assignments that met ZERO of three criteria. I felt like the wallflower at the high school dance when the editors offered work: so flattered to be asked that I couldn’t say no. Suffice to say, neither experience was a good one. So, I started the New Year by taping the questions to my computer monitor. Now, they are front and center when an email comes in or an editor calls.

LOI: What is it? How to do it well

Source: justinmclachlan.com

Source: justinmclachlan.com

If you spend any time hanging out with freelancers or reading writing blogs, the term LOI will eventually come up.

As the name implies, a letter of introduction or LOI is a short letter that writers use to introduce themselves to editors. It includes:

* A short salutation
* An overview of their skills and experience
* A list of relevant publications
* An expression of interest in working together

Here is an example of an LOI I’ve used to approach editors:

Dear Claire,

I hope all is well. I wanted to send a note of introduction and express interest in writing for XXX magazine.

As a freelance journalist with a decade of experience writing about health topics, I offer the experience and passion it takes to turn the latest medical studies, health statistics and trends into articles that are both informative and interesting to read. I’m skilled at developing fresh story ideas, interviewing top experts, crafting copy in a voice appropriate for the magazine and I never miss a deadline.

I understand the relationship between marketing and journalism and have a strong track record for meeting the needs of the client while producing content that is engaging for readers.
My work has appeared in popular newsstand titles such as Shape, Women’s Health, Family Circle, Natural Health, Woman’s Day and Arthritis Today. I’ve also contributed health article to numerous custom publications, including Costco Connection, Caring4Arthritis and Restore. Published clips are available at www.jodihelmer.com.

I’d love to learn more about your freelance needs and hope we’ll have the chance to work together to bring health and fitness articles to readers of XXX.

All the best,
Jodi

LOIs are often used in place of queries to approach editors of custom publications, trade magazines and corporate clients who develop their editorial calendars/content needs in-house and need writers who can turn those ideas into articles. (In contrast, editors of newsstand magazines and consumer websites tend to prefer specific pitches tailored to their publications).

Writers like LOIs because it’s much easier to write a brief overview of your background and skills than to research ideas that are tailored to specific publications. But I want to offer caution about letters of introduction.

Too often, writers take a blanket approach to sending them out. Instead of customizing an LOI, freelancers write a generic letter and send it out to dozens of editors in the hopes tha spending a little time to reach a lot of potential clients will lead to work. I think it’s a mistake.

I have several generic LOIs (for health, personal finance, food & beverage, etc) like the one above that I use as a template.  When I want to approach a new editor, I open the relevant letter and spend time customizing it to the specific editor/publication. For example, I look at the website and previous issues of the magazine, check out the editor’s LinkedIn profile an highlight relevant connections or commonalities (working with the same editor, attending the same college) and mention a specific article or familiarity with their clients. When the editor reads it, I want it to be obvious that the letter was tailored to their needs.

Remember, an LOI is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Editors need writers who can interview sources and put together compelling articles but editors also want writers who can come up with creative ideas. While an LOI can be effective — and a lot of freelancers love them — I believe that incorporating a few targeted ideas within an LOI is a more effective approach than hitting “send” on a generic intro and hoping it works.

An LOI should be one of the tools in your marketing arsenal. Your success rates will skyrocket when you take the time to tailor the letter to the editor and his/her publication.

If you’ve had success sending LOIs, I’d love to hear your tips for capturing an editor’s attention.

 

The One Thing Every Freelancer Needs

Money_CashJune was an expensive month. In addition to paying quarterly taxes, I had several unexpected expenses (a new dryer for a rental property, emergency vet bills, out-of-pocket medical costs, car repairs). While I’ve been writing checks and letting retailers swipe my debit card, payments have been slow to roll in.

I’m not complaining.

After a decade of freelancing, I understand that work ebbs and flows, payments can be unpredictable, dogs get sick (often at the same time major appliances break down and other bills are due). To navigate the sometimes bumpy road of freelancing, I have a savings account. And I’m rigid about contributing to it.

Every freelancer needs a savings account.

I write about personal finance and often talk to experts about the importance of an emergency fund. Most of the financial planners I interview recommend a cushion of six months of living expenses. It’s not just about peace of mind in the event of unexpected expenses. A savings account gives a freelancer choices.

Consider this: If I didn’t have a savings account, I would have charged all of last month’s expenses to my credit card. And then I would have spent the entire month of July trying to book enough work to cover the bill with it comes in. In a fit of desperation, I might have accepted all assignments that were offered. It would have put me in a cycle of taking low paying work and cranking out assignments – and that would have prevented me from pursuing better paying gigs.

This cycle is one of the biggest reasons writers come to me for help. They want better paying work but are so caught up in churning out articles for low rates that they can’t pursue it. The reason: They need the money because they have no savings to tap into until they secure lucrative gigs

Sound familiar?

If you’re thinking about freelancing or you’re writing without a net, it’s time to start a savings account. Contribute as much as you can, as often as you can. The cash will advance your career in ways you never expected.

6 Things You Can Do TODAY to Boost Your Freelance Success

Courtesy of http://vuible.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/1367232421be1cd-211x300.jpg

Courtesy of http://vuible.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/03/1367232421be1cd-211×300.jpg

You’re researching ideas, sending pitches and following up with editors and it’s led to a respectable roster of assignments. It’s not enough to research/pitch/follow up/repeat. A successful freelance career requires creative strategies to connect with editors, develop ideas that sell and become a go-to writer for lucrative gigs.

Whether you’re just starting out or have decades of experience, here are six things you can do today to be a more successful freelancer, including:

Set up a co-working date: Writing can be isolating. Working alongside another freelancer gives you an opportunity to bounce ideas off of each other and the side-by-side environment allows for instant query critiques.

I had breakfast with a writer/friend who came into town last week. We talked about work (of course) and I mentioned a pitch I was excited about but struggling to sell. She mentioned a market that is perfect for the idea – and one I never thought to pitch. I sent the idea off later that afternoon (no response yet but I’m hopeful). We found the water cooler conversation so valuable that we’ve set up a regular Skype date.

Update your LinkedIn profile: Adding links to recently published articles and awards along with an up-to-date list of credentials and areas of expertise will keep you top-of-mind when editors need a writer with specific skills. Be sure to ask editors and colleagues for endorsements to enhance your portfolio.

Write a thank you note: Thanking an editor for a referral or letting a source know you appreciate their time can help solidify important relationships. You’ll be remembered for your thoughtfulness and set yourself apart from other writers.

When an editor at a national magazine recommended me to one of her colleagues, I immediately sent a hand-written thank you note to let her know how much I appreciated the referral. She responded via email to say, “Thanks for the thanks! People don’t usually think to say that.” I don’t think it’s a coincidence that she has referred me to other editors who assign articles for the magazine and website.

Follow your favorite magazines on Twitter: Use social media to identify what magazines – and their editors – are interested in. Many successful freelancers have used information from a 140-character missive to land an assignment.

Full disclosure: I don’t tweet (I know, I know) but I have talked to several writers who swear their 140-character missives have led to relationships with editors and lucrative assignments. As my mom always said, “Do as I say, not as I do.” Go on, tweet something.

Ask for a raise: You wouldn’t work in a cubicle for years without a raise, right? Yet many freelancers never ask editors to increase their rates. Approaching your most loyal clients for a bump in your rates can lead to significant payoff.

After I received my third assignment from an editor at a national magazine, I sent a note that said said: “I’m excited we’ll be working together on this article. Since we’ve worked together in the past and you know I can be counted on to meet my deadlines and turn in clean copy, I hoped we could agree to a higher rate for this article.” She bumped the fee by 50 cents per word, increasing my fee by $750 – all because I asked.

Create a reprint catalog: Go through previously published articles (make sure you still own the rights) and create a list of reprints available in various categories: travel, health, parenting, personal finance. Email the list to regional magazines that purchase reprints. Selling articles that are already written is a simple way to increase your income.

Writers: What creative strategies have you used to increase your success?