Freelance Writer Guide Chapter 7 – The Ego

A digitally rendered clay figure of a faceless grey man with a red tie on. He is holding a blue vanity mirror in front of his face and checking his reflection as he adjusts his tie.

The critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic.” – Oscar Wilde

Writing isn’t like working a traditional 9-to-5 type of job; the schedule can be crazy, there are no real co-workers to commiserate with face to face, and feedback can be vague and elusive if you manage to get it at all. In a work-at-home (or Starbucks, or Barnes and Noble, or anywhere with wifi) environment, the theoretical silence can be deafening.

You will get pieces returned to you and rejected at some point, with a good chance of it happening early on. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re a bad writer, or even that your piece was sub-par – these returns are at the whim of the client or editor, both of whom are not the writer! Try your best to take criticism constructively and apply frustration as motivation to work harder and turn out better pieces. Even with the businesslike airs it puts on, freelance writing is an art form that falls squarely in the realm of creativity. One man’s masterpiece is another man’s doodle – outside of agreed-upon constants like spelling and grammar, the beauty of writing is largely in the eye of the beholder.

No matter what sites you end up joining, at some point a set of instructions will be poorly worded, clients will be unreasonable and you will very likely get burned out at some point. Hopefully the occasional pitfalls won’t put you off the track to success, but don’t be afraid to take a breather now and then if it gets to be too much. Writing is an intense vocation, requiring complete focus 100% of the time that it is being done, by its very nature.

As a new writer, be prepared to explain that copywriting is the writing of copy, not the application of patents. You’ll also find yourself frequently explaining that no, you do not also do graphic design – a surprisingly common mixup when the term “freelancer” pops up at a party. In a similar vein, friends and family may have to have the nature of marketing writing explained to them, in particular the difference between sales-oriented writing work and the “Great American Novel” that every stereotypical writer seems to be indelibly attached to.

Be proud of what you do and all that you accomplish – you are effectively your own boss at this point, so periodical self reviews will likely be the only official pat on the back you’ll enjoy. Work hard, enjoy crafting each piece, and take some time to remind yourself each day that every word keeps you further and further away from a lackluster cubicle in a customer service department somewhere.

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Freelance Writer Guide Chapter 6 – Getting Started

Three red-fletched arrows protrude from a black and white ringed archery target, all three points are in the red bullseye.

“Consider the postage stamp:  its usefulness consists in the ability to stick to one thing till it gets there.” 

– Josh Billings

 

Step 1:

When you get a project, take a look at the item or webpage and find a handful of features that you feel you can wax on about a little – such as the figurine’s base is made of polished walnut wood, or the webpage offers visitors the chance to sign up for a store newsletter.

Protip: In general, it’s a good idea to break ideas or features down into 100 to 200 word paragraphs, leaning towards the 200-sized chunks for larger projects that range in the realm of 800 words and up. This will speed up writing a bit and give you a clear framework to begin with.

Step 2:

Start strong. If it’s a bank, a short statement about how important it is to have your money in dependable hands would be a great beginning. You want the point / name of the company / item to show up no later than 2 to 3 sentences in –

The future can hold a lot of uncertainty, which is why it’s important to do your banking with a proven name you can trust. Trustybank USA has been serving it’s customers for over 3,000 years with products such as …..”

(In this case, “Trustybank USA” is the name of the organization to be focused on. )

The splendor of nature can be found in the dance of butterflies over flowers, and now on your favorite shelf at home with the Butterfly Beauty art sculpture. This lovely rainbow-hued piece brings one of the most treasured heralds of spring indoors to be enjoyed….”

(In this case, “Butterfly Beauty” is the name of the item being showcased.)

Step 3:

It’s natural to run out of steam about 1/2 to 3/4 of the way through, especially if you’re just starting to write for money. Don’t get discouraged, just take a break from typing away and look at the product or website again with another round of scrutiny. Are there any features you may have missed that can be included in your project? Even something as simple as browser security or smartphone-enabled services can be turned into a very respectable 100-word block if you work at it a little. Are there guides or articles on the website about the subject? Be sure to point these out as well – they’re a great addition to the buyer’s list of benefits for visiting or using that item or page.

Step 4:

Glance through the piece, read it aloud, give it to a friend to look over – anything to run it through one last check before submitting it. Watch for words that may not be used correctly but will still make it through spellcheck – “He laughed at her hare, which was a real mess.” Your writing program probably won’t catch issues like homonyms.

Protip: Unless specifically requested, exclamation points should be used sparingly, if at all. As a culture, we don’t tend to shout in the middle of a conversational sentence, so the written word should reflect that as well.

Step 5:

Close on a strong note as well. Don’t trail off – readers of all varieties prefer a strong ending to sum up the story.

“If you want your financial security in the hands of professionals that care, open up an account at Trustybank USA today and start enjoying the benefits of better banking.”

This sort of phrasing is called a call to action, a term you’ll hear repeated throughout your time in the pro writing circuit. This is basically the communication of an idea that encourages the reader to do something – visiting a site, signing up for a newsletter, buying an item and so on.  

 

Step 6:

Send the client a message through your website’s messaging system thanking him or her for the opportunity to work for them. This step is, of course, optional but may very well lead to a series of privately assigned projects down the line for your polite eagerness.

 

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Freelance Writer Guide Chapter 5 – Selecting Projects

A man's hand and arm against a blue background, selecting a checkbox in a row of blank checkboxes.

“The difference between try and triumph is a little umph.”  – Anonymous

While a challenge may appeal to some writers, when consistent writing-for-pay is the goal, it’s best to keep your endeavors streamlined. For this reason, I highly recommend some prudent filtering of your available projects before sitting down to work – assuming there’s a list to choose from, of course.

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  • Projects that require language/grammar in a language that is not your own or unfamiliar to you. A good example would be a client’s request for “UK grammar” in a job being looked over by an American. Yes, there are spell checks and grammar checks, but it’s an added hassle you don’t need when you’re aiming for volume.
  • Projects that require html coding, pictures, or outside research that takes more than a minute per 100 words requested. You are a writer – don’t devalue your skills and inflate a demanding client’s expectations by being a coder, researcher and marketing consultant as well. This will only lead to difficulty saying “no” to harder projects down the line, and it incorrectly communicates to that client that they can obtain the services of an entire workforce from a single, often overworked, writer.  In rare cases, you can go a bit above and beyond, but always consider how much effort you’re putting in overall as compared to the pay you’re receiving. As a fellow writer once told me, “Don’t take projects with descriptions longer than the word count they’re looking for. They’re usually a pain!”
  • Projects from troublesome clients. These include clients with a history of rejecting work, which can be checked on certain sites, clients who email with increasing demands throughout the day, and clients that need “just one more tweak/extra words” after you’ve already given them several. Some of these potential problem customers won’t become apparent until after the job is underway – just finish up if you’re able to and block or blacklist them after. You don’t go out to dinner with someone you disliked on the first date, so use the same principles here and stand your ground. Protip: some clients may need to be “fired” to keep your sanity! The most valuable word you’ll learn to write is “no” when it comes to standing your ground. A polite refusal can be your most challenging work, but do      your     best not to burn bridges – even if they deserve it. A bad rep can get around in the writing world.
  • Projects with an unrealistic time frame. Only you know how quickly you can write, so use it as a guideline for accepting new projects. If you can only throw together a 300 word piece in an hour, taking a 2000 word project at 2 in the afternoon is probably a bad idea. Pace yourself – the more you write at a level you can handle, the more likely your skills will improve naturally.
  • Projects that don’t pay well. While this may seem like a given, many new writers are so eager to start that they’ll ignore the very reason they started on this path! In my personal  opinion, if you are a competent English writer that doesn’t make mistakes in spelling or grammar and has a good flow to the tone, or feel, of your work, you should always expect (and demand!) at least a penny a word.

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  • Projects about subjects you know. It shouldn’t come as any surprise to learn that writing about places, events and objects you enjoy comes a little easier than struggling through ones you don’t. Stack the deck in your favor, here – if you see a project that appeals to you, don’t hesitate to grab it. Remember, you aren’t the only writer out there, so you’ll need to act quickly on desirable opportunities.
  • Projects with short, well-written explanations. This is usually a decent indicator that the client is fairly easy to deal with and understands what good writing is. As an aside, if you wonder why these seemingly talented writers aren’t penning their own stuff, it’s usually that they’re short on time or overloaded with their own work.
  • Projects that come in series, as opposed to one-offs. If you see several articles about car insurance up on a requesting site at the same time, it’s a safe bet that a single client is behind them. If you turn out well-written work for several of those pieces, approaching the client with your thank you letter after, there’s a good chance you can foster an ongoing work relationship. They obviously have a lot of work to give, so why shouldn’t you be the one to get it?
  • Projects with moderate time frames. While grabbing selections with the longest deadline may seem like a good idea, consider that a client has many different reasons he or she may put up a lengthy timetable. Yes, it may be that be giving the writer extra time to craft a great piece, but it also may be that they don’t log into your site of choice for days on end. Rent and bills don’t wait for money, and you shouldn’t – at least for longer than you have to.
  • Projects from proven clients. You’re expected to show that you’re a solid writer to remain competitive, and a good client will make themselves attractive to the prospective writer as well. If available, numbers like rejection rates, time as a member on the site and overall projects posted can be good earmarks for how reliable a client is. Protip: search for a potential client’s username in site forums to see what fellow writers might be saying about working with them.

 

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Freelance Writer Guide Chapter 4 – Choosing Sites

An open laptop computer surrounded by expanded screens of various website images.

One must work and dare if one really wants to live.” – Vincent Van Gogh

Project websites are the most powerful tool in the arsenal of a freelance writer. Generally, there are two types of sites where paying work can be found – the list sites and the bid sites.

List sites have, as is likely evident from the name, a list of various projects which freelancers can pick from. The projects may be divided into categories, such as “home” or “sports”, and may be further divided by writing skill level, a setting which new writers are tested for and sorted into. A level 3 writer, for example, would be able to pick jobs from levels 1, 2 and 3, while a level 2 writer would be restricted to jobs from 1 or 2 only. These ratings are usually awarded through an entrance exam given to new prospective site writers, or through continual editing of submitted projects. Some examples of list sites are ContentSumo.com, and WriterAccess.com.

Bid sites can be dizzying for new writers to navigate, which is why beginners would do best to stay to list sites in general. Bid sites, again, are fairly self explanatory. Clients place a project on the site with a detailed description, timeline expectation and budget, after which writers place a bid and hope to be chosen. The “winner” is entirely at the client’s discretion, though well-written bid notes that reference the specific project and offer an appealing timeline/cost are more likely to garner notice. Freelancer.com and ScriptLance.com are two examples of bid sites.

Protip: There are lots of foreigners on bid sites, which is one of the reasons they can seem extremely hectic and competitive. A closer look at their (usually extremely low) bids will usually reveal the same poorly worded cut-and-paste “greeting” for every project, regardless of the subject matter. Stand out from the overseas crowd by being original, well-spoken and interesting in your own bid.

If making money is your goal, don’t waste your time with “revenue sharing” sites, which solicit writers to provide the site with essentially free content under the guise of a cut of potential future advertising revenue. Recent updates to Google as a whole have made these sites all but obsolete as viable freelance options, and you’ll likely end up working for free, with the promised ad revenue never materializing. Hubpages.net and Squidoo.com are two examples of revenue sharing sites.

> SPECIAL NOTE 5/25/14: Site reviews now appear under the “Site Reviews” tab at the top of the screen on http://www.FreelanceWriterGuide.com. Thanks for reading!

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Freelance Writer Guide Chapter 3 – Start Writing

A hand holding a pen beside a stack of foreign coin currency.

“Write without pay until somebody offers to pay.” – Mark Twain

If you are reading this guide, it’s likely that you have written something simply for the sake of writing it in the past; not for a school project or because you were compelled to, but just for the hell of it. This is a good place to start. As with any specialty, the basics need to be nailed down first – you can’t turn a triple Lutz before you’ve figured out how to put a pair of ice skates on.

Here are a few tips to help you get started on your writing journey.

  • Check with your favorite places. Yes, people will pay you for your work, but don’t be afraid to farm out your newfound or growing skill for the sake of a little exposure. Local businesses may need new marketing Copy, which is a term for the words that are put into materials like magazine or newspaper ads, and you can offer to write something for a place like a favorite restaurant. If you end up writing something for them successfully, you can then add that establishment to your writing portfolio as a little professional credit in your favor.
  • Peer Review Practice. If you’re hesitant to dip your toe in the waters of pro writing, but want to get a feel for it, review sites are an excellent place to try your skills. Head to sites like Yelp.com and type up a missive about your favorite places to eat, or visit to start exercising your writing muscles. Most projects will require you to write from a perspective that is not your own. With this in mind, keep your “training wheel” projects, such as writing for a local business or review site, constrained in the same manner:

“China Garden, a garden of exotic Asian food delicacies, is conveniently situated at the juncture of route….”

 As opposed to the “wrong” first-person perspective:

“I went to China Garden last week and the food was delicious! I had no trouble finding it, it was right off of….”

 This will help get you in the mindset of writing for the customer as opposed to simply telling a story.

  • Don’t plagiarize, ever. Not even a little. Google has special programming that tells it when your work copies even a single sentence from somewhere else on the web. This will trigger a red flag in plagiarism checkers like Copyscape, a very popular program used by clients to screen work for originality. Use other sites for research if you need to, but be sure to put everything in your own words to avoid misunderstandings and site penalties.

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Freelance Writer Guide Chapter 2 – The Five Tools

A black and yellow plastic toolbox.

The 5 Tools Every Freelancer Needs

These are five important tools that every freelancer should have. This is not a comprehensive list, but rather a Cliff’s Notes version to get you started on the right foot.

  • A paypal account. If you’re planning on freelancing, this is a must-have. Yes, paypal can be a hassle and charges a 3% fee on incoming payments, but it’s a necessary evil. It’s the internet version of a bank account, and you’ll be -very- hard pressed to find employers or sites that will let you work without one. Once your account is active, you can sign up for aPaypal Debit Mastercard – this is NOT a credit card, just the same as a bank debit card is not. It’s simple a plastic card that can be used to purchase things wherever Mastercard is accepted, or at an ATM to pull out money from your paypal account directly. You don’t pay to use the card, though there is a $1 fee to pull money out at an ATM. You can circumvent this by getting cash back at a store, or offset the fee by getting enrolled in their debit card’s 1% cash back program.
  • A gmail account with an appropriate name. Don’t use, say, “KittyKatLvr” or “SexyBeast4U” as your gmail – if you manage to have contact with clients outside of a freelancing site, this will only reflect poorly on your professionalism. Having a separate account allows you to know, at a glance, what emails are for work without filtering through chain emails, spam and sales flyers in your personal account. A first initial and last name is the generally appropriate default, or, ideally, you can start building your brand with a catchy name here – “ThatWordChick”, for instance. It’s simple and short, easy to remember, with no words that are hard to spell (remember, you might have been hired because the client isn’t great with words/grammar/spelling to begin with). This gets an idea into the client’s head about you and what you can do for them…they’re going to remember a “PerfectPenWriter@gmail.com” long before a “JMoscowitz3465@gmail.com”.

Why Gmail? It’s free, powerful, and generally will not cause issues with attachments or mislabel important things as spam. Google docs is an easy-to-access component of gmail which acts as a live Microsoft Excel-like       spreadsheet, enabling writers and clients to keep track of larger projects in realtime. There’s also a feature in the Labs section of gmail that can be turned on to alert you when you mention attaching something in an email but forget to actually do so – it’s saved many an absent-minded writer! There are a lot of filtering options, and the capacity of emails you can keep archived is pretty darn big.

Gmail is also excellent for storing portfolio work. Whenever you write anything, for anyone, simply email a copy of it to yourself with the words “Portfolio Article” in the subject line. This way, if you ever want a comprehensive list of everything you’ve done, all you’ll have to do is search those words and you’ll have a chronological list. This is invaluable for situations where you want to show a piece of your writing to a new client, but have no idea where that word document got to. Gmail is also on every internet-enabled computer or device because it’s browser based, which means you’ll have access to that work no matter where you happen to be. A fantastic article sitting on a home computer won’t do you any good when you’re sending a client a response on a cell phone, after all.

  • Patience. Likely the most important tool in a writer’s arsenal, patience is the fuel that will keep you going in the long term. Be prepared to tangle with difficult clients, fast-approaching deadlines and micromanaging editors – stay long enough in the freelance biz and you’ll deal with all three. In addition to patience with other people, be sure to be patient with yourself – if an overzealous editor knocks you down a work level, or there are slim pickings in the usual order lists, don’t despair. Like any non-conventional job, freelancing is subject to the laws of supply and demand, as well as the interpretations of editors. Use each stumble as a learning opportunity and let it steel you to do better during your next go-around.
  • Dedicated time. As you get better at freelancing, this can be relaxed a bit, but in the beginning you’ll need to block off time to really see results. The best results will come from the willingness to diversify your efforts, which will mean spending a little time on each of your ‘home sites’ every day. Keeping your portfolio current, checking the forums for news, advertising your services and following up with clients are all necessary activities that will demand your time as much as the writing itself.
  • A Little Shameless Self-Promotion. Don’t be afraid to talk about what you do and get the word out. Pick up some free business cards from Vistaprint.com, Moo.com (higher quality cards) or another free sample printing site and hand them out to prospective clients. Go to your local chamber of commerce mixers, and reach out to businesses you already know and frequent – all writing has to come from somewhere, so it might as well be you! Want to separate personal life and business life but still hand over a phone number? Get free digits at Google Voice and keep a professional-sounding voicemail box online or link to a cell phone – this last step isn’t necessary, but it is kind of neat.

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Freelance Writer Guide Chapter 1 – Writing for Money

“Writing is easy. You only need to stare at a piece of blank paper until your forehead bleeds.”

– Douglas Adams

 

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Professional writing in the capacity of many clients to one writer is, for the purposes of this guide, called Freelance Writing. This essentially means that the writer takes projects, completes them and receives payment once they are done. There are no uniform hours, pay rates or even experiences – freelance writing is essentially what you make of it, which means it’s a great job or supplemental option for those that don’t mind a little hard work on their own terms.

That being said, it is important to note that not everyone can write in a professional capacity. If you try it out and feel uncomfortable or frustrated with the experience, it’s entirely possible it’s not a good fit for you. Everyone has different skill sets – some people are athletic, others are quick-witted, and still others are skilled with the written word. If writing isn’t your forte, it doesn’t mean that you aren’t talented elsewhere.

For the purposes of this guide, we’ll be discussing writing of the marketing variety – articles about corporations, sales copy for services, product descriptions and other pieces of wordwork that go into making a company attractive to customers. What we will NOT cover are pieces such as novels, short stories, poems and other creative written endeavors. While marketing writing does take creativity and there are some shared characteristics, these two art forms are very different. Finding professional writing projects for creative forms is often considerably more difficult than marketing ones, and so new writers would do better to focus on the more plentiful option.

Why do Companies Pay For Writing?

Understanding why a company hands over money for words in the first place helps a beginning writer better understand why his or her efforts are so sought after. The reasons usually fall into a mix of two “camps”: the customer side and the technical side.

The customer must be spoken to clearly and concisely – they need to be informed about the product so they know why they ought to buy or consider it. The written word has an advantage over in-person salespeople: it can reach millions of people that aren’t in the store, and it can be carefully written beforehand, where spoken discussions must be quickly created on the spot. Projects written for the customer side are intended to appeal directly to the reader, coaxing them to perform an action like purchasing an item.

The technical side, as you may imagine, is a little bit more complex. Companies want search engines, Google being the main and most well-known, to notice them on the internet. Good notice equates to higher placement in the Search Engine Results Pages or SERPS, a fancy name for the screen you see after you search for a term on the engine’s website. Most potential customers will click a link high up on the first page of results because it’s easy, and may not even wander to page 2 for additional options. This makes it vital for a company to have high placement, which can be worked towards by having lots of relevant information about their products or services on the company webpage. A website selling kites, for instance, can take steps towards improving their placement by adding articles about kite history, or good materials for kites right onto their site. This will gain them a little notice in Google, and may even drive some customers to the store section of their site to buy a kite as well. These two articles reflect the items they sell, and also show Google that they want to inform their customers as much as encourage them to buy.

In this example, you would be the writer that makes these two articles for the company. This is an example of marketing writing used to improve a company, and keeping this mutually beneficial model in mind will help you keep motivated in your writing endeavors.

Why Don’t Companies Write For Themselves?

It may seem puzzling to some that a company doesn’t just hand an employee a pad and pen and tell them to get to work. The reason at least smart companies don’t is that specialization is important in all components of a business. Managers don’t pull warehouse employees away from moving pallets to work on the sales floor, and restaurants don’t expect wait staff to come into the kitchen to cook. The best results come from putting employees where they do the best work, and smaller companies don’t have the money to keep a writer on staff.

Some projects may even involve cleaning up the mess left behind when companies take a shot at writing without the proper skills. The results they turn out often have the exact opposite effect of their intended one, with customers failing to respond to “loud” sales copy, poor spelling and less-than-ideal grammar created at the hands of an owner or well-meaning employee. These companies seldom make the same mistake twice, and will usually gladly hand off the task to professionals after seeing their own lackluster results.

Why YOU Should Write For Money

Writing for money is a rewarding career that can be taken up by anyone that can manage the right tone and work ethic to succeed. It doesn’t require a college degree, a stumbling block that has forced many people into jobs they hate for the sake of getting by financially. It is not a “scheme” that requires hours upon hours of unpaid training, an expensive “start-up kit”, or even a job that requires you to leave the home. It’s an excellent way to make some money to pay for groceries or gas, and it requires minimal, if any, childcare if you have a family.

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