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Podcast Episode 24: The Art of Getting Paid as a Freelancer

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If the thought of sending invoices, chasing unpaid bills and negotiating payment terms fills you with horror, this episode of the A Little Bird Told Me freelance writing podcast is for you. Working out exactly how to word those awkward emails and at what stage to introduce your payment preferences are discussed here, as well as tips on getting paid on time. Have a listen, and let me know what you think!

Show Notes

Plain English copywriting contract

F*** You Pay Me

How to write the perfect email subject line

How to write magnetic headlines

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Transcript

LH: Hello, and welcome to Episode 24 of A Little Bird Told Me: the podcast about the highs, the lows, and the no-nos of successful freelance writing.

You can find us on the internet at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com, and there you can subscribe to this wonderful podcast in any number of ways, including RSS feed, iTunes, Stitcher Smart Radio or just on the Podomatic page itself. You can also find the link to our Facebook page, where you can come and have a chat with us. There will be plenty of tips, tricks and topics to enjoy, and of course we’d love to have any questions from you. I’m Lorrie Hartshorn…

An example of a cheque.

An example of a cheque. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

PW:…And I’m Philippa Willitts! This week we are going to talk about the art of getting paid. Now,  as a freelancer, this can run incredibly well most of the time, but at other times it can become a pretty tricky topic. So, we are going to look at invoicing and negotiating payments, as well as what to do if somebody always pays late, or doesn’t pay up at all. Unfortunately it does happen, and if you have freelanced for any length of time you have probably come across it.

LH: It seems to be an inevitable part of a freelance career that you start out afraid to put your foot down. Now, we’ve discussed it before when talking about setting deadlines, for example: too often, as freelancers, we’re worried to tell a client, “This is how it is.”

PW: Yes, you get so scared of losing clients when you start that you daren’t be at all assertive at first – and you agree to all kinds of ridiculous things!

LH: It’s true – you can spend months or years even wondering what’s going wrong, and actually thinking that freelancing isn’t a sustainable way of making a living.  It’s not for you, it’s not working. You might find yourself working through the night to get something finished in a ridiculously short space of time, or – as we’re talking about this episode – find ourselves consistently dissatisfied with the way we’re getting paid.

LH: Late payment is a bit of an inevitability in the world of freelancing. While you can put methods in place to protect yourself – and we’ll outline these over the course of the episode – there’ll always be someone who thinks that they deserve to get your work on time, but that you only deserve to be paid for it when they feel like it. And unfortunately that might be never.

PW: That’s it. These situations are going to occur – hopefully only occasionally – but when they do, you need to know how to handle it.

LH: True! You have to have an arsenal of ways to deal with this. We can’t 100% protect you from it – it’s good to know how to deal with it because it will happen. So, the first thing we’re going to talk about is when you’re starting out, how to introduce new clients to your preferred payment methods

LH: As I say, when you start out as a freelancer, you’re generally more accommodating and more lenient than when you’ve got a few years under your belt. Pip and I are a little bit jaded by now…!

PW: Haha, yes – we take no nonsense by this point!

LH: It’s zero tolerance from where we’re standing. But when you start out – and I think it’s fair to say that most of us are the same – i can seem really terrifying to lay down your payment terms for the first time, but it’s something that I’d recommend you get sorted as quickly as possible. You’re going to have to do it – trust us on that! – so it’s best to get used to being up-front with clients as early on as possible. Then no one’s confused about anything.

PW: Yes, you can feel a bit, when you start out, that, “This is my art! I shouldn’t be dirtying it with money!” and forget that you’ve got a gas bill that needs paying. You do have to come to terms with the fact that people are going to pay you for this, and that it’s not bad to ask to be paid when that’s the agreement.

LH: Haha, I have heard from some people that, “Ooh, I don’t want to be paid for my writing!”

PW: Yes, I don’t want to sully it!

LH: By all means, tell your clients to pay me instead – I’m happy with that!  So, yes, when I’ve not worked with a client before, I try and secure a 50% down payment on the project before it starts. Now, if you’re looking at a single piece of work that’s worth, say, £20 it might not always be worth splitting the cost in two – in which case, it’s up to you to decide with the client whether you to get payment in advance or payment afterwards. This can depend on a lot of things, such as how well you know the client (they might be a friend of a friend, or they might be someone who’s contacted you via your website and whom you’ve never heard of before) or on what experiences you’ve had with other clients in the past.

PW: Absolutely. With new clients, I sometimes insist on full payment in advance, actually. It depends on various things, and often I have to admit it’s down to a gut instinct. I do appreciate that if I’m their new writer, they don’t know me any better than I know them, so they might be suspicious that I might take their money and run, just as I might be suspicious that they’d take my writing and run! Like you say, it’s often not worth splitting it in half if it’s a small amount, so looking at full payment upfront is another option.

LH: True – when you start working with someone new, one of you has to go out on a limb. For the sake of my new clients’ peace of mind, I have a page of testimonials on my website, which can also be viewed in situ on LinkedIn as proof that they’re real – they’re attached to someone else’s profile, so new clients can see that I’ve not just written them myself. It goes some way to reassuring clients that I’m a reputable service provider.

PW: That’s a really good idea.

LH: Another thing I’d say is that it’s important to remember is that asking a client to pay up front isn’t about making an assumption about the client’s character – even if you’re going off a gut instinct, it’s nothing personal at all, and if you ask for up-front payment, you’re not insulting someone or implying that they aren’t trustworthy. No decent client is going to be seething about the fact that you want to get the payment sorted.

PW: No, not at all. Often, I find clients are more reasonable than I was going to be, if you know what I mean. A few months ago, I was negotiating some possible work and the client wanted to see what I could do. He said, “Oh, if you write me two test articles…” and I thought, “Oh, here we go…”. And then he said that he’d pay me for the two test articles, which was great.

LH: I had the same thing happen to me, actually – I completed a couple of test articles for an agency and they just sent me a purchase order number afterwards, so I was like, “Ooh! Thanks!”. I knew they were a reputable company, but you’re so used to it being one of the most common scams – someone asks you for a test article and a couple of weeks later, the article ends up on the net.

PW: Yes, yes. And at this stage I would also recommend that, especially if you are doing the work before being paid, make sure you have full contact details for the client. If they are representing a reputable business then you don’t have to look too far to find out how to contact them, but if they contact you with a yahoo.com email address and a username where their real name should be, don’t do any work until you either have contact details, or payment. Should it get to the awful situation of trying to claw money from them, you have no hope if you don’t even know their name!

LH: Good point! It sounds really obvious but when you’re just starting out, you’re probably so busy cheering to yourself that you’ve finally attracted a client on board that you can easily get carried away and forget to protect yourself. Make sure you have contact details, make sure you visit the website they’re talking about. Be a bit careful. You don’t want to make judgement calls on people but you need to be as careful as possible.

PW: And equally, you might expect the worst and be pleasantly surprised. A guy contacted me from a Yahoo address, with no real name – all those things we’ve talked about – and he wanted a series of 12 articles on health related topics, which is a subject I specialise in. He didn’t want to give me too much information, so it looked a bit suspicious. So I sent him my invoice, he paid up, I did the work and he was really pleased with it. So it goes to show that you shouldn’t automatically write people off when they don’t have an email address for their own domain name, for example, but it’s still best to be cautious.

LH: Definitely, you can only go off past experience, so don’t rely on someone 100%. The more you look, the more you learn and the more your ‘spidey sense’ can start tingling. As the years go on, you can still be wrong but your instincts will help you.

PW: And you don’t do any harm by being a bit more careful

Just Pay The Invoice

Just Pay The Invoice (Photo credit: industriarts)

LH: Yes, as long as you don’t say to them, “Wow, you look dodgy – here’s my invoice. Sorry love, nothing personal!”

PW: Hahaha! Another issue to look at when we want to get paid, it’s also worth looking at the different types of payment that are out there. I’m quite happy to be paid by Paypal, for instance, in certain circumstances – it’s instantaneous, it’s pretty reliable, and it’s especially handy for my clients who aren’t based in the UK. In those cases, I like it a lot.

 

PW: However if you are being paid a decent amount, the fees they extract from the payment can start to be quite prohibitive, so my preferred method of payment for UK clients is a simple bank transfer. I do also accept UK cheques, but with one notable exception I’ve never been paid in that way. I think it’s pretty archaic now, but still useful if that’s how a client likes to work. It’s a bit slower and involves a trip to the bank, but it’s really no big deal.

LH: Yeah, I stick with all bank transfers. I do have a client who’s based in the US and she’s pretty trustworthy, so I’m happy to accept cheques from her. Until recently, I was banking with a building society, and it was pretty difficult to arrange international transfers as they need to be made via a bank. I also don’t like using PayPal more than I have to, for the reasons you mentioned just now. So yes, cheque can work, but again, make sure you’re protected – I made sure I received the cheque before I started any work, and there was no problem.

PW: Sure, and also check with your bank about whether they charge for international cheques – some do, some don’t. Check the cheque situation! There are also going to be the odd situation you may encounter when a client is in one of the countries that PayPal refuses to deal with. There are some alternate payment providers that deal with those countries, but make sure you don’t get scammed – do your homework.

LH: So the next thing we want to talk about is how to decide on a payment period. Now, my payment period depends on the client. Most of my regular long-term clients get a payment period of 30 days, and most of them pay promptly – long before they reach the due date. Another client I know does their accounts weekly, so I invoice them every Tuesday for payment on Wednesday or Thursday. Their payment period is reduced to seven days accordingly.

LH: Now, other clients might do their invoices at the end of the month, in which case, this needs to be taken into account. A number of agencies that I work for arrange payment of invoices at the end of the month, so even if I send something in on the first, I know it’s not going to be paid until the 30th or 31st.

LH: This is actually a pretty problem-free payment method – the longest you’re going to have to wait for payment is 30 days or so, all being well, and invoices that you submit later in the month will also be paid at the same time. So if you submit something on the 22nd, you’ll only have to wait six days.

PW: If you’re very new to this…I remember the first time I got asked for an invoice, years and years ago. Someone approached me, wanting to buy one of my photographs, and they asked me to invoice them. I went, “Um…OK!” and then googled, “How to send an invoice.” And it really is that simple, actually – just choose one that’s appropriate to your country, just so the terminology is right, pick one that looks nice or has the fields you need, and you’ll get the hang of it. If just the word ‘invoice’ fills you with fear, don’t worry!

PW: Now, for regular clients I tend to send out monthly invoices on the first of every month. For more ad hoc work, I send my invoice along with the completed work. You will find you get into patterns with different clients about how it works. Also, for the journalistic and media work I do, I have a LOT less say in how the payment system works! They have long established procedures and you just have to lump it. In my commercial work, I have a lot more control over my own terms and conditions. So, especially because I do commercial work as well, I really notice the difference.

LH: Yes, you do have to have a certain level of flexibility when it comes to payment times – at first, any less-than-savoury clients might be able to pull the wool over your eyes with stuff about their accounts department, but as you get more and more used to freelancing, you do start to see patterns and, basically, your bullshit radar gets a bit more sensitive! As I mentioned, agencies tend to pay invoices at the end of the month. And as Pip says, media organisations are often a bit dogmatic about their accounts and take a lot longer. So take note of how you’re paid, so you can detect whether something seems out of the ordinary.

PW: Speaking of clients trying to pull the wool over your eyes, my accountant has been very helpful at decoding the nonsense I get from accounting departments. I tell her what they say, and she says, “Oh, that means they’re pretending they’ve paid but they haven’t yet”, or, “Oh, if they say that it means they know they’re going to be late but won’t admit it”. It’s quite funny that there’s a secret language for all this stuff that I’m not normally privy to!

LH: I think your accountant could make a lot of money from an exposé on this kind of stuff!

PW: Ha ha! I’ll suggest it to her! And of course there will always be circumstances where someone genuinely messes up, like we all do from time to time, and they legitimately forget, be off sick or whatever. That’s fine, you have to live with that, but perhaps be more clear for the future about how to avoid it.

LH:  Definitely – you can’t operate a one-strike and you’re out policy – as Pip says, people muck up from time to time. Maybe they’re off sick – if it’s a one-off, then you don’t need to do anything. If they’re off a bit more often, maybe see if you can CC someone into your emails. Even if a normally reliable client forgets to pay you on time more than once, there are things to do before you get to the “No more Ms Nice Freelancer” stage. The first step is reminding them. The second step is finding out if there’s an issue. The third step is seeing what you can do to help – maybe you could communicate with the accounts department directly. Maybe you could send them a reminder a few days before the invoice is due. Talk to your client.

PW: Communication is key.

LH: Definitely. So, now we’ve talked about how to be flexible, it’s time to talk about how to chase payment when it hasn’t happened. Now, the first thing I would say – and it’s not actually chasing per se – is give someone a chance – don’t chase on the very morning payment’s due. Three, two, one…no invoice? Get on it!

PW: Oh, absolutely. If nothing else, the bank computer might be having a glitch and the payment will appear in another 10 minutes! I give a few days grace at least – most often longer than that, to be honest.

LH: Yeah, I tend to give five to seven working days, and take weekends into account. The second thing I’d say is check and double check your account to make sure you’ve not been paid. Don’t just give it a cursory glance, as the company paying you might not be the name you’re used to associating with that firm – it might be a parent company paying you. Or, they might have combined two invoices together, so the figure you’re expecting to see might not be there. Cross check the company and amount before you get in touch with client.

PW: This can be so confusing. A lot of small businesses also ship out their accounts. If they don’t use the invoice number or their usual name, it can be really confusing! But cross-referencing the amounts I have been paid and the dates can help a lot.

PW: Sometimes it does get to the point where you have to start chasing a client for payment. It’s unpleasant, but there are ways you can do it that make the process easier, not just for you but also for the client. Always start by being really polite about it – if your first email to them is, “Oy! Where’s my money?” then you’re not going to open a dialogue with them! They might have been off sick or something when the payment was due to come out. So start by just enquiring – mention that you were expecting to have received the payment by now, and you were wondering if everything was ok at their end. Always attach a copy of the invoice in question again too, just to be clear about exactly what you’re chasing.

LH: Yes, 100% agree. Even if you’ve done it a thousand times with other clients and 100 times in the same morning, and you’re feeling very jaded – because it can feel really unfair! – remember to give every client the benefit of the doubt. There’s no point getting  belligerent , especially not at the start, because it’s going to alienate your client, show you in a bad light and possibly wreck your chances of getting paid at all – if you’re client’s a bit that way inclined.

PW: Ooh, belligerent is a good word, by the way.

LH: Thanks, I like it!  I do have favourite words sometimes! So yes, when you’ve enquired, your next step depends on how the client reacts.

PW: If you don’t get a reply, or if they promise to pay you today and don’t, then after a dialogue with them (as best you can manage, depending on how they react – or whether they reply at all) you might need to get a bit more direct. Again, still not rude, just more insistent that you have completed the work – or whatever the agreement was – and that you haven’t been paid as agreed. Don’t feel shy about pointing out that they did agree to this!

LH: Yes, when it gets to that point, I start talking about the fact that my work was (and usually always has been) submitted on time, often on very short deadlines. I mention how long their payment period was, and how late they are. I mention any previous promises to pay, (“I’ll sort it tomorrow, I’ll pay you today” etc.) and finish off with a very direct request that they pay and confirm payment immediately. It’s a shame to have to cut the pleasantries but, while you shouldn’t be rude, it’s a little false to keep including small talk at that point. Normally, emailing a client, I’ll have a bit of chat with them. But once you’re past that dialogue, don’t be apologetic or worried, because if someone is not responding to your communications about them not paying you what they owe you, then you don’t have to be super friendly. Again, as Pip’s just said, this is *after* a dialogue has taken place.

PW: Yeah, I think mentioning the date is a good point. I sent an email today – bear in mind it’s January – saying, “I refer to my invoice of August 2012…”

LH: That’s ludicrous. That’s last summer!

PW: Absolutely. I will also sometimes withhold work if a payment gets very late. I let them know it is done, and ready, and as soon as I receive the payment I will send it to them. I really, really, really hate having to do this, but there doesn’t seem much else I can do sometimes. And that only works with regular work, of course. But yes, if there are real problems, it’s something you can use. I don’t like it, but it’s something you can use as a last resort. I’ve even told clients that I don’t like it!

LH: Yes, I think that that’s a good example of the open communication. It’s not good cop vs bad cop, from “Oh hi, how are you?” to “Where’s my cash, now now now!”

PW: Yes, and you’re not a robot. Humanising yourself can sometimes help to get through to them.

LH: Yes. I think it’s acceptable sometimes to, for want of a better phrase, to play the guilt card. As Pip says, you’re not a robot. If your client has let you down and left you out of pocket, I think it’s OK to let your client know how seriously they’re inconveniencing you.

PW: Yes, when you get to an accounts department of a medium sized business, they’re paying freelancers but they’re also paying massive distributors and suppliers etc. and they may forget that there’s a human at the end of the email who’s being really inconvenienced – it can make a difference.

LH: Yes. But choose the recipient of your sob story carefully – only be open with people you have that kind of communication with!

LH: In terms of other ways of protecting myself from late payment, what I’ve started doing – and it’s something we’ll talk about in a bit more detail in a mo – is including a clause in my writing agreements that reverts copyright of a piece of work to me if payment is late by more than a certain amount of time. That way, the writing belongs to me, not the client, unless they pay for it.

PW: So, while often it’s just something that’s been overlooked, sometimes – as in the case of my August invoice! – things are getting really ridiculous.

LH: Yes, when flexibility crosses the line into bare-faced cheek, we need to talk about what to do when someone keeps paying you late. When someone is starting to take the proverbial, there are tell-tale signs. As we mentioned earlier, you’ll recognise these more easily as time goes by. But, things like a failure to answer your calls or respond to your emails. Excuses that don’t really hold up. Seeming indifference to the fact that you’ve not been paid for the work you delivered to them – these aren’t very good signs at all, and you’re within your rights to note them down in your little black book and to decide how you want to progress with that client in future. You might want to solve the problem – you certainly want to get paid! – but it’s time to question whether you want to work with them again in future.

PW: God, I had one client use the same excuse twice! They’d obviously forgotten they’d used it before. It wasn’t something awful like the death of a parent, but it was clearly their stock excuse.

LH: My father’s died! Again!

PW: Haha! Another sign is if they are normally very quick at answering emails, and all of a sudden they are not available, it may be time to get suspicious.

LH: Yes, it’s horribly clichéd, isn’t it? You wouldn’t believe that a full-grown business person could resort to something like hiding from emails and phonecalls, but it’s usually what happens if someone’s planning on skipping out on a payment.

LH: So, if a client is a persistent late payer, the first thing I tend to do (and I mean in terms of progressing with the working relationship, rather than chasing them) is to reduce the length of the payment period so I can keep a closer eye on what’s coming in and when – and that’s IF I want to keep that client on in future. The fact is, I don’t want to spend a month knowing full well that a client will pay me late and that I’ll then have to start chasing on a weekly basis thereafter. It prolongs an already awkward process.

PW: Another thing to remember is that nowadays, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking email is the only option. Actually, in these cases, it’s good to pick up the phone. You’re harder to ignore, and you’re more humanised. They have to face it a bit more. And you may finally get to the truth of what’s happening – when you get them on the phone, they might just say what the problem is.

LH: It can be difficult sometimes. Pip and I don’t enjoy cold-calling people, and chasing payment over the phone can feel similar, can’t it?

PW: Uuuuugh! That’s how much I enjoy it!

LH: Haha! I think it might be a generational thing – email feels like the appropriate method of contact.

PW: Yes – and I totally worry if I’m interrupting someone, and I feel like I should email first to check it’s a good time.

LH: And you get round to the first point: that it’s not nice to chase for money. And for those clients who are trying not to pay you, it’s not nice to phone that kind of person up and chase them for money. You can only hope it embarrasses them into paying you!

LH: If you decide you want to carry on with a working relationship with a bad payer, a good suggestion that was made to me by a fellow freelancer was to encourage clients, and particularly late payers, to buy “credit” from you.

LH: So, a client can pay you, say, £100, and you complete work to that value. Once their ‘credit’ is getting low, you send them a reminder. I do work this way very occasionally – it tends to be for new clients who want a one-off job doing, say, a website rewrite. I’ll give them a time estimate (and this feeds back into Pip’s last solo episode, so if you haven’t listened to that already, go and do that straight after this!) and ask them to pay 50% or 100% of that up front. Once I’ve used all the hours they’ve paid for, I send them a time-sheet (and obviously the work!) to let them know exactly what they’ve paid for.  If more time is needed, this is then added on; if less time is needed, it’s subtracted from the remaining balance.

PW: The credit-style idea is a really good one. I think it’s not one you’d want to use all the time, but I can see it working really well in some situations.

LH: Yeah, it’s just to protect yourself. The recommendation was made to me when I was complaining to my friend about not being paid by a particular client again.

PW: Now, another thing I probably don’t do often enough is setting out formal written legal agreements when you’re setting out with new clients or renegotiating with current clients.

LH: Yeah – I do it sometimes, not other times. Some of it does go off gut instinct with me. As I said earlier that’s not a judgement on the client – it tends to go off recent experience, whether I’ve been paid late a lot recently – things like that! But yes, it’s a nice idea to protect yourself with a copywriting agreement. I spotted one, and it was the Plain English copywriting contract by John McGarvey – it’s a really, really plain English document, very down to earth, and it outlines what’s expected of both parties. I’ve looked through it, I found it a bit patronising but I can see it working for one off clients, sole traders who aren’t up to date with legalese and stuff like that. You’ll want to tailor this agreement for yourself, but if you get your clients to sign something, you’ll know where you stand.

PW: Also, the video that got me into a lot of trouble at *that* networking event, called F* You Pay Me, is all about the importance of contracts to protect yourself against shady clients. Links to both these things are in the show notes. When I first started thinking about contracts, I wondered if it would seem overly formal. But the best recommendations I’ve seen – one self-employed guy has a general contract embedded in his website, and in his email signature, he says that, “By working with me, you agree to these terms”. Or, you can send an agreement over with your quote, and say “Agreeing to work with me assumes you agree to these terms”, it just softens it.

PW: Yes, even if I don’t send an official legal document, I always try to send an email to all parties, summarising the agreement we have come to verbally, so that everybody is clear. If they agree with my summary, we start work from there. If not, we adapt it until we all agree. But it stops people backpedalling, and also it protects the client to a degree as well, they have exactly what we promised to do written down.

LH: While you can tailor a project agreement to suit you, the thing I’d suggest in all instances is that you protect your copyright.

PW: Some freelancers also build late penalty fees into their contracts with clients. If the payment is a week late, 10% is added to the total; if it’s 4 weeks late, 30% is added on, or whatever. As long as the client has signed the contract, then they are likely to try and pay on time! I have never done this, but I would probably consider it if I was involved in a massive project, especially if it involved working with other freelancers as well or needing to pay other people.

LH: Yes, I’ve never used a late fee but I would if I thought it would help. But yes, I’d definitely suggest, in all instances, that you protect your copyright – as in, your rights to a piece of writing. If a client isn’t planning on paying you at all – and sadly, there are some like that – a late penalty or the threat of a late penalty won’t have any effect on them: it’s just one more thing they’re not intending to pay. However, if you stipulate in your agreement with them that late payment means that the rights to a piece of work revert to you, your client has a lot more to lose. Any attempt by them to use the piece of work they’ve not paid you for will result in a breach of your intellectual property rights, and it’s not a situation that many clients will want to find themselves in.

PW: Yes, absolutely. Similar to what Lorrie said, I just keep the copyright until I’ve been paid. I always clarify that the copyright moves to them once I have received payment. Until then the copyright is mine. (For commercial work that is, it’s different with media and journalistic stuff, again). But for commercial work, especially ghost writing, like blog posts published under clients’ names, that’s my agreement with clients. Once they’ve paid, it’s theirs entirely – until then, it’s mine.

LH: I might start implementing that actually – it just cuts out a step.

PW: Yes, and it’s not hard to implement. Nothing changes hands, so it’s easy. There is also, in the worst of worst case scenarios, the option of taking the client to court. Now, neither of us has any idea about legal advice – we’re not lawyers – but this is a pretty drastic action. This will work differently in all different countries, but be it the Small Claims Court here, or whatever, it’s a pretty drastic action, but if you want to do it on principle, or because you simply want to be paid for the work you did, it could be worth considering – as long as you never want any repeat business from that client again!! You really, really have to be at a stage where you are happy to burn your bridges to take this step, but would you really want repeat custom from someone who refused to pay anyway?

LH: No, you don’t want that sort of person on your books. The amount of stress caused by chasing late payments, it’s just not worth it. One thing I would suggest before you get to the point of going to court – and it’s not like we’re suggesting that you go from chasing payment to BAM – court summons! – is that you should get someone, say a debt collection agency, to try and get the payment first. I heard this can be a really effective step but, as Pip says, this isn’t something to be tried unless you’re happy to lose your client.

PW: It’s now time for our Little Bird Recommendations of the week. My recommendation is related to one of Lorrie’s previous ones – the website, Unbounce, which is full of information on sales pages, conversions and things like that. Now, all last week, they had a theme going on about email marketing conversions. And last Thursday, they wrote a great post about writing the perfect email subject line. Now, this is interesting because, when you have a whole page of copy to write, you can be very persuasive and emotive. But when you’ve got only an email subject, you have no room to mess up. Now, apparently the average working professional receives 100 emails a day – I can agree with that, I probably get more. I now archive more emails than I ever read, but sometimes, an email that would normally get archived just has something about the subject line that makes me open it.

PW: This post goes into the science of it. Subjects between 28-39 characters had the highest open rate in a study of 200 million emails. So yes, it goes into some of the very tested things plus some of the more stylistic things you need to know. And it has a six-step method to improve email open rates, and if you do any kind of sales copy – and I’m sure a lot of it would apply to blog titles as well – or if you have your own email mailing list, it’d be really helpful as well. Plus, this post is an infographic, which I love – I’ll post the link in the show-notes, so you can see the whole thing.

LH: It’s interesting what you said about it being useful if you have your own mailing list. What you don’t want to do is alienate your mailing list. People don’t really realise how valuable legitimately acquired data is. If you start sending emails to people with rubbish spammy titles, they’ll click spam on you and you’ll end up blacklisted.

LH: My recommendation is a fairly similar one. It’s a series of posts by Copyblogger.com. I love their posts – and their emails are brilliant as well. They give you a proper summary of their posts, they’re not annoying or spammy, and you go over and get a really good article.

PW: Copyblogger is one of those sites where I’ve never read a post that’s disappointed me.

LH: So yes, Copyblogger is great, but the series of posts I want to recommend is called “Magnetic headlines” and it’s a series on how to get your article, press release, blog post headlines all right. And it makes a huge difference to how many will click and read what you’re telling them, and how much traffic you’ll get.

PW: Yes, you’ll see these headlines spinning down social media and you’ve only got a moment to get it right.

LH: Yes, it’s super important and super difficult – you’ve got a two-figure number of characters to get it right in; if you get it wrong, people aren’t going to click. So in the Magnetic Headlines series, and these are all full blog articles, and they’re very informative and accessible, Why You Should Write Your Headlines First, How To Write A Killer ‘How To’ Post, Seven More Sure-Fire Headline Templates That Work.

PW: Lists are really popular as well.

LH: Yes, and choose an unusual number – steer clear of things like five or 10 (just a free tip from us there). People like unusual numbers! But yes, these articles are a really comprehensive guide to giving the right first impressions. And they’re by Brian Clarke, who’s the CEO of Copyblogger and he really knows what he’s talking about. Copyblogger articles are really good, and this is an 11-part series. As we’ve talked about, training is really important as part of your freelance career…

PW: Yes, and it can just be reading something like this, instead of going back to University!

LH: Yes – so sit there and have a proper active read of these; get a pen and paper and really engage with the articles and keep your skills up to date. My next solo episode will be on how to command a higher salary as a freelancer; integrating training and development into your regular routine is absolutely crucial to increasing your salary. So yes, take good note of the things we recommend – they’re all things we’d look at ourselves; we don’t just throw stuff out there!

PW: And I think that listening to the A Little Bird Told Me podcast can legitimately be included as part of your training!

LH: As long as you cite us – and come and say hello!

PW: Yes, we know we’ve got loads of great listeners, but then we go to our Facebook page and we’re all lonely again. So come and say hello – you’ll make two Northern lasses very happy indeed. So we hope that what we’ve covered today will be some help in helping you to negotiate payments, payment terms, payment types, and also how to handle things if someone pays late, particularly repeatedly. If you have any comments or questions, let us know. If you want to find our contact details, they’re all at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com. I’ve been Philippa Willitts

LH: …and I’ve been Lorrie Hartshorn, and we look forward to talking to you again next time.

 

Podcast Episode 23: How to Decide What to Charge for your Freelance Writing Services

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When starting out as a freelancer, negotiating the tricky world of how much to quote to potential clients can seem entirely bewildering and confusing. How do you pick a number? Do you charge per hour or per piece of work? And are the numbers you are quoting realistic?

Deciding what your hourly rate should be, how much to charge for a press release or a direct marketing package and how to avoid falling into the pitfalls of asking for too little are all discussed in this solo podcast episode.

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Hello and welcome to episode 23 of A Little Bird Told Me: the podcast about the highs, the lows and the no-nos of successful self-employment.

I’m Philippa Willitts and today I’m going to be talking about how to decide what to charge as a freelance writer. This is solo episode, so I’m here without my usual co-host Lorrie, but we’ll be back with a dual episode next week.

Now, different people listen to this podcast in different ways. So, the best place to find us if you’re unsure is at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com. That’s where you can find all the links to suvscribe via RSS, iTunes and Stitcher. You can also find a link to our Facebook page, as well as all of Lorrie’s and my websites and social media links. So do that, no matter where you’re listening to us right now, check us out in those other places to make sure you never miss another episode.

Sample invoice

Sample invoice (Photo credit: bjmccray)

I’m coming to you today from a very snowy city, which makes me incredibly happy to work from home. I don’t’ have to deal with all the cancelled buses, and slipping all over the place – it makes freelancing very enriching and rewarding on days like this! So, anyway, as I said, today I’ll be talking about how to decide what to charge. Setting your own rates when you’re starting out as a freelancer can be very confusing. I know I was so confused when I started: I didn’t know how to charge, what to charge, what was reasonable…I just had no idea. Luckily, I had some very well established freelance writers who helped me a lot.

I didn’t want to know their numbers: it didn’t matter so much to me what they charged. What confused me was the process: how did they get to that figure? And thankfully, like I say, some really helpful people explained it to me, so I’m going to go through the process with you today. And, actually, in two weeks’ time – in Lorrie’s solo episode – she’s going to be talking about how to increase your rates. But what I’m talking about today is how to set your rates initially.

So, the first stage in setting your prices is working out what you want to earn – and indeed, what you need to earn. There are two main ways of charging, which I’ll go into later, and that’s to charge hourly or by project. But whichever you choose, you have to start by working out how much you need to earn.

So, do you want to earn £200 a week? £500? £800? Choose something realistic, don’t underestimate – you’ve got to consider your bills, your expenses, all that kind of thing. So once you have a figure of how much you want to earn per work, you need to work out how many hours a week you want to work. After that, look at how many hours per week you need to spend doing non-chargeable work, so things like invoicing, admin, marketing, updating your website etc.

Then – and don’t worry, this episode isn’t all maths! –  minus this number from the number of hours you want to work as a whole, you will be left with the number of “writing hours” you have. You may want to work 40 hours a week, 15 of which will be spent doing non-chargeable work. Then, divide the amount you want to earn by this number of writing hours, and you have your hourly rate. If that sounded complicated, do rewind and listen again. Essentially you need the number of hours you can spend writing per week, and how much you want to earn per week. To make it a simple calculation, say you want to earn £200 a week and write for 10 hours, then your hourly rate is £20.

Now, some people prefer to do calculations by monthly or even annual earnings, but it follows the same pattern. If you work things out and you don’t feel confident about whether or not the rates you are charging are reasonable, do an online search for other freelancers and take a good look at their rates. If nothing else, you will reassure yourself with the fact that there are no “set” rates for anything! Some people seem to charge a fortune; others seem to charge virtually nothing. But looking at others’ rates, or indeed rates recommended by industry bodies or professional societies, can help you to work out whether your own rates are fair and reasonable. Having said that, don’t look at the rates writers charge on freelancing sites like Elance and freelancer.com. They will lead you to believe that you have to sell your soul and virtually pay other people to get work. It’s not unreasonable to want a decent hourly rate, but those kinds of sites will lead you to believe it is.

Money

Money (Photo credit: Tax Credits)

Some people like to set their rates just slightly below their peers’. So if everybody seems to be charging £50 for a particular piece of work, then charging £48 can actually put you at an advantage. There are a lot of clients who would go with you simply because you’re cheaper, even if it is by a very small amount. However there is also psychology at play here, and it can also have the opposite effect, with potential clients assuming that you charge less because you are less talented or capable.

When I first started out, a very well established freelance copywriter very kindly gave me some much-appreciated advice. One of the things she told me was that for big corporate clients, those with massive businesses, you should actually consider upping your rates a bit. Not, as I initially thought, because they could afford it, but in fact because if you approach them with very low rates then they won’t take you seriously, and they won’t think you are any good at your job.

So pitching your price exactly can be a tricky business, and it might be that you change your rates when you are getting established, over time, as you get more of an idea of how it all works, and that is completely fine.
So, it’s now time to look at the different options you have for charging. There are two main ways to price your work, and they are to charge hourly, or to charge per project. First, I’m going to look at charging hourly. Now, this isn’t how I work – but Lorrie, my usual co-host, tends to work with hourly charges, so the first thing I did was to ask her why – and what the benefits were.

First of all, she works with some agencies and they charge by the day so for her, it’s easy to calculate the fees she needs to charge with an hourly rate rather than a project one. She also says, “I find that, say, a press release or news story can vary in terms of length, research etc. so I prefer to charge exactly what it cost me out of my day. If it took less time, I genuinely do charge less so, over time, clients get to see the give and take from this, and it builds trust.”

Finally, she says, “I do a lot of training and development, and I try to keep my skills polished. No matter what they’re hiring me to do, or write, or edit, they’re still hiring me, so my rate remains the same.”

So that was Lorrie on why she prefers hourly charging. So let’s look more deeply at hourly charging. Now, one benefit of hourly charging is that you’re kept safe from a project suddenly taking a lot longer than you expect.

If you get commissioned to do a normal blog post but it turns out to need several interviews and lots of hours of research, you’re safe in the knowledge that you’ll be paid for all the work you do. The risk with that, though, is that, as you become better at your job and more adept at what you’re doing, you actually risk being paid less and less over time for the same work. Because, if when you start, a blog post takes you two hours, but you only need 45 minutes once you know that client better, you’re doing the same or better work but getting charged less.

Going back to the benefits, it’s also good if you’re new to freelancing, and you don’t know how long certain jobs are likely to take you. You might have experience writing articles and blog posts, for example, but if you get asked for a case study and you’ve never done one before, it’s really hard to work out a “per project” fee when you don’t know if it will take you 20 minutes or four hours. So, charging hourly does offer safeguards for a freelancer.

However, I choose to charge by project. The way I work out what to charge per project is to go back to that initial calculation of what I want to earn for an hour’s work, then work out (as best I can) how long different pieces of work are likely to take. So, if writing a press release would take me three hours, then it would be three times my hourly rate. If something else takes me half an hour, then that’s half my hourly rate. I find that clients often feel reassured because they know they are not going to get an unexpectedly large bill – it feels kind of like asking that client to write a blank cheque if you say, “Yes, I’ll do this work for you, and you pay whatever I charge you in the end.” They tend to want to know in advance how much they’ll be paying.

Cash

Cash (Photo credit: BlatantWorld.com)

Now, the way you work this out might vary. You might set a price per 500 or 1000 words of writing, or proof-reading. For instance, I have a set fee for 1000 words of proof-reading. I have a set fee for a 500 word blog post. That kind of thing. You also might charge per item – which might be per press release, per website rewrite, per case study etc. I have a mixture: I have press release and case study fees, and I also have number-of-words fees for website copy and things like that.

You do have to be a bit more careful, when charging per project, to make sure you have ALL the details of what is going to be involved – how much research, will you need to conduct interviews, how big will the end product be, is the topic familiar to you, will you need to collaborate with others, such as designers, SEO people? That adds a lot of time. If a client comes to you with a big project, they’re all things you need to be able to work out in advance so you can come up with a quote about how much it’ll probably cost.

Another thing about charging per project is that some people offer packages: a set price for, say, eight blog posts per month, or a set fee for a press release and case study on the same topic. This is a good way to expand the work you get, give you experience in wider areas, and persuade clients to order more than they might have originally intended! Not in a sly, exploitative way, but they might see the benefit – like, “Oh, a case study to go with that press release would be great – we could put it on our website and in our annual report.”

So, that’s why I charge per project. I feel clearer knowing exactly what I’m getting; it makes quotes easier; it reassures clients that they’re not going to get a massive invoice, and we all know where we are. However, as Lorrie explained, she much prefers to charge hourly in general. So, it all really, really depends on what you feel comfortable with, what your clients react well to. Perhaps even try a bit of both when you start out, and see which you prefer.

When looking at how to set your fees overall, I can’t stress enough how important it is to factor in self-employment related costs, because – unlike in salaried work –  you’re not being paid for admin time, holidays, equipment etc.  Also, if you’re in the States or other countries you will want to factor in things like health insurance. So make sure they’re included in your original calculations. Other things to bear in mind is that you are entitled to charge extra for rush work. You might want to add 50% to your fee, or whatever suits you – again, I’m not giving you numbers, but more how you go about coming to figures that suit you.

As long as it’s agreed in advance, you can also charge more for late payments. It’s also important, when talking to new clients, to be clear how many revisions are allowed, and how extra revisions will be charged.  A lot of people include one or two – if the client wants more, if you’ve agreed in advance that they’ll be charged at a certain rate, you won’t find yourself being taken advantage of by a client on their sixth revision because you didn’t specify in the first place.

Also, if you have a very specialist subject, you may find you can charge more for specialised work that few people could do.

Even if it’s not specialist work, don’t ever undervalue your talents and your skills.  Stick to your guns. Don’t be bullied or persuaded into reducing your rates, especially on spurious promises like, “Oh, if you do this, we can bring you a lot more work”. That very rarely happens, but even if it does, they’ll probably argue with you about price again. Extra work isn’t in your interest if it’s all at a very low rate.

You might decide to lower your rates for, say, non-profits, but if actually the majority of your clients are non-profits then this becomes unsustainable. If you want to, then do offer discount or mates’ rates if you really want to, but don’t feel obliged to. Particularly, don’t feel obliged to take on, say, more than one “mates’ rates” project at a time. I reduce my fees for non-profits, and on proof-reading for students. But, if I found that the majority of my income was based on proof-reading for students, that would be unsustainable, so be careful.

So, I hope that’s answered a few of your questions about how to set you rates for freelance writing. Whether you go with hourly rates, project rates or do different ones for each project, the important thing is to go with one that works well for you. A system that’s easy for you, so if someone contacts you wanting a quote, you can respond pretty quickly. But also, one that’s fair to you – don’t offer stupidly low prices to get work and end up not being able to pay your bills at the end of the month.

Let us know what you think. Pop over to our Facebook page, contact us on social media. All the links are at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com. We love to hear from you – we know we’ve got some brilliant listeners all over the world and we love to get your feedback. So I hope that’s been helpful! I’ve been Philippa Willitts, and I look forward to seeing you next time!

Podcast Episode 22: The Hows, the Whys and the Wherefores of the Perfect Press Release

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Knowing how to write an attention-grabbing, appropriately formatted press release is an essential skill for any copywriter. Whether your clients are in industry, the public sector, sole traders or charities, you will almost certainly be asked to produce press releases on different topics and you will be expected to know exactly the style and tone that is required. In this episode of A Little Bird Told Me, Lorrie and I discuss when press releases are useful (and when they should be avoided), as well as how to go about writing them.

Show Notes

Creative Commons Search

Death to Buzz Words

Plain English Campaign

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Transcript

Newspapers yellow

Newspapers yellow (Photo credit: NS Newsflash)

LH: Hello, and welcome to Episode 22 of A Little Bird Told Me: the podcast about the highs, the lows, and the no-nos of successful freelance writing.  You can find us on the web at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com, and there you can subscribe to the podcast in any number of ways, including RSS, iTunes, Stitcher Smart Radio or on the Podomatic page itself. You can also find the link to our Facebook page, where there will be plenty of tips, tricks and topics to enjoy. I’m Lorrie Hartshorn…

PW: And I’m Philippa Willitts, and this week we are going to be talking about writing press releases. How to write them, what they’re used for – that kind of thing. The ability to write a press release is an essential skill for a freelance copywriter – every client will expect you to be able to do it, and to do it well, so mastering the techniques involved is vital. So we want to first look at what press releases are.

LH: A press release is a pretty important exercise in branding. It’s an official statement that a company or organisation issues to newspapers, websites, magazines and other publications in order to publicise and share, and inform on a certain subject or event.

Put simply, a press release is an official news story, so it’s important that you get it 100% right every time – firstly, because it’s your, or your client’s official word on a particular subject and will set the tone for your or their business, and secondly, because publications receive a lot of press releases from people wanting to shout about something, so the press release itself needs to conform to a strict set of standards to avoid ending up unread and in the sin bin. If an editor or journalist can’t get the right information from your press release straight away, they don’t have the time or the inclination to sit there trying to puzzle it out.

PW: They are written with a really distinctive style and have to follow certain rules, which we will go on to talk about later. But a key thing is that they’re not the place to indulge in extreme creativity or bending the rules! They have a particular format, and if nothing else, journalists are used to receiving them in that format, so sticking with the convention is important if you want to have a hope in somebody picking up your release and publishing a story about it. If they have to hunt around for key information they just won’t bother.

LH: I’ve seen some scarily creative press releases in my time, and I’ve never been impressed by them – it’s never worked. I know some people can get a bit creative with news stories, articles, job applications, but not press releases.

So, now we’ve talked about what press releases are, we want to discuss what they’re used for. So, unless you pride yourself on doing something eminently newsworthy every single day, the most common type of press release you’ll write is for someone else.

PW: This is true. Although sometimes a large part of the challenge of writing press releases is that something the client sends you isn’t necessarily eminently newsworthy either! They’re doing it for self-promotional purposes. Your job is to take their brief and turn it into something that sounds like news, even if what you start with is a brief about a company having hired a new member of staff, or having held a raffle or got a new car park.

LH: I’m laughing because I’m remembering the horror I’ve faced in the past. Yes, that’s sadly quite true – I remember being asked to write a press release for one of my clients on something really quite unexceptional, and being asked whether I’d be able to get it on the 6 o’clock news, please! If I can, I thought, I’m charging too little – it’d be a miracle!

To be fair, it might be that the subject matter really is lacking; other times, though, it might just be a question of finding the right niche. It’s important to bear in mind that it’s not all or nothing with a press release – while it might not be breaking national news, it could still be of interest to the client’s local regional publications, as well as trade press.

PW: Absolutely. If they sell copper pipes and they come up with an innovative new copper pipe, you might think, “Who cares?” but plenty of people do. Send it to the Daily Mail, they won’t care. Copper Pipes Monthly will love it!

English: The Daily Mail clock, just off Kensin...

LH: If you get some sort of immigration angle on it, the Daily Mail will love it – Foreign Copper Pipes Taking Over British Steel!

PW: Hahaha! Killing our swans!

LH: Haha, killing swans – I do like that! The Daily Mail is fond of talking about Her Majesty’s swans! But yes, sometimes it’ll just be a matter of luck – regional press or trade press might be having a slow news day. So if your client just cut the red ribbon on a new car park, as you mentioned earlier, maybe their local paper might want to cover that, especially if there are some nice pictures of the mayor cutting the ribbon.

PW: Yeah, if it’s three days after Christmas and literally nothing’s happening, then you might get it in. If there’s just been a local disaster, you’ve got no hope.

LH: “Local disaster, followed by really nice car park!” Oh dear! But it’s a tough balance. If your client sends out a press release to, say, their local newspaper once a week on something utterly ridiculous, they might end up getting black-listed as a bit of a spammer. But, unless you’re looking at something absolutely ridiculous or offensive, I’d leave it to the client to decide when a press release should be sent. As I said before, you might find it deathly dull, but there might well be a very interested target audience.

PW: This is very true. Interestingly, today on Twitter I’ve seen a lot of usage of the hashtag #notnews, which people are using to highlight when traditional news websites publish content about a celeb losing weight, or a footballer having dyed his hair (this was a genuine #notnews story this morning!).

LH: I saw one today on the Daily Mail – it was a photo of Jennifer Anniston smiling and it was entitled, “Chin chin – Jennifer Anniston shows of a fuller face” and she looked exactly the same as she always does.

PW: And it’s just not news, is it?

LH: Well, I think I need to write to the Daily Mail about those copper pipes if Jennifer Anniston’s chin is considered news!

PW: There may also be occasional occasions, if you will, when you want to send out a press release on behalf of yourself. Perhaps you have won a writing award, or published a book, and you are keen to raise your profile by alerting local press, or trade publications. It can sometimes be difficult to be entirely honest with yourself on these occasions, about whether your news really is… well… news, so checking out with somebody else what they think is a good start. We might feel so overjoyed just by handing in a big website rewrite that we think the world would care, but they wouldn’t.

LH: Haha, yes. Breaking News: COPYWRITER DOES WORK!

PW: Ha ha ha!

PW: However if you genuinely do have something newsworthy, you can consider sending out a press release, because it can definitely help you to make a good name for yourself, and raise your profile. Follow the same rules and guidelines as if you are writing one for somebody else, write it in the third person, and send it out to *relevant* publications, not to all and sundry. If nothing else, annoying reporters does not help you when you have future “news”.

LH: Definitely true – it taps into what we were saying earlier about clients sending something out every week; you don’t want to get yourself black-listed. That said, because we’re British, I do want to say that you should be fair to yourself as well – if you’ve genuinely got some news that you’d be happy to share on behalf of a client, don’t hold back just because it’s you and you feel a bit shy or silly. Remember, you’re not promoting yourself; you’re promoting your business in a perfectly normal, reasonable way.

PW: I know one guy who bought a subscription to one of the big online press release distribution services, and the subscription he bought entitles him to send one press release a day. In order to feel he hasn’t wasted his really big investment, he does send out a press release every single day. That can work if you’re a multinational, but he’s just a bloke running a fairly ordinary business, so you can imagine the kind of “news” he lumbers them with. And you really, really don’t want people to automatically switch off when they see your name in their email inbox!

LH: It’s so massively unfortunate – there really is such a thing as overkill and this would be a perfect example.
I think a lot of clients I’ve spoken to are a little confused by the difference between press releases and news articles – they use the terms interchangeably, and I do sometimes have to go back to them and check. The problem is that it can lead to them viewing the functionalities of the two types of writing as interchangeable as well.

PW: Whereas, as writing exercises, they are pretty much at the opposite ends of the spectrum!

LH: Absolutely. You wouldn’t send a blog post to a national publication, but if someone calls that a press release, you think, “Oh hang on, there are press release search engines, press release distribution services…maybe I should send this “press release” TO THE PRESS!” and you think, “No, don’t do it!”
I’ve got some clients who tell me that they want, say, five press releases a month writing, but they’ll actually be closer to reports. Or blog posts. They do send them to the press release search engines, such as PR Newswire and Business Wire, but it’s pretty obvious that, while this will be handy for, say, Google ranking, because it’s not excessive, it’s not likely that the work will be picked up by publications. The Times isn’t going to be on Business Wire looking for this client’s press releases.

PW: I think a lot of businesses fall into the trap of saying, “OK, we want five press releases a month” and then look for stories, whereas it’s better to do it the other way round – to do something good and then write a press release about it.

LH: Definitely – it feeds into what we were saying about mixing up press releases and news stories. I write news stories for people and occasionally, I’ll say, “I think we can get a press release out of this.” So I’ll write them a nice press release and then you can bring that down to a nice news article as well, but generally a news story is just a news story.

PW: There are some reputable – and generally expensive – PR distribution services online, and there are some free or cheap ones which send things out indiscriminately, and could result in Google penalties if links to your – or your client’s – sites end up on 8,000 article directories, so do be careful. A good way around it is to have your own personal contact list of journalists and publications who you have built relationships with over years. Your releases are much more likely to be read if they go to somebody with a specific interest in what you are writing about.

LH: God, yes – you have to be so careful not to spam people. Previously, that wouldn’t have done any damage, but with the new Google algorithms, that’s a total no-no. So readers, if you’re interested, that’s the Google Penguin and Google Panda updates. So yes, be so careful not to spam.

Going back to the idea of having personalised mailing lists, that’s actually a service I provide clients with – particularly new start-up firms – and it’s a far better approach to send reasonably frequent press releases to people you know are going to be interested rather than sending a big hit or allowing a site to do it on your behalf, both of which are in dodgy legal territory anyway. You’d not only be looking at getting yourself a whole bunch of Google penalties, as you point out, Pip, you’d be looking at making your business (or your client’s business) synonymous with spam. If your client is clueless and they take a hit from a press release that you’ve sent for them, it won’t do your reputation any good either.

So, now we’ve talked a bit about what press releases are, and how they’re used, we want to discuss how to write one. This is something that both Pip and I have noticed that a lot of writers – massive hand movements here! A LOT! – get horribly wrong and, as we’ve mentioned before, that can have disastrous consequences. Not only that, they’re supposed to be a basic thing – one of the staples of copywriting. There’s no excuse.

PW: Definitely. If a business hires you for any copywriting work and they like what they do, you have to expect that a press release will come your way at some point. As Lorrie says, they’re a staple.
Unlike virtually all other documents you might be commissioned to write, press releases are virtually identical to their typewritten counterparts years ago. They are very restricted in their style and formatting, to the point where I actually have a checklist that I use every single time I have to write a press release. This is to make sure that each odd little necessity is included, from the date and location (and that the date and location are probably in bold italics), to how the document is ended with three hashtags, and so on.

LH: Slight variations on these conventions can sometimes be acceptable. For example, some press releases are finished off with the word “END” or “ENDS”, centred and capitalised. But for the most part, and with a few style issues like this aside, a press release will (or should!) always look like a press release.

PW: Yes, if you google “press release template” or “blank press release” there are lots of examples available. Especially if you’re new to this, it’s good to have a look at a lot. They will all differ slightly, but once you’ve had a look at a dozen or so, choose one and stick to it. Alternatively, the company you are writing for might have a particular template that they want you to stick to, so always check with them before making a start. Otherwise, choose the one you prefer and use it from then on.

There are also features like notes at the bottom, including contact details of a relevant person within the organisation, and the release itself is generally written in a way that starts with the most important, newsy news, and then as it goes on, goes into more detail and explains things more.

LH: Yeah. When it comes to finishing off, you’ll have your Notes To Editors bit, and you might also have a notes bit, so “For more information, please contact…blah blah.” In the notes to editors, I mention company style, so if there’s a date or a capitalised word, I’ll put them in there rather than bulking out the press release.

PW: Yes, or a source – if you mention a survey, you’ll want to include the link.

LH: Right – because you don’t want to go above, say, one and a half pages max, really. But yes, as you said just now Pip, it’s always worth starting a press release with something resembling a two line summary of the news itself, so, for example “A pair of famous UK copywriters have started a podcast that seems destined to take over the writing world.” Just, you know, for example.

PW: Haha, of course. I can’t think where you got that from! You need the opener to really catch the eye. Clarifications and details come later. And overall the document shouldn’t be more than two pages long, and it’s ideally around one A4 page.

LH: In terms of actually formatting the release, and the aesthetics of it, it’s worth suggesting to clients, if they don’t have this already, that they have a media header and footer designed – attractive graphics with which you can top and tail the press release, and which contain the company name and logo, contact details, slogan etc. It’s just a nice bit of branding to finish the piece off. If my clients don’t have one, I tend to include their logo in the header space for them.

PW: Yes, that’s interesting – I do similarly. I will usually send them a plain text, or .doc version of the press release, and also create a .pdf version with their logo on, too. I send both and they may choose the plain text one, but otherwise, they’ve got the pdf.
When you’re doing work for a client, you have to go with their preference. There’s no negotiating if they want x or y header. Unless something to do with the writing is specifically not right, that’s it.

LH: You’re right – the customer isn’t always right, but the customer is always paying, so unless they’re asking for something totally wrong, it’s important to give them what they want. It might not be to your taste, but what are you going to do?

So, once your formatting is sorted, it’s important to get the tone right. As we said, in a number of ways, a press release isn’t a news story. It has a lot of the same content, but it’s not one, and this goes for the tone as well.

One thing to take note of is that, say we’re talking about ABC Client, you write about the business in the third person. This isn’t an internal piece of news, so while your news articles might go on the client’s websites, the press releases need to assume no prior knowledge of the client. So while your news stories might be all us and we, your press release will need to start with things like, “ABC Client, a leading such-and-such in London, has done A, B and C.”

PW: Absolutely. Another thing about the tone and style is that it’s formal writing, but needs to be catchy and friendly, but it’s not casual and chatty. You’re getting across important information in the style of a news report in many ways. It needs to be eye-catching – if you write a dull press release, no one will get past the first line – but keep it formal at the same time.

LH: Definitely. With a number of my clients, they like extremely informal press releases with loads of friendliness, exclamation marks etc. It’s very much The Sun / Daily Mail style writing, it’s horses for courses and that’s fine. That’s NOT fine, however, for a press release.

One final point I’d make is that press releases are written in the perfect tense. It gives a sense of recentness and ongoing relevance. It’s a subliminal message and the journalists who read it will think that this just happened and it’s still worth writing about. Now obviously the whole thing doesn’t need to be written in the perfect tense – if you’re giving background, for example, that’s a step further back, but for the introduction, you really should be looking at perfect tense.

PW: Another thing – we did mention this above but didn’t include much detail. We mentioned that you need to start with a couple of attention-grabbing lines. But as the release goes on, you need to start backing up the claims you made at the start. So, you might say, “Two famous copywriters start an amazing podcast…”

LH: I really want to hear how you’re going to substantiate this now!

PW: Haha! And then further down, you’d give our names, then mention our listening figures had grown by x percent. You need to be catchy but you need to back up your soundbites lower in the document.

LH: One of the most uncomfortable experiences is when a publication picks up one of your client’s data-sparse press releases and puts almost everything in inverted commas. So, “The company has seen, quote,  “a large number” of improvements in, quote, “the last few years”…” Because none of its evidenced and a publication will quote you as saying anything they can’t back up.

PW: Or “An industry source says…”

LH: Or, worst, “The company claims…” which is awful. Sometimes companies will try and go a bit light on the data to avoid letting competitors know too much, in which case, they just shouldn’t send a press release, because I’ve seen lots of “The company claims…” articles and it looks really bad.

LH: So, another important point to remember, if you’re the one sending the press release out – or if you’re asked to advise a client on how to do this, is how it should be framed in the email. You need to attach the press release, and a zip file of any relevant images – nothing huge but not thumbnails – as well as including a short message in the body of the text, plus a couple of lines and a copy of the press release text below that.

So, your letter might be something as simple as, “Please find attached and below a copy of a press release detailing, [insert specific details here], which I hope will be of interest to you. If you would like further information on this subject or a higher resolution version of any of the attached images, please do not hesitate to contact [insert person’s details here]. With kind regards etc.” Don’t make it any longer unless it’s a one-off email to someone with whom you’ve had previous discussions on the same matter. Even then, don’t make it much longer!

PW: Yes, you don’t want to distract from the purpose of your email, which is the press release.

LH: Yes, keep the press release above the fold of the email. You don’t want to write six or seven paragraphs and have someone scroll, scroll, scroll until they find the press release.

PW: Or forgetting there was a press release full stop!  And what Lorrie said about pasting the text into the body of the email is really important. A lot of people are understandably wary of opening unsolicited attachments, so always make sure you copy and paste the text of the release into the body of the email, as well as sending it as an attachment. The easier you make it for a person to access, the more likely it is to be picked up. I know from writing for blogs that receive press releases, you really do get a lot of them, and they have to 1) stand out, 2) be coherent 3) meet at least some of the usual conventions, and that’s just for them to be read properly, never mind acted upon!

LH: Totally agree – one of the most annoying things people can do is send you an attachment with absolutely no hint in the email of what it’s about – something like, “Please see the attached press release” is definitely not a winner. Another point I’d make is that you should make sure to give your documents an appropriate name. “Lame-arsed PR for loser client” is a terrible name and you should be looking at a title with a date, an underscore, a brief title and dot whatever.

PW: Oh, and company name as well! And as Lorrie said, “Crappy press release for the client I hate” isn’t great, but neither is just, “Press release.”

PW: Another point to mention is that many PRs have to be submitted via online forms, most of which don’t even accept attachments.

LH: Good point. So, to sum up, press releases are a very exact science, rather than a strictly creative type of exercise. While it’s important to write them well and include lots of information that’s going to grab the reader’s attention, the formatting does need to be quite strictly observed.

PW: Defnitely. I, and a lot of copywriters, charge quite a lot more for press releases than for news articles because I can take three or four hours to get a press release right. If you do it properly, it’s quite a big job.

LH: What I tend to do is combine press releases and news stories. I’ll perfect a press release and then bang on a news article quite quickly afterwards – knock off the header/footer, get rid of information based on the assumption that the reader hasn’t heard of the company, getting rid of a couple of middle paragraphs, bringing the tone down, changing the third person to ‘us’ and ‘we’ etc. Then, they can use it as unique content for their website, as well.

PW: Yeah. Now, it’s time to go on to this week’s Little Bird Recommendations, in which Lorrie and I choose something that’s caught our attention over the course of the week. So, Lorrie, what’s your recommendation?

LH: My recommendation isn’t something that’s really related to press releases in any way, and I think that’s OK because press releases can be really tiring work. So what I’m going to recommend is a lovely website called http://search.creativecommons.org/. And it’s a lovely little resource where you can find lots of creative commons licensed media – photos, videos, music etc. Basically, this kind of media can be used on blogs, websites, etc with no copyright issues. It’s been released by the author of the piece for general use; depending on the type of license, you can use it for commercial purposes, you can modify it.

The lovely thing about this website is that you don’t have to go to all the various websites – it pulls in media from the various websites. If you just go to creativecommons.org, you can click whichever website you want and it’ll open the site for you. It’s lovely for perking up blog posts a bit.

PW: It’s always good to add a bit of visual interest to your blog. And, if someone spots a lovely picture on your blog, someone might decide they want it on Pinterest and you could get a load of back links to your website. Just one thing: make sure you check how the artist wants you to use the image – you might have to credit the photographer.

LH: A good way to do that is to either credit them at the bottom of the post or to include their name as part of the file name when you upload it.

PW: Yep. For my recommendation, at the end of the day, you want to break through the clutter and streamline what you bring to the table. And of course I’m talking about buzzwords…

LH: Hahaha, I was wondering! Go on, do it again…

PW: You meanie! At the end of…hahah!

LH: They’re so awful, you can’t do it. You should be reassured by that!

PW: At the end of the day, you want to break through the clutter and streamline what you bring to the table.

LH: it’s just vile – and my immediate thought was that I had no idea what you were talking about!

PW: Yes, that’s part of the point and everyone kind of hates them, apart from the people who use them all the time. In business, there are so many. “Going forwards” is one of my least favourites, I have to say. The worst thing is when you find yourself using them without realising them.

I found a really interesting blog post called, “Death to buzzwords”. The writer gives an example: “Our writers are detail-oriented problem-solvers and team-players, who create a proactive synergy that can deliver a paradigm shift within your organisation.”

It’s meaningless, it’s alienating, it’s lots of awful things. So the author, Lori, from the Words on the Page blog, gives some really good advice on getting posts, emails or social media messages out that are short, succinct and don’t talk about paradigm shifts and proactive synergy.

LH: When I was at University, we actually did specific courses to make sure we came up with “crystal clear English” and what I noticed is that councils and government organisations are some of the worst for language like this. Surprisingly, really large organisations are bad as well, even though they have enough of a marketing team to know better.

PW: There’s an organisation called the Campaign for Plain English and they offer awards for clear and easy-to-read leaflets. But they also offer an award for the worst gobbledegook every year.

LH: it wouldn’t surprise me at all. It used to take us the best part of a whole lecture to work these things out! A communication is supposed to be telling people something – otherwise, what’s the point?

PW: Especially to something from a council – that’s going to people with PhDs and people who haven’t finished school; it’s supposed to be accessible. It might be about your home, your bills, your transport. It’s not fair.

LH: I’m having a look at the Plain English website now, actually, and there are some examples. Here’s one: “High quality learning environments are a necessary precondition for the facilitation and enhancement of the ongoing learning process” and that’s been translated as “Children need good schools if they are to learn properly.”

PW: Hahaha, and it’s so true!

LH: People seem to think that they have to write fancily in order to write ‘well’ but the fact of the matter is that you have to take your audience into account.

So, we hope you’ve found this podcast episode really helpful. As we said before, press releases are an essential part of your copywriting artillery because it’s embarrassing if you can’t, frankly – it’s one of the basics. Once you’ve got the rules down pat, it’s not something that’s hard to do. As Philippa said earlier, choose a template, make sure it’s correct and stick to it. If your client wants to deviate, that’s their business. But when it comes to you offering guidance or taking free reign, stick to your approved template and you won’t go wrong. They’re formulaic but they’re supposed to be. Make sure they’re well written and make the information as easy as possible to find.

PW: Yes, if you want someone to pick up your story, make it as easy as possible. It’s self-promotion for you or your client, so schmooze if you need to.

LH: Yup. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, we’d love you to subscribe at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com. You’ll never miss another episode.

PW: It’d be tragic if you did, so subscribe and save us all from that devastation. You can come and have a look at our Facebook page – the link to that will be on the podomatic page, as will all the links we’ve mentioned in this episode.

LH: So, I’ve been Lorrie Hartshorn…

PW:…and I’ve been Philippa Willitts, and thank you very much for listening!


Podcast Episode 21: Managing Freelance Projects and Planning your Time

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This is a solo episode from Lorrie, where she talks about time management and project planning as a freelancer.

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Transcript

Hello and welcome to episode 21 of A Little Bird Told Me: the freelance writing podcast about the highs, the lows, and the no-nos of successful self-employment.  You can find us on the web at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com, and from there you can subscribe to the podcast in any number of ways, and you can also find the link to our Facebook page, which is full of information about past episodes and topics of interest to freelancers.

I’m Lorrie Hartshorn and today’s episode is another solo one. This week, I’ll be talking about how to get your project management skills sorted so you can lead as peaceful a freelance life as possible – which is what we all want really!

Firstly, I’d like to apologise – I’ve got another cold! If you’re a regular listener, you’ll know this is the second cold in 21 episodes, and I’m feeling really sorry for myself. Hopefully, though, the huskiness won’t be too much of a distraction but, as I say, I do apologise!

While one of the lovely things about freelancing is the fact that you can start to be more flexible with your working hours (you don’t need to commute, you can go out in the day and make up the time in the evening), there’s no denying that, for many freelancers, there’ll be periods when you’re overly busy. Like, getting up at 5am and working ‘til 8pm busy.

 

Monitoring and Control project activities

Monitoring and Control project activities (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’ll probably be some people listening now, shaking their heads and tutting and thinking that I clearly don’t manage my work very well if this is a reality for me, and that’s OK. The fact is, when you’re a freelancer, reality changes very rapidly and very frequently! Some weeks, nothing but a couple of old tumbleweeds will come rolling into your inbox. Other weeks, you’ll be absolutely buried in work – if you’re offering some good services and marketing yourself right, that is. Depending on the industry you’re in, there’ll be a natural ebb and flow to your week, month, year, plus a whole host of unknown variables on top of that.

For the last two weeks, and the week before Christmas, I’ve been absolutely snowed under. Clients like to tie up loose ends before year’s end, and get stuck in straight away in the New Year. I choose to work through – and to take work on from clients – because I don’t really celebrate Christmas, and it’s a good chance for me to get ahead with work, marketing, training, personal development, tax returns and all that jazz.

It’s not just over the holidays that you’ll find yourself facing a battle to fit all your work in. Freelance writing is, by nature, quite up and down, as I say, and you’ll often find yourself wondering how on Earth you’re supposed to plan things when they just keep dropping into your inbox with a minute’s notice (or less!)

Well, the fact is, you can’t plan that kind of incoming work. But before you switch off and curse me for giving this podcast such a fraudulent title, listen up. What you can do is this:

Firstly, plan round it
Secondly, come up with some rules and stick to them.

By plan round it, I mean this.

Every freelancer has a number of regular commitments that come round every day, week or month. Think about it – just off the top of my head, my daily commitments include: clearing my inbox in the morning, redoing my to-do list, having my breakfast and lunch, going for a quick walk and scheduling social media updates.

Those are things I have to do every single day. So I plan them. I know exactly when those things are going to happen, and anything else that comes in goes around them. They’re my absolute daily essentials and, although I’ve tried snipping them out of my schedule when I’m really busy, I’ve come to realise that it’s not worth it. If I skip breakfast, I’m tired all morning. If I don’t clear my inbox and sort my to-do list, I’m in for a chaotic day. I’m grouchy if I don’t get my lunch, and I get stir-crazy and uninspired if I don’t get out of the house at least once a day.

Same goes for the couple of exercise classes I go to every week. And the same goes for the afternoon of creative writing I’ve started putting aside on a Friday. Same again for the weekly business development session, and the day of admin, finance and housekeeping once a month. You see my point.

Which brings us quite neatly on to my second point: come up with rules and stick to them. Unless I have commitments that are physically away from my work and out of the house, say a client meeting or a networking event, those daily essentials are non-negotiable. You wouldn’t expect a shop or a business to sack off their lunch-break to deal with you, would you? Well, likewise – clients can wait while you get your lunch and midday recharge. It’s not an unreasonable thing for you to have commitments: you’re a business like any other, so you need to work out what your company rules are, so to speak.

Sometimes, you’ll need to be tough with yourself. It might be that a client is pushing you to do more, or to do something more quickly, and you feel panicky saying no. Or, it might be that you’re the problem, and that you’re tempted to bend or break some of the rules because you’re feeling stressed. That’s fine as an exception – life happens and you do sometimes have to be more flexible than you’d like, but try and keep things in perspective, and stick to your ground rules wherever possible.

So, once you’ve got time for these regular internal commitments blocked out in your diary, you should be able to realistically assess how much time you’ve got for incoming work. You might be able to effectively block off more time if you’ve got regular clients who tend to give you a certain amount of work every day, week or month, too.

So, if you know you’ve got six press releases to write for a client each month, try and work out how long they’ll take you: from research, to drafting, to editing, to sending. That way, you’ll know how much time is accounted for with that client. Regular clients should be looked after – don’t short change them by missing deadlines or handing in rushed work, because you’ll end up jeopardising your working relationship with them.

When your regular internal and external commitments are blocked off, then – and only then – can you work out what to do with the rest of your incoming work.

 

Project Management Lifecycle

Project Management Lifecycle (Photo credit: IvanWalsh.com)

To be able to do that, you need to get a few key skills down pat. Firstly, you need to be able to prioritise – to look at the various pieces of work you have coming in, to decide which are the most urgent, to estimate how long they’re going to take you, and to order them accordingly.

There are other things to take into account as well – let’s not be mercenary, but if a piece of work is being offered at £300 while another is offered at just £50, it’s pretty clear which one is more desirable. But, at the same time, it might not be that simple: perhaps the lower paid piece of work is coming from a client who hires you every few months, whereas the £300 is from someone who only wants a one-off job. These are all things you have to weigh up. It’s a skill that comes over time, but by learning which order to get your incoming work done, you’ll be able to boost your productivity and make the most of your time.

Secondly, you need to be able to focus. Pip and I have chatted about this before, and it’s something that I struggled a bit with when I started out. I’d have 20 tabs open in my browser – anything from the Guardian, to an online browser game, to an online dictionary, to some research materials… you get the picture. Everything I was interested in, I would open.
The problem was, whenever I got bored or a bit stuck on a piece of work, it was so easy to hit CTRL tab and have a look at something else that it was taking a long time to finish a short piece of work. Sometimes it wasn’t boredom – it’d be my brain thinking about another piece of work: I’d be worrying about something I’d got coming up, whether I’d find time for it, and a hundred other things. But the result was the same: things were taking three or four times as long as they needed to and it was eating into my working week.

Now, I’ve realised that, although I’d often rather be reading the paper than writing about LED lighting, I value my free-time too much to be wasting time and mucking up my diary by not really focusing on the piece of work at hand.
So, when I’ve started a half-hour or hour-long session of work according to my diary, two things happen:

Number one, wasted windows get closed: Twitter goes off, Facebook follows suit, the Guardian gets closed and even my email inbox. Number two, if it’s a big piece of work that I’m really having trouble getting started on, I’ll often email Pip for an accountability session. Getting started really is the hardest part and, because I want to stick to my schedule, letting her know what I hope to achieve in the next 30 or 60 minutes makes me get stuck in.

The third skill you need as a freelancer is learning how to say no. This isn’t always a straight-out “No” – sometimes it’s a readjustment of the suggested terms.

When you start out, you’ll find that it’s easy to get into the habit of never refusing any work or imposing any conditions on a project. You’re scared that, if you do, you’ll never get any again. It’s a legitimate fear – clients are fickle, especially one-off clients, and if you turn someone down, or offer them terms they see as unfavourable, they might not come back: it’s true. But, you can’t do everything, with the best will in the world, it just doesn’t work.

There are a number of things you can try before you say “no” out right. Sometimes, a longer deadline will do. Other times, the deadline is so short, and it’s non-negotiable, so that a higher rate is appropriate – I considerably higher for work that needs to be completed over a weekend. Bear in mind, I mean work that is given to me on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday, rather than something that was given to me in plenty of time but hasn’t been done because of the way I’ve organised my week – otherwise, I’d just leave everything until Saturday and retire at 30!

It does sometimes happen that a client will be overly demanding, expecting you to drop everything and deal with them first. As before, don’t take it personally: assess it objectively. You need to assess the pros and cons of this, because it’s absolutely not a good way to run your week. So ask yourself: one, is it worth it and two, does it keep happening? If it’s worth it, in terms of a long term or financial gain, and it’s an exception rather than an annoyingly repetitive state of affairs, you could try and have a rejig of your other work (it’s not always possible, but you can try). If not, as I said previously, suggest a readjustment of terms or politely refuse the work, explaining quite truthfully that you’re booked up. They might not like it, but you’re not being unreasonable.

The fourth skill I think is essential is knowing how to set realistic deadlines. As before, many new freelancers (and many experienced ones, actually) feel pushed to give clients really short deadlines. Pip and I have talked about this before, so I won’t go into it in too much detail, but make sure you take some time to discuss project details with a client before you give a deadline. Don’t let them rush you into agreeing to get a piece of work done in a week if it’s more likely to take you 10 to 14 days. Often a client will ask you for a deadline very early on in a conversation because they want to start mentally preparing their work around it, so make sure you value your time as much as they value theirs. We’ve all been there and there’s no amount of coffee that will make 6am starts and 2am finished look good.

The fifth point I want to talk about is boosting your creativity. Now, it might sound like an arty farty sort of thing, but as a freelance writer, you’re in a creative job so you need to make sure you’re not mentally burnt out. As I mentioned before, I have to get out at least once a day – simply because staring at four walls can be soul destroying. Likewise, I try and arrange a working lunch every week or so, and I go to a couple of day-time exercise classes every week, because it breaks my day up.

Similarly, I try not to finish work any later than about 6pm. Immediately after I’ve done for the day, I’ll turn my laptop off for a while, which gives me time to recharge my (and its!) batteries. Relaxation is important, as is sleep, as is good food and good company. Remember, freelancing is supposed to bring you flexibility, so make time for things that keep your head happy. Eat a proper cooked breakfast, go and work in a lovely little cafe for an hour or two, pop out for a brisk walk: while these things feel luxurious, they’ll do you the world of good. I can’t count the number of times I get a text from Pip as she’s off into town for a quick stomp in the fresh air – and what’s more, she always comes back full of energy and good ideas. You can tell from the tone that she’s happier, which means that she can get stuck into work that previously seemed daunting. And I’m exactly the same, so we must be doing something right!

If you find yourself chronically over busy, it might be time to consider increasing your rates – and that’s something that Pip and I are going to talk about in more detail in one of the up-coming episodes. If you’re finding that new clients (or indeed regular clients) are giving you more work than you can deal with, it might actually be that you’re too affordable – and this taps into what I was saying earlier about it not being mercenary to prioritise higher paid work.

You can’t do it all, so for the sake of your career, you need to make sure you’re getting the best rate possible for your time. Keep your eye on other freelancers to see if you can work out what they’re charging (some won’t mind telling you, others will keep it under their hats), have a look at rates (although don’t take too much notice of rates on freelancing websites, as many of these will be ridiculously low) and don’t be afraid to quote high if you’ve got too much on.

If it’s a case of increasing your rates for a client you’ve already got, as I say, Pip and I will be talking about the best ways to manage this process, but for now, all I’ll say i be diplomatic but not apologetic. You’re a business and you’re offering a service that people are clearly happy to pay for. Let your client know in the kindest of terms that your rates will be increasing, and expect that you might lose some clients. In any event, your work should even off and you should find yourself with less work and more money, which is always good.

So, I hope this episode has helped you to look at a few new ways of managing your time and projects as a freelancer. There’s so much to be gained from successful project management – both for yourself and for your clients. Cut out the distractions, plan your time, and you should find that you’ve got more space to breathe, and your clients are getting what they want when they want it. With no panic, which is great!

For more of our podcast episodes, which cover everything from the essential skills needed by freelancers to how to set SMART freelance goals for the New Year, please do go and subscribe to the podcast. You can get regular updates via iTunes, Stitcher Smart Radio, RSS or Facebook – or you can sign up on the podomatic page itself, at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com.

I’ve been Lorrie Hartshorn – thanks so much for listening, as always, and Pip and I will catch you next time.

Podcast Episode 20: Goal Planning – Your Freelance Aims for 2013

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It’s the first day of a brand new year, so it is time to make some goals and set some aims for what you want your freelance business to achieve in 2013. In this episode, Lorrie and I discuss why goal-setting is a good idea, and we discuss some of the best ways to ensure that the goals you set are ones you can stick with. Enjoy, and happy new year!

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Show Notes

Moo.com

Understanding Advanced Search using Google Search

Transcript

LH: Hello and welcome to Episode 20 of A Little Bird Told Me – the podcast about the highs, the lows and the no-nos of successful freelance writing.

 

Resolutions 2012

Resolutions 2012 (Photo credit: simplyla)

You can subscribe to the podcast in a number of ways: just visit our podomatic page, at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com and subscribe via RSS feed, iTunes or Stitcher Smart radio – or just on the Podomatic page itself. That way, you’ll never miss another episode. Additionally, there you can find the link to our Facebook page and to the numerous websites and social media feeds of myself and the lovely Pip. I’m Lorrie Hartshorn.

PW: And I’m Philippa Willitts, and welcome to the first A Little Bird Told Me of 2013! 20 episodes in – I’m not sure we when we started that we ever thought we’d get to this point – but the podcast is happier and healthier than ever, with lots of listeners and the number 2 spot on Podomatic, which is amazing! Today we’re going to be talking about setting goals for yourself as a freelancer, goals for both you and your business, starting out with why setting goals for yourself is so important.

LH: While lots of people might be just getting over their hangovers and setting out their New Year’s Resolutions around now, the kind of goals we’re talking about are those that will help to move you and your business forward. And, unlike New Year’s Resolutions, they’re not designed to be conveniently forgotten about at the earliest possible opportunity like that whole “I’m going to go to the gym four times a week!” one that I totally didn’t resolve to do!

PW: Or don’t eat chocolate ever again.

LH: Yes! Someone said to me, “Why don’t you give up chocolate for a year?”

PW: Why on Earth would you want to do that? You might get hit by a car in August and spend your last moments wondering why you’ve missed out on eight months of chocolate.

LH: Can you imagine if it you got hit by a Cadbury’s truck?

PW: That’s a beautiful short story.

LH: Thank you! I might note it down!

PW: Yes, so like Lorrie said, resolutions tend to last about a week or two, whereas setting goals can be a really useful exercise to make sure you are achieving the things you want to achieve, and going in the right direction. It can help you to stay motivated, as well, and can make sure you do tasks you might overlook otherwise.

LH: Yeah, definitely a good way to keep on track. So, first of all, what types of goals might freelance writers set – or freelance anythings, for that matter? It makes sense to split your desired goals into two areas: personal development and business development. Personal development would include things like training, courses, research and all kinds of things that will help you to improve your knowledge and skills. Business development aims are wider goals, really – what you can do outside your writing and editing savvy to make sure you win clients, keep current clients (and yourself!) happy and grow your business, improve your marketing as time moves on.

PW: I agree that’s a good way to divide them up. I’d add an extra area though, because it ties in to one of my own most important goals for this year. Because we know, as freelancers, how work and not-work can easily merge into one big half-working situation, so I’d add a work-life balance section, because one of my goals is… *drum roll* to take a whole week off in one go. Not divided up, so two days here and there, but a whole week in one go, and in a very planned way so I can get extra work done the week before and inform all my clients in advance. But a whole week off in one go. Radical, eh?

LH: Haha, it’s the sort of thing I’ve only ever dreamed of! But no, you’re right – joking aside, I’ve done it a couple of times. Freelancers, like anyone else, we’ve got the right – and the need – to take a really good stretch of time off in one go. It’s important to recharge your batteries, so yes, let’s go with three areas, then – personal development, business development and work-life balance.

PW: Awesome. In order to start setting goals, you need to know what you are aiming for. Otherwise they might be a bit pointless and lead you nowhere. Ask yourself where you want to be this time next year. Do you want to be earning more? Do you want to have specialised more? Do you want more regular clients? Or, equally valid, do you love everything as it is, and want it to be just the same? If you know where you want to be, you can start to make a plan to get there.

LH: Yes, I think people tend to have vague hopes for where they want to be in a year’s time and they’re happy to see where the road takes them when it comes to achieving them. Sometimes, if you’re in a salaried position in a company, that’s an OK tack to take. The company you work for will develop externally of you, and you can base your own development on where that takes you. Say, whether you decide to spend more time on training and development, whether you decide to work towards an internal promotion or whether you decide to change companies – or even career.

LH: If you’re freelancing, though, you don’t really have the luxury of ruminating on your goals for the year. You are your business, and you need to keep those plates spinning. Setting realistic, sensible and forward-looking goals is a great way to do that.

PW: Absolutely. The way I’m looking at it, in terms of my own goal setting, is that there are big goals and there are small, regular goals. So you might set a bigger goal, that by the end of the year you will have had 4 short stories accepted for publication in anthologies. That can be broken down, so you know that if you get one accepted every three months, you are on track to succeed. Alternatively, you can set smaller, regular goals, such as an aim to contact 20 new prospects every month, or earn £2,000 a month. Rather than aiming for one massive achievement, committing to regular, smaller achievements can help it to stay realistic and feel attainable.

LH: This is it – it’s a question of eating an elephant, isn’t it?

PW: Hahaha, it is!

LH: I’m hungry, I’m sorry! I’m vegetarian, which is more worrying still!

PW: I’m not, but I really like elephants!

LH: You want your goals to make a real difference to you by the time a year’s up – it’s a good stretch of time, but time is easy to lose – but that doesn’t mean you have to go charging in and trying to transform your life in one fell swoop. In fact, I’d agree with Pip on this and recommend smaller goals that add up to one big one over time. If you make your goals bite-size and regular, they’ll be far easier to incorporate into your already busy life.

PW: Yes, and if you have one massive goal to achieve by next January, it’s pretty easy to ignore it until…say, November! Whereas if you need to something this week, then next week, then the week after. It makes it easier to keep on track.

LH: Definitely, I keep a paper diary as I’ve mentioned before and I’ve gone through my diary at the beginning of the year and blocked off Friday afternoons for creative writing. Once it’s blocked off, it’s achievable.

PW: Absolutely, like Lorrie says, making a huge change isn’t what we’re talking about. You can’t realistically expect massive change overnight.

LH: So, when it comes to sitting down and figuring out your goals, you might feel a bit stuck. Which ones to choose? Which ones to pass up? Why? After all, how do you know if something’s a good goal to have? Pip and I want to recommend a goal-setting method that’s used by many organisations as a way of outlining KPIs – or key performance indicators – and making sure that goals are achievable and easy to keep track of.

PW: That’s right. It’s one of the most well-known ways of goal setting, and it’s called the SMART framework – it helps you to set goals which are specific, measurable, attainable realistic, and time sensitive.

LH: Yep. While it is sometimes tempting to dismiss templates like this as cheesy ideas, there’s a reason they’re so popular: it’s because they’re effective. As I mentioned earlier, it’s not a good idea to try and wing it when it comes to a freelance career and being self-employed. So, even if you feel a bit silly or cynical when it comes to setting goals in line with a specific framework, as I did at first, like the SMART method, it’s still worth sitting down and actually spending some time doing it.

LH: The fact is, if outlining a few goals in line with the framework is difficult for you, your business is probably lacking a bit of direction. And remember, spending a few hours on something like this might feel like a waste of time, particularly in the busy New Year period, because it’s not earning you money, but it’ll set you up really well for the year ahead.

PW: So if we start by looking at specific, then in terms of one of the possible goals we mentioned, let’s look at pay. Do you want to earn £30,000 this year? “Earn more” is no good, choose the wage you want to attain. A target for earnings is also nicely measurable – it’s easy to tell whether you’ve met your goal or not.

PW: Other specific and measurable goals might be that you want to send 5 pitches every week, or gain 5 new clients.

LH: Probably not five new clients a week, though!

PW: Haha, no, I meant in general, perhaps regular clients!

LH: Phew, I was starting to think I was lagging behind quite significantly in terms of marketing there!

PW: Setting goals which are attainable and realistic is very important. If you’ve earned £12,000 this last year and your aim for 2013 is to become a millionaire, then I hate to break it to you but you’re unlikely to succeed.

LH: you cynic!

PW: I know! You might, of course, but as goals go, it’s not that attainable or realistic.

LH: Definitely. There’s always this big dream, especially when we read about lucky ducks who’ve become overnight millionaires, but you’re setting yourself up for disappointment if you don’t keep your goals realistic.
For this reason, I think it’s important to brainstorm a few ideas when it comes to trying to find attainable goals. On the one hand, you don’t want to rest on your laurels and end up with a five-year plan that consists of “Do the same as last year”, then “Ditto, ditto, ditto, ditto.” That’s cheating, so don’t do that!

Writing Resolutions

Writing Resolutions (Photo credit: Tojosan)

You need to devise goals that are aspirational but not entirely out of reach; goals that motivate you because you can visualise ways to achieve them, maybe three, six or twelve months down the line. On the other hand, though, while you should have to reach for your goals – and use them as a means of advancing – don’t go reaching for the stars unless you’ve got a space ship. This isn’t a film, it’s a business, so keep things sensible. What I’m saying, really, is that it’s crucial to find a balance.

PW: Yes, if you set them too high, you’re likely to look at them go, “I can’t do it.” Whereas, if they’re too easy, it might keep you ticking along nicely but if you want to progress, you won’t if your goal is, “Do a bit of work once a week.”

Goals which are timely are those which have a particular length of time in mind for when you want to achieve them. Going back to wanting to have 4 short stories accepted into anthologies. That’s a nice goal, but if it’s in general you will have no motivation to make it happen this year. As a goal to achieve before the end of the year, you will be much more proactive. Similarly do you want to earn £30,000 this year, or in total for the rest of your life?! So, set time limits. When goals have a time limit, this helps them to be measurable too. All these different factors play into each other to create goals that are pretty resilient.

LH: Absolutely. I think this touches on a really important point that’s worth reiterating. While goals should be a really positive, motivating way to start your New Year, there’s no point spending a half-day or day outlining them if you feel comfortable sacking them off a week or a month later. That’s another reason it’s so important to make sure you address all of the factors above – if you choose unsuitable goals, you’re more likely to think (probably correctly) that they were a bad plan in the first place and shouldn’t be stuck to.

PW: Absolutely. Once you have set your goals, you need to stick to them or, as Lorrie has just said, they are a pointless exercise. Think about the things that, in general, help you to stay accountable. Some people make sure they tell other people their New Year’s Resolutions, so that if they are caught smoking, or eating pizza, they can’t pretend they weren’t supposed to!

LH: Yeah, accountability is a really important thing. I like to make quite a thing of my annual goals by writing them down on a really big bit of A3 card in my office. Also, for smaller goals, the fridge – no kidding! – is a really good place to have them. Particularly personal goals. I head to the kitchen several times a day – for tea, lunch, dinner, snacks, whatever – and to have the goals there where everyone can see them and I can be reminded of them really does help.

PW: Something that can help me is having something that reminds me of why I chose that goal in the first place. If I’ve lost my motivation and can’t be bothered, then being reminded that I’m doing this because of x, y and z can boost my enthusiasm for the project again! If I don’t want to send out another pitch but I can contextualise it and remember why I’m doing it, it’s a boost.

LH: Ooh, you could have your one-week holiday destination there on a lovely postcard!

PW: Yes! Setting up a regular time each month, or each week, to monitor how you are getting on is a good idea.

For instance on the first of each month I do all my financial stuff. I think I’m going to add goal monitoring to that day each month. I can review whether I am meeting my goals, exceeding them, or failing entirely. If you revisit them in this way then you can decide if they actually need revising – if by April you’ve had 6 short stories accepted, then change your goal to keep going.  Whereas, if you’ve had none by September, then perhaps aim for 2 by the end of the year in that case. There’s no point stubbornly sticking to a wrong goal just because it’s what you decided on the 1st Jan.

LH: definitely – and this is one more reason your goals should be measureable.

PW: Absolutely. Regular reviewing and monitoring can help you to check your goals are realistic and attainable, and if one is clearly very wrong, it gives you the chance to do something about it. It can also give you a kick up the bum if you’ve got lazy on one or two.

LH: it’s true – t’s easy to get lazy at the best of times. Also, if you’re new to goal setting and freelancing, it’s a bit of a shock to the system to realise you’re the only driving force behind your own career. It can be scary, and New Year can be a scary time anyway and a lot of people tend to have real existential crises – “What am I doing with my life? Where’s this all going? What does it all mean?” But by having it all bullet pointed nicely and what have you, you can see what you’re doing, go back and revisit it. As Pip says, don’t stick with something if it’s not working – give it a go (hopefully the tips in this episode will help you come up with some goals worth sticking to!) but don’t stick to something arbitrarily if it’s not working.

LH: The next thing we want to discuss is what to do if you don’t stick to your goals. And, as Pip just said, making time to assess your performance in line with your goals should make it easy for you to see how you’re getting on. Again, as with the setting of the goals in the first place, don’t try and cheat your way out of your assessments.

PW: You’re only cheating yourself! Haha!

LH: It might well be tempting to skip a weekly or monthly goal check, especially if you know 100% that you’ve been really flaky on one or two (or even all) of them, but you’re only kidding yourself. The sooner you look at your goals, the sooner you can iron out any problems.

If you find that all’s not well in the homestead, you need to work out what’s happening. Depending on how you work best, you might want to sit down on your own and have a little ‘heart to heart’ with yourself on why something’s not gone to plan. Or, if you have a trusted person like a partner, colleague, friend or family member, maybe sit down with them and try and pinpoint the issue.

It might be that the original goal is fine – you’re just not quite going about achieving it in the right way. Or, it might be that the goal needs some tinkering. I think that’ll often depend on whether it’s a small, medium or large goal – if you find that you’re in month six and your plan was to earn £30,000 in the year, but you’re only on £5,000, there’s obviously a real issue that might need you to shift one of the goal-posts as well as altering your working methods as well.

PW: Yes, an important point to make here is that reviewing and possibly revising them is not to be used to get out of a task you’re bored of. It’s strictly for goals which it has become clear were totally out of whack, one way or another.

LH: Good point. If you get three months in and find that your goal of keeping better track of your finances by having a weekly session with your online banking interface and your spreadsheets is boring, it’s not an excuse to lay your hand across your forehead and bemoan that, “This is not for me…this was THE WRONG GOAL” As long as a goal is going according to plan, leave it alone and just do it.

LH: The next thing we wanted to talk about is what to do if you’ve achieved/exceeded your goals. As Pip mentioned above, achieving your goal early isn’t an excuse to sit back and relax for the rest of the year. There are different ways of dealing with a goal that’s been met, and it’ll very much depend on the type of goal. Say you started the year wanting to earn £30,000 in the twelve month period, and you achieve that sum by month nine, there are two ways of looking at the situation. Either you go on and try to continue earning at the same rate (never a bad thing!), and increase your desired earnings for the next year, or you can take a little time and concentrate on other things. Or, invest some of the ‘extra’ funds in more training and development. Better still, treat yourself to a few nice things – life is for living, after all 😉

PW: Or, you could take my goal to an extreme and just take the final 3 months of the year off!! Not if you ever want your clients back, however.

LH: Yeah, I can’t see many of my clients welcoming me back with open arms after a three-month break!

PW: That is one of the fears of taking time off, isn’t it? If they need to find another copywriter to cover you for a week, then they’ve got another copywriter on their books!

LH: What I’ve always tended to do is mention the holiday *way* in advance and prepare, say, news articles before the week or two weeks comes around. The last thing we want is some other copywriter coming in and smooching up our clients!

PW: Yes, that’s absolutely my plan actually. Warn regular clients, and do as much in advance as I can.

LH: As long as you know when you’re going to be off, you should be fine – you have a good level of communication with your clients, they know from experience that you’re committed to keeping the work at a good standard and they know you’re flexible, punctual and accommodating.

PW: Aww thank you! And yeah, that’s the thing. It’s not like I’ve taken no time off this year, it’s just that it’s been a bit ad hoc – if I was having a quiet week I’d have a few days off. This is different because it will have to be planned far in advance.

LH: And you’re quite entitled. While being a freelancer is a bit different to being salaried, in that you are your business, you’re still very much entitled to some time off. I think, as well, there’s a tendency to think too big when it comes to taking time off. Because you’re used to being so busy when you’re self-employed, and to carrying the whole business, you feel like the world will end when you don’t check your emails for a day or so.

PW: Even an hour!

LH: Haha, I didn’t want to say it, but yes! The funny thing is, though, that other people don’t even notice – it’s sod’s law! You have to remember that people aren’t sitting there focusing on you, you, you. Think about it – I don’t send an email and then sit there wondering when that one person will get back to me. I expect a delay of some hours or days, depending on the query.

PW: It’s true, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that sitting in your inbox is your DREAM assignment, with a 25 minute acceptance limit.
LH: This assignment will self-destruct in T-minus five minutes…

PW: Exactly!!

LH: Joking aside, I think a nice, specific out-of-office will tide you over absolutely fine for a week 🙂

PW: I haven’t told you this yet, but my auto-responder will probably say, “If you have a copywriting emergency, please do contact Lorrie”!

LH: Um, thanks?! Good to know I’m recommendable. Maybe I can be your Little Bird Recommendation for the week!

Little Bird Recommendations

PW: Lorrie, as transitions go, that was SEAMLESS. Beautifully done.

LH: Why thank you! Just one more reason to recommend me, I guess 😉

PW: Maybe next time! So what’s your recommendation this week?

LH: So, this week, my recommendation will be put to shame by Pip’s, but it’s nice and simple: business cards! I got caught out last week when I met a prospective new client, reached into my hand bag for a card and realised that I’d changed my handbag. For new freelancers, I’d recommend you get on the internet and have a look for free business card samples. My personal favourite is Moo.com – they offer 10 free business cards, totally personalised, so get them, and stick them in your wallet!

PW: Like you say, when you go out shopping, you’re not actively looking for clients, but you do want to be prepared. I do keep some in the back of my diary, as back up, really.
Now, my recommendation is a course I took recently. I found it on Alison.com and I think it’s fair to say that the quality on there varies a lot. But this one, I loved. I am a bit of a search geek, so when I saw they had an “Advanced Search on Google” course, taught by a guy from Google, I couldn’t resist. It didn’t disappoint. I already used a few of the tips, such as putting a minus in front of the terms you don’t want to include. I remember, I got glue ear once, and searched for it on Google, but realised most people who get it are toddlers and babies, so I searched for “glue ear” minus babies, minus toddlers, minus children!
Another one of the advanced search functions I use is searching within a certain time frame. For example, if I need current statistics, but I google and find results from 2009-10, that’s no use. So I search within the last week or month. But there were so many more tips and tricks and they’ll help me a lot in the searches I do when researching articles. Even if you’re strangely not like me, and excited by searches, you can still benefit from this course. The link’s in the show notes at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com, the course is free – it’s about four hours of video, perhaps a bit less.

LH: And please, if you’re interested in search, please, please get in touch with Pip because she needs some like-minded friends! Please don’t make me to talk to her about search any more. When you decide to become a freelance writer, you think, “Ah, writing! I like that, I can do that!” but what you don’t realise is how much you’ll have to baby step clients through finding up to date, relevant information for their stories.

PW: that’s often why they hire you – because they don’t have time to do it.

LH: It’s also something to pop on your CV and on the training section of your website. People like to think they’re getting value for money, and if they see you’ve just taken a course, they’ll like that.

PW: Plus, people hire me to write about search so it’s my duty to take training on it. Also, I love it!

LH: Haha, I knew that was the real reason! I can see you rolling around in search print-outs.

PW: Life wouldn’t be interesting if we all liked the same kind of thing.

LH: True, we both love grammar, for example.

PW: Me too! What I really find interesting is when someone whose first language isn’t Eglish uses a particularly word order or grammatical formulation because that’s how they’d normally do it in German or Swedish, for example.

LH: That’s a service I offer, actually – it’s called target text only editing. So, you’ll have a text that’s been translated from, say, Swedish to English, and there’ll be mistakes in there that, if you have no knowledge of Swedish, you won’t understand why they’re there or what they’re supposed to mean. So it’s a cross between translation and editing, really, and it’s something I do offer because I can see why someone’s put what they’ve put, take it back to the original language and try and decipher what was meant.

PW: I used to know the only Welsh to Swedish translator in the world!

LH: That’s fabulous!

PW: There wasn’t a whole load of work, but what there was, she got! She was Swedish, went to Uni in Wales and as well as picking up English, perfected Welsh as well.

LH: Right, anyway!

PW: So yes, we’re both geeks in our little…well, big ways!

LH: So, we hope you’ve enjoyed this podcast and that it’s a really positive way of getting into the swing of things for 2013, by setting some goals that will help drive you and your business forward.

PW: And come over to our Facebook page and tell us what your goals are!

LH: Yes, tell us how you’ve used the SMART framework to come up with some self-employment goals. Pip and I might share some of our own as well.

PW: Thank you so much for listening, we really hope you’ve enjoyed this episode. I’ve been Philippa Willitts…

LH:…and I’ve been Lorrie Hartshorn, and we’ll catch you next time!