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Podcast Episode 30: It’s not about you – the art and the science of commercial copywriting

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Commercial copywriting is not what most people picture when they think about freelance writing. It is so different to typical fiction or non-fiction writing, and in this episode, Lorrie and I talk about why this is, what PPC ads can teach us about why good copy might not be that good, and what the deal is with features versus benefits.

Show Notes

Calmingmanatee.com

Entrepreneur.com: Marketing Features Vs. Benefits

Google Adwords keyword tool

10 Amazing Free Online Writing Courses

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

Episode 24: The Art of Getting Paid

Episode 25: Why and How to Charge More For Your Freelance Writing

Calculate Your Hourly Rate With This Freelance Billable Rate Calculator

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Transcript

LH: Hello, and welcome to Episode 30 of A Little Bird Told Me.  I can’t believe we’ve got there but it’s Episode 30, yeah!

PW: Yeah!

LH: So this is Episode 30, 3-0, of the podcast about the highs, the lows and the no-nos of successful freelance writing.

PW: Episode 30 did you say?

LH: I did say Episode 30.

[Cheering]

*Copywriting

*Copywriting (Photo credit: Bazstyle | Photography)

LH: Yay!  So if you’d like to listen all the way to Episode 40, and hopefully 50 and beyond, 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 feed, iTunes, Stitcher Smart Radio or just on the Podomatic page itself.  You can also find the link to our Facebook page, where there are plenty of tips, tricks and topics to enjoy and you can also find links to our websites and social media feeds.  So you can come and have a chat with us about any of the topics we cover in this podcast, and any we haven’t covered for that matter.

I’m Lorrie Hartshorn.

PW: And I’m Philippa Willitts and today we are talking about copywriting.  Both Lorrie and I we do different styles of writing in different parts of our work and one of those that we both do is commercial copywriting.

In A Little Bird Told Me we do look at different aspects of copywriting regularly but what we’ve talking about today is quite specifically about the art and the science of copywriting because the thing is it’s quite a unique skill and it involves the techniques that don’t tend to be found very often in fiction or non-fiction writing.

LH: Yeah, I think it’s definitely true that copywriting’s a very distinct skill and it’s very different from what people think of when they think of writing.  You know I’ve chatted to people and they say, “So what do you do?” and you go, “Right, well I’m a writer” and they go, “Okay, what do you write?”  You know they’re automatically thinking like novels.

PW: Yeah.

LH: I say, “Well I’m a copywriter” and they’re like, “Right” and you start to see their eyes sort of glazing over a little bit.  It’s kind of like, you know, there’s not really much of an awareness of really the bare bones of copywriting as opposed to just writing.

PW: Yeah, even in business context at networking meetings if I introduce myself as a copywriter some people just even know what it means.

LH: Mmm, yeah, they mistake it for copyright as in intellectual property.

PW: Yeah.

LH: You know so while copywriting is still very creative you’re actually dealing with like a whole framework, depending on the kind of document or text that you’re trying to produce, and there are rules that you have to learn and conventions that you need to respect and all kinds of things that you have to take into account, such as SEO, formatting, you know if you’re writing on a website that’ll be different for if you’re writing on social media or in a print document or on something else.  Copywriting is as much, for me at least, about skill as it is about talent and skills have to be learnt properly and thoroughly for the results to be any good.

PW: Yeah, in many forms of writing that you might do you’re trying to express yourself in a way that’s pleasing to read, you might want to show off a bit with a bit of flowery language or astound people with your incredible progressions of logic, and that is great; however, not when you’re copywriting.

Copywriting isn’t about what you can do.  It isn’t about you at all.  It’s about your client and I’d say more importantly about your client’s client or their customers or prospects.

LH: No, absolutely, I think you’re completely right.  I think copywriting is, to a certain extent, it’s much more utilitarian than just other forms of writing.  You know you’re writing for a reason, it’s not just for the pleasure of writing but the pleasure that your readers are going to get.  You know your client needs their clients to get something from what they’re reading, whether it’s a general feeling of benevolence towards the company, they need to be informed about some sort of progress that the company’s making, they need to be persuaded to buy a service or a product.  You know there has to be a purpose behind it.

While we’re actually on the topic one more thing that I do want to mention is I think it’s a not so well known fact about copywriting and that’s it’s different from content writing.

PW: Yeah, it’s kind of like there’s a Venn diagram, isn’t there, and there’s a crossover but that doesn’t mean that they’re the same thing.

LH: Yes.  I always struggle with Venn diagrams, especially the ones that have got three circles.  I always sort of try and work them out.  I sit there going, “Right, that and that and then that and that.  Oh, it does work.  That and that.”  Every time I found myself astounded, I’m not quite sure why.  Bar graphs and pie charts don’t quite have the same effect.  It’s quite overwhelming, but yes, copywriting, content writing; I don’t want people going away from this podcast thinking, “Oh, well I don’t do copywriting, I do content writing so, you know, these tips don’t apply to me.”  The term ‘copywriting’ is often used as a coverall term for content production and to a certain extent that’s fine and that’s really, I think, how we’re going to be using it in this.

PW: Yeah.  There are also people who believe very strongly that copywriting should only be used to describe sales copywriting but, again, that’s not what we’re talking about today; we’re not talking just about sales writing but as kind of commercial writing in a wider context.

LH: Yeah.  I think because the word ‘copywriting’ came from the advertising industry, didn’t it?

PW: Yes, yeah, ad copy.

LH: Yeah.  So I think that’s why people go along with that.  So yes, definition pure of ‘copywriting’ is producing text that is trying to persuade your readers to get on board with a certain point of view or to persuade them to buy or desire a certain product or service but for the purposes of this podcast whichever type of writing you do, either content or copywriting, and it’s likely to be both unless you’re writing purely sales and ad copy, most of the points, if not all of them, are going to apply to you because at the end of the day you’re writing on behalf of your client and that’s what we’re trying to tackle in this episode.

PW: Yeah.  So yes, so that’s the definition of copywriting we’re working with today and as we mentioned above one of the key things about copywriting is that you have to put your own preferences aside.  You may end up writing something that you don’t love from an artistic point of view but that’s not the point of copywriting.

LH: Yeah, 100%.  You know as Pip’s just mentioned writing on behalf of somebody else means that the first thing you have to do, as long as you’re happy to take on the brief, is to put your own feelings about a certain subject or product or service or company on one side and decide what you’re actually trying to achieve with the content that you’re creating.

PW: Yeah.

LH: A point that follows on from this is that you need to put your personal writing style on one side.  Now speaking from experience I write for clients in the waste management and compliance sector.

PW: She does.

LH: I do, lucky me.

[Laughter]

LH: I also write for clients in the fashion, style and beauty sector and everyone will be going, “Mmm, that sounds nice” but for me it’s just as terrifying.  You know I’m not… in fact it’s more terrifying actually because I’m at home with the conventions in sort of environmental services.

PW: Yeah, yeah.

LH: Whereas fashion, it’s slightly more subjective.

PW: But I have to say, listener, Lorrie always dresses beautifully and she is very stylish but she’s not a big like talking all the time about style and always wearing labels and all that stuff.

LH: I never wear labels.

PW: Yeah, exactly, and so it’s not that Lorrie doesn’t have a sense of style because she very much does but, again, that’s not the point of the writing she’d be doing in that sector.

LH: Aww, I love that you just leapt to my defence and told everyone how stylish I am.

PW: You are; you always look gorgeous.

LH: Aww, aww listeners! Get a load.

[Laughter]

LH: Aww.  Well I feel completely off topic now.

PW: Just bask for a moment.

LH: I’ll just bask in the glory.

[Laughter]

LH: So my point was going to be…

PW: Yes, sorry [laughs].

LH: …about my clothing and style, is that, listeners, do you think I write for these clients in the same way?  Absolutely not, 100% not, and do you think that either of the writing styles, or any of the writing styles, that I create for my clients are actually ‘me’ and, again, no chance.  I’ve no outside interest in waste management or scrap metal recycling or micro polymer processes.  I don’t sit down and read you know reports unless I need to for work, you know it’s not bedtime reading for me, and nor do I have anything more than an extremely fleeting interest in high fashion.  What I do have an interest in is writing and in creating and maintaining an authentic voice for every single one of my clients and there has to be a voice that reflects their mission, their values, their personality, in the case of individuals or prominent individuals in a company, or their brand, in the case of a company as whole, and it needs to be a voice that appeals to the target audience and gives that audience what it needs in order to have faith in the client.

PW: Yeah.

LH: So a fun and frolicky tone with lots of exclamation marks won’t work for metal recycling experts but it does the trick for beauty bloggers in the 18 to 25 age range.

PW: Yeah.

LH: You know likewise fashion fans don’t tend to want heavy stats and information on sort of legislative processes.  So it’s just horses for courses really.

PW: That is a really good point.  Often in social media writing I use statistics, especially early on.  If you’re trying to be persuasive about a particular service, for instance, then it can be really useful to say however many million people use that service because that may make businesses go, “Oh, I should be on there” but, again, when I’m writing about garden furniture then the number of people who have a bench in their garden is entirely irrelevant.

LH: [Laughs] “One million British people have benches.”

PW: “Why don’t you?”

[Laughter]

LH: You’re missing out.

PW: So yeah, but as well as writing in different styles and tones for different sectors you are also writing for different readers too; so you can’t write the same way in a light hearted, informal blog post as you do in a detail rich industry specific press release, even if they are for the same client.  I mean it just highlights why the skills involved in copywriting are different to writing, I don’t know, your own blog for instance because if you’re feeling light and cheerful you can write a light and cheerful blog post, but if you’re feeling light and cheerful and your client today is a funeral director you need to put your good mood aside and get serious.

LH: [Laughs] yeah, I think that’s a good point, I definitely think that’s a good point, especially the point that you made about, you know, even if you’re writing for the same client the purpose of the text, you know if you’re talking about a blog post versus a press release; you know I have one client and their blog posts, by their choice, are kind of tabloid.

PW: Yes.

LH: They’re kind of like matey language, you know lots of exclamation marks and I know some copywriters and content writers think that’s like a hanging offence but I don’t.  You know if my client wants a cheeky chappy style voice for their blog posts and their news articles then that’s exactly what I’ll give to them because I’ve had a look at their target market, I’ve had a look at their target audience and I think it’s the sort of thing they’d be receptive to.

PW: I think this highlights actually why research is so important in copywriting.  You have to really know your clients and you have to really know their target market.  You can’t just learn about the topic you’re writing about because like Lorrie says if they’ve got an 18 to 25 market you do tackle that differently to if they’ve got a 55 to 70 market and you have to have your head round that before you can even start really.

LH: Definitely because at the end of the day you’re not you, you’re your client.  You’re not going to stick your own name at the bottom of a piece of writing; you are your client’s official voice, especially in something like a press release.

PW: Yes.

LH: To go back to what Pip was just saying, you know you need to keep it authentic but serious.  You know you can’t… I don’t keep the same cheeky chappy tone in a press release for my clients but then again if I’m writing a press release for my cheeky chappy client and I know it’s only going to be a regional subject I might keep it a little bit more informal because I know the regional newspapers.

PW: Yeah and also like if you’ve got a company who, say, sells a product and they sell it direct to clients but they also sell it wholesale to businesses then the writing you would do for them to appeal to customers who buy direct from them is very different from the writing you’d do to appeal to customers who sell their product in their stores.

LH: Yeah, B2B versus B2C.

PW: Exactly, and so in every way there can be so much variety whether you’re working for 10 different clients or one client but with different purposes.

LH: That’s a really, really good point you know, and I did like the point you made as well about sort of the mood that you’re in.

PW: Yeah.

LH: Because again, you know, I started out as a translator and there’s this concept called ‘the invisibility of the translator’ and some people are pro it and some people are anti and I’m pro.  You know I think that a translator should be invisible and that’s the mark of a good translation, but I also think it can be applied to copywriting.

PW: Yes.

LH: I think you do need to be invisible.  Your client needs to shine through rather than yourself and the same goes for the mood that you’re in on that day.  You can be having the best or the worst day of your life; you have to keep it out of your writing for clients.

PW: Yeah.

LH: You do.  Sometimes I even end up laughing to myself, because I’m like that, just when I think about how little clue my clients have got, and indeed should have, about what’s going on with me on that particular day.  You know it can be my birthday, I might have the giggles, I might have just had a laugh and a joke with Pip, or I might be full of feminist rage, you know maybe there’s a law that’s been passed I’m not happy with and I’m feeling a bit of an activist, whatever, I keep it to myself.

{{Copywriting}}

{{Copywriting}} (Photo credit: faithfulllyyy)

PW: So yeah, even in your dealings with clients you might be having the most frantic week you’ve ever had but when you get an email from a client and you reply you can’t go, “Oh my God, I don’t have time” or, “Stop sending things my way for God sake, give me a break” or you can’t even say, “I’m in a really big rush but this looks okay.”  You have to reply just as if it was any other day and you have to keep it under control, but yeah, like Lorrie was saying, in the copywriting itself you might be feeling rotten, you might be full of a cold, your girlfriend’s just dumped you, the roof’s leaking…

LH: Aww.

PW: I know, but if you’re writing a blog post for a comedy promoter you know it has to be upbeat and happy.

LH: Aww, you made me really sad now just thinking about that poor hypothetical copywriter.

PW: Aww [laughs].

LH: Listeners, if you’re having a horrible week come and talk to us.

PW: Yeah, it’ll be okay.

LH: It will, it’ll be fine.  Do you know actually I was having a really stressful week a couple of weeks back and I was on my personal Twitter account, which isn’t linked to my work at all.  So I was having a bit of a rant saying how stressed I was and somebody sent me calmingmanatee.com and it’s so lovely.  You click on it and there’s a picture of a lovely looking manatee and it says, “Don’t worry sweetie, I’ll put the kettle on” and there are loads to choose from and I actually felt really calm, it was so lovely.

PW: We will add that link to the show notes if you’re having one of those days…

LH: We will.

PW: …where only a calming manatee will do the trick.

LH: Yeah, they’re lovely.  I love them.  So even if you’re having the worst day in the world, even if your life is horrible and you can be typing through the tears sadly if it takes a calming manatee to get through it that’s what you’ve got to do.  If you’ve got to go and chat to somebody by email… you know Pip and I mouth off to one another by email all the time, like, “Why has this happened?  What’s with this timing?  You know I haven’t heard from this client for a week and now they’re emailing me at 7 am on a Saturday with a load of work and I’ve just not got time and what am I going to do?” and it all works out in the end but it’s good to be able to let off steam.

PW: Yeah.  Another thing that’s important to remember about copywriting is that sometimes what’s effective in copywriting is not the most beautiful wording or the prettiest words.

LH: Yes, oh gosh yes.  I’ve got a client, lovely client, long term client, but their name sounds like a plural.

PW: Oh yeah.

LH: You know who I’m talking about, don’t you?

PW: Yes.

LH: Aha.  Well this nameless name ends in an s and we’ve had so many battles, this client and I, about apostrophes and pronouns, you know, and I would say we’ve had these battles in the past but it’s been quite recent as well.

PW: [Laughs].  So past is yesterday.

LH: That’s true you know, and one minute the client… well I say one minute, for a while the client will be happy with one thing but then somebody in-house will spot an apostrophe that looks weird and it’s completely grammatically correct but you know they say, “Well it looks weird” and my clients are in their sector and I’m not, so at a certain point I have to kind of really take on board what they say.  So it’s got to the point now where I’ve had to accept that my client prefers, and this is significantly prefers, a grammatically incorrect approach.

PW: Ooo, that must be painful.

LH: It really hurts, it really does.  I have to chop the possessive s off funny name and I have to refer to the company as ‘they’ instead of ‘it’, even though it’s a single company.  So you know it’s one single noun and it drives me to distraction but…

PW: I can imagine.

LH: …if it works for the client, this is it, if it works for my client and there’s no negative effects on the audience, like I said earlier you have to do your research, then I have to put my feelings to one side because there’s no point being precious about it, even though I shudder at using that kind of grammar in my own writing, my writing, writing that’s attributed to me because it’s not my writing, it’s not my voice.

PW: Yeah, yeah.  I’ve even read certain copywriters who specialise in the big dramatic sales, you know the long form sales letters that go on and on, I’ve even read some of them saying that they don’t care about their grammar and spelling even because buyers feel reassured by things, spelling mistakes.  Now I would never go that far just because it would keep me awake at night…

[Laughter]

PW: …knowing that I’d left typos in and I don’t think that works for every audience but it kind of reminds me a bit about the… about kind of George Bush and his inability sometimes to form sentences was some people very much criticised him for it but others kind of found it reassuring and humanising.  I would be on the very much criticising side of things but yeah, I wouldn’t go that far but it does go to show that it’s never as simple as getting it correct necessarily and sometimes if you’re writing something salesy you might find yourself cringing at using certain clichés or dramatic wording but sometimes it’s exactly what’s called for.  It’s not something you’d submit as part of a Creative Writing MA but it’s doing the job it’s supposed to do.

LH: Yeah, I had to use the phrase, and this is a true story, I had to use the phrase, ‘cast iron, rock solid 60 day bullet proof guarantee’ the other day.

PW: Oh dear.

LH: I actually had to write that and I had to write it seriously, ‘bullet proof, rock solid’ and I’ve used ‘solid gold’ before as well.  I feel like it’s a confessional but you’ve got a new Pope, it’s time to confess.

PW: [Laughs].

LH: Yeah.  No, I had to ‘cast iron, rock solid, 60 day bullet proof guarantee’ and it works, it’s horrible.

PW: Yeah, that’s the thing.  We kind of wish that writing beautiful prose would work but it doesn’t necessarily.

LH: Well no.  You know some of the sales copy that I’ve done, in fact most of it, the target market is sort of men from 30 to 55 say, and they tend to be quite high earners, so doctors, lawyers, architects, you know all that kind of thing but research into direct sales copy shows that this kind of hyped up ridiculous copy really works and less subtle approaches, and we have tried them, they really, really, really don’t work but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt the copywriter.

PW: Yeah.

LH: No, but it’s an interesting point because when I was recruiting recently, as I mentioned in a previous episode, I had people getting in touch saying, “Oh but I have a really good level of language and grammar” and you know yes, good for you, great and you know it’s the basic starting point for a career in writing, any kind of writing, but it’s not enough, you know it’s really, really not enough, and sometimes it can be a bit of a distraction because, as you’ve just said Pip, you know you can’t sleep at night if there’s a typo.  You know I do the same thing, I’ll send something off that I’ve read and read and read and proofread and proofread and proofread and the minute I click send I’m like “Oooh, but what if there was a typo?” you know.  So it can be a bit of a distraction and it can stop you looking at other things in the text.

PW: I think, especially if you’re going to do… end up with a piece of writing that’s not necessarily 100% grammatically correct, like Lorrie was saying with her client with the apostrophe and plural situation, I think it’s one of those situations where you need to know how to do it right in order to then be able to do it wrong, if you know what I mean?

LH: Yeah, you need to be able to decide how much you can deviate from grammatical norms for example.

PW: Yeah, like you have to know the rules in order to break them I would say.

LH: No, I think that’s a really good piece of advice, yeah.

PW: So it is important to know this stuff but when you’re doing commercial copywriting it’s also important that you can sometimes put it aside.

LH: Yeah and know when to put it aside based on research and reading; you know don’t just get bored of correct grammar and then chuck it out of the window.

PW: [Laughs] I’m bored of commas.

LH: I don’t understand.  Do you know honestly, I’ve had clients say to me before, “That comma looks funny.”

PW: Yeah.

LH: And it’s like, “No, it’s fine”, “Could you just check it?”  I was like, “No, I checked it when I wrote it.  It’s fine.”  I’m a bit precious about my commas, I do.  Well I studied German so you know how accurate…

PW: I do, yes.

LH: …commas, otherwise nothing makes sense, and the same in English actually; I don’t understand where this idea’s come from that commas are optional because sometimes I really, really struggle to get the meaning from a sentence and I’ll realise that actually it’s because like a subordinate clause hasn’t been comma’d off.

PW: Yes.

LH: Oh it does hurt but that…

PW: Yeah, I was editing a CV yesterday that was very, very technical and had very few commas in it and they were just using incredibly long sentences with lists of… it just appeared like long lists of buzz words on every line and because there were no commas, or very few commas, I was having… it was almost like a foreign language in that I was desperately trying to work out where the different clauses were.

LH: Yeah, you try to find parts of sentences, don’t you?

PW: That’s it because if it wasn’t buzz words it was technical language and it took some work I have to say.

LH: No, I imagine it would.  You know, but sort of to get back on track a little bit I suppose you know you need to be able to decide when and how to break the rules, as Pip’s just said.  You know you need to be aware of when you’re publishing and where you’re publishing.  You know, say, if you’re publishing content that’s going to be read online you can have sentences that are reasonably long but only very occasionally, you know you need to keep your sentences quite short.  If you’re writing for video scripts you need to keep your sentences really, really, really short, like artificially short.

PW: Yeah.

LH: You know you wouldn’t… you don’t write rhetoric in the same way that you would speak, for example.  You know rhetoric is not the same as dialogue for example.  So if you’ve had experience writing fiction with characters speaking in it don’t assume that you could write video scripts because, again, there are different conventions and you need to know those.  Whereas if you’re writing a printed report or an academic report you can have a sentence that’ll run off, you know run away for a whole paragraph and it’s not a problem.

PW: Yeah, I’ve been writing a lot recently about PPC, which is pay per click advertising, which any internet user is familiar with.  It’s the kind that you see on the right hand side of your Google search results or your Facebook page.  Now to do well PPC ads need to be split tested, almost ad infinitum really, where one example is tested against another to see which is the most effective and they do that to get the exact rewrite combination of headline, image and text and so they test two options, see which gets the better results and then test that one against another, and again and again and again, and people who really know what they’re doing with regards to managing PPC ads can find that a difference of one word can change conversion rates massively.

Now PPC is kind of an extreme case but what it is is a really good example of where science actually overtakes art in copywriting because it doesn’t matter if the final PPC ad sounds clunky or if it repeats a word, or if it’s a bit of a mouthful, because if it’s proven itself to get more conversions than all the other wordings then that’s the one to go with.  It’s kind of copywriting in a quite extreme nutshell really.

LH: My husband does loads and loads and loads of PPC stuff.  He’s a marketer rather than a copywriter and it’s something we butt heads over, sort of good naturedly really, because I know, I know, of course I do, that the science has to overtake the art but when he’s showing me something that’s converting really well I’ll look it, I’ll go, “Well the grammar’s wrong” [laughs].

PW: I know, I know.  You just see ads all the time.

LH: Oh I totally do.

PW: Yeah, at the top of my Gmail and it’s just, “Oh why did you word it like that?” and it may be, we don’t know from the outside, it may be that they’re rubbish at PPC or it may be that they’ve done 24 versions of multivariate testing and that one is converting massively.

LH: Yeah.  My husband loves split testing.  I don’t understand at all.  He’s way more analytical than I am but he loves split testing, absolutely loves AB testing.

PW: I see that it is vitally important, especially for anything salesy, but I do think you need a certain type of brain that I don’t have.

LH: That’s it.

PW: So I’m glad there are other people who are very good at it and very passionate about it because I do appreciate that it’s really important but I’m also glad that it’s not me that’s looking at graph after graph after graph.

LH: No he really loves it.

PW: Yeah, to see where the ‘grab it now’ or ‘get it now’ works better.

LH: Yeah, I mean he finds it really exciting because obviously once you get a spike in a graph and you see that one particular colour, you know background colour, you know sticking a coloured filter on a photo, as you’ve just said, you know changing ‘grab to get’ and changing it back again, you know trying it out with all different colours and different pictures and you know he loves it, really finds it exciting but, you know, like you say, rather him than me.  I’ll stick with my decent writing thank you.

PW: Something else to bear in mind is that some clients, especially if they’ve got a dedicated communications or marketing department, will have style guides that they send to any copywriters they work with and these can contain guidelines that hurts your grammatically correct heart.

I had one recently that said very clearly that there should be no more than one sentence per paragraph.

LH: No.

PW: I know.

LH: No.  Hang on, hang on, no, no, no, hang on, one sentence per paragraph?

PW: Yes, one sentence per paragraph because their reasoning was that people have no attention span these days.

LH: Well in like long copy sales letters or online yes, yeah one sentence per paragraph, two absolute max.

PW: Yeah but this was blog posts, you know, but you know if that’s what they’re paying you to do it’s pretty much what you do.  If it’s something that is really blatantly wrong you might want to carefully point it out to them but often that’s not your place and you do your best with what they give you.

LH: Yeah, I suppose it’s a good point really because it might rankle but you know, and it is worth pointing out to clients if there’s a specific problem with something that they’ve included in their style guide, and whether that’s an actual style guide or just a set of guidelines or preferences that they’ve got, if you can see something that’s going to have like an actively detrimental effect on their marketing, like it’s going to make them look daft, then I suppose it’s best to gather data to back up your claim and then put it to them in a polite and confident way and just let them do what they’re going to do with it, but it’s also good, I think, to note it down somewhere and to know what you’re talking about and then to bear it in mind in future because if you’ve flagged it up once it may be that that’s because it’s going to cause issues in the future.

PW: That’s very true, that’s very true, yeah.  Now as well as putting yourself aside, which we’ve been talking about when you’re copywriting, sometimes you have to persuade your client to put themselves aside a little.  It is often difficult for clients to distance themselves from their own products or services in a way that means they’re able to promote them effectively and that’s easy to understand.  You know they’re very entrenched in their own day to day work and because of that they sometimes lose sight of what will really appeal to their prospects.

LH: Mmm, and I think there’s a certain amount of possessiveness sometimes.

PW: Yes, yes.

LH: You know and it’s understandable, even when a client has brought you on board though because they’re not getting the results they want; so, say, you know an open rate on an email marketing campaign or a conversion rate on a sales page or a really good level of content in a promotional brochure.  It seems like it can be really difficult for them to accept that their personal opinion, particularly if they’re the brains behind the operation, isn’t necessarily what’s going to work or what’s important.

PW: Exactly and we do appreciate that for a lot of people their business is their baby you know and they can find it hard to feel like they’re letting go or losing control of it, but sometimes it’s gentle reminder that that’s exactly why they’ve called in a copywriter is what you need to do and it is our job sometimes to be a bit patient and ease them into it, as long as that doesn’t get ridiculous.

LH: Yeah, it can be really counterintuitive, especially if you’re suggesting something that they wouldn’t have gone with.

PW: Yeah.

LH: But like you say, if a client sort of says, “Ooh, but I wouldn’t have written it like that” it’s like, “Well no, precisely.”

PW: Yes.

LH: You know you mince your words a little bit better than that.

PW: [Laughs] yeah.

LH: Well exactly.  You know but that is the point.  You know if they’ve tried writing for themselves or they’ve tried having somebody in-house do the writing and it’s just not working for them then yeah, it’s counterintuitive but they do need to bear in mind, and as Pip’s just said, you do need to help them bear in mind sometimes that that’s the whole point of you being there.

PW: Yeah.

LH: And I think it’s a little bit like author intent to a certain extent.  Once a product or a service or a company is out there, you know sort of on the public market, the originator, so the brains behind the operation, the owner, the creator, whatever, they no longer control the way that the public views, reacts to or engages with the product or the service and it doesn’t matter what the original idea was to a certain extent because the reality might have changed, depending on any number of things, you know changing target market, new products and services developed by a competitor, or customers just finding new uses for a product that the business owner might never really have thought about.

PW: Yeah.  I mean if somebody’s invented something that’s quite clever but then people buy it and find another use for it that’s even cleverer then that may well be the angle to go for but if the creator is very, “Like no, I invented it for Purpose A” it can be difficult, it can, plus sometimes they can’t see where the absolute goal is in their own product because they have…

LH: Yes.

PW: Yeah, they have no distance or objectivity from it.  I met some guys at a networking event and they had invented this… it was a very cool mobile phone app, I really liked it, and I was chatting to them and they talked me through how it worked and what was, to me, an absolutely clear sales approach was one that hadn’t even occurred to them.  They were solving a particular problem really effectively but they were so caught up in setting up a business and the technical side of the app that they hadn’t spotted this other area of absolute genius in what they were doing and I talked to them about it and they were like, “Wow, you’ve got to write our copy.”  You know that was like, “Great.  You know that’s why I’m here.”

PW: Yeah.  So we’re not all about telling people they’ve picked a crap aspect of a thing to promote.  Sometimes…

LH: No, no of course not.

PW: Yeah, sometimes we’re pointing out that they are geniuses and they haven’t realised it yet.

LH: I often think I’m an undiscovered genius.  I’m just waiting for someone to tell me.

PW: You are most definitely a genius m’dear.

LH: I know but thanks.

[Laughter]

PW: For the record, I bought Lorrie a mug that says, “I’m not perfect but I am so close it scares me.”

LH: It’s true, it’s true.  I’m not sure my husband’s that keen on the mug but I drink from it quite regularly now.  I even wash it specifically so I can drink from it again.

PW: [Laughs].

LH: One thing that Pip and I have discussed recently has been the difference between benefits and features and it’s always worth going into because no matter how many times you go over it there’ll always be a bit of confusion with people.

PW: Yeah.

LH: And I think it’s quite a relevant point when talking about the difference between writing and what we’re terming copywriting here for the purposes of this podcast.

PW: Yeah.

LH: In a piece of marketing or sales copy one of the golden rules is to focus on benefits and not features.  Now I found a really helpful article actually on a site called entrepreneur.com and I dare say it’s not out of the ordinary in its helpfulness because, as we say, benefits versus features is a topic that can run and run and run.

PW: It’s a bit issue and if you could just Google benefits versus features I’m sure there will be tons of resources, if, you know, you listen to what we’re about to say and then want to know more.

LH: Aha, yeah.  I mean Google auto filled it for me.

PW: Oh brilliant.

LH: I was half way through Benefits A, typed in features.  So I was like, “Yeah, even Google knows.”  So yeah, the example that I found on a site called entrepreneur, we’ll link to that in the show notes, and it gives you some concrete examples of how to turn descriptions of a product or a service, which are features, into something that entices the reader and helps them see how they would benefit, hence the benefit, from those specific features.

PW: Yeah, your client might be selling a very intricate piece of equipment or some very clever software and they might want you to describe in detail the exact measurements of the engine or the processing capabilities and this is…

LH: Because that’s what they’ve spent years building.

PW: Exactly and that’s their frame of reference, that’s how they understand the product.  However, in the majority of cases that’s not what’s going to appeal to the customer.  The customer doesn’t go, “Oh I must find a 1.3 engine”, what they want to know is how that engine’s going to benefit them or what the software will make easier in their working life.  So the copywriter’s job is to translate these features, technical detail, into information about how it’s going to benefit the customer.  So if something’s got an adjustable height you don’t necessarily need to say, “The height adjusts from 1.2 metres to 2.4 metres”, you could say, “The height adjusts which makes it suitable for people of different shapes and sizes.”  That’s more appealing.

LH: Definitely.  I think the only time… I was just thinking about what you were saying earlier, the only time that you really need to focus on, say, the size of an engine or processing capabilities would be B2B.

PW: Yes.

LH: You know if you were trying to sell computer parts to distributors or like some of my clients are LED lighting companies who then sell on to electricians and lighting specialists, you know they’re more of a supplier than a B2C.

PW: Yeah, that’s very true.

LH: Then yes okay, you know in their brochure they need the specific features but still, in all their forward facing copy, they need to talk about the benefits and still, to their B2B clients, they do need to focus, as well as the features, on the benefits.

PW: Because I’m quite techy if I was buying a new laptop, for instance, I want to read a bit of prose about the benefits to me but I also want to be able to scroll down the page and see a list of numbers.

LH: Yes.

PW: And so one doesn’t have to exclude the other and, like Lorrie said, the audience is important.  If you’re selling software to resellers who can then, you know, brand it themselves and sell it on to their clients they need to know those numbers but it doesn’t mean you can put those exclusively necessarily because yeah, even B2B clients want a bit of context I think quite often.  That gives them a sense of the company and I think it’s important, yeah.

LH: Yeah.  Going back to what we said earlier about sometimes the clients need to put themselves on one side, you know to take it full circle sometimes B2B clients are resistant to writing about benefits as opposed to features.  It can be like, “Well we don’t need that.  That’s not what I want to read” but to a lesser extent you do still need benefits for B2B writing.  You know trust us, we both do write in the B2B sector.

PW: Yes, yes.

LH: And I think it’s good to remember that as a writer, rather than a copywriter, you might be quite a descriptive person.  I am, I like to get quite flowery.

PW: Oh yes.  Whenever I’m reviewing a first draft of anything that I’ve written most of it is cutting stuff out [laughs].

LH: Same really, you know, and you might get caught up, you know when you’re writing about a specific product or service, you might get caught up in helping your reader to really visualise something, like see the product, and you actually end up forgetting that you’re supposed to be effectively selling something but the piece of writing you’re creating is supposed to have a purpose.

PW: Yeah.

LH: And I think benefits versus features, it’s a good reminder that it’s really important to keep your writing aims in mind, particularly as a copywriter, because someone else is relying on you for a certain result.

PW: Yeah it’s really true.  The client will know their product or service better than you.  However, you, when you have experience and maybe a bit of training, know better than them, probably, how to go about describing it and selling it and so it can be difficult to negotiate sometimes because it’s understandable that they can get precious over their stuff.

LH: Of course.

PW: But you don’t want to indulge that to a point where you know you’ve written something that’s not going to be useful to them.

LH: Yeah, definitely.  I mean it can be… what I’ve found with B2B clients, because as you know most of my clients, until recently, have been B2B…

PW: Yep, same here.

LH: …what I find is that when you choose to leave something out they think you’ve forgotten it.

PW: Yes.

LH: You know and it goes back to the benefits and features thing.  You don’t have to say everything but with B2B they can be so excited about a product and all of its functionalities and capabilities that they want you to crowbar them all in to like a press release and talk about the fact that it does this and talk about the fact that you can do that and talk about the fact that it can process x number of y’s in a certain z period and it’s like yeah, to a certain extent but don’t overwhelm people.

PW: And quite often, if you’re going to do a really good job on some sales copy, you need to do a bit of market research and that doesn’t mean sending out women to the city centre to ask people questions.

LH: [Laughs] women with clipboards.

PW: Yeah.

LH: Have you been accosted recently?  I wonder why that’s on your mind.

PW: I am accosted all the time.

LH: Are you?

PW: I think it’s because I walk quite slowly, they just like see me coming and go, “We’ll get her.”

LH: Head her off at the pass!  You see I put my headphones on, stick my head down and stride away.

PW: Headphones are very handy for that but yeah…

LH: You can stop by headphones though.  They’ll just be like, “Hiya.”  It’s like, “No, no sorry.”  I just shake my head and smile, “No.”

PW: But yeah, yeah it doesn’t have to mean that, it can just mean literally going onto web forums and seeing what the concerns are of the target market you’re working towards.

LH: Yeah, market analysis, competitor analysis or having a look at the sector, recent technological developments in there.  It’s really common sense, isn’t it?

PW: Yeah and there are all sorts of ways you can go about it.  There’s a website called Quora, which is just people asking questions and really in-depth answers.  Forums are particularly handy to see how many people are concerned about certain issues.  So say you’re selling power tools, so drills and screwdrivers and those things, and you sell a drill that has a particular purpose that you think’s really exciting, well the client does anyway, and then you go into some DIY forums online and have a look and you see that a good portion of the people who are posting are very concerned about the fact that their drill doesn’t do a particular thing, and you also see that nobody even mentions the first thing that your client thinks is important.  That’s the time to drop really, or at least downplay, the thing that nobody appears to be concerned about and…

LH: Or to apply.

PW: Yes, yeah and to actually make this new product apply to the concerns they genuinely have and appeal to that big market there.

LH: Yeah, definitely because you know if you take it down to the building blocks of, say, online writing that’s going to affect your key words, it’s going to affect what you hyperlink in a text online.

PW: Yeah.

LH: You know say if you’re talking about a certain functionality that nobody’s interested in there’s no point linking from, say, an article in your client’s blog to the product from those particular key words.  You know you need to be linking from something that’s more relevant to their interests, their concerns and, as Pip’s just said, you need to be steering your writing more towards what they’re interested in in general and obviously you might have to go back to your client and have a bit of a tussle with them and sort of say, “No, people aren’t interested in that but here’s the link, here’s a screenshot of people discussing it.  I didn’t see anybody mentioning Functionality A.  They were all talking about this Functionality B that either it has and we haven’t mentioned, or it doesn’t have and we could include in a future product.”

PW: Yeah, exactly, exactly and that goes to show why key word research is also an important part of copywriting.  It’s very similar actually to market research.  There’s a tool offered by Google for free called the Google Adwords Keyword Research Tool, is it called?  Something along those lines.

LH: If you search for Google Keyword Tool you’ll find it.

PW: Yeah and what that does you can search for a word or a phrase and it tells you how many people search for that per month and how much competition there is and it also suggests alternatives.  Now from the information they give you you could easily spend a week analysing it but often for smaller jobs you know you’ve no desire or need to do that but what you can see is that if 350 people a month are searching for one term but 35,000 people a month are searching for another it also gives you an idea of people’s priorities and interests and also the way they’re wording them, which is important for SEO writing.

LH: Definitely.

PW: So hopefully that’s been helpful in terms of giving you an idea of where to start really when copywriting and how to put aside your own style and preferences and also how to tackle trying to persuade your client to put aside theirs if necessary.

LH: Yeah.  I mean often the proof’s in the pudding with the clients.  You know don’t be surprised if they resent you for it at first.

PW: Oh yeah.

LH: You know they can get really, really grumpy and it’s like, “Well you don’t know.  You don’t work in my sector” you know especially in very male dominated sectors.

PW: Yeah.

LH: I get it, you know, “Some young filly’s just come in and she’s telling us what we already… she’s teaching grandma to suck eggs” and I just have to keep schtum until the results come in that were far better than the results they were getting in the first place and then it’s like, “Don’t worry.  Don’t all apologise at once.  It’s fine” you know because it doesn’t matter.  You know people get precious and now, hopefully, Pip and I have given you a bit of a heads up that it’s not personal, it’s just it can be counterintuitive for them to say, “Okay, well I’m the expert in my subject but she’s the expert in writing about my subject.”

PW: Yeah, yeah exactly.

Now it is time for our Little Bird recommendations where we choose a blog post, a phone app, a Tweet, a piece of software or a bit of advice that we would like to recommend to listeners.

So, Lorrie, what is your Little Bird recommendation this week?

LH: My Little Bird recommendation this week is based on something I mentioned in the last episode and that was my solo episode about how to get started as a freelance writer and I talked a lot about how important training is, and it really, really is.  You know I do at least two or three training courses a month.

PW: Yep, the same.

LH: Yeah and if you find yourself with a spare bit of time, I know that Pip’s exactly the same, you know try and get in a little bit of training even if, and it does count, even if it’s just a bit of reading.

PW: Oh absolutely, yeah.

LH: 100% you know, it all helps.

PW: Yeah.  One of my main things that I learn from is I listen to podcasts compulsively [laughs] and I learn so much from them, especially because I do a lot of tech writing I need to be up to date and there are endless numbers of tech podcasts, so it keeps me informed.  So yeah, it doesn’t have to be formal study, although that’s good as well.

LH: Yeah but imagine if you were in a lecture hall listening to somebody rather than listening to a podcast it’s all the same thing.

PW: And these are the experts, you know, like people from Google who really know what they’re talking about.

LH: Yeah and you wouldn’t be able to secure an audience for those sorts of…

PW: Never, no.

LH: You’d never ever get near them.  So a podcast, yeah, is a brilliant way.

PW: Especially a very good freelance writing one.

LH: Yes that’s pretty stunning.  If I was going to choose any I’d probably go with the A Little Bird Told Me.

PW: I think so.

LH: Freelance Writing podcast.

PW: Yeah.

LH: No bias.

PW: [Laughs].

LH: So yeah, I was having a nosy around on the net and as I mentioned in the last episode I tend to spend a lot of time on OpenLearn, which is the Open University’s free training section, and alison.com, which is mmm, it can be hit and miss but it’s all free training courses and they’re quite interactive, they’re usually quite pointy clicky.  So you know it’s a good place to be going around and I was looking to broaden my horizons a little bit and I spotted what’s quite an old, it’s about three years old, two and half, three years old now, it’s quite an old article but it’s still quite useful and it’s on something called freelancefolder.com, and it’s, ‘10 amazing free online writing courses’ it’s called, and I expected this article to be stuff like you know how to write a limerick or how to write a sentence you know because people will spin articles about anything just to get people to click, of course they will, but when I actually clicked on it you’ve got things like ‘Learn to Write a Feasibility Study’.

PW: Wow, that’s a very specific skill.

LH: Very much so and it taps into, quite nicely actually, it taps into what we were saying about copywriting being a skill rather than a talent.  You can’t just be naturally good at writing a feasibility study.

PW: Yes, yeah you need to know what you’re doing.

LH: This is it.  You know you need that specific skill set.  You’ve got the intensive grammar workshop, which is just so brilliant, it’s fabulous and it gives anybody who’s starting out, it’s good for people who are starting out as a copywriter and want to make sure that they’ve got all their grammar down pat.  It’s good for non-native English speakers.

PW: And for proofreaders as well.

LH: Yes, yeah and it even says, “Remember that poor grammar can cost you a gig” and it’s true.

PW: Oh yeah.

LH: So you know the sources are actually quite good.  Some of them are from about.com, which I think is really unrated actually.

PW: Yeah, it does often have some really good information.

LH: It really does.  I do like about.com and I do like wikihow.com.

PW: Yeah.

LH: Because often these sites are populated by very, very good writers who want to get back links from what are huge, huge high traffic sites.  I mean these sites are massive and if you did have a back link from those sites that would do you the world of good.  So the content on those sites is really very, very good, even though we’re just looking at, you know, sites with text on them.  So if you’re receptive to reading things and you’re not looking for a podcast about.com and wikihow.com are great for different types of writing and learning how to go about getting started and you can often find templates on there…

PW: Aha.

LH: …for various kinds of writing.  So as Pip mentioned in a previous episode, I think it was when we were talking about writing the perfect press release, they’re a good place to start looking, they’re really, really helpful.

You’ve got other available courses; you’ve got technical writing, marketing writing tips.  Now a couple of the links are broken but the sites are still there.  So if you just go back it looks like the page has been moved on the website.

PW: Ah right, yeah.

LH: So I think it’s No. 9 and No. 10, which are ‘Marketing Writing Tips’ and ‘Creative Writing 101’, they’ve been moved.  Now I’ve had a click through the ‘Creative Writing 101’ and it’s quite clear where the rest of the course has gone.  It’s there, it’s just it’s been revised I believe.

PW: Aha.

LH: You know and this article’s just really, really helpful.  It tells you kind of what to expect.  There’s just loads of really useful, interesting stuff on there and it underlines the importance, I think, of taking on a variety of training courses.

You know I try and… I’ve got a list of courses that I want to do in a whole year and I try and choose like a couple that I’m really, really into and a couple that I’m kind of dreading.

PW: Yes, I’m exactly the same.  I do some just for the love of it and I do others because I know I really should, that I would benefit from it but it doesn’t inflame passion in me [laughs].

LH: No, like ‘Videography’ and ‘Audio Recording’ and stuff like that, it’s just not my cup of tea at all, whereas ‘Introduction to Fiction Writing’, you know seeing what a certain training provider is suggesting the ‘Fiction Writing’ but I find that interesting.

PW: Yeah, exactly.

LH: You know, so that would be my recommendation of the week you know.

PW: It’s a very good one.

LH: And I suppose one more point I would make is that these are all courses aimed at freelancers.

PW: Yeah.

LH: They’re all at freelancefolder.com.  So they’ve been collated with freelancers and self-employed people in mind.

PW: Brilliant, brilliant.

Now my recommendation; earlier this year we both… we did some episodes, I think there was a dual episode and two solo episodes all about money and how to decide what to charge I did a solo episode about, Lorrie did one about how to increase your rates and we do know that for freelancers, especially people who are starting out, knowing what to charge is a big issue, people find it incredibly difficult.  Now in those earlier episodes, which I’ll link to in the show notes, we went through a few different ways of deciding how much to charge and how to go about it but my recommendation this week is a freelance billable rate calculator.

LH: Ooo.

PW: Ooo.  It’s on a site called Micro Business Hub, which I hadn’t come across before.

LH: No, I’ve not heard of that one either.

PW: But they actually coded and created this calculator and if you’re the kind of person who really wants to drill down to the penny and get it exactly right without taking any risks, or not even necessarily without taking risks, but who wants to…

LH: So you want to pounce at every single penny?

PW: That’s it, that’s it, you don’t want to miss anything out, you don’t want to forget about an important cost, this is the calculator for you.  It covers everything.  It has basically lots of different fields to fill in about how much you spend on marketing, how much you spend on insurance, entertainment and then how much you want to earn and then also a section about how much you work, so how many days you work a week, how many weeks you work a year, how many bank holidays there are even, and then it gives you a calculation of your hourly billable rate, what it should be or what it needs to be to meet your own goals.

Now what I like about this is there are lots of people I know who would love to do it in this much detail.  I’m not one of them.  I’m happy…

LH: [Laughs] I’m glad you said that because neither am I.

PW: I know.  I am happy working it out on a reasonably informal basis.  It’s still based on calculations and it has a basis in reality but some people feel much more comfortable knowing that everything is accounted for.

The other thing I like about this is first of all it’s based on UK earnings.  So first of all there’s just the novelty of it not coming out with a dollar sign at the end, it comes out with a pound sign instead, and that’s rare when you’re doing any kind of money calculation online, but also it has tax information at the top in terms of Income Tax and VAT, and it’s just a really comprehensive way of going about working out your fees and you can also get the report at the end emailed to you.

LH: Oh that’s helpful.

PW: It is.

LH: It’s surprising that that’s free actually.

PW: Absolutely and this site, Micro Business Hub, have coded the form themselves.  A woman called Jo Waltham has done it and the comments underneath the calculator are also really positive people.  Stunningly simple but brilliant for instance.  It’s… and I think…

LH: People say that about me all the time!

PW: They do, stunningly simple they say [laughs].  So that’s my recommendation.

If you’re unsure about your earnings, you’re not sure you’ve calculated it right or you’re not sure you’re asking for the right amount of money check out the freelance billable rate calculator along with the link to Lorrie’s recommendation is in our show notes at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com.

So goodness me, Episode 30 is complete.

LH: That’s more than me.

PW: I know.  It’s not quite me but it’s more than you.  The podcast is older than you and yet you’re in the first episode, which is almost magic!

LH: Possibly.  I’m going to have to go away and think about that one.

PW: [Laughs].

LH: I haven’t had a coffee yet, so once I’ve had a coffee I’m sure it’ll make more sense.

PW: Thank you very much for listening and for supporting the podcast through 30 episodes.  We’re really proud we’ve got this far and we’re really glad that people are enjoying it.  We’re getting great feedback and we love it.  So do get in touch.

LH: And tell us we are marvellous, we love to hear it.  We don’t bite.  If you’ve got any questions about this podcast, any other podcast episodes that we’ve recorded, any questions about anything at all really, keep it decent but you know come and have a chat with us, come and ask us.

PW: Thank you so much for listening.  I have been Philippa Willits.

LH: And I, for the 30th time, have been Lorrie Hartshorn and we will catch you next time.

 

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Podcast Episode 29: How to Get Started as a Freelance Writer

We ran out of storage space for our earliest episodes. But fear not, we have made these many, many hours of freelance writing goodness available for just £10. If you want access to them all, please click Add to Cart and buy through our e-junkie account for instant access.

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In this brilliant solo episode, Lorrie goes into detail about how to prepare for starting out as a freelance writer, and what to do and where to go to start finding work.

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Transcript

Hello, and welcome to Episode 29 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 – that gets easier to say every time! – to enjoy. And you can also find links to my websites and social media feeds, as well as those of my lovely co-host Philippa.

I’m Lorrie Hartshorn and today’s episode is a solo one, which means that you’ll have to tune in next week to get another fix of the lovely Pip. This week, I’m going to be taking things back to basics a little bit, and talking about what to do if you want to become a freelance writer but you don’t really know where to start. This episode is actually in response to a query from one of our listeners, Tracy, who got in touch via our Facebook page and asked for some advice on this very topic.

Writer's Stop

Writer’s Stop (Photo credit: Stephh922)

She wrote: “Could you do a show for those of us who want to become freelance writers but have no idea of how to do that? I don’t even know how to get started.” Which is actually a pretty brave thing to admit to. It’s actually really common that freelance writers feel stumped at first – there’s so much to consider when going freelance that I’d be worried if you weren’t a bit overwhelmed at first.

I’ve had a think, and come up with a few tips to help you get started.

Ask yourself why you want to go freelance: are you a good writer? Do you have a genuine understanding of what a freelance copywriting career is like? Do you understand the different kinds of writing there are out there? Do you have realistic expectations when it comes to working from home? Do you understand fully that turning your passion into a full-time, self-employed position can really put a dampener on it? Are you ready to be your own marketing team, admin person, finance department, training and development team? Are you self-disciplined and pro-active? Do you try and find answers for yourself before you ask others? You’ll be working on your own for the vast majority of your time as a freelance and your clients expect you to have the answers –  often to questions you’ve no idea about. But they’re paying you to know your stuff, so your knowledge, your research skills and your motivation have to stay right up there.

Ask yourself if you’re a good writer as well as a good communicator:

Are you comfortable communicating with people at all levels – including board level – as a representative of your own company? Are you able to sweet talk people face-to-face and over the phone? Are you ready to schmooze and flatter and laugh at people’s jokes and find the one thing you can relate to in a conversation with a potentially important prospect at a networking event? Or would you clam up? Can you chase leads? Can you negotiate rates, deadlines and contracts to suit you as well as your client, while coming across as assertive and fair rather than petulant? The last thing you want to do is fail to really take on board all these challenges – it’s better to face them before you get started so you can identify and hopefully tackle any gaps. Many of these skills can be learnt – so don’t be horrified if you’ve never done this stuff before. But, if you’re listening and thinking that this all sounds like your worst nightmare, there’s definitely an issue.

Ask yourself whether you’re good enough as a writer: this sounds like a pretty harsh piece of advice, but the key to being a successful freelance writer has to, of course, be having the right skill set. As Pip and I have said many times before, decent grammar does not a copywriter make. There’s a lot more to it – read blogs by any freelance copywriters and you’ll get a good idea of what’s involved – but at the end of the day, you do have to have that basic talent – as well as the ability and the stamina to carry on writing and improving your writing every working day for the rest of…well, forever! You need to be able to express yourself (and your client, and a marketing message) through writing, and you need to be able to do it well, relatively quickly, and time and time again.

Ask yourself if you’re in a secure enough position to go freelance. Even if you’re going freelance for all the right reasons and you reckon you’ll be great at it, life happens. As Pip and I have mentioned before, it might take ages for you to find clients. Clients might take ages to get back to you. You might have to wait a month (or more if you’re writing for magazines) before you get paid. In the meantime, bills need paying and life needs living, so think carefully and take a good look at your financial situation before you go freelance. Don’t take a “carpe diem” attitude to it because you’re likely to spend the next three months sleeping on someone else’s sofa and eating rice and carrots.

Writing

Writing (Photo credit: jjpacres)

Of course, working around a full- or part-time job means that you’ll have to do your freelance writing in the early morning or in the evening – or just whenever you find yourself with a free moment (kiss goodbye to lunch breaks!). But, it’s a good opportunity to work out whether freelancing is for you. It’s a good chance to see if you work well under pressure and whether your writing is still flowing after three or four weeks of boring press releases or brochures or websites. Better still, it’s a safe opportunity, and it won’t leave you penniless if it doesn’t work out.

So, if you’re sure that you’re ready to be a freelance writer and you’ve got as many of those challenges I’ve mentioned covered as possible, it’s time to take some steps towards actually getting started. Again, I’ll try and keep this brief, but once you’ve got these ideas down, you can go off and do your research at leisure.

Make sure you’ve got all your basics in place before you go freelance – will help you hit the ground running (service offerings, hourly or other rates, business plan, marketing plan, website, social media feeds, CV…) Starting a freelance career with only a vague idea of where you’re headed and what you’re doing isn’t necessarily a fatal mistake but it’s likely to be a costly one, and one that will waste a lot of time for you. You need to be sure about what you’re going to be doing so that as soon as an opportunity arises, you know where it fits.

So what are you going to do for the first month of your freelance career? The first three months? The first year? What training are you going to do? If you’re stuck on how to set goals for yourself, I’d suggest having a listen to our first podcast of 2013, which was all about how to set SMART – specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-sensitive and timely – goals.

What services will you offer? Will you have one main service and some little ones, or a range of equally balanced services? Do you know how to edit (and it’s NOT the same as copywriting, so don’t assume!) or proof-read?

Have you got your website and social media feeds up, running and populated with interesting and engaging information? Have you positioned yourself well in the market by looking at your competitors? If there’s a particularly sector you want to work in, do you know who the big players are and who their movers and shakers are? Do you know your trade press publications? Do you know the most popular websites and blogs in that area? These are all things you need to know in order to build a big picture of the world you’re going into. Knowledge is power.

What kinds of writing will you be doing? Do you have a unique selling point – or USP? Are there any sectors you’re going to target specifically? Are there any areas you don’t want to work in? I, for example, learned early on in my career (when most of my work was translation) that I’m not cut out for writing legal stuff. I don’t enjoy translating contracts and it’s not something I feel able to deliver well on. However, if you had, say, a couple of years’ experience as a paralegal – or if you’d taken a law degree – you might well find that this could be a specialist service you offer. Legal writing. So  you’d research that area, find out how other people are marketing themselves and try and go one better. Better website, better SEO, better offerings,  better testimonials, etter rates, whatever.

While I’m not going to be able to cover all of the points I’ve mentioned here, if you have a look through the back catalogue of episodes that Pip and I have recorded for you, you’ll see that a lot of it is covered in really good detail. We’ve talked about the skills you need as a freelance writer, we’ve talked about how to set your rates and then improve them when the time comes. We’ve talked about on- and off-site SEO, which gives you a really good idea on how to market yourself across digital channels. There really is a lot to learn if you have a listen, so be pro-active and have a root through the archives!

Create a reputation: it can be easy to get caught up in the whole, “I don’t have experience so I can’t get experience!” train of thought when you’re starting out. But, in my opinion, it’s just a matter of keeping on looking for the right opportunities and continuing to market yourself. I’ve seen a lot of people advising freelancers to build a portfolio of work by working for free – and while it’s a fair point, it’s not something I think is necessary. I think that, if you create a strong online brand, and you back that up with sustained marketing efforts and a professional persona, you’re on the right track. I don’t accept that working for free is a necessary starting point, and I’d question any for-profit company that wants you to give them writing in return for vague things that won’t pay the bills, like “exposure” or “experience”.

But, that’s not to say that you shouldn’t work at building your reputation. Get yourself on a forum or a blog and leave insightful comments. If you’ve had salaried positions before – or even informal freelance gigs – email or phone the person you worked for and ask them for a testimonial. Get them to endorse you on LinkedIn. Don’t be afraid to show you can do a good job. Make sure the copy on your website is spot on. Take the assertive approach – represent yourself as the expert you want to be (and should be training to be), market yourself consistently and I’m confident you’ll be able to build a reputation as someone people should consider hiring.

If you want more information on working for free, Pip and I did cover in detail why we both think that’s a bad idea in episode four. We did point out that volunteer writing  or guest-posting on blogs is a good way to fill the gap – if you really feel like you want to get some real life experience and some articles to show new prospects, then these are effective ways to go about it.  What we’re really warning against is 1) thinking that working for free is an inevitable rite of passage for freelance copywriters and 2) thinking that for-profit companies have a right to get work from you for nothing. Start out as you mean to go on, and value yourself. It’s a good way to get other people – clients! – to do the same thing.

Immerse yourself in freelancing – and learn about the great resources out there

Writing

Writing (Photo credit: Pascal Maramis)

One of the great things about setting out as a freelance copywriter is that it’s almost completely free. You definitely pay for it in other ways – time, stress, a super steep learning curve – but in terms of initial financial outlay, we’re lucky in that the only things we absolutely really need to pay for are a domain name and hosting for a website. In this day and age, it’s not really OK to have a site with some long-winded name, so choose a domain carefully and get your site up and running. WordPress is a really easy-to-learn tool and an easy-to-manage CMS system – both Pip and I use it for our websites and blogs – so I’d definitely recommend you get on there and start having a play around as soon as you even think you might go freelance. I upload work for several clients directly to their WordPress, so it can actually come in handy for other reasons as well.

But yes, to go back to the point, while you might be living off savings while you get started as a freelancer, the costs are minimal if you’re pro-active and finding freebies doesn’t mean skimping on quality. Social media marketing is free. Signing up for newsletters from brilliant sites like Write to Done and Copyblogger is free. Chatting on forums (or fora, if we’re being correct) is free. Asking advice from other freelancers, as our listener Tracy has done, is free. Producing content for your site, free. Finding creative commons licensed images to spruce your articles up – free. Training courses on sites like Alison.com and Open Learn by the Open University – all 100% free. So there’s no excuse not to absolutely max out all of these resources as you build a freelance career – and to keep on doing so as you progress. Training and development is hugely important, so don’t let it slide. When you’re the only person representing your business, and you’re the only thing between you and bankruptcy, you can’t kid yourself and you can’t pretend. You need to knuckle down and educate yourself.

Finally, finding work:

We’re all totally different, so the way we find work will differ. You might be looking for B2B clients, you might be looking for B2C clients. You might want to write for magazines and newspapers, you might want to write for charities, social enterprises and non-profits. And just as your target market will differ depending on your strengths, weaknesses, preferences, personal experience etc. so will your method of finding work. The best piece of advice I can give you, once you’ve got your own house in order with website, marketing etc., is know your target market and put yourself in people’s ways. That might mean collecting data from a sector specific conference and emailing people you’d be interested in working for. It might mean going to a networking event and collecting business cards. It might involve cold-calling and taking 100 rejections until you get a “maybe” from someone. It might involve adding people on Twitter at a time when you know their company is going through some big changes. Or connecting with someone on LinkedIn. Or bidding for jobs on reputable copywriting sites like peopleperhour.com or constant content.

There’s no magic formula, sadly, otherwise way more people would be freelancers. The key is to know what you’re doing, to manage yourself and your time (and your money!) wisely, and to pitch and market yourself consistently. We’re talking hours every day while you’re getting started – and remember that this will never stop. As Pip said in a recent episode, your little black book of contacts will never be full.

So, I really hope that this has been a useful introduction into how to get started as a freelance writer. As I said, this is in response to a query we’ve had from a listener – we really do take feedback on board and we’re happy to cover the topics that you want to hear! We’ll be ploughing ahead with our own podcast calendar in the coming weeks, but if you’ve had a listen to this and you think there’s a question you’d like to ask, why not pop by our social media feeds? Both Pip and I are on Facebook and Twitter, and we’ve also got a Facebook page for the podcast itself, so we’d love to hear from you.

In the meantime, let us know what you think to today’s tips. Are they spot on? Have I missed something crucial out? Drop us a line and tell us what you think. Tell us how you got into freelancing. Share some of the mistakes and wins you’ve had along the way. Help out listeners like Tracy who are just taking those first few steps.

I’ve been Lorrie Hartshorn, and as ever, thanks for listening – we’ll catch you next time.

 

Podcast Episode 28: The 11 biggest myths about professional copywriting

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There are lots of myths and fallacies around about what being a freelancer really involves. In this podcast episode, Lorrie and I talk about 11 of the most prevalent ones, and thoroughly debunk them!

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Transcript

Writing

Writing (Photo credit: jjpacres)

LH: Hello and welcome to episode 28 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…

PW: And I’m Philippa Willitts, and today we’re going to be discussing the 11 biggest myths about freelance writing! There are an awful lot of things that people believe, some of which are true and some of which are so far off the mark that it’s slightly ridiculous. So what we’re going to go through today are our top 11 myths about professional copywriting in particular.

LH: I think it’s important to say at this point that they’re out top 11, not because of some complicated mathematical thing, but because they were the first things that made us go, “Oooooh, and that!”

PW: Yes, we don’t have algorithms! Haha!

LH: No, but I think we’ve been in the business quite a number of years between us – and quite a number of years each, actually – so I reckon that “things that make us go ‘Ooooh’” is a pretty good measure.

So, my first myth – and it’s based on my experiences as a recruiter in the copywriting industry – is that if you’ve got the internet and a basic grasp of English, you can do it!

At the risk of being melodramatic – and I did try and think of better examples for this! – this is like saying if you’ve got a pencil and decent eyesight, you can be Leonardo Da Vinci. OK, OK, I know we’re not artistic geniuses, but the number of times I’ve had people apply to me and say, “I have no copywriting experience at all but my grammar is pretty decent”. Honestly, it’s happened A LOT.

Now, a good knowledge of English and an internet connection is the bare minimum requirement to even putting fingers to keyboard. But it’s nowhere near enough: it’s YEARS OFF being enough. You need to understand what you’re doing, not just the theoretical stuff behind the words you might end up using. And I’m not being glib – I have two language degrees, so I’m not reducing them, or language degrees, or language skills to nothing, but writing isn’t the same as copywriting. Copywriting – and content writing, because they are different – is what you do when you understand a product, a service, a client, an audience, a platform, plus all the market research out there on your particular topic or theme. It takes years of effort and training to become a good content or copywriter – not just goodwill and an open Word document!

PW: There’s all that understanding that Lorrie’s mentioned that you have to have in mind for any piece of copywriting work, plus all the theoretical understanding as well. Like Lorrie said, you can’t just have the theory, or you’ll really struggle, but the theory does have to play a part – you can’t just go, “Oh well, I can write good stories!” for instance. Although we are going to go into that later, I believe…?

LH: Yes, we are. So, on to the next copywriting myth we’re going to explode…

PW: OK, the first one I chose is that freelancers just mess about all day and don’t do any real work.

LH: Haha, I wish!

PW: After the last few weeks I’ve had, I cannot dispute this strongly enough!

LH: She really, really can’t! Haha!

PW: Poor Lorrie’s my accountability partner and she knows every single piece of work I’ve done.

LH: Inside out!

PW: And there have been a lot! And, you know, sure, I can choose my own hours and I don’t have to wear a suit, but that doesn’t mean the work we do isn’t real work, and it doesn’t mean I don’t bother doing any at all. My bills need paying, just like everyone else’s do, and if I did no work I wouldn’t get paid.

LH: Yeah, it always makes me laugh when people say, “Ohh, come on – just nip out with me!” or “You’re so lucky, you can do what you want all day.”. I’m always like “Yeah, if I want to starve next month!”. You have to be so disciplined, especially – and I do! – when you’ve got people who don’t really ‘get’ working from home and so can be a bit of a bad influence when they want you to hang out during ‘work hours’. They see you sitting at home doing ‘something’ on your laptop, and from an outside perspective, it’ll just look like you’re messing about on the internet.

PW: Yeah, often the vast majority of the research you do will be online. So it might look like you’re reading Wikipedia for fun, but you’re actually getting access to scientific articles on something you don’t yet understand.

LH: I love that we have to specify that we actually read Wikipedia for fun. Someone could look at us and go, “Oh, she’s just reading Wikipedia for fun again…” and it would be true.

PW: Yeah, and it’s not that freelance writers don’t procrastinate, because we certainly do, but no more than any other professional who has internet access. So what about myth number three?

LH: Myth number three: you can quit your job and start making a living as a writer tomorrow. Wrong! Haha! Both Pip and I, and every other freelance writer I know, started out small and worked our way up. I worked full time for years while I learnt the ropes, spending time learning about marketing, administration, writing, grammar, editing, summarising, paraphrasing, SEO, sales copy, B2B copy, B2C copy…you name it. That’s just a fraction of what I’ve learnt over the last ten years. And it’s a bit of a tragedy, because I’ve known a number of people who quit a job on impulse, with the idea of making it big – they’ve ended up moving back home with their parents while they try and work out why they’re not making enough to cover their weekly snack budget, let alone their rent.

PW: And that’s the last thing as an adult that you ever want to do – I never could.

LH: Great if you’ve got the option, but I think it’s far from what most people would want.

PW: I saved for a while before I started freelancing full-time, because you can’t expect to jump into it and get a full-time salary. At least three months’ salary is what I’d recommend saving before you leave your job or whatever.

LH: Absolutely. There’s no guarantee that where you hunt for clients will be rich pickings, or you might find clients in an unusual sector, so research will be needed. Or, you need to set up meetings with people, or you chat to someone and they seem really keen but then say that they’ll get back to you in three weeks.

PW: Or, someone says, do the work now and I’ll pay you at the end of the month. Often the best way to do it is to start building up freelance work while you’re still doing other paid work. And hopefully you get to the point where you’re making enough on the side, and have enough clients, that you can make freelancing into your full-time position.

LH: You tip the balance eventually. There comes a point when you have to take the plunge eventually. There came a point when I was working full-time where I had no more free time because I had so much freelance work. I would suggest to anyone considering going into freelance work that you don’t give up your day job until you have so much freelance work that you can’t carry on with both.

PW: That’s it – when you realise you’re too busy or you’re earning more on the side than you’re earning in your day job, that’s the ideal time to take the leap.

PW: So, on to Myth Number Four: “I wouldn’t be able to get a business to hire me, I don’t have business contacts or experience!” I thought this too, but then I started marketing myself. Most copywriters don’t start out with a black book full of business contacts, but that’s what marketing is for. That’s the way you let people know you exist, and if you are persuasive you might get the gig. Yes, I was astounded the first time it happened too, but once it does, and you do it again and again, you get more and more business gigs and then the contacts start! Similarly, you might never have worked in a particular sector, but given the variety of business sectors you will end up getting work from, you’d have to have a really chequered work history to have worked in them all! That’s why the skill that’s just as important as being able to write is being able to research. You learn the niches as you go, if you need to.

LH: Definitely. I started out with the contacts I had, then friends of friends, alongside marketing myself. What it’s meant is that I have B2B experience in waste management, recycling, environmental services and renewables, and that’s blossomed organically, and then I have dots of experience in other sectors because you never know who’s going to get in touch.

PW: That’s one of the joys of freelancing – you have no idea what a new client will want from you.

LH: I do love it, but when a client gets in touch – particularly by phone – and says, “Do you have any experience in…cupcakes?!”

PW: “I like eating them!”

LH: Or, “I could have, for the right client!”

PW: Haha! “What is it exactly you’re after?”

LH: Yes, “Tell me more about you…please!” But yes, it’s organic and, as Pip says, you don’t start out with a book of clients who are sitting there waiting for you to get in touch. Often, it’s just about putting yourself in people’s way, so keeping an eye on markets, content marketing trends etc. is a really important thing to do. You start to be able to predict who might need content marketing services from you and that way, I’ve found social media really good – I can start following people in that sector, and without spamming them, or being salesy, I’ll get contact from them, saying, “How brilliant that you just added me on Twitter!”.

PW: Yes, and it looks like an accident, but if they knew what had gone into it – how many times you’d read their LinkedIn and social media profiles, but if you do it right, it looks like a lovely coincidence.

LH: So yes, it’s about filling the black book. You won’t have a full one when you start out and, if you do, you should’ve started a lot sooner!

PW: And it’s never full, either – if you think, “I know everyone in my sector”, you’re really limiting yourself. You should always keep your eye open for new people, even when you’re too busy to take more people on, you should always be nurturing those relationships because you’re going to need them eventually.

LH: Definitely – don’t discount anyone. Your book won’t stay full because, just as clients might grow and decide they need a copywriter, but then they might grow again and decide that they need an in-house copywriter – and it’s bye-bye you!

PW: Or, they might see how you do it for six weeks, then go, “OK, I’ve learnt now.” And do it themselves. And it might not be ideal for us – or them, to be honest – but it does happen!

LH: So, on to the fifth myth! If you’re talented enough, your clients will find you. It’s not true. It doesn’t matter how talented you are, your clients won’t find you unless you put yourself out there.

PW: Yes, why would they? I remember, when I started out, I decided to create a website, so I did and then I was like, “Tadaaa!” And then I kind of went, “Oh no!” and it all struck home – why on Earth would anyone find it and just give me work? What was I thinking?! My whole plan collapsed into logic! You may be the best writer on the topic of sociological research, but if nobody knows, it doesn’t matter.

LH: And if you’re not engaging with anyone, no one cares. People want to work with you, rather than working with your website. To be honest, creating a website is the bare minimum of what you need in terms of marketing, but the fact is that I’ve seen frankly mediocre copywriters do really well because they put themselves out there. Their branding and marketing and online and offline presence…it’s all fabulous.

PW: Often it is those who shout the loudest rather than those who are the best.

LH: Statistically, if you get all that work and you do an OK job, you’ll do fine. What you can’t afford to do as a copywriter is to be an ‘author’ – and I am a creative writer as well, so I’m not trying to slate anyone – and get a bit precious. “I don’t want to promote myself – I want my work to speak for itself!”

PW: And that may well be OK if you’re Ian Rankin, Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, but when you’re not those people it’s unlikely to happen. And in commercial copywriting, it’s just not going to happen. People won’t be reading your press release just because it’s so beautiful.

LH: So Pip, the next myth please!

PW: The next copywriting myth is that company x, y or z will already have writers on their staff, so there’s no point approaching them. You might be surprised, actually. Lots of businesses feel they can’t justify paying full-time copywriters, and are happier outsourcing their work. Or they might have marketing staff who normally write their copy, but who sometimes need people to take their overflow. Even the biggest of companies use freelancers, and the only way you’ll know if they’ll hire you is to approach them. Writers and PR staff are – unfortunately for them – the kinds of people who have been made unemployed in downsizing initiatives, so you might be more likely to get this work as a freelancer than as a staff writer. So despite the recession, you might actually be more likely to get this kind of work as a freelancer rather than a staff writer.

I’m doing some work at the moment for a big internet company that I can’t name – you’d think companies that size would have writers in house, but you’d be surprised.

LH: Just to go back to one point you’ve made about companies having marketing staff who need overflow writers. I’m more familiar with B2B than B2C, to be honest, but what you’ll often find is that your marketing managers and directors are friends of friends, or relatives. Now I don’t mean to put them down – they’ll usually have a really in-depth knowledge of the sector and that’s why they’re there – or they’ll have been pulled in from a sales-marketing role somewhere else. A lot of these trade/industrial companies don’t have too deep an awareness of the softer side of marketing. To them, marketing will be doing a poster, doing a flyer, getting in Yellow Pages…

PW: TV ads…

LH: Yes, so that kind of marketing manager – or director – aren’t the best people for writing copy. Often, the literacy levels aren’t that great, the grammar might not be fabulous, or they might just not have time to sit down and write something. And again, social media is greatly untapped in the B2B sector.

PW: Yes, definitely. Another way you might end up being hired by a big company might be even more indirect that what Lorrie just described – you might end up getting taken on by a marketing agency. And those agencies tend to take on a lot of copywriters. It’s often through agencies that we end up doing work for the biggest clients – if you contacted one of these huge companies, they might turn you down, but via an agency you’re in with a chance.

LH: We should point out at this point that you should never try and contact an agency’s clients directly if you’ve been taken on. When you work for an agency, you’ll probably sign something that will make it illegal for you to do so, but even if you haven’t, it’s just really, really bad practice. You’ll get blacklisted for it by everyone.

PW: Definitely. So, what was your next myth pick?

LH: If you enjoy writing, you’ll make a good copywriter. Now, it might sound a bit counter-intuitive but actually, in some cases, the opposite is quite likely to be true. I’ve encountered people in the past who are avid writers, full of fabulous ideas, able to build up characters and a story from nothing, and superb at shocking readers with a fabulous twist in the tale. So when you get someone like that being asked to draft a B2B case study about dairy farming technologies, suitable for industry experts and high level stakeholders, it can be a big culture shock.

Now, I’ve also seen people whose idea of ‘creativity’ and ‘artistic vision’ – something we mentioned earlier – gets in the way of both their work and their freelance career. To be blunt, not much of the work I do as a freelance copywriter gets anywhere near my ‘artistic vision’. In my spare time, I enjoy literary fiction, poetry, cinema and feminism. At work – and yes, I am at work even if I’m at home – I can bang out a press release about waste management technologies for local councils faster than you can eat a bowl of cornflakes. Because it’s what I do at work. I can also put aside the fact that I love writing, and do my tax returns. Or my marketing. Or my research. Or my training. It definitely isn’t enough that I love writing. Sometimes, it feels like that could get in the way of my copywriting.

PW: Yes. There are definitely transferable skills. The ability to write a story can be really important for commercial copywriting as well as in creative fiction writing – it’s great for sales copy, for humanising a brand. There are skills that are relevant to both, but if you only want to do fiction, and write short stories and novels, you may well be an extremely frustrated copywriter because you won’t get from this what you get from that. Now I know Lorrie and I both do commercial work, while I also do media work and Lorrie does literary work, but we both spend a lot of time on the commercial stuff.

LH: I think, if you weren’t careful, you could end up resenting the work that is actually your job.

PW: Yes definitely. I mean, we both work hard to involve other interests in our paid work, and that’s why people contact Lorrie for literary editing; it’s why I write for newspapers and magazines as well. But if you only want to write for The Guardian or you only want to do literary editing, you’ll be frustrated writing for BP and, as Lorrie suggests, you might not be any good at it. Even if you’re brilliant at the other stuff.

LH: It’s important to add that you should consider your freelance work in the same way you’d consider a salaried position. You wouldn’t go into an office and spent six of eight hours doing a half-hearted job and thinking, “Oh, I wish I was writing about something else.” You go in, you do your job, and you do whatever you want after you’ve done your job. That’s the way it goes. It’s not fair on your clients if you try and somehow shape the work they need you to do into what you wish you were doing. Most people would prefer not to do a job, I think – we’d all love to do exactly what we wanted all day, every day. Sometimes I don’t want to write about dairy farming!

PW: And similarly, in previous jobs, we might have gone in and not wanted to do that. It happens.

LH: Exactly. You do a good job. And don’t try and turn copywriting into writing – it’s not the same thing. So, on to the next myth, Pip!

PW: OK, this next myth is something that worried me for a while, and that’s if you do commercial writing you’re a big fat sell-out! Now, the reason I worried about this is that the ethics of what I do are incredibly important to me, so I had to get it right. So, I started right in my business plan, with a long spectrum, with my ideal jobs on the right hand side, and the writing I would never do and companies I would never work for, on the left.

LH: That could be really depressing if you didn’t stick to it!

PW: Yes! I put as many things as I could think of onto that spectrum, from my perfect assignment through to the stuff I wouldn’t do if I was about to starve. Now, the variety of work situations I’d be faced with was much wider than I had anticipated, but each decision has been fairly easy to make, from an ethical point of view. The fact is that there are companies you could write for, or writing you could do, that would go against your own ethics, and those are the companies, or the assignments, that you turn down. Then you’re not selling out. And that’s different for everyone. But, it might be that you decide you can only write for non-profits or companies that promote fair trade, or whatever it is, so those are the companies you market yourself to and deal with. When a multi-national that uses child slavery approaches you, you say no thanks, and you haven’t sold out.

LH: I don’t really have much to add – it’s the perfect way to approach it. OK, yes, you could write for someone who you don’t agree with but you’d feel horrible afterwards. You’d get a few quid in the bank but, and I know I keep going back to it, you wouldn’t do the best job for your client.

PW: No, you absolutely wouldn’t. That’s not to say you can’t write things you disagree with in general, or about things you’re not that interested in…

LH: No, and you don’t have to represent your own point of view – on the contrary, you’re supposed to be representing someone else!

PW: Yes, that’s the whole point of hiring you! And so, we will always have a job or two that just isn’t our thing, but that’s not the same as something you’re fundamentally opposed to. There are ways – even if you have very strong ethical beliefs – to still go about the job without feeling like you’re selling out. What’s your myth number 9, Lorrie?

LH: Myth number 9 is something we covered really early on, and that is you have to work for free at the beginning.

PW: Oh, one of our favourite topics!

LH: Cheeky, nasty copywriters will tell you this. Cheeky, nasty wannabe clients will tell you this. It is not true. Don’t work for free. I’ve never worked for free and I’m doing perfectly well, thank you very much. People will say, “Work for free and I’ll give you a LinkedIn recommendation! And you can put the testimonial on your website! And you can put the work in your portfolio!”

PW: And in reality, you’ll never hear from them again because they’ll have moved on to the next naïve freelancer with the same spiel.

LH: And you’re left with what. I’ve rarely used a portfolio – and when I have, the work I include is from my best clients in relevant industries. People don’t want to see some little out-of-context bit of writing that you did once for some randomer off the internet. That’s not what it’s about. And working for free won’t pay your bills, neither will a LinkedIn recommendation. So don’t let people encourage you to work for free. People sometimes get quite nasty about you wanting to be paid for your work, actually. As though you’re being above yourself!

PW: Yes! And in the episode we did on this topic, we did acknowledge that there are nuances – you might write free for a charity, but that’s volunteering – it’s a different thing. What you don’t do is volunteer for Mr Internet Marketer who’s going to make a profit from your work. And like Lorrie said, they’ll make you feel like you’re unreasonable for wanting to be paid. You’re not – do believe us. Being paid is reasonable, it’s to be expected and you’re not wrong.

LH: The power of shaming, for some reason, has entered the copywriting industry. When you want more than 15p per article, people go, “Oooh, you’re expensive!” and you go, “Oooh, you’re not the write client for me!”

PW: Haha, yes! “Please go away, I don’t want to have this conversation with you!”

LH: So, Pip – on to the penultimate myth!

Blue alarm clock

Blue alarm clock (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

PW: Now this is one I wish was true. I so wish it wasn’t a myth! And it’s that you never set your alarm clock again! How I wish this was true! I set my alarm clock most mornings, and I resent it just as much as anyone in a conventional job does! Much as I do enjoy working my own hours of choice, I still have to work constantly with people in all sorts of office jobs, and they expect me to be around the same hours they are. And also, the depressing truth is that when I make an early start, I’m more productive. On the positive, if I need to start work really early, say at 7.45am, I can set my alarm for 7am, whereas if I was in an office job, it’d be more likely to be a 6am start.

LH: Yes, either you get up and be available to your clients, or you don’t. It doesn’t look good to reply to a client at 11.30pm, no matter whether you’re a night owl or not.

PW: Likewise, it doesn’t look good to reply to a client at 11.30am and say, “Sorry, I just got up.”

LH: Yeah, I’m coming to terms with it, but I’m definitely an early bird. I’m just more productive in the morning, whether I like it or not. I’m useless late at night.

PW: You see, I’m OK late at night – I’m rubbish in the middle of the afternoon and then I’m back at it by the evening!

LH: And I know we’re sharing these little secrets here on the podcast, but you don’t go and tell your clients that.

PW: Yes, if you know you’re rubbish in the afternoon, set deadlines for 1pm or 5pm!

LH: Yes, I have breakfast meetings a lot. I don’t have mid-afternoon meetings because I know myself and I know that they’ll be hanging over me all day, even if I’m looking forward to them. I’ll be thinking about them all day – I was always the same with exams.

PW: You have to get to know your own patterns.

LH: Yup. So whether you set your alarm for 6am or 9am…I wouldn’t suggest going any later unless you’ve got very unusual clients or, say, you work for people in the States, set your alarm clock because you have a job to do!

PW: And so our final myth…what is it, Lorrie?

LH: I feel really bad now, because it could be seen as a bit of a downer. And I don’t mean for it to be because I love my job and I love working for myself. But, myth number 11 is that working from home – and I mean the ‘at home’ bit rather than the writing – is an easy gig.

Now, it’s one of the biggest and most enduring myths, which is why I left it for last – it’s an ‘umbrella’ myth for me: the impression that what we do on a day-to-day basis is a bit of an easy ride.

A salami sandwich

A salami sandwich (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the face of it, working from home is a pretty sweet deal. You get up when you want, you go to bed when you want, you work when you want. You don’t have to commute, you don’t have to choose between egg mayonnaise and grated cheese every lunch-time. But, flip it around. You get up, and you stay in the same room or house all day, every day. You have to make a special effort to leave the house, and usually you’ve got to find a reason for it as well. After all, when most people leave the house in the morning, it’s to go to work – not anywhere else. So, if you work at home, a quick resentful walk around the block might be all you can think of! I mean, where else are you going to go? You don’t want to waste too much time, but you need to get out for the sake of your sanity. When you get home, it’s silent. You’ve got no colleagues to bounce ideas off, no hustle and bustle, no jokes, no birthdays, no team-building exercises, no friendly boss for advice and to share your worries with. There’s no training department, no HR department, no accounts department. You’re it. And that’s the essence of working from home – it’s a definite trade-off, and it’s not for everyone.

PW: I do love it. Every problem that Lorrie’s highlighted is absolutely valid. I get to points where I’m climbing the walls and I’m forgetting what other humans look like. And it gets ridiculous but I wouldn’t swap it for an office with other people. However, just because it suits me and lots of people are jealous of me for doing it, doesn’t make it perfect. It can be lonely and you can miss the banter, or just having someone to bounce ideas off. If you’re writing something and you have no idea whether the subject heading is brilliant or awful, having someone at the next desk to talk to…Lorrie and I use each other for that, in many ways. We email throughout the day to be accountable, but also to check our work with each other. It’s not that we hate working from home – we both thoroughly enjoy it – but that doesn’t make it a walk in the park.

LH: Definitely, and I wouldn’t want someone really sociable and really doing OK in a salaried job to quit and think that they’re going to start working from home and it’s going to be a whole world of fun. Because you have to be realistic. You’ve got the difficulty in separating work and home life, plus – and I speak from experience! – the whole convincing-other-people-you’re-actually-working thing.

PW: Aaaaaall the time!

LH: Yes! You’re consistently reminding people that no, you can’t go shopping, no you can’t chat with them on the phone for 45 minutes and no, you definitely can’t watch their kids or take delivery of a package they’re expecting, and it’s not as simple as it looks – you end up offending people. So, there are definitely huge plus points to working from home, but please don’t kid yourself or you’ll be in for a shock! If you’re not sure about it, do something else rather than going 100% freelance.

PW: A lot of companies are more open to the idea of emplyees working from home one day a week now, and more are allowing it and finding that people react well to being trusted. And the ideal policies tend to say, “As long as you get the work done, it doesn’t matter if you get it done at a slightly weird time.” So if you are considering working from home, why not talk to your HR department and see about working from home? Still doing work for your salaried job, of course, but just to see how you get on with it. If it goes well, increase it. It’s a good way to see if it suits you.

LH: I have heard really good things about doing that, but I think I’d find it unsettling. For some reason, I can’t quite say why. I now work for myself, and that seems better for me. But yes, as Pip says, it does seem to be working well for quite a few people now.

PW: Yes, and given how much snow we’ve had recently, employers have had to face the decision of letting people work from home or not having any employees for that day. I think generally, as an employer, the more flexible you allow your staff to be, the more likely they are to be loyal to you.

LH: I agree, actually. Although have you seen on the news websites, Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer has banned working from home. And, there are loads of articles about ‘telecommuting’ (which is what they call it in the States) and working from home being a bad idea. I’d question the wisdom of her decision, to be honest, I think this has probably been a resented position to take.

PW: Yes, because there was a lot of expectation about what she was going to do. When she took the Yahoo job, people were giving Yahoo a bit of credit, wondering if she could lift it back up. This is an interesting move with that in mind – it seems like a retrograde move, to me. And it does go to show – and people find this when they’re allowed to work from home in their normal jobs – it’s not all as easy as it sounds.

LH: I wonder if it’s just not been working to have people working from home on a part-time basis. I don’t want to tar people with the same brush, but when friends in salaried positions have a snow day, they do just sit and watch a bit of day-time TV – there’s a “Hehe, I’ve got a day off school!” mentality. I wonder if the novelty hasn’t yet worn off. But, we’re just speculating.

PW: Yes, we are. Now, it’s time for the Little Bird Recommendations of the Week! My recommendation is a very handy tool called Zemanta. I first came across is as a WordPress plugin, but there’s a much better way to use it. Now, Zemanta is a way of adding context to your blog posts and you can install it as a WordPress plugin, but you can also install it on Firefox or Chrome – it’s much better that way. And then, whenever you write a blog post, Zemanta will suggest photos that can accompany your post, tags you can use and also links for certain keywords in your post, so maybe to a Wikipedia definition.

Now I first had this as a plugin on WordPress, but the problem with that is that plugins slow down your site load time. Site load time is now taken into account in your Google ranking, so you don’t want to mess about with that. Plus visitors get bored waiting for more than a few seconds. When I first used the web in 1995, you’d have to take a book or magazine. You’d click on a link, read three article and then the page would load. I’d set myself up with two computers at Uni, so you could have one going to one link, and one going to the other. These days, happily, people don’t do that. I was looking at some statistics the other day about travel websites and apparently, if clients have to wait three seconds, the vast majority will go to a different site. So yes, have Zemanta as a browser plug-in. It’ll also work on Blogger, Type-Pad, Tumblr – all the major blogging platforms. And all the images are all legal to use – either Creative Commons or public domain. It’s called Zemanta, it’s entirely free and I’ll link to it at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com.

LH: I think that has to be one of your best recommendations, to be honest. I’m quite resentful – firstly that I didn’t know about it, and secondly, that it’s not my recommendation. My recommendation this week is another blog post from WriteToDone.com and it’s all articles about writing. Aside from Copyblogger, that site is one of my favourites. This article is called Expertise vs Humility: A Writer’s Battle Royale, and it’s been really helpful for me because I’ve recently been advising clients on developing a voice and a brand. I’ve had one particular client who has needed to balance her expert voice with being warm and lovely – she works with children a lot, so her persona needs that careful balance. She wants people to know what she can do, but she doesn’t want to alienate people. It can be difficult not to ride roughshod over other people and bring too much academia into your writing. If you’ve got a lot of weight to what you’re saying, it can be difficult not to be too arrogant.

PW: Especially if you’re British. This is a real issue – Brits hate people who are overly self-promotional. If someone goes on about how brilliant they are, we don’t go, “Oh, aren’t they brilliant?”, we go, “Oh, aren’t they full of themselves?” It’s a national trait, and it’s not a very attractive one.

LH: I’ll defend it slightly. I went on a subscription spree around the blogosphere the other day, and I’ve now unsubscribed from most of them now because it ticks me off so much to hear about how great someone is and how they won the day. I hate it. What I actually thought you were going to say was about how Brits can come across as quite cold in our writing. I imagine that, if we’re experts on something, we can seem quite dry to an audience who’s used to effusiveness. Going back to the post, it says that expertise and humility can go hand in hand, and that humility is an endearing trait. It’s true – I mentioned it recently. People don’t like someone who’s full of themselves – it doesn’t convert well so unless you’re looking at really hard-sell copy, it’s important to get a good balance. Now, this post has some really handy tips. It’s quite a long blog post but the writing is really engaging and accessible, and I think it’ll really help people who are looking to develop a good voice.

PW: It is a tricky balance, and I’ll definitely look up that author when I look at that article. Getting the voice right can be tough, especially in sales writing that’s not ‘hard sell’, so that’s a really good recommendation – thank you!

LH: It’s been really helpful to me, primarily for B2B writing because sometimes it’s hard to write about, say, LED lighting and still come across as a human being.

PW: Yes! Often, when you research an article, you’ll only use say 10% of it. A mistake I see a lot is people saying, “I’ve learnt all this, so I need to get it in.” There’s lots of balances to be found, to be honest.

LH: So I think that just about wraps it up for this episode of A Little Bird Told Me – that’s episode 28, and we’ve been looking at the 11 biggest myths of freelance writing.

PW: Now, are there any other myths you think we’ve missed? Is there something you believed before you started out, or something people say to you a lot that you find ridiculous? If so, come and chat on our Facebook page, which is linked to from our Podomatic page. Or come and have a chat on our social media – all our social media profiles and websites are linked to from there. We love hearing from listeners.

LH: We do – we love having a chat, as you may have noticed. Let us know if there’s a topic you’d like us to cover in future, let us know if you’ve hated this episode! So yes, thank you very much for listening – I’ve been Lorrie Hartshorn…

PW: And I’ve been Philippa Willitts, and we’ll see you next time!

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Podcast Episode 27: How to Cope with Feeling Overwhelmed

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Having “too much” work is usually seen as good news for a freelancer, but it can become overwhelming and stressful at times. In this episode of the A Little Bird Told Me podcast, I talk about how to cope with feeling like you just have too much on your plate, and aren’t sure how to manage.

Show Notes

Renny Gleeson: 404, the story of a page not found

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Transcript

Hello, and welcome to Episode 27 of A Little Bird Told Me: the podcast about the highs, the lows, and the no-nos of successful freelance writing.

I’m Philippa Willitts, and today I’m going to be talking about coping with feeling overwhelmed as a freelancer. Before I start, I want to tell you that you can find us on the internet at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com, and there you can find links to subscribe to this 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 – we love to hear from you and Facebook is just one way to do that. On our Podomatic page, you can also find links to our social media feeds and websites. I’m Philippa Willitts and I’m here without my usual co-host Lorrie Hartshorn as this is another solo episode.

Stress

Stress (Photo credit: topgold)

So, as I said, I’ll be talking about feeling overwhelmed. It happens to us all at times – maybe you’ve had a tonne of work arrive on your desk, or you might just be panicking at the kind of enormity of what you’re doing, running your own business, managing everything yourself, being responsible for your own pay packet…that in itself can be overwhelming!

It’s not always easy to manage your workload as a freelance and it’s hard to say no, particularly if your workload is quite insecure and you don’t want to say no to anything in case you never get any paid work again! And because of that, sometimes we can end up with just too much on our plate. There are so many different skills and tasks you have to master, you can start to panic. Other people might just withdraw, say, “I can’t do this!” and switch off, or just procrastinate for a while – we’ve probably all done that!

So when you’re feeling overwhelmed, the first thing is to work out exactly what you have to do and when you have to do it and when you have to do it. You might feel like you know this because it’s all in your head in long mental lists, but actually, breaking tasks down into their components can make them immediately feel much more manageable. Divide up a piece of paper, chalkboard, whiteboard, whatever way suits you, for the next few weeks. If you know you have to write three blog posts by Tuesday, a sales letter for Thursday, four press releases for Wednesday…just write down every deadline you’ve got over the next few weeks. Then, you can start to rationalise that actually, although some of it may be a stretch, the massive mix up of work in your head isn’t quite so confused and overwhelming.

What you can also do is start to plan out when you’re going to do what. You might have a few deadlines for Monday and then loads of deadlines on Friday. Planning out which pieces of work that are due in on Friday are going to be done on which day…divide it up so you know what you’re doing on Tuesday, Wednesday. You’ll realise that having 12 deadlines for Friday isn’t quite as scary as having three deadlines a day between now and then, for example.

If you’re still overwhelmed, look at each task and break it down further. Rather than saying, “Press release”, break it down into “research press release”, “double check client’s preferred format”, “leaving for 24 hours and proof-reading properly”, “writing out a plan, filling that out and reviewing it…”, “adding notes”, “checking format”. Breaking tasks down into the smallest components possible really helps me, I can look at a task and think, “OK, I have to research this”, which is smaller and easier but helps me get to the overall aim of getting the press release done.
Different people prefer different ways of planning – it might be a to-do list on paper or a mega complicated computer programme. You might follow the GTD (Getting Things Done) system, or your own preferred way of managing and planning. Now’s the time to really make the most of your systems and do everything you can to make your next few weeks as planned and organised as possible.

English: Jump! Deutsch: Spring!

English: Jump! Deutsch: Spring! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Another thing to remember when you’re feeling overwhelmed is that you mustn’t used that as an excuse to not take a break – even just 10 minutes away from your desk, popping outside, making a cup of tea or listening to the radio can clear your mind and give your brain and your fingers the rest they need to carry on. And usually, even if you think you can’t spare 10 minutes, it can really clear your mind so that when you restart you will feel more in control.

Something else to consider – and it might seem a bit strange when you’re panicking about work – is to surround yourself with calmness! Make your desk neat and tidy, so you don’t get stressed just looking at it, control your to-do list – if it’s eight different pieces of paper, each with three different tasks on, it just doesn’t help. Also, if it’s full of things that might be nice to do but aren’t actually necessary, when you’re overrun with work, take those off it. Make sure your list reflects just exactly what you need to do. Other things can come back on when work slows down.

Also, in terms of feeling calm, don’t be tempted to drink eight double espressos to keep going – it’ll just give you the jittters and make you feel more stressed than you already do. If you really want to help, try something like chamomile tea, but to be honest, it’s so gross I can’t recommend it!

Another thing to consider, if you’re feeling panicked and overwhelmed, is to ask for help. This can be to ask for someone’s advice or support on how to cope with how you are feeling. I know that Lorrie – my usual co-host – and I do this quite a lot. We’ll send the other one an email, going, “Argh, I can’t manage, I have too much to do!” and the other one will reply with reassuring words or useful advice. Sometimes, just getting someone else’s perspective can really help.

The other way to ask for help is actually to ask for practical help, if there are any work-related tasks you could pass on to somebody else. This might be paying a friend to do your accounts for that week, or hiring a VA for 3 hours to find information for your research, or fact check and proofread your articles. These are quite handy, one-off ways of dealing with a massive workload, even if – in the normal running of your business – you don’t need to hire staff to help you out.

There are also tasks that are important but don’t take much mental energy. So, things like doing some filing, transferring figures into a spreadsheet, double-checking article formatting so they’re all the same…so those kinds of tasks can be good for those points of the day (tends to be mid-afternoon for me, where I just think, “I can’t think, I can’t do anything!”). You still feel good that they’re done but you haven’t had to use any precious mental energy, so you can use that for writing later when your energy picks up again.

Now, when we’re overwhelmed, there’s a massive temptation to multitask. But focusing on one thing at a time is a lot more productive and a lot less hectic for your brain. Trying to multitask when your mind is in a panic is destined for disaster. So, don’t be mentally planning one article while writing another, and keeping half an eye on your email inbox, all at the same time.

We all kind of do this, but try your best to keep your focus back and think about what you’re doing before moving onto the next thing. It’s calmer, it’s more productive and you tend to do much better work.

Overwhelmed

Overwhelmed (Photo credit: Walt Stoneburner)

Now, the next suggestion for managing overwhelm as a freelancer is certainly easier said than done, but it’s really helpful if you try to reframe how you perceive what’s happening. We all get caught up in, “Oh my god I’ve got too much to do!”, while forgetting that having a lot to do is really a sign that your freelance writing business is going well. It means you’ve either got a lot of clients or that the clients you’ve got really value you and are sending extra work your way. We get caught up in the moment and panic, but if you step back,and reframe, you can think that people like what you’re doing, that you’re marketing yourself well, and that you’re doing a good job. It’s often a good thing even if it doesn’t feel like it when you feel like you’ve done nothing but type for days.

And at some point, maybe within a week or a month, your workload will calm down and you’ll get some breathing time. But don’t just stop! It’s the ideal time to get on top of those regular, predictable tasks that you might have been skipping when things were hectic. Sending out marketing information, managing your social media feeds, replying to emails that might have been overlooked…it’ll get you back on track with what you were doing and then, the next time you feel overwhelmed, you’ve already got ahead and you can get on with the writing work.

So while feeling overwhelmed can be awful, hopefully these tips will help you manage it when it feels bad. Sometimes, feeling overwhelmed can give you a real buzz; it’s not necessarily a 100% bad experience. If you’re getting on with it and doing a good job, it can feel brilliant, boost your confidence, focus on things that are important.

But if it does start to feel stressful and unpleasant, do consider planning things, breaking things down, getting your to-do list under control, taking breaks, asking for help, using points where you feel like you can’t think to do repetitive, dull tasks, aiming for uni-tasking rather than multi-tasking, and trying to reframe what’s happening in a positive light, and hopefully that will help make the experience a bit better when stress overwhelms you.

Now it’s time for my Little Bird Recommendation of the week. This week, it’s a TED talk. Now, you’ve probably come across TED talks – they’re speeches that are usually under 20 minutes, often under five, that are inspirational, clever, funny, informative, and if you just search on Google or YouTube, there are hundreds of the things about any topic imaginable.

The one I’m recommending this week is by Renny Gleeson, and it’s called “404: The Story Of A Page Not Found” and it’s about those dreaded error 404 pages you find when your page cannot be found. We’ve all seen them and they’re kind of frustrating. This talk kind of reframes them – Renny Gleeson talks about some brands that have turned it around and made their 404 pages fit in with the whole ethos of their website, whether they’re funny or meaningful. The real message of this video is that things can go wrong, and we all make mistakes that can be dreadful, but it doesn’t have to be a disaster – as long as you handle it well, it can be a positive thing. And so that’s my recommendation this week – if you go to alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com, there’s a link to the video there.

I really hope you’ve enjoyed this podcast. I’ve been Philippa Willitts and we’ll see you next week.

Podcast Episode 26: How to turn down / disconnect from a client or supplier without losing your professionalism or gaining an enemy

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As well as saying yes to clients, customers and contractors we also sometimes have to say no. However working out exactly how to do this tactfully can sometimes be tricky. In this episode, Lorrie and I talk about several situations where you might need to say no, and how to go about it.

Show Notes

No More Useless Meetings – Liz Sumner

Carol Tice – @TiceWrites

That’s Not What I Wrote! What to Do When You’re Hit With Heavy Editing – Sophie Lizard at Make a Living Writing

Topsy

Guest blogging for exposure, brand building, backlinks and more

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Transcript

How to turn down / disconnect from a client or supplier without losing your professionalism or gaining an enemy

LH: Hello and welcome to episode 26 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 freelance writers, editors and whatever, really!

PW: Now, the first thing we want to do is apologise for not getting an episode out last week. We really try hard and normally get one out every week but, occasionally, we can’t both find a time where we’re both free to record. Our windows didn’t match up, we were really busy, so we’re very sorry about that. We’re back now!

Two Women in an Office

Two Women in an Office (Photo credit: cali.org)

Today we are talking about something that might initially sound counter-intuitive to a freelancer, and that is how to say no to a client, how to turn down work, and how to disconnect from someone who either wants you to work for them, or who you have worked for before. However, learning how to say no and respect your own boundaries, both professional and personal, is really important. Other times we might need to say no to other types of people, like suppliers or other freelancers – I even spent some time having to say no quite persistently to a local freelancer I’d connected with on LinkedIn who practically spammed me about joining a local networking group. So it comes up a lot, but mainly we will be talking about dealing with clients, because this is what comes up most for the average freelancer (and the above average one).

PW: I am Philippa Willitts…

LH: …and I’m Lorrie Hartshorn. And the first thing we’re going to talk about is how to turn down an invitation to a meeting.

PW: Mmmm..

LH: Poor Pip! The “mmm” says she’s speaking from experience! Now, when it comes to turning down meetings with people, lots of us struggle. We Brits in particular – and we women in particular – are socialised to be nice and polite, but when you end up accepting an invite to a meeting you don’t think will be useful, and you’re too polite to cut the meeting short once you’re there, you can end up wasting an awful lot of otherwise chargeable time. One meeting can eat up half a day, and if you’re lucky, you just get your time-wasted; if you’re unlucky, you can end up being mined for information you don’t want to give out, including details about your business, contacts and clients, in a bid to keep the conversation flowing.

PW: Yes, sometimes we might have been slightly misled about the purpose of the meeting, and other times it just becomes quickly clear that we, and the person we are meeting with, are not going to be able to work together, for any number of reasons. We might just have had different expectations, we might work differently, or we even could just find that we dislike the other person. Not that anyone could dislike myself or Lorrie, though.
LH: Of course not, we’re completely lovely! Going back to what you said, I’ve actually been actively misled in the past, by someone who was keen to get a meeting with me, and to whom I’d already given the brush-off via email and phone. When I realised that the apparent reason for the meeting was actually fake, to all intents and purposes, it really annoyed me. Needless to say, I cut that one short!

PW: Yes, much as we can try to judge someone’s character or motives, it doesn’t always work out the way we’d want it to. Also, other reasons could just be that it would involve a lot of travelling and the discussion could easily take place by phone, for instance.

LH: I spotted a really helpful article by a woman called Liz Sumner, who describes herself as a coach, planner and facilitator. On her website, Liz outlines how to determine whether a meeting is worth having. Entitled No More Useless Meetings, the article (which is quite old but still useful!) actually discusses how to have productive meetings. But, the same rules can be applied, I think, when you’re deciding whether you want to have a meeting at all.

LH: Firstly, she says you should ascertain the purpose of the meeting. Then decide whether a meeting is the best way to achieve that aim. Secondly, identify the desired outcome – imagine the best possible result of the meeting, and the changes you’d like to see follow it. Thirdly and finally, in this case, if you decide to meet with someone, actually design the meeting. Outline exactly what you want to talk about, and in which order. And I would add, identify what you don’t want to talk about as well to make sure the meeting doesn’t get steered in that direction.

PW: The idea of designing the meeting is a good one. It makes sure that neither you nor the other person is going to turn up expecting something unrealistic. By doing this, you are both agreeing, in advance, the purpose of the whole thing.

LH: Definitely – defining what you want from a meeting can feel a bit bold and pushy when you’re first starting out, but it’s a sure-fire way to make sure no one gets their time wasted – not just you, the other person as well. If you ascertain what the meeting’s going to be about but you don’t think it’s worth a trip out, which involves travel time, travel costs, the cost of any drinks or food you purchase, plus the time spent getting suited and booted. Some of us women wear different things in the house than we’d wear to a meeting – heels, put make up on, do our hair…

PW: Are you suggesting that when you’re at home, you’re not wearing a smart suit and heels?!

LH: Do you know, I read an article about this the other day. I hate to say it, it was one of those “mompreneur” articles – I hate that word!

PW: Mmhmm.

LH: Haha, I know Pip’s making that noise because, like me, she hates the word ‘mompreneur’. If you’d like to know more about why we do, come and chat to us on Facebook – this probably isn’t the platform for it! But yes, this article was pretty patronising – something like, “top 10 rules for mompreneurs working from home”, and it was saying that you should never work in your pyjamas and that you should always be suited and booted. It’s ridiculous – I’m not going to sit there in a trouser suit at my kitchen table, with my stiletttos digging into the lino.

PW: Get spaghetti on it at lunch-time!

LH: Yeah why not?

PW: I mean, if that’s what you want to do, then do it – but there’s certainly no obligation. For me, at least, one of the joys of freelancing is that it doesn’t matter what I’m wearing.

LH: As I mentioned in one of the early episodes, I can’t work in my PJs – I have to get up and sorted – but that doesn’t involve wearing a suit! So, to go back to the original point, what you can do is explain that your time is limited but that you’d be happy to have a brief phone or Skype meeting. Because phone contact cuts out a lot of the small talk, I find it’s also a good way to force – in the nicest sense! – people into letting you know what they’re really after. There’s only so long you can string out a phone conversation.

However, there are going to be some meetings you just don’t want to attend – on the phone, in person, via Skype, via email. I’ve had invites from fellow self-employed people that I’ve got to know on social media, for example. Some of the connections have been really useful but, in other cases – and I’m being brutally honest, here – there’s been no discernible gain for me in the situation – for a variety of reasons. And while I’m happy to help and advise fellow freelancers online, I’m not one for arranging lunch-dates that have no mutual benefit. I’ve done it in the past and I’ve been left feeling cheated and exploited.

PW: That’s it. Plus that will change from occasion to occasion. While it might be a lovely thing to do when you have some down time, but equally if you are having a mega-busy week and you spend three hours doing something that feels pointless or exploitative, you are bound to be resentful about that!

LH: A lot of the advice you see out there, for declining meetings, is usually – I think – a bit too soft. It’s often that you should let the other party know that you’re busy at the moment. However, there seems to be little advice out there for if you just don’t want to meet the person at all.

PW: Yes. And back to the whole British thing, I think a lot of us (myself included), would be tempted to go with, “Oh, I’m really sorry, I’m busy on Friday!” rather than try to tackle it in a way that might look bolshy or unreasonable, by insisting that actually, we just don’t want the meeting to happen.

LH: Yeah, it’s really easy to lose your nerve at the last minute, particularly if the other person is quite authoritative or a really good speaker.

PW: Or, indeed, just really keen! That always makes me feel guilty!

LH: I heard from one of our listeners the other day – I actually had a meeting with someone who listens to this podcast – that he thinks you’re too nice and too soft! I think this proves it! 😀

PW: I’m just the right amount of nice, actually 😉

LH: Yeah, I reckon you’ve got it about right. Then again, I’ve seen you in fierce mode!

PW: This is true, you have. So trust us, I can have my moments if I feel I’m being badly treated, or indeed if somebody else is!

LH: Yes – she’s very fair and very lovely. And as well you should be fierce when you need to be! Being polite is one thing; being taken advantage of is quite another, and woe betide anyone who trifles with Philippa!

LH: My take on saying no to meetings, to go back to the point, is that it’s no good making vague, “Oh dear, busy at the mo but we really must do this…um…some time…” kind of noises, because if the person really wants something from you, they’ll make sure to rearrange, which takes you back to square one. So, iff you’re not interested in working with that person in future, there’s nothing to stop you saying, “Thanks for the invite – however, that’s not really a direction I’m looking at taking my business in at the moment. I’ll let you know if there are any changes of plan.” So the ball’s in your court. Or, “Thank you, but that’s not something I’m going to be interested in.” You can obviously pad it out with comments about being busy to soften the blow a bit, if you think it’s necessary, but I do think a core of honesty is the best way to empower yourself and get the message across that you just don’t want a meeting with that person.

PW: Yes, a phrase I’ve used a few times is, “I just don’t have the space for that at the moment”, or similar, just making clear that I am not only busy, but that I’m prioritising other things – it’s not something I am willing to squeeze in. How you say it is also important. There are people who will refuse to take no for an answer, such as sales people. If you get the impression that the other person might choose to not “hear” your refusal, you have to make sure you sound firm and uncompromising. You have more important things to do than to send several, “no, really!” emails to them! So say it in a way that makes it very clear.

LH: So the next thing we want to talk about is something you’d perhaps feel even more delicate about, and that’s saying no to a client who can’t pay enough

PW: This will happen, from time to time, though most often it will be them that says no to you when they hear your prices. They’ll ask you for a quote and they’ll tell you you’re too expensive.

LH: It can actually sting the first time someone tells you you’re too expensive – it can really knock your confidence. In my episode about raising fees, I did mention that raising fees can help you attract higher-paying clients and ‘turning off’ lower paying clients. But the first time someone says, “Ooh, no…” they’re not always very delicate about it!

PW: “You charge WHAT?!”

LH: “Oh my God, that’s extortionate!” Haha! But yes, it can be a knock to your confidence.

PW: Definitely, so yes, most times it’ll be them who turn you down. But sometimes, instead of you telling them your price, you might ask what their budget it. And sometimes, it’s nowhere near the price you expect, so you’ll be in a position where you need to turn them down. In theory, they could up their budget, but if it’s so far below what you’d expect that you’d just say no, it’s not usually realistic to come to a mutually beneficial agreement.

I did read a brilliant response that someone suggested for this situation – if someone is hoping you will write for pennies. I think it was Carol Tice from Tice Writes, suggested saying to them, “Feel free to come back to me when you are in a position to pay professional prices”. I love it!

LH: Ouch! Very much ouch! Like anything, there are different levels of pay in copywriting – some people can’t afford as much as others, and that’s absolutely fine. But, as you say, some people are asking for the moon on a stick and offering a couple of quid in return. At which point, a pithy remark like that would be quite tempting!

PW: Isn’t it?! So yes, as we have discussed on this podcast numerous times, you have to work hard in this job, and undervaluing your skills and capabilities is an absolute no-no. Don’t even consider work that pays a pittance, and be sure to be clear with people who expect you to work for nothing, or virtually nothing, about how unwilling you are to do that, so that you don’t have to waste any more time on them, frankly, by not being absolutely clear during the first contact. Just because someone’s a friend of a friend of a friend, they’re not entitled to ask for a ridiculously low rate.

LH: It’s amazing to be how many more people – even over the last few years – are willing to ask for work at an exploitative rate. They’re willing to say, “Can you do this for £10?” and I’m like, “Would you do it for £10?!”

But I think it’s important to distinguish the micky-takers and people who just can’t afford you. There’s nothing to stop you, in that case, to stop you saying, “That’s a bit below what I’d ask, so I don’t think we’re going to be able to work together on this, but if you try X person or X website, you might be able to find someone a bit more in your budget.”

PW: Yup. Another situation where you might find yourself syaig no to work is if work comes your way that you really don’t want to do for ethical reasons. Sometimes some work might come our way that we really don’t want to do, and sometimes this due to an ethical dilemma. We’ve each got our own ethical standards, and they will differ from person to person, but a situation can occur when someone asks you to do some work that clashes with something you believe strongly in. It might be that it’s for a company you hate, or on a topic that you are really opposed to. What each person does in this situation will vary, but it is a really valid reason to say no, if doing the work would make you feel uncomfortable or ashamed.

LH: Yeah, there’s definitely no point taking on work you really object to ethically. It’s not fair on you or the client, because there’s no way you’ll be able to submit your best work for, say, a gambling firm if you’re a strict Muslim, or a meat-packing plant if you’re a committed vegan.

PW: Exactly. However this situation can be especially difficult to deal with, because if you are open about your reasons for turning the work down, the client could reasonably understand you to mean that you think they are being unethical or unreasonable. So it has to be done carefully, especially if it is with somebody who has given you a lot of other work – stuff that doesn’t raise your ethical hackles! – and who you hope to work with again.

PW: When I’ve turned down work for moral reasons, while it might be tempting to say, “OMG I can’t believe you expect me to write about THAT!”, it’s not the way to do it. Instead, saying something like, “I’m going to say no to this piece of work because it is a really uncomfortable subject to me”, or “The subject of this particular piece of work is something I am opposed to, so I won’t be able to write it”. If they are a client you otherwise work well with, this should normally be received well. And if they’re not, then it doesn’t matter!

PW: Quite often, a good client will know if they are suggesting something controversial, and will check with you anyway whether you are happy to write it. This makes it a very easy discussion.

LH: I think one important point to make here harks back to something you and I have discussed in the past, Pip, and that’s writers refusing to write about anything other than their absolute favourite subjects – usually something really niche. We’re not suggesting you reject 99% of your incoming work because it’s not part of your artistic vision – we all have to write about things that aren’t the most interesting, it’s just part of the job and it pays the bills.

PW: Yes, that’s true. What we are talking about here is somebody asking, like with Lorrie’s example, a vegan to promote a meat packing factory. Something that would actually cause them to lose sleep and question their morals. We are not talking about someone who would really prefer to only ever write about travel refusing work just because it’s not about travel.

LH: The next area of saying no we wanted to talk about is saying no to suppliers who are too expensive. Now, it’s worth noting before we go any further with this segment, that “too expensive” is usually a subjective thing. One person’s too expensive is another person’s perfectly reasonable.

PW: Absolutely. We see this all the time as freelancers – those who enquire about your prices tend to have wildly different expectations and can be equally horrified or amazed by the very same figure!

LH: If you’ve done your research, though, you should know which sector of the market you’re targeting, and know in yourself – when you’re having a nice confident day at least – what a reasonable fee would be in that context.

LH: When I made the transition from single copywriter to my now mini-agency set-up, I had to advertise for copywriters to join my roster. I got a lot of responses, many of which were from people asking for far more per hour than I was able and/or willing to pay. So, it was up to me to tell them that I wasn’t going to hire them. I didn’t want to give lip service to people who’d spent time applying to me, sent me their CV and information, etc., so I was honest. I thanked them for their interest and explained that their requested salary was too high for most of my clients (I have a lot of SMEs on my books). And as I mentioned in my last episode, on how to raise your freelance fees, the one thing you shouldn’t do is apologise. No matter what service you’re declining, you can be perfectly polite and say something like, “Thanks for getting in touch” or “Thank you for the quote” and then add, “I’m afraid the price you’ve given me is more than I was hoping to spend, so I’ve decided to go with someone else.” If they’re significantly out of your price range, you can also say that to prevent them coming back with a marginally lower quote. Make sure you leave no room for wiggling in the way you close your email (I’m assuming you’re communicating by email, but the same goes for phone or face-to-face chat), but be friendly, polite and thankful that they’ve taken the time with you.

PW: Yes. You might be hiring a web designer, or other copywriters, or even buying equipment. You are as entitled to say no to them, as they are to you. When I had to buy a big chunk of equipment to make my office more accessible, I had dealings with several different suppliers, and the quotes I got varied massively. When you’re faced with a difference of several hundreds of pounds for – in that case – exactly the same equipment, it’s very easy to say no to people. It’s the same thing if someone is providing a service, or equipment where the price difference is less obvious – we’re still allowed to choose who we like to hire, just like people choose us.

LH: Definitely. A lot of it will be based on feelings or how someone deals with you. It was quite telling to me that some of the high-earners were extremely friendly and open when I got in touch and said they were out of my budget, while others were horrible, quite belligerent and, in some cases, actually a bit whiney about it! Never an attractive thing! I had one person get in touch asking for significantly more than anyone else at all…

PW: Worth noting that that person had literally no copywriting experience, and yet the amount she wanted per hour, was way more than most other copywriters would actually charge.

LH: That’s actually not the person I was thinking about, but now you come to mention it, that’s the most belligerent person I encountered. It was very much, “Oh. Right. Oh, well if you’re not going to pay me that, then I suppose I could accept less, but I’m not happy about it.” And this is a person with no experience, no specialist area, no knowledge of SEO or B2B copywriting – they just wanted to make the transition and seemed to think I should do them a favour. No, no, no.

The person I was actually thinking of got in touch asking for close to £100 an hour, which for SME clients is out of the ballpark. When I said no, you’re way out of my clients’ reach, they asked me what I’d pay and I quoted a figure that was a world away. And they went, “Oh, well I’d go for that!”

PW: Hahaha!

LH: What a chancer! While the more professional ones had confidence in their fees, others had just been trying to get as much as possible. If that sounds like you, please go and listen to Pip’s episode on setting your fees.

PW: And I think what you said about the more professional ones saying, “OK, thanks, never mind” – you do get used to doing that when you give someone a quote; some will say you’re out of their budget. And you learn quite early on that that’s how it is, and to those people you send a polite reply saying, thanks and good luck with the project. Can you imagine if you responded with a snarky remark or, “Ignore my quote and I’ll charge you 10% of my original fee.” It doesn’t work.

LH: It’s now a luxury to get a response to a pitch email sometimes! I got in touch with someone recently – through a pitch email – and suggested they take me on for a trial. They got back in touch, said, “Like your style – let me think about it.” I left it for a month and checked back in, in a friendly confident way, but still giving them a get-out clause if they needed it – nothing apologetic or hesitant, but something like, “How are you feeling about going ahead with this? Is it something you’d like to move forward with or not something you’re looking at for now.” And they got back in touch to say they weren’t looking at working with me for now, but thanks very much. No one felt bad, we all know where we stand and it’s all good.

PW: That does relate well to a point I want to make, which is that I always endeavour to treat anybody I deal with in my working life with respect.

LH: God, yes, absolutely 100% vital. And I don’t understand why people sometimes don’t!

PW: Absolutely – even on a purely mercenary level, even if they can’t afford me this week, they might have found a massive investor by next week and hire me. If, instead, you’d gone, “Ha! You think I’ll write for THAT?!”, then they’ll find someone else. Or the person whose company doesn’t want to hire you based on what they perceive to be high fees might, next week, move to a different company with a more flexible budget. You don’t want to have been rude to them. I got a new client last week because, 5 months ago, I’d done him a favour. I hadn’t had anything to gain from it at the time, but I did it and it took quite a lot of time. Now, 5 months later, he needs a writer and he came straight to me.

LH: That’s brilliant, and it really does prove that a professional working manner pays dividends.

PW: Definitely. It makes good business sense, and also it means I don’t feel bad about myself by the end of the day. I’d hate to get to 5pm and think, “I was rude to four people today!” It’s a win all round.

LH: So the final thing we want to discuss is saying no to, and moving on from, long-term clients or customers.

PW: One of the hardest ‘disconnect’ situations you might find yourself in is having to say no, or say goodbye, to a long-term client. There could be any number of reasons that this could occur – you might up your prices and they can’t afford it, or they might have a change of direction you’re not happy with, or a change of staff, or any number of things really.

LH: I touched on this in my solo episode about raising your fees, actually, and I read a number of articles around the topic at that time to see what other people’s takes on ‘breaking up with’ clients were.

PW: Yes, you handled it well in that episode, particularly looking at the difficulty of raising prices when you know that your longest-term client is actually your least affordable one now.

LH: Some people were suggesting that loyalty should always win out, and that you should never lose a long-term client because your fees have gone up. I can definitely see where they’re coming from and, as I mentioned, my longest-term clients have the lowest fees for exactly that reason: I try to limit most of my fee increases to new clients, who start out with me on a higher fee rather than experiencing an increase. But at the same time, I have raised the fees I charge to them because…inflation!

PW: I remember talking about this with you at the time you were starting to increase your prices, and it is such a tough situation to deal with.

LH: Definitely, and it’s something I really wanted to find a solution for that would work for both me and my clients. One way I’ve dealt with it is to shift from a copywriter to an agency set-up. I now – with the permission of my clients, of course, and with NDAs in place! – subcontract most of the work for a few lower paying clients to copywriters who are junior to me. The work gets done to a high standard, I pay those copywriters a fair wage, and I proof-read and edit everything before it goes back to the client, and I give feedback to the copywriter who’s done it. The client gets work, the copywriter gets training and I save a huge amount of time. It just allows me to keep the client on and prevents the client from having to start all over again – after years – with someone they don’t know.

PW: You’ve worked out a really good solution. However some people wouldn’t be in a position to sub-contract work, or find a way around it. So if somebody comes to the eventual conclusion that a client is unsustainable – if they are unwilling to even consider raising your fees even as your offerings have improved – they need to somehow, ideally tactfully, withdraw.

LH: Going back to what you said earlier about doing your now-client a favour, it’s one of those times where I think it’s good to be helpful if possible, even if you feel you’ve been treated a bit shoddily. If I hadn’t been able to sub-contract the work out, I would have done my best to provide a hand-over service to the client by sourcing – although not taking any responsibility for (as a bit of a caveat!) – another good copywriter to do the work at the fee I was previously accepting. That way, you’re retaining goodwill with the client and winning a new friend, or strengthening a friendship, with a freelancer.

PW: That’s a really good point. Make suggestions of other copywriters you would recommend. Don’t just leave the client in the lurch. Also, if you can, then give them plenty of notice. If you have written 5 blog posts a week for a client for 3 years, it’s really not on – if at all avoidable – to just say, “Oh, by the way, from next week you need to find somebody else!”. I mean, you’re not under a contract as an employee, but in terms of making it as easy as possible, it’s a good thing to do. You want to leave with goodwill between you if at all possible.

LH: Definitely. The ideal situation is that your client will say bye-bye, and then three months down the line (or three days down the line!), they get back in touch saying they miss the knowledge you had of the company, and the work you provided to them, and that they’re willing to negotiate a fee you’re happier with.

PW: “What was the fee you wanted again…?”

LH: I got an email from a client the other day, just saying, “Help.”

PW: Hahaha!

LH: It’s nice to know you’re needed!

PW: Very much so! This whole discussion does feed into an overall situation where it is quite tricky to be self-employed. You have to be responsive all the time, but not reactive. You have to be really, really nice to people but not walked all over. You have to say yes and no and yes and no, sometimes in the same conversation. There is a lot of nuance, and sometimes conversations with the same person need to be judged and pitched differently.

Always keep in mind both how you want to be treated, and also how you would want to be treated if you were in the other person’s shoes. And for me, if I was asking someone for something unrealistic or unreasonable, I would rather someone told me, rather than fobbed me off for fear of embarrassment or awkwardness. So sticking up for yourself does not have to mean treating other people badly. And being friendly and professional does not have to mean always saying yes, even when something is not in your interests.

LH: Absolutely. Sometimes you have to say no to retain your self-respect. I lost my first ever client recently – and it was, to be honest, someone I was more than happy to lose – because I objected politely to being paid significantly and consistently late. The client was offended by me suggesting pre-payment options and sent me the first snotty email I’ve ever had about my work, which was a nasty surprise. But, it just goes to show that even if you’re 100% reasonable – and I think I was! – you can’t always win.

PW: It’s true. And I supported absolutely Lorrie’s challenging of them, and her horrified reaction to their response! Sometimes, no matter how well you handle something, the other people don’t play ball.

LH: Yes, we were both pretty surprised, weren’t we? Here are three easy options that will allow you to pay the same, get the same work but also enable me to get paid on time – for once! Who would think it’d be so objectionable?

PW: But actually, it just goes to show that we can only ever control our own responses in a situation. We can do our best, but other people’s reactions can be disappointing and surprising. So, at the end of the day, what is most important is that we are happy with our own reactions and behaviour.

LH: Totally agree. No matter why you’re saying no to someone, make sure you treat them how you’d appreciate being treated and – unless you encounter a complete plonker as I did recently – you should be on the right track!

PW: And that leads us to our A Little Bird Recommendations of the week! Now, my recommendation is a blog post about how to handle being heavily edited. Now this can apply to any kind of writing – if you send a manuscript off to a publisher and it comes back covered in red pen, or you send an article to a magazine but when you buy a copy it barely resembles what you wrote. With commercial work, if you send it off and they come back with loads of changes…it’s a shock and it can feel quite insulting. It can be difficult to know how to handle – some edits you might not agree with.

LH: I’m interested to hear the reactions to this, because I’m an editor and I’m usually on the other end.

PW: Yes, it points out that editors are just doing their job. “Ask yourself these questions,” it says. “Are opening and closing paragraphs redone but the mid-section unchanged? If so, they may be aiming for stronger reader engagement and it’ll be worth your time figuring out their tactics.” Next, “Are paragraphs reshuffled? If so, learn their preferred structure.” And that kind of thing. Those kinds of questions can really help if you’re writing again for that publication, client or project.

LH: Absolutely – and you could even use it as leverage. “I have a new idea for an article, I’ve written for you before and I’m familiar with the structure you prefer.”

PW: Exactly. So looking at things like…I think this is an American thing, but there’s a whole ‘readability’ thing where a lot of US websites feel they should be readable to a certain age group, and it’s usually very low, so any long words are immediately cut out. I don’t agree, but if a website cuts out any word more than six letters long, you’ll know for next time. It teaches you how to learn for the future, talks about how to take it like a professional and discusses what to do if you’re edited by someone who hasn’t edited before. So there’s also some advice for that – saying you might be able to argue your point if you want to in that situation.

PW: There are also loads of good comments, so it’s well worth a read. It’s called, “That’s Not What I Wrote – what to do when you’re hit with heavy editing” and it’s on the Make A Living Writing blog – I’ll link to it in the show notes.

LH: Sounds like a brilliant article, and I’ll definitely check it out. I do a lot of literary editing, and people are even more vulnerable than usual as writers. If I have to go through and “red pen” it, I feel terrible. But I do have to – that’s what they’re paying me for. But yes, anything that can make it easier for anyone to accept edits, is definitely worthwhile. That article sounds brilliant, and it’s good to know that people shouldn’t take edits personally. Unless someone’s edited it in a way that misrepresents you or is unethical, then you can just revoke permission for them to use the work.

PW: Yes, if it’s not misrepresenting you, and it’s not absolutely horrible, just let your ego go.

LH: My recommendation this week is a brilliant little social media search tool called Topsy. Topsy can be used for a number of things, but – as I discovered in a recent article (I think it was on Copyblogger!) – it can be a life-saver when it comes to finding guest blogging opportunities.

LH: Pip chatted about guest blogging in her solo episode a while back and gave some brilliant tips on how to approach a site or publication, how to ensure your content is good enough quality, and what the benefits of guest-blogging are. But, time is limited, and what I don’t think got covered was what to do if you’re out of ideas for guest posts.

PW: It can happen! It’s an episode on its own – what to do when there’s nothing left to say and you’ve written everything!

LH: By searching for “guest post” in inverted commas (Pip also covered how to do these kinds of searches in another episode and adding in your subject of choice, you can use Topsy to identify guest blogging opportunities across the social media web. Using similar search parameters to Google, you can limit your search by time period, so you’re not putting yourself forward for out of date opportunities.

LH: This same search technique can also help you to come up with topics for posts on your own website. While you don’t want to copy someone else’s article or blog idea – do not plagiarise someone, it’s a horrible thing! – Topsy allows you to see how often posts have been shared, so by studying the activity on there, you can learn to predict what kind of post might be a good choice to drive traffic to your site via viral marketing – basically, by getting people to share it! So yes, it’s fab, very usable, and it taps into Google+ and Twitter.

PW: That’s great – I’d come across people talking about Topsy; I’ve not used it but I’ll definitely check it out now.

LH: So this, listeners, has been episode 26 on how to turn down, disconnect and turn down anyone you might want to diss and dismiss, in the nicest possible sense! We really hope you’ve found the advice useful and that you’ll feel more confident in saying no to things that don’t suit you – low prices, meetings you don’t want, people you don’t want to work with or topics you don’t want to write about.

PW: It’s been an interesting one for us to research, plan and record, because it’s a difficult situation. Getting all this advice in one place will hopefully help! Do check out our website at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com, you’ll find the show notes and links there, plus all our websites and social media accounts. Make sure you subscribe as well, find us on Facebook. Thanks so much for listening – I’ve been Philippa Willitts..

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

Episode 25: Why and How to Charge More For Your Freelance Writing

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This solo episode by Lorrie is the third in our series of three podcast episodes about money. In episode 23, I talked about how to set your freelance writing rates, and in episode 24 we discussed the practicalities of things like invoicing, chasing clients and setting payment terms. So today, Lorrie talks about under what circumstances you should consider raising your rates, and exactly how to go about it.

Show Notes

The Key to Creating More Remarkable Connections

There are several ways to make sure that you don’t miss out on A Little Bird Told Me.

Subscribe via RSS

Subscribe via iTunes

Find us on Stitcher Smart Radio

And finally, please ‘like’ us on Facebook to be the first to hear our news and to talk with us about what you hear on the podcast!

Transcript

 

Hello, and welcome to Episode 25 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 – that gets easier to say every time! – to enjoy. And you can also find links to my websites and social media feeds, as well as those of my lovely co-host Philippa.

I’m Lorrie Hartshorn and today’s episode is another solo effort. As I speak, the lovely Pip is probably out and about, doing something unimaginably exciting but fear not, she’ll be back with me next week for another dual episode. For now, listeners, it’s just me and thee.

GBP Fluorescence

GBP Fluorescence (Photo credit: kevincollins123)

Today’s topic is the third and final of our money-oriented episodes. If you’ve not listened to them in order, I’d definitely recommend you go back and have a listen – we started out with Pip’s solo episode, 23, in which she discussed how to decide what to charge – basically, how to come up with a decent pricing strategy for your work.

Then, in our last episode, we discussed how to go about actually getting paid – things like how to send an invoice, whether to go for pre-payment, how long to give someone to pay – the sorts of things you don’t really know, naturally – and it’s best not to pluck these things out of the air. We tried to take these things in a logical order, you see – deciding what to get paid, learning how to get paid and, now, what to do when you want to get paid more! This is generally the order it’ll happen in in real life as well, so no need to thank us – just realise that we do think about these things in a bid to give you the best advice possible!

When you’re starting out as a freelance copywriter, editor, proof-reader, anything really, it can be baffling when you try and decide what to charge. You see top end copywriters charging, say $500 an hour, then there are those people (I use the term loosely!) who inhabit the slimy bottom layer of freelance sites like Elance, charging ridiculously low prices. If you’ve listened to our previous podcast episode, you’ll know this is a particular bugbear of mine. The lowest I’ve seen – and this was a genuine offer with several very enthusiastic takers – was 15p (that’s 15p UK!) per 500-word article. So when I say that freelancing rates for copywriters vary, I really, really do mean it!

But, because Pip already covered how to devise a pricing strategy in her last solo episode, I’m not going to cover that again. What I want to deal with is just how to go about upping your rates.

So, first of all, why increase your rates?

There might be a number of reasons you might increase your rates.

– You might have been charging too little in the first place (it’s an easy mistake to make, especially when you’re starting out and want to secure any and all work going!)
– You might have more expenses to meet
– You might have too much work coming in, so as I mentioned in my last solo episode, you might want to – for want of a better word – sift out the lower paying clients.
– It might just be time for a pay-rise

Now, the last one sounds a bit arbitrary, but it isn’t. It’s important to remember that, when you’re self-employed, your career path can be a little harder to define. Whereas in a salaried position you might start out as a copy assistant, before moving on to junior copywriter, copywriter, senior copywriter and so on, as a freelancer, you’re just a copywriter. Forever.

But, as I’ve just hinted, that doesn’t mean that you actually stay the same. If you’re serious about your freelance copywriting career, you’ll be engaged in continuous training and development: reading, research, seminars, webinars, online training courses, offline training courses…there’s always something you can be doing to improve and expand the services you offer to clients. And, as you progress, it’s a reasonable thing for you to start commanding a higher fee from your clients. And that’s why I say it might just be time for a pay-rise.

But, the thought of increasing your fees can be a worrying one, particularly if you’re a copywriter who works with a range of regular, long-term clients.

The fear is always there – that the next pound or dollar you add to your fee could be the tipping point for a client, who’ll walk away and find someone else. And yes, if your client is looking for the cheapest deal, there might come a time when they decide that what you’re charging is too much for them. But, if you follow the tips I’m going to give you in this episode, you should be able to avoid that in most circumstances, at least, and start earning the kind of fees you deserve for your work.

50 British Pounds Sterling

50 British Pounds Sterling (Photo credit: deg.io)

So, first of all, make sure you’ve got a pricing strategy in place. As I say, you’ll need to listen to episode 23, which is Pip’s solo episode, if you’re not sure how to go about doing this. It’s one of my favourite episodes, genuinely, and it’s by the lovely Pip, who’s brilliant at breaking things down. She’s had training in delivering training, so she really is very good at breaking down what’s essentially quite a complicated topic. Have a listen: it really will help you if you’re stuck on how to decide what to charge for which services. The key point about a pricing strategy is that it’s not just a set of figures that you pluck out of the air. There are ways to determine how much you should be charging, so have a listen to episode 23 and come back here if you don’t know what they are!

So, the first tip I’d give you when you’re thinking about increasing your rates, be clear with your clients about how the increase will affect them

When you inform your clients that your fees are going up, it’s important to be clear with them. If you normally communicate with your client via telephone, give them a call and then follow up with an email, so it’s there – it’s a permanent record. If you normally email them, send them a message and then follow up with a call if necessary (so, it’s the other way round). Stick to your normal communication method, then follow up.
It’s important at this point to make the transition to a higher fee as easy, clear and justifiable as possible. You also need to let your client know that they’re valued by you, so think carefully about how you word your communications with them.

While I wouldn’t suggest walking your client through exactly why you’ve decided to charge what you’re charging, it’s important for you to outline clearly how it’s going to affect them, and what they’re going to get for their money. But, while you’re doing this – remember two things: one, be honest with them and two, don’t apologise.

As I’ve progressed as a freelance copywriter, my fees have increased. I ask far more from a new client now than I would have done ten years ago. And, while in retrospect I think that my fees from ten years ago were far too low (which is a very common thing!), there’s no way I should have been charging then what I’m charging now. My skills are hugely improved, my knowledge has increased, I have more years of experience and commitment behind me.

So, when it comes to my long-term clients, I value their loyalty and that has to stand for something. I’ve had a number of them on my books for years now, so I’m not about to charge them the same that I’d charge for a new commercial clients. I’m not going to increase the fees I charge them by a huge jump. However, there did come a point where I was charging one client considerably less than any of my other clients, and I had to increase my fees to make it worth my while keeping that client on, and dedicating a large amount of time every week to working for them.

So, I had to come up with a figure that would suit me but not price me out of my client’s reach, for loyalty’s sake. I sat down and considered all of the following:

– my client’s budget and sector
– how long I’d been working for them
– how many pay increases I’d had since working for them
– how many hours work I did (or indeed, do!) for the client each week
– how much more I could be earning if I did the same amount of work for another client each week
– why I deserved the pay increase

In the end, I came up with a logical, ultimately justifiable figure, and I set about emailing the client with a proposal. It’s important to do this in a professional way, even if you chat with the client on a daily basis.

 

In my email, I explained that, like any other business, I had a pricing strategy that allowed me to keep my business flourishing. There’s no shame in that: I look after my business. I reiterated how important the client was to me, and outlined the fact that I’d not increased my fees for around two years. I detailed some of the training I’d been undertaking and described how the pay increase would allow me to continue to deliver even better results to that client in future. The increase was included in the email as an easily digestible percentage figure, you know – increased by X% – and it wasn’t something overwhelmingly large.

I bullet-pointed all of the information and submitted it, topped and tailed with the same kind of friendly communication that my client’s come to expect from me on an almost daily basis.

The response came back and it was a positive one. No one’s going to cheer about having to pay more for something, but the price was considered fair for the work I deliver and the communication was appreciated. And that’s the result you’re looking for.

So, to sum up, when you decide to raise your fees, you need to be a number of things.
Firstly – clear. Clear with yourself and why you’re doing it. Clear in your own mind about why you’ve gone for that particular figure, or percentage increase. And clear with your clients about how it’ll affect them.

Secondly, be confident. Be confident in your services, and know in yourself that what you’re charging is the right amount. If you’re not sure about it, you’ll have a hard time convincing anyone else. Do your research, position yourself carefully in the market – find a nice middle ground between ridiculously high and ridiculously low! – and that will help you to feel confident that you’ve made the right choice, even if you lose some clients. Be confident when you’re informing clients old and new about your rates – you’ve got nothing to apologise for, and confidence helps you to be professional.

And thirdly, be consistent. Offer your clients consistently good value for what they’re paying. Offer them consistently good work. If a client can rely on you, that’s one more reason to pay you what you’re asking.

Also, be consistent in what you charge a particular client, and how and when you increase your fees with them. It might be that you charge different clients different amounts based on their spending capacity – I charge charities less than commercial clients, for example, and I know that Pip charges charities and students less – but be discreet about this (not secretive, just discreet!) and always keep a record of what you charged who, and when. Clients will know, realistically, that your rates might vary, but if you end up mixing clients up and getting your rates wrong, or trying to implement another fee increase after just six months because you’re mistaking one client for another, it will make you seem sneaky and underhand. So keep close tabs on your finances and on what you charge different people.

So, I hope this has been a helpful guide on how to go about increasing the fees you charge for your freelance writing services. We all want to make as much money for our time as possible – there’s no crime in that – but it’s good to really assess your actions so you can be sure that both you and your clients are getting the best deal possible.

As I mentioned in my previous episode, increasing your rates can actually be an effective way to cut down the number of low-paying clients you have – it might sound mercenary but it’s the nature of the beast. As your career progresses, you can’t afford to fill your working day with work for a client who pays you just a third or a quarter of what someone else could. It doesn’t make any sense. You need to let your clients find someone more affordable if you’re getting too expensive to them – the solution isn’t to keep your rates low forever. It’s not sustainable.
Increasing your rates will leaving your clients free to find someone more affordable – and to manage your time better. By freeing up some time and spend more of your working day focusing on the clients who can afford you, you can ultimately improve your offerings, cut out any rushed pieces of work, halve the stress, and spend more time on the training and development you’ll need to progress, in time, to a point where you’re able to attract and cater to even more highly paying clients. It’s a cyclic thing.

Before I go, it’s time for this week’s Little Bird Recommendation. I’ve been thoroughly told off by the ever-reliable Pip for repeatedly forgetting to include one in my solo episodes. So, this week, I’m being good – I’m making a concerted effort!

 

When introducing Little Bird Recommendations, Pip and I have said that we might share tools, videos, blog posts, or tweets. I realised I hadn’t yet featured a tweet. So, I noticed a tweet recently that was being retweeted a lot, and I really liked it. It was a tweet by someone called Michael Scott Monje Junior, and he wrote, “Look, I might be the odd man out here, but I think calling yourself a social media guru is the opposite of effective…” and it’s been retweeted and favourited left, right and centre.

 

I think it’s an interesting insight to effective and non-effective communications on social media. If you’re calling yourself a guru, for some people, that’s pretty obnoxious. Someone contacted me on Twitter and said, “Do you know what an anagram of social media guru is? A ludicrous image. Go figure!” And it’s true, we all know the types who frame themselves as social media experts – and they might well be, but when someone blows their own trumpet so hard, it’s hard to believe in them and to actually like them.

 

I think it’s really important – especially on social media, where the clue’s in the name – to be likeable. And it got me thinking about an article I saw on Copyblogger recently, called The Key To Creating More Remarkable Connections. Put aside the cheesy title, it’s actually a decent blog post – as most on Copyblogger are. The post talks about authenticity and goes through how to create a professional, authentic online persona. It has some great tips on balancing personal and professional stuff, how often to promote yourself and be salesy, and it basically outlines the content mix for you. I find it a really good guide actually, when I’m wondering whether to be more jokey, more professional, and how often to link people to my website.

So I hope that that recommendation is useful to you, and enough to appease the wonderful Pip, who quite rightly reminded me that I’d forgotten the Little Bird Recommendations over the last few solo episodes.

So, for more of our podcast episodes, including the two previous episodes on money matters, please do go and subscribe to the podcast. You can get regular updates via iTunes, Stitcher Smart Radio, RSS feed, 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 24: The Art of Getting Paid as a Freelancer

We ran out of storage space for our earliest episodes. But fear not, we have made these many, many hours of freelance writing goodness available for just £10. If you want access to them all, please click Add to Cart and buy through our e-junkie account for instant access.

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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

There are several ways to make sure that you don’t miss out on A Little Bird Told Me.

Subscribe via RSS

Subscribe via iTunes

Find us on Stitcher Smart Radio

And finally, please ‘like’ us on Facebook to be the first to hear our news and to talk with us about what you hear on the podcast!

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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Transcript

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.

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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.