Podcast Episode 38: How to break into new freelance writing markets

It’s easy to get into a rut with freelance writing, especially if your career has drifted rather than been planned out and focused. So if you have found yourself mainly working in an area of writing that doesn’t thrill you, or if you have ambitions that you aren’t sure how to reach, this episode of the podcast is just what you need. We talk about how to transition from one freelance writing market to another, so listen on and enjoy.

Show Notes

Episode 7: Freelance Writing – To Specialise or Not to Specialise

Episode 33: How to deal with a crisis of faith

Source Bottle

The Women’s Room

Ian McMillan and Stephen Fry talk Yorkshire accents

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LH: Hello and welcome to Episode 38 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 via RSS feed, iTunes, Stitcher Smart Radio or just there on the Podomatic page itself. It’s worth clicking the subscribe button, because you’ll get a notification as soon as our new episodes are out.

PW: And who wouldn’t want to be the first to know?

LH: Very true! So, on the Podomatic page itself you’ll also find the links to our Facebook page where you can come and chat to me and Pip and ask us any questions you might have and give feedback on the episodes you’ve liked or not liked, and let us know if there are any episodes you’d like to hear us record in future. You’ll also find links to our websites, so you can and admire us in our general splendour, and links to our social media feeds so you can come and tweet or Facebook us. And, there are also – in this bag of tricks – loads of transcripts and show notes, many of which are actually handy links to resources for freelancers.

PW: Definitely – any link or website or article that we mention in the podcast, we do list and provide links for in the show notes, so if you’re listening to the podcast through a subscription on your iPad or something, do make sure to visit the site once in a while as well so you can click through to the links we mention.

LH: Yes, it’s a veritable goody-bag. I’m Lorrie Hartshorn…

Audit4 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

PW: And I am Philippa Willitts, and today we’re looking at what writers can do if they want to break into a new market. You might be a copywriter who wants to be a novelist; you might be a newspaper journalist wanting to be a copywriter. We’re going to look at some general ideas on how that might work, why you might want to change, and what to do if you do!

LH: Now, unfortunately, given that we try to keep the podcast under an hour, we’re not going to be able to look at all the aspects of different markets you might want to break into. What we’re going to look at is the transition between markets. How to prepare yourself and move from one market to another.

PW: Yes, like Lorrie says, there are so many permutations of where you are now, where you want to be, where you might go in between that it would be impossible to go through every option. But like Lorrie says, it’s more about the transition – learning how to use the skills you already have to apply to a new market – that kind of thing. So first of all, we’re going to look at why you might want to change markets.

LH: Yes. There are a number of reasons you might want to break into a new writing market. You might want to earn more. You want to write something different – and that might be writing on a different subject or providing a different kind of writing service. You want to work with a different type of client, or work in a different way with your clients. Yeah, you want a different kind of working style.

PW: Absolutely. You might just find that you’ve just got bored with the type of writing you are doing, or that you’ve kind of let your career develop in its own way without much direction…

LH: And that’s fine (I know you weren’t saying it wasn’t!). Most writers I know kind of just wandered into it, decided we liked it, and stayed in it and developed the skills from there. They’re happy enough to do that, but what I’m saying is that life happens.

PW: Absolutely. And so, if you don’t start out with a clear plan, you might find yourself in a bit of a wilderness now, thinking, “What do I really want to do?” But you might now be finding that there’s a particular area that you’ve been working in – maybe accidentally – that you’re loving: a particular topic, or maybe you’ve discovered you’re brilliant at press releases or screen writing, for example. So if you’ve started off as a generalist but now realise you really want to specialise in one area you are fascinated with, that can be a reason to break into new markets. Also, I’ll link in the show notes because I did a solo episode about whether or not to specialise and some of the info in there will back up what we say today.

LH: Yes, I remember that episode and it was really good. In terms of specialising vs. generalising, we’re both generalists with specialists in different areas, so it was interesting for me to hear how you got into your specialist areas. So yes, listeners, it’s well worth tuning in.

So, going back to areas we’ve fallen into a bit by accident, I remember the first time I was asked if I did book editing. I’d done loads of editing in an academic setting before and knew I had the right skill set for book editing, so I went for it and loved it. I offered a discount because it was my first time doing it; I explained to the client that I was new to the sector but laid out my skills. I was happy; they were happy and it’s now a big service area for me, and it helps dilute the more technical, industrial stuff I do.

PW: It’s important to remember that, if you’re a freelancer and you find you are getting bored with what you’re doing, it doesn’t have to mean that being a writer is wrong for you, it might just be that type of writing or the markets you’re working in that are getting on your nerves, basically.

LH: Yeah, I did a solo episode recently about what to do if your freelance careers is in crisis and, although you might not consider boredom a crisis, it can be if you let it go on too long. So I’d recommend having a listen to that – there are some good tips on how to ddecide whether you’re just having a blip, for example, if you’re bored, or if writing’s just not for you.

PW: And I’ll link to that in the show notes!

LH: Thank you very much! So, if you’re considering a transition from one area to another or you’re just considering breaking into an additional new area, you need to work out what’s important to you in terms of your day-to-day working style in order to know whether you’re trying to break into the right niche – and whether you’ll be able to hack it.

PW: Yes, when you’re going to try and make a change with the markets you work in, I’d strongly recommend not just abandoning all your regular clients and trusted editors in a bid to crack a new area. Unless you have a trust fund to support you for three months, it’ll take a while to build up and there’s no guarantee it’ll work. Assuming you need regular income, the key is reduce your work in one area gradually while building up work in a new area.

LH: Yeah, that makes me think of two things. First, when you say “Don’t just abandon people”, that’s something I mentioned in that solo episode too. It’s not professional to dump people and it also means there’s no going back. You can dump people – there’s nothing your clients can do about it unless you’ve signed a contract with them – but it’s just not very good.

PW: Looking at it from a selfish perspective, they might know someone who could be key to your new career. If they’re best mates with the editor of the magazine you want to work for, and you treat them unprofessionally…

LH: You can kiss that one goodbye!

PW: Yes! It’s the wrong thing to do anyway, but you’re not helping your own chances. In these kinds of markets, it’s surprising how many people know one another.

LH: Yes, I’m often amazed to find that I’m one or two connections away from someone who’s huge in a particular industry, often via a really small client or someone really unassuming. I’m not someone to exploit a contact, but I certainly wouldn’t want to ruin my reputation via that person.

PW: No, you just never know how far ripples go.

LH: Yes, people do talk and it’s not something you can repair because there are so many copywriters, journalists and editors out there vying to take your place.

PW: Yes, so when you start to cut down your current work, be respectful to these people who may have provided a large part of your income for the last five years.

LH: Yes, these people have probably helped you on the way up, so just because you’re planning a transition, doesn’t mean you can just go, “Oh bye!”. The second point I wanted to make is that I know copywriters in the hard-sell sales market, and they make an absolute fortune, charging thousands of pounds for a single piece of writing. It’s an extremely high pressure market.

PW: Yup, results, results, results.

LH: Yes, you need to be able to quantify the results your writing is going to get.

PW: And you can spend two months on one sales letter.

LH: Yes, and the contact between the client and writer is a lot more high pressure. You have to be able to schmooze, you have to be on call, things can be urgent; you have to love the high-pressure sales environment. So if you go bumbling into sales writing thinking it’s going to be marvellous and getting rid of all your clients, you’ll be in shark-infested waters if you hate it. You wouldn’t necessarily know, before you got into sales writing, that the day-to-day life of a sales writer is so different.

PW: Yes, so if you just dip a toe in the water rather than getting rid of all your copywriting jobs, you haven’t burnt your bridges.

LH: Yes, and I imagine that journalism is the same. I don’t do media writing, but Pip does, and I imagine that, Pip, there are a lot of differences in the skills and tendencies in journalism than in other areas.
PW: Definitely. The process is different, you can get very strictly edited, you can get a lot more criticism – including from people you don’t know – and yet the exposure being bigger means that when my local radio station wanted someone to talk about disability hate crime, they’d seen enough of my work to know I’d written for some big publications on the subject. The exposure can be good, but it can also be quite brutal.

LH: I imagine the skill set it quite different, too. As a copywriter, you don’t need to interview people very often, but as a journalist, you need to interview people.

PW: Yes, and you need to back up your points meticulously. If you make a factual error, everyone will know about it…

LH: And you’ll possibly get sued for libel. It’s just not my cup of tea – I think you can tell by the way I’m speaking that it’s not, and that’s really what we’re talking about, isn’t it?

PW: Yes, I absolutely love media writing. So, looking at writers who want to make a transition from one market to another, what’s really important is to make a plan for the transition from one market to another. If you’ve got a path you’ve identified in advanced, it’ll help you to follow a particular path, and you will know at each stage what still needs to be done to get you to the place you want to be.

English: iPad with on display keyboard
English: iPad with on display keyboard (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

LH: Yes, definitely. And I think we can take for granted the weird little coincidences that have brought us to where we are now. I got into writing about recycling because I decided not to do more academic work and to get into marketing. I ended up as a marketing executive in the recycling sector. If I’d gone for a company in a different sector, I perhaps wouldn’t have so many trade and industrial clients as I do now. I couldn’t have planned it if I’d tried.

PW: No, absolutely. Freelancing can take such unexpected turns. You can become an expert in an industry you’d never have thought of. I know something that’s important for both me and Lorrie is to work for ethical firms, which is how Lorrie got into recycling. As a result, she’s ended up developing quite in-depth technical knowledge but still retained that ethical base.

So what we’re going to do is look at someone who might want to transition to a new market in their career. Don’t think that just because this specific example doesn’t fit your experience exactly that it doesn’t apply to you. It’s all the same thing.

Say you write for magazines at the moment about arts and crafts but over time the topic that you used to love has just got a bit dull for you. However you have developed a love of cooking and want to get a cookbook published. There are many paths to make this transition, but one that is available to you is based on a theme that will come up again and again in this podcast episode (and has done in many episodes), and it’s to work with what you’ve already got as a way to get to where you want to be.

So say you have plenty of experience getting published in magazines, you’re familiar with various magazine and newspaper editors, and these are valuable contacts. I would suggest that the best first step would be to start trying to get published in cookery magazines. This uses your magazine writing experience, you can explain to the cookery magazine editors that you have lots of experience with lots of sub-editors, you know how to follow style guidelines, and you even have good experience photographing a process and a finished product – before it was craft projects, now it’s recipes, but be aware of how many skills you already have that will help you in your new move.

LH: And going back to the point about contacts we made earlier, people in publishing talk to one another. So if you’ve done well, people might find out about it.

PW: Yes, and bear in mind that publishing houses might own like 20 magazines. So if you make this transition over time, sure, you will still have to do arts and crafts writing until your new commissions start coming in, but you’re on your way to where you want to be. Once you are familiar with cookery writing editors, and they are familiar with you, you then have a much higher chance of getting your book idea accepted and taken on by agents and publishers and voila, book deal. It’s not an overnight move, but nothing that’s worth it is, really. But if you can approach a book publisher with clips from eight different well-respected cookery magazines, you have a much better chance.

LH: Absolutely. Another example would be a copywriter who wants to move into sales writing, as we mentioned earlier. If you think you can hack sales writing, there’s lots of money to be made. You have to be the best, you have to have a really salesy website, and that;s something you can set up and let sit on Google for a while – it’s a good chance to practise your sales copy actually…

PW: That’s true – if someone checks out your website and they’re not convinced, they won’t hire you to convince their customers.

LH: Exactly, so have a look around, find out who the big sales copywriters are and see what they’re doing. But in terms of tapping into your own experience and moving over gradually, suggestion number one would be to see who your own clients are and to see if they need any sales writing.

PW: They might have a website full of information you’ve written for them, but you might be able to suggest to them that they might benefit from a landing page, which is basically the page that people land on when they come from a particular link. Some people will set up a particular landing page for people who click on a certain Google ad, for example.

LH: Yes, if your client has a product launch or a particular service or event that they’re trying to push, that would be the time to have a landing page.

PW: Absolutely, and they tend to be very focused, so if it’s a page specifically for people who come from Google and then that landing page will be all about that thing, to keep people’s interest and then start selling. So if you feel your clients have a great information-filled website but that they could benefit from a landing page or sales page, or better product description and you know that client well, suggest it to them.

LH: Yes it’s similar to something I’ve done recently. I have a client in the industrial sector that wanted to promote a particular service that they have, so we redid their pages for those. Another client is a life and career coach with an event coming up so, again, a landing page was needed to get people to invest in this event. So it’s a good way to go.

If you do tap your clients but no one wants any sales writing, the next thing to do is to see if they know anyone else who needs sales writing. People know people and it’s difficult to tap your contacts, and their contacts, and not find anyone who needs something salesy. Whether you can convince them they need something salesy is really a test of your persuasiveness, and if you can manage it, then great – you’ve got a foot in the door with that word of mouth, which is really important as I mentioned in my last solo episode about social proof.

If you’re struggling to do that, my next suggestion would be to check out online marketplaces like ClickBank and E-Junkie and find products with affiliate programmes. What this means is that you’re free to advertise and sell the products on there for a certain percentage commission, say 60 or 70%. So what you need in order to sell products are sales pages.

PW: It’s a really good way to practise sales copywriting, actually. When I was starting out, I really liked the idea of having a little bit of passive income. It was a god way for me to get my head around how the whole process works, too, and it’s lovely to get a cheque from ClickBank every now and again, even if the dollars confuse my bank! If you do it well, you can start making an income from it, and you might even decide you don’t want to work for anyone else at all.

LH: Certainly. But then if you decide that you do, you’re in a better position to go to someone and say, “Look, I’m the best of the best.” And you have to be.

PW: And you have to say you’re the best of the best without blushing or laughing.

LH: And, you have to be able to get other people to say it too. I don’t know a sector where social proof is more important. If you can get someone to say, “I hired this person and I made a million.”, you’re in.

PW: Yeah, I think you might be right. And a lot of the top money-makers are so interconnected. They’re often in mastermind groups together; they promote one another, so it can be hard to break into that circle. It takes a lot of work. You have to be able to go in with, “I built this website, made $2,000 in the first month and have made $5,000 a month ever since.”

LH: And again, you say such good things that I have a couple of points to make again. Firstly, you have to be an expert. You might be able to cover a couple of similar topics, but you can’t do sales writing at a very high level for several completely different subjects. You can’t just know a bit and then ask for clarification; you have to know what you’re talking about and it’s a full-time job. Second point, based on what Pip’s just said about interconnected affiliate marketers, you have to be quite political. Don’t target the wrong people, don’t play people off against one another, and make sure that there are no conflicts of interest in your work. You have to know your sector, your subject and your people.

PW: So these kind of processes of transition will be similar whatever new market you want to break into. If you are already a freelance writer then bear in mind that you are experienced and skilled in things like:

producing good quality work to deadline
liaising with many different professionals
writing in different styles and formats to suit clients or editors

All of these will be just as necessary in your new area, so you are not starting from scratch, even if it sometimes feels like it.

LH: No, you definitely have a good foot in the door and the same goes for other services as we briefly mentioned earlier. We’ll cover this in a future episode – how to move into services that complement writing, such as proof-reading, editing, substantive editing…

PW: Yes, and we could also look at things like building affiliate websites, so if you’re interested in that, let us know.

LH: Absolutely. But yes, as a writer, you’ll have skills that will help you get into your chosen market. Don’t lose heart if things feel different – things will be different if you’re trying to move from one area to another; it’s a career change so, as Pip said earlier, it’s important to plan.

PW: Another point it’s important to mention is that you might also need to increase your knowledge in a subject in order to break into a new market. If you have always fantasised about writing historical fiction then your knowledge of history has to be spot on. If you write inaccurate historical fiction, well, Amazon reviewers will spot your mistakes and will not let you off lightly! Get onto a history course which has a curriculum based on the era you want to write about – do this at your local college, or find one online, and really take it seriously. Similarly if you want to be a science writer, or a copywriter focused specifically on medical equipment, you absolutely have to know what you are talking about. Part of your transition planning should include learning things that fill your knowledge gaps.

LH: What I find it helpful to do sometimes, when I’m thinking about my freelance career, is to imagine that I’m in a salaried position. In a salaried position, you’d have the support – and pressure – of an external framework, with a wider company that you worked for. You’d be more able to view your career progress in linear fashion, a more upward-trajectory kind of way. The reason I find this helpful is that it doesn’t let you slack off. Freelancing can feel like you’re floating around and not really going anywhere. But the fact is, the longer you freelance, the more responsibilities you should be able to take on, and the more you should be able to demand of yourself. And that’s not to say you need to do more hours or charge more, but you do need to get better and push yourself. Allowing yourself to get away without doing research or prep won’t wash after a while.

PW: No, Lorrie knows – from the accountability days – that I spend so long preparing and researching and planning, and that’s because I can’t risk my reputation by letting something drop. I hate the idea sending poor quality work to a client; I would lose sleep. If you want to get beyond bidding for things on Freelancer.com, you really need to take this stuff seriously.

LH: This is it; it’s far, far wiser to take things a bit more seriously and to bide your time and tackle things with more prep.

PW: It’s really interesting how you’ve presented that, actually. I think that’s a really good point, looking at your freelance career in its equivalence as a salaried job could really help you focus on moving up the ladder so to speak.
LH: Yes, it does with me. As I say, I’m not trying to push people into doing more, but I’m just saying, don’t stagnate. If you are making a career transition, that’s a business development decision so you need to make sure you have all the skills in place with no skill gaps because the only person who’ll fall into those is you.

PW: Yes. So, I hope what we’ve done is cover some ideas on how to transition into a new freelance writing market. Like we said earlier, we can’t look at every variant, but what we have done is look at how to plan, why plans are important and the different stages you can go through to change your career a bit at a time, promoting the skills you’ve got an getting on top of the skills you might need.

LH: Absolutely. And if you have any questions, Pip and I are there on social media. Come and have a chat and we’ll try and give you any help you might need.

PW: So now it’s time for the Little Bird Recommendations of the Week. In this segment, we both suggest something that might be interesting or useful. So Lorrie, what’s your recommendation for this week?

LH: I kind of have two! And they’re kind of inspired by you, Pip. As we said earlier, Pip does a lot of media writing. I don’t. I don’t like it at all – I like staying in my little cave, doing ghost-writing. My recommendation this week is a couple of websites, actually. First one: Sourcebottle.com.au – it’s a resource for interviewers and journalists can use to find experts (journalists, bloggers etc.). You can go on there as a writer or a source, or both.

And that got me thinking, in a feministy sort of way, about a resource we have here in the UK – The Women’s Room. It’s the same kind of thing, but it’s for women. It was set up in response to some absolute bobbins by the BBC. There were two instances on the radio in which subjects that affect women were covered by male experts. When challenged on this, the BBC commented that they weren’t able to find female experts on breast cancer or contraceptive injections. Which is obviously total bobbins, so the immediate response was The Women’s Room, which is full of women experts.

So if you’d like to find a source, or you’d like to be quoted as an expert and you’re a woman, then The Women’s Room is for you.

PW: Another nice thing about The Women’s Room is that you can be an expert by study, having a PhD in something, or you can also list yourself as an expert by experience. So if you’ve brought up twins, for example, you can put yourself down as an expert in parenting and parenting twins.

LH: That is good, I think, especially as women’s experiences are still being ignored.

PW: Definitely. And I’d second the recommendation of The Women’s Room. My recommendation this week is a bit of a cheeky one. There’s a poet known as the Bard of Barnsley. He’s called Ian McMillan and I love him. Anyway, he made a video with Stephen Fry talking about the different regional accents in Yorkshire. Which is part of the UK, for people who aren’t here – and also where I live. I love regional accents and I love Ian McMillan, so everything about this was going to go well. The video is only a few minutes long and it’s brilliant. And I loved it and I put it on my website, which is why this recommendation is cheeky, because it’s a link to my own blog. So if you like regional accents, I’ll pop the link in the show notes and you can check it out. It’s really interesting. So yes, that’s my recommendation.

LH: You’re cheeky, but it’s good. So, really hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of A Little Bird Told Me and that the subject and recommendations are really helpful. If you want to chat to us at all or pitch a new episode idea to us, do come and have a look for our links at alittlebirdtoldme.podomatic.com. I’ve been Lorrie Hartshorn…

PW: …and I’ve been Philippa Willitts, and we’ll catch you next time.