September 16, 2014

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Copy editor, Aritzia, Vancouver.

Entry-Level Writer for Internet Marketing Company, Vancouver.

Junior Copywriter, Noise, Vancouver.

Technical Editor/Writer, North Vancouver.

Web Content Writer, Adoptive Families Association of BC, Burnaby.

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Respect Your Time

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One of the things I see all too frequently is new freelance writers burning out and leaving the freelance life behind. I know you’re thinking, “Wow, it must be great to have so much work to do that you burn out on it. That’s the kind of problem I’d like to have.” But I’m not talking about having too much work, I’m talking about clients not respecting your time.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever had the following happen:

1. Had a client contact you at 10:00 at night (or later) for a project they consider urgent (or to discuss an urgent matter or idea about a project you’re working on);

2. Had a client contact you when you’re on vacation (and they know you’re on vacation) wanting you to do something;

3. Had a client contact you on Friday evening, wanting something completed by Monday morning (good-bye weekend); or

4. Had a client call or email you at any time assuming you would drop everything to help get their project finished first.

The problem is your client doesn’t respect your time and as much as I’d like to make the client the bad guy, the issue is actually with you (sorry, but it’s true and I’m here today to hand out some tough love). The second you say “yes” to answering your phone at 10:00 pm and working until 5:00 am for the client, you’re setting a precedent, and the client will continue to expect that level of service. When you agree to do just one “little thing” for a client even though you’re on holidays, it becomes harder to say “no” the next time this happens, and it will happen over and over again. Because now you’ve given the client the idea that it’s no big deal.

For many writers, there’s a dilemma that comes with the 10:00 pm phone call: If they say no to the work, they think the client is likely to find someone else to do it for them, taking their money with them. It’s easy to see why freelance writers have a difficult time saying “no” to these situations, especially when they can rationalize it by saying, “This probably won’t happen again.” But it usually does happen again. And again and again. The next thing you know, all your evenings, weekends and holidays are taken up with answering urgent phone calls from clients and writing press releases that really could have waited until regular business hours, while your children, spouses and friends get more and more annoyed that you’re not paying any attention to them on what are supposed to be your days off.

So what can you do? The first thing you have to do is respect your own time. If you don’t, your clients never will. That means putting a time limit on when you will and will not answer phone calls and respond to emails. You don’t have to keep it to 9-5, but set up something reasonable you can stick to. Then, decide how much your free time is worth to you and, if you really feel you have to do that urgent, overnight job, charge accordingly. You are free to charge a “rush rate,” “weekend rate,” or “urgent job” rate, so long as you inform the client of it ahead of time.

Charging more for work done on your time off forces the client to either pay more for your work or, in the future, reconsider whether the project is so urgent they need to pay extra for it (once you charge extra, they tend to decide that the work can wait until Monday morning). And, if they still want the work done, you’ve made extra money for giving up your time off, which isn’t the worst thing in the world.

Still not convinced? Before you agree to do weekend work without extra pay, ask yourself if you’d be willing to do this every other weekend for the next year, because that’s the precedent you’re setting. Suddenly, keeping the client when you’re getting very little pay in exchange for all your free time doesn’t seem quite so appealing, does it?

What else can you do to make your clients respect your time? Wait a while before returning a phone call or email. I’m not suggesting you wait days and days, but if you’re constantly returning emails and phone calls within 30 seconds of getting them, you’re sending the message that you have nothing better to do than wait for phone calls and emails. So set aside specific times each day to return phone calls and emails and don’t worry about getting to them before that (this will also free you up from checking your email all the time, which can be a huge time waster). Be firm with the hours you will and won’t work and don’t respond to emails or phone calls during your vacation.

And lest you all think I’m above all this, my friends will happily tell you that I’ve spent plenty of weekends and nights out checking my email and voicemail and helping clients with “urgent” problems. It’s something I’m moving away from, so I can spend the time at work fully immersed in work and the time away fully focused on other things. In fact, I recently had a client contact me with a last minute project. I told him the only way I would do it is if he paid extra. He agreed, and it all worked out. If he hadn’t agreed, I would have told him it could wait until Monday, or someone else could do it. I’d rather lose the client than burn out and resent being a writer.

Respecting your time, and having your clients respect your time, is vital to being a happy freelancer.

Is Freelancing a Dream Job or Nightmare Curse?

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Choosing a career path that involves freelancing is a rewarding, empowering and gutsy choice. Freelancing is demanding of your time and effort, but it’s also likely to return that time and effort tenfold if you completely dedicate yourself to living a true freelance lifestyle.

Today’s guest post was written by Kelvin Cech, a freelance copywriter and the owner of Vancouver’s own Function Writing Group.

Before we get into it, let’s clarify something: as freelancers, we all understand the amount of work that goes into entrepreneurial endeavours, right? If you’re freelancing to get out of long hours and good ol’ fashioned hard work, then your dream job is going to crash and burn mighty quick – like, curse-level quick. The life of a freelancer isn’t easy, but it can be fulfilling. There are rights and wrongs to learn from, but ultimately freelancers possess the ability to live their lives full-steam ahead and rock their industry in every aspect of the phrase.

So how come so many copywriters, graphic designers and photographers living the freelance life consistently feel like their passion is also their curse? Why do we feel that as we devote more energy to our craft, more energy gets sucked out of our bodies and our passion for our industry?

Ask Yourself:

1. Why did you get into freelancing in the first place?

2. Are you passionate about the work that your freelance career is built on?

3. If you were a millionaire, would you still enjoy that work, at least from time to time?

Getting paid for your expertise can easily sap your enthusiasm for your work, because ultimately you’re still working for someone else. So what have you created lately that was just for you? Is there something that you wish existed that you have the power to create?

Here are three ways to balance a career in freelancing with the passion that started it all in the first place.

Create a project that relates to your field of expertise.

Freelancing for yourself is crucial – if you’re always working on a deadline for a client, then why not consider yourself a client as well? If your clients deserve your best work, then don’t you?

My task list includes guest posts (like this one!) for copywriters, bloggers and other freelancers that I admire and I try to stick to the deadlines that I set for myself. If I miss these deadlines by a day or two, well, so what? There’s no stress when your livelihood doesn’t depend on your new project.

For more expertise relating to part-time blogging and how you can fit writing into your busy schedule, check out the always-entertaining and engaging Stanford Smith at Pushing Social.

As I mentioned, I enjoy writing guest posts – they’re fun, you’re contributing to a message that you support, you’re (hopefully) helping to enrich the lives of a new audience and you’re creating exposure for your work.

Here are a few other possible avenues, related to common freelance careers, of creation you can easily explore (on the cheap, too!):

Start a podcast that directs traffic back to your business.

Write a blog (on tumblr maybe?) that explores a new aspect of your medium.

Create content in your industry that stays in your house – photos? Posters? Woodwork?

Your passion and talent for your craft is only the beginning of your freelance career. Freelancing means you have all the power, so get back to your roots and create something that you would have wanted when you first made the decision to start freelancing. Possessing the ability to act and failing to do so is the real curse.

Create something completely unrelated to your industry

Human beings are a stubborn, dedicated bunch. If we weren’t, then I suppose we would have given up on starting a fire with those tools that we found a million years ago, and we wouldn’t have learned how to ride dinosaurs. What? We haven’t done that yet? In time…

As we’ve discussed, freelancing demands much more than just your time. What was the first thing you thought about when you woke up this morning? How many ‘@replies’ you received on twitter overnight? What you’re going to include in the big contract you’re pitching for? If you remember one hard rule from this post, remember this:

“Direct energy elsewhere.”

I even placed the rule in quotes for you, so you’ll remember it forever.

Do you have a family? Do you play enjoy any sports? What are your hobbies? Do you ever just sit down without your phone or computer and watch The Daily Show? Freelancing is supposed to be a fulfilling, challenging venture – that’s why the word ‘entrepreneur’ is so unique (because freelancers are unique!) – but it’s impossible to be fulfilled if the entirety of your being is poured into your freelance jobs.

Create something that fulfills another aspect of life. It’s not allowed to relate to your career whatsoever. Go for a walk. Get a puppy. After you spend some time doing something else, come back to your work fresh, balanced and ready to get back at it.

Aspire to be More

Freelancing assumes that you’ve accepted a life of continually bettering yourself – of contributing to society first and asking questions about the money later. Working to better yourself is an enriching process – the trick is to take that process in as many different directions as you can.

Remember what I said earlier about freelancers being stubborn? Well, stubborn in this sense is easily mistaken with hypocritical. Many freelancers are guilty of being hypocrites, not following their own advice and so forth. So as I was writing this post I decided to actually take my own advice and start another blog that relates to copywriting. You can do it too, it takes barely any time and nearly zero effort.

Freelancing is about creation. Keep creating that which makes your job rewarding and soon you’ll never feel like you’re working. Does anyone else have a hobby or activity that they use to avoid the freelancing curse?

Thanks for reading, I’ll be back again to talk about how freelance copywriters take breaks. (Hint: they write.)

Walking Away from a Potential Client

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For people new to freelance writing, or for those who have trouble making ends meet, it can seem contradictory to walk away from a potential client (or to price yourself out of the client’s budget, putting the client in the position of walking away). I haven’t been freelancing a long time and I’m definitely not in the 1% of financial earners (nowhere close), but lately I have walked away from a few potential clients and I haven’t regretted it.

Usually I communicate with a potential new client via email and over the phone to get a feel for him or her. Sometimes, even after one quick phone call, I can get a sense of whether or not the client and I will be a good fit. (Note: I don’t always get this sense over the phone and the only way I’ve developed it is by having some bad experiences, which is how many writers develop their sense for clients. So don’t feel too terrible if you sign on for some less-than-desirable clients. It’s all part of learning.) The good news is that I can share with you some signs that tell me the client might not be great.

1. Warnings from other writers or contractors.

Sometimes a business relationship goes sour and it’s not really anyone’s fault. But when someone you know gives you a warning about a potential client, listen and ask if the warning seems reasonable. I recently had someone call me about some writing work. He said he was referred to me by another contractor (a graphic designer). When I emailed the graphic designer to thank her, she mentioned that he was a client of hers, was nice, but had gone AWOL halfway through the design process. She advised me to get a deposit from the client before starting work. (This is also a great reason to cultivate relationships with other contractors; they can tell you what to watch out for with certain clients, so you can learn from their experiences.) I decided the job probably wasn’t worth it.

2. Unrealistic budgets.

If you’re being asked to provide content for a full website for $50, the client has unrealistic expectations of what you can do, how long it takes and what you should be paid. Yes, you might wind up with $50 more than if you walked away from the contract, but if the writing takes 10 hours, you’ve just worked for $5 an hour. You’re further ahead to get a minimum wage job. You can’t just look at potential clients as profit–you have to consider how much time you would spend on the job and whether it could potentially pull you away from meeting new clients or making more money elsewhere. Remember, if you take too many jobs at $5 an hour, you won’t have any time for higher paying clients (nor will you even have time to meet higher paying clients).

3. The client says he could do it himself.

This isn’t always a bad sign. Sometimes the writing work isn’t terribly difficult and the client is just being honest–he’s way too busy to do it himself. But, if his comments diminish the work you do or are part of a pattern undermining your services, then be wary. I recently had a potential client tell me, when  I asked about his previous relationships with writers, that he had done all the writing himself. No problem. But then he said, “I just looked at similar websites to mine and changed a couple of words. You couldn’t even tell it wasn’t written by a professional writer.”

Two thoughts immediately went through my mind. First, maybe HE couldn’t tell it wasn’t written by a professional writer, but chances are others could. Second, if he was looking at other websites and “borrowing” their writing, then it’s possible his website sounded professional, because he was probably stealing from a professional writer. Bad signs.

4. The budget isn’t worth the time to complete the project.

With one client, I knew going into the quote process that the budget was probably small. But the writing work was tedious and it wasn’t worth it for what they wanted to pay. So I charged exactly what I normally would–an amount that made the job worth my time–knowing I was unlikely to get the contract. And I didn’t get the contract. But I was okay with it, because the pay simply wasn’t worth what they were asking me to do. I couldn’t justify taking less money for what they wanted done. (The kicker is that I recently saw the finished product and I have to say, the campaign they went with really doesn’t make any sense. But I’m glad I wasn’t responsible for it.)

5. Your instincts tell you to stay away.

You have your instincts for a reason. Sometimes they’ll be off, but as you have more experience with clients, you’ll learn to recognize the signs. You’ll be able to tell when your work is being undermined or undervalued or when the writing they want just isn’t worth what they want to pay you. You’ll learn to better value yourself and your time. You’ll learn that it’s okay to turn down the job, and the money, because you have a bad feeling. And don’t feel too bad if you wind up with a client or two that you wish you hadn’t. We’ve all done it.

(PS, in my examples above, numbers one, two and three were all based on the same potential client. Knowing that he didn’t want to deal with a lot of questions from the writer, before I sent him a quote, I sent him an email filled with questions about the proposed project. I’ve never heard back from him. I’m okay with that. My next post will deal with great ways to walk away from a potential client.)

Things Writers Should Avoid

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There are plenty of lists advising writers on things they should do to ensure they are successful, but fewer lists telling writers habits and things they should stay away from. Lucky for you, I’m here to rectify that problem. Here, in no particular order, are some things I advise writers not to do.

1. Develop an Addiction.

Addiction is generally not a good idea for anyone, but for writers it can be particularly devastating. Any addiction puts the writer’s focus on obtaining the item of the addiction and takes the focus off writing. All addictions can be problematic, but writers should particularly avoid addictions to alcohol, drugs, caffeine, coffee, sugar, soap operas, self-help books and sarcasm. Especially sarcasm.

2. Get Drawn into Social Media.

Social media can be great in small doses, but it really eats up your time. For example, I decided to write about social media for this post, then I went to check my Facebook page and got drawn into a variety of links and games. You can’t tell, but an entire year passed between the time I started this paragraph and the time I finished it, that’s how much time social media can waste.

3. Read books by anyone less than half your age, especially if the author has been named to any lists like “Top 30 under 30,” or “People who totally blow our mind because of their intense genius.”

Why put yourself through that? It’ll just make you angry, bitter and sad, especially if you’re 25 and the genius whose book you’re reading is 12.5. That’s the sort of anger that can lead to addictions, such as an addiction to sarcasm.

4. Read poorly written books.

Especially if they’re best-sellers. Don’t tell yourself you’re reading them so you know what mistakes not to make when you write. All you’ll do is make yourself angry that such a poorly written book could result in a publishing deal when you’re still languishing over your computer, desperately trying to come up with an idea that could result in a compelling paragraph, let alone an entire book.

5. Stay home all the time.

Writers are often a solitary people but most of life is lived outside of the home–at least most of the interesting stuff that results in brilliant ideas for a book. Tempted though you might be to shun the outside world, a great deal of inspiration comes from out there. Even if you prefer the warm comfort of your home, it’s a good idea to go outside once in a while, just to make sure trees, democracy and laughter still exist.

6. Listen to everyone else’s advice about writing.

What matters is what works for you as a writer. Every writer has different things they do–or do not do–that work for them. Their personality, their habits and their style are unique and therefore the activities that help them are also unique. Some people do their best work early in the morning. Others do it late at night. Some do it in silence, others need hustle and bustle around them. Some write on their computer, others do it with pen and paper. The important thing is that you find what works for you and do that. So if developing an addiction to sarcasm and self-help, reading poorly written books by 13-year-olds and checking Facebook 10 times a day actually helps you get your writing done, then by all means go ahead.

But I still advise leaving your house at least once a week. You need the fresh air.

Do the Right Thing

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In this day of companies constantly doing the wrong thing and apologizing later without really meaning it, (I’m thinking of you, drug and oil companies) it can be easy to shirk doing the right thing; in fact it’s almost expected. But as small business owners–and freelance writers–it’s vital to do right by our clients, not only to generate repeat business but ensure that when our clients talk about us, they say good things. Plus, to be corny, it just feels good.

I speak from experience. A couple of weeks ago, I took on a short-term client who needed some copy written in a hurry. I agreed, got all the necessary information, wrote up the copy and sent it to her one day before the deadline.

Or so I thought (cue ominous music).

In fact, when I thought I hit “Send email” I actually hit “Save draft” and didn’t realize it. When I hadn’t heard from the client for a few days, I thought she was busy and would get back to me eventually. She did, three days after my deadline, to ask how the writing was going because she hadn’t heard from me.

In a panic I went through my email and realized my terrible error. I sent off the copy in a hurry, with an apology for the delay. The next day, I followed up with an email to confirm she received the work. She responded that she had received it, that I had done a lovely job and that I should send her an invoice so she could pay me.

After brief consideration, I sent her the invoice but cut a third of the price (it wasn’t much to begin with) to make up for the delay in her receiving the copy. Even though the deadline wasn’t critical (it was a loose deadline), even though she may never need my services again and even though she did not ask for a price reduction, I offered it and the thank you note she sent along with her cheque shows me that she appreciated it.

It hurt that I had to give up some of my income–no matter how small–because of an incredibly stupid error on my part, but lesson learned. I’m glad I learned it when there wasn’t a lot of money at stake and when the client was so understanding and just happy to have the work done. The situation could have been a lot worse, for both of us.

Sometimes it feels good to do the right thing, even if you were forced into that position by your own foolishness (it was one of the dumbest mistakes I have ever made). But it was the right thing to do and I’m glad I did it. I don’t just want to be a successful, happy freelancer. I also want to be thought of as a good person to work with, and someone who does right by her clients.  (I am not talking here about going out of my way for unreasonable, demanding or difficult clients. I don’t believe that the client is always right. Sometimes, the client is a jerk. But that’s a post for another day. When you have committed an error, and you’ll know by the sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach, it is up to you to make it right. It doesn’t always have to be a reduction in price, it just so happened that in this case the price reduction worked for me and the client.)

If you operate your own business, chances are at some point an error will happen that affects your clients. No matter how careful you usually are, something incredibly stupid will happen. That’s how life goes. The important thing is to take responsibility for what happened (at least with your customer, if you want to blame your puppy later you go ahead), address the issue and offer something to make up for the error even if the client doesn’t ask for it. Your client will remember it and will appreciate it.

Did I mention I blame my puppy for this error (that’s how I take responsibility)? The lost income is being added to his bill.

On Writing and Puppies

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My two regular readers may have noticed I’ve neglected this blog lately. With apologies to them, the reason for this neglect is that I adopted a puppy two months ago and he has taken up all of my time and energy, to say nothing of my money. Having a puppy is great, but it turns a happy freelancer into an exhausted, frustrated and occasionally weepy freelancer. Now that puppy is nearing four months old (with 30 pounds of limitless energy to keep me occupied and tired), I again have time to focus on my favourite blog. And because I love to share lessons with everyone, I can officially state that having a puppy has forced me to rethink my writing, or at the very least ponder how writing and puppy training are similar (because when you have a puppy, you spend a lot of time standing outside waiting for him to find the perfect spot to go to the bathroom, which gives you time to ponder things and perhaps find similarities where none exist).

In fact, training a puppy and writing are a lot alike. Both require you to be clear and concise (depending, of course, on your puppy’s or your client’s intelligence). You can’t ramble on when you’re training a puppy to sit. It’s counterproductive. All you do is waste your energy while the puppy stands there, head cocked to one side with a look of bewilderment on his face as he ponders his next act of rebellion.

Puppies don’t understand, “Please just sit. It’s 11:00 at night and I want to go to bed, but I need you to sit for a moment so I can get ready before bedtime. It’s been a long day and I’ve let you chew up most of the things you wanted to chew up, except for the cats because they don’t really like you chewing on their legs, but it doesn’t seem to be enough for you because right now, when I’m asking you to sit, you won’t sit. You just stand there refusing to obey a direct order. It’s like you don’t have any respect for my authority. Have I not been good to you? Do I not treat you well? Do I not deserve to have you sit when I say sit? I’m just a girl, standing in front of a puppy, asking that puppy to sit.” [Note also that dogs do not appreciate the humour of paraphrased movie quotes.]

Puppies understand one word in that monologue: Sit. Say it once, say it clearly and firmly and pretty soon, they’ll learn that the word “sit” requires an action on their part. But by rambling, you’ve wasted time, energy and the puppy’s good will, much like how you can lose the reader’s good will by going on and on when a few words will do (sort of like how I’ve gone on and on here, but I blame it on exhaustion). Once you’ve lost the puppy’s good will and attention, anarchy and chaos take over and the puppy will turn his attention to more fun matters, like chewing your shoe (I’m not saying your readers will chew your shoes when you lose their attention, but I’m also not saying it won’t happen).

Puppies, like your reader, need things to be clear and concise. “Sit,” “Stay,” and “Stop.” Don’t use 100 words when one word will do.

So the next time you’re writing, ask yourself if all those words are necessary or if there is a way of being more clear and concise in your writing. If there is, change it. Your reader will thank you for it.

Despite the frustration, occasional weeping fits (when he just won’t stop biting my leg) and broken sleep, I love having a puppy around. I could speak more about some of the traits required of a good dog guardian, but I haven’t developed most of them. I know you’re supposed to be calm and assertive when dealing with dogs, but my natural state is a combination of panicky-submissive, a state that I haven’t fully changed, so I’ll leave it at that.

Meanwhile, I think my cats hate me a little right now. But they do love a good paraphrased movie quote, so I think I can win them over: “Shut up. You had me at meow.”  Yeah, they’ll love that.

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