How persistence pays off in freelancing

I spend a fair amount of time every week prospecting for new writing work. Despite the lucky fact that I’m often on the brink of having too many assignments these days, past experience has taught me I can’t stop looking for more. And as I pick up additional clients, somehow I’ve managed to keep all of them in a rotating system of deadlines everyone’s happy with. For now.

My golden tool and most successful so far is the LOI — letter of introduction. As I scout out leads for potential new gigs, I zip off an LOI to each of them — a tactic that has netted me quite a few quick assignments and even a number of rejections I appreciate, the kind where editors praise my clips and tell me they wish they had the budget to hire me but can’t.

But sending LOIs isn’t as simple as it seems. It would be all too easy to email them to the publication’s HR rep and hope they’re passed along to the right editor, but often that just lands them in a nebulous vat of slush. And finding the right editor’s email address can turn into a time-sucking detective game since many company websites won’t list staff names under the guise of protection.

So I’ve had to get craftier to hit the bullseye. Often I call the publisher’s main number, explain who I am and what I want, and get what I need — the contact info for someone who may be looking for freelance talent and actually in a position to pull the trigger. But sometimes I end up talking to a reticent receptionist refusing to tell me anything but the HR rep’s email address (thanks lady, I could have gotten that off the website).

Lately I’ve found myself playing around with different iterations of email addresses to see if I can circumvent the gatekeepers. Firstname.Lastname@company.com, FirstInitialLastname@company.com, LastnameFirstInitial@company.com — these are commonly used variations of email formats, and I have no qualms trying all of them in an effort to reach the right editor. After all, what’s the worst that can happen? They come back undeliverable, and I have to try again.

I realized last week that two of my most recent gigs — including one with a huge, prestigious medical center — came from editors whose email addresses I’d wrangled with before sending my LOI. I could have sent them into the virtual slush pile, or I could have given up when the receptionist wouldn’t tell me what I needed. That extra step meant the difference between victory and obsolescence.

It’s a satisfying reminder how much persistence pays off in freelancing. How has it paid off for you?


When writers run out of ideas

Here’s some irony for you: I’ve been wondering for days what this week’s blog post should be about, but I kept coming up blank. No ideas.

That was my eureka moment. Writers run out of ideas all the time. Despite public perception, we’re not necessarily a fount of amazing thoughts, of visions brought to life on the page. Sometimes the space between our ears feels pretty useless for generating anything more than our to-do lists.

For freelancers, this isn’t necessarily as big a problem as it may seem. The vast majority of my stories are assigned to me from editors who already have the ideas. They typically know just what they want, and when they lay out the parameters of the topic I can almost always oblige. Happily.

See, here’s my shameful secret: I’m not an ideas person. Rather, I consider myself an excellent tactician, someone who can skillfully execute ideas in a way that pleases both the thinker and the doer. I’d much rather my editors continue feeding me topics, because I feel it’s a better use of my time than mentally fumbling for something that will light up the page.

When some brilliant thought does pop into my head (obviously an intermittent event), I seize the chance to flesh out a story from the ground up.  I get that fire-in-the-belly feeling that comes from creating the idea that creates the piece. It’s an awesome moment.

But the raw fact is, being the doer instead of the thinker works best for me, and luckily it seems to be a win-win for my editors too.

And that’s my big idea for this week’s post.


The single-shot client

I almost never search for writing clients who offer a single project for hire. Except for magazine pitches — which may win an assignment with no guarantee of future work — I consider the single-shot client a waste of time. It all comes down to economies of scale, really. It pretty much takes the same amount of hustle to chase a client for a one-time gig as it does to chase another for an ongoing stream of work. If I’m trying to work smarter instead of harder, the choice is easy.

But what about when the single-shot client comes to you? That’s what happened just before Christmas, when someone who’d read one of my articles contacted me asking if I could write a lot more just like it. He runs a website with a very particular health focus and asked me to go wide and deep to create content to expand that focus. I was flattered, but also a little flummoxed.

Who was this guy? How could I be sure he wouldn’t just use my work and leave me with an unpaid invoice? Would my writing be edited and displayed in a way consistent with my wider body of work? It would have my name on it, after all — a name I have been careful to associate with quality writing.

But I realized this was the right challenge to have. And it forced me to figure out some of the vagaries of the writing business that I usually leave to the larger companies I write for. The contract, for one. That would have my name on it too, and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t screwed.

I found an online template of a standard writing agreement and customized it to my needs, requiring 50 percent of my fee up front and laying out who owned the rights to the completed work (him) and where else it could be published or adapted (nowhere). I was happy to see him follow the agreement to the letter and amazed to receive final payment two days after I completed the project. I have to say, it was also very nice to pad my bank account by that much more in addition to my expected income that month.

Would I do it again? Well, the client emailed me this week asking for more articles. Looks like my single-shot has turned into a double.


Should writers specialize?

Spinning off last week’s terrific guest post by Wendee Holtcamp about how to break into “green” magazines — a specialized niche if ever there was one — it seems a lot of writers lately have been debating the essential question of whether to specialize at all.

Specializing doesn’t necessarily mean you write about only one subject area. I’ve seen writer’s bios saying they “specialize” in about seven things, ranging from technology to parenting to food writing, and wondered how their background and expertise could possibly span such divergent topics. Nevertheless, it’s a personal choice to specialize your writing abilities, whether that means one topic or 10. Only you can decide.

Awhile back, around the time I realized it would be wise to transition from print to online writing, I also decided I really wanted to be a health writer. I’m what I call a health news junkie, and looking back even to early childhood, I always was. I remember eagerly opening the Reader’s Digest each month and quickly flipping to the action-packed narratives about people’s health crises, lapping up the medical lingo and details others might find tedious. To me, it was fascinating. (Geeky? Yeah, but I own it now.)

This was more of an impulse than a decision. It felt natural, and so was my decision to specialize in health. It seemed the ideal melding between my years dissecting cow eyeballs and cats (yes, I really dissected a cat) and my eventual foray into writing. The perfect blend, as they say.

Specializing brings other rewards as well. Health writing tends to pay a bit better (and sometimes, a great deal better) because people like me need to know — and be able to seamlessly translate — minutiae about anatomy, diseases, treatments and a lot more. What’s the difference between MS and Lou Gherig’s disease? Or laparoscopy and da Vinci surgery? It’s my business to tell readers without confusing them, and ideally to entertain them in the process.

Some writers have blogs that perfectly reflect their niches: Kelly James-Enger’s “Dollars and Deadlines” [http://dollars anddeadlines.blogspot.com] and Meagan Francis’ “The Happiest Mom” [http://thehappiestmom.com] are two of my favorites. In a nutshell, Kelly writes about writing and Meagan writes about mothering, but if you take a peek at their blogs you’ll quickly see that it’s not as simple as all that. Each of them bring their specialties alive in a way that’s enlightening and educational and makes you want to come back for more.

That’s why I specialize — because health writing never grows stale for me, and if I do my job right, my writing won’t be stale to those reading it. But not every writer agrees that specializing is either smart or necessary. What do you think?


Tips to break into “green” magazines — a guest post

In my opinion, one of the smartest things writers can do is specialize — to find a niche in one or two areas they’re passionate about and hope to write about regularly. Not only does it keep work interesting, but editors often prefer to hire those who have deep knowledge of  certain subjects. And we know what that means — $$$.

Along those lines, freelance writer Wendee Holtcamp has penned a guest post for Write Around It All on writing for green magazines. Wendee started out with a degree in wildlife ecology and turned it into a writing career after her kids were born 15 years ago. She’s published in Audubon, Sierra, National Wildlife, Smithsonian, Scientific American and other magazines and also for Discovery Channel and Animal Planet online.

On with the tips! Thanks, Wendee!

1. To come up with ideas for articles, get outside!  Hike. Explore. Travel. Photograph. Bird-watch. People-watch. Meet folks involved in grass-roots conservation as well as biologists working on research in your area. Keep up with local conservation efforts and current research in the news, so you can take some of these local stories and pitch them to a broader national audience.

2. An editor at OnEarth magazine, said, “I don’t regard environmentalism as some arcane, specialized field where you have to have a PhD to get in. If you’re a good stylist, or an enterprising investigative reporter, or have a strong sense of social justice, or whatever, there are a million environmental stories to which those skills can be applied.”

3. To improve your chances of breaking into a magazine, understand their audience. Read several back issues. Sit down with a single magazine and go over it with a fine-tooth comb. How long are the articles? What percentage of the articles get written by contributing editors/writers on the masthead, by editors themselves, or by freelance writers? What types of advertisers are there? What catchy titles do they use on the cover?

4. Here’s a great tip from an editor at High Country News. “I’d like to see more essays about finding nature and its rewards in unexpected places – – strip malls, hospitals, graveyards, who knows.” Although this is specific to this magazine, it’s great advice. Think unconventionally.

5. As with any magazine or online publication, the best way to break in is persistence and understanding their market. Search the publication’s archives to see what similar stories they have done, and also look at similar, competing publications. Having similar stories to your idea does not kill the idea, but you have to be able to explain how yours differs, and why you are the right writer to do the job, so they don’t dismiss that particular idea out of hand.

6. Take a “green writing” class in order to understand green markets, improve observation skills, and practice writing a query. I  teach  a 6-week online green writing class that meets writers where they’re at – whether an aspiring writer or a veteran wanting to write about “green” topics, including environment, animals, health, science and travel. For more information, visit http://www.wendeeholtcamp.com/nature.htm or email at bohemian@wendeeholtcamp.com. You can also follow me on twitter — @bohemianone.


The not-so-invisible line between work and home

On most days, I have six uninterrupted hours to work while my kids are in school. Blessedly quiet hours. Usually the only sound in the house is the humming of the clothes dryer, and I try to get my toughest tasks out of the way before my daughter gets off the bus each afternoon, quickly followed by her older brothers.

My kids are all old enough now to be relatively self-sufficient. I have no toddlers to chase, diapers to change or preschoolers to entertain. But I used to delude myself that kids past a certain age (say, 10) would pretty much take care of themselves. Nice theory, isn’t it?

I forgot to factor in the incessant bickering two siblings can produce, or the constant clanging of plates in the kitchen by sprouting boys who never stop eating. Forget the blaring TV, which mysteriously hits its peak just as you get a source on the phone, or the neighbor kids who repeatedly ring the doorbell looking for yours.

With a snow day and a national holiday, I was reminded twice this past week just how thin the line between work and home can become. And I wondered yet again how I would manage to maintain a professional image in the midst of all the noise.

Surely I couldn’t let that researcher from Harvard know that my daughter was boring her eyes into me, waiting for me to see the next cool app on her iPod Touch, while I interviewed him on the phone. Surely I wouldn’t miss my 3 p.m. deadline while my son and daughter squabbled five feet away from me, begging me to intervene.

Surely I wouldn’t want it any differently, would I? This is why I work from home — so I don’t miss a thing. But, oh — I DON’T MISS A THING.

Except a soundproof office with a door.


When your editor goes MIA

Editors. Gotta love them, right?

I do, at least most of the time. I’m blessed to have some truly wonderful editors. The vast majority of those I work with are pleasant, professional and respectful. They don’t edit the crap out of my writing until it barely resembles what I originally wrote, and the changes they do make only make my work better.

And when I call or email them, they answer — prompt and ready to act. But I had to know that this streak would end somewhere. Certainly I’ve heard the horror stories from other writers whose editors ignored emails and phone calls, who made them wait weeks beyond anticipated assignments. Who treat them shoddily because they’re in a position of power.

Who go MIA, like one of mine has recently.

I was excited to get the attention of this particular editor a few months back. I really liked his publication and the pay was far better than average, so I smiled from ear to ear when he called me and said we could work out a regular schedule of assignments.

I dug into the first one with zeal, smartly targeting sources (I thought) and amassing reams of supporting info. I turned in my article error-free and on time.

And then . . . nothing. My story wasn’t on the site, but no one had contacted me with suggested edits. No one responded to my repeated inquiries. And the promised schedule of regular assignments never materialized.

What happened? This is one of those times I think it’s accurate to say, “It’s not me — it’s him.” Other freelancers I know who’ve written for the guy tell me they’ve gotten the same treatment, and I’m not special. Hmmph.

So I wait, and wait some more. I don’t want to give up on keeping this pub as a client, but I surely can’t count on it as a steady source of income. And because I’m lucky enough to never have experienced this, I don’t really know what to do next.

Any suggestions? Clearly I’m not alone. Tell me some of your experiences with MIA editors and how you lured them out of their foxholes.


Interpreting the “free” in freelancing

The juggling act that is Christmas usually finds me hunched over the stove as I simultaneously attempt to actually interact with some of the 20 guests spilling through my house. (No wonder I couldn’t wait to get back to work this week.)

One of those guests this year was someone I’d never met before, a tag-along with my eccentric uncle who often brings delightful people that for one reason or another have nowhere else to be for the holiday. This lovely, refined woman quizzed me a bit about my life as I tried (and failed) not to burn myself tending to trays of hot hors d’oeuvres, expressing surprise when I told her I write many articles each week.

“Oh, I thought freelancers just write one article at a time, then wait to get a new assignment, then write another,” she said. I filled her in on my 8-5 daily schedule and the rolling bundles of assignments I regularly tackle from various websites and magazines, and she seemed impressed. This is a business, I thought, not a hobby.

I’m quite sure there are freelancers out there that do work from assignment to assignment with no idea if and when the next one will come. But I will venture to say that these freelancers are probably part-time at best and don’t earn a significant income from their writing.

Practically all of the “successful” freelance writers I know (and I’m aware this word means different things for different people) toil more than full-time hours and have a stable of publications that expect work from them on a regular basis. We surely don’t work for free, and we have little free time. So what exactly does “free” mean in the context of our business?

For me, it means I can stop working to get a hair cut later this morning and pick my daughter up from voice lessons this afternoon. It means I can say no to an assignment when I don’t have time for it or don’t feel it meshes with my skills and goals.

But it often means I’m free to keep working until 9 or 10 at night just to catch up from the freedom of doing those other things. It means I’ll probably spend next Sunday afternoon finishing a bundle of articles due on Monday. It means that I alone have final say over the hours I work and the clients I accept, but also the more pressing responsibility of maximizing my bottom line under these circumstances.

What it doesn’t mean is being free to get up each day and decide if I’m going to write. It doesn’t mean being free of worries over how to grow my business. And it certainly doesn’t mean being free of the complications of running my business and my home at the same time.

I was glad to be able to educate one more person about the reality of freelance writing — at least, what it means for me. What does the “free” in freelancing mean to you?


The best Christmas gift for a writer?

My 10-year-old daughter has asked me the same question every day for the past two weeks: “How many days until Christmas?”

(Whereupon I remind her that she’s in fifth grade and should be able to add and subtract by now. But that’s another story.)

Funny thing is, I thought I was way past the point of counting these days myself.  But clearly I’m wrong, because I’ve been doing the same thing since Sunday. Why?

Not because I’m looking forward to presents (though I am), egg nog (ditto) or even the hordes of people I’ll be cooking for on the Big Day (bah humbug, but I’ll deal with it).

It’s just dawned on me that I’m counting the days because it’s really a countdown to some much-needed time off. I love writing and never seem to tire of it, but God do I need a break.

It’s a gift all by itself — too much work. I’ve been swamped in recent weeks, barely holding on for the weekends when I can get some decent sleep, and I’m thrilled at the momentum I’ve gained and the likelihood that this will hold through the coming year.

In the past week I’ve gained another client, a smaller website that wants me to write about a dozen articles on a certain health theme, and have promised to deliver all of them by Jan. 10. It’s a “one-off” client — something that, strangely enough, I’ve never had. I’ll have to write a separate post about it, as it’s an interesting situation I’ve had to handle in an entirely new way.

But truthfully, I’m too zonked to even go there. I just need the rest that’s going to come before all that.

Many of you may be feeling the same way, hopefully also flush with ongoing gigs for the year ahead. It’s my dual Christmas gift: enough work, and enough time off to recover from it. Didn’t know Santa could carry all of that!


Half a brain

I know my blog has only existed for the past month, but already I have some steady readers out there. You know who you are — thank you!

You may notice that I’ve posted a blogroll of some of the blogs and websites I visit regularly. It’s a pretty eclectic mix — there are other writers’ blogs, but also some mom blogs and one dedicated to interior decorating, which is — as my husband likes to say — my expensive hobby.

Everyone on it has greatly impressed me over the months or years I’ve been reading them, and I’ve been taking mental notes about what it is that sets each apart from the other. It’s hard to build a readership when your blog simply blends in with all the rest, and with only a few weeks of blogging experience under my belt, I am still figuring out how to make mine one that offers some je ne sais quoi that keeps readers coming back.

I’m coming off a couple of great writing weeks, weeks where I’ve actually had to turn down work because I’m so booked. It’s a luxury, and I hate it. The memory of all my clients disappearing a couple of years back remains strong, and I worry that editors will pass me over for future assignments if I’m unavailable for even one. That’s not what usually happens, of course, and it may even benefit me that they understand I’m in demand.

It doesn’t help that I’ve felt like such a dork while setting up this blog. A month to figure out how to add the blogroll? Really? Takes me down a few tabs to realize that I’m really not all that bright. My tech abilities lag far behind my language skills, and it’s painful to notice.

But it’s virtually impossible for writers to effectively promote their writing these days without being able to navigate all of the technology that gets our names out there. It’s simply not an option to decide not to learn it (unless you can pay someone . . . which a writer’s salary often can’t support) — so I’ll keep at it.

Meanwhile, take a gander at some of the sites on my blogroll. These writers clearly have both sides of their brain in gear, and I hope to follow in their esteemed paths.