Writing Full Time, But Only Making a Part-Time Living

Are you writing full-time but not making a living?

Recently, I heard from two writers interested in my mentoring services in the same week, and they both had the same story to tell. They’d been writing for years, but despite working 20-30 hours per week, they were each only making around $10,000 a year.

This sort of thing makes me crazy. Why, why, why? Why do writers go on for years working for peanuts?

I think there are many answers. Some don’t take their writing career seriously because perhaps their spouse makes a good income and they view writing as more of a hobby. Or maybe they don’t have kids, live somewhere cheap, and feel OK about it as they are making enough to subsist.

A lot of people I’ve spoken with have been sucked in by the online content mills and are slogging away making $10 a post. They find themselves trapped like gerbils on wheels. They must crank out so many blogs to make anything! If they took one day off to pitch legitimate publications they might well land an assignment that pays ten to thirty times what they’re making or more, but they’re too afraid to lose the tiny revenue they’re getting now.

Making a living writing requires a certain amount of boldness and willingness to take risk. You can’t be complacent with the stable of clients you have, ever. Keep looking for better accounts!

I used to have one client I worked for who was sort of a control freak. I would often discover he had called all my sources to ask them what they thought of me, or I’d find out he was doing the exact same research I was because he wanted to see if I was being thorough enough to find all the sources he did. The pay was just sort of midrange for me, about $1,500 for a 40-hour week of work.

So what did I do? I kept prospecting for better paying clients who were nicer to work for, and when I found them, I dropped him. I just became too busy with other projects to take his on. You just keep moving up and swapping out slower-paying, more annoying clients as you go, until you’ve got a top-notch roster. It’s not rocket science, but you have to be aggressive about wanting to work for quality clients.

So don’t sell yourself short and keep prospecting!

How to Find Long-Term Clients

Today’s question comes from one my LinkedIn Editors & Writers compadres, Rosalind Cummings-Yeates.

She recently wrote, “How does a seasoned writer find long-term clients? I’ve been freelancing for 15 years and had a steady list of publications that I wrote for regularly. Now, most of the editors I worked with have been laid off and the publications are folding or cutting pages. I’m very visible online and have a website and blog that have attracted assignments but I’d like consistent assignments like I had before. I do network and have started new relationships with editors but I’m wondering if there are other steps that I need to take.”

Well, Rosalind, I can think of a few key strategies off the top of my head.

First off…you mention that most of your editors were laid off. Hey, mine too! In the past year pretty much EVERY editor I wrote for was out of a job. But I’ve continued to have steady work from many outlets through this whole downturn.

Why? Because I’ve followed each of those laid-off editors to wherever they landed next!

You don’t say anything about staying in touch with these editors who previously clearly adored you and gave you a steady stream of work. Where are they now? What are they doing? Look them up on LinkedIn and connect with them.

If they’re out of work, send them job leads! Ask what type of work they’re looking for so you can refer them. Help put them back to work, and they’ll be forever grateful. While you’re helping, they may well refer you as well.

Personally, I am still in touch with all my editors. I’ll just give you one example of how that’s paid off for me.

One former magazine editor I worked with landed a freelance gig at a popular online business portal. They paid very little, but I signed on just to keep the relationship. That connection led to a huge opportunity to write a $6,000 article package for a major corporation a few months later! Which I would have missed completely if I hadn’t stayed in touch.

Some of my editors are still out there interviewing, and I’m sure when they find new gigs, I’ll get work from them again. Because I’m still in touch. In this economy, we have to stick with the people we’ve enjoyed working with — we can’t afford to lose any of our relationships.

Strategy two: You say you’re getting assignments, but they’re sporadic. What are you doing to further cement your relationship with your new editors and get them to assign you regularly?

I know it’s often hard to build relationships with new editors when you’re part of a previous regime, because we’re feeling sad that a relationship has been severed. But it can be done!

I’ve experienced this with Entrepreneur magazine, which brought in a whole new editor lineup in the past year. I’ve had to reach out repeatedly and meet new editors. But now I’m actually writing more for them than ever, including blogging for them, a great steady gig that has given me huge exposure. I have five different section editors I’m working with there now, all new to me.

Show new editors you have a lot of ideas and can really help them impress their bosses with the solid work they’re overseeing. I sent one editor of mine a pitch letter with 11 ideas in it last week…that’s what I’m talking about. Be a fountain of information, and they’ll bring you back for more assignments. Whenever you turn in an assignment, don’t leave without asking when the next pitch cycle is and what types of stories they need.

If I’d just slunk off after my previous editors left, I’d be out my connection with a great publication, and would have missed the chance to meet a bunch of great new editors there.

If any of them end up leaving there, guess what I’ll be doing? That’s right — staying in touch.

Strategy three: when publications cut pages, I’ve found they often add online content. Be sure to investigate whether there are additional writing opportunities for your publications online. You may need to reach out and connect with a different editor who’s overseeing online content…but I can tell you there’s lots of articles being assigned to beef up publication Web sites and offer something exclusive for online viewers.

Strategy four: Pitch a regular column idea! Nothing creates a steady gig like being assigned a regular slot in a publication. I’ve previously been Entrepreneur’s tax columnist, and currently I’m writing a monthly article on “Who’s Got Venture Capital.” Neither pays a ton, but it’s steady money and I find helps make you the first person they think of when they’re assigning other stories, too.

What Determines Writer Pay?

Would-be writer Carolyn Davidson blogged to me recently that the concept of writer pay is a complete mystery to her. “How do they decide what to pay?” she asked.

So here’s a look under the hood at writer pay and how it’s set.

Factor one: experience. It’s true that many publications and corporations will pay more for a more experienced writer. They can tell from the quality and quantity of your clips how long you’ve been around. (If you haven’t put up a Web site where you can feature links to a substantial number of your clips to impress editors, do so immediately!)

Factor two: budget. Let’s look at print first. Magazines and newspapers have subscribers and advertisers who pay them. That gives them money to pay you (and their own salaries). If they have a lot of subscribers, advertisers are likely paying more for the right to reach them; if fewer subscribers, they have less money to pay you.

The exception to this scenario is if they have few subscribers but those subscribers represent a very desirable audience – says, CEOs of major corporations or wealthy jet-setters. In which case, their ads likely still go for plenty and they should pay good. This is why trade publications are often good-paying markets – their sub base may be fairly small, but they give advertisers a valuable opportunity to reach a very specific niche market – people who own hardware stores or do business consulting, for instance.

Online sites have various business models. Some companies who sell a product or service in the 3-D world consider their online content a marketing cost like buying ads in magazines. Depending on how big that company is or how lucrative their business is, they will have more or less money to pay you. This is why copywriters long to write for Fortune 500 companies – they have the revenue to pay well. While there are some very legitimate and good-paying all-virtual Internet companies, most are cheesy online sites that sell ads on their site and that’s the whole business model – and they tend to pay squat.

Factor three: the marketplace. Tempering these factors is the publication’s sense of going rates in the marketplace. We’re currently in a bad patch with this, as many people are out of work and apparently willing to write complex legal, insurance, tax or financial articles for $10 or $20, much less easier stuff. An increasing number of companies are falling to this bottom-pay rung right now, because they can – there is a surplus of people willing to write for next to nothing. So it’s a harder task to find the companies that still realize that if they want to build a reputation for quality, they need to hire a pro.

Fortunately, these times will end some day, I believe, and the pool of online sweatshop workers who speak English as a first language will vanish, leaving companies to hire people at a fairer, living wage. May this day come speedily and in our time!

Despite the economy, good-paying clients are still out there. So keep looking and get paid what you deserve!

Does a Writer Need a Blog?

Recently the question was asked on my LinkedIn Editors & Writers group whether a writer needs a blog. I think it depends on what type of writing you do – if you specialize in academic writing for an audience of university Ph.D. researchers or something, I’m not sure a blog is going to put you in the best light.

But if it will serve as a good sample of your writing to your target audience, it can be invaluable. And obviously, the more prominent places you can blog, the better. Now that I’m blogging for Entrepreneur magazine’s Daily Dose blog, I can’t believe how much exposure and how many contacts it’s brought me.

I recently was approached by a major corporation in Canada about copywriting for them, which baffled me as I don’t apply for or seek gigs outside the U.S. You guessed it – they saw the blog and just based on that, decided I was the writer they wanted.

Personally, I’ve found blogging helps me keep the creative juices flowing, and allows me an outlet for my own opinions, which don’t usually get expressed in my copywriting or reporting work. I think it’s made me a better writer for my other markets and clients.

A big caveat: if you’re the kind of writer who really needs an editor to better organize your thoughts and iron out all your misspellings and bad grammar, a blog may not be your best showcase, since you’re usually serving as your own editor.

If you want to blog for pay for other people, obviously, having your own blog is pretty much a requirement. They’ll ask you for links to your blogs – it’s almost a part of your resume.

Another great strategy for blogging is blog some cogent comments on other people’s blogs. Great way to get started in blogging while you’re getting organized with your own blog.

Other tips:

• Find industry blog portals in your niche and ask if you can add your blog to their site.

• Try to blog on a regular basis, at least once or twice a week.

• Don’t blog about what your cat ate. Find a niche subject that’s the theme of your blog, and stick to it. Will help build your audience.

• Once you are blogging, use social media to draw more visitors to your blog. I’ve grown my traffic by about 50 percent in just a month or so through using Twitter.

• Once you have your own blog, when you comment on others’ blogs, put your blog address in your signature. This has significantly increased the traffic to my Web site.

• Think about ways to monetize your blog once you have some traffic. Just because you’re using the blog primarily to lure new writing clients doesn’t meant the blog can’t be another, ancillary revenue stream, too. I like Leo Babauta’s suggestion of offering book recommendations where you can get an affiliate fee if visitors go to Amazon and buy the books…planning to add that feature myself. But you can also put up ads if you think it won’t turn your audience off.

How to Get More Freelance Writing Assignments

One of my writing-career mentees, Nicole, recently emailed me that she was feeling down about her efforts to establish herself as a freelancer. Her comment: “I’m discouraged, I’m sending one or two queries a week, and I’m not getting any responses.”

Why is she not getting any bites? Because she’s not throwing enough lines in the water.

Personally, I can easily send 10 pitches or more in a day. I also probably send a half-dozen or so resumes out for copywriting jobs I see or am referred to each week. I collect story ideas in string files for all the publications I currently write for as well as new ones I’m targeting.

The other day, I sent one of my Entrepreneur magazine editors 11 pitches in a single email. I think I tacked on a couple more I thought of later a day or two afterward. This all led to a couple of assignments for an upcoming issue. Then I moved on to another editor at the magazine who edits stories on marketing for the Web site. Pitched her an idea and got an assignment. Then on to the franchising editor – pitched her a couple ideas and got one assignment out of it. So that’s four assignments for the month just at one magazine.

Besides sending many pitches, the corrollary here is: Get to know more than one editor at a publication once you’re in the door. They each have different needs.

I’m a big advocate of sending query letters that have more than one story idea in them – two or even three if you can squeeze them all onto one page. Why? This conveys not only several story ideas which ups your success odds, but also conveys that you are an idea machine. You not some one-off with a single story idea you’re flogging. You’re a useful resource, which is what editors usually need most.

They are trapped in their cubicles long hours and often never see the sky in daylight. They need writers who are out talking to people and gathering newsy ideas to send them! Sending a multiple-pitch query shows you are one of those valuable newshounds.

Multiple-pitch queries can also pay off because you don’t always know what type of story that editor might need most right now. I did this recently, sending a two-pitch email query to a Nation’s Restaurant News editor I usually write for once a year on a big special section the trade weekly does. I thought the first idea, which involved restaurant technology, was killer-perfect for them. As a bonus, I threw in the idea of doing a market study of the current restaurant scene in my hometown of Seattle. Lots of new restaurants had been opening.

Well, it turned out they had no budget for freelancing out technology stories. But they loved the market study idea! And bang, a $750 assignment for writing 1,000 words. If I’d stuck to sending the one query I thought they would like best, I would have had zip.

How many ideas have you got? In my next blog, I’ll discuss places to find story ideas.

How to Find More Story Ideas

Other writers often ask me how it is that I always have so many story ideas. Personally, I wish there was a brain operation I could get where I’d think of fewer of them, because it’s a bit frustrating as I can never get to them all! But on the plus side, it means I always have a lot of ideas to pitch editors.

In the current down economy with layoffs abounding, having a lot of story ideas is more important than ever. Magazines and newspapers that used to have suites full of editors have often dismantled those brain trusts, and they’re looking to you – the freelance writer – to supply them with ideas. It’s a terrific strength if you can present yourself as someone who has a lot of ideas. Being an idea factory positions you well for getting regular assignments from your editor contacts instead of just sporadic work.

Do you have trouble finding story ideas? In general, you probably need to read more widely and talk to more people. Try these tips:

1. Plug into local events. Be aware of what’s going on in your town, and go to events when you can. Walk around, open your eyes, talk to people and see what’s there. I went to a harvest fair on my island a few weeks ago and discovered a local resident has created a reproduction 1910 gypsy wagon she uses as a guesthouse – it’s stunning, and I hope to sell the idea to a local shelter magazine. You never know when you’ll see a new product or creative idea that could be turned into a story pitch. When you’re socializing or at the gym, find out what people do – their hobbies and unusual vocations are prime story-idea fodder.
If you’re going to a local event, be sure to ask local media if they need someone to cover it – you may make a few dollars while you’re there looking for more ideas!

2. Track issues and controversies. Is your neighborhood up in arms about shoreline access, a sex offender who’s moved in, or a planned new development? You may be able to cover these for local publications or use them as examples to illustrate a national trend for bigger pubs.

3. Where are they now. If you happen to know where someone is who was once in the limelight but has been out for a while, and they’re doing something new and interesting now, that’s a great story. Folks love to catch up with figures like these, so if you have access to one, pitch away.

4. How-to pieces. The Internet is bristling with these, and if you have some expertise you can get paid decently for them. Be sure to target high-circulation or high-readership markets.

5. What’s missing. When you read the newspaper, do you find stories that raise more questions than they answer? Those missing facts are new story angles you could pick up and follow.

6. New products. If you discover a hot new product or fad that you can demonstrate has found a market, that’s a great story to tell in business magazines, or perhaps an industry trade publication might want that news. If a startup has gotten their product into a big national chain such as Wal-Mart or Nordstrom, that’s a great story.

7. Recycle. Read lower-level publications for ideas that can be repurposed for bigger, better-paying markets, perhaps by adding more sources or a national expert for perspective. Association and charity newsletters, small-town newspapers and university magazines are all great places to find news that could play on a bigger stage. It also works in reverse – scan national publications for national trends you could “localize” for statewide, regional or local publications.

8. Take the one-hour news challenge. If you have trouble finding ideas, you may need to sharpen your curiosity and your skills in getting people to talk to you and tell you their news. Try this exercise: Go to the center of your town, get out and walk around for one hour, with the goal of coming back with at least one story idea. Go in every shop and talk to the owners about what’s going on, talk to customers, people outside eating lunch, and people you’re waiting for the bus for. I had to do this once during a writer’s retreat at my paper, and it was amazing how many stories we came back with after just one hour.

Let me know if this gave you any ideas for stories that you sold – I love success stories!

Find That Editor…and be Unstoppable

Now that I’m mentoring other writers and helping them ramp up their careers and get better paid, I’m making some interesting discoveries about why I’ve been able to carve out a good living from writing while many others have not.

One reason: My attitude.

It can be summed up this way: I’m unstoppable.

Again and again, when I talk to my mentees, I hear something like this: “I found this magazine I’d like to write for, but it didn’t have a masthead. So I didn’t know how to contact the editor. So I gave up.”

And right there is the difference between writers who are going to make good money from their words, and those who aren’t.

I said, “You gave up????” Then I solved the problem in less than five minutes. How?

I did a Google search on the phrase “Editor of X Magazine.” I looked at the magazine online to see if they had an online masthead. When that didn’t work, I searched on LinkedIn for the name of the magazine. And there was the name of the editor.

It took about five minutes, tops, for me to find this editor, and a way to contact them. I was a little surprised that such an easy stumbling block had stopped this writer from moving forward with her plan to pitch this market.

Writers should assume that many roadblocks stand in the way of them and the good living they want to earn from their craft. When you reach one, just start thinking about how you’re going to overcome it.

If the above hadn’t worked for finding the editor, I would have moved on to the next strategy, and the next, and the next.

Besides a few online and social-media searches, other ideas I had for finding this person included:

* Searching for and/or tweeting about the publication on Twitter to see if I could locate the editor there.

* Using Lexis-Nexis or maybe PR Newswire to search for press releases released by the magazine to try to turn up a quote by the editor or their email.

* Networking within writer forums I belong to and visit, such as FreelanceWritingGigsAbout Freelance Writing, and locally for me my Digital Eve chapter and Women in Digital Journalism, to see if anyone in the group had dealt with the publication and knew the editor.

* There are also Web sites that collect information about magazines such as this one…maybe one of their databases might have something.

When you hit a roadblock, remember that the answer you need is out there. Reach out. And be unstoppable. Works for me.

The Day the Content Mills Died

Are you ready for the beginning of the end of content mills that pay writers peanuts? Good, because it happened this week: Demand Studios announced that it is going to start offering some sort of healthcare plan to its freelancers. Details are yet to come — Demand is supposed to say more in November.

This news is like the shot heard ’round the online writing world. Because here’s what it means: We’ve hit the bottom and now these writer sites are headed back up again.

There’s enough competition out there for good writers that Demand felt a need to offer a perk — something the other writing sites didn’t have. Competition being what it is, this will likely be countered by another improvement at another site, and so on, hopefully until rates become more in line with a living wage. Where we’ve been in a race to the bottom the past few years, now that scenario is turning around. And it’s about time.

I would imagine that given the state of healthcare in this country, there’ll be a stampede to Demand by writers who write for other mills. After all, if you’re the type of writer who’s willing to write for one of these sites, why should you write anywhere else? Freelancers are always so hard-pressed to find healthcare.

Demand’s very savvy to put that on the table. It also helps them forestall the inevitable, which is going to be higher rates, maybe at first just for the best and most qualified, but probably eventually for everyone.

Obviously, we’ve got a long way to go, but this is a very promising development. There’s still ultra-low paying mills such as Amazon Mechanical Turk. One social-media expert I recently interviewed told me she teaches her clients to go to this site and pay $.25 an article for content. I about threw up.

But Demand has thrown down the gauntlet — the field is crowded, and the only way to distinguish your site in future will be to offer writers a better situation. The economy is turning, and the pool of people willing to write for $10 an article or less — in America, anyway — is about to start drying up. Hallelujah.

Can’t wait to see who ups the ante next.

What do you think of Demand’s move? Leave a comment and let me know.

7 Things I Learned About Business From Playing Bejeweled Blitz

As my Facebook friends will tell you, I have a serious jones for Bejeweled Blitz, that maddening, one-minute gem-moving game known long ago as Diamond Mine. I’m not even very good at it compared to my friends (you know who you are…Linda!), but I find it a fun break from the stresses of deadlines and story pitches.

And the good news is I haven’t found it a total waste of time. I’ve picked up a few tips from playing Bejeweled that I feel are helping me in my writing business. Here they are:

1. Keep striving for a fresh perspective. We all tend to get in a rut, and see things only one way. In Bejeweled, if you don’t keep refreshing your attitude and looking again – maybe at the yellow gems you never pay much attention to – you can’t find new sets of gems to connect. In business, we’ve got to keep talking to new people and exploring new ideas to gain insight into the best way forward.

2. Time is precious. There’s only one minute to get it done on Bejeweled Blitz. Isn’t that a metaphor for our lives? The Kabbalists say we don’t kill time – time kills us. We should always remember we only have so many moments…and we don’t know how many. So we need to prioritize ruthlessly to make sure we’re getting the most important stuff done each day…including taking time to refresh and just enjoy this beautiful world.

3. If it’s not working, bag it. One of the best pieces of Bejeweled advice I got was from an online tip sheet. They said, if you’ve hit 30 seconds and nothing much is happening, quit that puzzle and just start a new game. It’s too late for you to end up with a good score, as half the time is already gone. The same with your business – if you’ve been trying one strategy a while and it’s not working, don’t just keep on slogging in the wrong direction until your doors close. It’s time to try something else.

4. If you’re stuck, blow up the model. Sometimes you get a crummy puzzle in Bejeweled where there aren’t a lot of obvious matches…sort of like our crummy current economy. In these cases, the best thing you can do on Bejeweled is manage to match and explode a flame jewel, which will radically rearrange a hunk of your puzzle and hopefully give you easier matches. This works for business too – if your current premise is proving difficult to execute in our new economic reality, it may be time to shake things up – look at new geographic markets, products, or customer segments.

5. Turn the noise down. Bejeweled makes a range of jangly sound effects and vocal comments as you play, including a throbbing sound that begins as you near the end of the minute. The second-best tip I got was to turn my computer’s sound off. It’s too distracting! I was amazed at how much more reliably I could get decent scores without the audio. Likewise, in business, we’ve got to focus on what’s important and screen out distractions to be successful.

6. Embrace change. In Bejeweled, the scenario is constantly changing, and often not in ways you expected. You succeed in forming one set of gems, only to realize that doing so has spoiled your chance to do a few other key moves you had planned. Isn’t that just like our lives? While we’re executing one business strategy, the window of opportunity for another one fades away. We plan for economic good times, only to wake up in the deepest economic downturn of our lifetimes. And the only thing to do is accept it and look at the new reality with an open mind, so we can spot the new opportunities that are out there.

7. “Go for the multiplier!” This is what my teenage son yells at me every time he sees me playing Bejeweled. If you get four jewels lined up in a row instead of three, you get a multiplier gem that increases your score by a factor of 2-6x if you can get it into a jewel set. Evan’s always ragging me that I don’t focus enough on trying to score those multipliers. And you know what – he’s right! In business, we need to prioritize ways to do two or three times as much in the same amount of time – reach more customers, accomplish more tasks, within the same timeframe and without extra effort. If there’s a class, software tool or marketing technique that allows us to work more efficiently, make using it a top priority.

8 Tips for Contacting Journalists on Twitter

I’m departing from my usual vein of giving tips to freelance writers today to offer some tips to all the rest of you, who’d like to connect with freelance writers through social media.

It’s an interesting experience being a journalist on Twitter. As happy as I am to have many of you as my tweeps, it’s clear that not all of you know how to work with the media. So here are my tips for how to connect with journalists on Twitter – and more importanly, how to avoid massively turning journalists off.

1. For G-d’s sake, have a Web site. I will not use you as a story source if your Twitter page does not list a Web site. Period. The one-paragraph description on Twitter does not give me enough information about you. A link to your LinkedIn or Facebook page is lame – you don’t have your own Web site? – but better than nothing, and might do in a pinch. I am constantly amazed at the number of Twitter users who have no link on their profile.

2. State your location. I know people think they’re all Web 2.0 and global by putting their Twitter location as “USA!” or “Everywhere” or listing their GPS coordinates…but I’m trying to verify that you’re a real person, and learn where you are, so I know what time of day I should call you.

3. Only respond to sourcing tweets that you fit. When I tweet looking for a tax expert and get a social-media expert, I am not amused. Actually, I am unfollowing you or blocking you if you do it more than once.

4. Please don’t send me direct messages basically begging me to write about your book, Web site, or whatever, the minute you start following me. Let me take a look at your site and your tweets, maybe follow you back, and see what you’ve got to say.

5. Think before you tweet. Imagine a reporter is looking down your home page at your last 10 tweets. Are they going to convince me you are an articulate expert in your field? A string of “Wow, tired, going to bed now!”-type posts – or posts that are just lists of your tweeps’ Twitter handles – don’t make me want to interview you. Be tweeting about your expertise, as well as sharing and commenting on other people’s news in your sector, and cut the fluff.

6. Don’t post 20 tweets at once. Maybe this is a personal thing, but I find the blockade strategy obnoxious. When my screen fills up with one person’s tweets, I usually skip right over them, and if it happens often, I unfollow the person just to make it stop.

7. DM me an introduction. When I follow experts, I find the best ones usually send me a DM thank-you and say something like “Looking forward to staying in touch and hearing what you have to say!” Friendly, not selling me anything, just starting a conversation. Or they DM and quickly state their expertise in a non-pushy, non-salesy way. Expertise-focused DMs are a great way to begin building relationships with me because the message stays in my DM file and can be retrieved months from now.

8. Get recommended. What I like best as far as source-finding on Twitter is when people I trust can direct me to an expert source. If you can, have someone I follow introduce you.