Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Pay Rates

I know a lot of writers who are stuck on the rate per word form of payment. They refuse to work for less than $X.XX. They scoff at editors who dare to offer less than $X.XX.

And there isn't a problem with that, if that's where you are in your career.

In my case, I came from a job that used to pay once a month. Last day, that's when your check was deposited, everything on a salary, every month exactly the same. So my perspective is slightly skewed. I have an idea of what I want to make in an 8-hour day, or what my monthly income will be.

So, rather than get worked up about the per word rate, I look at the per day rate. How much time will I spend on an article from start to finish. That includes sending out the pitch, setting up the interviews and doing them, then writing the piece. I am blessed because I write fast, so that helps.

A lot of my work is repeat business from editors, so right off I get to eliminate the search part. Many of the articles I write are one-source pieces who are familiar with the magazine. Interviews usually take less than an hour. And so on. It's rare when an article requires more than 8 hours of work, so my "per day" rate is usually very good. Much higher than anything I made per day at the old job. Granted, I don't make money every day, but I look at what I bring in at the end of the month. I have a monthly goal and that's my real target.

The majority of my writing friends, particularly the trade writers, think in per hour rates. When they are offered new assignments, they calculate how much time they think it will take and decide what their minimum per hour rate will be. That's how they decide on what jobs to take.

There is no one right way to determine what is a good pay for you. But it is important to make sure you are being paid what you think you are worth. And that can be a post for another day.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Finding Your Niche

I was doing a quick interview last night. The guy I was talking to was driving, and I think he was bored, so he was asking me questions about my writing life. This was an interview for a technology magazine, so he asked me if I wrote a lot about technology. Then we got talking about how I ended up writing on the various topics I cover.

I write for trade publications almost exclusively these days. I started out writing for construction magazines, and that grew to other occupations over the past year or two. I stumbled into it, really. I had a job where I worked with construction people, and I wrote articles for the department newsletter. When I began freelancing, someone suggested I introduce myself to construction magazines. I did. I got some positive responses. And it went from there. Construction led to engineering. Engineering led to technology. And so on down the line. I'm happy as a clam writing on these topics.

Over the years, I've discovered niches can change. When I first started freelancing, I wrote parenting articles. I had teenagers then, and there were so many issues about teens that I felt weren't discussed. That led to more parenting articles, topics like pregnancy and babyhood. I am a mom, so like so many moms, parenting articles interested me. But then the kids grew up, and the topics lost their appeal.

I think there is a lot of truth to the idea of writing what you know or write what you care about. But I'll take it a step farther to say, write what interests you and write on things that can expand your life. Believe it or not, construction writing made a lot of sense for me, and not because I had those couple of years of job experience. My best friends are in the construction business. Family and friends worked construction at some point. I learned a lot by talking to them over the years, but by writing about construction, I learned how to hold up my own end of the conversation. Same thing with engineering -- I spend a lot of time with engineers. I know how to speak their language and I carried that over to writing on the topic. On the other hand, I probably won't ever write about cooking because I get lost in my own kitchen and have no desire to learn how to find my way.

There are a few topics I'd like to tackle as time goes on (or I've touched on them but would like to expand my horizon): music litergy in the Catholic church, sports, presidential politics, issues in higher education. I'd like to build on some of the topics I write about now, and am expanding into green and sustainable topics, which really feeds off of the work I've done in the past.

Your niche is out there.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

When a Door Shuts . . .

Earlier this summer I was at a party, talking to perhaps the only other non-science person there. He was a freelance graphic artist, someone I worked with many years ago. One of the things we talked about was how tough freelancing can be. He said that others don't realize that you have to take what you can get, that this isn't a career where you have the luxury to say no to assignments.

I used to agree with that. Then I began to pay attention to what my more experienced (and sometimes wiser) co-horts say: The time you spend on jobs that suck up a lot of time for little pay is time you lose to pursue better paying jobs.

At first I thought, well, at least I'm still earning money. That's better than not earning money. And I took everything that came my way.

Last fall, I had an assignment that I knew could be a long-term steady assignment. The first piece I did was quick and easy and an incredible per hour rate. The second piece was ridiculous in both the amount of work required and the way they tried to change the payment offer. When they asked me about doing an assignment for the next issue, I looked at my calendar and saw all the empty spaces. I remembered my frustration and how much I bitched to my friends and family. I took a deep breath and said, "No thanks."

And started to worry about what I did.

Except, a few days later, I stumbled across an email from a friend who said an editor was looking for writers. I originally ignored the note because I was in the midst of this hellish piece and didn' t have time to pursue this one. This day, though, I sent a letter of introduction. He said to call him. I did so. He said I'd have an assignment right after the new year. Sure enough, I got the assignment, and have been getting assignments ever since. The per hour rate is phenomenal.

I shut a door on one low-paying assignment. And it gave me time to pursue a higher paying assignment.

I got a little bolder. When one of my editors began changing the deadline dates and the article lengths of a monthly feature, without adjusting the pay, I said, no, this is eating up my time. I can do better. I dropped the column. A week or two later, I found a nice replacement -- less work, fewer words, triple the income. The time I would have spent researching and writing that column I spent marketing.

Now I am a little pickier about my client list. But it isn't always easy. September has been a very slow month. I was offered a low-paying, quick-turnaround assignment the other day, one I know I wouldn't have enjoyed, and I almost accepted it. But then I thought no, I'd rather spend that time on other things, like working on my website and marketing. Two days later, I got an email from another editor with a fantastic, quick-turnaround assignment offer, and I snapped it up.

So I disagree with my freelance artist friend. Saying no is a luxury we do have, and sometimes it is the best thing we can do for our career.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Don't Steal My Idea!

I'm the critique group coordinator for the local writer's group. Last week was the first general meeting of the school year (we meet September through May -- are other towns like this, where the bulk of activities fall during the academic year or is this a college town thing?). I was late, but at the end of the meeting, I got to announce a little about the critique groups and said I had handouts. I got mobbed with people who wanted a handout. But once the crowd calmed down, an older man came over to me.

"I have a question for you," he said. Okay, shoot. "How can I be sure no one in the critique group will steal my ideas?"

Someone else overheard and said, "Oh, copyright everything."

Except you can't copyright an idea. And I knew what this man was getting at. He was afraid he'd take an unpublished essay or article to be critiqued by the members of his group and someone would like the idea so much he or she would rush home and write an essay or article on that very topic.

I thought it was interesting that he was more concerned about someone stealing his ideas rather than his actual words.

But he isn't alone, of course. I know many writers who worry that by sending a kick-ass idea to an editor will result on not getting the assignment because the editor "stole" the idea. It's even harder to dispell that fear when a month or two after you sent the query, the magazine had an article on that exact same topic. Heck, I had that same feeling myself when I had an editor love one of my ideas, and she sounded like she was going to give me the assignment only to disappear off the map. When I finally reached her again, she apologized to say the EIC had a similar article in the works already. I felt used. But then I saw the article -- it was a 100-word blurb the following month. Sure, maybe there was a longer one in a future issue, but that blurb told me everything I needed to know -- my idea, while great, wasn't all that original. Obviously, someone else thought of it too.

We like to think that our ideas are always fresh and new and exciting and editors will love them. But because our ideas have to come from somewhere, it means the heart of the story is already out there for someone else to pick up. I've lost track of the number of times I had a query making the rounds on a topic only to find another magazine that I hadn't pitched was publishing that very same article idea. It's frustrating, but it's not uncommon.

There are certain topics called evergreens. Parenting magazines, for example, use lots of evergreen topics. After all, new parents have essentially the same questions and issues, so these topics need to be addressed regularly. But magazines want fresh approaches to those topics. And that's what individual writers bring to the table -- a unique take on the idea at hand.

This particular writers group meeting was an open-mike forum. Anyone who wanted was invited to read a published or in-progress work. I came in just as this gentleman was reading his essay, which I gathered was about the lack of respect night owls get from an early morning world. As we spoke later, he said to me he read a published work because he didn't want anyone stealing his idea.

I politely nodded and said I understood. I didn't say that I have written about this same topic a number of times, in essays that I've never quite finished and at least once in another blog.

Yes, idea theft does happen sometimes, but mostly it's just two people happened on a similar idea at the same time. Rather than worry that someone is going to steal your idea, kick it up a notch and prove why you, above anyone else with the same concept, are the person who should actually get the assignment. In the end, that's what it is all about. The writing, not the thought.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Do You Have What It Takes?

Many moons ago, I worked in an academic publications office with three full-time people and a new intern every semester. I was the low person in the office and most of my job was grunt work. I didn't mind. I actually enjoyed that job more than any other I've ever had (and then it evolved in a new direction that didn't suit me and, well, that's another story). But what bothered me was the attitude of the person in charge. She often made it clear, without ever coming out and saying the words, that she didn't think I had what it took to be a "professional" writer.

Looking back, at that time I probably didn't. There were too many other things happening in my life that took my attention from pursuing a writing career, not the least of which was a misguided focus on fiction.

But now I must have what it takes because, while I might not be in the 6-figure income category yet, I have fairly steady work and am making more than I ever did in that office job.

So what is that magic formula? Everybody is different, but this is what worked for me:

Discipline That's it in a nutshell, really. There's a great phrase from Everybody Loves Raymond: AIS. Ass in Seat. On the show, that was the rule Frank had for his boys when it was time to go somewhere. AIS or get left behind. It's a good rule for writers. AIS or get nothing done. That often means the laundry, Oprah, grocery shopping and other activities need to be left for later.

Independence I work best when I can create my own work, my own schedule, my own routine. Some people work best when they have someone else giving them the work, the schedule, the routine. This isn't a job for those who need someone else to provide direction.

Loner When I left office life, I thought I'd miss being around people all day. Boy, was I wrong. Even though freelancing can be a stressful job, wondering when the next assignment or paycheck will come, my stress level dropped a million points. I never realized how stressed out I got by being with co-workers 8 hours a day. I like working alone. It has made me a better worker.

Driven I'm a goal-oriented person, and that's what drives me to get myself going each work day. I changed my philosophies on how to approach my career. I network. I listen to the advice of others. I've learned to quit under-estimating my worth, but I've also learned to quit comparing myself and my career to others.

The hard truth is not everyone is cut out to be a freelancer. Or they might not be ready today but could be next year. You have to know yourself and what you are capable of before you make that plunge.

Monday, September 10, 2007

The Downside to Freelancing

Beautiful as freelancing is, it's not a perfect job. Actually, my dog has the only perfect job -- she can sleep whenever she pleases, gets a free lunch every day, and can go on squirrel chasing breaks at any time of the day.

Here are the (few) things I don't like about freelancing.

1. Lack of a regular paycheck. I have an editing job that pays me two weeks after I submit the invoice, and I usually have at least one project per week. That's about as regular as the paychecks get, though. After that, it is a crap shoot. My husband greets me each day with "Get any checks today?" A funny story about me and paychecks: the checks tend to arrive when I'm out of town. When we were on spring break in March, there were $4,000 in checks that were delivered the day we returned. When I was in Seattle in June, another $4,000 arrived. A weekend trip to Baltimore, came home to 3 checks. I'm waiting for a ton of money. I should get out of town.

2. The see-saw income. I'm beginning to build up a regular client list, but it doesn't mean all months are created equal. Not every publication is monthly. Not every article will pay the same. Sometimes I get a surprise one-time assignment. Some months are very good. Some are not so good. I'm in a down month right now (although my calendar is slowly filling), immediately following my best month ever. It's one reason so many writers diversify their work.

3. No paid days off. Bottom line, if I don't work, I don't get paid. And the truth is, there are a lot of days where I might be working and I don't get paid. Like today. I'm marketing. I'm setting up interviews. I'm working on queries. The interviews might be the only thing I'm doing that will bring in an income, but that income won't actually "happen" until I write and send the article.

4. No back up. One day this winter, I woke up and felt miserable. I wanted to sleep, but there were things on my schedule that absolutely needed to be done. I couldn't depend on a co-worker to back me up. It's just me. While I like that independence, there are days when I'd like to be able to say, "Hey, I need to juggle these four things, can you help me out?"

5. Lack of respect. I don't usually give a flying fig what people think, but a lot of people who don't understand freelancing think that I a) don't have a real job and b) don't do anything all day and c) jobs just fall into my lap. And then of course, the words just magically appear on the page. When those people are your friends and family, it's hard to shrug off the comments. That's why it is so important to connect with people who understand, which I'll touch on next time.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Why I Love Being a Freelance Writer

When I moved to freelance full time two years ago, my friends thought I'd have a schedule where I could drop everything at the drop of a hat and my family thought that because I didn't have a "real job," I was available to chat on the phone whenever they pleased.

While I do have flexibility with my work day (no crawling out of bed to be in an office at 8 am, which is bliss to this night owl), I do put in a full day almost every day. Sure, I can play with my scheduling a little bit and on days when I'm not swamped with work, I can sneak away to meet a friend for lunch or get in some much-needed bowling practice with my new ball. Like anyone in an office job, I have busy days/weeks, and I have slow days/weeks. What it doesn't mean is that I'm parked in front of my tv watching the soaps and eating chocolate all afternoon. Heck, I don't even take naps.

But freelancing is my dream job, and these are the reasons I like it so much.

1. I can set my own hours. My natural body rhythm is to sleep until 10 am and stay up until 2 am. I can also write late at night when the phone isn't ringing and the house is quiet.

2. I can come to work in my jammies if I want. Thank goodness I don't do morning interviews on a web cam. It would scare people away.

3. No boss staring over my shoulder. I don't know how other people feel about that, but to me, it was a breath of fresh air. I worked with plenty of people who needed hand-holding from supervisors, but I am -- and always have been -- an independent worker. Give me a job and I can do it in my own fashion most efficiently. That's excellent for freelancing. Not so excellent for a micro-manager boss. I had plenty of clashes with bosses over the years because it always looked like I was goofing off when in fact I had the work well under control. I had one boss tell me I could never work for myself because I'd get nothing done. That boss lost his job after I left. As for me, with no boss, I can accomplish 3 times as much as I ever did before in a typical week.

4. I get to choose. A freelance artist said to me once that as freelancers, we can't be picky about the work that falls in our laps. I beg to differ. First, nothing falls in my lap. I work hard to get my assignments. Second, I can choose the type of writing I want to do, the subjects I work in, the editors I work with. When one assignment turned into a nightmare and less pay than I was told, I said thanks but no thanks when asked if I wanted another assignment.

5. I can work from anywhere. This summer, me and my trusty laptop went to the Pacific Northwest to help my daughter move. Last fall it was a trip to the Chicago area. Spring break was in Florida. Unless I told my editors, they didn't know I was gone. I answered my emails and was able to answer phone calls and hit my deadlines. Because we're empty nesting now, when the husband goes on business trips, I can go along. And as my friend said last night, if we hit the Power Ball, I can write from beaches around the world. It also can be as simple as working from my living room couch on a summer afternoon so I can watch a baseball game while I hit my deadlines.

Bonus plus: no air conditioning. To me, there is little worse than having a beautiful summer day only to be shivering in air conditioning. My house doesn't have A/C, and I can sit in my office with the windows open, wearing summer appropriate clothes, and enjoy the weather. Or if I don't need to be attached to a phone, I can head outside to work. Which is what I think I'll do now.

Next up: the downsides of freelancing and what I think it takes to be a successful freelancer.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

A Breather

I came downstairs today and found nothing on my calendar. Well, I knew there was nothing on my calendar. It was quite a relief after the past week and month. I've spent a good chunk of today doing some marketing but also some relaxing.

Not that I want every day to be like this. Tomorrow won't, nor will Thursday, and probably not Friday. But for today, it is good.

Traditionally, I've always taken off the Tuesday after Labor Day as a vacation. It was so I could be home for the first day of school for my kids. Then I would bask in the quietness of the neighborhood for some hours, ending the day by filling out all those school forms and catching up with the first day news. Now I have no kids in K-12, and only one in college, which was started a week ago. But in its auto-pilot, my brain shut down and with nothing on the calendar, I'm taking advantage of the quiet neighborhood and the quiet schedule.

Carp diem.