The delightful Carol Tice and I conducted a bootcamp titled, Freelance Business Bootcamp, several months ago. In preparing the bootcamp, we put together a list of the top ten ways writers (and many freelancers) tend to get bamboozled, nailed, hammered and generally screwed. These top ten are all too common and happen all the time, especially with newbies—those new to freelance writing.
What are these top ten habits that keep a freelancer from making the most money while staying out of trouble? In descending order, here you go:
10. Failing to properly manage multiple clients and projects
You might be a gifted writer with powerful prose. Or, perhaps you’re an excellent writing rainmaker when it comes to sales and closing project assignments. Those are enviable traits but not too useful if you have a difficult time managing several projects and clients. Juggling too much stuff can make your stomach churn. When that happens, errors soon follow. Clients start complaining and you’re working into the wee hours, on weekends and all too often having a miserable time.
Having project management policies and workflow systems in place are very important if you want to keep your clients happy and keep your sanity. Happy clients tend to pay your invoices quickly and without whining. They may also help you save some money on antacids.
9. Not knowing how much it costs you to be in business
Simply pulling numbers out of the air (guessing) isn’t a great business idea. You should first try to figure out what your competition is charging, what kind of internet hosting is most suitable for your business, and other factors before pulling the trigger. Your basic rates should take in account your target salary (or draw), overhead and a profit margin (read my article on setting rates. Just change “designer” to “writer” and you’ll be fine.).
There’s a popular myth out there that freelance writing is a no-cost business—don’t you believe it. SSDs and hard drives die. Monitors go belly up. You may need professional clothing for business meetings. And your household has costs, too—rent or a mortgage or car payments or whatever you’ve got. There are costs! Find out what yours are. That will help you determine an hourly rate that leaves you enough profit after expenses to stay afloat.
8. Not planning your business and setting achievable goals
If a freelance writer doesn’t have a plan in place, they risk having their business simply happen to them rather than charting a sound course to success. This is how people end up writing for content mills for years—they don’t have their eyes on their goals, or an action plan that stems from having a business plan.
When your business goals are fuzzy, it’s pretty tough to tell if you’re making progress or falling behind. Goals should be realistic and achievable. If your goals are too lofty it’s easy to become disappointed and fail. Consider chopping big goals into smaller ones that are easier to reach. Reaching smaller goals gives you encouragement and the drive to keep moving forward. Focus on goals you can control—not “I will get 3 new clients this month” or “I will break into national magazines in the next 60 days.” More like, “I will send five pitch letters each month …”
7. Not understanding your rights
You need to know your rights in drawing up that contract, too—and many writers don’t. Then, you realize later you could have kept some rights and made more selling your work to other clients. Usage rights are like a pie that you can slice up as needed. Plus, usage rights can be a useful negotiation tool.
For example, I wrote a piece for a law firm and sold them one-time rights. I resold that piece (with some modifications) to another law firm. I also wrote a white paper/report on hurricane preparedness for an insurance company and resold it to three other clients,
Magazine and many other national magazines—same thing! Entrepreneur Magazine only buys first rights and you can resell it 90 days after publication in the magazine. As my experience shows, you want to keep these rights if you can. They can be a gold mine.
In your project documentation, include a transfer of rights form that’s handed over to your client when they’ve paid in full. Negotiating and transferring usage rights upon full payment can defuse any payment conflicts that may arise.
6. Being scared to negotiate
For a lot of writers, when the client sends them a contract, or even just tells them verbally the terms they want, they see or hear a lot in there that makes them nervous. But, they don’t think they can do anything about it, and they just agree.
In fact, everything is negotiable in a freelance contract. Besides what I’ll be paid, I have negotiated such things as deadlines of projects, when my book advance will be paid. I got it a half a year sooner and a thousand dollars more! With one slow payer, I got 50% on acceptance of my draft and 50% on publication instead of 100% on publication.
Negotiating isn’t whining, and won’t make clients leave—not good ones. The worst thing a prospect will do when you ask to alter a contract is they’ll say no. Then you can decide whether you want to take the gig. But pushing for what you think you deserve in a contract is what professional freelancers do.
5. Never asking for a raise
Writers also forget to negotiate raises with ongoing clients. I spoke to one writer recently who told me she’d been writing for one ongoing client for 12 years! And she wanted to know how to approach them about a raise. Don’t let this happen!
As you work for a client, your value to them increases as you learn about their publication’s readers or their business customers. You become worth more, and the trouble of training a newbie on what you know becomes too much hassle. You have to know how to build opportunities to easily ask for and get raises into your contract. Which brings us to…
4. Working for the wrong kind of clients
If you’re listening to all this thinking, “Contracts? Negotiate? All my work comes from Elance, or a content mill, where they dictate all the terms and pay. Or I write for revenue share ad-click pennies. How would I ever negotiate a raise or do better?”
If these are your clients, those are the wrong kind of clients. Pay will always be low and it will never get any better. You’ll always either be stuck with their rock-bottom flat rate for articles, or you’ll always be in a race to the bottom, pitted against hundreds of other writers, or waiting mostly in vain for your posts to get enough traffic to earn you more than a buck.
The vast majority of these situations are nothing short of writer exploitation. And they will not improve. Passively tapping a platform’s dashboard for assignments isn’t the way to earning a substantial freelance income.
You have to become a proactive marketer and go out and identify and sell better quality clients. Or you’ll always be having to work very long hours for very little pay. Which brings us to…
3. Not consistently marketing your freelance writing services
If a freelance writer stalls their marketing efforts they can easily be caught up in notorious feast or famine syndrome. When that happens, it can take a long time to catch up. The sales curve for many creative service businesses is six to eight months. That’s the time from first contact to signing an agreement. Six to eight months, or more, is a long time to wait for your next payday. It’s important to have several prospects at various points in your sale process.
Editors can take months to decide to assign an article, too. You need a lot of lines in the water to insure a steady stream of work.
2. Not requiring a deposit/retainer at the start of a business writing project
If a business client isn’t willing to cough up some money at the start of a project, it’s often tough to collect at the end. If a client balks at paying you a deposit or retainer up front, it’s a waving big, red flag saying, “I don’t trust you.” Without mutual trust there is no writer/client relationship.
Requiring a deposit or retainer demonstrates to your client that you’re a professional and have payment policies in place. Odds are, your client will respect you more as a businessperson. If prospects balk at paying 30-50% up front, my experience is, you didn’t want that client anyway—it’s a great litmus test that screens out flakes. Good clients pay that without a blink. They understand how freelancers operate their business and that this is required.
I have seen so many writers hook up with flaky clients and end up getting stiffed when they don’t get an advance. Don’t let this happen to you!
1. Working without a signed contract
Working without a crystal clear agreement leaves the door wide open for misunderstandings, conflicts, delays in payment, no payment and other headaches.
Working without a contract is one of, if not the biggest stumbling block for freelancers. Be professional and polite, but get all the project fees, terms and schedules in writing and make sure you understand all the clauses in your contract. I recently talked to one writer who signed a contract, didn’t read the fine print, and discovered it said her article would be unpaid! Another gave all his rights away without any additional payment.
You need a solid contract so that when scope creep happens—the client starts trying to add more and more items without additional pay—you have that contract to refer back to and say, “This isn’t part of what we agreed.” And then suggest a fee that would be appropriate for that additional work. Without a contract, it’s really hard to defend yourself against scope creep. And scope creep kills your hourly rate.
Carol and I ran a survey.
Here are some of the results:
- 200+ writers took our survey.
- About 40% were new writers under 1 year
- About 25% were experienced writers — 3 yrs+
- 20% — 1-2 yrs.
- 62% have not operated any other business—this was their first one! This is why we see so many basic business mistakes.
- Legal Protection: more than half said they were not protected.
- And another 35% or so said they don’t even know!
- Nearly 80% have no business plan for the business.
When a client makes an offer:
- Usually just accept without challenging terms or payment — 20%
- Might ask for a small change — 22%
- Consider it the start of the negotiation process — 43%
- Never sure how to respond — 21%
- Send them some standard rates — 20%+
- Don’t understand contracts — 54%
- If you’d like more information about freelancing the right way get your copy of our new book, Freelance Business Bootcamp. It contains all the information from our four-week online bootcamp and more. Plus, we’ve included attendees’ questions and answers and a thirty-page workbook.
- How to start your freelance business … the right way
- Planning your business
- Keeping your business legal
- How to avoid scams and, frankly, how not to get … er … screwed
- Contract basics, what to look for and what all that legalese means to you
- Negotiation tips for getting top rates (and you can do it)
- Usage rights and why it’s important to keep as many as you can
- Managing clients and projects
- How to deal with difficult clients
- And much, much more.
Get your copy at http://neiltortorella.com/freelance-business-bootcamp-the-e-book.
About the author:
Neil Tortorella is a graphic designer, writer and marketing consultant with over thirty years experience. He is the author of Starting Your Career As A Freelance Web Designer, Starting Your Career As A Musician and The Freelance Writer’s Business Book. Tortorella is a frequent speaker at conferences and business events. His writing and consulting site can be found at www.neiltortorella.com.
Also by Neil Tortorella:
1. How to Generate High Quality Referrals for Your Writing Business (article)
2. A Freelance Writer’s Guide to Using Public Speaking as a Marketing Tool (article)
3. How to Get Tantalizing Testimonials from Your Clients (article)
4. Copyright and Usage Rights for Freelance Writers (article)
5. How to Qualify Potential Clients for Your Freelance Writing Business (article)
6. Money Management Tips for Freelance Writers (article)
7. Retirement Planning for Freelance Writers (article)