Issue 52 - Make Money as a Freelance Writer - Carol Tice, Kelley James-Enger, Allena Tapia


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uthor Peter Benchley described freelancing this way: “The freelance writer is the person who is paid per piece or per word or perhaps.”

While some writers may dream of earning a dollar for each word they place on paper, Seattle freelancer Carol Tice puts her money where her words are, cashing in with a six-figure income and landing top-tier clients.

Carol’s work has appeared in many publications, including Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, In These Times, Daily Variety, Seattle Homes & Lifestyles, Today’s Careers, Utne Reader, Nation’s Restaurant News, L.A. Business Journal, and Seattle Business Journal. She’s also nabbed copywriting gigs with Dun & Bradstreet, Lending Tree, CBS, American Express, and Costco.

How does she do it? And, why did she decide to share her secrets with other writers at her wildly popular blog, Make a Living Writing? Carol shares the secrets of her success.

“I’m constantly changing my bio because each article adds another layer of experience.”

1.Carol, welcome, to WOW! Women On Writing. Thanks for sharing your freelancing expertise with us. I am excited to tap into your wealth of knowledge. Would you share how you started freelancing?

Sure, I entered an essay contest in the LA Weekly, and I won. The bonus—I was paid $200 for that essay. After that, I never looked back. I found a type of writing people pay you for.

2.What a great story! So many people believe they need a journalism degree to break into news writing and freelancing. Do you have a degree?

Nope. I am an increasingly proud college dropout. I studied music but quit to become a songwriter.

3.Still, you have a strong journalism background. Prior to freelancing, you started writing for an alternative paper and that led to a stint working for a trade publication, National Home Center News (now named Home Channel News). Eventually you ended up at Puget Sound Business Journal, covering all areas of business. Do you think writers should focus on a niche, or is it best to generalize?

I definitely do not have one focus, but I am not a generalist. Covering multiple areas is ideal. I know a lot about real estate, college and careers, restaurants, legal issues, insurance. It gives me an edge—all business-related. I don’t want to be: “I know a little bit about a lot of topics.” If you can show you know a lot about an industry, then that’s your niche. If I meet a generalist who makes a lot of money, I’ll be a convert. I’m constantly changing my bio because each article adds another layer of experience.

4.Experience helps so much in the freelance world. In addition to your freelance career, you also have a helpful blog for writers. What’s a typical day like?

Let’s try for a typical week. I have no writing deadlines on Monday. On Mondays, I’m dealing with the Den [The Freelance Writers Den] and prepping for live events, booking guests for live events, and answering questions in the Den. I’m pretty wrapped up with the administrative end. Most people would never want to do this (administrative duties) because there is so much work. It takes a whole day to get the skates under me. Other days, because of the social media cycle and time zone considerations, I find myself doing marketing in the morning and writing in the afternoon. Posts go up at 6:00 a.m. EST. By noon, chatter is dying down. That’s when I can sit down and start writing, querying, researching, etc.

I also believe in taking time off. I take off every Saturday and have Den moderators to answer questions on that day. If you establish a habit, then people adjust and get used to it. I can remember when we had all weekends off, both days. Our bodies are not designed not to have time off. It’s really important.

5.You’ve convinced me. I’m going to begin to take a break more often. I imagine time away boosts creativity, too. I would like to talk about how you discovered—or were discovered—by clients. You find a lot of clients through social networking sites, like LinkedIn and Twitter. How do you use these networks to obtain clients, and how should a writer approach a potential client on a social media site?

I do an entire training session on how to use LinkedIn. Stuff your bio with keywords for a writer of your type. Fill out the skills and expertise area. Also, look at the full-time job offerings on the site. Those jobs are paid, legitimate positions. Apply and ask if they need freelancers. Also, take a look at the “Who’s Viewed Your Profile?” section. If they look like a prospect, then I InMail them and ask if they are looking for a freelancer. It doesn’t hurt to say, “I saw you looked at my profile. Let me know if I can help.” This kind of e-mail gets a 30 percent response rate.

LinkedIn has a group, LinkedIn for Journalists, that offers training on how to use LinkedIn, and then you get their premium level free. You will learn about advanced search, how to find prospects and sources. LinkedIn is the phone book for freelancers. Big companies are on there all the time to find freelancers. I was hired by three Fortune 500 companies. Your mind will be blown away by the quality of who will reach out to you on there if you set up your profile correctly.

Twitter also can land jobs. When you find a publication, ask (on Twitter), “Are you the right person to pitch for this type of story?” This is a low obligation, low stress question that editors can answer. Usually, you’ll get a response saying, “No, it’s really this person you need.” or “Yes, it’s me.” I sent three ideas to an editor on Twitter, who assigned them all. It was the beginning of a contract for work.

“You’re pregnant, in bed with them already, so you take what amount they offer.”

6.I’m revamping my LinkedIn profile soon! I’ve also landed a couple projects from Twitter. It’s a matter of reaching the right people. The economic downturn hurt publications and writers. What are some recession-proof writing industries?

There will always be a million people who want to be a freelance writer, but I’m not sure if people are freelancing full time. If you’re good and willing to market, the economy is not relevant. Look at the size of your freelance business. If you want to find success, you need to market your business.

7.Simple, yet truthful, advice. Marketing is so important. I also find talking money with an editor can be intimidating. What are some strategies for a writer to increase rates and earn what her writing is worth? Is there a magic formula for setting prices?

There is no standard. Rates are one of toughest areas, especially for new writers who came out of content mills with a skewed idea of appropriate pay. If you don’t have the money discussion, you are leaving money on the table and don’t know it. I like to ask the “what’s your budget” question. It makes them blink first. “You have $1500? Ok, I can do it within that amount.” See, nothing is left on the table.

Talk to writer friends. You always want to bounce ideas off writer friends. On one project, I approached a friend who had been working in this area forever, ran the idea past her for a government contract, and she was like: “No way, the price is too low.” I bumped it up $1500, and they didn’t even blink. They totally accepted it. I left some wiggle room in case of rewrites, and there were none.

One thing to do: see if someone’s worked for that market and what have they gotten in the past.

Another idea is to ballpark a number pretty quick. A lot of new writers get on these hour long talks (with editors), but don’t talk about money. They get pregnant, pitching ideas but not talking about money. You’re pregnant, in bed with them already, so you take what amount they offer. The trick is to get to the money question already. If I hit thirty minutes, I’m giving ideas and helping get their project going. At fifteen minutes, I try to bring the conversation around to money. They’ll say, “I’ve got this much,” and that’s when I make the decision. It helps concentrate editors’ minds really well, once they find you’re not an endless resource. Throw out a number; and if it’s a good client, they don’t blink. That’s what I’m looking for—people who get it. I just worked with a real estate property management company, liked him, shot a price. He didn’t blink. It has turned out to be a cosmic thing, a meant-to-have client. He’s very business-like—like me.

8.That’s fantastic! I need a client like that. How hard is it to make a switch from journalism to copywriting?

Copywriting is a huge term. It covers everything—any kind of writing for business. Some people think copywriting is strictly the long direct mail letters. I have never written that; but I have written blog posts, articles, and white papers for businesses. I don’t hard sell, but I write the business aspect that relates to things I already know how to do. Think of it as telling a story. Journalism skills are highly transferrable to that world. Businesses are figuring out that type of writing works. Blogging, articles, etc., build consumer interest. One idea is to start small and start with businesses you know. Think of the local yoga studio. Why are the teachers better? What makes this studio stand out from others? Put that information into a brochure and pitch it. Offer a free sample. Most businesses will be thrilled. Now, you have samples that show your copywriting skills.

9.I have several ideas to propose to local businesses now. When publications began shuttering due to economics a few years ago, there seemed to be a split among some writers whether online publications carried the same prestige as their print counterparts. Do you see a difference between the two?

I’m print versus online agnostic. I don’t care or think about it. I go where the money is and work for people who pay me the most money. Sometimes it’s online. I’ve made $2000 for an online article. But I’ve also gotten to do fun stuff for magazines. I don’t think print will disappear, but a lot of what is in print will go online. That’s where ad money is going. Just follow the money, and go where there are interesting projects. Look at Forbes. I’m fascinated with what’s happening in media and want to be involved in what’s going on. It’s foolish to only write for print now because you need to know how to write for an online audience, write headline SEO, use social sharing. If you’re not using social media, you cannot be reporting by traditional means. Look at venture capitalists. Most don’t use e-mail anymore. It’s the same premise. Writers need to learn how to report a story now. Writers need to use Twitter, talk to people. To me, everyone should be doing some writing online, so they learn what’s happening, but keep a mix of options and an open mind.

10.That makes sense. It’s vital that writers stay current so they can offer a diverse skill set. I know that you have a venture that you share with other writers. Your blog, Make a Living Writing, offers practical advice for freelancers, including how to increase their bottom line. What was the impetus for starting the blog?

I discovered people were getting ripped off writing for terrible websites and wanted to help writers learn how to earn more money. I was reading posts from other writers on places like Freelance Writing Jobs, and it would be all about wanting support for moving from five to ten bucks per post. I was horrified, really. I kept thinking, OMG. No. Stop, stop, stop. Stop what you’re doing. I was confused and upset and was thinking, I’ve been earning more from freelancing since 2005. Why aren’t others doing the same? I think I have stuff to tell people and just started doing it. Make a Living Writing took on a life of its own. I created a monster. Along the way, I learned to make it a more happening place. Eventually, someone mentioned entering a “Top 10 Blogs for Writers” contest that I would not have entered otherwise. Winning has helped attract more readers.

“Writers who say they don’t have ideas don’t read enough.”

11.I appreciate the monster you created. (smiles) Writers hear talk about building a platform. How do you use Make a Living Writing as a platform? What steps would you suggest writers take to start their writing platforms?

I don’t use the blog much for getting gigs. I used to have a “hire me” tab on it. It lets people know how to blog for others. As far as building a platform, if you can blog about a niche topic and can write headlines, respond to comments, and handle social sharing, use those skills as a sample to get paid blog gigs. I was talking to an editor who wanted a blogger, and I said, “Hey, look. If you can stick to a niche topic, it can help, so you understand a topic.” It makes sense. At this point, I mostly get gigs from bigger blog sites.

12.Paid blog gigs can add up to a hefty sum of cash, too. Recently, you decided to pay writers for guest posts on Make a Living Writing. What led to that decision?

I wanted to be a paying market. The idea came about after I attended SOBCon, a one-hundred-person conference—founded by Liz Strauss and Terry St. Marie—on how to improve online business. There were a lot of high caliber people in an intimate setting. A speaker’s talk made me realize that I needed to pay for blog posts, even though I wasn’t making money yet. That was my brand—writers deserving fair pay—so I needed to pay even though bigger and more powerful blogs were not paying.

There are benefits reaped from being a paying market. Think of it as a form of marketing. Pay-per-post is a great marketing value for the dollar. I encourage writers to subscribe to the blog to see what I’m looking for. Bloggers comment on their posts, too, which takes a great deal of time. I’m feeling like an ethical person for paying people for their time.

What about guest blogging and not being paid? After I wrote a post on Copyblogger, I was waiting for the conversion. Where are the new subscribers? When writers post for free, they should have a sharp sense of why they are doing it and what they are getting out of it. Maybe it’s a clip for the portfolio, maybe new clients. Lots of sites post guest bloggers for free, but writers need to be strategic. Is there a reason you’re writing for free? Is it the right audience?

13.A lot of food for thought. I’ve written several guest blog posts, but I never considered the benefits. A popular spin-off of your blog is the Freelance Writers Den, as you mentioned earlier as “the Den.” What does it offer writers?

I launched the Den in July 2011. It grew fairly rapidly and is now at over 500 members. Den features include forums, weekly live events with experts, an exclusive job board with only quality gigs, free website reviews. Copywriters coach Chris Marlow and Renegade Writer Linda Formichelli are among the experts on staff, answering questions with me.

14.It’s a fantastic resource, especially the “Junk-Free Job Board.” Carol, I’d like to talk about some writing basics, as well as obstacles that we may face. Let’s say you’re a novice writer or maybe you have a great deal of experience, but the creativity well is experiencing a drought. Where do you suggest writers search for ideas?

Luckily, I never have those problems. I’m afraid my head will explode with all the ideas that I can’t get to. Writers who say they don’t have ideas don’t read enough. I just scan everything: newspapers, magazines, newsletters, newsfeeds. Here are two words to use: Google Alerts. I just did this and got the greatest idea for a story. There was an announcement about which franchises do the best in social media. It was just a list of rankings, nothing about what they’re doing. So, I called up number one on the list and did a quick interview. Instant story.

Writers need to look for the holes. Look at the questions you’re left with. What’s going to happen next? Set those alerts to a different tab, like a blog, and see what others are blogging about. Check out Google Scholar; investigate what new studies are coming out. Mix it up.

“If you want to use your blog to audition for a dollar per word magazines, you create that kind of post.”

15.Google Alerts have spawned many story ideas. I receive twenty various alerts throughout the day. That also means I’m perusing twenty e-mails a day, which can suck up my writing time. What steps should writers take to increase productivity?

Get off the Internet. Stop looking at online job ads. Avoid time-consuming, inefficient, low-paying clients. These are all major distracters. A lot of people are using the timer technique. Set for thirty minutes and stay on task. We all need to work on it.

16.True! When I began freelancing, I had a regimented routine. Eventually, it wasn’t working, so I’ve gone back to the timer. I’ve seen much improvement. In your opinion, what is the biggest time management dilemma writers face?

E-mail. Social media. Internet distractions. The desire to play Bejeweled Blitz or whatever it is for you. Never have there been so many ways to waste our time as we see now. Try Macfreedom. The app shuts off the Internet, so you can concentrate and write.

17.I may need to check into Macfreedom. Words with Friends is a downfall, although I am building vocabulary skills. Right? It would mean more time for blogging. Speaking of blogging, how does blogging enhance a writer’s clip file?

Best way—make blog posts like dollar per word articles. That’s the joy of an article—you are free to make stuff as awesome as you want. If you want to use your blog to audition for a dollar per word magazines, you create that kind of post. You have the publish button. You’re free to create what you want. No one is making you slap up half-thought-up garbage. You can choose to go the other direction. People are changing lives and careers with what they write on blogs. They are taking their careers wherever they want to go.

18.And they are making money while advancing their careers. I’m curious about earning money from my blog. I want to keep my site professional, but I wouldn’t mind the residual earnings a blog can produce. Can you offer tips for monetizing?

If you’re using the blog as a sample to get gigs, you need balance. Decide what your blog’s primary purpose is. You may have several missions: one for audience of publications and business owners and the other for writers. I saw monetary potential with the last one with Make a Living Writing and Freelance Writers Den. I knew I wouldn’t want it on my personal site. Having a blog on its own, making money, can be a real plus. That’s what businesses want writers to do—drive traffic to them. In general, if you’re only making $100 from some keyword ads, maybe you want to take them down. It can alienate people. It may be sending readers away instead of building loyalty to your brand. That’s a big turnoff when you slap up ads. Is it worth it? For me, it wouldn’t be worth it for that kind of money. I would rather hang on and sell a $300 class and have writers to hang out with. If you’re not making a whole lot, why are you giving up traffic so cheap?

19.This raises another interesting question: should a writer have a blog, a website, or both? You have both. Is one better than the other, especially if you want to draw in potential clients?

It depends on what you’re trying to do. If you want to get blogging gigs, set up a fabulous niche blog and add a “hire me” tab. Get guest posts on other blogs. If you don’t like blogging, you probably want to write landing page copy and have a more traditional site. You could also include your blog under a tab from the landing page.

20.Looks like a lot of options exist. You’ve shared a lot of valuable advice, Carol. Based on your experience, what is the biggest obstacle facing freelancers?

It’s usually between their ears. Many think there’s so much competition, or it’s such a bad economy. There’s the pathological unwillingness to market your business, develop a social media presence, start talking to people, get off CraigsList ads, and start finding real clients. People wait for great jobs to rain down on them. It’s not happening. Great jobs come from marketing.

Be realistic. Don’t think you have to spend a lot for marketing. Start each month knowing you have X amount of money coming in. When it comes to marketing, the thing to know is it won’t be like this forever. You’re just opening the ramp of marketing for your business. Or you just lose a major client you need to replace; then yes, it takes work. I was looking at LinkedIn, sent query letters, read ads, and spent a lot marketing my work. The initial push is not forever; it’s like an initial hump or tunnel, and then you’re out of the tunnel. You pitch, get the assignment, turn it in, pitch again. You’re starting online relationships. Kill that first assignment, and it’s the start of a beautiful friendship that can work for you for years.

***

No magic formula exists for freelancers to pocket six-digit cha-ching. Instead, networking, solid clips, and an old-fashioned work ethic can help you make a living writing.

***

LuAnn Schindler is a full-time freelance journalist living on the eastern slope of the Nebraska Sandhills on a dairy farm with 200+ Holsteins. She currently blogs for The Muffin, the WOW! Women On Writing daily blog. Her work has appeared in the Pregnancy, 2: The Couples Magazine, Denver Post, Rural Electric Nebraskan, Absolute Write, in addition to other publications. LuAnn is a member of the International Food, Wine, and Travel Writers Association. She won a 2010 Nebraska Press Award for feature writing. Visit her website at www.luannschindler.com.

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