Making the leap
Q: As far as freelancing goes, how did you decide to make the leap into being your own boss? What was your first project?
A: Gee, I wish I had this neat story about how I weighed the pros and cons of going independent. Of how I sat there in the park one lunch hour, and pounded fist to palm saying, “By golly, I’m going to do it”. And how I stayed up that night drawing up plans on a pad.
But the fact is, it was much more childish, much more impulsive. It wasn’t about logic or reason. I was simply so miserable in my official ‘job’ that I couldn’t think of anything but getting out. I chafed and itched all day long. I looked for any excuse, any rationale at all. No matter how thin.
I would sit there in ‘meetings’ dying to leap onto the table shouting “Who cares?” Or I would listen to my boss outline a project for the next three months, all the while wanting to hurl myself out the window.
For me, and the freelancers I know, there wasn’t much choice. The scales were way out of balance. The pain of the cubicle was greater than the fear of going it alone. If you’re comfortable in your job, you won’t leave.
My first assignment: Writing an ad for a collapsible car antenna for a CB radio. $56.
Second job, brochure for oil refiner’s directory. Probably $200 or so.
If you’re more rational and sensible than most, do freelance jobs nights and weekends. When that makes more money than your day job, quit.
But you still have to be a little crazy, nevertheless.
What to do first
Q: How do I get started? Personal essays, magazine articles. I am a broadcast journo.
I suddenly don’t know how to get going.
A: Irritatingly simple advice: Figure out who the big buyers are. The editors who buy your kind of stuff. Send them article ideas. They will mostly turn you down. Don’t give up. Come up with more ideas. Send them.
Meanwhile start a blog or website. Post the kind of personal essays you’d like to do. Write some. Do some magazine articles of the type you’d like to do. You are in charge here. You can do anything you want. Interview strippers or metallurgists or do a feature on left-handed violinists. Keep sending article ideas to the editors you have found.
And keep putting pieces online, on your site. Make them really good.
Then tell us how you’re doing.
Q: For a while now, it seems that most of the writing gigs available are for technical writing. How do I break into the technical writing field? Is it possible without having a degree in a particular field?
Question two: What do you think is the fastest growing freelance writing field right now?
A: The term ‘tech writing’ covers a lot of ground. At the ugly end of the spectrum is writing technical manuals and user guides. These are fat documents that explain how to administer a bank’s transaction management system, or the mobile tracking system for a trucking company. Don’t go near these. They are painfully detailed and dull. You will want to put your eyes out. The money is lousy, too.
You are better off at the marketing end. Where you’re writing the web sites, papers, and marketing pieces that help companies sell their technical products. Like Juniper Networks, or IBM, or Sprint, or Cisco. They are good for writers only because to sell their gear, it takes a lot of writing. For web sites, presentations, literature, webinars, and the like. It’s content-heavy, as the say. As opposed to selling chewing gum or beer.
They don’t care about degrees or special education. They won’t ask. But the hard part is, on job boards, the first question always is, ‘What work have you done in this field?” It’s the chicken-egg thing.
Me, I stumbled into tech because I was the only guy for twenty miles dogged enough to digest a stack of briefing material as thick as a deli sandwich. I am not particularly smart, I don’t love technology. But once you figure out what the hell ‘virtualized server environments’ are, you are one up on your competition. And they keep calling.
This is not a good answer. Your best bet is to just say you can do tech marketing. Then figure it out later. I always have to Google things to pretend I know what I’m talking about.
Fastest growing freelance writing field?
Buzz-wise it’s probably social media stuff. But I think there’s little money there. The money is always in writing things that can sell goods and services. Marketers always pay more. The producers of hit TV shows pay even more. But the gigs are impossible to get.
Smaller numbers sell better
Q: I seem to keep coming up against a 1000 ($£€) ceiling. If my quote comes to less than four figures, I usually get the work, but in the past few weeks I’ve quoted for three big jobs without success. How do I phrase my quotes to convince customers that I’m worth the money? I do translating/editing.
A: I hear you. There may be some psychological barrier to four-figure jobs in the translation business. Or it may seem that quotes that hover around 1000 seem ‘high’ for some reason. Or could it be that you somehow flinch or get defensive when quoting high? (My voice used to clench when saying big numbers. I think clients could hear it. But I digress.)
Two things to try:
Could you frame your quotes around smaller numbers? ”This would involve about 200 per 500 words. The rate would be 50 per page, or X per word. Or 85 per section. 102 per chapter. The work could be delivered in XX days.”
Don’t do the calculation for them. It’s why they sell petrol per liter, not per tank, not per auto.
Or, if you need to quote final numbers, go WAY over 1000. To 1184. Or 1277. Leap past the 1000 mark. Make the numbers sound more rational, more reasoned and calculated.
How to convince customers you are worth the money? No magic phrase will do that.
Your negotiation starts from the moment you answer the phone, from your very first email.
Respond promptly. Listen more than you talk. Appear interested and eager. Be distinctive and memorable. Be more confident than the other translators. Put them at ease. Be an ally. The other guys are just translators. You are a partner. You are a master.
CRM and invoicing tools
Q: What kind of CRM/bookkeeping/invoicing applications do you use? My freelance biz is starting to scale and I need a more robust solution.
A: In CRM and invoicing, I am hopelessly minimalist. I have a relatively small core of clients and contacts, which I maintain on Apple’s Contacts app. Invoicing is by Bento, a consumer-grade database program for the Mac.
If you are scaling up, here’s what I recommend, based on what my freelance bretheren are doing.
Go web-based, rather than hold everything locally on your own machine. I know that’s scary at first. But it’s probably way safer than having your life on your own hard drive.
Both will scale seamlessly, and don’t require much of a learning curve. And you can always download your data if you’re nervous.