The World’s Worst Freelance Advice

Don’t forget to register before the end of day tomorrow for Anne and my Webinar, Writers! Unlock Your Hidden Profit Potential. You’ll save nearly six bucks by doing so…. Plus you get a ton of freebies worth more than you’ll pay for the entire Webinar (I added them up – the five freebies are worth nearly $140. The registration link is here.

Neat news: Anne and I are going to hold a pre-Webinar Tweet-up! Join us Thursday at 9 am PT/ 12 pm ET by using the #writingsquared hashtag. Bring questions, concerns, and get ready to discuss your writing career!

Yesterday was busy. I put on my marketing hat and got busy. I researched some top ways to get word out about our Webinar, then I hit the ground running. By noon I think I covered most of the Internet. At least it felt like it. Anne’s site went down somewhere around noon, so we were delayed in getting word out to her blog audience. Technology is great until it isn’t….

I was noticing some advice being bandied about the blogosphere. For the most part, writers are giving some super advice. It’s rare I see anyone floating advice that’s antiquated or just plain bad. But it does happen. And when it does, I usually pray the readers are able to look at the advice logically and with a healthy amount of skepticism. Maybe it’s because when I first started I nearly fell victim to bad advice.

The advice I received then that nearly had me hanging it up before I started tops my list of the world’s worst freelance advice:

Write what you know. And if you’ve lived in the same small town for 35 years, how will that help you? That was my dilemma when I’d first heard this advice. Instead,

Write what interests you. Much smarter way to learn things while you present saleable, compelling copy. Find something that sparks your interest and go for it.

Start a blog. Why is this bad advice? Because not everyone has something to say, nor is it possible for everyone who starts a blog to build it and maintain it. Instead,

Become a blog guest poster or regular commenter. Some of the smartest writers I know don’t own or operate a blog. They frequent blogs, and they build a lot of face time and credibility that way.

Send your article proposal to just one place. Conventional wisdom used to dictate that sending your query to one magazine was good manners, good form, and expected behavior. However, simultaneous submissions are just good business. And here’s why it shouldn’t matter:

Extend the life of your idea by brainstorming new angles. You’re not going to send the same query to Woman’s World that you’d send to Fortune. The idea may be one that fits both magazines, but they’re each going to require a different focus that reaches a different audience. For example, if you’re writing about retirement, Woman’s World may want an article on how the transition affects your relationship with your spouse, while Fortune may want to see a Six Tips for Retiring Before You’re 60 article.

Content farms are great places to start. No they’re not. They’re the worst places to start a career. In fact, they’re great places to go if you want to kill your career before it begins. Instead,

Seek out jobs that pay what you need in order to meet your earnings goal. That means work for nothing under minimum wage (a hint – if you have to use a calculator to justify how much you could potentially earn per hour, it’s a lousy job) and always aim higher than where you are today.

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  • Devon Ellington June 15, 2011 at 12:03 pm

    The whole point of freelancing is following whatever interests you and convincing someone to pay you for it.

  • Lori June 15, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    Exactly! That "write what you know" works only if you've traveled the world and know six languages.

  • Jenn Mattern June 15, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    I have to disagree about the blogging. The way I see it is if you have nothing to say, you probably shouldn't be a writer in the first place.

    While a blog isn't right for everyone I have a hard time taking professional writers seriously these days if they don't have one. It's too simple of a marketing tactic to pass up anymore, and waiting around is a bad idea as the blogging world becomes more and more saturated. The age of your blog matters if you want to attract an audience via search (and since clients are searching for writers, you should want to be found there — blogs generally are easier to rank well than static sites because search engines love regularly updated content).

    Even if you aren't interested in writing for online publications, blogs are equally about networking. And they've earned a level of stability far beyond most other social media outlets. When talking to business owners it's easy to say don't start a blog if you can't write. But for writers, there aren't many good excuses. If you've been at this a very long time and have a large audience elsewhere, that's one thing. You might not need one. But I'd consider it a bad idea for any new freelance writer not to get into blogging as early as possible. The later you start, the newer your site will always be, making it increasingly difficult to compete for eyes in otherwise established audiences.

  • Jenn Mattern June 15, 2011 at 12:55 pm

    Just to clarify — I'm not saying they should blog about freelance writing or even have a business blog tied to their professional site. Instead, blogging about the topics or industries you target as markets is what works best on the marketing front. You get a living, breathing portfolio piece that attracts clients. Blogging about writing is definitely something I think new writers should wait on until they have more experienced. Then that can become a great way to network with colleagues when you want to build a better referral network.

  • Lori June 15, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    Jenn, I didn't know you'd said anyone should blog. But I know you're not one to make blanket statements, so this wasn't aimed at you. ๐Ÿ™‚ I think the blanket – "You MUST have a blog" statements" are detrimental to writers. I've seen writers start blogs, blog a few months, then let them die off. And it's for the very reason you outline – they don't choose their subjects carefully. I started a few that died of natural causes. I didn't have the material or the level of interest I needed to keep it going.

  • Jenn Mattern June 15, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    Looks like my first comment didn't go through. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    And I know it wasn't aimed at me personally. I just think saying all or most writers should blog is some of the "worst" advice is a bit too hard of a stance (not much different than saying – you MUST blog!). ๐Ÿ˜‰

    I also think things a probably a bit different now than when you started on the Web if you got that advice earlier on. Blogs are more respected than they were just a few years ago. Tools and plugins make them much more social. And they've become excellent marketing and PR tools. They're not a novelty anymore like they were just a few years back.

    Most blogs eventually go off and die. It does take dedication. Then again, so does freelancing. Some will be cut out for it, and others won't be. Not all blogs need to be updated daily. Some are weekly, bi-weekly, or even monthly. I think the quitting is often less about general interest in a topic area (you wouldn't specialize it in as a freelancer if you hated it, right?) and more about not seeing instant results. It just goes back to the issue of people wanting everything to be easy or hand-fed to them, and it doesn't work that way. People have much more information now than they did earlier about how to blog more effectively. It's just another way to make sure you write regularly (always a good thing). But you get more out of it publicly for your business than you do by writing more privately — lets your writing work double duty.

  • Lori June 15, 2011 at 1:50 pm

    Very good point, Jenn. It is a bit of a hard stance. ๐Ÿ™‚

    I'm not sure it's not still bad advice because I've seen a lot of writers toss up a blog, make a mess of it, and either let it die (amen) or continue hashing it up, doing damage to the career. I've seen bloggers who think loading the hell out of every post with buzz words and SUPER SPECIAL CAPS AND EXCLAMATIONS!!!!! is effective blogging. It lacks professionalism that will backfire on them.

    If you want to write a blog, I would take your advice and write about a topic that will appeal to clients. Treat it like a professional gig because hey, it's your professional, public portfolio. But don't put a blog up because all the cool kids are doing it. Make sure you have enough to say and that how you present it isn't hurting you in the long run.

  • Lori June 15, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    BTW, I found your original comment in the Spam box. It's been resurrected. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Paula June 15, 2011 at 4:04 pm

    I always turned "write what you know" into "write what you WANT to know."

    I remember when I was maybe 14 or 15 and knew I wanted to be a writer. My aunt (drunk at the time) kept leaning in, glass in hand, saying, "Write what you know! You can't write until you have life experience…" I shot back with, "So if I want to write a murder mystery does that mean I have to kill someone?"

  • Lori June 15, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    ROFLMAO!!! Paula, you should have said it while holding the butcher knife in front of her… Muhahahaha!

  • Wade Finnegan June 15, 2011 at 4:34 pm

    "So if I want to write a murder mystery does that mean I have to kill someone?" LOL It would give you a better perspective. ๐Ÿ™‚

    The blog issue is debated often. I started mine because I thought I needed to. Now I'm not sure where to go with it. Knowing what I want to focus on is difficult for me. I could give writing advice, but there are so many great people doing that why add one more?

    I believe another piece of bad advice is "you must find a niche." I freelance for the variety. I don't want to get bogged down by writing about dental implants and composite fillings week in and week out. Finding new things to write about gives me energy and drive.

    Lastly, I believe that a writer has always something to say is a misnomer. Sometimes I have a lot to say about a given subject and sometimes I don't. Searching out topics and asking questions can lead to having more to say, but coming up with blog posts isn't the same thing. I'm leaning with Lori on this one, having a blog isn't necessary. It is one more tidbit you could add to your portfolio, but isn't essential.

  • Lori June 15, 2011 at 6:14 pm

    Wade, that's why I put blogs on the list. Not everyone has the right focus or the will to run a blog. It's work, and while I agree completely with Jenn on how it helps the career, I'd rather see a writer make an online presence in a way that inspires him/her rather than as a requirement.

    You're right – you don't need to find a niche. It's great if you can, but being able to move among projects and topics is one of the best perks of being freelance.

    And again, you're right about writers not always having something to say. There are days I open this blog to type and my head feels like mush. I'm a talkative person. If I were pensive and taciturn, I'd be dead in the water. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Jake P June 15, 2011 at 8:00 pm

    Reading this entry and the comments, it seems serendipitous that last night I watched a video of Conan O'Brien's commencement speech at Dartmouth. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend taking the 24 minutes to do so. He's funny, inspirational, and in the last 8 minutes or so offers remarkable insight on the nature of failure and not getting what you think you want–it's every bit as applicable to marching to your own freelance drum.

    Oh, and GO BRUINS!

  • Lori June 15, 2011 at 8:13 pm

    I saw that, Jake! It was hilarious. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Wendy June 15, 2011 at 9:55 pm

    What about the content farms being a "great way to get experience working with editors"? I have yet to understand that one.

  • Anne Wayman June 15, 2011 at 11:40 pm

    Well, I guess I'm guilty of a couple of these… the write what you know… and I grew up in a pretty small town… which didn't mean I didn't have some experience with life. I was able to write about having kids and also recovering from drug and alcohol addiction… life didn't get really interesting for me until I got sober, or maybe it was and I just didn't notice. So I'll stick with that one.

    Agree re blogging… and now when I suggest/nag writers into creating a website I urge the blog software, not so they will blog, but so they can update their own site without paying someone else.

    I love Paula's write what you want to know… so true.

    Agree with Wade re niche… I am a serial nicher.

  • Jenn Mattern June 16, 2011 at 1:40 am

    I think the niche issue is sometimes because people think specialization means you can only specialize in one thing. But that's not the case.

    In my experience clients are willing to pay significantly more for a specialized writer who can bring expertise and unique experiences to the table than they will pay for a generalist — someone who claims they can write in any style about anything under the sun and do it well.

    That said, niches aren't the only way to specialize. You can specialize in a type of writing and cover many niches (like some magazine writers I know do). That can be just as effective for attracting higher paying clients as niche expertise.

    And now I'm just hyped up on caffeine and babbling I think. ๐Ÿ˜€

  • Kagem June 16, 2011 at 5:33 am

    I think the extending the life of your articles point is absolutely spot-on. I know that some writers/professionals have succeeded this way but it has never happened for me.

    Perhaps a better way is simply trying to find new ideas and selling them that way.

    I also agree with your first point about presenting saleable copy, because frankly in copywriting, that's the only thing that matters. If it sells, you eat.

  • Lori June 16, 2011 at 12:51 pm

    Jenn, good observation. I've found that, too. I can write about risk management issues for finance, accounting, healthcare, technology, insurance, you name it. That one specialty alone nets me work in several different industries. Then I build on creating more opportunities in those areas.

    Decaf. ๐Ÿ™‚ But you're not babbling – maybe only internally. LOL

    Kagem, I think with practice, you can extend an article's life. It's not hard once you start seeing a topic from a few angles. Maybe practice with ideas. Formulate that first query, then think "Who else might be affected by this/needs to know this?"

    Obviously not all ideas can be shared across genres, but give it a shot. I bet you'll surprise yourself. ๐Ÿ™‚