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Freelancing to pay the Bills : John Lynch

 

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JohnLynch_034 B_W 600 pixelsSuccessful author John Lynch explains why he started freelancing, how he does it, and what you need to do to follow his example.

Indie or traditionally published, most fiction writers struggle to earn much money. A nincompoop recently said in The Guardian that she had earned £5,000 for two years work but couldn’t think of going indie because she’d have to give up writing for a living. £5,000 in two years is a living? She’s having a laugh.

Amazon ratings are like yo-yos but one of my books spent most of April in the Amazon historical fiction top 100 in America. That probably means I’m outselling the nincompoop; still the Lambo and the chateau elude me. I don’t have expensive tastes but I do have a family. What to do?

My solution has been freelancing. I sold my first freelance piece to Good Housekeeping Magazine in 1989 – the same year as BBC Radio 4 took my first short story and a traditional publisher brought out my first book. Right now, as well as selling ad hoc pieces to anyone who’ll buy them I have these regular clients:

  • Two marketing agencies, one in the UK and one in California
  • B2B software companies in Texas and Illinois
  • An agency for whom I write complete websites
  • An American SEO ninja working for a number of clients who subcontracts the actual writing to me
  • Two trade magazines
  • A ghostwriting agency

I don’t want to seem like a writing tart but in the last two days I’ve written blog posts on:

  • Famous dance designers and the outfits they created
  • Possible effect of Brexit on UK employment law
  • Changes to the Saudi economy following the collapse in the oil price
  • Keeping your bike on the road – maintenance for the casual rider
  • Benefits of outsourcing and preferred outsourcing locations

I’ve also completed a 12,000 word piece on eCommerce that the client will use as a downloadable pdf and written four web pages for an American data center, colocation and cloud hosting company.

As it happens, I’ve spent a lot of time in Saudi and I am a cyclist – but I knew nothing about the other topics before I picked them up. I’ve also become an expert on America’s Drug Supply Chain Security Act. (Listen, I said it paid. I didn’t say all of it was interesting).

People will tell you the bottom has fallen out of the freelance writing market and it’s true that outsourcing to the Indian subcontinent drove fees down to a level where there was no point in working – but savvy clients are back onshore and paying sensible rates because the outsourcing was a disaster. Indian English has a charm all its own but it isn’t British, American, Canadian, Australian or New Zealand English and outside India it doesn’t sell things.

I don’t have space to reproduce here everything in my book, How To Make Money As A Freelance Writer, but I can tell you the most important things you need to know.

Be prepared to work very hard. I freelance three hours a day, seven days a week, and then I stop because the whole point of freelancing for me is to leave time for “my” writing, which means my fiction.

Understand your value and don’t take less. You’ll be offered work by people who base their rates on what part-timers on the subcontinent charge. They’ll want you to write for 1 cent a word. Just say no.

You have to be able to write. That may sound obvious, but you need to be pretty damn good and a lot of people who think they are, aren’t.

Don’t be precious about your writing. You’re writing for a fee. The client will edit your piece. When it goes live you may see commas and exclamation marks where no commas and exclamation marks should be. Say nothing. You handed it over and it’s no longer yours. (If it’s really bad, and it has your name on, it’s okay to ask them to remove your byline).

Deadlines are sacrosanct. Don’t take on a piece unless you’re sure you can finish it on time. There aren’t any excuses.

What a difference SEO makes. Two blog posts, each about 800 words. I wrote them both last week. For one, I was paid £35; for the other, £120. Why the difference? It’s simple. The first was a straightforward piece of writing; I used a couple of keywords the client had given me, but mostly I was simply dictating onto the page the words that said what the client wanted said. Including a small amount of research, editing and proofreading, it was done and dusted in an hour.

I spent three hours on the other one, because the client had very specific SEO requirements. I was given a set of keywords and I did some research to find more. I also looked for Latent Semantic Indexing keywords, which I scattered here and there. I stuck in some Bucket Brigade expressions, though that isn’t SEO and I’d have done it anyway – I did it in the £35 piece, too.

Then, having written my first draft, I restructured the whole thing with paragraphs, headings (including an H1 and an H2 header) and subheadings, a list of bullet points and a strengthened Call To Action in the final para. Then I added three quotations, an internal link within the website and three links to high-value external websites. Finally, I indicated where I thought graphics might profitably be used. (I didn’t attempt the graphics themselves because I’m a words person and I am to graphics what Wayne Rooney is to the violin).

If expressions like Bucket Brigade and Latent Semantic Indexing are new to you, you need to master them if you want to tap into this valuable market. I cover the subject to some extent in my johnlynchfreelanceauthor.biz blog. If you’d like more, email me.

Two cheers for Upwork. Upwork is a content mill; if you’re not familiar with the term, I define it in How To Make Money As A Freelance Writer like this:

The phenomenal growth of the Web and its appetite for words has combined with the availability of “writers”, more often than not from the Indian subcontinent, whose grasp of English idiom, grammar, sentence construction and the like fails to match the standard they think it reaches. What they write is, to be blunt, not very good though, to be fair, they don’t know that and it doesn’t matter anyway because there are lots of customers happy to take content that isn’t very good onto their websites and blogs in the mistaken belief that only SEO matters and that the rubbish they offer the world boosts their search engine rankings. There’s nothing to be done about that; customers will continue to offer jobs at one penny a word and “writers” will continue to accept them. I talk about Copify and Upwork and the other content mills in Chapter 4; despite what some freelancers will tell you it isn’t a disgrace to work for them (though it is likely to bore you to tears and to feel like a terrible chore) so if you want to, this book will tell you how.

Upwork, though, is more than merely a content mill and, if you are serious about freelancing to pay the bills, you need to be on there. When you first register, you’ll find you have serious competition from the kind of writer I describe and you may have to take some jobs for less money than they should command but stick with it. Do the very best job you can and, each time you finish a job, ask the client to rate your performance.

After a while, you’ll find that you start to win better jobs at better rates. Then (I’m assuming that you’re a good writer and that client ratings are good – customer satisfaction needs to be 91% or more) you’ll find you’ve been given Rising Star status. Frankly, that means very little – but keep going and, if you’re good enough, eventually you will reach Top Rated status and that’s when things change. It doesn’t happen in a hurry; it took me six months to become top rated and fewer than one in ten Upwork writers ever get there – but, if you do, you’ll find you’re now eligible for much better jobs; you’ll also find that, as well as Top Rated writers, there is also a level of clients you never came into contact with until this point.

You can go even further, by becoming an Upwork Premium Author – a recently introduced category designed to mark out Upwork from the competition and at the same time to give special talents the chance to stand out from the crowd.

So why do I say only two cheers for Upwork instead of three? Well, partly because of the rat race element I’ve already mentioned but also because a number of jobs offered on Upwork are not what they seem and you need to exercise caution. I deal in my book with how to read an Upwork ad and the danger signals you should look out for.

If a client only registered with Upwork yesterday or today, they’re offering a lot of money, they have received a number of proposals and they are interviewing all or almost all of them, you are probably looking at a scam. If you are asked to transfer the conversation to Skype, decline. If you are asked to pay money to register with that client, decline. It’s quite normal on Upwork to be asked to download a file, but if the file is executable, decline. (All three of those things have happened to me). Click on “Report as inappropriate” at the top right hand corner of the job ad and let Upwork know why you think it’s a scam. In my experience, they act fast to get the ad off the site.

Be good to your clients and (most of) your clients will be good to you. I mentioned earlier the guide to best practice in e-commerce that I wrote for a client. Very early on, it contains this:

The single most important element in e-commerce is not the one-off sale, but building a long-term customer relationship and winning repeat business.

That’s also very important in freelancing. Sometimes what you think is going to be a one-off or at the very best short term job turns out to be anything but – they like what you do and they go on giving you assignments. And they tell other people about you. Referrals are now my biggest source of customers. Just this week, two existing customers each introduced me to two others. I’m negotiating terms with the newbies; if this happens to you, follow my example and ask the person requesting permission to pass on your contact details, “Have you told them what you pay me?” If they say they haven’t, then tell them that you’re going to quote the new people just a little more than the referring customer pays you. And do so.

When I retired from international sales, one of my customers said, “The best thing about you, John, was that it didn’t matter whether the deal was big or small. You always looked after us as though we were your only customer and as though everything we needed, however insignificant, was important.” I carried that attitude into my freelance writing and I suggest you do the same. Never take on a job unless you know you can complete it on time and make sure you have a foolproof diary method so that you don’t overlook a deadline. Take as much care over the 300 word job as you would over 10,000 words. I promise you, it will pay off.

Waste not, want not. One of the agencies I work for has a client selling upmarket undies to both men and women. They didn’t think my piece, From Harvest Festivals to the Thong; 100 Years of Ladies’ Knickers was right for their market so I gave them Men’s Underwear Has Changed Since Grandad’s Day. Has Yours? which they did like. I didn’t waste the Harvest Festivals piece, though – I sent it to a lad’s mag.

A pitch a day keeps the bailiffs away. Don’t get too comfortable. You’re not married to your clients and they’re not tied to you, so don’t stop putting yourself out there. You’ve got to sell yourself. Shrinking violets will not make it in the freelance world.

I’ve been happy to talk about what I do – expose my secrets, if you like – because there’s enough business to go round. IF you really can write and you’re prepared to be serious about it. Give it a go and find out.

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