Like many freelance professionals, I sometimes feel self-conscious when meeting with prospective clients for the first time. I recently got to see what the sales process feels like from the other side of the table, and it was quite illuminating.
Launching a freelance career in the creative industry can challenge your confidence like nothing you’ve done before, especially at first. Don’t worry, it happens to all of us. When I started my own freelance copywriting business more than 13 years ago, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it either.
Many things may feel new and uncomfortable, but you’ll need to get over these anxieties quickly to get your new freelance career off the ground. Here are six ways to overcome the urge to pre-apologize, boost your confidence, and build your credibility.
Whether you’re a solopreneur or the owner of a small agency with a few employees, many of the same skills you would use for staying fit — regularly setting goals, tracking progress, and measuring results — also apply to keeping a creative business healthy. And the healthier your business is, the less effort it takes to keep it in shape.
One of the perks of being a writer is that you don’t need a huge suite of software to break into the business. The days when a pencil and a notepad were enough are long gone, but these days you can get by with a cheap laptop or tablet, a word processor, and an Internet connection.
That being said, knowing a few of the most common software tools used by editors and designers can make you more versatile — and more marketable. It’s worth investing a little time to get to know them.
Reviewing tools of Microsoft Word
Have you ever looked at an edited document and wondered what’s changed? There’s no mystery with Word’s reviewing tools. From the moment you or a collaborator clicks the “Track Changes” button, Word highlights everything — and I do mean everything — that changes in a document.
You’ll know at a glance where a word was changed, where a serial comma was added, what was added or deleted, who did it, and when. A black line in the left-hand margin indicates where changes have been made. New text is highlighted in a color that’s unique to the user who made the change, and deleted text appears in a bubble in the right-hand margin with the same color code. Users can also add comments that don’t modify or become part of the body copy.
Buttons in the review bar allow users to click through each individual change, reducing the chance that you’ll miss something. As the editing process proceeds, reviewers can accept or reject changes, making them disappear.
The highlights are fairly intuitive and designed to keep the document readable. Be aware, however, that colors for each user are assigned locally on each individual’s machine — your editor’s comments might show up in red on your screen but in green on someone else’s.
If Word is the standard for text editing and proofing, Acrobat is the complement for graphic designers. In addition to text reviewing features, Acrobat adds annotation and markup tools that allow you to scribble, post sticky notes, attach files, apply pre-designed “stamps” and sign off with digital signatures. If you regularly work with designers or need to review text in draft layouts, Acrobat gives everyone on the team an easy way to interact.
Acrobat’s tools are a bit more free-form than Word’s, but you can still access everything in a Comments List to make sure you don’t miss anything. Better still, each item has a checkbox so you can easily keep track of what you’ve already dealt with.
If you’re working with a savvy designer who knows how to activate commenting for collaborators, you can access many of these features using the free Adobe Reader. If you do a lot of this sort of thing, consider purchasing the full version of Acrobat — that way your designer won’t have to jump through any hoops to make editing features accessible to you.
A growing number of websites are being built in WordPress, partly because it’s easy for non-programmers to use, and partly because the explosion of content marketing has created demand for regular content updates.
A writer who knows WordPress has a competitive edge when working with clients like this, because he or she can load copy directly onto the site, freeing up the in-house team for other tasks. An editor or content manager still needs to review the work before it goes live, but can preview it exactly as it will appear. It’s also a godsend for the client when a blazing-hot deadline is looming.
Trust is essential in this type of workflow, so you may not want to dive in until you have a good feel for the working relationship you have with your writer. It’s also best for the writer and design team to agree ahead of time on key design conventions, such as how style sheets should be used.
Bonus tools (nice, but not essential)
Adobe Creative Suite
Writers who work regularly with designers don’t really need the Adobe Creative Suite, but having access to it and knowing how it works can give you a valuable window into the mind of your artsy colleagues. Designers who spend most of their time in Illustrator or Photoshop, for example, think about copy differently from those who build their masterpieces in InDesign. If you’re so inclined, you might also use the suite to offer additional services like indexing or variable data.
If you regularly work with web copy, whether in WordPress or some other tool, it doesn’t hurt to know a few basics of HTML, the code structure that runs the Internet. Knowing what’s going on “under the hood” allows you to peek backstage.
Monkeying with code can quickly lead you down time-sinking rabbit holes, so you’ll want to carefully balance how much of this sort of thing you do against the time you spend writing copy. Knowing just enough can save a web designer time by enabling you to write code-friendly prose and do a little basic troubleshooting on your own. I also like to keep tabs on how hyperlinks in my web copy work, for example, by making sure that they open in new windows when clicked — something text editors sometimes overlook.
About a week before the Thanksgiving holiday I had an additional reason to be thankful — a bit of extra cash I didn’t have to do a lick of work for.
Okay, that’s not completely accurate. I did do one small thing to earn this “free money.” I hit the forward button in my email app.
A few years after I started my freelance business I attended a weekend-long series of Lindy Hop classes. I had already been dancing Lindy for a few years by then, and was looking forward to learning advanced techniques from a team of out-of-town instructors.
I arrived with one of my regular dance partners, who I’ll call Diane (because that happens to be her name). The first session was about to start but the high-level stuff was scheduled for later in the day. The cool instructors were kicking off the weekend with a workshop on the basics of Lindy Hop—moves Diane and I had mastered long ago.
Reviewing the fundamentals of any skill is a valuable exercise, but Diane and I were both craving something more that day. So we created our own challenge by swapping roles. Diane danced the “lead” part (what’s traditionally thought of as the male role in partner dancing) while I joined the circle as a “follower.” Diane literally doubled over with laughter the first time I did a hip swivel while waving my hand in the air. I looked—and felt—pretty silly.
Yet as it turned out, I learned a lot more from that hour or two of role reversal than from the rest of the weekend.
I haven’t been able to remember what the advanced classes were about for many years, but I never forgot how it felt to dance like a follower. It made me aware of things I was doing as a leader that could confuse or distract my partner. I also learned a few things skilled leaders do to help followers have more fun. Diane, in turn, discovered one of the biggest challenges leaders face—having to perform one dance move while deciding what the next one will be. We were both better dancers when we left that “basic” workshop.
This experience also illustrates one of the writer’s roles in the creative process. Whether you’re writing your own copy or preparing a brief for a hired scribe, part of the job is to get into the heads of the people you want to reach, whether they’re potential customers, voters, donors, or whatever. The more you know what it’s like to be in their shoes, the more likely you are to write in a voice that speaks to what they really want and need.
You don’t have to do hip swivels and wave your hand in the air to learn what it’s like to be your buyers (unless you’re selling dancing shoes, in which case I highly recommend it). The key is to do something, however small, to get a window into their world. Interview the type of people you want to reach—or think you want to reach—to find out where your strengths overlap their needs. Read what they read, watch what they watch, visit the websites and social media groups they like.
You may find that all your assumptions about your readers are correct. If so, great! But it’s more likely you’ll discover at least a few insights that will change the way you do business, making the marketing dance with your best potential buyers far more effective—and profitable.
No matter how well you know and like your writer, some kind of written agreement is always a good idea. It makes expectations clear and protects everyone involved.
Some designers create separate contracts for each job, while others ask for a broader agreement spelling out the terms of the working relationship. Many use both, defining the relationship in one general contract, then detailing the specifics of each job in separate agreements on an as-needed basis. It’s a good idea to consult an attorney when creating the template for your standard contract or letter of agreement.
At a minimum, your agreement with your writer should include:
- A list of deliverables the writer is being engaged to prepare for any specific job.
- The project schedule, including all key deadlines.
- Terms of the writer’s compensation, including any payments that will be made in advance or upon reaching certain stages (for example, upon submission of the first draft).
- How many rounds of revisions are covered by the compensation (typically 2–3), and how additional compensation will be handled if the project exceeds this scope.
- What information, if any, the writer is expected to keep confidential.
- Who owns the work. Most jobs are “work for hire,” in which the client retains all rights to the finished product. Another item that should be stated explicitly is whether or not the writer may use the finished product as a sample of their work for his or her own self-promotion.
- Length of the agreement.
- How disputes are to be resolved. For example, some contracts state that disputes should be handled in arbitration rather than via a lawsuit.
Your contract might also include:
- Details on communication with clients. Can the writer contact clients directly? Do they need to go through you or some other representative of your business? Is it okay to have direct communication as long as you are CCed on any messages?
- A non-compete clause, specifying a reasonable amount of time during which your writer may not work with a direct competitor. This period is usually stated in terms of the end of your working relationship, such as a period of 6 months after you stop working together.
The story of IBM’s “think” campaign is a favorite anecdote among speakers and writers concerned with success. Originally developed by IBM founder Thomas J. Watson, Sr., the single word “think” first appeared in IBM offices, plants and company publications in the 1920s. By the early 1930s, it had crowded out most other inspirational slogans used by the company.
While I don’t pretend to be in the same class as IBM, I too have adopted a one-word slogan for my creative business. It’s boosted my productivity by changing the way I work and — no pun intended — think about my business. And it can do the same thing for you.
Some designers prefer to work with writers as subcontractors so they can provide a single-source solution to their clients. Others simply introduce the client and the writer to one another, then step aside to allow them to make a separate financial arrangement.
My design clients tend to use these two payment models about equally. While each has its merits, you’ll probably find that your business model will make one approach more logical than the other.
Here are a few questions to consider:
Do you want to be the one-stop manager of a virtual team?
If your design business positions itself as a “one-stop shop” or serves clients who value your ability to make things as easy for them as possible, give serious consideration to working with the writer as a subcontractor. You’ll be taking on a bit more responsibility, but you’ll also have more creative control.
Do you want to mark up the writer’s rate?
Your introduction provides a service to both of the other parties. The writer gets a gig that probably wouldn’t have come his or her way without you. The client doesn’t have to go hunting for a writer or pay someone internal to create the copy. Both of these conveniences have a value, and there’s nothing wrong with adding 10–15% to the writer’s cost to compensate you for your efforts. It’s a lot easier to do that if you’re managing the whole relationship.
Are you willing to take on extra paperwork and responsibility?
Subcontracting your writing talent makes you the one who’s ultimately accountable to the client for both deadlines and the quality of the writer’s work. It also makes you a middleman for the writer’s paycheck, and experienced writers typically expect to get a portion of their fee in advance. If you’re managing the relationship you’ll want to make sure that the writer’s up-front cost is built into the advance you receive from the client.
Ultimately, the decision comes down to what you want most: creative control or freedom from responsibility. Subcontracting gives you more control along with more obligations, while a separate arrangement provides less of each.
…and why they’re wrong, wrong, wrong.
Being an introvert doesn’t mean you can’t master the skills of interacting with people and generating freelance business; it simply means the process feels effortful, especially in groups.
Many extroverts claim you should just “get over it” and act like an extrovert (or better yet, force yourself to become one). But there’s a much better solution for freelance introverts: use your natural introvert strengths to get ahead.