Posts Tagged ‘mailbag’

5 Signs a Freelance Writer Should Become an Agency

Posted in Blog on February 11th, 2014 by Carol Tice – 26 Comments

Freelance writer has hired a team to write for himIf you’ve been watching a lot of Mad Men, you might start to dream of expanding your freelance writing business into an agency. That show certainly makes working at an ad agency seem glamorous, no?

The agency model sounds alluring. You find clients, then sit back, let others do the work, give it a quick little edit, and boom — make a big cut of the fee.

Or at least that’s the dream, as expressed by this writer who recently wrote me looking for input on his plan:

“I’m starting a writing and editing business.  My business model is to outsource to trusted friends and people in my network who are willing to help.  They all have advanced degrees, are amazing writers, and are also subject-matter experts.

“Can you give me your take on outsourcing?”  -Evan

Sure, I can: Starting a freelance business from scratch with the idea that you will instantly be an agency is not going to work.

The agency model works when there is a high volume of projects, as 50 percent or more of the pay will be going to other people. The volume needs to be high enough that by taking a 30-70 percent markup on each gig, you can make a living.

Needing to charge more to cover both the writer’s fee and your own cuts the client pool down. You’ll need to find bigger companies, in general, with the budgets to pay these bigger fees.

Especially if you’re hiring your friends, it’s going to be hard to take a big markup, as you’ll want to pay them well.

To sum up this little math exercise, you might need three or four times as much work or more to make close to the living you would have if you simply wrote for a smaller stable of clients.

Why newbies can’t be an agency

The big problem is, when you first start out, it’s hard to find clients. Any clients. Much less good-paying ones.

It takes a lot of marketing hustle to get those first few clients. Then, it takes more time to find good-paying ones that have a steady stream of work.

Give up most of the income from your writing gigs at this point, and you won’t have much left.

That is not to say that writers should never switch to the agency model. Some have done so quite successfully.

How do you know it’s time to consider becoming an agency? Here are five clues:

1. You have too much work

You’ve built your freelance business and you’re working too many hours now. Or you’re turning down gigs and leaving money on the table…money you might keep some of if you hired subcontractors.

You have enough client volume that you could earn a better living keeping a percent of all that than you do turning down gigs and writing only the best ones yourself.

2. You love marketing & have a great rep

When you’re an agency, you have more mouths to feed. You can’t ever have downtime, or your stable of writers will drift away and possibly be unavailable the next time you need them.

You want to have enough contacts that tapping them will bring you a large volume of ongoing projects. Your network will want to send you clients because you’ve established your credibility as a freelance writer and have a great reputation.

Barring having an amazing network up your sleeve, you’ll need sharp marketing skills and an eagerness to devote many hours to marketing and finding clients.

3. You know many freelance writers

While the writer above imagines his business can run off the aid of his personal writer friends, that path is fraught with problems. Are you going to be able to tell your best friend the client hates their writing and the copy all needs to be rewritten? Do you think you can even be objective about your friends’ writing?

What you need as an agency head are professional contacts with lots of writers.

Remember that good writers are often fully booked. They may not be available when you need them, or at rates you can afford to pay as an agency.

4. You like managing people

This one is important. As an agency head, you won’t be writing. You’ll be shepherding projects.

Your job is to:

  • talk to the client and find out everything needed to do the gig
  • find and hire suitable writers
  • train them up on your needs and the writing needs of this client
  • keep them on track
  • call them when they blow their deadline
  • call another writer when that writer flakes out
  • stay up all night editing the late work to make deadline
  • explain to the client why their project is late

…and so on.

You are a manager. Do you communicate clearly? It’s important because now you’re playing telephone — often, you’re talking to the client and then telling the writer what they said. The writer has a question which you relay to the client, and then relay back the answer.

There is more opportunity for miscommunication than when you were writing for clients, so you need really stellar skills here.

5. You prefer editing to writing

Unless you hire an editor as well, you will be combing through your writers’ work and getting it in shape to be turned in to clients.

You might think that’ll be an easy gig due to your awesome writers, but don’t bet on it. You’d be surprised the junk even pro writers turn in on occasion.

There’s also the issue of changing client needs and priorities, where they assigned 1,000 words but they’ve decided last-minute they want 750. Guess who’s going to fix that? You.

Why I’m not an agency

As it happens, I’ve asked myself these questions, starting back in mid-2011. I’d built my freelance writing business so big that I had way more leads than I could handle myself. It’s great to be able to pick and choose your clients…but I’d reached a point where I was turn down some nice offers.

I scaled back on active marketing, but I was still turning away leads that came from my writer website and LinkedIn profile.

As I thought about it, I realized I’d been on the other end of this equation — I’d been a subcontractor for another writer who’d just gone to the agency model. Formerly a very successful corporate speechwriter, as an agency the man was a complete mental case, routinely screaming at and randomly firing some of his new ‘team’ almost every week.

Recalling how unhappy he was trying to manage my project convinced me becoming an agency was a stress nightmare I wanted to avoid.

I don’t enjoy managing people and editing as much as I enjoy writing, and most of the good writers I know wouldn’t want to write for lower-than-usual rates to be subcontractors.

It’s harder to get and keep good subs than the writer above imagines.

Instead, I focused on raising my rates and being selective about client projects as my route to higher pay. And I send my extra leads to the Freelance Writers Den job board.

Yes, I could keep those gigs and take a cut, but I believe the headaches would not be worth it.

Ever considered becoming an agency, or worked for another writer? Share your experience in the comments.



How to Boost Your Sagging Motivation for Writing

Posted in Blog on December 8th, 2013 by Carol Tice – 37 Comments

Tired young businesswoman falling asleep behind the deskYou’re all fired up to be a freelance writer — in theory, at least.

But sometimes, we all get the blahs. You stare at the blank screen or page…and nothing.

You’re willing to do almost anything else — if you just didn’t have to sit down and actually write anything.

It’s crazy, since supposedly this is the life you want.

But it still happens. You feel like a deflated balloon.

You’ve lost your inner drive to get the writing done.

For instance, here’s a comment we got recently inside Freelance Writers Den:

“I’m having trouble staying focused. I don’t have a lot of time to write because we’re getting ready to move in 10 days and I have a toddler at home.

“But even when I have time, I find my thoughts wandering to everything else but writing. Then, I end up Googling unrelated stuff, playing Candy Crush Saga, or reading everyone’s Facebook posts.

“I’m normally great about staying focused, so this is really frustrating to me. Any suggestions for how I can get my focus back?”–Andrea

Like I said, it happens. So what’s the solution?

To find out, this writer needs to ask a few important questions to figure out how to kill the malaise and rediscover their love of writing. Here are some basic issues I’d look at:

Are you too tired?

Lack of sleep is the quickest creativity killer out there. Stop staying up late doing online chat or playing Bejeweled (talking to myself there) and map out eight or more hours for rest.

As someone who often tries to get by on six and a half and who recently slept 10 hours one vacation evening, I can tell you it will make a difference.

Got enough child care?

I’ve discovered that many writer-moms have fantasies about how much writing they can get done while also doing child care. Because really, you will get little writing done– and the whole time you’ll feel like an evil giant has a hand on either side of your brain and is trying to tear it in half.

And the amount of marketing will probably be zero.

Whether you try a babysitting co-op, do a swap with another WAHM, hire a sitter, pay for more child care programs, or get hubby to shoulder more kiddie time, the bottom line is the same: You will be amazed at how productivity soars once you can actually think for five minutes without someone who needs feeding/changing/reading/holding/singing/bathing/your every waking moment of attention.

Unrealistic expectations?

Whether it’s imagining you’ll crank out articles while tending three kids under age four, while packing moving boxes, or after you get home from a day job, writers tend to be over-ambitious in imagining what can get done.

Then, when we fall short of our high standards, we get depressed and want to write even less.

So get real about how much time you’ve got for writing and what you can accomplish within it. Then, start scheming about how to get yourself more writing time so that you can check off more from your list.


The number-one thing new freelance writers tell me is that they look at all the things they should be doing and all the options in the freelancing marketplace, and feel totally overwhelmed.

If this is you, it’s time to put on the blinders, screen out most of what’s going on, and focus.

What do you want to do most? What resonates for you as a type of writing you would do well?

Too many writers try to write all different kinds of things and in every industry…but being a generalist is a ticket to nowhere. Think about your interests, life experience, and past jobs, and take the easy road by writing in subjects you know. You’ll find good clients more easily and move up quicker.


Sometimes the sudden lack of writing motivation comes because you’re burned out. You’ve just been clocking too many hours, and the creative well is dry. The fun has gone out of writing.

If so, it may be time to see if there’s a low-paying client you could drop to give you a break.

Not eating right?

There’s a stereotype of freelancers sitting home guzzling coffee by the gallon and munching ice cream or Doritos all day while they work…because it’s easy for freelancers to get into bad eating habits, home alone all day with the fridge like we are.

And many of us get on deadlines, get stressed, and start inhaling whole candy bars instead of nibble carrots. I wonder how I know that…

Anyway. If your energy is low, try eating to nourish your body. Banish the junk food, don’t over-caffeinate, and take in lots of fresh fruits and veggies. You may find the ideas start perking again pretty quick.

Don’t have a home office?

If you don’t have a comfortable space that’s set up for writing, it can hit your productivity. You never feel quite ready to do the writing. I have one writer friend who tries to write while parked on her couch in the TV room amidst eight other activities, and it’s a disaster.

See what you can do to find a dedicated space that’s all yours for writing. Even if it’s an alcove in the dining room. I know one writer with a small home and many kids who rented a room in a friend’s house and headed down the street for writing time. Which brings us to…

Tired of your home office?

Sometimes working from home can become a rut. There are no coworkers. Some people find that deadly dull and unstimulating.

Consider writing from a park, a coffeeshop, a co-working office. Change up the routine and see if that doesn’t shake a few writing ideas loose.

Doing writing you don’t enjoy?

Finally, sometimes the lack of writing energy relates to the type of writing gigs you’ve taken on. Maybe you’ve written all the blog posts about surety bonds you can reasonably do, and it’s time to find new clients.

Recognize if your mix of writing assignments is wearing you down and head the problem off before a client fires you. Maybe some creative writing of your own can provide balance, or it may be time to do more marketing and switch to new paid writing gigs.

Whatever the root cause of the motivation slump, rest assured — every writer has fallow times. And they will end.

How do you get your writing mojo back? Leave a comment with your tips.

How One Freelance Writer Blew It and Went Broke

Posted in Blog on August 30th, 2013 by Carol Tice – 53 Comments

Disappointed business man shows business going brokeI try to keep this an upbeat blog full of helpful advice on how to earn more as a freelance writer.

But it’s not all sweetness and $1-a-word assignments out there.

Sometimes, freelance writers get into big trouble. And then, they write me.

Below is one recent letter I got that really broke my heart (edited for length). I wanted to share it because I think this writer’s experience holds some cautionary lessons for all freelance writers:

Dear Carol,

I am a writer – an online B2C and B2B copywriter.  In 2012 I graduated with a BA in communication science. By that time I had already acquired eight years of experience in writing and four in sales. Seems great, right? Far from it.

I’ve worked on both a freelance and full-time basis, the [former] of which I’m once again pursuing. In hope of making a success this time round, I’m treating my freelance career as a business and I’m in the process of registering my own company [and choosing a business name].

My rates are neither high nor low. I communicate in a professional manner and my writing speaks for itself.  However, every client that shows interest in my service ends up choosing some dollar-a-job wannabe who can barely string a sentence together.

I can’t understand why so-called businessmen sacrifice the quality of their content to save a few bucks. It makes just as much sense as using a hammer and chisel to avoid the cost of dental expertise.

Where on Earth are all the legitimate businesses hiding?

I’m literally down to my last penny.–Dylan

This sort of letter makes me sad because it’s too late for me to help. And it’s probably too late for this writer to stick with freelance writing.

It’s time to get a day job.

Once you’re flat broke, it’s nearly impossible to make this work. You need money to live on while you build your business.

If you didn’t get the hang of finding good-paying writing clients on your own and you have no money to invest in even a cheap ebook on freelancing, you are out of options.

Where did this writer go wrong, and how could he have prevented this situation? I see two big missteps that led this writer to go bust:

Chasing the wrong kind of clients

When all your prospects go with the lowest-priced offer, your marketing is off-target.

You’re swimming in the wrong client pool — the one where startup websites are slapping up SEO-optimized junk content in hopes of driving clicks to their ads. And it’s not working, and they have no money to pay writers.

Likely, this writer was getting clients off the big online freelance-writer job boards, Craigslist, content mills, or race-to-the-bottom platforms such as Elance. On this stage, you compete with hundreds of other writers from all over the world, including places where the cost of living is far lower.

This is not where you want to look for clients. As he notes, you’ll keep getting beat out by $1-a-job desperados.

To find the sort of clients who pay professional rates, you have to identify successful businesses with real marketing budgets to hire freelancers. The kind of businesses who can’t hire someone who’s semi-literate to slap up garbage — they need sophisticated content that builds their authority in their industry and gets them customer leads.

Then, instead of waiting for them to advertise that they need a writer, you reach out to them — send an email, call them, meet them at a networking event — and pitch them your services.

If you don’t know how to do that, you need to learn.

Instead, this freelancer engaged in a form of insanity — repeatedly doing the same failed marketing approaches and expecting to get a different result. Until the money ran out.

No writer website

Now that he’s gone broke, the writer reports he is getting up a writer website and taking his business seriously.

Putting up a writer website should be the first step in launching a freelance writing business, not an afterthought. Without a professional-looking writer website, it’s difficult to impress quality clients that you are worth good rates.

The lack of a website no doubt contributed to his finding himself competing for lowball clients — and losing out.

Looking over the website mock-up he sent me, my heart sank again. There were branding, design, and usability mistakes in the site that were going to make it fail as a tool for getting him found by prospects and showing his work in the best light.

I see this all too often, in the hundreds of writer websites I’ve reviewed in the Den. You don’t need just any old, slapped-up writer website — you need to build a writer website that works to get you clients.

If you don’t know how to create a site that gets you found by prospects doing online searches for freelance writers — and impresses them once they click over to your site — you need to learn.

But if you’re out of money, it’s hard to make this important investment in your business, much less pay for hosting or design or Web support.

What to do if you go bust

If you go broke trying to be a freelance writer, is it the end of your writing dreams? Not necessarily.

I know plenty of writers who ended up going back and getting a day job for a while, to rebuild their savings.

Some freelanced on the side while they worked, to build their knowledge of freelancing and their client base. Maybe they got up a freelance website and started learning how to turn that into a client magnet.

The smart ones invested some of their income to learn more about how to freelance smart and find better clients.

Then, they quit and returned to freelancing, often with better results. As long as you’re breathing, there’s always a chance to try again.

What do you think this writer should do? Leave a comment and add your advice.

The Essential Item You Need for Freelance Success That No One Dares Name

Posted in Blog on January 25th, 2013 by Carol Tice – 180 Comments

Asian woman keeps a secretRecently, I began asking new subscribers to this blog to tell me their top obstacles as freelance writers right now.

The responses have been interesting, and in some cases surprising.

Quite a few of them are like this one:

“I enjoy your blog & I find it informative, but I’m still left with questions or uncertainty. I can’t afford your mentoring program, Freelance Writers Den, or even to hire/create a website (for now).

I would like guidance, so I can be sure I’m doing well in starting my business, as well as have any questions answered. I want to start off on the right foot, so to speak. How can I connect with other successful freelance writers & ask them to mentor/help me?”–Kay

So. This is awkward.

I have bad news for Kay. Even if there was a mythical free awesome professional writing coach who’d take her on as a charity case, and she got the mentoring she wants, her freelance writing business would still fail.

Why? Kay lacks an important — no, critical — thing you simply must have to launch a freelance business, of any kind.

I’m going to tell you what it is…even though I know it may make some writers hopping mad.

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen this uncomfortable issue discussed on a freelance-oriented website before.

But I think it’s not fair to delude writers who have no chance of making it as freelancers.

It’s going to be a dream-crusher for some. I apologize in advance.

Here’s the thing you need to know if you’re embarking on a freelance career:

What’s in your wallet?

To start a freelance business — or any kind of business, really — you need money.

But you wouldn’t know it to read most websites about writing, or freelancing, or building an Internet business.

There’s a disease going around about this right now that I’m going to call “no cost syndrome.”

The popular myth is that running an Internet-based business — a blog, or a freelance business — doesn’t cost anything.

Chris Guillebeau’s $100 Startup book is only the most recent tome to promote this idea.

Writers keep trying to start a freelance or Internet-based business…not on a shoestring, but on flat nuthin’. And then wondering, why they failed to make it work and had to give up and find a day job.

Here’s the reality: Ramping a startup business until it pays your bills — especially, making it take off quickly — takes money.

Whether it’s opening a shop on Main Street or putting out a shingle as a freelance writer, you have to invest in your business to make it succeed.

I get the sense it must be bad manners to mention this. Everyone wants to hear that freelancing is the awesome, magical business that defies all laws of ordinary commerce. And that you can start dead broke and you’ll skyrocket to amazing riches.

But boil it down, and freelancing is like any other business — it takes money to make money.

And meanwhile, your rent is still coming due.

How to be a freelance success

At this point in the 21st Century, if you want to present yourself as a professional freelancer to any reputable publication, website, company, or nonprofit, you need a decent-looking website. For starters.

If you’re really smart and want to stand out and get some quality clients right away, you may want to do some creative marketing, like a direct-mail campaign that costs money to produce.

You should have a professional outfit to wear in case an in-town client meeting comes up.

And of course you need a computer, an email provider, paid Internet, a web host, a printer, paper, toner, paper, pens, business cards, and more. Each dollar you put in will hopefully be repaid many times over, as  you get great clients because you seem so pro.

But the uncomfortable truth is, it all costs money.

The corrollary: As soon as your newborn freelance business starts making money, if you really want to build a solid income, the first thing you need to do is plow a lot of that initial money right back into your startup.

That initial money is not for paying your light bill. It’s for building your business.

You’ll improve your website. Join professional organizations and networking groups. Get on a plane and attend conferences.

Meanwhile, you need some other money to live on.

Why your no-money launch will fail

Beyond the realities of needing to invest in your business to make it thrive, there’s yet another harsh financial truth of freelancing.

The freelance life is often plagued with cash-flow problems:

  • The computer hard drive dies and you need to buy a new one. Immediately. So you don’t miss deadlines and lose clients.
  • Your client stops returning your calls and takes an extra month or two to send the check.
  • Your pants rip and you need a new professional outfit to wear to meetings.
  • Your car breaks down.
  • You have an unexpected health issue, which your private insurance’s high deductible leaves you mostly on the hook for.

And so on. You get the picture.

As a freelancer, you are responsible for a lot of costs you didn’t have as an employee. Also, starter clients new freelancers tend to get are often the very type that give you the b.s. about how the check is in the mail, and leave you hanging for months.

Meanwhile, how will you eat?

I’m going to say the unspeakable: If you have no resources at all, you are too broke to make freelancing work.

You will get caught in a desperation cycle of taking any crappy client you find on Craigslist. Then, of being even more broke and desperate when that client screws you over, as lowball clients often will.

You could easily end up homeless. I know writers where it’s happened.

I realize it behooves me as someone who earns some of their living helping writers learn how to freelance to tell everybody, “Hey, you can do it!”

But I won’t.

You shouldn’t try to freelance if you are teetering on the financial brink. I won’t pretend that’s going to fly.

How to freelance when you’re broke

OK. So that was harsh. But some truths of the freelance life that need to be acknowledged.

Onward to the big question: If your bank account is empty, do you have to give up your freelance writing dream?

Not necessarily.

There are several ways you can overcome this “I’m too broke” problem and create the cash reserves you need to build a thriving freelance business:

  • Get a side gig. I’ve known writers who pumped gas, worked as a bar back, sold Avon, and more when they started out. I worked as a legal secretary for years, to support my songwriting habit. Stop buying the starving artist mystique and figure out how to put aside some money to support you as you transition into freelancing.
  • Get a full-time day job — for now. It’s also feasible to freelance on the side of a full-time gig. Takes a lot of discipline, but it can allow you to pick and choose good clients and build a quality portfolio a lot faster.
  • Find a sponsor. Maybe your spouse’s day gig will cover the bills and give you some ramp-up cash to work with.
  • Lower your expenses. Take a look at your costs — could you live in a cheaper dwelling? Take on a roommate? Stop buying lattes? Cut out cable? Most of us have optional expenditures we make and could lower our basic monthly costs if we got creative.
  • Fill the gap with credit cards. I once had a screenwriter friend who would calmly charge her groceries between gigs, confident she’d soon be writing for another TV show. If you have a high risk tolerance, this might work for you, too.
  • Liquidate assets. Got a second car you could live without? Some collectibles you could sell on eBay? You might be able to turn some possessions into cash.

If you’re not willing to do any of this to get a cash cushion you could use to bankroll your freelance writing startup, then I have a question to ask you:

Do you really want to do this?

Reaching for dreams usually involves sacrifice — read any fairy tale you like.

What are you willing to give up to never have a boss again?

If you can’t make any sacrifices to find some cash to get started freelancing, then it’s probably not going to happen. Even with the best writing mentor in the world.

What do you think — can you start freelancing with no money? Leave a comment and give us your take.