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How to Find More Story Ideas

Story Ideas

 

By Carol Tice

(Carol is on vacation this week. This blog post is a reprint of a post that original ran in October 2009 on her writer site, caroltice.com, back when her blog was still called Start Freelance Writing. Enjoy!)

Other writers often ask me how it is that I always have so many story ideas. Back when I was a staffer and needed four story ideas a week, I often had a couple extra left over to give to other reporters.

Personally, I wish there was a brain operation I could get where I’d think of fewer of them, because it’s a bit frustrating as I can never get to them all! But on the plus side, it means I always have a lot of ideas to pitch editors. ‘

In the current down economy with layoffs abounding, having a lot of story ideas is more important than ever. Magazines and newspapers that used to have suites full of editors have often dismantled those brain trusts, and they’re looking to you – the freelance writer – to supply them with ideas.

It’s a terrific strength if you can present yourself as someone who has a lot of ideas. Being an idea factory positions you well for getting regular assignments from your editor contacts instead of just sporadic work.

Do you have trouble finding story ideas? In general, you probably need to read more widely and talk to more people.

Try these tips:

1. Plug into local events. Be aware of what’s going on in your town, and go to events when you can. Walk around, open your eyes, talk to people and see what’s there. I went to a harvest fair on my island a few weeks ago and discovered a local resident has created a reproduction 1910 gypsy wagon she uses as a guesthouse – it’s stunning, and I hope to sell the idea to a local shelter magazine. You never know when you’ll see a new product or creative idea that could be turned into a story pitch. When you’re socializing or at the gym, find out what people do – their hobbies and unusual vocations are prime story-idea fodder.

If you’re going to a local event, be sure to ask local media if they need someone to cover it – you may make a few dollars while you’re there looking for more ideas!

2. Track issues and controversies. Is your neighborhood up in arms about shoreline access, a sex offender who’s moved in, or a planned new development? You may be able to cover these for local publications or use them as examples to illustrate a national trend for bigger pubs.

3. Where are they now. If you happen to know where someone is who was once in the limelight but has been out for a while, and they’re doing something new and interesting now, that’s a great story. Folks love to catch up with figures like these, so if you have access to one, pitch away.

4. How-to pieces. The Internet is bristling with these, and if you have some expertise you can get paid decently for them. Be sure to target high-circulation or high-readership markets.

5. What’s missing. When you read the newspaper, do you find stories that raise more questions than they answer? Those missing facts are new story angles you could pick up and follow.

6. New products. If you discover a hot new product or fad that you can demonstrate has found a market, that’s a great story to tell in business magazines, or maybe a women’s or consumer magazine, or perhaps an industry trade publication. If a startup has gotten their product into a big national chain such as Wal-Mart or Nordstrom, that’s a great story.

7. Recycle. Read lower-level publications for ideas that can be repurposed for bigger, better-paying markets, perhaps by adding more sources or a national expert for perspective. Association and charity newsletters, small-town newspapers and university magazines are all great places to find news that could play on a bigger stage. It also works in reverse – scan national publications for national trends you could “localize” for statewide, regional or local publications. Be a compulsive story scanner — flip through every publication you can get your hands on.

8. Take the one-hour news challenge. If you have trouble finding ideas, you may need to sharpen your curiosity and your skills in getting people to talk to you and tell you their news. Try this exercise: Go to the center of your town, get out and walk around for one hour, with the goal of coming back with at least one story idea. Go in every shop and talk to the owners about what’s going on, talk to customers, people outside eating lunch, and people you’re waiting for the bus for. I had to do this once during a writer’s retreat at my paper, and it was amazing how many stories we came back with after just one hour.

Let me know if this gave you any ideas for stories that you sold – I love success stories!

This post originally appeared on the WM Freelance Writer’s Connection.

Photo via Flickr user alonbennett

My Online Writing Job-Search Rules…and When to Break Them

Carol is on vacation. This week, she’s reprinting a couple of posts from the early days of her blog, back when it was on her writer site. Enjoy!

Searching for Freelance Writing JobsBack when I first started out as a freelance writer, it was tough to find writing jobs. I’d either have to look in the Writers Market, or get in my car and go down to the library and get out the Gale’s guide to research possible article markets. Next, I carved my articles on a rock…OK, I’m not that old, but there was a lot more legwork involved!

Nowadays, you can see lots of writing jobs online without moving from your living room. Personally, I like to look at Freelance Writing Jobs or About Freelance Writing. Between the two of them, they seem to digest all the major job sites around, so you don’t have to look at a lot of individual sites.

The catch is, most of the job ads you see online are a big waste of time for anyone who’s serious about making a good living from writing. They’re no substitute for in-person networking, asking current clients for referrals, cold-calling copywriting prospects, or any of the other tried-and-true methods of finding good clietns.

The key is to save time and not waste hours online looking at job postings. Over the past year, I’ve developed some rules for cutting through the junk and only responding to what seem to be viable, good-paying clients. I try to send out several resumes each week…but I’m pretty selective about who I take the time to develop a submission letter for. I try not to spend more than a half-hour a day online job-hunting.

My rules:

1. Skip the scams. Avoid anything that contains phrases such as “you’ll get good exposure” or “we pay on revenue share” or “pay for page views.” None of these pay anything that will even buy you a gallon of milk.

2. Skip all Craigslist ads. Especially the sketchy, two-line ones. The vast majority of Craigslist posters are either scam artists outright, nightmare clients with only a vague sense of what it is they actually want, or $10-an-article types.

3. Skip all “lots of topics,” “we need lots of writers” or “pick your own topics” assignments. Any ad that says they need lots of writers to write about lots of topics is unlikely to pay much. These are generally content portals where they make a fortune putting ads against your content, while they pay you nothing. If you can write about your dog, well, anyone can do that. So it’s not going to pay much.

4. Skip ads that ask for a sample article. These are all scams — they just take the sample articles, rip them off, post them, and don’t hire anyone. Or even if they do hire someone, odds are low it’ll be you. If you already have two clips, you don’t need to enter any of these article ‘contests.’

5. Skip anyone who says they pay by PayPal. Some may disagree with this one, but I consider this the hallmark of low payers and bogus companies, particularly U.S.-based ones. Any real company can write you a check, or use auto-deposit and toss that payment straight into your account. The reason they use PayPal is they’re planning to pay you $1.95 and want to save a stamp, as it would substantially increase their total expenditure! If they’re going to pay a substantial amount and it’s an ongoing account, you stand to lose hundreds of dollars of income in fees over the course of a year getting paid on PayPal, as they charge fees up to 3 percent.

6. Skip any ad that doesn’t tell you the company name or Web site Blind ads are a hallmark of scammers. Sane, functional companies tell you where to find them online so you can research them and send them an appropriate query with relevant clips. Those are the ones I want to work for.

7. Skip any ad you see frequently. If this ad agency, Web site or whatever is constantly advertising, there’s a reason. They are probably a nightmare to work for, or pay nothing. I’m looking for people who are a pleasure to work for, and pay well.

8. Target ads that ask for your specific expertise. For me, when an ad says applicants must have extensive experience in business reporting, financial, real estate, legal, tax, accounting, insurance or public-company coverage…they have my full attention. Niche expertise pays better. I’m probably going to send these folks a query.

9. Know when to break the rules. Sometimes, an ad will catch your eye even though by all the rules above it should be skipped. This happened to me a couple of times with Craigslist ads. Ordinarily I would automatically skip…but before I could hit the “back” button, I started to read the ad, and it asked for deep small-business newspaper or magazine experience. Which I have. The company listed their site so I could research what they needed.

I sent one a query and landed a two-month project worth several thousand dollars, which may lead to ongoing work…my first ever good-paying job off a Craigslist ad. I’ve since landed a couple of other very solid clients through Craigslist.

So rules are good most of the time, but remember to keep your mind open a crack for interesting exceptions to the rules.

Next time: how to use the job ads creatively to find more job opportunities.

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Photo via Flickr user dbdbrobot

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GUEST POST: 5 Things Carol Tice Taught Me About Writer-Client Negotiations

NOTE: I’m on vacation this week, and co-founder Angela Atkinson of the WM Freelance Writers Community offered to supply a guest post to keep you amused in my absence. I didn’t know it would be all about things she learned from a little informal mentoring I gave her (in exchange for a Facebook fan page for my Make a Living Writing e-book soon to come!). It was thrilling to me to see how my tips helped Angela increase her writing income — and now you can be a fly on the wall and hear about them, too.

Angela AtkinsonBy Angela Atkinson

Before I became a full-time freelance writer, I lived in the corporate world. While I made some business decisions, mostly I carried out the decisions of other people. And, though I did some negotiation, it was always within the confines of the standards the company had laid out for me in advance.  So, when I ventured out on my own and had to start making deals without these pre-set standards, I often floundered and ended up getting the short end of the stick.

After arranging a meeting with a client who proposed a big project, I knew how I wanted to pitch the project itself, but I was really intimidated by the negotiation process.  In fact, I almost felt guilty asking the client to pay fair market prices—even though I knew that my work was worthy of at least that much.

I approached Carol Tice for a little advice on the negotiation part of the meeting, since she was clearly an expert on the topic. She was happy to help, and not only did I successfully negotiate the contract, including the highest rates I had been paid up to that point, but I held on to Carol’s advice and have used it in every contract negotiation since.

So what did Carol teach me?

Know What You’re Worth

I had this idea in my head that I needed to undercut the competition in order to successfully pick up clients and projects. What Carol taught me is that I must set and maintain my own business standards, and that I should not accept projects that pay below my “bottom line” prices (which, conveniently, I could set at whatever I liked—within reasonable market prices, of course.) This made it easier to negotiate, because like before in my corporate job, I had pre-set rates to work with.

Don’t Be Afraid to Turn Work Down

Before I met Carol, the idea of turning down work turned my stomach a little. What if I turned down a project and then no other ones came my way? What if there was some underground client network and they reported me as someone who refused perfectly good jobs?

Carol taught me that it’s ok to turn down a project that doesn’t meet my standards in any way—whether it‘s because the project pays too little or because it doesn’t feel right in some other way.  And, she taught me that there’s always another gig around the corner.

Ask the Right Questions

While I knew that I needed to ask clients questions about their projects so that I could understand exactly what they wanted, Carol gave me some pointed questions to ask that would help me to better negotiate my rates. The best one?

“What is your budget for this project?”

With this simple question, I can get a feel for what the client expects to spend on my services. (Of course, sometimes they ask “Well, what do you charge?” In that case, I just quote them my top level rates and work from there.)

And another favorite Carol-ism is this one, used when a client refuses to pay reasonable prices:

“I understand that you don’t have the budget for a professional writer just now. Feel free to contact me again when you do.”

Shut Up

By nature, people are wired to “fill” silences in conversation. So, Carol said, once I quoted my price in a meeting with a client, I should keep quiet and let him speak first. Before, I found myself sometimes quoting lower prices if the client didn’t respond right away—because I thought the silence meant the client wasn’t happy with the price I quoted. In fact, when I learned to shut up for a minute, I found that most clients will either accept my price or come back with a reasonable counter-offer.

Take a Leap of Faith

Turns out, when you quote crazy-low rates, many clients are turned off because they figure that you’re not a professional and that you don’t think you’re worth any more.

The fact is that if you’re willing to hustle a little, there’s plenty of freelance writing work out there.  You don’t have to accept crappy gigs just to get paid. Take a leap of faith, set your rates and stick to them. If your work is strong and your customer relations skills are sharp, you’ll find plenty of work—and you’ll get paid what you’re worth. Personally, when I started employing this rule, I found myself nearly overwhelmed with legitimate jobs.

Be Confident

Before, I felt like I needed to be sort of “humble” about my abilities and my pricing, and I’m sure that clients could see and feel that during a negotiation. Now, thanks in part to Carol’s coaching, I recognize (and acknowledge to clients) that I have a valuable service to offer—and I very openly explain to them why they want to hire me for their project.

Bottom Line

Thanks to Carol, my negotiation skills are ever-improving.  Negotiation success lies in understanding that you’re offering a valuable service, not being afraid to quote and stick to competitive market rates, and in feeling confident enough to walk away if the client is not willing to pay a reasonable amount. Plus, to achieve a successful negotiation, it’s imperative to fully understand what the client expects from you so that you can accurately determine your quote prices.

What are your best client or contract negotiation tips? Leave a comment and let us know.

Angela Atkinson is a freelance writer and editor, as well as the co-founder of The WM Network. Learn more about Angela at her website.

If you enjoyed this post, don’t miss any free advice on how to earn more from your writing career — subscribe to Make a Living Writing.

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10 Ways to Find Your First Copywriting Clients

Copywriting is an Excellent Tool for Freelance Writers

by Carol Tice

I’ve frequently discussed the virtues of adding some copywriting to your freelance-writing mix. But, many writers ask, how do I get started as a copywriter? Most copywriters break in by writing for a small, local business in their town.

The good news: Small businesses that need marketing help are everywhere.

Here are 10 ways to find your first business writing assignments:

1) Friends and family. Tell everyone you know you’re available to write for businesses. Let them know the types of copywriting work that interest you, whether it’s brochures, white papers, direct mail sales letters, or Web content.

2) Businesses you patronize. As you go about your daily life, you interact with many small businesses. You see a chiropractor, shop at a local organic grocer, or take your kids to a gym. These are all natural places for you to connect with business owners. Your secret weapon—you already know and like the business! You could also do a barter deal for writing work since you’re already a customer.

3) Your local downtown. Walk the business district of your neighborhood or visit the local chamber of commerce and pick up all their current brochures or fliers. Call or stop in at the ones that have weak marketing materials, introduce yourself as a copywriter, and ask if they’d like help creating more powerful messages.

4) Your local business park. Companies in industrial parks tend to be medium-sized or bigger, and in fairly low-glamour businesses — meaning they’re prime copywriting targets. They need to get out the word, as they don’t have a shop on Main Street customers can see. Also, they tend to get hit up less, so the competition isn’t as stiff. Before you knock on doors and introduce yourself, drive through once and write down all the company names. Go home and look at their Web sites (or discover they don’t have one), so you have something to talk about when you come back and try to meet the business owners.

5) Business networking events. Wherever large groups of business owners gather in your town—the local Chamber luncheon, weekly networking group, LinkedIn meetup, or whatever—you want to be there.

6) Social media. Work your networks and online forums and let them know you’re open for copywriting work. Find prospect companies and follow them — strike up a conversation, study their Web site, maybe provide some useful marketing-article links, then make your pitch. Use your blog to discuss your quest for copywriting work. Try InMail on LinkedIn — LI reports it has an impressive 30 percent response rate.

7) In niche industries you know. This is an easy way to identify prospects, particularly if you’re looking for work blogging or writing other online content. If you have an area of expertise, look at the Web sites of all the local businesses in that niche. Then call the companies with the worst Web sites and mention the most glaring omission in their marketing plan — might they need a blog, a white paper, case studies?

8. Through content-site profiles. While I don’t recommend trying to earn by bidding on projects on content sites such as Elance or Guru.com, it can be worthwhile to leave a profile on these heavily-trafficked sites. Small businesses looking for writers do scan these sites, and may find you and approach you off the site and hire you. I recently went on an interview to ghost a CEO’s book, and the company found me through an old Guru profile I’d forgotten all about!

9) At print publications. Magazines’ article assignments are often the tip of an iceberg at a publisher. There may be opportunities to write advertorial articles for the magazine’s advertisers, or to create special advertising sections. They may put on conferences that need marketing materials, or have a “custom publishing” arm that helps companies create training courses or books that commemorate company milestones.

10) By creating a sample. If you’re really stuck for a first client, create a marketing piece about your copywriting services. You can then use this as a mailer to send to prospects. Having a sample in front of them should help you sign up that first client. Personally, when I broke into copywriting in 2005, I used a variant of #2. I called on companies I had written about in my staff-writing job at a business journal to let them know I was leaving the paper. (Many folks do this when they leave a company to freelance, by turning around and freelancing for their former employer.) One of them asked me to ghost his blog and write advertorial articles for the company’s Web site. I made several thousand dollars over a few months’ time, and I was on my way.

If you’ve done copywriting, how did you first break in? Leave a comment and tell us about it.

This post originally appeared on the WM Freelance Writer’s Connection.

Photo via Flickr user ruthieonart


How to Find the Best Writing Opportunities

Finding Writing Gigs Isn't ConfusingThere are so many types of writing gigs out there, it can be confusing for new writers. Which are the best opportunities to pursue? This is one of the questions asked me recently by budding freelance writer Barry Weymouth. He wrote:

I am currently about to finally get my degree in business finance, but I was a journalism major when I first started college years and years ago.  I have been in real estate and financial services for years now, but really looking for a new lease on life and never let go of the writing bug.  I do have a financial blog that a started [up] again just this week and now I want to take it to another level.

There seems to be so many opportunities out there, but how do you land them? Which ones are the best to go after and what are the ones to stay away from?

Is it best to work for one entry-level type job at a company (kind of captive to them I would say), or is it best to stay freelance?  It all seems a bit confusing and I just want to focus on the things that will be fruitful and not so much on anything out there that will be a waste of my time.

There are so many opportunities out there, Barry! It’s not your imagination. And as the economy recovers, there will be even more.

How do you land them? First, you find them — by networking, trolling online job boards, cold-calling, knocking on doors.  Once you’ve found opportunities, you land them by auditioning for them.

How can you audition for gigs? Many ways. Send writing samples. Send copywriting samples. Send your resume. Send a link to your blog. Pitch story ideas on the phone. Or build your blog audience, find advertisers for your blog and earn that way.

Which are the best kind of writing gigs to go after? The kind that are really well-suited to your writing experience, life experience, and interests. When I work with my mentees, this is basically what we focus on: What have you written before? Where have you worked? What types of writing do you like best? What industries did you find fascinating? What hobbies do you love?

Once you’ve answered those questions, you can seek out publications or companies that are a fit for you. Notice I said “seek out.” Yes, that’s right. You are the driver of your writing-career success. You will need to aggressively market your writing services to make a living.

You can avoid being overwhelmed by all the possibilities by focusing on writing opportunities that make sense for who you are. Don’t randomly apply to every writing gig you see. Pick a couple-three niche areas and focus on them.

If you don’t get results in a few months, try a few other niches that also relate to your experience and interests. But trust me, if you have a real-estate and business-finance background, you’re far more likely to find writing opportunities that have something to do with those fields than you are to find lucrative writing jobs about healthcare or horse grooming. If you love white papers, don’t apply to blog.

Why? Because when you do what you enjoy, you tend to do better. And better clips mean better future gigs.

Which are the types of gigs to stay away from? Writing assignments that pay slave wages — $10 a blog…you know the type. Avoid, avoid, avoid. Writing assignments you’re not interested in and eager to write. Also avoid.

I wish I could give you a magical answer to how to break into writing without wasting your time, Barry. But here’s how you’re going to find out what types of writing you like, can get gigs in, and pay well enough to be worth your while: Trial and error. Sometimes, you’ll try to go in a writing direction — for me last year, that was trying to crack the business-plan writing market — and it just won’t pan out. So you’ll try something else. Lather, rinse, repeat.

You can create a shortcut by focusing on what you’re best qualified and suited for, but you’re still going to have to experiment to find where you fit.

As far as full-time versus freelance…right now I’d say that full-time writing jobs are in very short supply. The woods seem to be full of laid-off journalists. But by all means, if you need the security of a steady paycheck, look for a full-time gig — or maybe a job within your fields of experience that involves some writing, and could serve as a bridge into writing as a career.

Personally, I had my highest-earning year ever in 2009, including the 12 years I was a staff writer for two different publications, so I may be biased toward freelancing! But as a brand-new writer, freelancing may also be a better way to go because there’s less deadline pressure and you can learn at your own pace.

Are you ready to come up with three or four great story ideas, report the stories and file them, each and every week? Or crank out polished white papers in short order? That’s the typical workload of a staff writer. When I started, it took me about six weeks to write one feature story! I would have washed out as a staffer.

To sum up: Look in the mirror. Who are you as a writer? What do you need financially? Answer those questions, and there’s your answer for how to become a freelance writer.

Got any time-saving writing-job-hunt tips for Barry? Leave a comment below and tell us about it.

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Photo via Flickr user karendalziel

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How I Became A Freelance Writer Again: 7 Steps to Earning Big

How to Find Success as a Freelance WriterEarlier this week I related the story of how I first blundered into my career in freelance writing. I eventually used my freelance clips to get a full-time, staff-writer job at a trade publication.

I worked there for five years, then at a business weekly here in Seattle for another six and a half. But after all the editors who’d hired me there left, the party was really over. By fall of 2005, I was ready to try freelancing again.

Only unlike when I was starving teen songwriter, the stakes were higher. I had three kids! And my husband wasn’t earning so much since our move to Seattle. I really needed to replace my full-time writer salary through my freelance work.

Here’s how I did it:

1. I had a couple of small freelance gigs I’d done on the side while working my full-time job. One was writing for a sister publication to the trade-pub I’d worked for, and they paid quite well. These became my initial earning base.

2. I called all the companies I’d covered at my business-journal job. I wasn’t looking for work, I just wanted to say hey, thanks for the memories, and the help, and for being a great source. To my surprise, several of them referred me work! One of them asked me to ghost-blog for him and write some advertorial articles for his company’s Web site. I hardly knew what a blog was back then, but I gave that a whirl. I didn’t know it yet, but that blogging skill was going to come in real handy.

Without hardly realizing it, I had become a copywriter. Once I figured out I was a copywriter, I started learning more about copywriting from Peter Bowerman‘s free Well-Fed Writer e-newsletter, and from others. Soon, I had a $1 billion private company as a copywriting client. I started to make more than I had as a staffer.

3. I networked with previous editors, including those ones I loved back at the business journal. They connected me with The Seattle Times and other publications that became major new accounts for me. When those editors went to new publications, I connected there, too.

4. I learned how to work the online job ads, only taking the time to target ads that were really perfect for me. This paid off in some great new clients. In-person networking at Media Bistro events in Seattle paid off well, too. I learned which events worked for me and which were a waste of time.

5. I turned every new article assignment into an ongoing relationship. When I turned in stories, I was always ready with more pitches. So I got more assignments. If a publication I wrote for was a sister-publication to other magazines, I wrote for those, too.

6. I thought big. When I ended up interviewing the editor of a national magazine for a local Seattle publication, at the end of the interview I just flat-out asked her if her magazine was looking for freelancers. I’ve probably earned more than $50,000 over the past five years from my willingness to ask that one question! I connected with her publication and was soon getting $2,000 article assignments.

7. I never stopped marketing. I found new networking forums to belong to, I went to Chamber of Commerce events, I checked online job ads, I asked around. Even when I’m fully booked, like I am now, I never stop sending queries and resumes out.

Some lessons here for other writers contemplating going freelance:

Start freelancing before you leave your job, so you have a base.

Tell everyone you know you’re freelancing.

Be willing to try new types of writing.

Get advice.

Never stop marketing.

Don’t waste time online.

Be brave.

Aim high.

Have you started freelancing in the past few years? If so, how’d you do it?Share the lessons of your success in the comments below.

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Photo via Flickr user = Bruce Berrien =

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