Things I'd say to a young writer


Who better to advise aspiring young writers than a successful young writer? Freelance Feast welcomes guest blogger Jasmine Henry, recent college grad and content manager at Inbound Marketing Agents.

So, you're majoring in English and want to build a career as a professional creative. Spinning words is your craft, and you can't remember a time when you aspired to anything else. Writing professionally isn't easy, but it's highly possible. Establish your career as a freelance writer by embracing the changes that have occurred over recent years.

Write high-quality copy

The internet has changed the process of being published from a real achievement to something as simple as setting up a free blog. Web content has exploded, and real writers and editors matter more than ever. Major search engines are getting smarter all the time about straining out the people who have taken short cuts, have plagiarized, or just don't add any real value to their niche. As 8 billion Google searches are performed each month, the top spots are increasingly going to be filled with information that matters. Becoming an expert and developing an original voice are crucial for successful writers.

Don't sell yourself short

There will never be a shortage of clients who are happy to pay you a penny per word and expect full ownership of the content. Ghost writing isn't the most terrible way to make a living, but you simply can't build a portfolio when the work doesn't belong to you. The key is balance and taking the time to pitch and write interesting content. You may need to balance your time in the first months between writing unpaid guest posts and ghost writing for business blogs. But don't sell yourself short. Know that you have to earn a reputation as a voice that matters to expect a living wage for your craft.

Maintain an online presence

You've probably heard at least once that networking is more important than ever. The web allows you to connect with writers and clients around the world, so make sure that you are visible online and that your presence is well-maintained and consistent with your professionalism. Build a personal website that displays your portfolio and quotations from happy clients. Initiate a blog, and don't quit using it as a platform for having fun and sharing ideas that matter to you. Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ are perfect platforms for promoting your authorship and making connections that count.

Hone your craft

Any great writer will tell you that the day they walked across the stage in their cap and gown with a newly earned Bachelor of Arts was just the beginning of their education. Great writers are lifelong students, and they know that exceptional writing isn't organic. Keep buying books, curate an RSS feed of the best blogs in your field, and feed yourself constantly with writing that matters. The secret to being a writer people want to hear is to constantly listen to others.

Great writing isn't dead, so don't listen to anyone who tells you it is. Build a career by developing connections with great writers and learning how to write words that jive well with both search engines and readers. Writing professionally can happen for you.

Jasmine Henry has been freelance writing since graduating with a BA in Russian in 2010. She recently joined Inbound Marketing Agents as content manager. Jasmine finds inspiration in well-written blogs, Russian short stories, and extra-dry cappuccinos. Connect with her on twitter: @jasminehenry10.

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"Your most important asset is your ability to earn": Private disability insurance for freelancers


For the first installment of Finance for Freelancers, I talked with Amy Keller, a Financial Advisor at Della Monica and Associates, a Chicago-based financial advisory practice of Ameriprise Financial Services, Inc. An advisor since 1999, Amy specializes in everything from retirement and tax planning to insurance and asset management. She views her role as that of a financial coach for her clients. Financial planning services offered through Ameriprise Financial Services, Inc., Member FINRA and SIPC.

Amy, when I attended your workshop on finance for freelancers a while back, I was surprised that you placed so much emphasis on private disability insurance. Why is disability insurance so important for freelancers?

A few reasons. First of all, disability is more common than you think. According to the National Safety Council, every ten minutes 490 Americans become disabled.

Two, people who are married can get life insurance through their spouse, but not disability insurance. It's not a benefit you can tack onto someone else's package.

And three, the ability to earn an income is your most important asset—not your home or your IRA. If you have disability income protection, and illness or an accident prevents you from working, you'll still have a paycheck coming in.

When is the right time to buy private disability insurance?

If you're a new freelancer, you're not in a good position to buy. Insurance companies want a two-year history of self-employment earnings. However, if you're working a full-time job and thinking about going freelance, it can be a great time to buy.

The best time to buy private disability insurance is when your earnings are high because by law, disability benefits can replace up to 70% of what your earnings are at the time you apply for the insurance.

It's also best to apply when you're in good health.

I especially like disability insurance for women because they tend to have more gaps in paid work. If you begin a private disability policy while you're working and continue paying the premiums when you take time off to care for your family, then if you become disabled while you're not working, you can still get benefits.

What if I can't afford a policy that will replace a large proportion of my earnings? Is it still worth buying?

That's something to talk to a finance professional about. I try to make sure the premiums are affordable to my clients and allow enough space in their budget for them to save for retirement and meet other financial goals. On the other hand, if it would be difficult for someone to transition into other work, I recommend that they buy more coverage.

Freelancers are more expensive than others to underwrite, largely because of spottiness of income, but depression and back problems are the most common reasons for disability, and the nature of freelancing can make freelancers more prone to those problems.

It's also good to talk to a finance professional who knows insurance because disability policies are complicated, and you want to be sure you get the right kind.

What kind of disability insurance is the right kind?

You want to be sure you have a partial recovery benefit, so if you are able to work part-time after becoming disabled, you can still get the benefit. When people become sick or have cancer, they'd rather work to the degree they can.

There's also a huge difference between "own occupation" and "any occupation." Cheap policies will kick in only if you can't do any occupation. You want a policy that kicks in if you can't do your own occupation.

You want a cost-of-living rider so the benefit has an inflation adjustment—it goes up over time. And you want a future-purchase rider so if your income goes up, you can buy more insurance at your original rate without going through underwriting again.

You also want to be sure you're buying from a well-rated company that will still be around years from now when you need benefits.

What are other benefits of buying private disability insurance?

Benefits under private disability insurance policies are not taxed. This is different from employer-provided disability benefits, which are taxed. Also, if someone draws disability benefits from an employer, that will very often cause them to lose employer-paid life insurance benefits. So it's good to get your own private policy that's not contingent on your job. If you're self-employed, you can deduct your premiums for tax purposes.

Want to know more? Ask Amy!

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Entrepreneurial small ball


My dear fellow freelancers, I want to challenge you about something.

When you are developing new directions in your business, and you need to invest a lot of nonbillable time, please be considerate to the people who are supporting you through the transition—whether they are providing financial support, doing the lion's share of the homemaking, or waiting to take vacations or enjoy other good and healthy things that cost money.

It can be easy for us visionary types to always want to go after the next new thing while ignoring what's already there. I experienced this repeatedly when I worked in the nonprofit sector: The visionaries who began a new organization or program often lost interest when it was time to manage what they'd begun. They would start running after the next big idea and no longer use their substantial influence to pull resources toward existing projects.

The same can happen in independent businesses. If you have external support from family members or others while you build your business, it is possible to unfairly take advantage of them if you keep running after the next big thing rather than consolidating your gains in what you've already worked hard to establish. If you don't have external support, you could be harming yourself by chasing the bigger buck while ignoring the small-ball grind of doing the familiar work that steadily pays the bills.

Successful freelancing that is fair to whose who support your entrepreneurship can be exasperating. You have to keep playing small ball while now and then swinging for the fences. If you think about it, though, great baseball teams do just that. Their day-to-day play is clean, skillful, and persistent—and only punctuated by big plays and home runs.

So go ahead and pursue the speculative projects. But meet your base income goals at the same time. And leave time for relationships with the ones you love.

Your family and friends will thank you.

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A Life of Yes: 4 steps to blissful self-employment


Freelance Feast's first guest post is brought to you by Saya Hillman, an accidental entrepreneur and all-around superconnector. Thanks Saya!

In the immediate aftermath of being fired a few years back, it didn't feel like the best thing ever. But eight years of the most blissful self-employment later, I see that it was!

I attribute the success of my company Mac 'n Cheese Productions to living a Life of Yes.

How do you live a Life of Yes? Four things: Just do. Shoot for the stars. Put it in the universe. And embrace fear.

Just do

It's never going to be the right time. Your website, logo, or business plan will never be perfect. Don't focus on the what ifs. Share now, tweak later.

I didn't mean to share before tweaking when I started my first Meetup group! But I did. Here's how it happened.

Brainstorming about how to reach new networks led me to Meetup. As I created my first group description, I accidentally went live—and seven people signed up before I finished. As I read through the introductions—"I'm seeking to make great memories now"; "I don't know what I want, but know I want something more, especially more fun and laughter"; "Looking to live my life more proactively"—I realized how many people desire positivity. My first Meetup was five days later, and it received rave reviews! People who were helped + new Mac 'n Cheese sign-ups = double-score.

Shoot for the stars

Why aim for anything that's not exactly what you want? Because you're afraid you can't get what you really want? Well, falling just short of the stars is still pretty good.

I have utopia lists for everything. Housing criteria. Employment criteria. Boyfriend criteria. You may read my lists and exclaim, "Seriously? A four-block radius for where you'll live? Getting paid to play board games on your couch? A guy who smells like a campfire? Good luck, Unrealistic Standards!"

Today I live in a converted toy-factory loft in the target area, I have a job that's so far from a job it's ridiculous (and it pays the bills), and I just got engaged to my best friend, whom I met at one of my own events. He doesn't come with a campfire smell, but close enough.

Put it in the universe

Just ask. You never know. The world has a wondrous way of conspiring to make things that are supposed to happen happen.

I am enamored with the idea of being a professional speaker, traveling the world for obscene money to talk about things I love, but I have a lot to learn before I can do that. I figured that the first step to getting hired as a speaker would be to offer speaking as a service. Worst-case scenario was that no one would contact me, and I would lose the thirty minutes it took to create the webpage offering my speaking services. Two days after I posted the page, I was asked to speak in front of 300 people at the CUSP Conference on design.

Embrace fear

That's the most important question: What's the worst-case scenario if something doesn't turn out as I hope? When you realize that you're not setting in motion the end of the world, you can embrace fear.

After seeing Mimi in Rent sass around the stage, I knew I had to experience that, regardless of my lack of skill and a load of fear. So I tried a dance experiment. I selected sixteen friends, none of whom knew each other, and all of whom were bad dancers and nervous to partake for one reason or another. I hired a choreographer, rented a studio and a theater, and rehearsed with my friends. After three months of rehearsals, we danced in front of an audience of 350 people.

It was a hit! Everyone asked, "When's Dance Experiment Two?" Three shows later, and Dance Experiment has become Fear Experiment, with added art forms including improv, a cappella singing, and stepping. We've sold out shows for 700+ at Chicago's famous Park West and built some beautiful relationships.

Go for it!

You will fail 100% of the time at everything you don't try. So challenge yourself, make a list, ask for what you want, and embrace fear. Then report back.

Speaking of putting it out in the universe, you might be able to help make our ridiculous wedding wish come true. Thanks for thinking about it!

Saya Hillman, an Evanston, Illinois, native, Boston College graduate, and Chicago resident, is an accidental entrepreneur who has cobbled together a career of hanging out in coffeehouses with passionate people, playing board games with slipper-wearing strangers on her couch, and performing bad improv in front of 700 via her company Mac 'n Cheese Productions. One of Brazen Careerist's Top 20 Young Professionals to Watch in 2012, Saya thinks self-employment is the best thing ever.


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Embedding a single clickable tweet


I'll be blogging about tweeting, so I need to embed clickable images of tweets in my blog posts.

So that's what I'm learning how to do today.

I Googled "create image from single tweet" and found this great primer from Digital Inspirations.

That primer pointed me to Kwout, which I installed and am trying now.

Here goes!

Woo-hoo! It worked!

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Authors who won't be edited


I have spent time on both sides of the editorial desk.

On the writer's side

As a writer, I have received a wide range of responses from editors.

Many times my work has been published almost without alteration. That has made my life easy, but I have felt like I was missing out on a chance to grow as a writer.

Occasionally changes are made and published without my approval. Sometimes I don't particularly like the changes, but they are nonsubstantial, so I don't sweat it. At other times, the changes are grammatically incorrect, and I have to decide whether to ask for a correction in the online version. At least once a change made the core point of the article factually incorrect and contrary to the position I was taking. In that case I insisted that it be corrected or taken off the publisher's website.

Sometimes the editor makes substantive changes and runs them by me, and I gratefully approve most changes and offer clarification and a rewording where the editor has missed my meaning.

A few times I've been asked to radically revise a piece. This can be very frustrating when I've moved on to other projects and don't have time for a big revision. But guess what? When I made those revisions, I learned a lot from my editor, and the finished product was well worth the effort. I recognized that the editor cared enough about the piece to invest the time in guiding me through revisions, and those publications later assigned me more work.

The bottom line is that the publisher gets to decide what will be published, and as a writer my job is to work with the editor to produce something that the publisher is happy to publish.

On the editor's side

I have edited hundreds of writers, and all but a handful have been happy with my editing. Some of them have negotiated changes to the edits, which is great because my job is to preserve their meaning and voice while making their ideas more accessible to readers.

But every now and then I've encountered a writer who takes umbrage at my editing. Usually these authors have thumbed their nose at editing in general: they have disregarded editorial guidelines or copyright law, or they have announced that they have never been edited and don't intend to start accepting editing now.

What is my responsibility to such authors when they stet most of my editing and have no interest in discussing the changes? Not much, frankly.

So far this has only happened to me a few times, and in each case my business relationship has been with the publisher. In these cases, I've reviewed my work to see where I may have gone wrong, then I have communicated with my client about the situation, supplying the edited version with change tracking showing. The publisher has taken it from there, thank goodness. Afterward my client and I have sometimes discussed work processes and have made adjustments to reduce the chance that something similar will happen again.

If my client is the author and I am not the publisher, the author can choose to reject my edits, and it becomes an issue for the author and publisher.

If I am the publisher (which I haven't been yet), I will be in the position to decide whether to publish the work as-is, or whether to reject it while satisfying my contractual obligation to the author. It's not going to be a comfortable situation, and I don't look forward to it. But it's bound to happen sometime.

Let's talk

I would love to hear about your experiences with and advice for working with authors who resist editing. Let's talk in the comments.

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When you retweet, comment too


About to hit the Retweet button to share an article?


You did read the article, right? I hope so. You want to be sure you're sending good stuff to your followers.

If you did read the article, did you comment on it? No? Well, you just missed a great opportunity.

If you've found a community of shared interest, don't just look through the window. Walk on in and join the conversation. If you can opt to receive notification of later comments on the thread, do it.

You can magnify the value of each action on Twitter if you look for multiple points of connection. Commenting is one of them.

Don't retweet blind. Retweet smart.

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Constant, steady, occasional: Diversification and your bottom line

A freelance portfolio is like an investment portfolio: diversification is your best protection against financial disaster.

It stands to reason that a recession-proof business will have multiple clients. If you can offer multiple services or work in multiple sectors, even better. But a less obvious kind of diversification is the most important of all: diversification in project frequency.

If all your work comes in constantly from a few regular clients, the loss of one of those clients can spell disaster. If most of your work consists of projects that pop up episodically, it's like counting on Chicago's Clark Street bus to get you to an appointment on time. (Chicagoans groan: Ugh, the 22!) You wait 20 minutes for your bus, then three buses appear at the stop at the same time, all packed full. It's an uncomfortable ride.

So as you plan your diversification strategy, keep these three categories in mind: Constant, steady, occasional.

Constant clients

Even if you've been freelancing for a while, don't quit your day job. Or your part-time job. Or constant freelance gigs that provide a predictable source of income.

For a long time for me, that meant teaching online college classes for City Colleges of Chicago. Then I was editing, proofreading, and managing web content for a biweekly magazine. Later it was editing a bimonthly newsletter for one organization and keeping blog content flowing for a software company.

Retainer agreements of various sorts are the gold standard in the constant-client category. Some professionals, like web developers, convert one-time clients into constant clients by offering ongoing service packages after the initial project is completed.

The mix of constant clients may change over time as the clients' circumstances change. The key is to have one or more of them in your portfolio to provide predictability and to smooth out your month-to-month cash flow.

Steady clients

Next, seek clients who can send you a steady flow of work. Book authors are wonderful to work with directly, but they can only send you as many books as they can write. Publishers, on the other hand, can send multiple projects each year. Most of my indexing work comes from my publisher clients, so if I have space in my schedule for indexing, I can keep a steady flow of books coming in year-round.

Sometimes steady clients don't pay as well as occasional clients, and they won't smooth out your cash flow as well as constant clients, but they are an excellent insurance policy for your business. If a constant client experiences a corporate restructuring and drops out of your portfolio, or if you're still waiting on that 22 bus, your steady clients who know and value your skills will be glad to hear from you. If some of them supply relatively large projects, all the better; then you need to cobble together fewer projects to keep the ball rolling.

It's worth keeping some projects from steady clients in the mix even when you're busy so you can sustain these valuable long-term client relationships.

Occasional clients

The occasional client section of your portfolio contains one-time customers who need your help with specific, time-limited projects, as well as repeat clients who need your services every now and then.

This is the category where you can most safely test the waters with higher rates, where you can best cultivate new collegial relationships, and where you can build your portfolio with new skills and in new sectors in ways that can lead to more constant or steady work, ideally at better rates of pay.

If you have clients from each of these three categories in the mix, you'll never go hungry. Enjoy the feast!

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Smart subcontracting . . . and not-so-smart


I'm at a networking event, and I'm talking to someone who works in a field I'm looking to break into. I'll call him Fred.

I know I have the skills Fred needs, even though my portfolio doesn't include anything that's a snug fit with what he's looking for.

He seems impressed with my experience and asks what I charge. I name an hourly rate.

"That wouldn't work for me," Fred says, and he names a piece rate that would bring me in at a fraction of what I quoted. He says there's no way he can pay any higher: "I pay you $45 per article, and my clients pay me $90 per article. They won't pay more than that."

In other words, Fred has a 100% mark-up!

And at $45 per article, a writer who likes to pay her rent would only have time to scramble someone else's content and spit it out in a different order. Apparently this is acceptable to Fred and his clients. It's not acceptable to me.

There's nothing inherently wrong with working as a subcontractor, but Fred is not the guy you wanna work for.

Sometimes subcontracting is smart

Sometimes it makes a lot of sense to work for another business owner as a subcontractor. For example, perhaps you're trying to break into a new field and don't yet have the portfolio strength to market directly to the end client. Subcontracting allows you to build your portfolio, and you might happen into a helpful mentoring relationship while you're at it.

This is how I broke into indexing. I met a textbook indexer at a networking event. Business was booming for her, and sometimes she parceled out chapters to subcontractors so she could finish by deadline without neglecting her health and her family. She paid me an hourly rate that was commensurate with what I was making at the time, and she helped me improve my skills because when I did well, she did well.

It was a great win-win. I got mentorship, decent pay, and experience. My client got relief from an overfull work schedule, a satisfied publisher client, and her small markup—the difference between what she was paying me and what the publisher was paying her.

Pitfalls of subcontracting

If you're considering subcontracting, you should avoid three pitfalls: too-low pay, overly restrictive noncompete agreements, and the temptation to settle in and avoid marketing your services directly.

First, remember that when you take on work for low pay, there's an opportunity cost: that's time you can't spend working for clients who pay you better. If you're just getting started and it's Fred's rates or no work at all, maybe knocking out a few articles for Fred is OK. But only if you can write original material that builds your portfolio—scramble-and-spit won't help you with that. And don't commit so many hours to Fred that you have no time to market your services to better-paying clients.

Second, be very wary of noncompete agreements. It is appropriate for businesses that use subcontractors to expect you not to circumvent them and seek work from their clients directly. However, a noncompete agreement that goes beyond this unfairly restricts your ability to build your own business. If my indexing mentor had told me I must sign an agreement saying I wouldn't market directly to textbook publishers, I would have walked away.

Finally, don't get too comfy. If you're getting a steady stream of work as a subcontractor and your clients are happy, you should be able to successfully market your services directly to customers in the same sector and keep the amount of your client's markup. Think about it: if your client's taking a 25% markup, it's as though you're paying $250 in advertising costs for every $750 of business. When you build direct relationships with the end users of your services, marketing to those clients will cost you nothing: satisfied customers will come back to you time and again. It'll be like giving yourself a 33% raise!

With subcontracting as with most freelance business matters, if you think strategically while you cultivate your skills, you'll do well.

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Wanna work in your PJs? Then be good

It happens to the best of us.

People learn how we make a living, and they think they'd like to earn money in their jammies too. So they ask us if they can pick our brains. Or they want us to refer work to them because they are really good at noticing typos on restaurant menus.

Hey, we're busy! We haven't got time for all that brain-picking! And we're not going to refer work because someone finds mistakes on menus.

But here's the thing. I made a strong start in freelancing because colleagues let me pick their brains and referred work to me.

So I'm interested in passing on that gift. With one initial caveat.

You gotta be good.

First, study

If you're new to freelancing and you don't yet have a portfolio that demonstrates your skill, then to productively bend a skilled freelancer's ear, you must be willing to get good.

What it takes to get good depends on what you'd like to do as a freelancer. For example, freelance book editing and indexing require some book study up front. So when people tell me they'd like to get into editing or indexing, I give them them an assignment.

For editing, I tell them to read Amy Einsohn's The Copyeditor's Handbook and do the exercises, then to talk to me when they're done. For indexing, I assign Nancy Mulvany's Indexing Books and tell them that professional indexing requires investment in indexing software (I like SKY). If they read Mulvany and are still interested, we should talk.

How I got good

I entered the freelance world as a book editor. It all started when a new friend and I were watching our daughters play and talking about how we could contribute to the family income while being home to raise our kids.

I said, "You know what I've always thought would be fun? I've never told anyone this because it sounds weird, but I think I would love proofreading books. I doubt if you could do that from home though."

My new friend, whom I so far knew only as another mother, completely surprised me: "Sure you can! I have a manuscript I'm editing right upstairs." Turns out, she was working from home part-time for her former employer, a book publisher.

She agreed to mentor me if I first completed an assignment: I was to read several specific chapters in the Chicago Manual of Style, then skim the rest so I would know my way around that enormous tome. Then I should come back to her.

I did exactly as she said. I demonstrated my seriousness by showing her that I intended to be good.

So we took the next step. She gave me some unedited pages and told me to edit them, then we sat down and went over my work. When she was satisfied that I knew what I was doing, she gave me the name and phone number for a managing editor at the press where she worked. That press administered tests to prospective freelancers (many do), so I took the test, and the editor was very happy with my performance.

I took that favorable reaction as my unofficial certificate in editing and began cold-calling local publishers until I landed my first project.

At that point, I was good but raw. I had a lot more to learn. Fortunately, with that first assignment came a wonderful mentoring relationship.

Which brings us to another recipe for the feast, a great topic for a future post: Keep learning.

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