Finding the Other Skill Sets You Need to Build Up Your Writing Business

Unless your entire business model is querying editors and sending out articles from here to eternity, you need skills beyond simply writing. Just what those skills are depends on your business, of course. For me, the technical aspects of setting up a new website and designing it are important — I know just enough about graphic design to tell you when something will be entirely unsuccessful and I know enough about HTML to thoroughly break any website I come across.

Now I can (and am) working to improve my skills in those fields. I’m taking a class in typography this semester and I’ve got a stack of books on the technical side of building a website. But, at the end of the day, I’m much better at writing. I know that’s going to remain true, as well. That doesn’t mean that I’m out of luck if a client needs a website before I can start writing content for them, though.

Take on the Project Manager Role

For some of my clients, I’m just as much a project manager as a writer. I tell them, ‘sure, I can get the whole website put together for you.’ Then I email my web guy, describe the project and tell him it’s now his problem. Everybody gets paid and everybody is happy. I do charge for my time handling project management tasks, of course, but it’s certainly not a problem for me.

Referring parts of projects to someone else is certainly an option, but for me, a sub-contracting arrangement just seems to work out better. I’ve had situations where I referred the design part of a project to someone else, only to come back to the client later and find that the designer brought in someone else to handle content. That sort of set up has lead me to the decision that being a little bit of a control freak is good for my business. Of course, it’s a matter of personal comfort, too.

Bring in a Partner to Help

I’ve found that bringing in a partner is often easiest on my own projects. I’ve had some luck splitting the work (and income) for a particular project with someone else. I think ConstructivelyProductive is a case in point. There is no way that Ali Luke and I could have individually got that site up and moving — but with both of us working on it, we have enough time between the two of us to get everything done that we need to.

Working with a partner is one of the fastest ways to get something done, especially if that partner has some passion for the project.

Hiring a Spare Pair of Hands

A lot of writers seem reluctant to hire help for their projects. They’d rather have a lower quality final product (such as an ebook), but do everything themselves. I used to all into this category, but I’ve come to the conclusion that hiring help is often a matter of investment — if I bring in a designer to work on an ebook, the final project will look more professional and sell more copies. Sometimes, after all, you have to spend money to make money.

Further Resources

Image by Flickr user Brenda Gottsabend

Just Remember, There is a Chicken Magazine

I like to go to bookstores and browse through magazines. I get new ideas for articles, find new markets and even occasionally find something I want to read. Recently I saw Chicken Magazine, which was dedicated to providing recipes on how to cook chicken. I came home and ran a search for ‘chicken magazine’ — I didn’t find the exact magazine I saw at the bookstore, but I did find Backyard Poultry Magazine, Home Grown Poultry Magazine, Poultry USA, Poultry Press, Chickens Magazine and more. That’s not even counting the mini cookbooks companies like Tyson’s publish regularly.

To put it mildly, there are are lot of publications buying content just about chickens — enough that it’s not out of the question that a writer could cover nothing but chickens, if she so chose. If that writer was willing to invest time into pitching articles on chickens to broader publication, we could be talking about a very good income.

Where’s Your Expertise?

If you want to focus on a given topic, you almost always can find publications that will buy your content. It’s becoming even easier, with the number of long tail websites, focusing on topics too obscure to support a magazine and printing costs, but with enough interested readers to pay for new content. That means that focusing on a specific niche — being the go-to writer about a specific topic — is becoming more beneficial. Even more importantly, if you are truly the expert in your field, you can just as easily start up that long tail website yourself. That not only means that you’re earning money directly off your expertise, without having to rely quite as much on clients, but you’re also getting an added benefit from articles that you write on a freelance basis — if your bio includes a link back to your site, you can pick up interested readers who find you through work you’re already getting paid to complete.

The big questions are figuring out your passion — what would you love to be an expert on — and deciding if there’s enough of a market there to support you. On certain topics, there’s no question: if you want to write about NASCAR racing, you’re probably going to be able to land enough gigs to support yourself and you can easily create a site of your own. If, however, you want to write just about the Old Faithful geyser at Yellowstone National Park, you may have a harder time generating interest in it every day of the year. There’s no set rule that a given topic is too narrow, but you may have to actually start writing about it to see if you need something broader.

Further Resources

Image by Flickr user Steven W.

Why Would a Writer Need a Coach — An Interview with Ali Hale

There are a wide variety of ways to use writing skills and build a business. I had the chance to chat with Ali Luke on the new coaching service she’s rolling out to help other writers. Full disclosure: Ali is my partner over at ConstructivelyProductive and I think she’s absolutely awesome.

1. How can a coach help a writer? What exactly does a coach do?

Many writers — however experienced — have days when the writing just isn’t quite working. Perhaps they’re branching out into a new area and struggling to find their voice, or maybe they’ve hit a roadblock. A coach will work alongside a writer: looking closely at the writer’s existing work, finding the potential there (even in first-draft material), and making concrete suggestions to make a particular piece stronger.

A coach can also help the writer with big-picture issues — like motivation, finding and developing ideas, and working on bigger projects like blogs, books and novels.

2. What’s the process when you work with a writer? How do you help a writer with his or her craft?

I ask for around 2,000 words of the writer’s current work-in-progress. That could be several blog posts, a novel extract, a short story, or even an outline or synopsis of a project.

My help is very much tailored to the writer, and to their needs. In general, I offer a combination of close reading and overall advice — for instance, I might suggest ways to reword a sentence to make it punchier, along with ideas for fleshing out a particular piece into a series or book.

I always look for the potential in a writer’s work, and I highlight areas which are working well.

3. Are there differences in working with a writer on different types of projects (like fiction versus non-fiction, or a blog versus a book)?

Yes — although the process is similar, the type of feedback I provide differs.

With blog writers, my advice tends to be a bit more strategic — I often encourage writers to try guest posting, for instance. When I focus on the nitty-gritty details, I look for a conversational and dynamic style.

With novelists, I’ll ask about how the writing is going in general. It’s hard to stay motivated over the course of a novel, especially when multiple drafts are required. I find that writers often get stuck part-way through — and then I’ll help brainstorm ideas for moving forwards.

Fiction tends to be more difficult — emotionally and technically — than non-fiction, and I make sure I’m pulling out positive points as well as making suggestions for changes.

In general, I find that writers working on long projects (like an ebook or a novel) will need at least three sessions so that we can discuss the project as it progresses. Bloggers or copywriters focused on one particular piece — such as a guest post — may need only one or two sessions.

4. What’s your writing background?

I’ve been writing seriously (with an eye towards publication) since my teens, and I’ve been in writing workshops since I was 14. I studied English Literature as an undergraduate, and worked on creative projects alongside.

During 2008-2010, I took a creative writing MA part-time. My income throughout the MA came from blogging — a combination of freelance work for big sites and more entrepreneurial projects of my own, like ebooks.

5. What got you interested in coaching writers?

While I was taking my MA, I organised a weekly meeting amongst a small group of fellow students. We shared our work and gave feedback to one another. I really enjoyed doing this — and particularly liked being able to encourage others with their writing.

Online, I’ve built up a name for myself as a writer, and I found myself getting requests from friends to read a guest post or help with a piece of writing. I realised that there was an unmet demand for writing coaching, and decided this was something I’d love to do!

If you’d like to learn more about Ali’s coaching, check out her coaching services page.

Image by Antonina Mamzenko

Ask Me Anything: Compiling Letters

Christiana Aretta asks,
How about some advice for someone compiling a journal of old letters? Licensing, copyright issues, etc.

The big question when publishing a letter is whether or not you have permission: if you wrote or received the letter, the situation is very different than if the letters aren’t yours. The best option is to simply get a written release from the writer of the letter, stating that they give you permission to publish the letter in question. Older letters, where the writer may have passed away are more difficult. The best option is to get a similar release from the executor of that person’s estate or their heirs. If you’re paying for the use of those letters, the written release should include that fact.

It’s generally a good idea to have permission from the letter’s recipient, as well, especially if the content of the letters is anything out of the ordinary. There are other issues to worry about with potentially inflammatory content, as well. By publishing letters that are damaging to a third party (neither the sender nor the recipient), you can open yourself up to questions of libel or invasion of privacy.

In terms of copyright, the writer of an unpublished letter has the right to decide where it will be first published. A release form means that you’re covered in the event of a copyright dispute down the road. There have been some legal decisions that ruled partial use of a letter in a scholarly work (such as a biography) is fair use — but, unless you’re writing a tell-all unauthorized biography, getting permission is probably a lot easier.

As usual, let me remind you that I am not a lawyer! Consulting with a legal professional (especially on how to put together your release form) is the only way to be sure that the specifics of your situation are covered.

If you’ve got a question about the business side of writing, please leave it in the comments and I’ll answer it next week!

Content Monetization and What it Means for Writers

Every so often, new words creep into the list that writers have to know. Over the past two years or so, ‘content marketing’ has been one of those terms — the act of using well-written online content, such as blogs, to interest potential customers and keep ’em coming back. ‘Content monetization’ hasn’t developed the traction that ‘content marketing’ has, but it’s likely to be even more important to writers. While writers offering content marketing have picked up huge numbers of clients, content monetization — the process of making money directly off of content you’ve written — lets you sell a product, rather than a service, removing the limits on just how much you can make in a given day.

This little vocabulary lesson may not be telling you anything new. Many freelancers, as well as authors and other types of writers, have been exploring opportunities to put your work up online and start selling it as an ebook or another type of informational product. But the fact that we’re putting a name on it means something important: you can see the trend edging upwards.

Riding the Wave

The content monetization field is just barely visible; I see it only because most of my projects involve creating online content. I’ve gotten clients coming to me with requests to create ebooks and other materials that they can turn around and sell — and the numbers are going up. More importantly, I’m getting a few of those requests from clients that are already selling physical products. Information is a commodity — something to make money from.

This isn’t to say that there won’t always be ways to get information for free. Personally, I love my local library. But the trend is that more businesses and individuals will be selling content in some format.

A Matched Set

Content marketing and content monetization go hand in hand. The easiest way to market premium content (the kind you charge for) is with more, free content. That is, of course, good news for writers. Not only do we have an easy entry point if we want to practice a little content monetization on our own work, but there are that many more clients out there for us to make money off of.

This is the intersection that I’m focusing myself and my business on in the months to come. This is where I firmly believe the money is coming from — and how I’m going to make gigantic piles of cash for myself. But I think that we’re going to need a few new tools to make it work. We’re headed in the right direction with easy-to-use content management systems and the ability to create PDFs easily, but there are some gaps.

Have you seen the same trends? Do you think content monetization offers you any good opportunities?

See-ming Lee

8 Productivity Questions Writers Need to Ask

When writing is your profession, you have to do it, day in and day out. You can take the occasional break, but the number of words you put on paper (or on screen) directly corresponds to the number of dollars in your bank account. Even if you’ve got some good passive income streams going, you still have to write up your products and marketing materials. All of that means that anything you can do to become more productive is beneficial.

But every writer has a different creative process. What gets me in my chair and working isn’t necessarily going to get any other writer working. That means that we have to ask ourselves some questions about productivity and how we work as individuals.

  1. What does productivity mean to me? Is it just a question of clearing a couple of hours for writing? Or is it clearing out non-writing tasks? Or something else entirely? The answer usually has something to do with what you want to accomplish is a given day. Personally, my productivity is a question of writing a certain number of words per day. I have to have the time and the flexibility to make sure that I get the writing part of my work done every day. Most of the rest of my work can get handed off to someone else, if necessary and if funds are available. But I’ve got to write.
  2. What do I need to be able to write? I’m a big proponent of the idea that we don’t need anything special to write and that getting caught up in the system and the surroundings is just a way to create excuses to avoid actually working. But I freely admit that there are situations and circumstances that I simply can’t work through. Being productive means setting things up so that those situations are avoidable.
  3. How do I keep track of my writing work? With the solitary exception of fiction writers working on novels that ‘tell’ them what’s going to happen next, most of us need some pretty concrete plans in order to tackle a writing project. Keeping track of those plans becomes necessary in order to keep moving forward, but how you keep track of them is a personal question. I know writers who rely on sticky notes all over their walls because they need the physical reminder to keep moving. I know writers who make up very precise task lists. It’s all a question of what works for you.
  4. How do I divide up my writing work? Not every writing project can be done in a single day. That means breaking it up into concrete tasks. Of course, breaking down ‘write an article’ can be incredibly difficult — does ‘write the first 250 words of the article’ actually help guide you through the process? But there are ways to get things into a manageable set of actions. Personally, I break things down between the time actually spent writing and everything else. I have set times when I go through and do all the interviews I need for a given project, as well as set times for the writing aspects.
  5. How do I handle the non-writing part of my work? As much as most of us don’t want to worry about anything except actually writing, we’ve all got little details that need to be handled. Tasks like setting up interviews are a necessary part of our day. There are plenty of strategies for attacking your every day tasks, but as a writer, there’s an unusual aspect. How do you balance writing with everything else that needs to get done? If you’re off sending emails, after all, you aren’t writing.
  6. How do I follow up on my writing? My work doesn’t send itself out to clients, more is the pity. That means that I have to have systems of some sort in place to get my work distributed, paid for and other important steps. Writing may seem like a solitary game, but it requires regular communications as well as an ability to work around specific dates. After all, following up on an unpaid invoice three months later isn’t going to get you paid quickly.
  7. How do I make sure I actually get out of my chair? Writing, for the most part, is a sedentary activity. On top of that, it can be a bit lonely. It’s crucial to get up and out of our chairs regularly — such activities are just as important to our productivity as actually getting our rear-ends into our chairs and working. Just what that looks like can depend on your own goals and needs, of course, but I’ve had to put systems in place that get me up and moving over the course of the day as well as out of my home office and actually interacting with people on occasion.
  8. How do I get the new information I need for ideas? I could spend all day online, just browsing for new information. Despite the fact that I get some of my best ideas that way, it’s probably not the most effective approach to planning my work day. With that in mind, it’s important to consider how much time we’re spending on consuming media, rather than creating it, and how we’re processing that information.

I’ve been thinking about these questions because I’m working on a top secret project with Ali Hale over at ConstructivelyProductive. We’re getting pretty close to finishing up our project and will be unveiling it soon. But we’ve had to put a lot of thought into just how we organize our own approaches to productivity and how anyone in a creative profession can manage her work.

Image by Flickr user Chris Metcalf

When is it Okay to Outsource Writing Work

There is no physical possible way for me to write every article that my clients bring to me. It certainly isn’t a bad problem to have — and it took plenty of marketing to get to this point — but I can’t bring myself to turn down work, even as I’m looking for ways to cut back on my work. But that doesn’t mean that the only option is to drive myself a little bit crazier because I want the money that goes along with these projects. It doesn’t hurt that my clients are a lot happier if I can take care of all the work they can give me.

Bringing in another writer is just about the only way I have found to take on these projects without losing sleep. But there are some ethical concerns that go along with bringing in help that I think are crucial to consider. After all, if someone screws up on a project that is just for you, that’s one thing. If it is a project for a client, however, your reputation is on the line — not the person actually responsible.

Is Your Client Cool With It?

My clients, when they first come to me, are looking to pay Thursday Bram to write something for them — not any other writer. Not everyone is willing to pay me to edit something someone else has written or to manage a project without actually banging out a few words myself. That’s fine with me. I charge rates that make me comfortable doing all the work myself.

It’s only when I’ve got an okay from the client that I’m willing to bring in someone else. My client has to be fully aware of not only the fact that I’m not the one writing the material, but to have approved who I’m working with. The situation has to be fully transparent.

Are You Cool With Freelancers’ Rates?

When I started out as a freelance writer, I picked up several assignments that other writers were outsourcing. The pay was on the level that my experience was getting me elsewhere, but I know there was a significant difference between what I was getting and what the original contractor was getting.

As a result, I tend to price the work I outsource a little lower than my standard rates. I’m still paying a fair rate to the other writers involved, but I don’t feel right about adding much more of a margin than the actual time I’m spending on a given project. If I’m only going to spend 15 minutes editing or tweaking a blog post, I’m not about to charge my hourly rate for the whole project.

At the same time, I’m very worried about putting other writers in a bad place, financially speaking. I’m often on the other end of the paycheck and I don’t want anyone to think that I haven’t treated them fairly. As a result, I’ve been thinking about what I can offer the writers I work with to make projects more worth their while — especially since I’m looking for opportunities to bring in more work for them. So far, that’s included little things, like offering free hosting for a couple of great writers’ websites (I host a couple of my clients’ websites already). But I’d love to put together something that reaches a little farther. If you’ve got any suggestions on the support you’d want in a freelance job, I’m happy to hear it.

Are You Able to Handle the Logistics?

Outsourcing a project doesn’t entirely get things off your plate. You’ve still got to make sure that the project is going well, that everybody gets what they need and so forth. So far, I’ve been using Google Wave to manage everything, along with OmniFocus (the task management tool I use for my own work). But I can tell that this won’t last — OmniFocus isn’t exactly robust and Google Wave is effectively being discontinued.

So I’m on a hunt for a new approach to managing things. I have a pretty specific idea of what the end result needs to look like, but I’m definitely struggling with the best way of making the transition. This is certainly not a problem that a freelancer working on her own runs into.

When your team consists of more than just you, it becomes very clear very quickly that you need a simple approach. You need everyone to be able to check just one place to stay on the same page — and to be able to make the connection between your approach and they way they manage their own tasks. It’s a problem we often see from the other end: we have standard invoicing procedures but different clients require us to invoice in different ways, resulting in freelancers getting frustrated. The same problem shows up in asking freelancers to handle work in different ways.

An Informal Poll

I’d like to know if you’ve ever outsourced part or all of a writing project to another freelancer. What worked? What didn’t?

And if you haven’t, why not?

Image by Flickr user Mike Baird

An Accidental Talk: ‘Blogging for Dollars’ at Bar Camp San Diego

I flew out to San Diego last Friday to see my husband, who happens to be working out here this summer. I found out that BarCamp San Diego was Saturday and Sunday — I’m a fan of BarCamps and other small sort-of conferences because they’re almost always free and you get to hear from a lot of people who are truly passionate about the projects they’re working on. This weekend was no different… but I wound up giving a talk myself.

If you aren’t familiar with the BarCamp format, it’s pretty spur of the moment: all the attendees show up about an hour before talks are scheduled to start and hash out the day’s speakers. Before that point, no one really knows who will be speaking and what they’ll be talking about, and that can include the speakers. As people were hanging out and chatting, I wound up on one of my standard soap boxes — making money off of writing online. If you do that at a BarCamp, you quickly wind up on the schedule.

That meant, between the next few sessions, I had to distill my soap box down into about 30 minutes of coherent presentation. I’ve included my notes below, but I simply wound up focusing on giving a broad overview on how a blogger can make money, mentioned a few key bloggers who are good role models and then offered about ten minutes for questions about the specifics people were wondering about.

Five Things to Do Before Trying to Make Money as a Blogger

  1. Use WordPress. Furthermore, get your own domain name and host it yourself. Sure, there are other blogging tools out there, but WordPress is the horse I’m betting on. It’s more robust, has a bigger community of developers and the user interface is very friendly for new bloggers.
  2. Look for money-making opportunities, besides advertising. It’s hard to make a living off of AdSense and it’s getting harder. Most other approaches to advertising require you to have a lot more traffic than you will when you’re starting out.
  3. Network with the other bloggers covering your topic. Having a network is crucial to making money, even if it’s only a matter of discussing a product idea with a friend who can say ‘I tried that and it didn’t work so well.’
  4. Listen to your readers. Maybe your readership is ten of your closest friends and your mom. Assuming your mom is only there to be supportive, your friends can still give you a good idea of what you’re doing well and where you can improve. As you grow, keep listening: ask readers questions, especially about what they’d be willing to buy from you.
  5. Write as much as you can. Even if you don’t consider yourself a fabulous writer, you have to write as much as possible. The practice will make you a better writer, which is an absolute necessity for a career as a blogger.

Five Strategies to Make Money Blogging

  1. Set yourself up as an expert and sell consulting services or freelance services
  2. Use your blog as a portfolio and land paid blogging gigs on other websites
  3. Sell information products (like ebooks or webinars) related to your blog
  4. Sell physical products related to your blog (like t-shirts, cookware or whatever your niche is)
  5. Use affiliate links to promote other companies products

This is just a smattering of options, of course. There are plenty more. But these are the big ones — the ones that absolutely have to be covered when you’re limited to thirty minutes of chatting. I think it’s worth noting that that these five methods all fall into one of two categories of making money from blogging, as do all the alternatives: indirect and direct income. Direct income comes from advertising, selling a product and so on, while indirect income comes from establishing your expertise and using it to land bigger gigs (such as consulting or writing).

I think two bloggers really typify the difference: Darren Rowse and Chris Brogan. Chris has built a whole company around his expertise and the expertise of the people he works with, earning a nice chunk of change from consulting and speaking gigs. Darren has also built up a company, but he’s focused more on ebooks, membership sites and more directly selling to his readership. There is some overlap between what they do, of course. Both of these bloggers are immensely successful, though, and make for wonderful blogging role models.

Review: 73 Ways to Fire Up (or Just Fire) the Muse

I write a lot. There are weeks when I feel like I do absolutely nothing beyond dream up new article ideas and then write them. That can be a bit wearing and I can’t afford writer’s block. To combat creative fatigue, I’m always on the look out for a little inspiration. Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen’s ebook, 73 Ways to Fire Up (or Just Fire) the Muse provides some great tips to moving past obstacles in your writing.

Laurie divided the information into fifteen obstacles, from surviving the fear of rejection to waiting for publication. Each of the fifteen sections starts with an overview of the problem, followed by advice on how to work through those obstacles. That includes advice from big name authors, such Annie Dillard (a Pulitzer-prize winner), as well as from freelancers, writers with day jobs and other practitioners of the craft of writing. There may just be a piece of advice from me in there some where. Laurie winds up each section with a few quotes from the most successful writers out there — like Agatha Christie.

Different Opinions and Different Approaches

Considering writing is a creative act, the fact that there are so many different approaches to even something as simple as finding something to write about should come as no surprise. One of the strengths of 73 Ways to Fire Up (or Just Fire) the Muse is that it showcases so many different approaches. No matter your style or subject matter, you’ll find useful advice in this ebook.

The organization also makes it easy to use this ebook. If you’re having a specific problem with your writing, don’t bother with reading the book straight through — there’s great information in each section, but it may not be applicable to what you’re going through right now. Skip to the section that really reflects what you need to work on and see what tips and quips Laurie has collected for you.

You can purchase 73 Ways to Fire Up (or Just Fire) the Muse for $9.95. I’d like to point out, of course, that it will be a more useful resource for some writers than others. If you have a system that works for you, this ebook may be overkill — especially if changing your system would slow you down.

If, however, you need some help with the creative side of the writing business, this ebook can help you see how other writers are doing it and give you some ideas on how to up your game.

Ask Me Anything: Organizing Teams

Julie Rains asks,

How to organize teams with social media and technical expertise?

As freelancers, we often work on teams. It’s not out of the question that we’ll wind up putting together and leading our own teams. As a writer, it’s not uncommon to have a client bring you a project that may need some technical expertise (like adding new content to an existing website) or other skills (like promoting content in social media. There are a variety of different ways to handle these situations, but I break the process down into three parts: recruitment, management and execution.

I find that having the right team is especially crucial. I have very specific people I go to for different skill sets: I try to avoid asking another freelancer to take on projects that are outside of his or her key skill sets. I want to work with pros who can go in and get their part of the project done. I also try to avoid bringing in team members as a favor or because I personally know they need some work. It just never works out.

Management is the next key to organizing a team. There needs to be a central location (a project management tool, wiki or somewhere else) where every team member can see what he or she is responsible for, as well as deadlines. As long as you’re working with professionals, the more information you can provide, the better they’ll be able to handle the project. (If you’re working with someone who isn’t actually comfortable with the task you’re asking them to handle, too much information can actually be a big problem.) Say the project involves submitting links to a social news site: each member of the team should be able to see what has been already submitted.

Once you’ve got your team executing their tasks, as the team leader, you need to have a way to check that the task has been accomplished. Continuing with the social news submission example, you need your social media helpers to provide you with the link that shows an article has been submitted. While it’s important to have a team that you trust to get their work done without a lot of supervision, especially if you’re working on a contract, you have an obligation to keep track of what has gotten done.

Got a question about the business side of freelance writing? Submit it in the comments and I’ll answer it next week.