Sharing: Your kindergarten teacher was wrong!

There are things you should share, admittedly. Cookies, for one thing, especially if you live near me. The TV remote. Doing the chores. But it’s worth your while to have your own work space that you don’t share with anybody. After all, who wants to get all set up and spread out on the dining room table, work for a couple of hours, pack it up long enough to eat a meal, and then spread out again? It lacks efficiency, to say the least.

I’m of the opinion that every freelancer should have their own workspace. Yes, I mean you! Now, I’m not suggesting that you have to rent office space, or buy a fancy desk or anything.* If you work out of your home, take over a corner or a closet. You need a table of some sort and a chair. I also advocate a filing cabinet — but it can be one of those plastic crates with folders, as long as you have a place to stick your paperwork. If you work primarily on a computer, stick it in there.

Now, here’s the important part: this is your office! Feel free to tell significant others, children, pets, the cable guy, your mother and anyone else interested that you are unavailable when you’re in your office. You’re working.

The mental distinction between my bedroom and my office is enough to help keep me on task when I’m supposed to be working. In the bedroom, I’m worrying about doing laundry and other household chores. Here, in my office, I’m focused on writing and getting paid.

*For the record, I love my desk — it’s a big piece of wood on top of two old filing cabinets I may or may not have stolen. Nothing fancy, but boy can I spread out!

Robert Jordan (1948-2007)

“I just wanted to write books I wanted to write, … There’s no writer who has not had enough ego to hope something he or she wrote would be seized on by the public — that something they write will last beyond them. But hoping and expecting are two different things. Expecting would be beyond ego.” — Robert Jordan

L’Shanah Tovah!

It’s 5768 now, and I’ve got some questions for all you freelance writers. What days are important enough to shut down the computer?

A lot of people are taking a couple of days off to go to the synagogue, but how many are actually not working at all on those days? And Ramadan falls during this time as well — the holiday practices don’t prohibit work, but Muslims are expected to focus on religion during this period. And with Christmas not so far away, it’s worth talking about for everyone.

In these days of mobile offices and constant work, I don’t feel comfortable taking even a full day away from my computer. At the very least, I’ll log on in the morning before I go to wherever I’m headed or in the evening after I get back. That doesn’t really work with the idea of the Sabbath of any variety, does it?* I haven’t figured out a way to reconcile it, personally. It’s an important issue, too, because there are all those notorious freelancers who tote a laptop along to the beach, family reunions or wherever else they’re headed for vacation. It seems like we’re all courting burnout here. I’d like to argue that we’re not — that we work every day, but for shorter times, and on projects we actual enjoy. But I don’t have much data on it either way.

*There’s an odd corollary to the religious aspect here: what about the appearance of work? I may not work on Shabbat, but I might have queued up an automatic update on my blog. It would appear that I’m still working. I may need a rabbi’s advice on this one, because it’s way out of my religious league.

Five Ways To Become An Expert

Is there a topic you desperately want to write about regularly, that you want to make your career? Yes? But you don’t have any clips on the topic yet? And editors keep asking you to prove what you know about it? Never fear — as long as you do have knowledge about the topic in question, you can become an expert. You’re going to have to let some material out into the world for free, as much as it pains me to recommend any such thing, but it is doable.

  1. Write for related non-profits. If, for example, you want to be the acknowledged expert on organizing play dates, offer free articles to parents’ organizations.
  2. Start a blog. Seriously, regular content on a given subject can make an editor’s mind up very quickly. Your blog needs to look professional, mind you, but as long as you have consistent quality posts, you are improving your reputation. An alternative to this is to start your own print publication, but, considering expense, it would probably be easier to run a blog.
  3. Pitch ‘intro’ stories on your topic to publications that are loosely related. If your niche is music criticism, consider approaching lifestyle magazines rather than music publications.
  4. Write content for websites such as Ezine Articles or other content sites.
  5. Submit op-eds about controversial aspects of your topic to newspapers. You may want to start with local or small papers to start with, but even the New York Times accepts unsolicited op-eds.

It’s just a matter of dedication and researching your topic. If you’re knowledgeable you can get the clips and reputation necessary to go after big publications.

What’s in a pen name?

Mark Twain did it. So did Lewis Carroll and George Sand. And Nora Roberts, Robert Heinlein and thousands of other modern writers.

There are many reasons a freelancer might consider taking up a pseudonym: a common name, an opportunity to write a bodice-ripper, a preference to keep one’s private life separate from one’s work. Generally, however, a pen name is nothing more than a polite fiction — it appears in print, but you sign contracts and file for copyright using your legal name, with your pseudonym noted as such in paperwork.

If, for instance, you were to file a copyright under your pen name, and later needed to enforce it in a court of law, the case stands a chance of being thrown out, or drawn out and very expensive. You can face legal problems if you sign contracts using a pen name, as well.

Some writers have been known to use a pseudonym to get around contract restrictions — i.e. a freelancer may be have signed a contract to write about business topics for one website exclusively, but an opportunity to write a piece for another site might crop up. If something similar happens to you, be aware that doing so still counts as breaking the contract. It may be easier to simply talk to everyone involved rather than try the round about tactic of a pen name.

A writer might also use a pseudonym if he or she is attempting to write about a topic that might be problematic — for example, a doctor writing about the dangers of a particular hospital might be exposing his professional career to damage, or a writer covering a powerful figure involved in crime. While this is a reasonable action to take, generally one cannot rely on a pseudonym as one’s primary form of protection.

There are a wide number of factors to take into consideration if you want to use a pseudonym. There are many benefits, however: a writer can avoid being typecast into a particular topic or genre, most people won’t go to the effort of looking up copyrights, and it can be used as a marketing tool.

The Collections Process: Something You Can Do

Not all freelance writers are comfortable with the idea of collections — getting a little nasty if that’s what it takes to get your money. They put it off, telling themselves that if they’re hard on a client, they won’t get any repeat work. But collections are a necessary part of business, and clients who are tough as nails to get money out of the first time around won’t be any better on projects later on. Even worse, the longer a writer puts off dealing with a client who owes her money, the less likely she is to ever see a cent.

Collections can be a painful process, but it is possible to speed through it, and hopefully get your payment. The secret to easier collections is to establish a personal system of how to handle them, and follow it religiously. Mark next steps on your calendar or to do list, and check up on where any client is in the system.

I’m going to walk you through my checklist — yours may be very different, depending on what type of businesses you’re working with.

  1. When I get a contract for a new client, I open up the spreadsheet I use to track accounts receivable (and income, to keep things simple). I enter several variables: client’s name, project title, expected payment, expected payment date.
  2. When I finish the project in question, I send an invoice to the client, and mark that date on my handy dandy spreadsheet, as well. I also mark on my to do list to follow up on the date that payment is due.
  3. My follow up is fairly simple — I check if I have the money in hand. If I do, I should be able to tell just by looking at my spreadsheet; I should have marked the date when I received the money. If not, I send a pleasantly worded reminder note, and add a ‘to do’ to my list: check back in five business days.
  4. Rinse and repeat through 2 more notes, with increasing strength of language. I will often call throughout this process, especially if there is no response. It is important to both have direct contact with the client, and a paper trail of your collections process.
  5. If by, this point, payment is not forthcoming, there are a variety of options: you can turn a debt over to a collections agency, you can take legal action, etc. These options can be costly for you, and if at all possible, it is better to negotiate a settlement with your client personally. If it does come to any of these options, however, a paper trail of invoices and contacts is absolutely necessary.
  6. Personally, I also like to warn other freelancers considering taking on a deadbeat client. Methods to do so include contacting local chapters of the Better Business Bureau, or websites like Writers Weekly, that maintain a warnings section. It depends on the type of client.

No matter your approach to collections, be polite and professional throughout. Just like Gramma says, ‘you’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar.’ Personal contact is also helpful. If you talk to someone on the phone, or you visit their office, you have a better chance of getting paid. It may not be an option, though considering the high number of writers that take on projects out of state or even out of the country.

Madeleine L’Engle, 1918-2007

L’Engle epitomized the just-stick-to-it attitude required to get by on a writer’s salary. Her fantastic A Wrinkle in Time crossed the paths of dozens of publishers before it paid off. But she persevered and wrote over sixty books. Her own take on her writing was recorded in her 2001 book, Madeleine L’Engle Herself: Reflections on a Writing Life. I remember reading her children’s books; I’ve added Herself to my reading list. I can’t think of a better memorial to a prolific writer than to read her work.

The Dangers of Self-Plagiarism

It’s tempting to sell first rights to an article a couple of times — just changing the title and maybe a bit of the text. It used to be that no one would notice. But it isn’t ethical and it’s fairly easy to get caught.

Many editors run any articles they get through any of a number of plagiarism checkers as a matter of course. It cuts down on their liability and they can catch problems very quickly. Depending on the contract they hold with their writers, editors can do all sorts of nasty things if they find a writer has committed plagiarism, and if they were contracted for first rights of some variety, all sorts of hell can be let loose.

Even worse is the damage to a writer’s reputation. No writer wants an editor to comment negatively when his or her name comes up, but it’s guaranteed to happen in a situation like this. Heck, this is the sort of story an editor might bring up at lunch with other editors, creating a sort of informal blacklist.

So, how can a writer reuse articles and information without getting into hot water?

  • Reprints — Depending on the original publisher’s contract, you can often sell reprint rights and continue making money off of the same article over and over again.
  • Rewriting — You can write about the same information over and over again, as long as you write it differently each time. This can actual help you to gain a reputation as an expert on a given subject.
  • Portfolio — Use these pieces to emphasize your skill as a writer. Slap them into a portfolio and show them off.
  • Awards — There are awards for published travel pieces, business writing and everything else under the sun. Why not enter your excellent pieces to contests and see if you can win some prize money?

It’s all about reusing your work without infringing on rights you’ve already sold, as well as a few ethical considerations. It’s just not the right thing to do.

Unionizing freelancers

The Freelancers’ Union ultimately serves three purposes: allowing freelancers (of all varieties) to function as a community and network, forming groups to find lower priced insurance and to advocate freelancers’ needs to policymakers.

Wow. That’s a mouthful. What you might really want to know, as a freelancer, is what can this group do for me, and what would I need to do in exchange? I’m speaking from the point of view as someone who’s joined up, tempted by the free membership and promise of cheap insurance, both of which are given.

The Freelancers’ Union is free to join, which is nice for all us freelancers’ on a tight budget. Affiliation with the organization actually gets you a number of perks (although some are far easier to get if you live in New York, where the union was founded): the ability to purchase cheaper insurance, a listing in the Freelancers’ Yellow Pages, access to the forums, discounts at certain stores and educational opportunities.

You’ll have to take it upon yourself to be active, though. All those forums and other opportunities require some involvement on your part to be useful. The cost here is simply your time. I think it’s worth it, but do you?

The insurance holds the big allure here — it’s almost impossible for a freelancer to get decent insurance without indenturing the first-born. But I think the Freelancers’ Union’s ability to act as an advocate is extremely important. The number of freelancers keeps growing, as the idea of any number of professions needing to be tied to a desk to work decays. Our needs must be represented to the government, if they are to be met.

Keeping an eye out for common scams

There are an awful lot of scams out there, some of which target freelancers. You are your only protection — thinking carefully about opportunities that seem too good to be true, doing some research and deciding whether an offer is a scam or an opportunity. Recognizing common scams can help you breeze buy them, and find the lucrative deals you need.

Common scams include:

  • Publishing with fees — This isn’t quite the same as self-publishing. A ‘publisher’ may agree to take on your book, but will ask you to pay a set up fee. This is wrong, bad, no good! Any publisher who does this is a scammer. Ditto to agents who require you to pay them a fee to send out query letters for you.
  • Contests — Poetry contests have a bad rep these days because of the high number of scammers. You may submit a poem, and you’ll immediately get a “You’ve Won!” response with a charge for some kind of publication fee, such as a bio fee. You’ll also be pressured into buying copies of the volume your work appears in. If you leaf through these books, they’re entirely unedited and unjudged. There are a number of anthologies showing up that operate on similar lines.
  • Anybody charging you a fee to publish your work — There are plenty of legitimate opportunities out there that will pay you to publish your work. Anyone attempting to charge you unreasonable fees are looking to make money off of you, not produce good publications.