We hosted our latest #ConnectChat yesterday, featuring veteran freelance writer Jen A. Miller on the business of freelancing. Miller discussed topics such as how to find markets, how to pitch editors, how much to charge, when to walk away from an assignment, and more.
Miller is author of three books, the latest of which is “Book a Week with Jen.” Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Runner's World, Men's Health, Allure and Woman's Day. She also writes a running column for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and blogs about freelancing at Notes from a Hired Pen.
If you were unable to make the chat, fear not – below is a recap of the discussion. You can also find a list of past #ConnectChat recaps here.
Jen, thanks for joining us today. I’m excited to pick your brain on behalf of all the freelancers out there. Let’s jump right in. What is the best part of being a freelancer?
The best part about freelancing is the freedom -- whether it's to take off to go to Florida for a week or work at home in sweatpants. I tried working in an office a few times before. I was like a tomato withering on a vine. I don't do well confined.
What is the worst/hardest part of being a freelancer?
The worst part of freelancing is being your own collections agency. It's extremely frustrating/insulting to not be paid on time.
What's an average turnaround time for payments? What percentage is typically not on time?
The typical turnaround time for payments is 30 days. Seventy-five percent of my clients pay on time. Then again, I have no problem firing a client if there are continuing payment problems. When a publication approaches me, I always ask about money before going into a deep discussion about an assignment. Also, I never assume a magazine will pay a lot and an online publication will pay little. That’s not the way it works anymore.
How can writers figure out how much they should charge?
It depends. The publication will throw out a rate – use that as a starting point. If it's too low, leave the door open if rates change. For corporate work, I set a fee based on the number of hours I think the job will take. I also add a clause with a per-hour charge if the project grows. For me, it comes down to: What do I need to make this worth my time? The longer I've been in the business, the higher that number goes. Also, not working for low rates – and instead dedicating time to finding work worth the rate – has increased my revenues.
Is there ever a case where a writer should write for one of the so-called “content mills,” for free or for a reduced rate?
There is no absolute yes or no. I land on no 99.99999999999999 percent of the time. I don't write for free. My only exceptions have been: volunteering and promoting a book (although, after doing that once, I never did it again). I've also taken reduced rate for advocacy, like I am doing for an op/ed I wrote about being a victim of gun violence. I want it published. Also, don't write in exchange for exposure. You want exposure? Stand on the corner in an open trench coat. Get paid for your work.
How about when a writer is just starting out, to build clips?
The only person you should write for free for is yourself. I’ve had many media outlets ask me to blog for them for free. Instead, I stayed at my own. Eventually, someone offered to pay me for it.
What do you consider a fair freelance rate?
It depends on the project and the client. I try to get at least $250/hour (estimating if the offer is per hour).
Does that correspond with experience, or is that reasonable starting rate for a new writer to ask for?
It doesn't matter. You charge for the work. I always say, "Fake it until you make it.”
How do you prepare pitches? What percentage of your pitches end up turning into articles?
It depends on the client. With people I've worked with before, a pitch could be a few sentences with a link to something else. For a new-to-me client, I write a three- to four-paragraph pitch and a bio about me, with links to specific clips (not just to my website). For pitches to regular clients, I have about a 75 percent hit rate. For new-to-me clients, the rate is about 25 percent. I think that's pretty good. I've also been doing this for eight years, so I pitch far less than I did when I started.
How much work do you do on the story before you pitch? And who handles expenses?
For a big, big pitch, I conduct 1-2 interviews (by email or phone). Usually, the publication picks up expenses. In cases where the publication doesn't pick up expenses, I ask for a higher fee (though I'm then taxed on that).
Do you ever turn down a paying assignment? How can you do that but still leave the door open?
Absolutely. If the fee is too low, I say no, but I always add, “If your rates change, please get back in touch!” If you take every single assignment thrown your way, especially if it’s low-paying, you don't leave time to find high-paying, good clients.
How long do you give a publication to accept or pass on your pitch before pitching it elsewhere?
It depends on the publication's lead time. Magazines have the longest lead times, online publications the shortest. I pitch, and follow up two weeks later. Then, depending on the publication, if I don't hear back, I wait few days, a week, etc., and pitch it elsewhere.
How do you deal with writers block?
I sometimes take a break: walk the dog, go out for a sandwich, go on a run, put my butt in a beach chair. If I’m on deadline, I make a to-do list, breaking down the assignment into the smallest increments and working on crossing off items on that list.
How do you deal with unkind editors?
It depends on the relationship with the publication. Sometimes an unkind editor is hired by a beloved client. In that case, I’m more inclined to deal with their "unkindness" and then either pitch another editor or wait until that person moves. I've outlived four top editors at one of my oldest clients, so it happens! If it's just an unkind person, try to be diplomatic. But if they're insulting me, or asking for extra work for no more pay, I am not shy about standing up for myself. No check is worth being treated like a piece of [insert curse here]. And then, if the person is truly unkind, I fire the client. Yes, kids, we can do that too.
One of the biggest concerns for freelancers is health insurance. What are their options?
I wrote a blog post about this. If you cannot afford health insurance, you cannot afford to freelance. That's why you can't write for peanuts. Freelancing is expensive. You have higher taxes, more costs and more financial responsibility. Rules regarding insurance will be changing with ACA, but rates for self-buyers go up double digits per year. Still, you must have it.
Any tips for writers who are new to social media? What’s the best way to use it? What are some do’s and don’ts?
The biggest rule is: think before you tweet, because you can lose clients this way. I don't put any clients in my bio, because if I slip up, I don't want people to say "X's writer is a moron!" It harms the client. Other than that, be yourself.
Should writers have a separate social media presence for business and personal, or is one account combining both OK?
I tried separate accounts before, and it just didn't work. Twitter is about being you. I just happen to be someone who writes. Twitter has also allowed me to connect to editors in different ways, and they see the other topics I write about. Then again, I think my Twitter feed is very PG (with strays into PG-13). So if yours isn't, you might want separate.
Is social media a good way for writers to find new markets? Can/should it be used to pitch editors with story ideas?
I follow my editors if I know their handles, but I don't pitch them on Twitter because I hate when PR people do that to me. However, if an editor mentions something on Twitter that spurs an idea, I will email them and reference the tweet in the pitch.
Can you share some tips for our followers on the PR side regarding the best ways to work with journalists?
Don't ever, ever, ever add a writer to your PR list without asking -- that's spam. Don't ask me what my fields of coverage are. I have a website. Use Google. Do your job and do some research. If you follow me on Twitter, you'll get a good idea of the topics I cover. Personalize that pitch. And think about pitches like darts -- you can only throw a few off target before I start ignoring you.
We’ve got time for just about one more question: What’s your one best piece of advice for fellow freelancers?
Know the value of your work. Don't take rejection personally. And keep trying when everyone else says no.
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