Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

The Sales Side of Writing

A reader named Elizabeth asked me the following question:

I am a writer and have two areas of expertise from about six years of combined experience as a copywriter and grant writer. My ultimate dream is to freelance. I have done tons of reading on becoming a freelancer and am talking to dozens of people. I have also joined several relevant professional associations, and am volunteering my time as a writer.

The key issue that I'm grappling with is TIMING! When do I know if I'm ready to go out on my own? How do I or should I measure if I am "good enough" to freelance now? Would love to know your thoughts/advice on the matter.

Elizabeth, you and I were cut from the same cloth! Sixteen years ago, I recall having exactly the same feelings. I had a senior job with a large, metropolitan newspaper, and I anguished over whether I should leave to freelance.

I did and it turns out to be one of the best decisions I ever made. BUT -- and this is a big "but" -- you need to be prepared.

Funnily enough, this preparation has little to do with writing and more to do with selling and marketing. I trust you when you say you are a writer but do you have the skill and training to sell your work? Sadly, that is often the far more important skill for freelancing success.

"But, wait," you say. "Shouldn't the best writers get the most work?" I agree, but the sales engine is what runs the world. People who know how to know how to make clients feel "cared for" get the most work. People who are good listeners get the most work. People who have thick skins and don't seem to feel the sting of rejection get the most work.

Don't worry about your writing -- it sounds fine and you sound competent. More than competent, actually. But what you need is a business plan.

When I started, I landed a very big contract fairly quickly. It represented more than 75% of my income. This was good for me, at the time, because I was a new mom with young children. Not having to make a lot of sales calls was a benefit to me. But as a business strategy, it sucked.

After a few years, PFFT, the company was sold and I was suddenly without 75% of my income. I scrambled like heck and became a "traditional" freelancer for a full 13 months before I was able to find another "anchor" client. During the year, I was able to match my income, but it was stressful.

During that same year, I also launched my website so I'd never have to depend so much on a single client ever again.

You didn't say whether you have a job now (I'm going to assume you do). I suggest you start your "freelance" life during your off hours -- you know, by working evenings and weekends. Yes, it will be demanding doing two jobs at once, but it will allow you to have a taste of freelance work without jeopardizing your full-paying job. Furthermore, it will allow to you develop some clients and save some money.

You should have at least three month's of income in the bank and some paid-freelance experience under your belt before you start. If you don't feel comfortable "selling" then take a course or get a coach. I took a bit of sales coaching and found it extraordinarily helpful. One book my coach recommended that I really enjoyed is: Action Selling: How to Sell Like a Professional Even if You Think You Are One by Duane Sparks.

The freelancing life is invigorating. But too many writers tend fret about their writing skills -- when what they really need to worry about is their sales acumen. Good luck to you, Elizabeth, and happy selling!


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A former daily newspaper editor, Daphne Gray-Grant is a writing and editing coach and the author of 8½ Steps to Writing Faster, Better. She offers a free weekly newsletter on her website Publication Coach. Click here to read more articles by Daphne Gray-Grant.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday April 12th 2011, 2:35 AM
Comment by: Michael W. (LIVERPOOL & EXETER United Kingdom)
Throughout my business life I've met and known many freelancers and done it myself too - like 90% of them they would say 'go do it' but I agree with Daphne, prepare a good business plan and accummulate some working capital to get you through the lean times you're certainly going to experience - unless you're very lucky. Being your own boss is great till you don't have any work and income.........
Confidence is the name of the game and belief in yourself and your abilities. And again, as Daphne says if you can do it part time have a go - it will give you some valuable experience.
Mike w Riyadh
Tuesday April 12th 2011, 5:11 AM
Comment by: Sante J. Achille (L Aquila Italy)
I've been freelance since 1995 - I had a business plan I had good Ideas and in the end it worked - still here on the market ... yet there are things you simply cannot prepare for, one of them is the instability that derives from cash flows not always as we wish they would be - that took me a long time to get used to.

Another "problem" nobody tells you about is how difficult it is to setup and maintain a decent pricing scheme: I found it soooo hard to stand before a person and "ask for money" ...

A good read I recommend is persuasion engineering by Richard Bandler - read it then read it again.

Ultimately you'll learn to sell your services to the right people - people you enjoy working with and who enjoy your work company and way of being but it's gonna take some time and it's not going to be easy but if you dream of yourself free form the 9 to 5 routine, the office and the boss, if the uncertainty and the challenge make your heart beat fast, and your eyes swell with tears of joy and excitement, if you work with true and unlimited passion and dedication, you'll make it.
Tuesday April 12th 2011, 9:36 AM
Comment by: Graeme Roberts (Pittsford, NY)
Absolutely right, unfortunately.
Tuesday April 12th 2011, 1:00 PM
Comment by: Erin B. (Haverhill, MA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Excellent advice, Daphne. It's the same for freelance editors and, I imagine, most freelance (if not all) careers.
Wednesday April 13th 2011, 11:53 AM
Comment by: Michael Lydon (New York, NY)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I've been freelance writing since 1968, and though it's been a rocky road, I've never regretted my choice. What helped me get started was that there was a big demand for articles and profiles of pop musicians (Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Rolling Stones, et al), but the older reporters didn't like the music or sympathize with the youth culture.

I did, so I found good work writing for top outlets. Then I collected my pieces in a book, and I was launched.

What Daphne says about sales skills is absolutely right on. Network, network, network!! Polite persistance! Try to think like an editor!

The best way to combine the artistic and commercial, I think, is to find a subject you like and keep developing it. Editors will start to recognize you as a go-to expert, and you'll have the fun of seeing deeper and deeper into your chosen field.
Wednesday April 13th 2011, 12:21 PM
Comment by: Jorge U. (Anaheim, CA)
I am not a writer; I am a construction worker who likes to read. Your article is first-class advice almost for any business.
Sunday April 17th 2011, 11:33 AM
Comment by: Daphne Gray-Grant (Vancouver Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Selling is HARD for many writers. I think this is because writers are often a bit shy. The big secret is to understand three things:

1) Being good at selling does NOT mean having the "gift of the gab." It means being a good LISTENER. Most writers are already good listeners but fail to use this skill when doing sales. You do NOT need to talk about yourself; you need to find out what the client needs. Turn your "sales call" into an interview. (Is that less scary? I think it is!)

2) Most buyers need help through they buying process. Learn how to help them by reading books about sales. Even though I've been selling for 16 years now, I'm still going to check out the Richard Bandler book recommended by Sante, above. It sounds interesting!

3) Try to think like an editor. Thanks for that great tip, Michael Lyndon. When you write, you should try to think like a reader. When you sell, you should try to think like your client.

Once you get used to selling, you'll find it's not nearly as hard as you think.

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