9 Habits: Brag

Years ago, I wrote a bestselling book called 9 Habits of Highly Profitable Writing. I’m assaying a second edition now, and that process includes posting each of the habits here for you, for free. 

Habit Seven: Know Why

Freelancing is hard work. You set your own hours, but you have to own your time and responsibilities so you can use those hours effectively. You’re your own boss, but you have to be effective at making yourself do stuff you don’t want to do.

Freelance writing is even harder.

Although the demand is out there, lots of people would love to write for a living. Lots of people who would otherwise be great clients think they know how to write. That means pushing against a market that wants to pay you less than you’re worth.

Add to that the uncertainty of making your nut every month, the lack of health benefits or paid vacation, the fact that working from home means not going to get cart food as often as you’d like…pretty soon you start to wonder why you signed up for this gig in the first place.

To make this work, you have to start and end with your reasons for taking on this life in the first place.

Starting Big: Your Mission Statement

You came to writing for a reason. It might have been simply because you like to write. It might have been because you can write from anywhere in the world, and go to work from anywhere with halfway decent Wi-Fi. It might be because of how much you hate wearing a suit to work, and Habit Two be damned. A mission statement can help you remember those reasons when things get tough.

A mission statement is a sentence or two that describes in detail why you do what you do. Most mission statements you see on corporate websites aren’t actually mission statements. They’re thinly veiled marketing ploys with no teeth, no heart and no meaning. For example:

Do not use them for inspiration here. They get nobody fired up, except maybe the person who got paid serious money to write that nonsense.

You don’t want marketing speak in your mission statement. You don’t need it, because this mission statement is just for you. It won’t work, because you’ll know if it’s a load of malarkey.

Instead, it should reflect exactly why you write for a living – or want to write for a living. Hopefully, it will use words that resonate with you so you keep wanting to write even on days when it’s hard.

For better or worse, here is mine:

To afford what my family needs and serve my personal values while working from home with abundant time for my wife, children, friends and interests.

There’s no marketing doublespeak in there. It’s just a list of the key things that motivate me to do what I do. Make enough money. Be a good dad, husband, and friend. Have time for my hobbies.

I love what I do, even the more challenging parts of it, but I do have rough days. When I have those rough days, I read and reread (sometimes re-reread and re-re-reread) my mission statement to keep me plugging until the days get easier again.

Zooming In

Your mission statement tells you why you write in general, but what about why you write the particular piece you’re procrastinating on today? That’s where zooming in to a project calendar helps. It’s a simple process, which itself becomes a habit as you make it part of your regular routine.

Step One: Your Five-Year Plan: Ask yourself what you want your writing career to look like in five years. How much money do you want to be making? How many books do you want in print? How about speaking gigs? Where do you want to travel? Is there a magazine you want to see your wok in? Write it all down. These are specific goals that you attach to the values you captured in your mission statement.

I set my last 5-year plan on my 45th birthday. By 50, I have some pretty aggressive ideas in mind. I’ll let you know about them in a whole post of their very own.

Step Two: Your Plan for the Year: Every six months, work out what you have to do over the next twelve months to keep yourself on track for your five-year plan. Even though you’re planning a full year, you do this every six months for two reasons.

  • It makes sure you always have at least six months of solid plan ahead of you at all times, instead of starting each year with no lead time.
  • It lets you adjust the nearest six months of your plan according to changes in circumstance that happened since the last time you set your 12-month goals.

This adds a level of granularity, creating the steps on the path you need to follow to reach your seemingly aggressive five-year plan. After a few iterations of this, though, you’ll find those five-year goals are easier to reach than you’d expected.

Step Three: Your Monthly and Weekly Tasks: Break up those yearly goals into 12 monthly sub goals, spread out to account for the rhythm of your year. For example, don’t commit to lots of work in the summer if you have young children.

Break up each month into 4 weekly plans. Those plans become daily agendas, thus creating your to-do list for the most important goals in your writing life.

Always plan your months in 4-week chunks, even though most months have a few “bonus days” at the end. Use those for catchup, or relaxation.

When you find yourself wondering why you’re writing yet another ad brochure for your local proctologist, you can trace that task all the way up the chain to your yearly and five-year plans. It will remind you that this is just one step on the path to the life you’ve promised yourself.

There’s not much that’s more inspiring than that.

6 Ways to Kick Your Own Ass

The worst thing about working for myself is I’m pretty sure my boss is shagging my girlfriend.

The second worst thing Kick Ass 1is, just like with any job, there are things I have to do that I really don’t want to. Sometimes those things are not just important, but urgent…and yet the call of procrastination is so strong. In a regular job, that’s what the boss is for. You see her walking around and it reminds you to get your ass to work.

Working for myself means I don’t have a boss to kick my ass when I’m struggling to get the grunt work done. So I have to be my own boss. I have to kick my own ass.

And so will you.

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9 Habits: Brag

Years ago, I wrote a bestselling book called 9 Habits of Highly Profitable Writing. I’m assaying a second edition now, and that process includes posting each of the habits here for you, for free. 

Habit Six: Brag

The truth is you have to make some sales if you want to write for a living. Professionals in every field advertise themselves, their company or both. Professional writers don’t get a pass from this rule just because the concept scares most of us.

As a freelance writer, I spend about as much time marketing myself and my work as I do writing it. This includes my blog and social media presence, sending applications for contract gigs, querying publications, touching base with former clients, setting up speaking gigs, and reaching out to local businesses.

If you don’t know how to market, learn. If you don’t like marketing, suck it up and get to work. This is part of the freelance life, and the rewards outweigh doing something you don’t love once in a while.

Look at it this way, whatever career you have now includes doing stuff you don’t like. It might be a particular task, or dealing with a specific kind of client. You might love every part of your job, but hate the commute or missing dinner with your family while you’re on a trip. Whatever it is, you still do your career because the good outweighs the bad.

It’s like that with freelance writing. You’re gonna have to market yourself. What you need to ask yourself is whether or not that pain is worse than all the gain you’ll get from becoming a full-time writer.

Every time I bring this up at a conference or with a coaching client, I hear the same objections.

“Dammit, Jason! I’m a writer, not a salesperson!”

Awesome Star Trek reference aside, yes you are. At least, you will have to be if you want to sell enough work to call yourself a professional writer. The thing about reality is, it doesn’t care about your opinions. It exists whether or not you want it to, or like it to be that way. To succeed in this or any other field, you must meet reality on reality’s terms.

“I don’t want to sully my art with commercial concerns.”

I’ve talked about this earlier already, both in this book and on my blog. It’s possible I’ve mocked some people about it on the internet. Bottom line: this attitude is bullshit. You can grow your talent by writing for a living, or let that talent atrophy by giving your time and energy to another job. It’s your choice

“Money’s not important if you do what you love.”

Karate schools don’t make any real money. I lived for seven years on less than $20,000 while working 70 hour weeks doing what I loved. I did have fun, but I have a lot more fun now that I don’t worry where my mortgage payment’s coming from. You can do what you love and have plenty of money. Doesn’t that sound nice?

“I don’t know how.”

Yes you do. If you’ve ever been on a date, or gotten a job, or convinced your kid to do his homework, you have successfully sold something. You might even have enjoyed the process. See more about this below, because sales is actually something you do every day.

“I hate marketing.”

Chances are you don’t really. It’s much more likely that you have a skewed perspective of what marketing really is. Even if you do hate marketing, you still have to market. The fallacy in that case isn’t your belief that you hate marketing. The fallacy is your belief that it matters. Which brings us to…

A Change In Perspective

The real secret about successful reluctant marketing is to change how you view it. Marketing doesn’t have to be cheesy, manipulative “The first 100 callers get a second potato twirler absolutely free!” ad copy. Sales doesn’t have to feel like the last time you bought a used car.

Remember the last time you really, really loved a book? Remember how you talked about it until your friends told you to stop? Remember how a few of those friends went out and bought the book (or borrowed it from you)?

Guess what? You were selling that book! Do you love your book at least as much as you loved that book you raved about to your friends? If so, doesn’t it deserve the same treatment? If not, why aren’t you writing a better book?

At its core, marketing and sales are simply identifying a need, then letting somebody know you can fill it. People need writers to write stuff. You write stuff and like money. There’s a beautiful symmetry there that only needs a connection. Marketing is nothing more or less than making that connection.

Unleashing Your Geek

I’m a geek. A big geek. I dig science fiction, pay attention to comic books, appreciate the inherent mathematics in good heavy metal. I run a D&D game twice a month and have deeply considered opinions about the differences between the book version and the movie version of Lord of the Rings.

But you know what? Everybody’s a geek in their own way.

Have you ever gotten a jock talking sports statistics, or a dizzy woman who hasn’t read a book since middle school talking about her favorite celebrities? What geeks! Even Mad Men lead Don Draper is a geek when he’s talking about what he does best.

We’re all geeks, and that’s a good thing. Not long ago, I got three job offers without asking for them simply by geeking out about how awesome it is to be a writer in the 21st century. I didn’t go into those conversations looking for work, or trying to make a sale. I just talked about stuff I find fascinating. My energy and passion, and the knowledge that comes from them, made the sale without me even having to try.

Don’t “market” with cheap tricks and cheesy lines. Make the sale by telling people truthfully how impressive you are. If you do it well, enough people who need you will hear about you that you’ll make sales without ever once having to say “Act Now!” or “Moneyback Guarantee!”.

You Have a Heavy Responsibility

Is your writing excellent? Of course it is! If it weren’t you would be spending the time you’re reading this getting better at your writing.

You have a responsibility to the world to get the song of your words out into the soundtrack of the universe. You also have a responsibility to make it the best song you can sing. Your writing can make the world a better place, even if it’s only by giving people a laugh on a stressful day.

If your work can make people’s lives better (and it can), I have one question for you:

How dare you keep it a secret?

Who the hell are you to withhold the brilliance of your writing from those who need it? Who are you to stand in between people you can help and the help you can give?

Stop it. Immediately. And give yourself permission to be awesome, feel awesome, and let other people know how awesome you are.

You Should Be Listening to Metal Right Now

Parental-Advisory-psd12954Folks who know me already realize I’m a huge metal head. I cut my teeth on Sabbath and Iron Butterfly, saw everybody from Iron Maiden to Anthrax to Faith No More in high school, played bass in a short-lived metal band, and have continued to love the metal well past the age benighted souls might have suggested I outgrow the tendency.

Here’s the thing about heavy metal: it’s good for you. It makes you smarter. It energizes and empowers. It relieves stress. Beyond those generalities, my experience as a solopreneur and general kicker of ass has taught me five ways metal is the best possible genre for empowerment and self-actualization available.

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9 Habits: Write Lots

Years ago, I wrote a bestselling book called 9 Habits of Highly Profitable Writing. I’m assaying a second edition now, and that process includes posting each of the habits here for you, for free. 

Habit Five: Write Lots

In Habit One, we talked about the importance of writing nonfiction if you want a career as a writer. This is absolutely true, but the truth (like all truths) is more complex than that. If you really want to make it as a writer, you must cast a wide net of projects so you can write as much as you need to live the life you want. This takes a variety of forms.

Write For More Publications

Even as print appears to be burning out, there are thousands of magazines willing to pay you for your words. New websites appear faster than you can offer to write something for them, meaning there is an effectively infinite supply of potential clients on the web. Do the research and find out who carries articles about your areas of interest and expertise.

When you have an article idea, pitch multiple venues with slightly different angles on the same topic. Also look for tangential publications. For example…

  • Imagine you’re a travel writer researching a piece on museums in a local tourist town. Don’t just write the assignment. Pitch the hobby magazines related to each museum. Look for the kids’ activities at each location for an article to pitch at a local parenting magazine. Contact the local tourist bureau about doing a guest post.
  • Similarly, imagine you’re doing a lifestyle piece on kitchen organization. Pitch some personal finance blogs about how kitchen organization saves money. Reach out to parenting magazines about childproofing kitchens. Look into paid reviews for the items you recommend in the article.

See how in both examples, you take the same piece of research and turn it into multiple paydays without self-plagiarizing or doing dirt to your original publisher? That’s one of the most important facets making your time turn into enough money to live as a writer.

Be Willing To  Write About Everything You’re Offered

Don’t just write about what you want. I love writing about martial arts, and I’m a regular contributor to Black Belt, the biggest martial arts magazine on the market. But my total monthly income from writing about martial arts caps out at $300 to $500. I make a living because my beat is absolutely anything somebody is willing to pay me to write.

A partial list of topics I’ve covered recently includes travel safety, SMS marketing, social media, marriage equality, wildlife viewing, stress relief, martial arts, getting enough sleep, music for working out, feline leukemia, disability insurance, expulsion policies in private schools, student loans, virtual phone systems, drunk driving, role-playing games, search engine optimization, zombies, quantum mechanics and my toddler’s bathroom habits.

I’m not an expert on everything I write about. I don’t have to be, and neither do you. As a writer, your chief talents should be writing and research. As a friend I interviewed for a piece I did for American Express OPEN Forum says, “If somebody asks you if you can do something, and you can – or you can learn how before your deadline – the answer is YES!”

Write About More Things

Make a list of 20 things you know well, or would like to learn about. For each of those things, make a list of 100 topics you could write about or research. You now have 2,000 potential articles to sell. As you do your initial work on each, you’ll find at least five concepts per original idea that you can pitch to different venues. That’s 10,000 total articles. At $100 each, which is low, that’s $1,000,000 – a decade worth of six-figure years. And you’ll come up with other ideas during that decade.

This may seem similar to just being willing to write about everything you’re offered, and it is. The difference is in the impetus. Being willing to write about everything means says YES when somebody asks if you can take on an assignment. Writing about more things means coming up with as many ideas as possible to offer to potential clients. Put together, they’re a powerful combination.

Write More Quickly

This is one of the biggest dividing lines I’ve noticed between professionals and amateurs. It’s also a demonstration of why writing for a living beats writing part-time while working another job. Amateurs on web forums I frequent, and most of my clients when they come to me, talk about putting down 1,000 words on a good day. Today – not a particularly busy day for me – I’m at 7,000 with another 3,000 to go. About half of those are iterative drafts of projects, but the other 5,000 words are new content.

Let’s do the math here. Even the low-paying content mill market pays about 3 cents a word. Writing 1,000 words a day means you make about $30 a day, less than $1,000 a month. Doing the same thing half as fast as I do adds up to $150 a day -$31,000 a year for working five days a week from home. And that’s at the lowest end of the pay scale. At 10 cents a word, probably an average payday for commercial writing, that’s $2,500 a week. Writers generally get paid per word or assignment, not by the hour. The faster you work, the more you make.

Be Open to New Ideas

When I started writing, I mostly did articles for magazines and websites, but that grew to include business documentation, ad copy, even a travel guide. Then I got asked to write some scripts for video ads, then a ghostwriting assignment, then speech writing and an opportunity to publish some e-books. Every one of those gigs created a new stream of income for my writing business. It not only made me more money, it gave me a variety of types of assignment that kept me from getting bored.

I talk with a lot of writers these days, and most of them have assigned themselves some kind of niche. They might say “I’m a travel writer” or “I design brochures.” That’s great. Writing about our passions is one of the best parts of the job. When those people ask me why they can’t make it full-time as writers, they’ve already answered their own question. They’re violating the Fifth Habit by not writing as much as they can.