Writing Professionally: Rates and Negotiating Rats

In a recent conversation with somebody I’m mentoring about freelance writing, my friend asked the following question:

“How do you negotiate your rates?”

It’s an important question for freelancers — and for those who hire us. It’s also the worst kind of question: too complex for a short answer, but so “squishy” that it’s hard to put together a long answer that’s meaningful or useful. Here’s my attempt.

Part One: What the Market Pays

First things first. You can’t ask for $1,000 a day to write blog posts for a small business. Our skill doesn’t demand that rate, and the customer base can’t afford it. Although a lot of wiggle room exists from assignment to assignment, here’s a breakdown of approximately average earnings:

  • Insulting. Some publishers want to pay 1c or less per word. Do not accept offers for this price point. You’ll make less than minimum wage. Worse, accepting those offers perpetuates the idea that this is a reasonable amount to pay for what we do.
  • Barter. Never work for free. But if your first assignment is in exchange for a gift certificate at the restaurant you wrote the menu for, or for free lessons at a karate school, there’s no shame in that. Big Exception: never write “for exposure.” Get exposure by seeing people post things they paid (or traded) for you to write.
  • Breaking In. There’s a wealth of writing opportunities out there that pay between $15 and $50 for about 500 words. A lot of it is with content mills, but some smaller “legitimate” publishers will pay about this amount. It’s not what you deserve, but can still add up to a decent living — if you take 30 minutes to write one, that’s $30 to $60 an hour.
  • Professional. A portfolio of strong copy coupled with good references will land you jobs where you get $60 to $100 for a single blog or online article. You’ll also start to get assignments with some of the mid-range national print publications, for about the same amount per word. At this rate, it’s possible to clear six figures if you’re willing to make it a real job. I used to work mostly at this tier, and made a solid middle-class living while working about three to four hours on weekdays.
  • High-Tier. You’re looking at 25-50c per word here. Leading magazines and websites pay about this much, as do lot of freshly capitalled startups. Somewhere between 5 and 10 years into your career, you should be getting most of your assignments in this range. This is my sweet spot these days.
  • Elite. I’ve completed exactly two assignments in this tier, and would love to do more. Rates of $1 per word for articles of several hundred or thousands of words are the norm here. Major national magazines, ghostwriting for major clients, and a few top online publishers pay these rates.

Keep in mind, these numbers are for nonfiction work. Fiction pays less because the market is more saturated, so it’s okay to write in exchange for contributor copies as you break in to that market.

Part Two: Negotiating Price

When dealing with publications, you’re usually stuck accepting whatever their standard rate is. At least at first. But with business clients, everything is negotiable. Sadly, not a lot of the writers I work with have a lot of experience or comfort with negotiating pay rates.

Though this skill takes a long time to learn and could fill a book on its own, here’s the short version of how to do it.

  • Step One: Know Your Price. I like to make between $100 and $150 per hour, which I do by bidding on work produced as opposed to dollars per hour whenever I can. I work quickly, despite my high-quality output, so I can usually make more per hour if I negotiate on that basis. Whether you go for an hourly or production base, start any negotiation by knowing what you’re willing to work for — and what offers you’ll walk away from.
  • Step Two: Know Their Price. In my experience, about 1/3 to 1/2 of the job listings will give you a ballpark idea of what they’re willing to pay. Of those who don’t, it’s about a 50/50 split between those who’ll tell you what they think and those who’ll ask you to answer first. It’s good to go into negotiations with this information, but I won’t risk a client by refusing to answer the question if it’s asked.
  • Step Three: Give a Range. If I have to answer first, I’ll give a range of about $50, for example “I usually get between $100 and $150 per item for the work you describe.” I say that the rates vary according to how much work is offered, and how interesting I find the project.
  • Step Four: Is That Your Final Answer? Your client will reply with a yes, a no, or a counter offer. From here, it’s just like haggling for everything else. Just remember that it’s not a competition — getting another dollar an hour out of a client isn’t as important as everybody feeling like they got a good deal. Just never go below your minimum price.

One last thing on this: I don’t believe good negotiation is when I seek to hammer the client into paying more than they’re happy with. That just leaves hard feelings. Instead, negotiate to a point where both parties are happy, but not entirely thrilled. That’s how you form the beginnings of a good long-term relationship.

Part Three: The Magic Words

I’m giving away a trade secret here, and it’s possible I’ll do worse on some negotiations moving forward, but I have a paragraph I always say when I’m asked how much I cost. It goes like this:

I know how much I like to charge, but this sounds like a fun project so let’s make it work. Between you and me, what’s your budget?”

It’s a little cheesy, but it really works. One person recently asked my advice about rates, and our conversation led to the conclusion she’d be happy doing a job for $500. I advised her to use that line, and her client opened with $2,000 for the same amount of work.

 

8 Ways Not to Screw Up Your Query Letter

angry-computer-guySo I’m hanging out this morning with several professionals in the publishing and writing industries, after almost two weeks of doing the same. We’re all raging against the obvious mistakes people make before sending a query letter to an agent or editor.

For publishers, agents and editors it’s just a part of the job. They’re inundated with unprofessional queries by people who obviously didn’t bother to Google either how to query or even the most basic facts about their publication. The only good news in this situation is the letters do mean they can ignore the query quickly and spend less time in the slush pile on that particular day.

Professional writers, we rail against how that misrepresents us. For every terrible, terrible query letter an agent receives, that agent becomes a little more hardened against queries from good writers who do the proper research. The only good news in this situation is it does mean we stand out against the crowd if the editor gives us a chance to prove ourselves.

Over the course of many conversations in various states of inebriation and sobriety, I found common threads for the nine best ways to avoid screwing this essential task up.

1. Don’t miss basic facts. 

Don’t query a science fiction magazine with a detective story. Don’t email a nonfiction agent with your epic fantasy novel. Don’t get the name wrong in your greeting, or misspell the name of the magazine. Don’t lie and say you’ve loved somebody’s work for 20 years when he started editing last month. Get your facts straight. If you’re not sure of your facts, get sure of your facts. If you can’t find the information, find a way to avoid bringing it up.

2. Keep it simple, stupid.

The average time an agent or editor gives an unsolicited query is under a minute. One agent I talked to burns through 100-120 book queries an hour when buckling down and getting to work. A long, complex description of your work, and process, and emotional state ain’t gonna fly here. Aim for terse sentences in short paragraphs in a letter nobody has to scroll down on to get all the important details.

Rachel: 

3. Remember who’s doing who a favor here. 

Yes, you and your agent or editor are in a symbiotic relationship. Yes, you are peers and equals in most senses. But you’re the one sending somebody else unsolicited sales material. Be polite. Several of the folks I talked with ranted at some length about how frequently the initial queries (and especially follow up communication) read like a missive from a spoiled preteen who wrote Santa a flamer over not getting everything on his Christmas list. Seriously. Be nice. Just. Be. Nice.

4. Spellcheck.

If you think you’re going to impress an agent or editor with your writing skills without proofreading your email, you are wrong. There’s not much more to say about this.

5. Grammar check.

If you think you’re going to impress an agent or editor with your writing skills without proofreading your email, you are wrong. There’s not much more to say about this, either.

6. Follow the damn rules.

Almost every publication or agency has a page on their website telling you exactly how they want to be queries. Almost every publication or agency has a method that’s slightly different from all the other publications and agencies. That’s just life. When you query, read and follow those instructions to the letter. Some places use it as a test to see who’s going to be reasonably easy to work with. Others might let it slide if you miss a trick or two, but why be rude about it? It’s their house. Follow their rules.

7. Understand the process.

Failing to understand the basic process of publication mystifies me. If you want to go flip burgers at McDonald’s, you’ll know the basics of what hamburgers are and how they’re made before walking in. If you want to be a neurosurgeon, you won’t apply for work until you’ve mastered the skill. I was shown some query letters from people who obviously didn’t understand what agents or editors actually do, or how long things take, or what reasonable payment for a book or article even looks like. On one hand, I feel a little bad for folks who make this mistake. Everybody has one or two things where they’re so clueless they don’t realize how clueless they are. But if you want to get published, don’t make this one of those things.

8. Now is not the time to show off.

Even if your work is an avant garde piece of noneuclidean sentence structure held together with multiple, colorful fonts in a truly cohesive whole, never apply that to your query. Do not play with fun tense structures or flowery language. Save that for your book or article. Agents, publishers and editors are exhausted, overworked and undercoffeed. Make your query easy to understand. Always.

QUERY_Op

 

Do you have any embarrassing stories about how you fucked up a query letter? Or a screwed up query letter you received? Share your tales in the comments and tell us all where the bad words touched you.

Goal Setting 101

Business Writing CoachIn my career as a business writing coach and a coach about the business of writing, I’ve come across some interesting statistics about setting goals:

  • 78% of Americans wish they were more productive
  • People who set goals are 13% more productive than those who don’t
  • People who write down their goals are 1000% as productive as those who don’t

And perhaps most interesting…

  • Only 4% of Americans explicitly define and write down their goals. 

Short version? Setting goals is important. Writing them down is even more important. Writing them down in a way that helps you meet them is even more important than that. Here are three key rules to doing just that.

Have Perspective

Dave Kovar, a mentor and hero of mine, once told me that most people set their short-term goals to large and their long-term goals too small.

In the short term, we fall into a cycle of excitement. When we set goals, we’re excited and motivated. We feel full of energy and we’re usually in a space where we have a little extra time (otherwise we wouldn’t be taking time to examine our goals, we’d be working on other projects). The end result is overcommitting on our short-term goals. We promise ourselves we’ll write ten new books in three months, lose 10 pounds a week, build a whole second story onto the house, and other impossible tasks.

The result of promising ourselves the impossible is failing to keep those promises. We only write two books, only lose 1 pound a week, only buy the lumber for the home improvement project. Because the realities of our time, attention, and energy mean our excited and inspired goals were unrealistic.

After a couple of repetitions, we become discouraged about our ability to meet goals at all.  After all, we failed to accomplish the goals we set. That leads to the second half of this problem.

In the long term, we lose sight of the power of doing small things every day over time. Remember: if you write a page a day, you’ll have a complete novel in one year. Another mentor of mine, Tom Callos, has made me do 55,000 pushups and run 1,000 miles per year for a total of three years. That’s possible because I don’t try to do it all in the first month. I spread the load out over an entire year, making the task manageable.

You can still write ten books, lose 50 pounds, build a whole new wing on your house. You just have to make realistic space for it in your timeline.

When you set goals for your writing, keep both of these common mistakes in mind and review your plan to make sure you avoid them. With my business writing coaching clients, it’s part of the process.

Use SMART Goalsetting

smart goal setting for business writing coach You’ll find different definitions of the SMART acronym for goal-setting, but this is my favorite for the small businesses that most writing operations are.

SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-Bound.

This rule helps you to form and express your goals in a way that makes them more likely to actually turn them into reality.

 

  • Specific goals clearly define what success looks like using unambiguous language and exact detail. If you can’t attach a number to it somewhere, your goal probably isn’t specific enough.
  • Measurable goals attach definitions, and metrics whenever possible, to make it clear when progress is being made. If you can’t track your progress on a spreadsheet, it isn’t sufficiently measurable.
  • Achievable goals are possible to complete with the time and resources available. This pings back to the issue I mentioned above. If you find you’re stressing out about getting it done week after week, you might want to retool and make it more achievable.
  • Relevant goals are checked to make sure that the success condition actually brings you closer to your definition of success. They’re also relevant to your emotional motivation. If the end result doesn’t get you excited, it’s likely not relevant enough.
  • Time-Bound goals set a finish date, with large goals setting benchmarks for defined points of partial completion. If you lack a deadline, your goal is not time-bound.

Bad Example: “Be more active on social media”

Good Example: “Post ten times each week on Google+ for the next three months.”

One point about how the good example is achievable. Note how it says “post ten times each week” instead of “post twice every day.” The reason for that is you’re going to have a bad day at least once in the next quarter. If you promise yourself you’ll post every day, you have failed in your goal when that bad day happens and you don’t post. Promising ten posts a week means you can double up your posts the day after something goes wrong.

Outsource Accountability

You can set all the goals in the world, but if you don’t actually do the work on them you won’t achieve anything. A (very) few of us are put-together enough to actually hold ourselves accountable to our progress toward goals every day.

I’m not one of those people. If you’re not, what I recommend is finding out outside source to hold you accountable in the grind. A few I’ve tried, or heard worked for others:

  • Find peer to meet with once a week, and to harass and be harassed by daily via text or social media. If you run a small business, find another small business owner. If you’re a stay-at-home parent working on a novel, find a buddy in a similar situation.
  • A few apps exist that are basically role-playing games that give you experience and items for completing your daily goals. Assuming you don’t lie to the program, these are surprisingly motivating for many people.
  • Create — or join — a Facebook group where people share and hold one another accountable to their goals. I have one right here, and you’re welcome to join us. You can also just post your goals on your general feed and use the pressure of potential embarrassment to push you forward.
  • You can also hire a coach to keep you moving toward your goals. It’s more expensive than these other options, but can also be well worth the investment.

What are your experiences with, advice about, best successes, and cautionary tales about goalsetting?

 

 

On Cooters and Snowflakes

The last time I got political on my blog, I talked about how Vanilla Ice ruined it for everybody. That was in response to conversations over Facebook way.

With the recent tragedies and the general further entrenchment of political partisanship, I wanted to come to everybody with an important request:

Please stop being so mean to one another.

No. For serious. Knock that shit off. It’s bad for you. It’s bad for our country. It’s bad for the world. Hell, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that it’s bad for kids who like not dying during an otherwise normal school day.

There’s a lot of good in the US of A. And there’s a lot of bad. We can waste time arguing about how much bad we have as opposed to other nations of the world, and we can waste time pointing fingers at people and things over which we have no control. Or we can roll up our sleeves and get to work on fixing it.

And to do that, we need to stop othering people who disagree with us a little. To do that, we need to talk about cooters and snowflakes.

The Great American Bell Curve

You know bell curves, right? They’re diagrams of statistical probability that look like a bell — thusly:

Writing advice

The idea here is that most of the results of a study will fall in those middle two sections around the center (within one standard deviation). As you go further out, the number of people/objects/results drops sharply. The bell curve doesn’t map exactly to every set of results every time, but it shows up a lot. It’s about as common as the golden ratio, and about as important in statistics as the ratio is in art and biology.

And Thus it Is With Politics

In the good ol’ US of A (and in other countries, I imagine) political opinions fall on a bell curve, too:

In the middle, more than 70% of us fall just a little to the left or right of center. We agree on most things and want the same results. We differ a bit on how to achieve those results, and different things make us a little uncomfortable, but by and large we can have dinner together without anybody getting angry at anybody else.

On the far ends — out past three standard deviations — we have extremists. These are the people shooting cops because they’re mad about their treatment of minorities, and the people running over protesters. They’re blowing up abortion clinics and spiking trees. We all agree those people are dangerous and wrong, and that law enforcement should deal with them directly. Even the ones where we can kind of empathize with why they’re doing the stuff we can’t allow them to do.

The technical term for the grouping between two and three standard deviations is assholes. Here you have your MRA activists, your anarchists.  The Westboro Baptist Church and Earth First!ers. Nazis. That woman at the office who’s gotten three people fired for telling jokes that weren’t actually offensive. That conservative who calls people cucks on the internet, and that liberal who cries “mansplaining” when she’s actually just wrong. They’re not violent. You can’t actually just slap them, no matter how much you want to. But lordy, do you want to slap the ones on the opposite side of the center from you…and you want the ones on your side to please stop helping because they embarrass us all.

Which Brings Us to the Cooters and the Snowflakes

Out between one and two standard deviations from the center, we encounter interesting territory. I’m using slightly derogatory terms for each, but you’ll notice they’re also terms each side has sort of adopted as badges of honor, too. That’s both beautiful and part of the problem.

On the right, you have your cooters. They’re not just conservative. They’re reactionary in their conservatism. They voted for Trump and aren’t regretting it. They’re deeply concerned about gay marriage ruining relationships, and whether or not that one dude in the men’s room actually has a penis. They share memes on FB that start with “Liberal Logic…” A lot of them are just racist enough to not get certain things, but still realize racism is wrong enough to get really annoyed when you call them out.

On the left, you have your snowflakes. They’re not just liberal. They’re reactionary in their liberalism. A lot of them voted for Bernie even in the national election, and they all think you’re a sexist if you didn’t vote for Hillary. They find nothing ironic in demanding free speech while simultaneously telling you to shut up because your opinions hurt their feelings. They share memes on FB that set up straw man conservative arguments just so they can feel smarter than people they don’t understand. A lot of them are just self-righteous enough to advocate violence against people they disagree with, but still realize violence is wrong enough to get really annoyed when you call them out.

I think we can all agree that these folks aren’t exactly a crisis, but they are really, really obnoxious. And they can be dangerous.

How Cooters and Snowflakes Are Killing Children

Here’s the thing about cooters and snowflakes. They aren’t assholes, and they sure aren’t extremists, so we tend to let them slide. Besides, they’re on our team so we should support them, right?

Right?

Nope. But then again sort of.

If you are conservative, the trouble with cooters is that they share some of your common values — they just take it a little too far. And research shows that if you spend enough time listening to them, they’ll start dragging you into cooter territory with them. The same goes for snowflakes if you’re a liberal. Spend enough time with them and you’ll start taking your Rage Against the Machine lyrics a little too seriously, too.

But wait! That’s not all!

If you’re liberal, the trouble with cooters is they’re so loud and irritating that they start making you think all those centrists just a bit to the right of you are all cooters, too. Their loud, insistent inanities color your opinion of all conservatives and all conservative ideas. At the same time the snowflakes are gradually pulling you into their camp, the cooters are pushing you there with every “Make America Great Again,” every #AllLivesMatter, every confederate license plate, every quote from Jordan Peterson or Amiri King.

If you’re conservative, those snowflakes are whining and condescending their way right toward making you a cooter for life. Their entitled bullshit colors every left-of-center opinion you read, makes you dismissive  of all liberals and liberal ideas. While the cooters are tempting you toward the dark side, the snowflakes are driving you further right with every smug hashtag, every snide Trump bash, every poorly researched meme, every quote from Jesse Jackson or Al Franken.

In short, they make us forget that nearly three-quarters of us more or less agree on how we want to live, how we want our nation to work, and how people should treat other people.

Okay. So What Do We Do About It?

Well, really, you should do whatever you want to do. It’s a free country. But if you agree with my basic thesis:

  • Most of us agree on most things, most of the times
  • The extremists and assholes on both ends are a problem
  • We spend too much time paying attention to the loudest and most irritating on both sides

Then here’s what some experts suggest we all do. It’s a two-part plan.

Part One: read with compassion and openness the cooters (if you’re liberal) and the snowflakes (if you’re conservative). Ask questions. Find not just what they’re thinking, but why they’re thinking it. Most times, you’ll find a core of agreement in principle — it’s just the application where you have trouble. This not only helps you stay close to center, it can influence them and bring them closer to productive conversation.

Part Two: police the hell out of your side. If you’re conservative, stop being so nice to the cooters. Call them out. Fact-check their memes. Force them to defend their more backward notions. If you’re liberal, stop tolerating the snowflakes. Point out their hypocrisies and their arrogance.  Remind them that lack of compassion is no solution to lack of compassion in others.

In my opinion, the biggest problem with the United States is that the table for open, meaningful, and productive debate is getting emptier by the month. People are leaving it in favor of little sitting rooms where they gossip amongst each other about how terrible the people over in that other room are.

If there’s nobody at the table, we will never find a solution for school shootings, nor for health care, nor for fair but sustainable immigration, nor for the environment, the income gap, the vestiges of racism and sexism. We will never solve anything, because nobody’s there to create solutions.

It’s not the extremists and the assholes who are keeping us away. It’s the cooters and the snowflakes. So let’s stop putting up with them.

Who’s with me?

On Sex and Violence

Sex and violence.

These are a few of my favorite things.

In movies. In books. In life (though my violence is consensual these days, limited to martial arts sparring and competition).

Sex and violence are core parts of the human experience, two of the things that drive us the hardest because of how evolution and survival work. On one hand, we have the drive to make more of us. On the other, we have the drive to defend what’s ours and who we love (or to make more things ours, though society frowns on that).

They seem so different. One is a way for two (or more) people to express fondness, love, affection, attraction, or simple naked lust. The other is a way for two (or more) people to express derision, contempt, hatred, anger, or simple naked aggression.

But they’re not different.

Both come from basic drives that have been with us since before homo sapiens was a thing. Both are intensely physical and emotional acts. Both carry with them real risk of pain — physical, mental and/or emotional.

What’s more, both are tests.

As our species was growing up, life was full of tests: opportunities to see how strong, how fast, how smart, how empathic, how (fill in the blank) we were. If we passed the test, we lived. If we failed, we died — or at least we missed an opportunity to make surviving the next test easier.

Our intelligence and technology have insulated us from tests. Most of what we do in a day is just a matter between different gradients of pretty all right.

We no longer have to strive.

But with sex and violence, we’re back in that test. In both cases, we put our best foot forward. We use skills and attributes we’ve developed over years and we see what happens next. With violence, walking away means we passed the test. With sex, I don’t need to go into detail.

Either way, we do our utmost, what happens next happens, and we succeed or fail in real and unmitigated terms.

I believe strongly that’s why sex and violence are such powerful forces in our fiction. They dominate the news, the movies, our literature, our mythology. They dominate our history.

And Yet…

There’s a whole lot of bad sex and violence in our fiction.

Here I don’t mean sex and violence happening for the wrong reasons on-screen. That’s a whole different puddle of fluids, related but not core to the problem.

I mean sex and violence executed poorly. And that’s what I want to talk about with everybody today.

Bad Sex

Writing Sex and Violence WellBad sex is like the worst porn. It’s all about tab A inserted into slot B, along with all kinds of overreactions to the tabbing and the slotting.  It’s mechanical. In actual porn, it’s totally meaningless. In sex scenes within a legitimate manuscript, it’s a few uncomfortable pages that don’t fulfill any narrative function.

Actually, come to think of it, that’s true of bad sex in real life. A meaningless one-night stand can be entertaining, but unless it has a real place in the narrative of your life, it’s not as good as something that matters fundamentally to you.

The Worst Violence

Bad violence is much the same. It’s described in terms of what each combatant does, in an almost clinical and detached way. It exists for its own sake, even though at least one of the characters involved could have avoided the whole things by exercising an ounce of good sense.

I blame tabletop roleplaying for the blow-by-blow description problem. A lot of writers got their narrative starts playing D&D and similar games (myself among them). The structure of combat in those games is a blow-by-blow series of turns, and not all writers have graduated out of that framework.

As for the violence divorced of sense and context, it’s just like the sex. Because our society (and the audience) glorifies violence, it gets put in where it doesn’t need to be, or expanded into 20 minutes on-screen when 5 would have done it.

The Good Stuff

We’ve all seen porn and combat porn — movies and books where the sex and fight scenes are long, drawn out, luxurious, and without meaningful context. Those are pretty experiences sometimes, but they’re never the experience you get when sex and violence are executed well.

Thing is, when we write sex and violence, we need to focus less on the physical goings on and instead focus on what makes that particular act of sex or violence meaningful.

It’s not the shagging or the smacking that’s important here. It’s the emotional impact and consequences of both. Those things should be absolutely clear during the f-word you’re describing (whichever word beginning with f that applies).

For Example

Remember in Terminator when Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese get together in that hotel room? Remember how it was slightly too long to comfortably watch with your parents? But remember how it was touching because we’d seen it coming, and it came after Kyle confessing he’d loved her from the future for much of his life? And how it gave us the twist ending that made the movie so good?

That’s good sex. It wasn’t particularly graphic or acrobatic or interesting (the sex itself), but the context and consequences were real, and immediate, and important.

You don’t even need to have sex to make a sex or love scene have power and importance. In my YA book Wrestling Demons, the protagonist and his girlfriend have a make-out session in her car, parked outside an apartment they both know is empty. Sex doesn’t even happen, but the kissing (around a painful broken nose) and the potential is there. And the context and consequences are (I think) plain on the page.

And that makes it far more interesting than watching a housewife shag a pizza boy, or reading about James Bond’s latest conquest.

There’s Nothing Wrong With Enjoying Porn

Whether that’s actual sex porn, or the kind of fight porn you see in the some genres of martial arts and action movies. I love The Raid and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for instance. And you have your favorites, too.

But when we’re writing, we should aim for more than a graphic depiction of physical acts between two human beings.

We should aim for scenes of action (either kind, or both at once), with power, importance, consequences, and context. Because that’s what makes sex and violence great.